Courtney Gould’s award-winning debut novel includes ghost hunters, a queer romance, and a small town called Snakebite.
Her youth thriller, The Dead and the Dark, was inspired in part by an unexpected place: the Oregon Department of Employment.
Several years ago, Gould, 28, was helping rural Oregonians through her job at a state agency. Then I watched the Wild Wild Country documentary about a cult moving to a property in rural Oregon in the 1980s.
That was enough to inspire her to take a road trip to eastern Oregon.
She grew up in Salem and had relatives in Silverton, but was fascinated by very small outlying towns like Fossil and Valley.
“Obviously people feel very loyal to each other, and there is a really strong sense of community,” Gould said, “but they are also very wary of people coming in from the outside.”
The Dead and the Dark explores the tension between internal and external parties.
Gould, who is a lesbian, was also curious about what it would be like to grow up in a very small town.
“I don’t know what my relationship to myself will be like,” Gould said. “And this idea of, you can pretend to be someone, and maintain that sense of community and solidarity with your town, or you can be yourself and immediately self-isolate as well.”
One of the main characters in the book is teenager Logan Ortiz Woodley, whose parents host a ghost-hunting television show.
Her parents, Alejo and Brandon, grew up in the small, rustic—and fictional—town of Snackbyte, Oregon, but Logan didn’t visit until she and Aligo joined Brandon one summer.
Meanwhile, the daughter of a rancher from the Snackbyte family, Ashley Barton, has lost her boyfriend, Tristan. Her fellow Snakebiters are starting to give up on the hunt, but she’s sure he’s not dead – he’s just disappeared.
Logan and Ashley form an unlikely alliance to try to find Tristan.
This spring, “The Dead and the Dark” won the Leslie Bradshaw Award for Youth Literature at the Oregon Book Awards.
The book was released in August 2021, and this spring’s awards ceremony was Gould’s first in-person book event.
“I was so confused that I didn’t do anything personally,” Gould said. “Then I was in front of the crowd and everyone was staring at me and I was just shivering, because I was so excited.”
Just before she wrote The Dead and the Darkness, Gould had been working on another book for a while, about a girl who sells her soul to the devil, but there were a lot of characters and she was struggling to fill in the plot holes.
Then she decided to discard it in favor of this “bright new” idea she had of rural ghost hunters.
“Because it was kind of 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 kind of exploded,” she said.
Gould said she wrote the book quickly, in just a few months towards the end of 2018.
She entered a Twitter contest to feature her book in one tweet. It was popular, and it acquired agents and sold “The Dead and the Dark” to Wednesday Books, a Macmillan imprint, in 2019.
Love writing since childhood
Gould has always loved writing.
Her father gave her a typewriter when she was a little girl, and she began writing books, asking her art friends to design the covers. In middle school, she took some creative writing lessons, 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 in the recruitment department, then moved to Tacoma again and worked as a legal assistant.
She lost her job there at the beginning of the epidemic and returned to Salem.
She now works at a real estate firm during the day and loves to write after work. Often she posts posts in a coffee shop and stays until she hits her goal of the number of words she wants to write.
“I will only write until I get these words done,” Gould said. “I try not to write at home because I feel like mingling where I rest and where I work is very difficult for me.”
She loves to take road trips and to the park, but writing takes center stage.
“I feel like writing is kind of the main thing for me because when I’m not writing, I think about the fact that maybe I should write,” she said with a laugh. “Guilt just crushes me.”
Growing up, the books she read with offbeat characters for children and teens were often “about their weirdness,” Gould said.
“This was the kind of stark account of what an eccentric person lived through,” Gould said. “And I really wanted some kind of fantasy and I wanted science fiction about gay people and fantasy about gay 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 to be published next summer.
Her third book, which is still being edited and published, is about two women who live in a haunted house in Kansas. This is probably her first book aimed primarily at an adult audience.
And now she’s starting work on her third novel for young people, which she believes will focus on a group of kids who are sent on a wild healing journey who are attacked by “something in the woods.”
“It’s a critique of the idea that parents send their son and want someone else when they come back,” Gold said, “and it’s like, OK, you can have someone else, but it might not be a good thing.”
She keeps herself motivated by connecting with other writers locally, who help each other take responsibility for themselves, their goals, and deadlines.
And when she writes herself, she thinks of the people who loved “The Dead and the Dark” and the letters she received from young people who enjoyed the book.
“It was very encouraging,” Gould said. “I don’t think the authors are celebrities in any way because I definitely feel like a normal person who works nine-to-five jobs and then goes and writes after work. But sometimes I’ll come home and get a message like that. Well, that means Something for someone, that’s really cool.”
Claire Withhicombe covers state government in the Statesman Journal. You can reach her at 503-910-3821 or [email protected]