Insights: An Interview with Kelli Owen about Wilted Lilies and her most recent book, Passages

Sandra Ruttan: Almost the entire story takes place in one room, in a way. Was that your idea from the outset? 

Kelli Owen: I think so. I heard Lily’s voice in my head before I knew much of anything about the storyline, but that voice was telling me about something that happened after the fact. The way she naturally meanders in that lovely Lily way, I wondered if it would leave the room, but by the time the outline was done I knew it would all be here… until the very end, when the next part of her story begins. 

Although Lily May is the focus, you opted to have Travis be the POV character. Was that to retain more mystery and uncertainty around Lily May and her story?

KO: Absolutely! I could hear her external voice, I still can, but to allow her to tell that story, mingling strength and innocence, power and vulnerability, I couldn’t let anyone listen to her insides. Part of what she does is hear other people’s thoughts, and I felt coming at that revelation from the other side of the table would work better. 

Did you have specific things you wanted to allude to about religion with how Lily May is treated? If so, what and why?

KO: Religion played absolutely no part in her story. Fear and superstition, yes, but organized faith of a higher power? No. People fear what they don’t know or understand—whether that’s something as simple as the shadows in a dark closet or as vast as death itself—and to comfort themselves and cling to some idea of safety, they will often gang up against the idea that makes them uneasy. In Lily’s case, it’s a simple girl with very complicated abilities the townfolk neither understand nor care for. One of my favorite lines is when Lily says, “People don’t want you knowing everything they think. It wipes away the lies they tell themselves and let’s you see the monsters hiding inside. The monsters they pretend don’t exist.” 

How do you think you’d react if someone could hear your thoughts?

KO: I’d giggle as I watched their face go from curious to very confused. I’m a writer, there are easily a minimum of three voices in my head at all times: mine, current protagonist, and current antagonist. Often, more than that. And the me portion of that show is a chaotic flutter of ideas, notions, plans, plots, recipes, chores, bills, and everything else that clutters our brains on a daily basis. Would they find anything horrible? Nah, I’m known for speaking my mind. 99.9% of the time, you know what I’m thinking because I’m saying it.

How much do you think Lily’s conditioning about gender roles affects her view of herself and her abilities?

KO: I think in Lily’s case gender equals acceptance. Her mother and grandmother had terms for and familiarity with her abilities. Her father was afraid of her and distanced himself from her strange reality. Long before society’s reactions to us can affect us, our own family’s treatment of us cements beliefs and expectations—whether right or wrong, true or false—and Lily learned from a young age to hide her abilities. The town still found out. Everyone still knew. But it was a hushed secret, a whispered opinion that went with finger pointing and a general consensus of that beautiful thing I touched upon earlier: fear of the unknown. 

(Spoiler?) Do you think Travis may have some residual abilities that linger after hearing and seeing Tommy?

KO: I think you’ll have to wait and see… There are five books currently planned and I do know we see Travis in at least one of the next three, if not two. His character isn’t done and gone, so I’d rather not spoil things one way or the other. If we were never going to see him again, then I could tell you what I think may have happened with his character once he walked off screen.

Now, in Wilted Lilies there’s a clear indication ghosts can be harmed or (not sure of the right word here) die. Unmade perhaps? Where did this idea come from? 

KO: I saw something when I was quite little—some old movie I don’t remember the title of or even the premise for at this point, but I remember there were people in a haunted house doing something mystical to cleanse the house and that the ghosts were afraid of this person and their powers. Not that ghosts are afraid of Lily, quite the opposite—they like her because she can communicate with them. But in that movie, the idea that ghosts could or would be afraid of the living, or of anything, sank in to my little sponge brain and festered for years. 

I revisited that idea several times while watching and reading other things over the years. Remember Tangina from (the original) Poltergeist? While the group of psychics had come in with equipment and opinions, the house tortured them relentlessly. Tangina came in and that house and its spirits paused, she knew how to hurt them and they knew it. I simply took the long festering idea of the living being able to control, hurt, or even banish the dead and gave those abilities to the dead themselves. After all, if anyone would know how to get rid of them, it would be them, don’t you think?

Lily is surprised the school is named after a woman. She does seem very aware of talking different than the other kids. Do you think she feels inferior or is this more about her awareness that they may see her as inferior?

KO: I honestly believe it’s both. Every child wants to be accepted, especially when starting at a new school. She’s always been different, which under the wrong guidance can lead one to equate it with inferiority, so on some level she expected to be treated like she was back home. But when she isn’t—when she finds all the students are different—what made her inferior is actually the norm around here, then her worries absolutely turn inward at that point. If it’s not her abilities that make her different, perhaps it’s her clothes or her speech. She’s been different her entire life, it might take her a while to realize she can fit in somewhere. 

And to back up to that first part of the question: her surprise in finding the school is named for a woman was much more about her being from an area of the south where women aren’t powerful in the public eye, even if they possess strong abilities. So that was less about her and much more about her upbringing and known culture.

Do you prefer going barefoot?

KO: Always. Period. If I can get away with it, I do. 

Was it true about psychics being persecuted after 9/11? Or did you draw the idea from former presidents and first ladies known to use psychics?

KO: Let’s say I extrapolated and exaggerated. 

Psychics, or anyone claiming fringe behavior and/or abilities, have been persecuted for centuries. And yet, secretly sought out during desperate times—whether on a personal level or a societal one. Governments have not only been more openly seeking the advice of psychics in the last hundred years, they’ve also done their own not-so-secret research, studies and practices. 

I read about how psychics were—not necessarily persecuted, let’s call it—shunned after World War II. That was partially due to Hitler’s interest in them, as well as the dalliances of other governments, including our own. In the 60s and 70s, a resurgence in curiosity led to many studies regarding psychic abilities. And then there are the well-known psychics our own presidents have had council with, whether we contacted them or the other way around. All that said, there are several Internet sources (read as: take with a grain of salt and do lots more research before believing any one source that can be uploaded willy nilly with no forced fact-checking) claiming many psychics warned of 9/11 and that our government ignored them. In the wake of that disaster, any shunning or persecution that may or may not have happened, was likely more about covering up the fact that the government (supposedly) cost our country a lot of lives because they did not heed those warnings, rather than a distrust or disbelief in the abilities themselves. 

You introduce a lot of different abilities in this novel. Which one would you most like to have? Least like to have? Why?

KO: Oh, that’s a great question! And unbeknownst to you, there are other abilities yet to be discussed which will come in the following books in the series. 

The one I’d least like to have is much easier to answer: Ghost Blood. I would not want to walk around my life seeing the stains of every drop that ever spilled. I know myself well enough to know that I like my horror nice and fictional, but that would be bringing every horror once forgotten right back up and into my face. No, thank you. 

What would I like to have? Sticking to those discussed only in PASSAGES, I’d have to go with what I dubbed Sick Sense. Get it? Not sixth, but sick. That ability let’s you tell when someone is ill and what exactly the problem is. I, and many people I know, have gone through the weeks and months of tests and guesses to get to a prognosis, if lucky enough to even get one, and to be able to look at my friend and say, “Oh, I can see it. There’s a little hot spot right here they need to look at,” would be wonderful. 

What can you tell us about Lily’s future?

KO: Lily has an interesting couple of years ahead of her. True to her tale so far, she (and now those around her) has abilities, but they are rarely the (only) danger. The abilities of everyone in the school will come into play in wonderful ways, but will only be decoration to some truly awful events, discoveries, and life-altering twists and turns along the way. 

I can tell you we’ll see Detective Butler again very soon, and the cross-over characters will develop more in the following books. For those unaware, there is a total of three characters in PASSAGES that are elsewhere in my lexicon—each have their own short story. All my stories connect in some way, be it locations, people, or event, and now you know three of the Easter eggs to find in here, which gives you some extra depth to those characters and at least a hint of future possibilities with them.

Kelli Owen’s short story “Ghost Blood” is part of the Midnight in the Graveyard collection, available October 15 from Silver Shamrock Publishing.
Kelli Owen is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels TEETH and FLOATERS, and fan-favorite apocalyptic novella WAITING OUT WINTER, and the Wilted Lily Series. Her fiction spans the genres from thrillers to psychological horror, with an occasional bloodbath, and an even rarer happy ending. She was an editor and reviewer for over a decade, and has attended countless writing conventions, participated on dozens of panels, and spoken at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA regarding both her writing and the field in general. Visit her website at kelliowen.com for more information. F/F