Old characters, new terror, creep into Zoje Stage’s ‘Dear Hanna’
Book TalkZoje Stage

Old characters, new terror, creep into Zoje Stage’s ‘Dear Hanna’

Novelist's latest work delivers pleasingly terrifying reminders

Zoje Stage (Photo by Gabrianna Dacko courtesy of Rachel Gul)
Zoje Stage (Photo by Gabrianna Dacko courtesy of Rachel Gul)

Rare is a writer who produces a page-turner. More unusual is an author who does so book after book, yet Zoje Stage, a Squirrel Hill resident and master novelist, has gifted fans another chilling read.

Dear Hanna” follows Jacob, Joelle and Hanna, a young phlebotomist closer in age to her teenage stepdaughter Joelle than to her husband Jacob, a real estate agent. Tucked away in a stately home on Beacon Street, the Squirrel Hill family enjoys an unremarkable existence complete with errands, movie nights and meal preps. Several hazardous events alter the clan’s quotidian ways.

Those familiar with the writer’s style, should find the threats less surprising than delightfully expected. For years, Stage has delivered readers heady tales of complicated characters — primarily mothers and daughters — who don’t as much shatter under pressure than wither within a bell jar.

“I’ve said this to people before that if I was only allowed to write one type of story, I would write mother-daughter stories,” Stage said. “I don’t want that to be the case. But if they were like, ‘OK, your brand is so small that you can only write one thing,’ I would write mother-daughter stories.”

The elaborate bond Stage maintained with her mother produced endless opportunities for literary mining.

“It’s just given me so much fertile ground to think of in terms of what it’s like to be a daughter, and what it’s like to be a mother, and how complicated those relationships are,” she said.

Stage is the USA Today bestselling author of “Baby Teeth.” She followed its 2018 release with “Wonderland,” “Getaway,” “The Girl Who Outgrew the World,” and “Mothered.” “Dear Hanna” returns to characters introduced in “Baby Teeth,” but doesn’t function as a predictable sequel.

“People had always wanted to know more about Hanna, and what happened to her, but I had a lot of hesitation about continuing her story,” Stage said. “I felt like a number of people really wanted “Baby Teeth 2.0,” and there was no way I was going to write that.”

After the initial novel’s release, Stage committed to leaving its characters alone. Then, COVID-19 arrived. Stuck at home, like others, she developed an interest in true crime.

“I started getting intrigued by some of the psychology of the people I was seeing,” she said.

Stage read Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” and became captivated by its premise.

A sociopath isn’t necessarily a criminal or killer but someone “without empathy or remorse,” Stage said: “I really wanted to understand that if Hanna is a sociopath — and we sort of saw how she was functioning as a child — how would that manifest as an adult?”

Stage brainstormed, gathered a notebook and employed an “abstract” process, which she described as more personalized than hammering on a keyboard.

“It tends to be something that happens later in the day, like when I’m done doing whatever my other work is, and I’m reading, or I’m watching TV, and my mind just wanders,” she continued.

“At some point, I have a lot of notes that I’ve jotted down that I’ve plugged into a file on my computer and start to see if there’s a story developing. Once I have certain pieces, I can start to build out from that.”

Certain elements, like Pittsburgh, routinely appear in Stage’s writing.

“I love Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill really ruined me for life. I grew up here, and I was used to a neighborhood where I could walk to anything I wanted. And I never learned to drive. Maybe if I lived somewhere else, it would have been more urgent,” she said.

Zoje Stage plays violin in a Suzuki concert at the Jewish Community Center in 1978. (Photo courtesy of Zoje Stage)

Stage lived in California, New York and Arizona, but desperately missed her old setting.

“It was such a shock to realize that they don’t have little neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, which has everything you could possibly want plus a place to live,” she said.

Eventually, Stage returned home.

She admitted to “romanticizing” the area, but said, “It’s partly because I can envision it very well. I know what the feel of this neighborhood is. I know what the look of it is. I know what the mood of it is. I know what things are when you’re walking up Murray Avenue, or walking across Forbes Avenue, or walking the residential streets.” The mores are “just deeply implanted in my head, so it’s very natural for me to place my characters in that world.”

Often, Stage’s characters are Jewish.

Hanna, Jacob and Joelle’s affiliation is familiar, the author said: “I wanted to have these characters where they weren’t heavily, heavily, observantly Jewish, but it’s such an inherent part of their life that it’s something that’s just present.”

Establishing the story’s cultural backdrop is akin to writers or creators who nonchalantly “make references to Christmas,” Stage explained. “I just wanted to have an experience with a Jewish family where they might not be the most observant, but these are just inherently things that are part of their lives. And I wanted them to seem as natural as any other culture.”

Stage, who is speaking at the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books on May 11, is happy to talk about her process and past novels. She’s more guarded, though, about future endeavors.

“I’m honestly so superstitious about my work — that until I finish it, I’m never completely confident that it’s going to work,” she told the Chronicle.

“Dear Hanna” will be published on Aug. 13. The cover is finalized and the text is going through final proofing. So, what about this other project Stage has thought about for the past year?

“All I’ll say about it is it’s an eco-horror story,” she said. “I’m very obsessed with animals and protecting the animals and the wildlife on this earth. I feel like humans have really overstepped.”

When pressed for further details about the upcoming novella, the writer kept mum.

As for herself, she said, “I’m a very intuitive person. I have no formal education at all. Most of what I learn, I learn by observation. And I am absolutely devoted to watching documentaries because I like that they give me more exposure to real people than I would ever get in the course of my life.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more: