A storyteller since her first fib, Patti M. Walsh is an award-winning writer whose first novel, Ghost Girl, was published in 2022.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
Ghost Girl was born decades ago when my then-four-year-old niece asked me, “Why did Mommy die?” I wanted to tell her that death gives meaning to life, but explaining that concept to a child seemed impossible—until I read The Celtic Book of the Dead by Caitlín Matthews. In it, I found appropriate motifs (for example, the immram, a voyage of self-discovery—islands of refuge, like the Crystal Keep—and monsters, like fiery pigs) that conveyed the Celtic Otherworld in a tween-friendly manner.
Bonnie is the 12-year-old title character of Ghost Girl. She’s biracial. Her mother died. She doesn’t like her stepmother or her new school. Her old friends have ghosted her. “I don’t belong,” she says. After falling in with the wrong crowd, her parents send her off to live with an aunt and uncle who will homeschool her in an old house they are renovating into a bed and breakfast. They don’t know it’s haunted, although the locals have several stories suggesting it is.
Ancestral ghosts in the old house befriend the lonely girl. As her only friends, they lead her on a journey to find herself in what the Irish Celtic tradition calls an immram. In order to complete that journey, she needs seventeen companions. Since she was perplexed by her identify, I decided to make the ghosts her companions. They would not only help her find her place in the family, but also help her understand why her mother died.
The term “Ghost Girl” also serves to bring bullying into the story. When Bonnie goes into town and encounters a group of kids, they harass her by calling her “Ghost Girl” because she lives in what the town called a haunted house. When Bonnie tells her aunt and uncle about the incident, she discloses that she also was a bully. She learns to practice kindness and empathy toward others as part of forgiving herself and others. When she encounters one of the bullies in town, she stands up to him by calling herself “Ghost Girl.” As a transformed protagonist, she embodies the strength, courage, and creativity to accept herself for who she is.
By identifying with her ancestorial companions, Ghost Girl is ready to be initiated into the family of past, present, and future generations. During that celebration, Bonnie learns that her mother died because she had fulfilled her goal in life—to be Bonnie’s mother. Now Bonnie must find and fulfill her own goal in life.
Ghost Girl, thus, is my attempt to answer my niece’s question, “Why did Mommy die?”
How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?
Honestly, I didn’t like the first rendition. But Atmosphere Press Art Director Ronaldo Alves had put me in touch with Kevin Stone. He listened patiently to all my concerns and never balked at “One more change.” When I opened the mail with the final physical proof of the book in my hands, I just stared at it. After showing it to my husband, I ran across the street to a neighbor and said, “I told you I was writing a book!”
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
I’ve been telling stories since my first fib and writing since I scratched lines on a pad of paper and asked my mother, “Is this a word?”
I love everything written by Madeleine L’Engle, especially The Summer of the Great Grandmother, which is part of The Crosswick Journals. Both joyful and painful, this memoir takes on death while celebrating life.
Then there’s Lauren Oliver. Although she is probably best known for her young adult dystopian novels, Liesl & Po and The Spindlers are probably my favorite standalone children’s novels. Ever.
And when it comes to creative narratives, I could read Bill Bryson over and over. I wish I had written A Walk in the Woods. Influenced by his entertaining writing style, I always try to incorporate history, geography, myth, and magic into my nonfiction.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
My career is a crazy quilt. I was a teacher, academic counselor, graphic artist, technical editor, and editor-in-chief. Most readers would not know that I washed dishes in a convent and cleaned house for Swami Satchidananda.
What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?
It’s one thing to know that my friends and colleagues seem to like Ghost Girl, but I wanted an organic reach. So, when that began to happen, I felt both proud and humble.
For example, I recently got a call from someone I didn’t know who asked if I was the author of a children’s book about Irish ghosts. In a post on our community Facebook page, she asked if anyone knew who I might be. Not only did she get an immediate answer, but several people related her interest to me.
Then there was the friend who wrote in an Amazon review that she bought Ghost Girl simply to be supportive. Then she read it for the same reason. In her review, she states that she loved the book so much that she bought five more copies for her friends.
I wasn’t surprised that older women liked Ghost Girl. Many have told me it reminds them of their own adolescence. But last week, I was playing Rummikub with some neighbors when a woman I hardly know made her way across the room to tell me that she had given my book to her grandson. She wanted me to know that he not only liked it but wanted to know if I had any other books he could read. This was so heartening because a) I had indeed expanded my target, and b) my grandnephew had told me it wasn’t scary enough. I’m now working on a scarier book for preteen boys—and girls and older women!
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
I picture a lonely 12-year-old reading, “Where there is no death—where past, present, and future are one—you have freedom to live.” They looks up, stare into space, smile, and then return to the book.
What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?
I’m writing a sequel to Ghost Girl, several short stories, and a memoir.
How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?
I feel blessed to have worked with Developmental Editor Collen Alles and Book Designer Kevin Stone.