Clare Dunkle's latest book to hit the stores, HOUSE OF DEAD MAIDS, acts as a prelude to Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Here, she tells Teenreads.com about how the main character of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Heathcliff, helped her get through elementary school volleyball, and how he then made his way into the pages of HOUSE OF DEAD MAIDS.
I am in fourth grade, standing outside in the bright sunshine of a breezy spring afternoon. I am not happy; in fact, I am miserable. My class is playing volleyball, and I’m not very good at it, or at least I think I’m not very good. Periodically, a huge, hard, leather-encased projectile comes hurtling out of the sky. I never try to hit it. All I do is try to get away.
In the interludes between sheer terror and volleyball avoidance, I watch my classmate Stacy. Stacy is good at volleyball. This isn’t surprising. Stacy is everything that I am not. Her sneakers are pink. Her shorts set matches. Her blond hair shines in the sun like real, no-kidding gold. She is clean, happy, confident, unafraid, and laughing, and I watch her, thinking, “How does she DO it?”
To the fourth-grade me, it seems as unattainable as flying.
When I was young, my family didn’t own a television set, and computers didn’t exist. My reading skills were off the chart, but this wasn’t a good thing—sure, my teachers loved it, but my peers didn’t want to talk about Dante’s Divine Comedy in elementary school. My mother and I wore long dresses, many of them from Goodwill; don’t even ask me why. My glasses were so thick, they made my eyes disappear, and my long hair had tangled into rat-sized knots.
My disorganized, genius parents didn’t notice any of this. To them, I was an undersized adult. If I didn’t want to comb my hair, that was my business. My classmates noticed. They treated me like a freak, and I could see their point, but there was nothing I could do about it. So I didn’t talk to anyone if I could help it.
Then I met Heathcliff in the pages of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Like me, he didn’t looklike the rest of the people he knew. When he showed up, he didn’t even speak their language. And the normal people treated him as badly as they always do. They fought over him, spat on him, resented and abused him. They even threatened to hang him!
Heathcliff was the ultimate freak.
Yes, Heathcliff was a brutal man, and yes, he treated his wife horribly, but I didn’t know anything about that when I was nine. I just saw that he and I were in the same boat, surrounded by people who didn’t accept us. Heathcliff didn’t beg for acceptance, though. No one could make Heathcliff cry. When his foster brother beat him half to death, he just said, “I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. ... While I’m thinking of that, I don’t feel pain.” And then he outmaneuvered, out-acquired, and outlived the heck out of those normal people, until he took away everything they had.
Heathcliff was my hero!
So I didn’t get bullied in school. Even though I was a freak, I learned from Heathcliff to hold my head high. And it’s a funny thing about mobs of children: if you’re different and unafraid, then they’re a little afraid of you. They end up leaving you alone.
A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law read Wuthering Heights, and she hated it. She especially hated Heathcliff. She couldn’t see the abused boy I had always seen; she saw the savage, sneering, evil man instead. So I wrote my new book, The House of Dead Maids, for readers like her, to get them to think about some things they don’t seem to have noticed.
My book tells the story of Heathcliff before he got to Wuthering Heights—before he became that evil, sneering man. It’s a horror story, with gray-skinned, eyeless ghosts and ghastly dead things that don’t look human anymore. But the real monsters of my book are the same as the monsters of Wuthering Heights: the normal people, who stick together and feel no compassion for outcasts, not even if they’re only little children—the very same monsters Heathcliff helped me face when I was nine.
--- Clare Dunkle
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