This interview was written for Challenge 10 of The Next Great Horror Writer contest (Episode 146).
You wouldn’t write horror if you weren't a fan. How would you describe yourself as a horror addict?
I'm a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to horror. I always had an affinity for the macabre—Addams Family has such a special place in my heart—but slasher movies scared me so much that I thought I must hate horror. Still, I always had a soft spot for monsters. Vampires, werewolves, and other paranormal fiction drew my interest, but I steered clear of things that were advertised as "scary". Only in college did I branch out and explore media that were typically associated with horror, starting with the Universal monster movies and moving on to Alfred Hitchcock. I am still entrenched in Gothic horror like Dracula and Edgar Allen Poe, but my tastes are modernizing with shows like Stranger Things and American Horror Story.
What separates horror from other genres?
No matter the subject—whether hauntings, serial killers, or whatever Stephen King dreams up next—horror requires a sense of dread. The best horror creators exert a push and pull on the reader that other genres don't touch. There is terror of both the unknown and the inevitable. The reader knows that the danger is lurking, just not when it will attack. Horror uses the dark human fascination with danger, death, and violence and pairs it with the safety we feel as an observer. That tightrope walk of fear and relief that keeps you in suspense characterizes the genre.
During the selection process, Emz called you "monster girl" because you once taught the class Werewolves, Zombies, and Why We're Afraid of the Dark. What was that class about?
I taught the history of monsters in popular culture. Each week, the class studied a different monster—mummies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, etc.—and examined how representations changed over time through books, movies, and television. It isn't hard to see that Bram Stoker's Dracula is vastly different from the vampires in Twilight. My class asked, "What changed in society that spurred that transformation?" There are similar themes across cultures for what makes a "monster" and common human fears lie at the root of those traits. Taboos surrounding desecration of the dead, sexuality, science, and cannibalism form the foundation for many monsters. As those taboos have shifted through history, the adaptations of monsters have evolved. The material was dark, but I had fun finding the ways that monsters have wormed their way into our everyday lives.
A lot of your writing involves monsters. With so many paranormal books on the market, how do you keep your work in the genre fresh?
The best stories, in my opinion, pay homage to the material that inspired them, but find a way to turn expectations on their head. Especially with the faithful audience that loves vampires and werewolves, some tradition is expected. At the same time, there is the risk of falling into clichés. I think holding the balance between old and new requires love for the genre and the willingness to play with existing tropes. Forcing a traditional mythos to interact with a new situation is a sure-fire way to spur creativity. Changes in time, setting, and circumstance all reveal new ideas. Ultimately, it comes down to experimentation, failure, and continued trials. I keep putting one word after another until something good falls out.
How is your writing style unique?
I like to play mind games with my writing. When the reader can't know if the narrator is sane or trustworthy, it adds a new dimension to the story. For that reason, most of my writing has a psychological element, where the characters can't trust themselves and don't know where the real danger hides. My interest in that comes from my own experiences with mental illness. Fear and confusion are feelings that are painfully real to me and I exploit that first-hand knowledge. This gives my writing an emotional focus. I don’t just write about what happens to the characters, but also how they react to it physically, mentally, and emotionally.
What skills do you admire in the other contestants of the Next Great Horror Writer Contest?
The contest is full of talent and all the writers have strengths that I envy. Jonathan is flexible. He has met the theme of each challenge—from humor to romance to suspended terror—with skill and enthusiasm. Sumiko writes visceral horror, like her character description, Cerebus, with a horrifying physicality that scares the spit out of me. Naching rules the opposite side of the spectrum, using suspense and dread to full effect. Jess is a mistress of imagery and detail, not just in her character description, Silt and Bone, which I loved, but in all of her writing. The excerpt from her musical short story, Scordatura, cast a vivid scene that left me wanting more.
The best part about meeting these writers is that, even though we're competing, there is an atmosphere of collaboration. Everyone encourages each other to submit their best work and that has created a fierce competition.
What is your writing process?
I spend probably ninety percent of my time daydreaming. When I'm walking, driving, cooking, while I'm supposed to be doing my day job… My ideas grow during those times. The initial imaginative process is organic, but after that burst of creativity, I write like an engineer (there's even a spreadsheet involved). I think that people are wired to enjoy stories that are told in a certain way, with turns and twists and action all at the right time. Some writers are natural storytellers and those writing elements come to them with ease. I'm more comfortable designing it beforehand, so I plan how the story will progress before I start a serious draft. I create an outline then fill out scenes from the skeleton. At the same time, I maintain a separate document that I call "the sandbox", which houses orphaned scenes and drabbles. I don't necessarily use everything from that, but I pull from it if I find a suitable place for the content. Once I finish a rough draft, the true heavy lifting starts. That's the editing process. For me, editing takes the same amount of time as drafting, if not longer. The polishing is worth it though, because better ideas spawn from rereading old work.
What have you learned from the Next Great Horror Writer Contest?
The competition has stretched creative muscles that I didn't know I had. Writing with short deadlines and even shorter word counts put me way beyond my comfort zone. A tactic that worked for me was to produce a wide range of options and then polish one that I felt stood apart from the rest. I made a dozen monster stories before I decided to use The Pet. I've found that this helped me produce original ideas more quickly. Once I got the first few run-of-the-mill thoughts out of my system, better ideas sifted to the surface.
What's next for you as a writer?
A million things. The Next Great Horror Contest has supplied me with a few new projects. My winning character description, Changeling—about a mother who discovers her teenage daughter has been replaced with a fairy—grew into a longer work that I will be fleshing out in the near future. My second novel is about halfway done, so that's my next priority, but I'll also be looking for anthologies and other calls for short submissions. The most exciting change for me is that I'll be writing full time soon. By the time this challenge airs, I will have left my day job, which feels a little like jumping off a cliff without looking to see if there is any water at the bottom. I'm excited and terrified, but mostly, I'm determined to succeed.