Haunted Heroine Sarah Kuhn
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Credit: Jason Chan

Exclusive: Sarah Kuhn reveals what's next for her superhero series with Haunted Heroine

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Jan 21, 2020, 3:44 PM EST (Updated)

Female superheroes with relatable problems in their lives? Strong, enriching, and supportive friendships? A promise of spooky times ahead? We at SYFY FANGRRLS have been fans of author Sarah Kuhn and her Heroine Complex trilogy since the first book was released in 2016, so we were more than a little excited to learn that the story won't be ending after the first three books. Heroine Complex is a series now, and the upcoming fourth installment, Haunted Heroine, follows our well-loved faves Evie Tanaka, Aveda Jupiter, and Bea Tanaka as they face a surprising new supernatural threat.

We were also psyched to have the chance to chat with Kuhn personally about Haunted Heroine, what's in store for some of our favorite characters, and how she drew inspiration from those classic Baby-Sitters Club Super Mystery Series so many of us grew up loving to give her latest book a slightly spookier twist. Plus, we've got the first official look at the cover below!

One of the things that I personally love about this series is the complexity of the relationships between women. Were you inspired by any personal dynamics in your own life? Or was it more a case of writing the relationships that you kind of always wished existed more in fiction?

I guess it was kind of both. I, of course, have been very inspired by all the friendships I've had with amazing women throughout my life. And I think as an adult, that's really when I found the people I connected to on a deeper level. The people who liked all the things that I liked growing up — comic books, and superheroes, and Star Wars. Kind of all the geeky fandom things. I had the experience that I think a lot of women had before the internet was really such a big thing, which is [that] I was always kind of the only girl in the comic shop. I was one of two girls at my school that I knew who liked Star Trek.

One of my best friends in high school and I were very obsessed with Deep Space Nine in particular. And we formed our own little two-person fan club, and it was really, really fun. But I never really got to experience that sort of big group of girls nerding out about something IRL. And so finally growing up, becoming an adult, and getting out into the bigger world and getting to meet people like that really did change my life. A lot of what I wrote about was based on those bonds and how friendships between women can get very complicated. And you really need to devote a lot of time to your friendships, just as you would to any relationship.

So a lot of it was that. And then yes, I have always been a huge fan of seeing friendships between women portrayed in media. I always love whenever there are superheroines who have best friendships. One of my favorite issues of X-Men was the Ladies' Night issue, where all the female X-Men go to the mall and they're just kind of trying to blow off steam, and they have a lot of fun adventures together. I really loved how something like that sort of showed the day-to-day of being a superhero and having friends who sort of know what that's like.

You do have these very relatable dynamics, and the stories feel very grounded, but then you also have the fantastical element of superheroes. Why did you decide to make it a superhero story? Was there any particular reason? 

I always loved that the X-Men, in particular, were superheroes who are always facing these gigantic galaxy-shattering battles and foes and complications. But they also spend just as much time talking about their feelings. They were always fighting about who liked who, and the various relationships they had with each other. I love showing superheroes as real people as well, who get into a lot of petty disagreements while they're trying to save the galaxy. And so that was a big inspiration.

I think that's something that they also did really well on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is one of my favorite shows of all time. I love that contrast between the mundane and the fantastical. It feels a little bit relatable because you're like, "Oh, what would happen if I was in that situation? What would happen if I encountered a bunch of demons? What would I do?" And that's definitely something I wanted to bring out in the Heroine series.

These superheroes are always having these battles that just destroy everything. There's so much wreckage afterward, your costume is a mess. There are all these things that you have to clean up and take care of. But I feel like they almost never show that part. They never show the person who has to actually deal with cleaning up the mess, so I wanted to write about the person who has to clean up the mess, because I thought that would certainly be really interesting.

Credit: Jason Chan

I do want to talk a little bit about Haunted Heroine, because there are so many things that I'm just really into about this book already, like the pregnancy plot for Evie. What made you want to bring that element into the story, and how does it shape her character?

Heroine Complex was certainly something I never expected to be a series. And then I never expected it to be an ongoing series. So I didn't want to just rehash the same themes. I feel like the first trilogy was really about that second coming of age that so many of us experience in our 20s after we're launching ourselves out into the world and figuring out really who we want to be. And so with the second trilogy, I wanted to take another step forward. And so it's really about what happens when your life gets richer, but also so much more complicated.

I think there's still a lot of pressure on women to "have it all." I know that's a very dated-sounding phrase, but I think it's still relevant. And particularly for women of color, that looks a little bit different. There's this idea that if you get things in your life that are even a little bit positive, you should just be so grateful. It's hard to feel like you can complain. It's hard to feel like you can sort of grapple with these extra complications that achieving certain things might bring to your life.

So many women of color do so much invisible labor, emotional and otherwise. And so I really wanted to explore that. I think on paper Evie's life now looks really perfect. She has achieved a lot. She's not the wallflower she was in the first book. And the pregnancy was like the cherry on top. She has all these things and then she gets this other thing, and there's this idea that she should just be overjoyed. Like the only kind of emotion she should be feeling is that she's just happy and grateful and everything is perfect.

For a lot of us, when we get things we want — or when we get things that on paper should make us just overwhelmingly happy, that's not always what we feel. What we feel is actually a lot more complicated. Evie, obviously, is someone who has spent a lot of her life doing a lot of various kinds of labor for people. And she feels like she can't express that she has some really complicated feelings about what she's going through. She feels like she has to shove it all down and pretend like everything is uncomplicatedly awesome. That's something that I can certainly relate to — things that I've achieved, or steps I've made in my life, [that] I feel like I should just be happy [about]. And a lot of times there's more to it than that. There's just more nuance to it. And so I really wanted to explore what it was like for someone who has sort of been in the background, just keeping her life at a certain level. And then finally deciding that she really needs to embrace her potential. She needs to level up as a person and sort of embrace these complicated things into her life, having yet another thing thrown at her that she's not sure how she feels about.

I wanted to explore both the complications of that and also the complications of feeling like you can't really talk about it. You can't really talk about maybe some of the nuance in what you're feeling. So that's kind of where that came from. A lot of the female protagonists I grew up with, superheroes and princesses and these larger-than-life figures, sometimes I felt like they weren't necessarily allowed to progress in their lives and get older.

Between the second book and the third, there was a time jump that put Evie and Aveda into their 30s, and I wanted to show what different life stages are like for women — especially if you are a superhero, because that obviously throws another element into the mix.

It's not the only thing that she has to deal with in the book, especially because there's a new mystery to investigate. I love that it's set around Halloween time. Why did you decide to set it in that particular season?

Usually these books are set in an undetermined time in the summer or spring, and that's reflected in a lot of places. It's reflected in the fashion and what it's like outside. And I experienced my second coming of age in the Bay Area. That's where I went to college. And now I live in L.A., where it's for the most part very temperate and very beautiful, and we don't really have seasons.

But there were seasons in the Bay Area, and I was thought, "You know what would be fun is if it was at a time that was actually kind of cold, and they can wear more cool jackets." That's one thing I said to Jason [Chan] about the cover. They can wear really cool jackets. And a lot of the series in my youth, like Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, all of those books, they had the Halloween super special. Where it had a special cover treatment. And it was super-sized and there was just something special and exciting about it because it put the characters into an environment we don't usually see them in. So I wanted to have my own Halloween super special, and I thought it would be fun to do it with this book since it's set at a haunted women's college — which, by the way, is based on the haunted women's college I attended.

Oh my god.

And I actually drew a lot on the sort of ghostly lore of the school that I went to. I just thought that was fun, and I love the creepy atmosphere it gives the book. But yeah, a lot of it was because I just wanted to have my own Halloween super special.

I love that. I love it so much. So, to wrap things up, what are you currently FANGRRLing over?

Of course I've been thinking about things I really loved from the whole year. And one of my favorite books of the year was The Bride Test by Helen Hoang. That book is one of those books that really brought out the true FANGRRL in me. Because I think — as you probably experienced as well, when you work in any kind of pop culture media, sometimes after a while consuming the media feels overwhelming. There are so many great books, and like a lot of authors, I have a massive TBR pile. And sometimes it is hard for me to get back into reading and to really get obsessed with a book like I did when I was younger.

That book I read right after one of my deadlines, and I was really tired, and I was like, "I'm just going to read the first couple of chapters, I'll kind of space it out." And then of course I read the whole thing in one night and I stayed up way too late and I was really tired the next day. And I was like, "Curse you, Helen Hoang, for being so amazing." But I just got obsessed. I fell right into it. I think she does such a wonderful job of writing these characters who she obviously feels so much empathy for that she brings them to life so vibrantly. And I love that the heroine was a character that we usually see as a heroine, at least not a lot. The characters become so real to me that when I finish the book, I'm like, "Oh, I wonder what they're doing?" And then I have to remind myself that they're actually not real people. Because she's made them so real. I think that's a really special quality in both a book and a writer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed. Haunted Heroine will be released on July 7.

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