Mystery Houses and Family: An Interview with Elana K. Arnold

I’ve been a huge fan of Elana K. Arnold’s fearless and varied work for years now. Elana writes everything from picture books to middle grade novels to brilliant YA/adult crossovers and more. Always her stories dig into what it means to be human and the often fascinating moments where the everyday and ordinary meet the strange and unusual. Her newest middle grade novel, THE HOUSE THAT WASN’T THERE is simply brilliant and we’ll be hosting her in May to discuss it with our middle grade book club for readers 8-12! Here’s what Elana had to say about that book and more when we chatted recently.


Joy Preble: This is such a special, magical story, Elana, with everything I love in a middle grade novel. I am always so drawn to books where the every day and the ‘other’ intersect. So let’s begin with what drew you to this story and its characters and that strange, wonderful place in between.


Elana K. Arnold: I am thrilled that you love THE HOUSE THAT WASN’T THERE! I do, too. I had so much fun writing this book. It felt like exploring a house, with surprises around every corner. Not all books feel this way! 

This story began with a thing I noticed… as most of my stories do. All my life, my grandparents lived at 33 Rollingwood Drive. I drove down that block thousands of times—as a kid in the backseat, then as an adult, and then as a parent, with kids of my own in tow. All those many years, I never noticed something, until one day, I did: On their street, there was a number 11 Rollingwood Drive, with number 15 right next door. There was no 13 Rollingwood Drive. The front of my brain knew that this was most likely because 13 was considered an unlucky number, and that during era when this neighborhood had been built, it was common practice to skip over 13. But the back of my brain wondered: What if? What if there were a number 13 Rollingwood Drive, somehow, between 11 and 15? Who would live there? Who would have access to it? And how would they get there?

Such fantastic questions! I had to know the answers. And so, I began to write.



JP: What a fascinating and magical origin story! Love it. And how about you? Do you see the world in this way? With mystical connections that we can choose or not choose to see?

EKA: Regardless of my beliefs, I have found this to be a truth that follows me. A lot of my work circles around questions of connection, and interconnection. My picture book AN ORDINARY DAY follows two families living side-by-side, one of whom is saying goodbye to a beloved pet while another is saying hello to a new baby, born at home. The families are connected, whether or not they know it. And, as with ideas for stories, I have found that the more we look for connections (or ideas), the more we find them. I think everything is interesting, and the practice of looking and listening reveals unlimited gifts of beauty.


JP: I’m also forever fascinated by how broad and diverse your writing career has been and continues to be. You write everything from picture books and early readers to middle grade and very hard-hitting YA. Do your ideas come to you differently for each of these? Is your creative process different in any way? I’m really curious! 


EKA: Ideas are everywhere, once you begin to look. I have a core belief: Children are whole people and they deserve good art. My job is to tell good stories, the best way I can, regardless of what age category they will be published in. I focus on art and story rather than on audience or category. This is perhaps not ideal from the angle of building a consistent audience, but it is the way my brain works. I believe that story is story. No matter what I’m writing, it begins with me noticing something interesting—either in the world (like the missing number 13 on Rollingwood Drive) or inside of myself. Then I begin to ask, “What if?” And then I do my best to follow where the story leads, without dictating to the story where it “should” go.


JP: Those "what if" questions are certainly the key, aren’t they? And speaking of digging into your characters, for both Alder and Oak, the parent/child relationship is such a key aspect. In THE HOUSE THAT WASN'T THERE, as well as your work in general, are there certain aspects of family that you find yourself continuing to explore?


EKA: So much of my work does seem to circle around questions of parent/child relationships, and the relationships between humans and animals. I know that this is because so much of my own life centers around these relationships—both those I nurture, with my children, and those I continue to heal from, as a child whose parents were unable or unwilling to care for me in the ways I needed. Animals have always been my special interest and my dearest comfort. As I type this, I am accompanied by three pets, and several others are taking naps in various parts of the house. 



JP: Oh yes, our animal companions are for sure our comfort, especially these  days. How have you been faring through the pandemic? What are you reading and watching when you have the time? Any recommendations for us?


EKA: I have found this year to be a period of incredible productivity and incredible sadness—as a writer, a reader, and a human. I’ve worked so hard on writing and parenting—things that come naturally to me—and trying to take care of myself, in a way that isn’t really in my nature.

And, I’ve been reading more widely and wildly than I have in many years. I have so many recommendations! Here are some of the highlights.


Memoirs and Biographies:
EDUCATED by Tara Westover




Middle Grade Fiction:




Adult Fiction:


NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney


Craft Books:



WHAT IT IS by Lynda Barry


JP: Love that list! Most are not only my own favorites, but regularly in stock here at Brazos! Finally, what’s coming next for Elana K. Arnold?


EKA: The work I’ve done over this last year is manifesting in a pretty exciting list of forthcoming books. In the next couple of years, I’ll have two new picture books and two more books in my STARLA JEAN chapter book series. For middle grade readers, look out for JUST HARRIET, which introduces readers to a quirky, irresistible girl who is spending the summer at her grandmother’s B&B on a small California coastal island, and sets out to solve a cozy mystery with the help of a basset hound named Moneypenny and a cat named Matzoh Ball.  

And THE BLOOD YEARS is on the horizon, too; set in Romania before and during WWII, this YA novel is based on my grandmother’s struggles to survive oppression and persecution at the hands of the Soviet Union and the German Third Reich while fighting tuberculosis and the breakdown of her family, and explores the great and terrible things people do in the name of love.



JP: Well we are excited for all of them. (I’m particularly jazzed for JUST HARRIET, which is definitely the book that eight year old me needed!)


If your 8-12 year old would like to join Elana for Middle Grade Book Club on Saturday, May 15 to discuss THE HOUSE THAT WASN’T THERE, click here.

The House That Wasn't There By Elana K. Arnold Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062937063
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Walden Pond Press - March 30th, 2021

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