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Isabel Sterling's latest vampire romance is sure to warm the coldest heart

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Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

It wouldn't be Halloween time without a book from one of the most popular YA fantasy authors, Isabel Sterling. Well known for her These Witches series, Sterling is back in 2022 with a brand-new book, which takes place outside her best-selling franchise.

"It was fun to create something from scratch, especially having it be the first new thing since I was published," she said of her latest book, The Coldest Touch. "You grow so much through the publishing process. You have to think about the story in a much deeper way. The way you work with editors changes, at least for me; it changed how I think about the story and approach the story. I fell in love with these characters. They're some of my favorites, for sure."

Writing her latest novel was a bit of an experiment for Sterling, who approached the book using a different process. "It was a book that I sold on proposal... I had written the first 50 pages or so, and then I sold it on that," Sterling explained. "My editor had some feedback on just that piece, so I ended up rewriting all 50 pages. Once I got the green light to start drafting, that probably took two or three months."

Image courtesy of Razorbill  

Writing a novel at the height of COVID-19
Sterling also faced unique challenges when drafting The Coldest Touch due to pandemic-related delays. "COVID was starting. I was drafting it from March through May of 2020, so it was an interesting time to be writing a book, especially, weirdly, a book about a girl who can't touch people. So, yeah, it took a few months. In total, I may have spent seven months on it, but it was sort of pieced through different years."

For most authors starting their second project, especially after such a successful debut novel, the process goes smoothly. However, for Sterling, there were still bumps in the road. "In a lot of ways, it was nice, because I had gone through it and I knew how it worked. I knew what to expect — or at least I thought I knew what to expect, and then oopsie, COVID. That kind of threw everything for a loop. The biggest change was dealing with all of this, in and around that time."

Slow burn
Despite all the unprecedented obstacles she faced, Sterling still finished the book and felt especially drawn to the characters she had spent so much time with.

The story of The Coldest Touch follows Elise, a girl with oracle powers, who, upon touching someone, can see exactly how they will die.

"Elise came first," Sterling explained. "The spark of the story was this idea of how lonely it would be to be somebody who, every time you touched someone, you see how they're gonna die. That aching loneliness drew me into the story initially, like: what would it be like to be in that situation? So I kept mulling over it, and it took a few different iterations to figure out what that story was."

The story is also sapphic. "What I liked being able to do in this book is kind of contrast the out-and-proud Lesbian vampire with the clueless, 'I'm just a good ally, but it turns out I'm Bi' character, because that was sort of my experience. I was like, 'I don't know, I just like Gay people, they're all great,' so it was fun to bring that piece to it, that unsureness as she sort of figures out who she is. And there's a very slow burn, which was fun to write."

Writing a vampire novel for 2022
Of course, Sterling is drawn to elements of the supernatural; her first series centered around the lives of teenage witches. This book also took a turn for the spooky, but this time around, Sterling wanted to explore a different type of Halloween character.

"I knew fairly early on that I wanted to include vampires, because it just made sense to me that you'd have to be able to touch somebody [who had] no death. I knew that had to be a component of it."

With the inkling of a vampire story brewing in the back of Sterling's mind, she still had to piece together the plot. "Figuring out why vampires were suddenly in her town and who Clare [the vampire] was, that was a process of journaling and discovering what would make sense. Clare stole the show in drafts because she, in ways, became even more interesting, and then I had to find a way to balance them."

Will we get a sequel?
While These Witches series was always set up to be a pair of books (although a short prequel was also written), the fate of Sterling's latest novel is still up in the air. "I know what would happen in a sequel. I have a general idea of what the sequel would be, but this ...was going to be one book, and if sales were amazing, we were going to have a second book. We don't know," Sterling explained.

"Currently, there are no official plans to write [a second book], but I do know what [would] happen. I built it so it could end in one book and be satisfying, but I left lots of threads I could pull on for book two if I ever got the chance," she added.

Writing a stand-alone book was another tricky experience for Sterling. "That's part of what made it challenging, because I went into it wanting to do two books, and my publisher was like, 'Let's do one and see how it does,' and I was like, 'How do I do just one book if that's all we ever get?'"

After many revisions, she found the perfect balance.

Where fantasy meets reality
Sterling has created a name for herself on the YA fantasy shelves. While she enjoys reading other genres, she doesn't see herself leaving the fantasy section as a writer. "I grew up reading fantasy. I have always been into things that are a little bit magical and witchy and just a little bit outside of our real world, and I am very drawn to that," she said, laughing.

"I have a hard time thinking about writing a book that isn't about magic. I don't even know what that would be. I read a lot of contemporary books, but I don't know how people come up with this stuff. There are no vampires — where's the fun in that? It's fun to read, but for me, as a writer, I need a little bit of that extra something."

While she waits to see if The Coldest Touch will earn a sequel, Sterling is working on another fantasy novel, this one about a ghost. "Right now, I'm writing a book that's sort of like our world, but everyone has magic, and then there's this one girl and, uh-oh, she can see ghosts, and they have to solve a murder. I'm always in that realm, and I plan to stay there."

While Sterling's books are all fun and fantastical, she likes to center them on real teenage experiences. "The reason I enjoyed writing [The Coldest Touch] is that when you're a teen, even if you have close friends, it's so easy to feel desperately lonely. That's something that both characters experience in different ways, and when you find that person who helps you feel seen, it's important to hang onto that. I think there's also a lot of grief, but also humor, and those can coexist — in real life, too. We're never just one thing."

Of course, the real-life struggles of the characters are always balanced out by fun, spooky vibes, something Sterling enjoys to a degree. "I am so looking forward to it being cooler out, to get out and walk the dogs," she said. "I live in central New York, so our trees turn really beautiful colors. I am weirdly super into yardwork, so I do like raking leaves. I used to go pumpkin picking and apple picking when I was younger, but now my back is old and doesn't like it. There will probably be lots of Ghost Adventures though, but I spook easily, so I can't do a lot of horror movies."

If reading a spooky, sapphic novel is a part of your ideal Halloween season, look no further than The Coldest Touch, which is sure to warm even the most undead of hearts.