By Anna Faller

For most of us, the paranormal is pretend. Our childhood monsters have met their makers, and the world of spirits is purely storybook. But, local author Jacki Erickson, J.R. Erickson to her readers, disagrees. “We’re very good at questioning anything that doesn’t fit with normal reality, and justifying it,” she says. “It was a dream; I was out of it; I don’t remember it well enough to say if it happened or not. But there are many unexplained things in this life – that sense of something beyond us.”

This paranormal proclivity is exactly the premise upon which her newest novel, Ashes Beneath Her, hinges. Scheduled for release on May 28th,the third installment in Erickson’s ever-expanding Northern Michigan Asylum series revolves around a young psychic in the 1970’s whose supernatural abilities land her in lock-up. “She receives impressions when she touches things,” says Erickson, “so towards the beginning of the book, she touches what she thinks is a stone in someone’s driveway, but it’s a tooth. Through the energetic impressions of picking up this tooth, she sees a murder, and is forced into an asylum for her psychic ability.”

Though each of her three Northern Michigan Asylum novels are technically “stand-alone,” they are connected by the asylum itself and a fictional “brotherhood” of Mengele-esque doctors who capture people with paranormal potential and then use them as subjects for experimentation. “The premise in all the Asylum books is that one of the primary characters [is taken into] the asylum by this group of evil doctors,” Erickson says. Her newest novel is no exception. “All three of the books have a murder-mystery element,” she says. “I’ve just always been very interested in people’s motives and why they do what they do — why people become murderers, why [they] perpetually become victims. The human mind and behavior are very intriguing.”

The rest, as it were, is history. Local history, that is. A Lansing native, Erickson first arrived in the area in her 20’s, and was immediately taken with the lore surrounding the Traverse City State Hospital – now the Grand Traverse Commons – which operated for more than a century as Northern Michigan’s sole psychiatric hospital. “I went to the asylum a lot as kind of a respite,” says Erickson. “It was such a fascinating place. My (non-biological) aunt would tell stories about visiting a family member there, and the strangeness of the experience, so that was part of my inspiration for the book. When you’re a writer or an artist or whatever your creative medium is, it’s hard to not be pulled in by a place like that.”

 But for Erickson, writing and reality were almost always interchangeable. “I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t writing something,” she says, “and I always felt compelled to write and return to writing if life distracted me. It does feel like a purpose, in a sense, at least in that I’m always drawn back to it. Everything has always leaned towards writing for me.” Even so, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that the evolution of self-publishing platforms allowed Erickson to pursue writing as a full-time career. “When I finished my first book, it was 2012. I went through the traditional publishing route [at first], but it was a hands-off process, and I sold very few books,” she says. “[It wasn’t until] 2018 that I realized there was this huge community devoted to self-publishing: of course it’s [one of] writers, but it’s also editors, cover artists, “blurb” and marketing experts — there’s a network that exists now that completely supports you in that journey so that you can do it all yourself.”

And that’s exactly what she did. “You have total creative control [in the self-publishing arena], so I contacted my publisher, asking to publish the third book in the series on my own, and they ended up giving me [all] of the rights back. [Self-publishing] is a really amazing opportunity,” says Erickson. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun work.”

So, what spectral series can we expect from Erickson next? Not even she knows for sure. “Assuming all goes to plan, the next [book] release will be in August,” she says, “but I don’t have a title or working story in my mind, yet. It really is kind of [a process] of discovering the story!” Luckily, outlines were never really Erickson’s thing. “I’m mostly a ‘pantser,’” she says. “I write by the seat of my pants. The truth is, you just have to do it; you have to write the bad stuff, too. For me, the best thing you can do as a writer is write every single day, even if it’s a paragraph of crap. Just write it.” Factual or fantastic, one thing’s for certain: Jacki Erickson could make a believer of anyone.

Editor’s Note: Anna Faller is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Michigan. She can be contacted at afaller@umich.edu.

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