'Get Out' Meets Deadly Prep School Ghost in This Debut YA Thriller

Posted by Sharon on July 1, 2021
Ryan Douglass has always written books. When he was really young, he wrote and drew picture books. When he was in elementary and middle school, he started writing chapter books, and when he became a teenager, he graduated to teen novels.

When he started working on his debut YA thriller, The Taking of Jake Livingston, he was 21. “I knew I wasn’t going to be writing about a married couple going through a divorce at that stage because I hadn’t experienced that,” he says. “Even though I was an adult, I knew that I could only write what I had already lived.” 

Douglass is a lot like his character Jake, minus the whole being a medium and communicating with ghosts part. He’s gay, Black, and attended an all-white school. With this novel, he wanted to write a character from his own perspective but with a twist. 

The book has been described as “Get Out meets Danielle Vega” and follows Jake as he deals with racism and navigates being an outsider at his prep school. When Sawyer, a troubled teen turned school shooter, starts to haunt him, he’s forced to fight for his survival in order to protect his loved ones. 

Douglass spoke with Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about his research process for the book, some of his favorite authors, and his next project.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Goodreads: Tell us about the inspiration behind The Taking of Jake Livingston. Why is this a story you wanted to tell?

Ryan Douglass: Oh gosh, so I feel like, with not just this book but with all of my projects, they’re an amalgamation of different things that I want to explore and, when I come up with ideas, usually I meditate on them for a very long time to make sure that there is something that I can actually sustain for a full narrative and themes that I want to deal with.

I wanted to make sure that I had stuff that was interesting to me, like ghosts and psychological horror. I wanted to deal with racism because, at the time that I was writing it, it was something that I was in the throes of; I went to a predominantly white college and the experiences that I had there are kind of what influenced that aspect of the book. I wanted to write about what I was going through, but I also just wanted to write about cool stuff. I like thrillers, and we don't usually see gay Black boys in that context, so I thought it would be fun and interesting to see how his trauma would change a story like that.

GR: So how long did you marinate on the idea for this book? And how long did it take to come together?

RD: Initially, I was writing short stories for my creative writing class during my sophomore year of college. I was trying to explore my style, and that’s when I first realized that I wanted to write horror—I was writing more science fiction and fantasy before. It was a short story, and with short stories you have to really capture a moment and cut to the chase; you can’t really do the three X structure that you have with a novel.

So I wrote a story about a boy who is being followed around at school by a homicidal ghost, and it really put me in that headspace of what I wanted to say. Then I wrote another story, about a kid in college whose roommate turned out to be a stalker. So I was like, it looks like I want to write about stalkers. [Laughs.]

I actually got a note in my creative writing class from one of my classmates who said that they wanted to see my short story as a book, and I was like, "That’s an interesting idea." I started writing it, and it took about two years to write the first draft, and then I spent three months working with my agent on it. I was in edits for about another year, so I want to say it took—from conception to finished product—close to three years.

GR: During those three years, were there parts of the world-building process that you developed for the novel that didn't end up making it onto the page?

RD: There was a lot of world-building stuff where my editor ended up saying, "This is confusing." There are certain things that I was able to flesh out and develop more and certain things that I had to just scrap. Sometimes I have these ambitions, and I don't know how to root them in logic.

For example, in the first version, the ghosts were more friendly. It was giving more of like a Casper, the friendly ghost, vibe. I think that made it more of a startling thing when Sawyer jumped out, like, "Oh, this ghost is evil." As we went through edits, my editor asked questions like, "How are the ghosts embodying this world? And what does it mean?" She was really pushing me to get to these questions about what I wanted to do to make the ghost angle more innovative and new and fresher than what we had always seen. So, asking questions like, "Why are there ghosts?" "What does it mean about mortality?" "Why is this happening?" "Why is Jake a medium?" That really changes how you think about it.
When I first went in, I was just having fun. I was like, "Oh, I’m going to have a ghost friend, and I’m going to have a ghost enemy." And it's like, why? So when you get to the why stuff, that’s when I started thinking about death loops and the logic behind those. The whole angle changed about what these ghosts were embodying, the world, and their power and Jake's power.

GR: The novel includes aspects about mediums and paranormal activity and, obviously, ghosts. What kind of research did you do?

RD: I read real-life account books on ghost sightings just to see how hauntings usually take place. I feel like I've been haunted in smaller ways. I've had houses and apartments where pots randomly fall off the shelves and you hear things at night, but I'd never had real contact with a spirit. So I did a lot of reading about how that manifests in real life to really pin down the poltergeist elements.
I did a lot of research on school shooters, serial killers, and mass murderers, in general, to get to the bottom of their psychology. That was a huge, huge research endeavor for me, figuring out what would drive someone to do that, and if it's about nature, if it's about nurture. Getting that from Sawyer’s perspective was really important for making that a well-rounded character. The rest of it just came out of my imagination.
GR: I'm sure that research about serial killers wasn't easy, nor was writing the character of Sawyer. What was it like immersing yourself in his voice?

RD: Well, I love a challenge, and this was definitely a good challenge for me because it forced me to see how the evilest person you could imagine could also be a human being. I think that's a really huge thing to take on, and as a writer, it was something that I threw myself into because I think it’s our job to get to what’s underneath and try to figure out what we aren't really seeing when we see the surface of someone.

It was very scary, I'm not gonna lie. I had nightmares while doing research. I read about personality disorders and how those function and how people without empathy move about the world. I read about their families and how they interact with them. I was really worried for a time that I was making Sawyer too human, and then I was worried that I was making him so much of a menace that nobody would relate to him. I was going back and forth. One draft, my editor was like, "He's very angry, he’s very evil. No one's going to want to read his perspective." And then another draft, she was like, "He's too human." It was a really delicate balancing act of getting the human element right and the evil right so that you're not saying, "Oh, the shooter is a victim," because he's obviously a villain, but you’re seeing how villains are shaped by victimhood and how hurt people hurt other people, which is a really hard thing to do when you’re narrating it from the angle of a murderer. So it was very hard, but a good challenge for me as a writer.

GR: On the flip side, what was it like writing Jake? You mentioned that you also went to an all-white college. Was writing his perspective a little easier or more challenging because you had to tap into your own life and experiences?

RD: The challenge of writing Jake was that it felt really personal.

At the time I started writing it, I hadn't written a personal character, I hadn't really thought of myself as someone who is worthy of carrying a narrative. I won't lie; Jake is really, really, really similar to me. He is how I was in high school. Everything that comes out of his mouth is something that I probably would have said in high school. His internal thought processes are very similar to mine. I was a wallflower, bonded with other wallflowers, didn’t really have a huge sense of self, and wanted to fade into the background.

I had fun, though, finding ways where Jake could be more than I was at that age and how he could overcome his circumstances more than I did at that age, because I really needed to read a character who looked like me, who was also gay, and who came out at that time. It was fun for me to be inspired by that character, because he does actually grow a lot in the span of time that the narrative takes place. And he grows in a way that I was not able to grow until I got to my 20s. So writing him was really fun for that reason, being able to give an arc to my younger self who didn’t necessarily see his power. That was a really rewarding journey.

GR: You mentioned that you've written thriller and sci-fi stories. You've also written some poetry. Was YA a genre that you'd always wanted to explore?

RD: I really like YA because it gives you an opportunity to see a lot of growth in a short period of time with characters because there are so many changes happening at that age.

Even in your 20s, if you're writing adult books about younger people, you have that opportunity to explore not really having a sense of self and coming into one. I think that adults deal with that a lot, too, just not fully knowing who they are and switching careers or they go through relationships and lose track of themselves and find themselves again. I think that adults are better at pretending that we have it all together, but when we read YA books, it's OK to admit alongside the characters that we're also growing.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
GR: What are some of your favorite YA books?

RD: My favorite YA book is More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. It totally changed my life. I'd never read anything that was about a gay boy who was poor and dealing with his feelings. I love the speculative angle to it, and I wanted to write speculative books that were engaged with social issues and gay issues and things like that. I actually dealt with depression and suicide growing up, so I thought that, when I read that book, it was totally just in conversation with me, and it completely changed how I saw my ability to speak about my own experiences. It's very depressing, and I know some people don't want to be depressed when they read, but I just think it's so beautiful.
I really enjoyed The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed. I found the prose really beautiful and immersive, and it didn't feel like a lot of YA does where a lot of the same tropes are used. Sometimes the prose can feel like you've read it before, so The Black Kids was something I read that I thought was very much in its own lane and wasn't really derivative or trying to be anything else.

GR: Are there any books that you pulled from for inspiration for your own book?

RD: One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, which was made into a movie called Jamie Marks Is Dead. I saw that movie and then I read the book, and I just love the atmosphere of the movie. It's about a boy who is haunting another boy. It’s a little bit less slasher-y and a little bit less over the top than The Taking of Jake Livingston, but watching it gave me a sense of the atmosphere that I wanted to bring to my own book.
I was vaguely inspired by Gone Girl. And I say vaguely because I really like the writing and I like the style of the book. I find it so grotesque, but it's so beautiful in the way that it captures the grotesqueness. I like the confident writing style that Gillian Flynn brings.
The Everlost series by Neal Shusterman was a big inspiration. His ghost world gave me an entry point for limbo stuff.

And then Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books are so formative, so inspirational. Those are what really made me want to take readers on big adventures with epic battle sequences and characters who were relatable and you could cheer on and root for.

GR: As much as you're able to share, what's next for you? You mentioned you’re writing a rom-com. Are you able to share the plot or anything like that?

RD: I've been working on the rom-com for three years now, which is long for me. It’s funny because, when I started writing a romantic comedy, I was like, I want to write something that's easy, that’s fun, that’s light. It's such an easy structure: Boy meets boy, they fall for each other, a problem breaks them up, and then they get back together and live happily ever after. As it turns out, romantic comedies are the hardest genre I have ever tried to write—harder than historical fantasies, sci-fi, horror!

I thought that it would be easy because it feels easy when you watch rom-coms. It feels like you're vibing and you're going through ups and downs of love and it's cute, right? I think the part of it that was hard is I really had to free myself up to write something that was feel-good and not really think about being political. When you're Black and when you're gay, you're always thinking that you have to write about the Black experience or the gay experience or write about all these big social issues. You don’t always have to do that.
The book is about these two boys who meet in a fictional beach town. One is 19, one is 20, so it’s like a new adult book. One of the boys is running from the fact that he flunked out of college. He's entering a photography competition at the college in his town to get his life back on track and win some money. The other boy is running from the fact that he got thrown out of his house and got involved with a gang and then had to leave town and now he's living on a dancer's couch and becomes a go-go boy. They meet, and it's kind of about what happens when a monogamous person falls for a polyamorous person before they realize the lifestyle that they lead. A bunch of shenanigans ensue, and there are some high jinks and some situational comedy and just explorations of love.


Ryan DouglassThe Taking of Jake Livingston will be available in the U.S. on July 13. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Raymond (new)

Raymond Also check out this great interview between the author Ryan Douglass and Demetrius Frazier, President and Co-Founder of Black Men Read


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

So good!! I really enjoyed reading this interview, thank you so much :)

message 3: by Candy (new)

Candy Hall I definitely have this book in my TBR pile.

message 4: by Erica (new)

Erica D`souza "When you're Black and when you're gay, you're always thinking that you have to write about the Black experience or the gay experience or write about all these big social issues. You don’t always have to do that."

I think this is brilliantly said. I look forward to the rom-com as well because it sounds super interesting.

Great interview!

back to top