Ghost writer: Real-life haunted house inspires alum’s debut novel

Isabel Lachenauer, PhD’22, discusses how her childhood and perseverance led to writing ‘The Hacienda’

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

“It began because I am afraid of the dark,” Isabel Lachenauer, PhD’22, writes in the author’s note to her debut novel, The Hacienda (Berkley, 2022), a thriller described by the publisher as “Mexican Gothic meets Rebecca.”

Lachenauer, who is Mexican American and publishes under the pen name Isabel Cañas, lived in nine houses as a child—all different, a few terrifying: “As my family settled into its eighth house,” she writes, “I found the sensation of being watched unbearable.”

She drew on those uncomfortable feelings to create The Hacienda, set in 1823, two years after the Mexican War of Independence. Impoverished and bereaved after the death of her father, protagonist Beatriz accepts a marriage proposal from a widower, ignoring the rumors about the death of his first wife. At his country estate, Beatriz discovers her sister-in-law won’t enter the house at night, the cook burns incense and marks the kitchen doorway with mysterious symbols—and everywhere Beatriz goes, she feels watched.

“I sometimes feel like a fraud as a horror writer,” Lachenauer said in a phone interview, “because I’m afraid of literally everything. I definitely wigged myself out as I was writing this book.” 

When her husband had to leave on a business trip, she slept with the lights on. The book gave her agent nightmares too.

Yet Lachenauer “clearly knows the genre, alternately deploying and subverting haunted house tropes,” according to a Publishers Weekly review. “The result is a brilliant contribution to the new wave of postcolonial Gothics.” The Washington Post was similarly enthusiastic: “This is not just a stay-up-all-night, sleep-with-the-lights-on kind of read. It’s also a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of power, religion and conquest in a postwar Mexico.”

The historical period of The Hacienda has fascinated Lachenauer for years, although it is not anywhere close—geographically or chronologically—to her area of academic research. She’s an Ottomanist. Her dissertation centers on emotions and gender in Old Anatolian Turkish popular literature and romance. The main text she works on is “a piece of popular literature that, for laypeople’s sake, I liken to King Arthur and his knights.” The text features a woman warrior, romance, and magic, and “the way it is told is, frankly, riveting.”

Pivoting from fantasy fiction

Homeschooled as a child, Lachenauer journaled obsessively and wrote Lord of the Rings fan fiction that evolved into original fiction in her early teens. She stopped creative writing during college at the University of St Andrews but picked it up again as a master’s student in advanced Arabic at the University of Edinburgh.

“I’m very passionate about my subjects of study,” Lachenauer said. At UChicago, these subjects included Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and the early and late medieval history of the Middle East. “But part of me always knew I wanted to be a full-time writer.”

The Hacienda is Lachenauer’s debut novel, but not her first. She completed five manuscripts while a doctoral student in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. During the academic year, she focused on outlining. In the summers, when she had more flexibility, she wrote—even as she spent some summers in Turkey on intensive language programs: “I trained myself to write as fast and as cleanly as I could.”

In 2017 she found an agent through a pitch contest. But her first two manuscripts—both fantasy novels written for young adults—failed to sell. One came close: Lachenauer was invited to revise and resubmit, a process that took six months, but the publisher ultimately passed. She was devastated, especially since the news arrived during her honeymoon in Mexico City. “I love writing fantasy fiction,” she said. “But I thought: I’ve failed twice now; I need to pivot.”

Lachenauer began writing out The Hacienda in Autumn Quarter of the fifth year of her program. That spring, the pandemic hit. Trapped in a tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn, she drafted the remainder of the book in two weeks, working at the kitchen table while overhearing her new husband’s Zoom calls. “It was like a fever dream,” Lachenauer said. “That early period of lockdown had a huge impact. It’s a book about being trapped in a house.”

In comparison, her current project (not yet announced by the publisher) has been much harder going: “an odyssey,” Lachenauer called it. Like The Hacienda, the story focuses on 19th-century Mexican history and includes “a romance subplot and a supernatural horror subplot,” she said. “It’s set in south Texas, which at the time was a part of Mexico, and where my family has lived for the last 200 years.”

Lachenauer has attempted to write fiction that builds on her graduate work. “My adviser has asked at least four times,” she said—with mixed results. She started writing a novella set in 16th-century Istanbul, a period of Ottoman history that she enjoys teaching, and proudly sent it to her agent. “I thought it was immensely clever,” she said. “I spent seven years of my life—a biblical amount of time—acquiring this knowledge; and you now will learn it, dear reader.” Her agent’s reaction: “A little dense.”

But she did publish the short story “A Land of Saints and Monsters,” set in late medieval Anatolia, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, an online magazine for literary adventure fantasy. “Basically, I took my dissertation,” she said, “and threw some vampires in it.”

—Adapted from a story first published in Tableau magazine.