The event will take place at the Crown and Crow in downtown D.C. Per the organizers …
Join storytellers, musicians, costume enthusiasts, tarot readers, magicians, and more for a tribute to a true DMV original: Edgar Allan Poe.
Your ticket gets you into the two-act show and access to drink specials, private tarot readings, and other specials from our partners.
While I’d be excited to attend as just a guest, I will be participating as one of the performers! I will be reading an excerpt from my short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes,'” which appears in Quoth the Raven: A Contemporary Reimagining of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe. My story puts a modern twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and while I’ll be leaving out magic tricks (can’t do them) and dance (I can dance, but not while I do a reading), I will be putting my all into telling this macabre tale.
I’d love it if you came to the event and supported many great local artists and performers! Tickets are available online. You can also get a special discount with the promo code TAROT.
Happy Pride! The entire month of June is a recognition, celebration, and honoring of LGBTQIA individuals. While there are many ways to celebrate, I plan to spend part of June reading books by LGBTQIA authors.
One of my 2019 resolutions was to read at least one book per month that someone recommended to me. I put out a request on Twitter for recommended reads by queer authors. One user recommended White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, which is on its way to my front door as we speak. I look forward to reading that one!
As far as my own recommendations, here are some books I’ve enjoyed that were written by LGBTQIA authors. I recommend them for Pride month and, of course, for any month.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado — a fascinating collection of feminist horror. My favorite story was “Inventories.”
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay — another great collection of short fiction. My favorite story was “Water, All Its Weight.”
Dry by Augusten Burroughs — Burroughs is one of my favorite authors, and you really can’t go wrong with any of his books.
I first met author Steve Stred last year, when we followed each other after liking each other’s replies on a friend’s Twitter thread. He offered me an advance copy of of his early 2019 short story collection, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, in exchange for an honest review. I was immediately struck by how visceral his storytelling was, and how much it scared me. I don’t scare easily in print form, so when I read a story that truly creeped me out, I knew I’d read something special.
I felt the same way when I read an advance copy of The Stranger, Stred’s upcoming release (out June 1, but available for pre-order now). I asked Stred if he’d like to have a virtual chat with me about his writing, and he was kind enough to do so. Read on for why forests are a draw for dark tales, what separates Canadian horror from American horror, and thoughts on triggers and sensitivity in the genre.
Sonora: When did you first start writing? Tell us about your early work versus your more recent pieces. Have there been any major changes? What’s stayed the same?
Steve: I started out writing some short fiction and poetry in high school — so about 20 years ago. Back then it was more of a passing thing. I loved it but I had no real direction and it was more about me following a desire to write.
Fast forward and in 2010 I really got the bug and started to develop my first novel Invisible. I had the basic premise and the ending really locked in place but through a series of events it kept getting delayed and delayed. I kept working on it and really finished it up in 2016.
At that time I found a passion to write and release stuff. So I worked on my first short story “For Balder Walks,” then developed a few more — “The Fence,” “Time Out Noose” and “Edge of the Woods.” Then as life progressed I wrote “Jim and Mr. Tross.” I got to the point where I submitted and contacted different folks and got some great advice.
Now the biggest change, I think at least when I look back is the ability to edit myself, but also have the story flow easily. Working with David Sodergren so much has helped me beyond anything, really. He is ruthless with line/copy editing, so I figure if I can give him less work on his end, I’m being more efficient and a more effective writer.
Sonora: Do you gravitate more towards long or short fiction? Do you know when you sit down to write how long a piece will be?
Steve: It’s an interesting question — because I’ve come to a cross roads with my work. I think it’s more of an enlightenment, truthfully. I’ve had one long read (Invisible) and my second comes out June 1st (The Stranger). I have one more novel planned this year (Piece of Me) which is completely written but I need to go through it one more time, then send off to Sodergren and fix what he finds wrong. But going forward everything will be novella length or collections. It’s just how my writing mind works. I can’t describe it other than thinking about writing a novella makes me happy, whereas trying to force a full length does not.
Sonora: You also wrote a collection of poetry, having been inspired by Erin Al-Mehairi’s Breathe. Breathe. Tell us about that. What was it like writing poetry versus prose?
Steve: Yes! God, I was a pretentious snob before reading that, haha! Erin has been so helpful and always supportive and I really, really like to support those who support me. In this case though, I believe she sent me a copy as a birthday gift! When I read it I was blown away. She just has this gift of absolutely decimating your mind with the way her words jump off the page. I would read a poem and I felt like I’d read a novel. The imagery she created was incredible.
I don’t think I can ever match what she did, not by a long shot, but it kicked me in the butt and made me step back and look at my previous history with writing poetry as well as the joy and impact it’d had on my life. So I gave it a shot!
It was a weird process to go back to writing poetry. I don’t think I have a very large vocabulary so I really had to push myself to not sound like a 75 year old, white male rapper who used the same word to rhyme over and over again, haha! I also worked hard to tell a story without telling a story but implying a story and it was tough. Erin’s collection is a must read.
I wrote Dim the Sun with the goal to also help raise some funds for my buddy Rob Derman, who is an amateur athlete. Right now, while writing this, I’m not sure what his future holds as the sport of Skeleton in Canada is going through a shakeup, with the closing of one of the training tracks.
Sonora: Your latest release, The Stranger, is a summer vacation tale with several haunting twists. Tell us what went into writing it.
Steve: Well, surprise twist — I like to write stories set in the woods! I think a big part of my constant theme with Mother Nature, more specifically the woods, is from where I grew up and how much time I spent in the forest and in the mountains. I love the mountains, but I’m also scared to death of them. Too many things lurk that you can’t see. When I go there, I’m in their home. They have the advantage and that scares me.
I wrote it after being inspired on a camping trip and spotted a unique looking smudge mark or burn mark on the cement bin around the camp fire. Coupled with the sights from far above on some plane flights and I just let my imagination go where it wanted!
Sonora: A major theme in The Stranger is the monstrosity of racism. What was it like writing this story? How was it inspired by the current political climate? How was it inspired by your own experiences?
Steve: Oh lord, haha! You write something and then you don’t want to talk about it! For those unaware, I grew up in Canada, in a very small town in BC, which is the farthest west province in our country. My father was from northern BC, my mother from the town I grew up in. There’s a generational thing that casual racism seems to occur and I found that it would pop up time and time again. I don’t believe some of my relatives are straight forward racists but these little comments you’d hear at family gatherings, whether in jokes or whatever just kept getting too me. Even when I was young. In the afterword I mention how I overheard a joke that was very poor and crude and repeated in front of my mom. She was livid.
I just felt I needed to write this book but also early on, by having a Native American creation type tale involved, which I don’t think is a spoiler at all to say that, I needed to tell a bit of the other side of it. The privileged aspect I guess. I really struggled with writing it. I also typically don’t swear a lot in my writing. I did in The Girl Who Hid in the Trees and it just felt odd haha! So I worked really hard to show disdain for a specific group of people but not go the Tarantino route of expletive after expletive.
Our political climate is usually very different from the US stuff, but funnily enough, we had a guy come onboard to run for Premiere of our province who follows a very similar path as the current sitting President down south. Unfortunately he won our election so now we kind of have to hold our breath and wait and see the damage he wants to bring in.
Sonora: In writing about racism as a white, straight, cis-man, you talk about the how and why of what you wanted to accomplish in both the foreword and afterword. This isn’t something I see a lot from other authors, and it was nice to see in your piece. Do you think more authors, especially authors from privileged demographics, should talk about this when they write similar stories?
Steve: I had to write the foreword and afterword. I wanted it there as a warning for readers. In the afterword I did say that with the story coming from me (from my perspective at least) people may just take it with a grain of salt. I hope they don’t, but they might. I myself have no triggers, but that’s me. I usually write dark horror and I didn’t want to surprise anyone who snagged this and who maybe loved Wagon Buddy or YURI and then started reading and had to stop because they weren’t expecting the subject matter. So I wanted to write the foreword to let folks know that there was some difficult themes ahead. I have a whole environmental/human footprint narrative in the story as well, but at the end of the day if someone writes me a 1 star review and says “this guy sucks he wanted me to think about how much garbage I create or I need to recycle,” I’ll smile, because I don’t think you’ll see that. But the racism/bigotry stuff is a tough, tough area and I wanted to make sure I was upfront with it and to make sure people wouldn’t go into the story oblivious to what was about to happen.
The afterword I also felt I needed to do. I just wanted to lay things out there so people knew how I felt and it may sound a bit cowardly, but I wanted to protect myself and let people know I’m no Malcolm (main character in The Stranger). I mention it in the afterword but Kealan Patrick Burke gave me some great advice and I took it to heart. I knew this was a story I needed to write but I knew it was a story that I might have to defend myself about writing a bit and that’s fine, but I wanted to make sure people knew my intentions were genuine and my hope for what readers took from it was purposeful.
As for others doing it — I think it would be fantastic to see it when the subject matter suggests we should. If it’s a creature feature that’s just gore and death, well, I think we know it was written with some fun behind the scenes!
As I side note — I wish more authors would write an afterword. I absolutely love reading about where they got the inspiration for the story. Even if it’s something as mundane as ‘I was playing with my son in his sandbox’ (which was where I got the inspiration for one of my upcoming 2020 releases FYI), I want to read about it!
Sonora: You also hired a sensitivity reader for The Stranger. I’ve seen a lot of arguments for and against sensitivity readers from many different voices. Have you worked with a sensitivity reader before? Do you think hiring sensitivity readers should be common practice?
Steve: Oh man, the sensitive reader thing shows just how out of touch with a lot of things I am! I honestly didn’t know that was a thing, haha! I had written most of the story and messaged KPB. He mentioned I should get a sensitive reader and make sure what I had written was in line and not offside. So I put out a call on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had two people contact me and I was just not sure. I received a message from J.H. Moncrieff who’s been super helpful as well with my writing and she said that I’d need a sensitive reader and that typically they can be very tough. Then I was contacted by Cassandra [Chaput] and we hit it off. I told her upfront — if I’ve done things wrong, tell me. Please don’t be worried about my feelings and if I’ve done it poorly I’d scrap a bunch of it and start again. And she was fantastic. She gave great feedback and really made all of the negatives she’d found as positives and constructive. Couldn’t have asked for a better beta-reader, let alone a sensitive reader. So my first experience was a good one!
As for others using it — I think it’d be an ideal practice if the story needed it. As an example (purely made up here) but if a story had a significant story line involving sexual assault, I’d think it’d be prudent to maybe find a sensitive reader who works in the care side of that world to help make sure things are written correctly but also in a manner that doesn’t detract from the story.
Sonora: Some readers and writers argue that sensitivity readers (and, related, trigger warnings) are especially unnecessary for horror, as the idea of horror is to disturb you. What is your response to those individuals? And, as someone who wrote a horror story (and in my opinion, a damn good one) and hired a sensitivity reader, what would you share about that experience in terms of how it affected your writing?
Steve: Thank you! That’s a tough question. I think trigger warnings are a good thing, but I personally don’t need them. I hope that doesn’t sound insensitive! Everyone reads things differently and everyone comes from very different backgrounds and what may affect one person may not another. For me, I think if the story contained a lot of animal abuse/deaths and/or infant/toddler abuse/deaths, I’d want to know going in. If it was a specific part of the story and was a key aspect, I’d be fine with it, even though I’d cringe a bunch, but if anything is written specifically for gratuitous reasons or shock value, I’m not on board. I also understand the argument — horror is written to horrify us, to make us pull up our feet and turn on the lights. There’s a difference between being scared and being personally affected and I think that’s a big differentiator for me.
Sonora: The Stranger features scary things happening to a vacationing family at the hands of a vengeful wood spirit. Your last release, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, also features violent monsters in the woods. What draws you to the forest as a setting for horror?
Steve: As I mentioned earlier, the thing that’s always drawn me into the woods has been the idea that I’m in its territory, its world. Where I grew up the forest came pretty close up to the back of our house. We cleared it out a number of years ago, but having a forest to play in and a mountain as a back drop was always really amazing but also scared me too no end. We had Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and a variety of random animals that would trek through the back of our place. We had chickens and fruit trees so there was always something that drew them down from higher up in the mountain.
In the middle of the forest in our back yard was a massive slab of a rock, so that was always our base of operations, our meeting point.
My grandparents lived just down the street from us and my grandpa used to have a trap line and when he was younger he used to go on horseback up the mountains with some of the native population to go hunting. So the mountains and the forest have always been a place I grew up in but also a place that creeped me the hell out!
Additionally I’ve always loved movies set in the woods with creepy characters. I mean two of my favourite movies ever are Predator and Harry and the Henderson’s. While both are at different ends of the spectrum — both are based on creatures in the woods. So it’s always been a big draw for me.
Sonora: What is the creepiest forest you’ve ever visited?
Steve: Easily, the forest behind our house. I’ve never travelled to any of the exotic forests around the world like J.H. Moncrieff has and she’s got some fantastic blog posts regarding her travels, but the forest behind our house where I grew up was both the single greatest place where my imagination went wild, but also the scariest place I visited. The second creepiest would be the stretch of forest between the end of our road through past the garbage dump.
That forest has inspired so many of my stories — “Edge of the Woods,” “The Call,” “Eaten,” and even “The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.” One of my 2020 releases is also inspired by the forest behind our house as well. The number of times we would play in the woods and we’d pretend to be chased by a giant beast of whatever, I mean those moments directly impacted me and it comes out in my writing. Hell, Invisible is 50% a beast chasing a man as he drives on a winding road through a forest!
Sonora: Do you notice any differences between Canadian horror and American horror? Canadian and American audiences?
Steve: I actually do notice one specific difference, but it just may be me looking for it! I find American horror always has a defined place where the story happens. It’ll be “Boston,” or “New York” or a small town somewhere, whereas I find most of the horror writers I read who are Canadian seem to be a bit more elusive as to the exact location things play out. I personally never try to have an exact place. I do it for two reasons — I want it to be more relatable for the individual reading it — they can picture a place near them easier if I don’t specifically say the location, but also so I don’t have to worry about screwing up a specific detail hahaha! I won’t have someone saying “WAIT A MINUTE — THAT STREET DOESN’T EXIST!” Ideally you read that all caps section in Jim Gaffigan’s voice!
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Steve: The people who believe in me. The horror community is a fantastic community. It’s amazing and I’m so blessed to have met so many folks who want to help and support and promote. My family has been so amazing. And of course, my son. I write stories and release them, so that one day (I hope at least) he’ll see our book shelf with my books and be inspired himself.
I had a blog post before where I said I’ll probably never be a best seller and that’s fine. I still stand by that statement, but my sentiment was more about the fact that I’m not writing with the sole purpose of seeing a shiny gold star by my release on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, that would be amazing — but not getting one isn’t going to stop me from writing and releasing the stories I want to tell.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Steve: Is there really someone on this planet who doesn’t know who my favourite author is? Haha!
For those who have somehow missed it — my favourite author is Andrew Pyper. He’s written some truly stunning works, he’s Canadian and he’s been so amazing whenever I’ve messaged him. I’m currently celebrating all things Pyper with PYPER-MAY-NIA and using the hashtag #pypermaynia
I’m also a massive Stephen King fan. Huge Joe Hill, Ania Ahlborn and J.H. Moncrieff fan. As for my other must read authors: David Sodergren, Justin M. Woodward, Andrew Cull, Joseph Sale, Joe Zito, Mason McDonald, Jonathan Janz and Hunter Shea would really round that list out. There’s just so many amazing authors right now!
As for some of my favourite books, well Andrew Pyper really dominates that haha! The Homecoming, The Wildfire Season, The Only Child, The Demonologist, The Damned, and The Lost Girls all are stunning. I’m currently reading The Trade Mission and still have a few more of his on the TBR. Loved Tamer Animals from Woodward, Now Comes the Darkness from Zito, The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot from Sodergren, Bones and Remains from Cull, The Art of Racing in the Rain from Garth Stein, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave by Moncrieff, Brother and The Devil Crept In by Ahlborn. So much goodness.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Steve: Good lord what a question. If you’ve followed along with me at all, you’ll have come across me discussing this. I like to get everything prepped and prepared well in advance.
So currently on the go;
Ritual — Novella, release date Oct 2019. Stage — 60% through final read through, then off to Sodergren for edits.
Piece of Me — Novel, release date Dec 2019. Stage — I need to read through one more time completely, then off to Sodergren. This tale is set in the same world as my short stories “For Balder Walks” and “Poppa?”
Untitled — Novella, release date Feb-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and tweak the ending, then off for edits.
The One That Knows No Fear — Novella, release date June-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and adjust a few spots. Then off for edits.
456 Blatchford Drive — Novella/Possible Anthology. Release date Oct 2020. Stage — I need to get my butt in gear and contact a few more folks and see what I can do to get this off the ground or if I’m doing it alone.
Then I’m also prepping a short story collection for 2020/2021 release tentatively still titled The Night Crawls In and a poetry collection hopefully for 2020/2021 release as well.
I am always on the go and always blocking out when and where things will fall, so some of 2020 may change depending on a few things!
Steve Stred is an up-and-coming Dark, Bleak Horror author.
Steve is the author of the novel Invisible, the novellas Wagon Buddy, Yuri and Jane: the 816 Chronicles and two collections of short stories; Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery and Left Hand Path: 13 More Tales of Black Magick, the dark poetry collection Dim the Sun and his most recent release was the coming-of-age, urban legend tale The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.
On June 1st, 2019 his second full length novel, The Stranger will be welcomed to the world.
Steve is also a voracious reader, reviewing everything he reads and submitting the majority of his reviews to be featured on Kendall Reviews.
Steve Stred is based in Edmonton, AB, Canada and lives with his wife, his son and their dog OJ.
My first novel, Please Give, follows a woman named Beth who second-guesses almost everything she does, both at work and at home. Even the most innocuous sentence is subject to debriefing in Beth’s mind, and she constantly worries she’s said the wrong thing to her roommate, her friends, her boyfriend, and especially her higher-ups.
When Evelyn, my editor, sent the manuscript back to me, she praised the way I’d written a character suffering from anxiety and depression. She wrote, “Unusual in contemporary fiction, Beth’s anxiety is an innate character trait, one that helps and hurts her, and one that isn’t magically ‘fixed’ by finding love or a new job prospect. It occurs to me that it’s possible you didn’t set out to write a character with anxiety and depression — that that’s just who Beth is, and you wrote her as you saw her.”
Evelyn was 99% right — I didn’t set out to write a character with anxiety. However, I wrote Beth as I saw her because in my mind, the way Beth acted every day — the second guessing, the panic, the apologies, and the agony that came with it all — was normal.
I have always been a nervous person. When I was four or five years old, I accidentally ripped my mom’s pink beer coozie. My father and brother joked that I’d get in trouble. It was nothing malicious and nothing that would’ve upset an average child. I, however, broke down in tears. I panicked that I would be in trouble and that I’d hurt my mother’s feelings, having destroyed something she loved. I sobbed and told my mom that I was sorry that I’d ripped her coozie.
Reactions like this were normal to me, and panic became normalized in my mind. Being worried was normal and okay. It was okay to break down and cry at my desk when I got a D on my math test in 6th grade. It was okay to convince myself in 8th grade that a girl who heard me say something mean about her was going to shoot me on the last day of school. The girl never threatened me, never did anything except be rightfully upset at what I said (because it was mean), but hey, it was going to happen, and I was so convinced that when my dad told me he couldn’t wait for me to see our new house in North Carolina, I thought to myself, Too bad I won’t get to see it.
When it didn’t happen, I was relieved. I could set it aside beneath my regular worries about grades and friends and my weight. I’d gotten through it so easily that it was nothing at all when, in 11th grade, I overheard a senior boy who didn’t like me say that on the last day of school, he’d punch me in the mouth. In my mind, the last day of school meant he would shoot me. After exams, I walked outside, steeling myself for yet another imagined death. Nothing happened. I shrugged it off and saw Finding Nemo with my friends, as we’d planned. Everything was normal.
When I was in high school, anti-depressants were spoken of for just that: depression. If someone had anxiety, it was in the form of mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, or being institutionalized. It wasn’t crying over grades or imagining ways one would die, and it certainly wasn’t someone like me who could worry and still do things. I could still graduate with honors, still get into graduate school on a scholarship, still work jobs and receive praise for my swiftness and attention to detail.
People loved how thorough I was. People still do. My eagle eye, honed by reading code and emails three or four times before pressing Send with a racing pulse, is a point of pride. My memory and organization skills, honed by thinking the same worried thoughts and remembering the same terrible mistakes over and over into a never-ending spiral, have been called iron-clad. A gigabyte of memory — viruses and all.
I’m smart. I like to read. I’m organized and I work fast. I can hyper-focus on things like writing and produce, produce, produce. These are things I do whether or not I’m worrying, but they’ve been perfected by my worried state of being. Why would I do anything to temper that perfection?
As I spent more time on social media, I noticed more people talking about anxiety. It was usually stories of people who couldn’t speak, people who couldn’t get out of bed because they were so scared, people who’d had breakdowns and gone to the hospital. I wasn’t this person. I wasn’t suicidal, I wasn’t trembling or unable to function. I worked, I loved, I socialized. My worries were just what people experience every day. Everyone panics when they get an email, any email, from their coworkers. Everyone reads things over and over and nearly breaks out in sweat whenever they do their daily tasks.
Slowly, the conversation on anxiety turned to things I was familiar with. Circular thinking. Thinking about past transgressions and panicking about them years later. Consistent worry.
This coincided with my return to writing, and the deep dive that was writing Please Give. I often wrote 2000 or 3000 words a day — usually after work — and spent a lot of that time worrying what potential readers would think of it. I figured that was normal, as was the constant imagining of how its reception would spiral out of my control, and the headaches and stomachaches that came with it. Writers are always a little nervous, right?
This was especially the case as I waited for Evelyn’s edits. She was the first full reader, and had heard me talk about it for months before I sent her the manuscript. I was so fixated on what she thought that I had a dream that she sent me a drill sergeant to tell me everything I needed to fix, along with a manuscript covered in red ink. When I got my edits, mostly on clarifying Beth’s character and intentions, I panicked as I wondered how I’d do this while still making a salvageable book. I’d think about how to do this constantly. I still remember thinking about this as I got ready for work, and how I started to cry as I put on my shoes.
All part of the writing process, I thought. Comes with the territory.
In November 2017, my husband got sick. Falling in love with him has been the best thing to happen to me, and it also gave me new ways to panic. I was convinced that having something so good in my life meant that it would be taken away. I especially thought this in winter, when icy sidewalks led to me constantly thinking he’d slip and fall and crack his head (this was a popular circular thought the winter before we got married).
Now, something bad had actually happened. However, I went into gear to help — driving to appointments, being there for comfort, telling friends and family.
When my mother came up to visit and help, we had some alone time at my husband’s and my apartment. I told her how I’d started to think about how I worry so much and that I might need help. She suggested I talk to my doctor about medicine.
I’d heard about medicine before, especially online. I’d also started to hear direct recommendations from friends, who mentioned antidepressants casually to me — as if I were already on them, or already thinking about them. I saw my worry as a natural state. They saw treatment of my worry as a natural response.
But I wasn’t there yet. I had other things to do — and besides, my anxiousness wasn’t enough to be called anxiety. People would think I was just trying to get attention, that I was being selfish or dramatic. I just needed to relax. The worry would subside.
When my husband got better, my panic had time to manifest. Follow-ups with the doctor nearly shut me down. I’d feel the blanket of tired anxiety, a lack of panic but a sense of dejected worry that things are bad and you just have to plow through them. The appointment would go well, we’d be happy, and then at the next check-in, it’d start all over again.
One week in May 2018, I couldn’t stop thinking about a moment during my husband’s treatment when he’d been hurt. I remembered every sense — the feel, the sound, the panic — and I’d start to breathe heavily. I had a tendency to do this in the same spot at the same time every day on my walk to work. By the fifth time, I’d had enough. I was still too scared to call my doctor, so I sent an email: I’ve been a worrier all my life, I’d been stuck in a panic spiral all week, and I wanted to discuss going on medication.
My doctor prescribed 10 mg of Lexapro to start. I still remember how relieved I felt when she gave me the prescription right away. I thought I’d have to go to the edge to prove how much I needed it. I felt so comforted when I picked it up from CVS.
I noticed its value immediately. The first thing I noticed was that I would walk on the Metro platform and not imagine falling (or being accidentally pushed) onto the tracks. I could also cross the highway near our apartment without imagining I’d trip, twist my ankle, and fall right as an oncoming car appeared.
But a part of me wondered: how would this affect my writing? My nervous drive was drive, after all, and it got things done. I’d also heard all the concern about medication dulling creativity, creating minds that couldn’t dive into the places where artists went and emerged with something great.
What would I emerge with?
I wrote the bulk of Without Condition before I was medicated. Experience helped me take a calmer approach to this one than Please Give (though my latent, persistent worries still lingered, of course). I didn’t start to see the effects of treatment on my writing until I did my first full read-through. I read it and didn’t worry over sentences or passages. I thought to myself, “Evelyn can tell me if this needs fixing.” And when I sent it to Evelyn, I didn’t write down a million edits based on what I thought she’d have to say about it. I worked on other stories — including one that became my first acceptance, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.'”
When I got the manuscript back, I had some things to fix, as I always do. The biggest edit, and one of my favorites to date, was to “add another body or two to Cara’s count.” I didn’t panic when I read her suggestions for structure, even when it meant having to write another chapter and reorder a few existing ones. I saw it as a to-do list that I knew I could manage. I knew this because medication helped that knowledge stay on the surface above my panic, worries, and fears that had led my thinking for so long.
I managed it. I edited it, I sent it to reviewers, and I published it in February. To date, it’s my most popular and best-received book yet.
Getting help for my anxiety has been one of the best things to happen to my creativity. I still worry, of course. I’ll always feel a little nervous when I press “Publish,” or when I see a review of my work has gone online, or that someone is reading it. But it doesn’t keep me from producing new work the way my anxiety did when it went unchecked. I was so anxiously obsessed with Please Give that I could barely write when it was out for edits. I spent more time that summer writing pages of notes on how to fix it, and even writing continuations of the story (which, looking back, was essentially rewriting the book) that I only wrote maybe two full stories. This past summer, while Without Condition was out for edits, I wrote almost twenty.
I feel less like I’m juggling ideas or meeting imaginary deadlines. I’m able to set aside work and tell myself that it’ll get done when it’s ready. I’m able to approach editing as a to-do list and not a do-or-die list. I’m able to share my work with a normal amount of panic, one that comes with putting your thoughts and your work out into the world — a sense of worry that’s actually normal.
I still hear artists of all kinds say they fear medication will dull their creativity. Going on medication is a personal decision. However, I would encourage creatives to really think about whether their panic or their sadness is helping their art, or if it’s just another lie that their illness wants to tell them. Ask if it’s really part of the process. Ask if that funny Internet comic talking about writer’s panic is really so funny when you’re feeling so sad and so worried that you erase, rewrite, delete, erase, rewrite, delete one passage so many times that you get a headache and you don’t go to bed (true Please Give story). Is any art worth that — especially when art can still be produced with medical help?
There’s an excellent episode of the Netflix sitcom, One Day at a Time, where Penelope wants to go off her antidepressants. She quits, then spirals into a depression so dark that she doesn’t leave bed, cancels her dates, skips work, and eventually records herself sharing suicidal thoughts. She talks to her landlord and friend, Schneider, about how she feels like she shouldn’t need antidepressants to function every day. Schneider points to his glasses and says, “I need these for the rest of my life.” He takes them off, then says pointedly, “Want me to drive?”
This was such an elegant way to describe both mental illness and treatment that may last a lifetime. I may be on Lexapro for the rest of my life. I’m okay with this, because I remember what my life was like without it. I have memories of panic going back as far as when I could first form memories. I have no desire to drive, read, work, love, or write without these 10 mg glasses that I put on every morning at 8 a.m.
In her memo for Without Condition, Evelyn wrote, “It was especially exciting to read this novel because I can see how much you absorbed and internalized from the process of writing your first novel and were able to put into action here. As enjoyable and rewarding a read as Please Give was, there’s lots of growth here in the pacing, characters, and dialogue. You should be really proud of how far you’ve come in a short time.”
A lot of that growth has come from experience, as well as working with such a great editor. I also know, though, that part of that growth between the first novel and the second came from taking care of myself. Rather than dull my creativity, that care helped it to flourish. And for that, I’m very proud.
I have a new piece on Spreading the Writer’s Word for the May edition of the flash picture prompt challenge! Check out “Petal, Page, Piel,” a dark tale about keeping the memory of loved ones in books. Thanks for reading!
The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
Petal, Page, Piel by Sonora Taylor
Petal, page, piel. Petal, page, piel. Hanna sang the words to herself as she glued the pages of her book together. This book would be her finest yet, one filled with her fondest memories of Seth.
Petal, page piel. Petal, page, piel. A vase of wilted roses sat near her materials. Each flower was a gift from Seth, each page a transcript of the loving words he’d said to her. A book of love notes that would hold his words forever, even though he stopped saying them to her long ago.
Hanna sighed a little as she capped her pen, then turned the page. The book crackled like creaking bones beneath skin. Hanna remembered how books of old were made from skin, both animal and human.
Skin. Such a blunt word, one that pierced the tongue like…
This Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day. Sadly, my mom lives several hours away in North Carolina; but we chat every Sunday and I always send her a gift (though it’ll be late this year — sorry Mom).
Ahead of the holiday, I found myself reflecting on how most of my love stories fall into two categories: romantic (however twisted it may be), or familial between a mother and her daughter. The titular stories in my two collections, “The Crow’s Gift” and “Wither,” both focus on relationships between the main female protagonist and her mother. “Wither” goes one step further and includes Mother Nature — and the destructive relationship that can occur between her and her children.
Without Condition is my first story to examine both motherly love and romantic love. While the focus is largely on Cara and her boyfriend, my first inkling of the story was rooted in the relationship between Cara and her mother. It was her mother’s unconditional love for her, even in the face of horrendous activities, that helped me think of the rest of the plot (not to mention the title).
I once read a study that claimed the bond between a mother and her daughter is the strongest possible bond between any parent-child pairing. While I can’t say that for sure, there is certainly something special about the way a woman is bonded to her mother in ways we don’t see with her father, or don’t see between a mother and her son. It’s something special to witness when it’s good, and something terrify to witness when it’s broken or abusive.
Carrie touched on this perfectly. The terror doesn’t lie in Carrie’s powers, nor just in the way she’s bullied; but in the power and influence Margaret White has over her daughter. As evil and tormented as she is, you still see their bond and the fact that Mrs. White truly worries about her. I think of in the movie, when Carrie shatters the mirror; and Margaret stops playing the piano and says in her most normal, concerned voice, “Carrie?” She’s worried her daughter is hurt, even as she calls her sinful. It almost makes it all the scarier when Margaret comes for Carrie with a knife in the climax.
I also think that the TV show Riverdale has done an excellent exploration of mothers and daughters in the fraught connection between Betty and Alice. Season 3 has been a little uneven, but the show has quietly shown how hard it is for a daughter to sever a tie with her mother, and how that tie — even when dangerous — may be the least dangerous option she has. Alice has joined a cult called The Farm, a group that Betty wants no part of; even if it means losing a connection to her mom. Out of desperation, Betty turns to her jailed serial killer father instead of her cult-worshiping mother, but when her father is (purportedly) free, he comes for her and tries to kill her (this post was written on May 7, and it’s possible revelations in later episodes may dispute these facts, because that’s what Riverdale does and that’s one of the reasons I love it in all its messy glory). Betty gives in to her mother for safety, and she’s embraced. She may still be in danger, but she’s with her mother; and with her mother, the feeling of safety is stronger and perhaps more real. This could be to Betty’s advantage or her detriment — only time will tell.
A final story that delved into this in spectacularly creepy fashion is Sharp Objects (which I also wrote about when the HBO adaptation aired last summer). Here, you have three female bonds: mother, daughter, and sister; none of whom can abandon the other completely despite the misdeeds of each. It also shows the darker side of a mother’s desire to feel needed, and how her daughter will nearly die to fill that need.
The bond between a mother and daughter can make for excellent dark fiction when done well. I’m less interested in “crazy mom/rebel daughter” narratives, and more the stories of daughters who can’t leave their mothers behind, or vice versa; despite their dark deeds. The bond is strong, even when it’s frayed — maybe even the strongest of all. But that isn’t always a good thing.
I hope that those of you with good bonds, though, have a wonderful Mother’s Day. And, I want to wish the happiest of Mother’s Days to my mom. Thanks for reading my work, supporting me, and being an all-around gem.