George Ogilvie’s moody song “Grave” sets the tone for the creepy opening page of Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel, “She Is a Haunting,” which floated into the world on Feb. 28 and landed at No. 4 on the young adult hardcover list. “The house eats and is eaten,” writes Tran, a cancer survivor and former data analyst who uses they/she pronouns. And then, “The body becomes full of things it did not ask for.”
Pair these sentences with Ogilvie’s lyrics — “Lower me down, down, down, down” — and your neck prickles before you’ve even been introduced to Tran’s main character. (She is Jade Nguyen, an American student who ventures to Vietnam to spend time with her estranged father in the aforementioned house … which is, you guessed it, haunted.)
Book clubs have long experimented with food and wine pairings to complement their picks. Now Tran joins a contingent of authors who provide music to accompany their fiction. “I write a lot to music,” Tran said in a phone interview. “So when I try to get in the mood, I’ll start with the playlist.” This one runs for two hours and 19 minutes and features a range of instrumental pieces, plus tunes from Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” series and “fun songs that reflect Jade’s experience when she’s trying to escape the house and be with her love interest.” The playlist is available on Tran’s website.
But the author tends to get their best work done while wearing noise-canceling headphones and listening to one song on repeat, sometimes hundreds of times in a row. When Jade’s family was beginning to take shape, it was “The Witching Hour” by Echo Collective; during the protagonist’s nightmarish dream sequences, it was the Newton Brothers’ “I Want to Wake Up So Badly.” Tran doesn’t tend to weave their personal anthems into fiction, nor do they consider themself a musical person. “My brain is all taken up by book writing and long-form writing,” they said. “But lyrics are writing, conveying an emotion just like a book or a scene conveys an emotion.”
Tran never planned to become a writer. The goal was to have a job with health insurance — hence, a position as a data analyst at the New York City Department of Health. This is where Tran was working when their older brother died of cancer; after that, they said, “I had this moment when I was sitting in Bryant Park and it was one of those days when New York City was strangely beautiful and not smelly? And I was just like, what am I doing with my life?”
They started a novel. On March 8, when Tran learned that “She Is a Haunting” was a best seller, they tweeted, “Can a pessimistic gremlin handle this much joy?”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”