Bennett Madison: Haunted at 17


My new novel, 17 & Gone, is now out in stores (!!!), and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, I’ve asked some authors I know to join me in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? Here’s the last official post in the series (but stay tuned for next week—when I’ll be sharing some of YOUR posts here on this site!), with Bennett Madison revealing what haunted him at 17 years old…

Guest post by Bennett Madison

The most prominent feature of the suburban Maryland skyline—if one can even consider the suburbs to have a skyline—is the Mormon Temple in Kensington. From the Beltway, driving west away from DC and toward the outer suburbs, it appears out of nowhere, its beveled marble towers and golden spires unfolding upward like something in a pop-up book and towering over the trees that line the highway.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it, it is always a surprise. At night, it is lit up and iridescent but even in the sunlight it stutters against blue sky with a hazy, ghostly glow that seems to come from somewhere else.

The temple recalls a lot of things. It looks enough like the Emerald City that, for years, the words SURRENDER DOROTHY were spray-painted on the overpass that revealed itself along with the temple as you rounded a curve in the road. Growing up, classmates’ mean parents would try to trick them by telling them it was Disney World. That always struck me as underselling its magic—even a little kid knows that Disney World isn’t actually very enchanted at all.

For me, the temple was a ghost palace. It was a place that existed only on the horizon, something that I could never touch. It was a symbol of leaving home and of returning, and most of all, of being in-between.

When I was seventeen, I spent a lot of time on the highway. My father took the Metro to work and allowed me mostly-unlimited use of his old, gray Honda Civic hatchback and so I drove. With homework to do and things to be worried about, I was promiscuous in offering friends rides and thought nothing of spending hours in heavy gridlock ferrying them way out into the strange outer rings of the suburbs: Olney, Gaithersburg, Poolesville. Katie and Zarah and Emily could often be found riding shotgun, their bare feet pressed up against the windshield as they sang along with me to whatever mix tape I’d popped in the cassette player.

Other times the passenger seat was empty and I was off to meet up with guys my friends had never heard of. There was a fireman in Rockville; there was this one guy who lived in a cemetery out in Frederick. I’d drive out to them and then we’d go somewhere else: the movies, the mall, a parking lot.

More frequently, I would just be in my car alone, meeting no one. With no destination in mind, I’d pull out of the school parking lot, turn the music up and hit the beltway. I would travel to obscure fast food restaurants way out 270 or, when traffic was light and I could speed, I’d curl over to Virginia only to get off at any old exit, then turn around and go somewhere else, always hoping, somehow, that I’d find myself in a place where I was lost.

As far as I traveled, the Mormon Temple was always either right ahead or somewhere just over my shoulder.

Washington is, of course, full of landmarks. Even the pretty ones are dull and over-familiar and a little oppressive. They’re monuments to bureaucracy, to the city’s proud lack of poetry. The Mormon Temple, though, never gets blown up in movies; it’s not on any postcards except maybe Mormon ones. Even people who pass it every day mostly ignore it.

It is anonymous and forgotten. It is always a mystery. What is it. Where does it come from. What is it trying to tell you?

At nights on the road, looping for hours in a solitary race with myself, I would fantasize about having an endless gas tank. About being able to take an exit—any exit—and drive and drive and drive into darkness, never stopping or settling on any new place. In my car, I was a lonely endlessness shooting out into a future that felt terrifyingly blank. I was everywhere and nowhere. Then, just when I thought I’d managed to leave everything behind, I’d be startled by the sight of the temple in the distance, reminding me that, for now, I couldn’t untether myself completely.

The next day, I’d be back in school, where I was reminded at every moment of the fact that I was an irredeemable fuck-up with no prospects at all.

Seen on the left, the temple was the thing that held me in this place. On the right, on a clear day with no traffic, it was the thing urging me to leave. It seemed to tell me that even on the beltway, which is after all, only a circle that always leads you back to exactly where you started, there was always someplace else to go, unreachable maybe, but out there somewhere.

Non-Mormons aren’t allowed past the temple’s visitor center, and I’ve never even made it that far. While I’ve seen it hundreds of times from the road, I have a hard time imagining what it looks like from the parking lot, or even wrapping my head around the idea that it occupies an actual physical space in the world. The Mormon Temple doesn’t belong to me. I will never enter it. I like it that way. I prefer to keep it what it’s always been: an abstraction cast in moon rock, an unknowable elsewhere that, when I was seventeen, was just five minutes from home.

September GirlsBennett Madison is the author of several books for teenagers, including The Blonde of the Joke (HarperTeen 2009) and September Girls (HarperTeen 2013). He has also written a few other books and some other things here and there. He grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, went to Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Find him online at

Follow @bennettmadison on Twitter.


Don’t miss the other posts in the series, in which YA authors revealed what haunted them at 17. Here are all the official Haunted at 17 posts… (Thank you to the generous authors for taking the time to write them and be a part of this!)

But wait. I’m not done yet!

…Do YOU Have a Haunted at 17 Story You’d Like to Share Here?

Feel inspired and want to share what haunted you at 17? If you write a post on your blog, leave a link or tweet it to me. I’ll send you some 17 & Gone swag if you’d like it, and I’ll be listing all the posts in a round-up next week.

Even better, I’ll be featuring five of your Haunted at 17 stories here in full next week. So if you don’t have a blog—or even if you’d already posted yours and want to include it here—email your story me.

And remember: You don’t have to be a writer to take part in this. All you have to be is someone who was once 17.


Want to win a signed hardcover of 17 & Gone, some swag, and a signed hardcover of Imaginary Girls to keep it company? Every commenter on this Haunted at 17 post will be entered to win. You can also enter by filling out this entry form.

The giveaway is international. Closes 11:59 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 28. Two winners will be chosen.

 17 & GONE NEWS:

  • 17&Gone_thumbIf you’ll be in New York City for the NYC Teen Author Festival, come see me and get a signed copy of the book! Full schedule here—look out for me TONIGHT, Saturday, March 23 at McNally Jackson or Sunday, March 24 at Books of Wonder!
  • Lost at Midnight Reviews is being truly amazing and is hosting a whole week featuring 17 & Gone. Go see what bloggers are saying about the book—and keep an eye out for a special giveaway for Lost at Midnight readers!
  • If you’ve pre-ordered 17 & Gone or plan to buy it this week (thank you so much for your support! it means the world to me!) and can’t be in New York City to get it signed, I have a way to sign your book from afar. Leave a comment on this photo on my Facebook author page and I may just mail you a signed and personalized bookplate.


Guest Post: What Inspires Bennett Madison

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Have you read Bennett Madison’s novel The Blonde of the Joke? You must. This novel took me over and inspired my writing in more ways than I can even articulate. Imagine how amazing it is to find out what inspires its author. Here’s what Bennett says about inspiration: 

When charged with writing on the topic of inspiration, it’s hard not to want to just present an itemization of the things that I like. I’ll restrain myself from writing out the comprehensive list, but the abridged and ad-libbed version would look something like this:

  • Too much eyeliner (preferably liquid)
  • Harmonies, messy ones are better
  • Arms dangling out of car windows
  • Wigs
  • Disco balls
  • Cigarettes: must be either really trashy brands or really pretentious brands (often actually the same thing)
  • Synthesizers, esp. synthesizers paired with fuzzy guitars
  • Reality television
  • You can imagine the rest.

Inspiration is, for me, almost a strange form of acquisitiveness. You get a glimpse of something, say, just for example, a certain quality to the sunlight filtering through reddening leaves and the way it hits your companion’s hair just so as she drags on her cigarette and laughs or whatever. Now and then such a glimpse might trip a feeling, like in this case just being happy and relaxed, and then the two things (the feeling along with the sun/the hair/the cigarette/the laugh/whatever) somehow combine into a third thing, and this is the thing that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Inspiration is what may in certain circumstances follow: the overwhelming desire to own that third thing, to be able to put it in your pocket and carry it around with you, to take it home and place it on a shelf next to other similar things you’ve collected in the creation of a Pokémon menagerie of the ineffable. The catch, of course, is that the thing is not easily ownable. In order to have it, you have to sit down and create it all over again. In a lot of ways it’s a futile task, and the futility is part of the point.

The moment in which I remember feeling this buzz of inspiration most viscerally—the moment in which many of the items on my unabridged list of aesthetic interests converged most perfectly and clearly with my mood—is remarkable only for the impression it made on me. It was sometime in 1999 at the even-then-long-past-its-prime Pyramid Club, drinking a Long Island Iced Tea. (When I was too young to drink legally, I would often order Long Island Iced Teas because I felt that they offered bang for the buck and saved me from having to send my friends with IDs to the bar more than necessary; also I liked the taste.)

So I was standing alone in the corner by the speakers and watching a friend with a glamorously off-kilter personal style and a crazy halo of ultra-blond hair dancing ecstatically (if you can consider a dance that consists almost entirely of shoulder-swaying and hair-tossing punctuated by the occasional hop to be ecstatic) to unfashionable New Wave music, perhaps OMD, while brandishing a Marlboro Light, and the lights were flashing on her face, the real smoke from cigs was merging with the fake smoke from the smoke machine in a way that was both stinky and redolent of significance, and as my attention moved over the dance floor, lingering on different people and faces in what felt like a series of freeze frames, I wanted nothing more in the world than to understand it and write it down.

I’ve never published anything in which that moment is actually dramatized and I’m not sure I could ever really describe why it felt so important to me, but I still find myself thinking about it constantly. It shows up a lot in things I write, always in unrecognizable disguise.

A few nights ago, while watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, it suddenly occurred to me that I had somehow missed ever reading Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” After cursing my incredibly haphazard Sarah Lawrence education—because what, if anything, should a Sarah Lawrence education provide a person other than a comprehensive knowledge of Susan Sontag and camp?!—I decided that it was high time I actually gave the essay a look. Better late than never. And it strikes me now as I’m writing this (is this inspiration?) that the commonality in the items on the short list I’ve made and the much longer one in my head and even in the scene I described above is a sort of camp artifice that isn’t quite artificial and is therefore maybe not camp at all.

Because if we say that camp in its purest form is a mode of sincere or unwitting affectation, maybe it’s also true that the purposeful or semi-purposeful affectation of camp creates a feedback loop that turns it into something entirely different. If camp involves recognizing and celebrating the synthetic in something that’s supposed to seem real, maybe the anti-camp I’m talking about has to do with locating what is genuine and even sublime in the self-consciously synthetic. Blond hair. Smoke machines. Gauloises. Busted harmonies. Those things are all camp, but can be looked at from both angles, and the second angle is the one that inspires me.

In his really nice write-up of my book The Blonde of the Joke, the wonderful writer Matt Gallaway remarked that the girls in the book reminded him of drag queens, who are of course held up often as quintessential practitioners of camp. There are many (infinite?) types of drag, but what the characters in my book have in common with some drag performers, besides a penchant for shoplifting, is that they’re working to construct an identity based on a purposeful aesthetic system that isn’t really their own. This could be called camp, and maybe it is, but what’s interesting is the way it isn’t, the way this jokey artificiality is a strange representation of something that’s too real to express directly. (Maybe Courtney Love, also an expert camp artist, conveyed this tension best when she said, “I fake it so real I am beyond fake.”)

I’m talking about two separate things so far, both the process of inspiration and my own personal sources for it. But, for me, there’s a connection between the two. That connection is probably specific to me and to my own aesthetic obsessions, but whatever.

Because what does inspiration inevitably (or ideally, or maybe disappointingly?) lead to but a kind of trompe l’oeil? You have that initial observation; then you have that feeling; then you have the sparky combination of those two things, the thing you want to possess; and then, as you try to steal it, it transforms again into something that isn’t precisely what you were trying to capture but instead into a picture of it, a picture the usually makes you sigh a little the way you would if you were painting a portrait and got the eyes crooked or made the nose too big.

But on very rare occasions this picture is different enough that any resemblance—artifice—becomes irrelevant. It is its own thing now, a representation only of itself. Maybe by then you don’t even remember what inspired you to make it in the first place. When you’ve done it right, you’ve done the Courtney Love thing: you’ve faked it so real that you are beyond fake.

—Bennett Madison

Bennett Madison is the author of The Blonde of the Joke and other things nominally for young people. His next book, about a mysterious tribe of young women in the Outer Banks, will be released by Harper Teen in 2013.

Visit Bennett at

Follow @bennettmadison on Twitter. 

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