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Rachel Eve Moulton on her horror novel 'The Insatiable Volt Sisters'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Being a teenage girl is rough enough. Now try growing up on an isolated island where murderous dangers lurk and unsettling mysteries are commonplace.

RACHEL EVE MOULTON: At the center of this island, there's a quarry, and they refer to it as the killing pond. And so it's known for attracting women to its cliffs, and sad women, and kind of consuming them.

RASCOE: Rachel Eve Moulton's new novel, "The Insatiable Volt Sisters," follows a pair of half-sisters who desperately want answers and the people who refuse to give them the information they need. Moulton's electrifying horror story starts with a simple premise. Trauma is always passed down, whether you acknowledge it or not.

MOULTON: I'm very interested in the idea of inherited trauma, and these girls definitely inherit this island. And the island itself has been full of trauma, is known for sad incidents or times or disappearances, things of that nature. And so they get to kind of discover what that means and what role they play in it and what role they want to play in it.

RASCOE: It's never a good sign when you have something called the killing pond near your house.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Like, this is not a good - that's not a good...

MOULTON: No. It's not where you should be raising your children.

RASCOE: So much, to me, of the book hangs on the sisterhood of Beatrice and Henrietta. And they have this very complex relationship, almost like twins. But they're not twins...

MOULTON: Yes.

RASCOE: ...'Cause they're half-sisters. But there's also resentment, jealousy, abandonment. Talk to me about that relationship that I feel like so much of the story hinges on.

MOULTON: So, I mean, the first thing - I'm really interested in a place. And then the second thing, of course, is the relationships. And I'm very interested in how women relate to each other, right? And my - I have wonderful female relationships in my life, and I always have. But the complexity of them is always complicated. It's always layered.

So, you know, I should say I grew up in a small town in southern Ohio. And in many ways, I think that little town was an island. They talk about it in real estate as having an island economy, right? It's very small - 4,000 people, lots of artists. Some amazing people came out of there.

And I grew up with my own family and a brother and my closest friend. I've known her since we were 2 years old. And our relationship is nowhere near what the Volt sisters' relationship is with each other. But you do draw from that. You're like, OK - the complexity of this moment when I was hurt as a child, and how do you carry that forward, and when did I do right by her, and when was she there for me, and when did we miss the mark? - those little moments. In fiction, you can really go back and explore what that felt like. It felt like there was a monster. It felt like you were ripping each other apart. And so what if you really did?

RASCOE: So the father of the sisters - he knew the secrets of the island. These were things that he kept from the girls. You also wonder - and I think it's kind of drawn out in the book - whether it was because they were girls that he wanted to offer this sort of protection. And sometimes you can try to, quote-unquote, "protect women." But what you're really doing is not giving them the...

MOULTON: Yes.

RASCOE: ...Information they need to make their own decisions, right?

MOULTON: You know, I think growing up female feels full of danger, right? There's always something. There's a way you're projecting yourself. There's a way you're not. You should do this. You shouldn't do that. There's a way to be polite. There's a way to be kind. There's all these messages. And then underneath those messages, here's what's really being said.

So as somebody who listens a lot and is intuitive and likes to write stories, you're always trying to hear the underneath thing. Why are you looking at me in this T-shirt and panicking about the way I look? What are you afraid of? Am I too sexy, not sexy enough? Can you see my bra? Can you not see my bra? I mean, that's a dumb example.

RASCOE: No. But people - it can be a big deal. And so getting beneath, why is it a big deal whether I wear a crop top or...

MOULTON: Yes.

RASCOE: ...Spaghetti straps or whatever? Why does it matter?

MOULTON: Well, and then if you put yourself out there as a sexual being, is that powerful? Are you then asking for it? Even in a really healthy environment, you're subject to trying to figure out what's really going on, like, the underlying issues of what isn't said, how people process that information, if you're allowed to talk about it, what is secret, what is not secret.

And women's bodies are this incredible thing, but they're also very, as with Henrietta and Beatrice - our bodies are also monstrous, and in great and weird ways. And the fact that we don't talk about that - there's so much we still don't talk about - is - always been puzzling to me. If you don't watch the horror scene in the movie, the gruesome scene in the movie, whatever I come up in with my head is 10 times worse.

RASCOE: Oh, gosh.

MOULTON: So I should have just watched it.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

MOULTON: So then, yeah, if you're in a room with people who are kind of, like, trying to protect you or acting like they can't quite tell you the truth - oh, you don't - you know, that feeling is the worst.

RASCOE: You know, you talked about inherited trauma, generational trauma. This is something that's, like, often explored in horror novels like - you know, you could think of, like, Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting Of Hill House." Like, why do you think horror is such a common way of addressing the trauma that we carry? Is it because trauma is like a monster? Is that...

MOULTON: I think part of it is trauma is like a monster. And then I think it does tie back to, what are we allowed to talk about, and how are we allowed to talk about it? So if I know my grandmother, her mother suffered - I can't remember - eight miscarriages, right? And so I have that fact. But we didn't talk about the impact on her. There's one person with one version of trauma, and we've never explored it.

But in horror, you can start to do that. I think it gives you a foot in the door to talking about things. There're so many things - I'll just - you know, here in the U.S. that we don't want to revisit. We don't want to talk about it. We handled it. We're good. And that's never - it's just never true. And I think horror gives you an opportunity to just really, like, live in it.

RASCOE: The girls' father's dying is what brings them back to the island. And at one point while his will is being read, Beatrice asks if it's possible to refuse the inheritance of her father's home. And that is not possible, she finds. Do you think that in the real world that that's kind of the way it is, that you can't break the cycle of generational trauma by refusing to acknowledge it, that you have to face it and deal with it?

MOULTON: That is certainly my experience, you know? And I'm raising two girls of my own now, so I'm sure there are ways I'm messing it up already. But it definitely feels like you have to face the hard thing. You have to articulate it. Like, I tell my daughters, like, the shame is one of the worst things, right? - feeling shame. It's a waste of time. It's going to hold on to you. So when something happens that makes you feel shame, tell somebody. Just say it out loud. And that's your start, right?

Maybe you don't want to process it, but you say it. And I think a lot of the time when we feel shame about something we've done, about our ancestors, about something our friend did, the shame tells us to shut down, be quiet. And I think that's the wrong way to go. I think you have to talk about it. You have to put it out there, because even if there is shame still connected with it after you've said it, it starts to unravel. It starts to lose its power. Naming it and then seeing where it goes is much healthier than pretending it didn't happen.

RASCOE: That's Rachel Eve Moulton. Her new book is "The Insatiable Volt Sisters."

Thank you so much for joining us.

MOULTON: Thank you. This is such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ryan Benk