Ana Reyes was just 11 years old when she wrote her first story about a creepy house in the woods in Pittsfield. It wouldn’t be her last.
Thirty years later, that same house plays a prominent role in her debut novel, “The House in the Pines,” which actor and entrepreneur Reese Witherspoon recently announced as her first book club pick of the year.
“This is an absolute, can’t-put-it-down thriller,” Witherspoon said in an Instagram video post on Jan. 3, announcing the pick to the followers of Reese’s Book Club, the popular, monthly online book club she curates. “It’s truly a wild ride that had me flying through chapter after chapter. It had me guessing. And like all amazing thrillers, it has a crazy twist that I can’t tell you, because it will give the whole thing away.”
“It’s been amazing,” Reyes said of being selected during a recent interview with The Eagle by phone from Los Angeles. “I found out a couple of months ago, so the hardest part was keeping it a secret. I just don't think I could have kept it a secret another day. I was ready to shout it from the rooftops.”
Witherspoon’s post was timed to coincide with the Jan. 3 release of “The House in the Pines,” a thriller that begins with a viral YouTube video of a young woman dropping dead in a diner in Pittsfield. Across the state, Maya views the video and recognizes the man sitting across from the woman — the same man who was standing next to her best friend Aubrey when she dropped dead in a similar manner seven years earlier.
Maya has always been convinced that Frank — a slightly older boy she dated for a few weeks before she left for college — had something to do with Aubrey’s death. She returns home to Pittsfield determined to prove that her initial fears were true and that Aubrey isn’t his only victim.
But Maya isn’t a reliable narrator. Her story is complicated by hazy memories of that fateful summer coupled with withdrawal from Klonopin — originally doled out by a psychiatrist after Aubrey’s death and until recently supplied by a friend — which she’s used as a sleep aid. Is her paranoia real or the result of her withdrawal? And if she is right, can she stop Frank before he kills again?
The house, Reyes said, is the exact same one that she wrote about in 1993, when she was 11. That story — about a girl getting lost in the woods in Pittsfield and finding the house — was the first she’d ever written. She hoped it would win the Berkshire Athenaeum's annual short story competition and its top prize — a gift certificate to Either/Or Bookstore on North Street.
“Essentially, my impetus to start writing was to get more books,” Reyes said. “So, I wrote this story. I didn't know the first thing about writing but I was a huge reader and my favorite writer was Christopher Pike. So, I’ve always drawn to creepy scary stories.”
She didn’t win the contest, but she did earn an honorable mention in her age group. The house in the woods, however, remained with her over the years — lurking in the back of her mind as she wrote poetry and other short stories, finally manifesting itself fully in her debut novel.
Editor’s note: Reyes, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently took the time to answer a few of our questions about “The House in the Pines.” Her answers, found below, are lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you come to write ‘The House in the Pines’?
ANA REYES: I went to grad school at Louisiana State University and in 2015 this was my MFA thesis. That first draft was very different. After I graduated, I reworked it. I spent a long time getting it into shape. Then, I found an agent who was very generous with her time. She basically said, ‘I think, you need to rewrite it just one more time.’ So, that daunted me a little bit, but over the course of two years, I eventually got back to it. She worked with me on it, the whole time, and helped me turn it into the book that it finally is today.
Q: Can you tell us more about the house?
ANA REYES: This house, a creepy house in the woods, just appeared in my very first story. And then 20 years went by. When I sat down to write my novel, I again, was not quite sure what it was going to be about. I had some thematic ideas but I wasn't really sure what it was going to be about. And again, the house — that creepy house in the woods — appeared. So this is my exploration of that house, both as an actual place and also as a symbol.
Q: What made you set the story in Pittsfield?
ANA REYES: My mom [Mary Carey] is originally from Pittsfield. Her father [Dr. William Carey] lived in Pittsfield and was born there. My uncle, [former Eagle business editor] Bill Carey did a lot of reporting about GE, so I remember hearing a lot about that growing up.
I love Pittsfield. I have a really strong emotional connection to it because I grew up spending holidays there at my grandparents’ house on Brunswick Street. I just have all these memories of these warm family gatherings with our family. And then, of course, I lived there in fourth and fifth grade, so a lot of the places we go to are places that I had been and had vivid memories of that I could draw on.
Initially, when I first started writing the book, it was set in Amherst because that's where I ended up going to middle school and high school. But as I was writing it I just kind of felt myself being drawn back to Pittsfield because I feel like there's something very poignant about Pittsfield.
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I grew up hearing my mother's memories of Pittsfield. She actually worked in that big department store, England Brothers, as the Easter Bunny. I grew up hearing these memories of people actually cruising down North Street and I was like, what does that even mean? They would tell me all of these stories about how Pittsfield used to be. But by the time I lived there, that was not what I saw.
There's this kind of heartbreaking sense of the disconnect between what it was and what I actually saw with my own eyes when I lived there.
Q: A lot of this book has to do with memory or faulty memories. What intrigues you about memory?
ANA REYES: Memory is intriguing to me because it really makes you who you are. Your memories shape you.
But at the same time, the holes in your memories also shape you in a much more subconscious way. I was interested in memory and identity and the way that this shapes my main character. I also am just very intrigued by memory. I like stories where you have unreliable narrators.
"The House in the Pines" by Ana Reyes.
Published by Dutton.