In today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Landra Jennings about her debut middle-grade novel, The Whispering Fog (Clarion Books, September 13). She’ll share her inspiration behind writing it and the real-life elements upon which she drew. (Spoiler alert: it just might include a dog). Plus, there’s a chance to win a signed Advance Reader Copy of Landra’s book if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details.
The Whispering Fog combines a mysterious South Carolina swamp, a determined sister, an endearing dog, and three friends who join together on a common mission. In the book, a twelve-year-old girl, Neve, moves to the fictional town of Etters, South Carolina with her mom and older sister, Rose, after their parents separate. Only eleven months apart in age, the sisters are in the same grade and do the same activities. Quiet, creative Neve is used to having Rose take the lead in most everything. Things change, however, when Neve witnesses Rose being swept away by a mysterious fog and must figure out what to do. The only people who believe Neve about the fog are two classmates who’ve each had their own supernatural encounters in the town. The trio work together to figure out what happened to Rose and how to bring her back.
Interview with Landra Jennings
JH: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Landra! Thanks for joining us today.
LJ: Thank you so much for having me.
JH: First I have to tell you how much I loved The Whispering Fog and devoured it in one sitting. Your book evokes the swamps of the South—brimming with mystery, magic and abundant heart. Neve is the perfect guide to this strange and unsettling world and I couldn’t put her story down. Can you please tell us about your inspiration to write the book?
LJ: Thank you, thank you, thank you! There were several things that led me to this story. One was a fairy tale I read as a child: Snow-White and Rose-Red by the Brothers Grimm. I particularly remember a picture book with gorgeous illustrations. I enjoyed the tale of inseparable sisters who never fought and were endlessly good, but I always thought it would be more interesting if the sisters seemed more like real sisters. Why were they so very attached? Why did they never even get frustrated with each other, not even once? I have three sisters and though I love them dearly, we definitely did not always get along. I even used the names from the fairy tale—the name Neve is a derivation from the Latin word nivis which means ‘snow.’ Second, I wanted to set a story in South Carolina, where I live. The more things I took from my own life, I figured, the less I would have to research or invent. Third, I love spooky and fantastical stories. I had been trying my hand at those types of stories for a long while but I couldn’t find the right angle. I always thought that fairy tales in their original forms (not the animated versions!) were scary and at times even disturbing, so I leaned into that. I wanted this story to have a spooky edge.
The Appeal of Spooky
JH: Why spooky? What appeals to you about that?
LJ: I love spooky stories in general. I’ve been reflecting on why that is. I think that, for middle grade fiction, it’s because I believe it is important for kids to see young protagonists facing big, scary things and finding their own strength in getting through it. Overcoming fear is an important life skill because, let’s face it, life can be pretty scary at times. I also like dealing with strong and deep-seated emotions, and scary situations in books can bring out that adrenaline rush or visceral reaction that is related to the big emotions I’m exploring. The spookiness then ends up serving a larger purpose in the story. In The Whispering Fog, the scary situations Neve must face represent the fear she has of separating from her sister.
JH: You mentioned research. What was your research process like? What is the most interesting fact that you learned?
LJ: I did have to do research. I mixed the real world with fantastical elements, so I was asking the reader to take a leap with me. I wanted to anchor the reader in the “real” part of the story with as much authenticity as I could so that the leap into fantasy felt believable. So many of the research sources are online these days, which can at times yield questionable results, but I tried to make sure sources were credible ones. There were many things I had to research, including: The small differences in the climate between upstate SC and the midlands of SC, where the story is set. The science of Mutualism for the class project (I loved reading about futuristic designs for communal living with animals, for instance). And tomatoes, because of Piper’s love for them. Lots of tomato research was done! I was very surprised to discover that the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit (yes, it is a fruit!). According to WorldAtlas, tomatoes compete with bananas for popularity, but tomatoes are the clear winner with 182 million metric tons harvested annually. Although I loved the research, my editor was firm on reining in any fact-sharing that wasn’t used in service to the story. Tomatoes, for instance, are important to Piper for a very specific reason, which becomes clear in the story. And Mutualism is another way of thinking about the evolution of the relationship between Neve and Rose.
JH: The book is set in a South Carolina swamp. What was the most surprising thing that you learned about swamps in your research process?
LJ: Maybe how badly they can smell? That peat smell is something to get used to, for sure. But I’ve always been fascinated by swamps and the important role they play in the environment. There are over 500 swamps in South Carolina! But I had to go a little south of where I live to find them. There are no swamps in the upstate. The ones in Kershaw Country in the middle of the state are the most similar to the fictional one in the book. An interesting fact about swamps is there is a misconception that swamps have standing water all of the time. They have water long enough to support certain plants that need wet soil, but many wetlands are seasonally dry. They come and they go. Naturally, this led me to imagine an evil fog that soaked up all of that water and went creeping around.
The Role of Magic
JH: That brings us to the magic, because the fog is obviously magical. What role does magic play in the book? Why did you include it?
LJ: First of all, I wanted to amplify that power imbalance. Neve has to face a very powerful opponent—the witch in the swamp who has access to magic. Neve must face the witch with just her regular old self; she doesn’t have any magical powers and she can’t solve her problems using magic. Secondly, I like including magic because I think fantastical stories can be more palatable mediums for readers to work out big emotions; the situations seem much more removed from real life. Thirdly, I used magic to get the parents and other potentially helpful adults out of the way so that Neve would have to solve the problem. And, finally, greater-than-life fantastical elements have always appealed to me in signaling a powerful change in the hero.
JH: Who was your favorite character to write?
LJ: Piper. I loved Piper from the beginning. Her smarts, her determination to find her sister, her love of tomatoes, her streak of independence. Piper is who she is with no apologies. That part of her I felt was a role model for Neve in learning to become her own person.
JH: What was your favorite scene to write?
LJ: The climactic scene where everything comes together ended up being my most favorite to write but also my least favorite. That was because it was the most difficult to write. It was the most rewritten scene in the entire book. But that moment when I finally found the right lines and felt Neve come into her own…yes! It was a very nice moment for me.
To the Heart of The Whispering Fog
JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from the book?
LJ: At its heart, the book is about believing in yourself and following your own instincts. No one should require someone else to guide them in everything they do in life. There is a difference between healthy attachment and dependence / co-dependence. I would love my readers to realize they are enough just as they are and to search for their own voice.
Fairy-Tale Inspiration for an Intriguing Dog
JH: Can you tell us about the inspiration for the dog character in the book?
LJ: The name of the dog in the book is Bear, as the dog character is my interpretation of the heroic prince from the original fairy tale (who was bewitched into bear form). I was also inspired by our family’s Labrador, Lucky. If you know Labradors, you know that food is their love language and they are most attached to the person who feeds them, which is me. Lucky has been my constant companion and shadow for 13 years now. He’s gotten me through a lot of things—not an evil fog exactly—but a lot of difficult times. Lucky IS a prince of a dog, incredibly calm and understanding, who also loves to be scratched behind the ears, much like the dog in the book.
No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .
Preferred writing snack: Dark Chocolate with mint
Coffee or tea? Tea! Green decaffeinated
Favorite animal? I am fascinated by birds of all sorts
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay, zombies are not for me, although I do love vampires
Superpower you’d love to have? Telekinesis, to bring my tea and chocolate in from the kitchen
Favorite place on earth? Mountains—Snowmass might be my favorite
Hidden talent? I can predict future happenings with the power of my anxiety
If you were stranded on a desert island and could pack three things, what would they be? The practical answer is probably a knife, but I’d also have to say my abridged copy of Les Miserables and dental floss
JH: How can readers obtain a copy of the book?
LJ: The book can be preordered at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or any place books are sold. Personalized copies can be preordered at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC: https://www.fiction-addiction.com/quicksearch/author/landra%20jennings.
And now. . . .
For a chance to win a copy of The Whispering Fog, comment on the blog—and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends August 27, 2022, MIDNIGHT EST.) U.S. only, please.
About the Author
Landra Jennings writes fantasy novels for preteens – ages 8 through 12 – but appreciates readers of all ages! She loved books before she could read – as a toddler she’d turn the pages of books for hours. As a preteen, she’d strictly manage the list of library books checked out by her and her younger siblings. She turned this love of management and list-making into an adult career as a management consultant, working in Atlanta and Chicago. However, these days she has returned to her love of books and story, writing fairy-tale influenced fantasy like the stories that so fascinated her as a child. Landra has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University where she won the Anne Tews Schwab Scholarship in Excellence in Critical Writing and the Walden Pond Press Scholarship in Middle Grade Fiction and Nonfiction. Today, Landra lives with her husband and sons in Greenville, South Carolina. You can learn more about Landra on her website and follow her on Instagram.