Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Ask Christopher Pike
The master of teen horror talks about publishing, near-death experiences, and the lack of diversity in ’90s YA
My adolescence was the standard tragi-teen state, but it was illuminated by the neon splash of Christopher Pike titles. Death hung over those books, like a Ouija board at a drinking party, a mashup of teen mortality and fun. At school, they sat atop my Trapper Keeper and then accompanied me to bed each night, a reminder that ghosts, gods, and monsters lurked outside my door.
My own notebooks overran with dark tales as I attempted to leap from obsessive reader to writer. I not only loved Pike’s twisted universe, I wanted to grow into a version of him. I reread and reread his books, hunting for breadcrumbs about Pike himself. I knew little about the man whose words spurred my spiritual questions and the near-sex-scenes that kept my likewise nerdy friends passing his books around like precious contraband.
Then, like the rest of Pike’s readers in the ’90s, I grew up. Occasionally I’d pick up Sati, his adult novel about a girl who thought she was God — but put the rest away with other childish things.
Months ago, at a library warehouse store, I instinctively scanned the “P” section in fiction — muscle memory from my years of going for Pike books first. There was no Pike, but I mentioned him to my friends, who immediately spun into nostalgia with me. Women in our 30s and 40s, perhaps we’d now reached the age where childhood obsessions naturally reemerge. After our conversation, my most industrious friend, Becca, nabbed lots of Pike books on eBay and handed copies to me at our kids’ school pick-up.
Reading Pike as an adult was like going home. Night after night, heroines and villains reemerged from browning paperbacks. And the mystery that had obsessed me came back: Who is Christopher Pike, really? And how does a mere writer become Christopher Pike, spinner of teen nightmares and dreams?
For two decades I’d believed on some level that when I stopped being a teen Pike fan, he’d simply ceased to exist. But of course he hadn’t — and with the help of an internet that didn’t exist during the heat of my Pike mania, I tracked down Kevin McFadden, pen name Christopher Pike. After a few emails, questions sent in advance to put the normally reclusive Pike at ease, he agreed to talk, as I struggled not to dissolve into a fangirling mess.
Below are excerpts from the interview and later emails, edited for length and clarity. May it answer your questions too, dear grown-up Pike obsessive, and rekindle your affection for the writer who walked your teen soul through murder, reincarnation, and other adolescent messiness.
Sarah Stankorb: I’m choking up here. I can’t believe I’m talking to you.
Christopher Pike: Sarah, I’m like the most normal, boring person. You know, in 7th grade I read Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. He was one of the three big sci-fi writers, along with Asimov and Heinlein. When I read Clarke’s book, it totally changed my life. It just opened my mind to all these possibilities, so of course I can understand that a book can do that. I just never thought I could do that for someone.
SS: I think I read somewhere that you thought adolescents are more likely to do just about anything, and so that age range also lends itself to more possibilities. Is that why you got into young adult (YA) fiction?
CP: I found when I was writing teenagers, yes, there was more chance of doing more things, where you could believe it, where you would not believe it in an adult book. The weird thing is, though, I did not set out to write young adult. I wrote Slumber Party just simply to get published.
I had been writing for six years, and getting rejected. My agent thought I was a good writer, but I couldn’t sell anything. Even when I wrote [adult novel] The Season of Passage, it was rejected. Then my agent called me and said there was this one publisher — he said they were doing a series of teen thrillers, teen horror books. He said, “Can you write one?” I wrote Slumber Party initially as a supernatural story. There was a girl in the book who could start fires with her mind.
Now my agent took the book, and he went to the publisher, and this is where I’m not sure it’s totally true, but the publisher came back to my agent and said this book is too good to put in our series, and he said, “You should take it elsewhere.” My agent sent it to Jean Feiwel who was at Avon then. Jean read it and asked me, could I remove the supernatural element, just make it a straight thriller? And I said, “Sure, I mean, if you want it to be on the moon, I’ll put it on the moon. I just want to get published.”
SS: And it all took off from there?
CP: Jean Feiwel left Avon and went to Scholastic and suddenly Avon said, “We’re not interested in this guy’s books, whoever he is.” And so I thought “Oh, my God. I told everybody I’d publish books, and I’m not published anymore.” But when Jean did finally get settled at Scholastic, she bought Slumber Party right away, and then she bought Weekend.
Simon & Schuster came knocking at my door, or my agent’s door, when Slumber Party, Weekend, and Chain Letter sold. Chain Letter right away sold a lot, over a million copies, which was a real big deal in YA back then. And they said, well, we want to build your career. You can write what you want. It was so exciting to get flown to New York after so many years of rejection.
SS: I remember feeling as if your metaphysical worldview shifted after the first few books. Did you have a spiritual awakening, or simply become established enough that your editors supported you playing with different religious philosophies and mythologies?
CP: Well, I was always curious about metaphysical issues. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I guess I was a strict Catholic until my first year in high school. But I remember I didn’t feel anything with first communion, and I told my parents and they were like, “Well, you’re not supposed to feel anything.”
I had asthma when I was young too, and it was quite severe three months out of the year. I found out only later I was allergic to olive pollen, and in the city I grew up in, Whittier, there were olive trees everywhere. I got pneumonia, and one night it almost killed me. I had a near death experience.
I was outside my body, and I was back at my elementary school. It was amazing. It was euphoric. It was the way people describe near death experiences. And I sensed some being near me, who basically was telling me “this is not your path,” and I didn’t even know what that meant. But I also noticed there was white chalk on the ground, and this was at the back of my elementary school, which I hadn’t been to in a long time, and I don’t know why there was white chalk on the ground. Now this was a part of the elementary school that no one went to even when I went there.
After it was all over, I told my best friend about it, Hans, and he said, well, we should go up to the school. We went there and found all this white chalk on the ground, the kind of white chalk you would use to mark off a football field on the grass, or soccer. And so, it was a very real experience outside my body. So even when I was quite young, I had this fascination. First it was about astral projection. But in reading all those books, I kept stumbling across meditation and yoga. I started meditating in high school. I learned [transcendental meditation].
SS: Why were all (or at least nearly all) your female characters such attractive, white girls?
CP: It was impossible to write YA in the ’80s and ’90s and not notice that the covers all had pretty white girls on them and little else. When Simon & Schuster began to publish my books, they were very open with me. They told me I could write what I wanted as long as I sold tons of books. [laughs] But seriously, I thought it was time I addressed a few of the stereotypes I was seeing in the field. My first book with S&S was Last Act, and I asked if I could make the main character “a normal-looking girl.” I didn’t want her to have to resemble a model. That worked out fine and two books later I did the Final Friends Trilogy, and created two important characters that were not Caucasian. It may seem silly nowadays but I felt kind of proud of myself to have a Black guy and a Latina young woman on the cover of my books.
But then — I ceased pushing for a variety of races to play my characters. Was it laziness? I don’t know, maybe. In fact, I don’t think it was until Fall Into Darkness was published in conjunction with Tatyana Ali starring in a Movie Of The Week that I had some color on one of my covers. That was not S&S’s fault, it was my fault. I was very popular during that period, I could have insisted on the race of my characters. I could have added some color to the entire YA aisle. But I didn’t, I let the whole thing slide. I wish I hadn’t.
SS: Well, you had Sweet Valley High for competition, and I think in the first two pages of those books, they talked about their blonde hair, blue eyes, and how they were each a perfect size six. All their drama was over dating guys named Todd or something. It seemed to be all the books back then.
CP: Right, and it did get a little old.
SS: Actually, I’ve heard this from many friends who have recently started rereading your books: your strong, female characters (protagonists and villains) were so unusual for the ’80s and ’90s. Why were female characters so central to your writing?
CP: I had two younger sisters I was very close to, and I felt my mother was a saint. I think growing up I had a very healthy vision of girls.
I sort of romanticized about them in high school. I was very shy. Like if I got a crush on a girl, I put her so much on a pedestal, I couldn’t talk to her.
But at the same time, I just really saw young women as much more complex and interesting to write about, but I also liked this thing of making them into goddesses. It’s just sort of my approach to God, even though I write about Krishna in a lot of the Sita books, but I guess my vision of God, a personal God is a goddess, not a male god. Does that make any sense?
SS: Absolutely does. How did those adult books, Sati and The Season of Passage, finally get published?
CP: Tom Doherty at Tor contacted me after I was a well-known YA author and asked if I had any books that had been rejected, and I said I have Season of Passage and Sati, and he loved them. But I was a much better writer by the time he bought them, so I totally rewrote Season and Sati from the beginning.
SS: Were they written by hand?
CP: Yeah. I remember with Season, I was despairing of ever publishing a book, and I was in [what was] called the computer learning center, where you take a course for a year, and I learned to program computers. I had finished the book, and a young woman offered to type it for $500. And I warned her, “This is a really big book. You’re going to hate me. And you’re going to want more money.” But it was good I got it typed, because I wouldn’t have been able to send it to Tom Doherty.
The first book I wrote on computer, the first book I learned to type was Spellbound.
S: So all those earlier books were written by hand?
CP: The earlier books, I wrote all longhand, with flair pens, spiral notebooks — different colored flair pens, like red and black and blue.
SS: I’m partial to the purple ones.
CP: Purple too. I’d change colors just to amuse myself, and I’d write the whole book, and then I’d have to rewrite it.
SS: Why all the mismatched, solid colored outfits in the books? Yellow blouse, green pants, maybe a red belt?
CP: The thing about the clothes. [chuckles] Near the beginning, [my line editor] Marjorie Hanlon said you’re often doing the thing with the yellow and the green pants, and I said, “Oh that was just the thing, my first girlfriend after high school, was a girl named Linda Johnson, and she wore that a lot…She wore it on our first date.” And I said, let’s change it, and Marjorie said “No, it’s kind of a quirk you have in your books. Quirks are not bad things. Writers often have quirks if you write so many books.” She said, “Leave the quirk in.”
SS: I remember feeling as if your frankness about sex, drugs/alcohol and violence was unusual, honest, and necessary. Did you get pushback from publishers?
CP: Of course I wrote about sex. Well, for one thing, when I started writing in the young adult genre, I didn’t plan to do it. After I published Slumber Party and Weekend, I did read young adult books, and I was struck by how the authors were really talking down to the audience. I didn’t understand that because I thought you know, when I was in high school, I felt like an adult. I thought most teenagers feel like adults. They don’t want to be treated like they’re stupid, so right at the beginning I decided, I’m just going to write them like adult books, but I’m going to have young adult characters.
The other thing about sex, with Simon & Schuster, I generally would cut before I would get to a real sex scene. [In Final Friends] I did have a scene where Jessica and Michael Olsen, they finally confess their feelings for each other at the end of the third book, and they take a shower together. And I just wrote Michael saying it was the best damn shower he’d ever had. But it was all I wrote.
This is kind of funny. What I really did, [Simon & Schuster editor] Pat MacDonald was really conservative, actually, I thought, God it would really blow Pat’s mind — I started to write a really X-rated erotic, scene. [laughs] And I knew Pat was dying to get the third Final Friends book, and I Fed-Exed it and I knew she would get it at 9:30 in the morning. That’s when Fed-Ex would get to Simon & Schuster in Rockefeller Plaza. I knew how long it would take Pat to get to that part of the book. Right on cue, my phone rang, and she’s screaming at me, “You can’t do this! What are doing?” And I just was laughing my head off. I said, “Just, Pat, just turn the page, just turn the page,” and it showed that where it restarted normally. And her blood pressure, she almost had a heart attack, and it was so funny. She never forgave me for it.
SS: I remember at least one book, Master of Murder, in which the character had a parent with an alcohol problem, and in your other books, absent parents were not uncommon.
CP: You know one reason I didn’t have adults in my books too often was because of something Jean Feiwel told me when she was editing Slumber Party. It was my first book and I took what she said to heart, because she was considered the best YA editor in the business. But Jean said she did not think adults worked in YA fiction very well. That it was better if the teenagers had control over their environment. It gave them a sense of empowerment and kids like to read that.
SS: What was the pressure on you like throughout the ’90s? You were churning out multiple books a year.
CP: Oh, the pressure. Yeah, during the Spooksville books. When I was doing Spooksville books and the young adult books and I was doing some adult work, actually the pressure on me was immense in that period. And just at the end, I think my young adult books suffered. Like Star Group, Execution of Innocence, Hollow Skull, I think all of those books at the end of my young adult contract with Simon & Schuster in that period of time were inferior books to the others — the last three or four were weak because I was overworked, I was burned out on young adult, and like I said, having to write Spooksville on top of it — you see, Spooksville came out once a month. And I was still writing some adult: The Cold One, The Listeners, later I wrote the Alosha series.
SS: Then you disappeared for a few years. Why?
CP: At the end of the ’90s was I was in a terrible accident, and it took me awhile to recover, and at the same time, Pat MacDonald at Simon & Schuster retired, and the market changed. Twilight came out, [after] Harry Potter came along. So by the time I could write again, I thought, well this is no problem, I won’t have lost my audience. But I had lost my audience because the teenage audience turns over so fast. I kind of had to start over.
SS: Still, the impact remained. In my case, I had this very small world, but because I was looking up things from your books, I ended up in the comparative religion section at the library, then studying religion and philosophy in college and graduate school. I traveled, went to India, and I don’t think that would have happened without the spark from your books. You made me want to be a writer. You did that millions of times over, in different ways for different people.
CP: It’s very hard to accept what you said. It’s, it’s, thank you. I just. It’s hard. It’s hard to imagine.
You know as a writer that you write in isolation, so you’re not performing on a stage, or you’re not acting in a movie where people see you. I mean, of course, yes, I knew I was selling millions and millions of books, because they were paying me. [laughs] I knew when I went in the bookstores when there started to be a lot of books on the shelves, but it’s still — You know, most of the time, I don’t know what to say to people.
SS: In some of your books that have to do with the creative process, there’s something akin to a muse. I wondered if you could spell out what exactly you think.
CP: It may sound — I don’t want to sound New Agey — but yeah, some stories seem to be found. I felt that way with Sati, and Remember Me and the Sita books. In that they kind of wrote themselves. It was like I stood on the sidelines. I didn’t plan what was going to happen next deliberately, because what I was writing and what was coming out was better than I could have planned.
Now that’s not to say I do that all the time. The majority of my books, I plot ahead of time.
I tell this story that when I wrote Remember Me, and Shari’s talking at the end of Remember Me, about having died young and not having had the chance to make her mark in the world, and she just says that she wanted people to remember her. Now, when I wrote those words, and I finished the book right then, what happened is, I did have someone touch me on my right shoulder, and say, “I’ll see you later,” and then, I realized the entire time I had been writing the book, at the back of my mind, I felt like someone else had been in the room dictating it, like it was a story that someone who had died had told me. Now that’s just a feeling I had. I absolutely do not know that’s true. I do not know.
But I do wonder… there’s something in the story that resonates. I think there is something in certain stories, that they have a magic that goes beyond any writer.