Books·How I Wrote It

How an abandoned small-town theme park inspired Amber Dawn's new novel

The author discusses how she drew upon childhood experiences living in Crystal Beach, Ont., to write Sodom Road Exit.
Amber Dawn is an award-winning author based in Vancouver, B.C. (, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Amber Dawn's latest  Sodom Road Exit, is not your typical ghost story. Set in Crystal Beach, Ont. — her real life hometown — the novel draws on her experience growing up in the shadow of the town's main attraction — the Crystal Beach Amusement Park. Sodom Road Exit follows Starla Mia Martin, who after going broke in Toronto, moves back to her hometown to live with her mother and is possessed by the ghost of a woman in the now decrepit amusement park. 

In her own words, Amber Dawn discusses how she wrote Sodom Road Exit.

Born and raised

"I always told myself that someday I'm going to write about her — my childhood self. I knew that one day I was going to have to write about the place where I was born and raised, Crystal Beach. Crystal Beach was best known for an amusement park that operated for 101 years before it closed in 1989. The closure of the park is still grieved by the people who live there. It was such a cornerstone of that community. I remember walking through Crystal Beach and feeling like it was a ghost town. Summer cottages were boarded up, and there were storefronts and restaurants that had all gone out of business along with the amusement park. The park itself was just a mess of broken asphalt and debris for a long time before it was redeveloped. It always had a ghostly feeling to it, so it seemed right for a ghost story."   

A different kind of ghost story

"In a lot of ghost stories, the ghost is viewed as the antagonist and it is the job of the hero to exorcise or vanquish the ghost to restore peace or normality back into their life. I didn't want to write that type of story. I wanted to write something more nuanced. The ghost and Starla do have a relationship and it is antagonistic, but there are also benefits to the relationship. The ghost gives my protagonist a sense of power and purpose in many ways. I kept writing scene after scene after scene between Starla and this ghost to try to get to the essence of what their relationship is."

"Etta, my ghost, is closely connected to the Crystal Beach Cyclone roller coaster, which was completed in 1927 and torn down in 1946 because it was just too scary. Not only was it frightening for the people who rode the ride, it was also frightening for people who sat and watched the ride. I did a lot of research on injuries, illnesses and, yes, death. There was one death on the roller coaster and that death very much inspired the character of Etta." 

Family matters

"I have a complex history with my family and with my parents. In some ways this book gives me opportunity to think about my childhood and my relationship with my parents in a very joyful and nostalgic way. One of my only joyful memories that I have about my dad is being on a ride we called the Octopus that I was too small for. I remember my father putting his arms around me so that I wouldn't be jostled out of the ride. I think a lot of memories are made in an amusement park." 

Don't let trauma win 

"One of the biggest rewards for me as a writer is, not only having the opportunity to share some of the trauma that I've experienced and witnessed, but also tp participate in the healing. It's put me in conversation with a lot of other people that have experienced trauma, which has been great. Trauma wins when we're isolated. Healing happens when people who have survived some sort of trauma get together and support and heal together." 

Amber Dawn's comments have been edited and condensed.