Interview by S L Coney
Some writers find that coping with difficult situations spurs their creativity while others can’t write a word. Right now, the United States is going through an unprecedented situation. Do you find yourself more creative, or less, and do you have any advice for writers struggling to create right now?
Great question. I personally have been struggling to write—it’s tough to focus when your life is in danger, when your kids are home from school, quarantined, and worried, when jobs and income are up in the air. I’ve been able to break through in smaller amounts, writing flash and micro-fiction, and then throwing my energy into my classes, editing, and other projects. When I wrote my novel, Breaker, I had grown out my beard, had long hair, and was on deadline to finish it by the end of the year. I took that pressure, that instability, that anxiety and threw it all into my novel, and wrote it in 25 days. That book was nominated for a Thriller Award. So if you can HARNESS that anxiety, uncertainty, and atmosphere I think you can succeed.
I know in the past you’ve helped students get into MFA programs, and you yourself came out of an MFA, what is your advice to students considering that route? Situations are different for everyone, is there ever a time when you think it’s not worth it?
Yes, good question. I got my MFA so I could teach, and then the market didn’t do what it was supposed to do. Adjunct rates were terrible, class sizes were growing, and when interviewing for FT jobs there were hundreds of applications for every position. I sent out 40 CVs a year for three years and eventually said, “Forget it, I’ll do my own thing.” Which I did, teaching at LitReactor.com, as well as my own classes at StoryvilleOnline.com. As far as CRAFT, I did learn a lot in my MFA, reading literary fiction that I would NOT have read on my own, and then infusing those voices into my genre work. It has made me a better author. BUT, I don’t think you need to spend $40,000 to get those lessons. I for sure think you should take SOME classes—seek out authors you love, study with them locally, online, at conferences, wherever you can find them. There ARE some great MFA programs out there, so if you have the time, money (or scholarships), and energy—by all means go for it. For me, I’m not sure if it was worth it in the end.
You’ve always been a staunch advocate for diversity, and it seems to me you’re very passionate about lifting up marginalized voices. Your current work in progress is set in Alaska and deals some with the native population, can you speak a bit about how you’re approaching that and the steps you’re taking to accurately represent the population? Thanks, yes, for sure, love this question. I absolutely support diversity and can see how a wider range of voices (marginalized as well as global POVs) made my work at Dark House Press and especially Gamut magazine so much better. Not only do we get more original stories—unique characters, different cultures, mythology that isn’t overused, etc.—but we tap into POVs and emotions that aren’t the same stories we constantly get in the USA. As far as my writing, the one rule I have is that when working with a diverse cast, I never speak FOR anyone that I’m not. As a SWM I have a POV for sure, but I never try to speak for characters about what it is like to be gay, Black, disabled, Muslim, etc. Why? Well, first, I don’t think it’s my place. And second, what the hell do I know, right? The places I feel more comfortable are speaking across universal truths—what it means to love, and to lose that love; what a family dynamic might be like; what fears we might have in the darkness. With this particular novel I’m doing two things—first, studying as much as I can about indigenous people, talking to friends in Alaska and the arctic, and second, striving to create a NEW world that isn’t really Barrow, Alaska, but a more fictional environment where I can create my own myths, legends, rules, and habits. When I see what China Mieville did with Perdido Street Station—that’s what I’m talking about.
There’s a very old debate on whether writing can be taught or not. Obviously, you believe that it can be taught, but do you think there’s a line between learning to write, and talent? If so, where is that line?
For sure. I think it can go both ways, too. I do believe people are born with certain talents—whether that’s playing sports, emotion and insight, or writing stories. At a very young age I loved to read, and in grade school I devoured every book I could find. I would read my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest condensed books, all of her Agatha Christie books, Nancy Drew when I finished the Hardy Boys. I won a spelling bee in fifth grade. Throughout high school, college, and beyond I was a huge reader, and loved to write. Early encouragement from teachers pushed me to keep writing. So, I do think certain people are born with gifts. What you DO with those gifts? I think that really will help to determine if you are a good author or a great author. So while I had some talent and desire at an early age, I also read and studied a lot. Got my MFA in 2012, but also took other classes before that. I do think that an “average” author can become a great author—with a lot of hard work. You just start out with a little bit less. You have to study more, read more, and really push to grow, evolve, and innovate. There is only one Michael Jordan, but there are plenty of NBA players that have satisfying, exciting, successful careers. Whatever your level—read, write, and study.
You’re a huge fan of A24 films, and I know both the The Witch and Hereditary are personal favorites. What were your formative influences, the films and books you read when you were young that still influence you today? Yes, I’m a huge fan of A24. They really inspire me, push me to think in visual and narrative terms that are beyond the same old plots, characters, and settings. I’d add Under the Skin, Enemy, and Ex Machina to those two you mentioned. Midsommar to a lesser degree. Recently, I watched A Ghost Story and it was a slow build, but wow, in the end it was intense. Early on I read nothing but Stephen King—so he’s a huge influence on my work. But along the way other voices had a big influence, and at pivotal points in my career. Everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to Haruki Murakami to China Mieville to Toni Morrison to Jeff VanderMeer. The beats in college, literary voices in my MFA, and then neo-noir and speculative authors from the last ten years or so. Contemporaries of mine like Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Evenson have played a large role in my development, as well as other voices like Livia Llewellyn, AC Wise, Damien Angelica Walters, and Kristi DeMeester. I grew up on horror, but also thrillers, and fantasy, science fiction, too. There are directors I’m drawn to—David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, as well as Eggers and Aster. As a child, it was all about the story—the storytelling, the immersion, the imagination required to transport myself to these strange places. That’s still an important part of my voice now.
I love your novella “Ring of Fire,” but I admit to being a little wary of it at first based on the concept—a horror story built around lust. It would be so easy to go wrong there. I often think about how we focus the lens in our fiction and how one out of focus line can set the wrong tone. How did you approach writing this story so we got the right message, and how many re-writes did it take?
Thank you! For sure. I knew when I was invited in to the seven deadly sins anthology that I’d get lust. Right away I had similar concerns to what you raised here. My first thought when pairing lust and horror was Hellraiser. And I love that movie, big fan of Clive Barker, but I didn’t want to reduce it to pain and pleasure, or to sexual fetishes. I was very aware of not wanting this to be a misogynistic or rapey story either. I had a concept in mind—this whole 100th monkeys concept—and wanted to figure out how my protagonist could be that catalyst for change, for that spontaneous evolution. But I knew he had to be a very bad man—he is the kind of person that has to change. And I had to hold back that information for a long time, to get you to LIKE him FIRST, while dropping in clues about his identity. I was very conscious of the Me Too movement, and knew that I could very easily alienate my readers with tone, focus, violence, and resolution. I struggled with this story for a LONG time. I watched a ton of films for tone, mood, imagery, and style—everything from the aforementioned A24 films to Neon Demon and Moon, as well as Brian Evenson’s novella, The Warren. My goal was for the disembodied voices and lists of items to help clue you in to the story, but very slowly. The main part of the story was a lot of isolation, and when it came to the lust part, that was actually a HUGE part of the protagonist’s journey. I would write a scene, and then back it up—too intense. I’d do it again, shift the focus, dial it back, be more abstract. I was very conscious of what came before and after, in every scene, especially the intense ones. And when it came to emotions, HOW to get there. Also, the ending was a surprise, the epilogue, but handing off the story like I did there, really empowers that secondary character, which IMO totally makes this story work. It was probably the most challenging story I’ve ever written. But it made the preliminary Bram Stoker ballot, so I feel pretty good about the results! LOL
We’ve seen both science fiction and fantasy rise in esteem, both regarded now in literary circles as having merit as literature, yet horror remains largely shunned, and the pieces that do get recognition are often relabeled as high-concept. Why do you think that is, and do you think it’ll ever change?
It’s tricky, right? I wonder if fantasy and science fiction have gotten more respect due to the complicated nature of world building, technology, and more detailed, layered plots. Not all horror does that. There is a lot of horror that is reduced to splatter, gore, jump scares in film, and the same old monsters and tropes. I do think that the “high-concept” horror that is coming out with A24 and others, as well as authors that I’ve mentioned above—VanderMeer, SGJ, Evenson, Lewellyn, Wise—helps to elevate the genre, or at least show viewers what is possible. When I look at the Best Horror of the Year, it’s quite often the stories that really go deep into the layers that work best for me—setting, character, story, history, plot, etc. But in a way that isn’t boring or dry. When I think of Kelly Robson’s “A Human Stain” it’s a gothic horror story, historical in many aspects, but so intense, so beautifully horrific, with an ending that just grabs you by the throat. You still have to have those key elements—terror (the suspense, the hints, the hidden) as well as the horror (the chaos, the reveal, the truth). How much gore you put in is up to you, but I think if we can get beyond that, and lean into the mythological, the psychological, the internal—we’ll succeed. My issues with Midsommar, for example, were the graphic moments that went on too long, that weren’t needed. Yes, a bit here and there. Whereas Hereditary, to me, showed much more restraint. It chose the moments and went there, but didn’t linger for too long. What’s the saying? “Violence is the last bastion of a weak mind.” Use it sparingly, and I think your audience will stay with you.
You often stress that a story has to have heart to really impact readers and that can be one of the hardest things, I think, for some writers to do because, in a way, it exposes us. What’s your advice to writers who are too afraid to show others their work, and what’s the best way for them to approach constructive criticism?
Great observation there about exposing ourselves. I was JUST talking to a student of mine, very talented, about her work, and pushing beyond stories into novels. I love her focus, I love the weirdness, I love the intensity. She was scared at times to reveal her “inner freak” to really GO THERE and let it all hang out—the weirdness, the sexuality, the violence, the desire, the hate, the love, the longing, the darkness, the uncanny. I love ALL of that. I feel that if you aren’t scaring yourself, if you aren’t a bit worried about what you’re putting out there, then you aren’t going far ENOUGH. I know—I feel you on that vulnerability. I was SO worried with “Ring of Fire,” for example. I’ve written a number of taboo, transgressive stories. But I always made sure that the bad guys—the rapists, the pedophiles, the misogynists—got what was coming to them, and ten times as bad. They suffered—the endings were earned (hopefully) and the journey was worth it, if I’ve done my job. With “Ring of Fire” he suffers for sure, but he’s also the necessary ingredient for change, essential. I feel that writing stories is very intimate, very personal—so when I get to work with authors, get to help them write short stories, or even deeper—these novels, I understand they are letting me into to a very special place, where they feel exposed, vulnerable, and uncertain. It’s an honor to be allowed in to that process. As far as the criticism, I think it’s important to know what kind of story you are trying to write, what genre and tone, and then fight for it every step of the way. Only YOU know what you want, so take in the advice, but ignore anything that doesn’t serve your story. I mention Stephen King and “all things serve the beam.” Same concept. In my MFA my thesis director called out my novel as not good enough, and it crushed me. So I set it aside and studied literary fiction with him. Good call, but it was devastating at the time. The MINUTE I was done with the MFA, I took the first half, and then wrote 40,000 words in a week, the second half, and that book (Disintegration) got me an agent and a two-book deal. The second book, Breaker, was a Thriller Award nominee. But I had to fight for it. I never lost faith in it. And that book goes to some strange, dark places.
What’s the most painful rejection you ever received, and what convinced you to push through and keep going?
Great question. Probably the MFA story I just told above about my novel Disintegration. First semester with my first professor—everything went great. Second semester, him asking the class if anyone would keep reading, raise your hand, and nobody did? Crushed me. That and him saying it wasn’t “thesis material” (not good enough). I was invited in to an anthology, and turned in a story I loved, the editor did not get it. He wanted to change the ending. Terrible ideas. I ended up withdrawing and even sent in a second story, but it didn’t work out. I also submitted a story to an open call that I was encouraged to be a part of, a specific graphic horror anthology, and got rejected. For the novel, I pushed on because I thought it was great! I loved the book. I just held on to the first professor’s comments, and clung to my other successes at the time (stories published, nominations for awards, long-listed for best of the year anthologies) and kept going. The best revenge, or best way to cure a broken heart is to find new love elsewhere, right? So the first story I mentioned here, was “The Offering on the Hill” which got into Chiral Mad 3, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. The second story here, was “Battle Not With Monsters” which got into Cemetery Dance, out later this summer. I work hard on my stories—years of workshops, classes, and growth—so if a story is working for me (and with 150 published I can usually recognize when my stories have potential) I do everything I can, and then send it out to the world. And then I never back down. I rarely edit them again. Here and there I’ve made small edits with editors once the work has been accepted, but most of the time it’s minimal. Twelve years of submitting, with 800 rejections, you learn to survive it. You get thick skin. LOL
I don’t know about you, but I’m really hard to scare, at least when it comes to horror fiction. For you, what makes a story really scary?
It’s tough, right? I say in my classes the three hardest things to do are scare somebody, make them laugh, and turn them on. Why? It’s all so subjective. For one person the creature you show may be terrifying—everything from flies and snakes to demons and zombies—to somebody else, silly and stupid. We all laugh at different jokes, for one person it’s hilarious, for another nothing. And what turns us on? I mean, it’s all over the place, right? Is it physical, mental, spiritual—is it dominance or submission—or something else, like kindness, vulnerability, or tenderness? For me, and horror, it’s often the unknown. In film, as mentioned above, Hereditary scared me so many times—the pole, the spiders, the fire, the corners of the rooms, etc. But I really cared about the people FIRST, and so the horror that came, it was something I didn’t want to see happen to them. In books, it’s weird stuff—mirrors, the periphery of my vision, going insane, the unknown, the unknowable, the unstoppable. It’s the unseen creatures in Bird Box, it’s the violence and destruction of the Crawler in Annihilation, it’s the subtle possession of Namaah in Come Closer, it’s the weirdness of Perdido Street Station. So with the supernatural, there are so many places you can go—both with big brush strokes and universal truths, to the up close and personal depictions of body horror, mental depreciation, and the eternity of suffering. Sometimes realistic horror is even worse. In Jack Ketchum’s book, The Girl Next Door, I felt complicit. I was sick to my stomach, it was so hard to watch. I cried, I thought I’d vomit, he really manipulated me. So, kudos to him! I try to blend those elements in my horror stories—the horror of mankind, and the uncanny, unknowable spectacle of evil. I try to grab the reader across three planes—the physical plane with descriptions, atmosphere, tone, mood, and setting; the emotional plane with heart, longing, vulnerability, sympathy, empathy, and loss; and the mental plane with insight, philosophy, spirituality, and more complex concepts. If I can get all three humming—I have a shot and getting you to feel what I want you to feel, to horrify and scare you, to unsettle and disturb you. That’s the kind of horror that really gets to me, too. It’s hard to be original, but if you can surprise me, if I can surprise YOU, and the ending and story is EARNED, then that also can go a long way towards creating a visceral experience.
You often talk about how we have to care about the characters in a story, but there’s been a huge pushback when it comes to having likable characters, especially if the character is a woman, can you talk a little about the differences there, and how to write an unlikable character that we still care about?
It’s tricky. I mentioned my protagonist in “Ring of Fire” above as an example. I think it’s a balancing act. The reader wants to know ASAP if they are supposed to root FOR or AGAINST a specific character. Then they want to go along for the ride, WHILE they try to figure out the mystery, looking for clues, seeking the truth. As readers we want to show how smart we are, figure it out, and have some sort of control. We don’t like to be manipulated, but that’s what a good author does, right? “Look over here, at this shiny object,” while doing something nasty and unsettling with the OTHER hand, just out of sight over here in the shadows. I mean, especially in horror, right? But also in other genres. Look at the truth behind Mulholland Drive, or Oldboy, or The Girl on the Train. We can have unlikable characters, but there has to be SOMETHING for us to cling to. Look at Dexter, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal—likeable or unlikable? There are moments in each story where we find empathy and sympathy. What is their back story? Were they always this way? What are their rules and guidelines now? What is their morality? All are killers. And yet…we root for them at times. I explored this a lot in my novel, Breaker. I wondered if serial killers were born or made, or both? Is it DNA and genetics, or is it the abuse, and treatment by parents, family, and community? And can that fate be changed? My protagonist was a mix of several misunderstood characters—John Coffey from The Green Mile, Lenny from Of Mice and Men, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Leon from The Professional. I like to play in gray areas, to show you something and then change it. I mean, aren’t we all capable of violence? What would it take for you to kill somebody? Would you defend your lover, your children, your pet? I’ve been in a handful of fights in my life—I’m a pacifist, believe it or not. Violence begets violence, right? But in a few situations I stepped up to defend a friend, to protect the vulnerable, to stop the innocent from persecution. I’m no superhero, but if you look at the likable and unlikable characters in your stories, there are so many shades of gray. Show the quiet before the storm, the innocence before the corruption, the humanity before the monstrous. It’s a tough thing to do, a dance, a balancing act, but done well, with subtlety, with thought and skillful execution, you can get your audience to root for just about anyone.
About the interviewer: S. L. Coney obtained a master’s degree in clinical psychology before abandoning academia to pursue a writing career. The author has ties to South Carolina, and roots in St. Louis. Coney’s work has appeared in St. Louis Noir, Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and Gamut Magazine.