Hill novelist and Philadelphia Water Department PR manager Joanne Dahme.

Hill novelist and Philadelphia Water Department public affairs manager Joanne Dahme.

by Victoria Brownworth

The New York Times has called Joanne Dahme’s novels for young adults “engaging and absorbing” and noted she captures mise-en-scène with a compelling clarity, often creating worlds that are “dark and scary.”

What better praise for a writer of mystery and horror fiction for the tween and teen set when “dark and scary” is exactly what young readers most look for? Her latest novel, “Sea Fog,” takes place in Ocean City at the Jersey shore. It follows a teenage au pair and her young charge, who has been abandoned by his father and ignored by his alcoholic mother, as they hit the arcades on the boardwalk and fall into a dystopian world that beckons to the disillusioned and disconnected. The novel has been nominated for an Independent Press Award and a Moonbeam Award, both for horror.

Like many of her characters, Dahme leads a bit of a double life. By day the Northwest Philly native is one of the movers and shakers in Philadelphia city government and was urged to run for mayor in the recent race. By night, she’s a popular novelist.

As general manager of public affairs for the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), Dahme also currently leads the Watersheds Program, which is moving Philadelphia into sustainability for water conservation. She also serves on the board of the Delaware Estuary Program, which is focused on improving the Delaware River.

A wife, mother, avid runner and dog lover (she and her husband have two young rescue pit bulls), by night Dahme writes those compelling novels for young adults. A tall, slender, athletic 57, Dahme has always had a love for the city and its environs as well as for writing. A graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School (“I loved it,” she says, enthusiastically), she holds a degree in civil engineering from Villanova University and a masters in Journalism from Temple University. She has lived on the verdant and semi-woodsy border between Roxborough and Chestnut Hill for more than 30 years.

Dahme’s focus on her own writing started in earnest well after college.“I didn’t really start to write until I signed up for a creative writing course hosted by Community College at the St. Peter’s School in Queen Village in the early ‘80s.” Dahme says one class led to another, she got hooked on writing fiction and joined a local writing group in Germantown comprised of other women mystery writers.

Dahme’s passion for writing compelled her to take a sabbatical from PWD to get another masters in creative writing from Temple, graduating in 2001. Prior to that she’d been publishing short stories in anthologies. But novellas and novels have been her metier since, most of them set in the local area.

Her thesis novel, “Contagion,” is set in 19th century Philadelphia in the midst of a typhoid fever epidemic. The novel features a young heroine married to a corrupt man whose desire for power may put the entire city at risk. Kirkus called the book a “gripping read” while Booklist said, “The elements of disease and bioterrorism lend an interesting contemporary perspective to the story.”

“Contagion” features the original Philadelphia Waterworks as well as Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking Kelly Drive, which is also the setting for Dahme’s novel “Tombstone Tea.”

“One only needs to stroll through Laurel Hill Cemetery among the tombstones and proud mausoleums,” Dahme explained, “that beg one not to forget the people who lie beneath to feel the possibilities of a story there. I strive to make place equivalent to a character in the story.”

She is also currently “working with my public affairs team to bring the state of our water and sewer infrastructure to the forefront. We have an old system, as do all older cities. We are striving to replace about 30 miles of water main a year to reduce the number of water main breaks, which can be damaging and disruptive. But to replace more than 30 miles, we will need to increase our rates and our customers’ monthly bills. This can be difficult for a lot of our customers. So our challenge is balancing revitalizing our current system while maintaining affordability.”

As for her next book, Dahme is “outlining a multi-generational story that focuses on the mothers and daughters, starting at the beginning of the 20th century to the present.”

Dahme’s novels are all available at local area bookstores like Big Blue Marble or at Amazon.