‘A Crooked Mark’: La Jolla author’s first novel uses horror to celebrate teen self-discovery

La Jolla resident Linda Kao's first novel is a young-adult horror story.
(Provided by Linda Kao and Penguin Young Readers)

La Jolla resident Linda Kao is seeking to explore young-adult relationships and self-discovery with ... a horror novel.

“A Crooked Mark,” to be released Tuesday, June 20, is “based on the premise that not everyone who survived an accident was meant to survive,” Kao said. “Some of them are caught by the devil and … marked and sent back.”

In the story, 17-year-old Matt has been looking for such “marked” people to “ferret them out and dispatch them,” Kao said.

Matt’s next assignment is a teenage girl, but “as he starts his project, the friendship they form starts to turn genuine,” Kao said. “It makes him question everything he’s been told and what he’s really doing.”

“A Crooked Mark” is Kao’s first novel and is “very much a coming-of-age story,” she said. “It is a struggle to find your path, especially at that age, when you’re still figuring out who you are and what you stand for.”

Kao said she hopes readers realize “they will find their path and find people who believe in them and support them while they’re [on] that journey.”

“I didn’t start out to write a horror [book],” Kao said. “It came from the question of we don’t really know each other. We only know what expressions people wear. We only know what they choose to tell us.”

The book’s origin came when Kao was driving one day and noticed a pedestrian with “a really sour expression on their face,” she said. “You could tell they’re having a terrible day. It made me think about how we don’t really know what’s going on inside someone.”

Following that thread, she wrote the story, which was intended as a thriller but evolved into horror.

Kao, who has two teenage children, said she has always been drawn to the young-adult and children’s genres and read many such stories while earning her teaching credential and Ph.D. in education and teaching sixth grade for several years in Carmel Valley.

“I wondered if I could do this, too,” she said. “I started with picture books and short stories. … Eventually, some of them were picked up in [publications] like Highlights for Children, a few short stories and poems.”

“Then I started thinking, ‘Well, I have some other ideas that are for older audiences, maybe a little longer,’” Kao said. That led her on the years-long process to write “A Crooked Mark.”

Kao says the novel’s completion was a team effort, from her participation in a now-defunct mentorship program that “helped me kind of dive a little deeper into that emotional arc of the character” to a conference that led to finding an agent and editor who fine-tuned the story.

“I didn’t start out to write a horror [book]. It came from the question of we don’t really know each other. ... We only know what they choose to tell us.”

— Linda Kao

Along the way, Kao realized the teenage search for self reflected her own journey of growth.

”When you get to a conflict, when there’s something hard, what are you going to do and where are you going to turn?” she said. “How would you make that decision?”

Ultimately, “A Crooked Mark” is a tribute to how teens navigate personal development, she said. “They do it so wonderfully, and I think that’s something that should really be celebrated. … They’re an incredible group.”

Kao is now working on her next books. The first is another young-adult story set in a different world “with speculative elements and a bit of a thriller,” she said. The other is for kids in middle grades and is focused on ghost stories.

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