Allison Mills’s debut novel, The Ghost Collector, is a middle-grade contemporary novel with a hint of the paranormal. Shelly’s family can catch ghosts in their hair and help them find their way to the afterlife when ready. Using this talent as something of a job, Shelly’s grandmother often takes her ghost hunting as they free the ghosts of animals from homes the owners are convinced are the spirits of horrible people. When Shelly’s mom passes away, the girl needs to come to terms with what real loss feels like and how holding on to what’s meant to be let go of can be more destructive than you may think.
The Ghost Collector is meant for younger audiences but also doesn’t hold back in hitting hard with the feels. It’s a powerful novel for anyone struggling to deal with a loss and I know that it helped give me a bit more perspective on a recent loss in my life. I definitely thank Allison for that.
I really liked Shelly and her relationship with her family. Her grandmother reminded me of mine in so many ways which warmed my heart. Not to mention that I could understand the idea of struggling to make “real friends” like Shelly did. Growing up I considered fictional characters I read about to be more real friends than my classmates or any other kids I met, so her having a hard time connecting with her classmates was incredibly relatable.
Change is so difficult, and change because of loss is even harder. This novel captured all of that so wonderfully. While sad, it was satisfying.
With all of that being said, I was lucky enough to have the chance to ask author Allison Mills herself some questions about this exciting release.
Lucien: First off, congratulations on the release of The Ghost Collector! I’ve seen in another interview you’ve given as well as in the acknowledgements of the advanced copy of the book, that this novel was the result of expanding on a short story (If a Bird Can Be a Ghost) you’ve previously written. What was it about the story that made you want to expand upon it?
Allison: Thank you! I’m really happy the release date is finally here. It feels like it’s been a long time in the making, especially if you take the short story that became The Ghost Collector as the starting point. The characters and world of If A Bird Can Be A Ghost—the short story that The Ghost Collector is based on—stuck with me after I finished the story. I kept going back and trying to do something else with them. I have two or three abandoned short stories set within the same world or using some of the same characters. I knew I wanted to expand on the story somehow, and then Claire Caldwell, my editor at Annick Press, approached me about the possibility of turning the story into a novel and it was kind of like the stars aligned. I was really fortunate to get a chance to play in this space again.
How did the experience of writing the novel differ from when you were working with it as a short?
The biggest difference is that I wrote them with different audiences in mind. The short story, although it’s still about Shelly, was written for adults. In writing the novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to frame discussions of death and grief for a younger audience—and especially for younger Indigenous readers. As a kid, I read a lot of fantasy books that, when they had an Indigenous character in them, treated them as an archetype more than a person, and it was always really alienating for me. I didn’t want The Ghost Collector to feel like it played into stereotypes. I wanted to write a paranormal story about an Indigenous family that grounded the characters in the modern world, that framed Indigenous peoples as present. I know from experience that it’s easy for non-Indigenous people to historicize us and to romanticize some mystical version of us and our cultures. With that in mind, I tried to be deliberate about the way I wrote the ghosts in the book and to have the characters push back against stereotypes other characters try to apply to them.
Writing a novel was also a chance to spend more time with the characters. Scenes with Joseph and Shelly talking to each other were my favourite thing to write when I was working on the short story, and I got to add a lot more of that when I expanded the story into a novel. Getting to add more scenes with Shelly’s mother was also great. She didn’t get much screen time in the short story, but I wrote it knowing exactly who she was and what her relationship with Shelly was like, so putting more of it down on the page was honestly kind of cathartic.
There are several instances of music being important in describing who the characters are. Where The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees are important to Joseph, what band would you say best fits you?
This is a really hard question. I think it changes week to week, but right now, I’d say I’m alternating between Hozier and Carly Rae Jepsen as musical artists that fit me best.
Does music often play a role of its own in your writing?
It definitely does! I like writing with background noise. I’ll make playlists for certain moods I want to hit in my writing or music that I think is really emblematic of a certain character or story or moment—Joseph and his connection to post-punk/goth is a good example of that. Having music in the background helps me focus on what I’m doing, although it also means that sometimes a song becomes a symbol of a story or characters and is no longer something I can listen to for the sake of listening to it.
Throughout the book, Shelly collects ghosts of several kinds, from people to animals. If you could keep a ghost of someone (or something) would you? If so, what ghost would you keep?
I’m going to be honest, I spent a lot of my childhood really obsessed with ghost stories, but also terrified of ghosts conceptually. Even if my book didn’t focus on the importance of not letting your ghosts linger, I don’t think I’d want to keep one around. That said, there is part of me that definitely sees the appeal of a ghost pet. Cheap, with no clean up required, but you still get the companionship offered by a living pet and you never have to worry about them getting sick! It’s kind of the ideal.
The Ghost Collector is a story of learning to let go and live life the way it is meant to be lived. But it is also a story of grief, especially the grief of a young girl. Were you every concerned about the content being too much for the younger readers who may be drawn to it?
That was definitely a concern I had while I was writing. Some things changed between the short story and the novel because of the shift in audience. I talked about some of that in relation to Indigenous readers already, but more generally one of the things I tried to do when I wrote the book was balance the darkness of Shelly’s grief with moments of lightness, either through humour or by having other characters reach out to Shelly—adding in something to alleviate the tension in the book so that the grief never gets too heavy for the reader to carry.
That being said, grief is a very important emotion to learn about and even learn from when we face it. Is there a reason why you wanted to tackle that lesson by using a ghost story as the basis?
I’ve always had an affinity for ghosts and ghost stories. When I was writing the short story The Ghost Collector is based on, I liked the concept of someone who can see and interact with the dead suddenly not being able to find the one ghost they want to interact with. It seemed like an interesting way to show someone grappling with the realities of loss and grief.
You’ve said that your Ililiw/Cree and settler Canadian heritage has played a part in your love of ghosts and ghost stories, are you able to elaborate on that?
Yeah! It’s kind of a two-fold thing. Part of it is that when I think about ghosts I think about them as manifestations of the liminal—they’re not alive, but they’re not quite gone either. They occupy this boundary space that I really like exploring and am fascinated by. I’m Indigenous, but because I have settler Canadian family too, I’m white-passing and have a lot of white privilege. I spend a lot of time grappling with the complex—at least to me—reality of that so I think part of me liking ghosts so much is that I feel like I exist in a liminal space too.
Less tied to my multiple identities and thoughts about the ways I interact with the world, I also just grew up hearing stories about my great-grandmother Louisa finding bodies for the RCMP in Chapleau, where our band is from and where my grandfather grew up. And, you know, there were plenty of other stories told about her too—like, Louisa really liked the Mary Poppins movie and would watch it whenever she visited when my mom was a kid—but that’s not as sensational as an uncanny knack for discovering missing persons, so it didn’t implant itself in my brain the same way stories about the RCMP coming knocking on the door did.
If there was one thing you hope reader’s take away from The Ghost Collector, what do you hope it is?
The importance of our connections to other people. I think allowing yourself to be known by others—making yourself vulnerable by expressing your feelings instead of bottling everything up inside—can be an incredibly difficult thing to do, but our relationships with one another are what get us through our darkest moments. I really hope that’s something readers of The Ghost Collector will be left with.
I would like to thank Annick Press and Allison Mills for allowing me to be a part of this blog tour and for providing me with a copy of the ARC.
The Ghost Collector is set to be available everywhere on September 10th, 2019.