Courtney Gould’s award-winning first novel involves ghost hunters, queer romance and a tiny town called Snakebite.
Her young adult thriller, “The Dead and the Dark,” was partially inspired by an unlikely place: the Oregon Employment Department.
Several years ago, Gould, 28, was helping Oregonians in rural areas through her job at the state agency. And then she saw the documentary “Wild Wild Country,” about a cult moving onto property in rural Oregon in the 1980s.
That was enough to inspire her to take a road trip to Eastern Oregon.
She’d grown up in Salem and had relatives in Silverton, but was fascinated by very small, remote towns like Fossil and Vale.
“People obviously feel very loyal to each other, and there’s a really strong sense of community,” Gould said, “But also, they’re very wary of people coming in from outside.”
“The Dead and the Dark” explores that insider-outsider tension.
Gould, a lesbian, was also curious about what it would have been like to grow up queer in a very small town.
“I don’t know what my relationship would be like to myself,” Gould said. “And this idea of, you can pretend to be somebody, and keep that sense of community and solidarity with your town, or you can be yourself and immediately isolate yourself as well.”
A rural thriller
One of the book’s main characters is teenager Logan Ortiz-Woodley, whose parents host a ghost hunting television show.
Her dads, Alejo and Brandon, grew up in the tiny, rural — and fictional — town of Snakebite, Oregon, but Logan hasn’t visited until she and Alejo join Brandon there one summer.
Meanwhile, Ashley Barton, daughter of a Snakebite ranching family, has lost her boyfriend Tristan. Her fellow Snakebiters are starting to give up the search, but she’s sure he’s not dead – just disappeared.
Logan and Ashley forge an unlikely alliance to try to find Tristan.
This spring, “The Dead and the Dark” won the Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature at the Oregon Book Awards.
The book came out in August 2021, and the awards ceremony this spring was Gould’s first in-person book event.
“I was so overwhelmed because I had not done anything in person,” Gould said. “So then I was up in front of the crowd and everybody’s staring at me and I was just shaking, because I was so excited.”
Just before she wrote “The Dead and the Dark,” Gould had been working on another book for a while, about a girl who sells her soul to Satan, but there were too many characters and she was struggling to fill plot holes.
Then she decided to shelve it in favor of this “new, shiny” idea she had about rural ghost hunters.
“Because it had sort of been in the back of my mind for so long when I was working on the other book, I feel like when I finally started working on it, it just sort of exploded,” she said.
Gould said she wrote the book quickly, in just a few months toward the end of 2018.
She entered a Twitter contest to pitch her book in one tweet. It was popular, and she got agents and sold “The Dead and the Dark” to Wednesday Books, a Macmillan imprint, in 2019.
A love of writing since childhood
Gould’s always liked writing.
Her dad gave her a typewriter when she was a little kid, and she started writing books, asking her artistic friends to design the covers. In middle school, she took some creative writing classes, and by the end of high school she knew she wanted to focus on writing seriously.
Gould attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, to study writing and graduated in 2016. She worked for employment department, then moved up to Tacoma again and worked as a paralegal.
She lost her job there at the start of the pandemic and came back to Salem.
Right now, she works for a real estate company during the day and likes to write after work. She often posts up at a coffee shop and stays until she meets her goal for the number of words she wants to write.
“I will just write until I have those words done,” Gould said. “I try not to write at home because I feel like mixing where I relax and where I work is really difficult for me.”
She likes to take road trips and to garden, but writing takes center stage.
“I feel like writing is sort of my main thing because whenever I’m not writing, I’m thinking about the fact that I probably should be writing,” she said, laughing. “The guilt just crushes me.”
Growing up, the books she read with queer characters for kids and teens were often “about their queerness,” Gould said.
“That was the very sort of rigid narrative of what a queer person experienced,” Gould said. “And I really wanted genre fiction and I wanted sci-fi about queer people and fantasy about queer people.”
More books in the works
Gould has already written a second and third book.
Her second book, about two sisters trying to understand their late mother’s obsession with a small town in Arizona, is likely going to be published next summer.
Her third book, which is still in the editing and publishing process, is about two women living in a haunted house in Kansas. That will likely be her first book primarily geared toward an adult audience.
And now she’s started working on her third young adult novel, which she thinks will be focused on a group of kids sent on a wilderness therapy trip being attacked by “something in the woods.”
“It’s a critique of the idea that parents send off their kid and want somebody else when they come back,” Gould said, “And it’s like, well, you could get somebody else, but might not be a good thing.”
She stays motivated by connecting with other writers locally, who help each other stay accountable to themselves, their goals and deadlines.
And when she does write by herself, she thinks about the people who loved “The Dead and the Dark” and the messages she’s gotten from young people who have enjoyed the book.
“It’s just been super encouraging,” Gould said. “I don’t think authors are celebrities by any means because I definitely feel like a normal person who works a 9-to-5 job, and then just goes and writes after work. But then sometimes I’ll go home and get a message like that. OK, it means something to someone, that’s really cool.”
Claire Withycombe covers state government for the Statesman Journal. You can reach her at 503-910-3821 or [email protected]