An Ode to Reads & Company, Phoenixville, PA

Note: This essay first appeared in the Sisters in Crime We Love Bookstores newsletter in August 2021.

When I was asked by Reads & Company owners Robb Cadigan and Jason Hafer in 2019 if I’d consider coming to their store for an event for my debut novel One Night Gone, I didn’t even hesitate. I said yes immediately. I’d heard great things about the store, which had just opened at the time, and, having known Robb for years from seeing him at various writers’ conferences, I knew he would take good care of his authors. Phoenixville, PA, is several hours from our home in Washington, D.C., but my husband and son and I decided we’d make a weekend of it. It was then that we got the most delightful surprise. Turns out that there’s an apartment above the bookstore that Robb and Jason allow out-of-town authors to stay in—for free—if they are doing an event at the store. A cozy little apartment? Above a bookstore? Packed with books and games? Um, yes please! 

It was then that we got the most delightful surprise. Turns out that there’s an apartment above the bookstore that Robb and Jason allow out-of-town authors to stay in—for free—if they are doing an event at the store. A cozy little apartment? Above a bookstore? Packed with books and games? Um, yes please!

A great perk, for sure, but the true delight of Reads & Company is the people who run it and their love for books and authors. Robb and Jason and their booksellers treat their customers and the authors who visit like family. From the second you walk into the store—which is one long brightly lit room stretching long—you want to stay and browse and read and chat. They also make sure their shelves are packed with diverse titles, local authors and interests, and the latest and greatest titles. Oh, and did I mention they really love crime fiction?

Reads & Company just celebrated their second anniversary in June 2021, but they’ve already got a loyal local fanbase. And I can see why—the store is managed and run by people who truly love authors and books. So, the next time you’re in the Philadelphia area, stop by and see them. And please tell them Tara sent you.

What Scares You, James Tate Hill?

James Tate Hill is the author of the memoir Blind Man’s Bluff, which was published in August 2021 to great acclaim. It’s a memoir about his blindness, and how for a very long time he tried to hide it from his friends, family, the world. You can read more about it—and buy it!—here.

James is also the editor of Monkeybicycle, a fantastic online magazine that publishes short fiction. He’s also one of my favorite people on Twitter—seriously, go check it out. He makes me laugh nearly every time I read one of his tweets.

I’m thrilled that he was able to take some time to talk to me about fear.

What is your greatest fear?

Sharks. Great white sharks. Like many, I saw Jaws at a young age, and the impact was profound. Jaws 2, to be precise, which I maintain is the scariest of the franchise. Growing up in the landlocked state of West Virginia did not mitigate my fear of sharks in the least. In public swimming pools, I didn’t venture into the deep end because the darker shade of blue allowed me to imagine sharks. Never mind that I could see the bottom of the pool.

I didn’t shower until sixth or seventh grade because the chaos of the shower spray could provide cover for, you guessed it, sharks. It was all baths for me until then, and never more than a few inches of water. Also, I couldn’t close my eyes for more than a couple of seconds, which made rinsing the shampoo from my hair more complicated than it should have been.

But I’ve come a long way. I shower without fear, at least most of the time. Swimming pools don’t bother me. And I’ll venture into the ocean all the way to my ankles.

Do you enjoy scaring other people?

I used to, as a child. The appeal has faded substantially as an adult, perhaps upon realizing that I myself do not enjoy being scared. It might also have coincided with my first reading of The Phantom Prince by Elizabeth Kendall, the former fiancée of Ted Bundy. In the book, she recounts how much Ted loved to scare her and her young daughter. Fortunately they both survived to tell about it.

What is your favorite urban legend?

In elementary school, when my family lived in the city, my schoolmates and I referred frequently to someone we called “the killer.” We developed elaborate theories about where he might have been in recent days, concocting narratives around whatever trash we found on the playground. For self-defense, I assembled what I referred to as my “mystery kit,” consisting of old batteries, a mostly empty tube of aloe vera, and a plastic film canister filled with BBs. I stored all of it in the cardboard box of my LEGO firehouse set, bringing it along on sleepovers just in case.

Only now does it occur to me that this generic killer might have been less an urban legend than the neighborhood children’s translation of some actual event. In a city the size of Charleston, WV, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that someone might have committed murder, and that the parents of a second grader might have discussed it in their presence. The opposite, in fact, seems less likely.

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What Scares You, Terrie Moran?

I adore Terrie Moran! She’s hilarious and sincere and supportive and a wonderfully talented writer. I also adore Murder, She Wrote and Jessica Fletcher—and when I found out that Terrie was taking over the helm of writing the MSW books, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The first one, Killing in a Koi Pond, is already out (get it here), and her second, Debonair in Death, will be releasing in November 2021.
I miss seeing Terrie at all the crime writer conventions—she’s one of the top highlights of those events—so I decided to get my Terrie fix by asking her creepy questions about her fears. Join me in learning more…

Would you rather find an ogre or a banshee living in your house?

A banshee, of course! All of my ancestors are of Irish descent, having come to America from counties such as Derry, Cork, Cavan, Tipperary and so on. And in Irish culture the banshee, or “woman of the fairy mounds,” is a female spirit whose keening foretells the death of a member of the family that she has been following for hundreds of years. The death can occur near or far away. The banshee will know the death is imminent and her keening will announce it to the family. Other than the fact that the keening could split your eardrums, a banshee will do you no harm. In fact, I am so interested in banshee traditions that I wrote a short story called “The Awareness,” which was published in the Mystery Writers of America anthology Crimes By Moonlight, edited by the magnificent Charlaine Harris. I re-published it in an e-collection called The Awareness and Other Deadly Tales, giving the banshee top billing!    

“The banshee is a female spirit whose keening foretells the death of a family member.”

Do you believe in ghosts?

I believe in spirits, which is the same in my mind. I believe that the souls of those who came before me are always keeping an eye on me and guiding me. The discussions I have inside my head when making a decision—well, those are really the ancestors hashing out the pros and cons, keeping me safe and plotting out my future.  

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

Until I was seven, we lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. The apartment had a long hallway from the living room to the kitchen that was great for sock sliding. Our apartment door was at the top of the first floor staircase, so I could hear my friends coming home and going out. (“Mom, Peggy is bringing her doll house to the stoop, can I go out?”) But by the time I was five, I knew there was one thing missing. We had no chimney. How was Santa Claus going to come down a chimney that didn’t exist? I worried about this for months before I finally told my mother who, as mothers do, fixed the problem by writing a letter to Santa explaining that she would leave the living room window wide open and that his cookies and milk would be waiting on the window sill. When I went to bed on Christmas Eve, there was that one window open and the entire apartment was freezing. But when I awoke on Christmas morning, all was toasty and there were presents under the tree. Crisis averted.

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What Scares You, Andrea Bartz?

Oh, hi, you may have heard of Andrea Bartz? You know, her new book, We Were Never Here? That’s a Marie Claire #ReadWithMC pick? And, oh, a Reese’s Book Club pick? And, oh, a New York Times bestseller????
It’s been a thrill to see this book get so much buzz because it’s SUCH A GOOD BOOK. And while I would never, ever, go on vacation with Andi after reading WWNH, I will read anything and everything she writes. I highly recommend you do the same.
And while her book tapped into one of my greatest fears–encountering a scary stranger while traveling in an unfamiliar place–we are here today to find out what freaks her out…..

What is your greatest fear?

One of my fears—a very human fear, but one we don’t talk about much—is saying or doing something that would make me unlovable. I think that’s why I write female protagonists who seem to have it all together but, under the surface, worry that they’re too much or not enough…and, in their most vulnerable moments, they believe that if others saw the chinks in their armor, their loved ones would turn on them. Shame is such a powerful emotion, and I love using interior dialogue to bring characters’ deepest fears out into the light. Sure, some readers hate them for it (calling them “unlikable” or “annoying” or “whiny”), but forcing my characters to be honest about their fears makes me feel braver, too. 

 

What is your weirdest fear?

Marionettes have always freaked me out! Especially vaguely realistic ones. I remember when TEAM AMERICA came out, I had to look away every time an ad for it showed up on TV.

 

Do you believe in ghosts?

I do, because it’s comforting to think that the energy of our loved ones lives on after they die. To me, it’s like “believing in” crystals or Tarot cards—what’s the harm in seeing a little inexplicable magic, or at least acknowledging there’s more to the universe than what we can prove?

 

Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?

No, but I have an opposite: I know many people who won’t watch a horror movie or read a thriller if the dog dies. I’m a total animal lover, but I don’t understand this at all—it’s fiction! No actual pets were harmed in the making of this book or film!! If it’s just an empathy exercise, shouldn’t we be more offended by all the fictional human carnage?!

 

What’s worse: being buried alive or bitten by a vampire?

Being buried alive, for sure! A vampire bite grants you power and immortality. Which comes with its own existential panic, I’m sure, but better than dirt compressing my lungs and filling my nostrils.

Andrea Bartz is a Brooklyn-based journalist and author of We Were Never Here, The Lost Night, and The Herd. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, Elle, and many other outlets, and she’s held editorial positions at Glamour, Psychology Today, and Self, among other publications.

What Scares You, James Ziskin?

I’m thrilled to welcome James Ziskin to my blog this week. A fine writer and all-around good person, James has won or been nominated for nearly every major mystery fiction award. My husband Art Taylor recently read aloud James’ story “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” featuring Sherlock Holmes, and I honestly forgot that it wasn’t a Conan Doyle original as we were reading.
But today we are here to discover what terrifies James to his bones. Let’s get to it!

 

What is your greatest fear?

Heights. They paralyze me and turn my stomach upside down. In my upcoming book, Bombay Monsoon (December 2022, Oceanside), I explore this fear in some detail. Many years ago, I visited the World Trade Center and went up to the roof where there was an observation deck. It must have been a hundred feet or more from the edge, and there was a fence around it. Nevertheless, I had the crippling fear that if I took even so much as a step, I would trip and, with great lunging strides to avoid falling, I would career all the way to the edge and plunge—tumbling and grasping at the air—into the void to my certain death.

I had the same feeling a few years ago when I allowed myself—foolishly—to be talked into visiting the roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. I flattened myself against the wall until the tiny elevator returned to take me back down to terra firma.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

The Northeast Blackout of 1965. I was only five years old, but I remember it distinctly. I was carrying a candle in the dark, and some wax dripped down on my hand. I seriously thought I was on fire and was going to die, burnt to a crisp. A second or two later, I realized that I would live. Not even a scar from the molten wax. But that memory is a strong one.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

Fear of flying. Not related to my fear of heights, though. A totally different sensation. Maybe because the altitude seems unreal, not at all like the feeling I get when imagining those crazy people walking on i-beams as they build skyscrapers. But, yes, I used to be terrified of flying, convinced that every bump of turbulence was going to break off the wings or an engine and take the plane down. The fear didn’t stop me from flying when I had to, but I worried a lot every time I boarded a plane.

About twenty years ago, however, I started doing a lot of travel for business. Dozens of trips to Montreal, Italy, and India. Fifty-seven visits to India alone, and each of those involved about twenty hours in the air. After a while, the flights stopped bothering me. I suppose I couldn’t maintain the fear for so many hours and so many trips. With time, I even grew to love the long flights, especially when the company was footing the bill for a business class seat. Now I look at flying as ridiculously safe, especially compared to driving. The statistics are remarkable.

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What Scares You, Fleur Bradley?

Our whole family read Fleur’s novel Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, which was a delight. Ghost hunting! A spooky hotel! Lots of Clue-like characters with secrets and shady pasts. Our son loved it, and we did, too. And Midnight at the Barclay Hotel is up for an Agatha Award this weekend (fingers crossed for Fleur!) It’s also won a ton of other awards, and been nominated for more, and if none of this is reason enough for you to go check it out, then I don’t know how to help you.
What I do know is that Fleur Bradley has some fears. Let’s find out what they are!

What is your greatest fear?

Oh, my greatest fear is, I imagine, the same one of any parent: for my kids to get hurt. Thankfully, my two daughters are grown now and are very capable of taking care of themselves. But I still worry every time I hear an ambulance and they’re out. It’s a mom thing, I guess.

I’m also afraid of heights—don’t even try to put me on any rollercoaster. When we go to any amusement park, I’m the person who waits at the exit, guarding (and eating) the snacks.

Fleur’s sister is way too cute to scare people….isn’t she?

What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

I was so afraid of the dark as a kid. And I had very vivid nightmares, and I sleepwalked… It all worked out in the end, but I’m pretty sure I owe my parents an apology for waking them up a hundred million times. My sister liked to spook me sometimes too—she’s still into horror movies, and I’m totally not. I’ll take a mystery over anything scary any day.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

Fear of public speaking, probably. I still get nervous when I have to talk to a large group of people, but I’m not terrified anymore. Thank goodness, because since I write books for kids I have to do author school visits all the time. A group of eighth graders are a tough crowd, let me tell you. But it’s actually rewarding to talk in front of a crowd now.

Do you believe in ghosts?

For Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, I had to do a bit of research into ghost hunting, which was pretty fun. I watched lots of ghost hunting shows. Truthfully, I’m more of a science kind of person, so I don’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal a whole lot. Sometimes those ghost hunting shows do have video or audio evidence that’s interesting, but it’s not anything that makes me think ghosts exist. Maybe I’ll come back to haunt people after I’m dead, and then I’ll believe in ghosts.

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What Scares You, Heather Levy?

Heather Levy’s debut novel Walking Through Needles was published this month and is getting some amazing attention, including a review in a little hometown newspaper called The New York Times. Get your copy right here, or wherever you love to buy books.
Here’s a description:
“From an early age, Sam Mayfair knew she was different. Like any young girl, she developed infatuations and lust–but her desires were always tinged with darkness. Then, when Sam was sixteen, her life was shattered by an abuser close to her. And she made one shocking decision whose ramifications would reverberate throughout her life.
Now, fifteen years later, Sam learns that her abuser has been murdered. The death of the man who plagued her dreams for years should have put an end to the torture she’s endured. But when her stepbrother, Eric, becomes the prime suspect, Sam is flung back into the hell of her rural Oklahoma childhood. As Sam tries to help exonerate Eric, she must hide terrifying truths of their past from investigators. Yet as details of the murder unravel, Sam quickly learns that some people, including herself, will do anything to keep their secrets buried deep. Walking Through Needles is a riveting and unflinching look at violence, sexuality, and desire from a compelling and unforgettable new voice in Heather Levy.”
I am so pleased to catch up with Heather and hear more about her writing and her encounters with fear, including a house spirit that needed to be snuffed out.

Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?

I can’t say I believe in ghosts in the traditional sense, but I one hundred percent believe in good and bad energy after a person has passed. One of the most terrifying experiences my husband and I ever had happened a few months after my dad’s unexpected passing. We were living at our prior home, an old English Tudor, and our son was a toddler still. Out of nowhere, he started waking up in the middle of the night, screaming as if someone was murdering him. My husband would sleep through it, so I’d get up to check on our son. One night, I opened my son’s door to see him, eyes wide, staring at the opposite corner of his room as he uncontrollably sobbed. The look of pure terror on his face made my knees knock, I was so scared for him. I tried to enter his room; I say tried because there was what felt like an invisible force pushing against me, preventing me from entering. All I wanted to do was to get to my baby and take him out of that room, so I pushed through the dense force to get to him. I never told my husband about it because it seemed too nuts to be real.

Not too long after that night, my husband and I were inexplicably fighting over every little thing—something unusual for us—and I left the house to cool off, leaving my husband in the house with our son. When I got back, my husband was sitting on the couch, his face white and blank with fear. He told me our son woke up crying, and when he tried to enter his room to get him, he sensed a force he described as “not friendly” blocking him from entering. Now, my husband is the biggest skeptic, even more so than me, and I could tell he was afraid he was losing his mind until I admitted my own experience. After I told my younger sister about it, she suggested doing a sage smudging, which she and I did throughout the house. After the smudging, our son stopped waking up screaming and our house felt so much lighter. It was the weirdest thing, and I swear it had to have been related to my father’s death. I imagined he was confused and maybe pissed about his passing, and his energy was hanging around our house.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

As a writer, my greatest fear is having my intentions misinterpreted. With my debut Walking Through Needles, I knew it was going to be a tough, possibly triggering book for some people. I tried to approach the difficult themes in my book as delicately as I could, but no writer can please every reader. It’s impossible. All we can do as writers is get out the best damn story we can; the rest is out of our hands. 

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What Scares You, Gabino Iglesias?

I’m so thrilled to welcome the great Gabino Iglesias here to What Scares You. Gabino is an excellent writer, a champion of other writers, and someone who is just very, very cool. Case in point: He’s currently co-editing a collection of found footage horror stories–find out more information here and submit!
We also share a deep love of creepy things, including dolls and ghosts. I loved hearing about what scares him. I really appreciated his interpretation of the “do you enjoy scaring people” question, which I always thought of in the sense of practical jokes or campfire ghost stories, and I totally agree about his deal-breaker in horror. Read on to find out more…

What is your greatest fear?

Strangely enough, it’s real stuff: poverty and sickness. Both of those can make you feel powerless and desperate. You can talk to someone about zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and demons all day and you’ll hear them laugh, but ask them to imagine their child or mom or spouse dying from cancer and their face will change.

Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

Hell yeah! I believe in ghosts for two reasons. The first one is that I dated a woman who could see them. I wrote about it recently. Hopefully someone will pick it up. The second reason is because I saw one in an old hotel.

What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not? Why aren’t you?

The two most common fears I encounter/hear about/read about that don’t affect me are fear of ghosts and fear of animals (i.e. spiders, snakes, scorpions, etc.) I’m not afraid of ghosts because I’ve never heard of one with a knife or a gun. They are creepy, sure, but they can’t hurt you. As for animals, they are what they are. I won’t try to grab a rattlesnake when I see one, but it probably belongs wherever I find it, so it’s on me to leave it alone. Most animals have relatively predictable behaviors, and unless you’re trying to shoot a video for your YouTube channel, your chances of survival are high. You know, unless you encounter a hungry shark or an angry bear, but that’s like a car crash in the sense that there’s not much you can do about it, so no need to live your life afraid of it.

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What Scares You, Hannah Mary McKinnon?

I’m a big fan of Hannah Mary McKinnon’s thrillers. She’s not afraid to “go there” when it comes to being dark, which I love. Her latest, You Will Remember Me, just released last week, and it’s a wonderful page turner. A wicked summer read you won’t want to miss.
I discovered some interesting things interviewing Hannah Mary about what scares her. Including an amazing collection of terrifying masks that she owns. She seems so nice, too! Just remember–if you stay at her house, make sure you always check under the bed before getting in it.

What is your greatest fear?

Losing my husband and my kids. Come on, Tara, what are you doing to me? You said this would to be fun! 🙂

What’s the scariest thing you remember from childhood?

When I was about eight, I woke up one night and saw a man in the corner of my bedroom, unmoving and staring right at me. I shut my eyes tight and counted to I don’t know how many, heart thumping, throat running dry, and when I opened my eyes he was gone. I screamed, my parents rushed in but didn’t find anyone in the house. Everybody insisted I’d had a nightmare but to this day I’m not convinced he wasn’t real. It was terrifying, not to mention at the time there was a prowler on the loose.

What are your phobias?

I’m not very keen on heights, snakes make me run away, and I hate raisins because they remind me of the blood-filled ticks that dropped off our dog (I stood on one once and it burst, it wasn’t pretty). I’m also terrified of sharks and bears. It’s all completely irrational.

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

I have two. One is pretty tame; for whatever reason my Bachelor of Science degree is invalid, and I have to retake an algebra exam (which I absolutely sucked at) but I haven’t studied. The other one is odd—I’m in a house or building that gets smaller and smaller, and I have to escape before it crushes me to death. Or maybe I keep getting bigger like Alice in Wonderland? Either way, it’s very unpleasant.

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What Scares You, Mia P. Manansala?

I’m so thrilled to welcome Mia Manansala to What Scares You. Mia’s book Arsenic and Adobo was released this month and has gotten some amazing press (including a review in the New York Times, thank you very much!) And every time I see that cover, I sigh with pleasure. It’s so awesome, isn’t it?
But the big question today is: What scares this writer of culinary mysteries? What foods terrify her very soul? Find out this…and more…below.

What’s worse: the black abyss of space or the black abyss of the bottom of the ocean?

Bottom of the ocean, easily. There are prehistoric horrors down there! The fact that it’s easier to explore space than it is the greatest depths of the ocean really tells you something. I absolutely love being by and in the water, but I have zero interest in going further down.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

That instead of growing and challenging myself, I get stuck writing the same book over and over and over again. Also, that my ignorance and unconscious biases could lead to me writing harmful material. However, with that latter one, I hope that when I mess up (because everybody does) I will have the grace to acknowledge it and accept responsibility, then put in the work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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