It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since Without Condition came out. In addition to promoting the book, I’ve been working on my next short story collection and doing guest posts and interviews with other blogs. I’ve been neglecting this blog a little bit, but now that the dust has settled, I’ll be back on here; especially with some of the exciting news that’s been happening over the past couple weeks.
While I haven’t been on here as much the past couple weeks, I’ve been all over the place online, having conversations with bloggers about Without Condition, my writing, food, travel, you name it. I’ve collected the interviews below:
I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow author, editor, and publicist Erin Sweet-Al Mehairi on her site, Hook of a Book. Check out our conversation about writing, food, women in horror, travel destinations, and my plans for a Mother’s Day promotion for “Without Condition.” Thanks for interviewing me, Erin!
Hi Sonora, and welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m so glad you’ve joined me, and I look forward to talking to you today. I know we are both “foodies” and so if you brought some Duck Donuts or some Georgetown Cupcakes from D.C., I’ll make the enchiladas for lunch. It’s freezing here so let’s whip out the coffee with something a bit stronger, like rum or Kahlua, or I bet you even know something better because you are always giving me tips about the good stuff…?
Sonora: Thanks for having me over! I did indeed bring some donuts, but – not to be that local – I thought you might enjoy these cupcakes from Baked and Wired a little bit more. I also brought pupusas, and yes, load me up on some rum and coffee (though I take no responsibility for what I start saying after…
I’ve greatly enjoyed speaking with so many talented authors in Quoth the Raven. This week, I spoke with Melanie Cossey. Her debut novel, A Peculiar Curiosity, is now available; and she has several other interesting projects in the works. Read on for how she finds inspiration from the Victorian era, what she thinks about Canadian versus American readers, and more.
Bio: As a child, Melanie Cossey delighted in reading stories that left her feeling disturbed, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Her love of the Victorian period combined with her penchant for impactful, unsettling stories nurtured her desire to create troubling tales of gothic horror.
Melanie’s short, “The Nymphalidae,” won Honorable Mention in the Storm Crow Tavern’s 2015 Tales from Beermat Microfiction Contest. Her short fiction pieces have been shortlisted in numerous contests. Melanie’s gothic horror, A Peculiar Curiosity, was released on October 26, 2018 by Fitzroy Books. She is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Melanie: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. My first memory of writing was when I was about five years old and inspired by a Richard Scary children’s book. I thought, Wow, writing looks easy. That night I copied word-for-word all the text from the book into a little exercise book from school. When my dad came to read me a bedtime story, I proudly showed him the book I “wrote.” He looked it over and said with dismay, “No, no, this isn’t right. You have to make up you own stories.” That was an “ah ha” moment for me. I thought about that for a split second and said, “Okay, I can do that!” And my career as a writer was born. I began by writing poems and stories that my dad could read to my younger brother at night, and as I grew, progressed to writing stories for or with friends and even essays to read out at church.
I think what helped inspire me was that my dad was a huge lover of poetry, and as a teen had memorized a fair amount of long poems, which he used to recite to us kids. Added to that were the weekly trips to the library, the nightly story readings, and even trips to see plays and operas. I just grew up totally enmeshed in the literary world. The choice to be a writer was really 100% organic.
Sonora: Tell us more about your novel, A Peculiar Curiosity. What inspired the story? What was your favorite part about writing it?
Melanie: Believe it or not, the story was born from a stick bug incident. In 2011, my fourteen-year-old son and his then girlfriend decided they were going to make money by buying 100 stick bugs from a woman on craigslist and then selling them to turn a profit.
Once my son had the bugs home and set up in a habitat, we began researching them and found out is illegal to sell them. We also found out they are an invasive species and can’t be released into the environment, oh, and they breed like crazy. So here we had these rather scary looking insects that we couldn’t legally, morally, or ethically get rid of, and who, might take over the world as they bred out of control. That left us with a very sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs—a what have we done!? feeling. Of course the writer in me went, “hmmm that might be a great concept for a story. What about a guy who has acquired a “horrible creature” that he can’t ethically or morally dispose of? What would he do?” And thus, the premise for A Peculiar Curiosity was born.
My favourite part about writing it was researching and inserting all the creepy Victorian curiosities into the narrative. The Victorians would collect the most grotesque, unpalatable things. Why? Simply because they were curious and interested in the life around them and in all the reasons why things could go wrong. The Victorians were an interesting bunch. They lived in some of the most deplorable conditions in history, and yet they were always seeking to understand science and the human body and disease, and they had some pretty macabre ways of going about that, as you’ll discover when you read the book.
Sonora: Is A Peculiar Curiosity your first published book? What was your experience like finding, and then working with, a publisher?
Melanie: Yes, A Peculiar Curiosity is my debut novel. I’d taken stabs at writing novels in the past, but APC was the first one I’d gone the distance with (and I have Nanowrimo 2011 to thank for that).
I wrote APC in a few months but then spent the next four years doing the research and trying to make the research and the novel fit together. It took a lot of jiggling but finally I had a good yarn that fit into a factual backdrop. When my manuscript was as polished as I could get it, I began to query agents and pitch my book at writer’s conferences. It met with a lot of interest but it also collected a lot of rejections. Finally, I decided to bypass agents and try knocking directly on the doors of publishers. Not long after that, APC was readily scooped up by Jaynie Royal at Regal House Publishing.
I must say, Jaynie has been an absolute dream to work with. She truly believed in APC from the moment she read it, and has worked tirelessly with me on getting it to market. I don’t want to gush too much, but her insight and attention to APC has been beyond compare. She’s a fabulous content editor and marketer and seems to have non-stop energy. I don’t know how she does it all. After working on APC alone for five years, it was truly amazing to work with a publishing house and get that support. As a publisher, her marketing reach is above and beyond anything I could do myself. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been picked up by this house. Their support for authors, I think, is unmatched in the industry.
Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Blackwood Article,” was inspired by meeting a very tight deadline for the anthology. Can you tell us more about what went into writing this piece?
Melanie: Laughs. Quoth the Raven had a very tight deadline and although I saw the call for submissions rather early on, I’m afraid I didn’t find the time to write anything. Two days before the submission due date I saw the call again and thought “You know, as a gothic writer, I really shouldn’t let that one go by.”
Although I was crazy busy with final proofreading of APC so it could meet the release date of Oct. 26, I decided I would work like a mad woman to submit for Quoth. On day one of two before the deadline, I read through Poe’s works to try to find a story to base my entry on. By the evening I had decided on “How To Write a Blackwood Article” and it’s companion piece, “The Predicament.”
For those unfamiliar with the two pieces, the first is about a Mr. Blackwood, who invented a formula for writing an article (or short story) that has several criteria, but the most prominent being that the writer must themselves experience a horrific, deathly incident so they may accurately describe the sensations. In “The Predicament,” the character Signora Psyche Zenobia, is decapitated by a clock and describes her own death.
In a flash my story came to me. I would write, really, about myself trying to write a Blackwood article as the submission clock winded down. I literally wrote this story about me trying to write a horror article while following the tenets set out by Mr. Blackwood, in the final hours, nay, minutes of deadline. Much of it pokes fun at how in our “bubble wrapped” world, it is a lot harder to do away with ourselves than it was in Poe’s day, if you wanted to follow some of the same methods as Zenobia did in Poe’s story. As it was, I hit the submit button on this article twelve minutes after midnight, but the lovely Lyn Worthen didn’t disqualify me for being a few minutes past deadline … whew!
Sonora: You live in British Columbia. Do you find that Canadian readers and American readers have different responses to horror? Different tastes?
Melanie: Good question. I had to give this one some thought. Nine times out of ten, when I mention to a stranger that my book is a gothic horror, their eyes light up and they say “Oooo, I LOVE gothic horror!” It’s quite odd. I honestly never expected this response. And this is true whether I’m talking to an American or a Canadian. Gothic horror is more about creepy old mansions and things lurking about in the darkness, sort of your old Vincent Price movies, rather than your “slice-em-up” stories. And this is certainly true with APC.
That said, I have never really noticed a difference between the American and Canadian reader (or viewer) of gothic or general horror. I think because, culturally speaking, there is little difference between American and Canadian entertainment. Pretty much something that is popular in the US will be aired or read in Canada and something that is popular in Canada will make it to American audiences shortly thereafter.
I have noticed a difference in Canadian vs. American humour, but not in horror. I think you’d see more of a difference in say, the North American vs. the Japanese tastes in horror. But Canadian vs. American is too close to notice any separation, in my opinion.
Sonora: What non-literary things inspire your work?
Melanie: Oh, I love old buildings. This is the number one reason why I love gothic horror. You take a house that is one hundred, even two or three hundred years old and boy, you can just imagine all the things that have gone on inside. The joy, the heartbreak, the growth, the illness, the death, the birth, the family triumph and the tragedy. Maybe it’s silly, but I tend to imagine a house absorbing all that energy and holding it, and then later it speaks of it, in whispers. I just recently bought an 80-year-old house and I love it. I know the history of the house and imagine many stories about the people who lived here. Many times my imagination spins off into the dark and macabre, which is the subject of my next story …
I’m also inspired by history, by the forgotten customs of the Victorians, and things they did out of sentimentality that we today would think distasteful and creepy, like making wreaths from the hair of loved ones, and taking photos of our beloved deceased. But deeper than these, history has had some dark chapters. These fascinate me, because I believe that generally, people are good and want to do good, but our dark natures can lead us into some regrettable situations. I like to imagine that people do the wrong things for the right reasons, and these are what I base my characters on. I like to create moralistic characters who take wrong paths because of trying to make good choices, choices that will either save them, or those they love. To me, these are the most interesting sorts of characters, and predicaments.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Melanie: I love literary writers: the American greats like John Updike, John Irving, and some foreign writers like Vladimir Nabokov, and Isabelle Allende. Of course, I love Poe and my favourite horror writer is Robert Macammon.
I read a fair amount of the Victorian writers, and love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There are so many good books out there, I can’t possibly choose a favourite but there are some books I’ve read more than once. I’ve read Updike’s “Rabbit” series at least three times. To me, the characters are so alive and multilayered and the writing is just beautiful. I’ve also read some Nabokov books upwards of three times for the same reason. These writers know how to tell a story with the precise words so that the whole thing just bursts alive in your mind.
Oh, and how can I forget she whom I consider the goddess of the gothic voice, Shirley Jackson. Her works … magnificent! We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a favourite of mine and a strong inspiration.
Sonora: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to tell us about?
Melanie: I have a selection of novels that need editing and honestly, I’m not sure which one I will choose to work on next. One is about a woman in the 1800s whose sexuality lands her in an asylum. It’s actually the story of betrayed friendships. Then there’s a magical realism story I wrote for a 3-day-novel contest, about a young woman who enters into a relationship with an abusive narcissist. I’m also writing another gothic horror that takes place in Chicago during The Great Depression. It’s about a man who joins the mob to provide for his family and, the force that tries to stop him. I’m also attempting to do Nanowrimo. This year my story is about a demon dog. It’s based on this house I moved into. Innocent things, but I’ve mentioned how my mind turns things dark. Mwahaha.
Film is one of my favorite storytelling media. I minored in film studies, have written many papers on film (including an analysis of WALL-E based on postmodernism), and frequently go to the movies.
I was thus very excited when I saw that one of the contributors to Quoth the Raven was also a filmmaker. Susan McCauley, author of “The Cask,” has an extensive background in film. Read on for her thoughts on the overlap between film and literature, as well as what inspires her writing.
Bio: Susan received a B.A. in Radio-Television with a minor in Theater from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Text & Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College in London. Susan also studied acting at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in Los Angeles.
While living in Los Angeles, Susan wrote the story for and produced a short film, which won awards at the Houston International Film Festival and the Seabrook Film Festival. In London, her stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was performed at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre; and, scenes from her play The Prisoner: Princess Elizabeth were performed at HMS Tower of London. After returning to the United States, she was a producer on the Emmy Award nominated Civil War short film Now & Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier. In 2016, she wrote and produced the award winning short film, “The Cask.” In addition to the publication of short stories, she is currently writing her fifth novel and has two feature film projects in development.
Sonora: You are a screenwriter, producer, and actress, as well as a writer. What overlaps do you see between filmmaking and writing? Do you find that one influences the other for you?
Susan: I don’t act much anymore, but I still enjoy doing it from time to time if the right part presents itself. I see myself first and foremost as a writer. I just happen to write fiction and write for film. I’m quite visual, which is probably why I started as a screenwriter and later moved into fiction. I see a lot of overlaps for screenwriting and fiction in terms of “show don’t tell,” using dialogue, and story structure. The major differences in film and fiction are the formatting, how much detail you can give, and the fact you can really dive into the head of a character in fiction, which you can’t do in screenwriting. For film, you can give clues to character emotions, but the main focus must be on sound, light, and movement. In screenwriting, you have to get images across succinctly in very vivid, condensed descriptions so the director and cinematographer can translate those to the screen. In fiction, you have more time to explore what things look like, feel like, and smell like with words. You can even share a characters thoughts in fiction, which you can’t in film, unless you’re using a voice over to capture what a character is thinking.
In terms of being a producer, I am working to produce things I’ve written or have co-written. I have to be passionate about the story I want to tell if I’m going to put all my energy into seeing a project produced.
Sonora: What are some lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking that can be applied to writing?
Susan: Film, in general, is a quicker paced medium than fiction. You have to keep the viewer’s attention or they’ll change the channel or turn the television off. In fiction, they can certainly close the book — but once a reader has bought it, chances are they’ll pick it up and keep reading at some point. They are also mentally prepared for a slower pace.
Of course film is a visual medium. I recently watched the horror film A Quiet Place. The opening shot of that film establishes so much of the world we’re entering in a few seconds: a broken, desolate, post-apocalyptic world. In fiction, it might take the author a paragraph or a page to describe it all. So it comes down to showing with words over showing with visuals.
I find that I’m a bit more sparse with description in my fiction than most fiction writers and, personally, I like the pace and think (hope) my readers will like it, too. My use of more condensed description in fiction probably comes directly from my background in screenwriting.
Other than strong plot, dialogue, and screenwriting techniques that focus on keeping the story visual and active, I can’t think of anything else I apply to fiction writing — at least not consciously. Filmmaking itself is a totally different animal than writing a book. Filmmaking is a monumental team effort. With a book you work with editors and the publisher, but people tend to do their work individually, and then regroup. With a movie, you can have five or ten or fifty or more people all working together at the same time to make the script come to life. Books are more personal in how they’re written and consumed; films are more of a group experience in their execution and consumption.
Sonora: Film and literature have an intimate relationship. What are your thoughts on film as a storytelling medium versus books? What’s been your experience creating both?
Susan: Obviously books and the written word are much older than film; but, historically, storytellers would act-out or dramatize some of their stories, and film is a modern extension of that. So they definitely go hand-in-hand. I think books and films impact the human brain differently. Books are slower; we can read and use our own imaginations to visualize what the author wants us to see and imagine how the characters feel. In film, we see what the director wants us to see and move at the pace the director (along with the editor) have set for us, which is usually much faster than sitting down to read a book. Modern film in the western world is typically fast paced with stimulating visuals and quick cuts. Most of us have probably heard doctors warn of too much screen-time because of the impact it’s having on our brains. I do think there is something to that. But I think there is a place for both books and screens. I enjoy watching television shows/films as much as anyone, but I know I can’t watch them right up until I go to sleep. My brain is too stimulated. So, at least an hour before bed, I turn off the TV and read. I definitely sleep better when I do that.
As for my experience creating both, I have to have a different mindset when I sit down to work on fiction versus when I sit down to write a screenplay. And when I switch into producer mode, that’s yet a different mindset: calls and emails with directors, other producers, attorneys, accountants, guilds and unions, etc. I’m definitely more at home writing, but there are aspects I like about producing. I haven’t directed theater or film in years, but I’m planning to get back into it in the next couple of years. As a film writer, I want to be able to control the full vision of some of my works by directing.
Sonora: People often say “The book is better” when a film adaptation comes out. Is there a movie you think is better than the book? What makes it better?
Susan: Not that I can think of. However, when a film or television show is done first and then a book comes out based on the show, I’m not usually a fan of those books. The few I’ve read of those don’t seem to have the depth or fluidity of original novels. I do think that The Lord of the Rings adaptations were extremely well-done. I like The Lord of the Rings adaptations because they were fairly true to the books, and the world-building and characters created by Tolkien in the books were beautifully captured on screen.
Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Cask,” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” What made you choose this story to adapt?
Susan: I’d taught “The Cask of Amontillado” to English composition classes when I lived in Northern Virginia, and something about that story captured my imagination. I’d heard true stories of people being bricked into walls alive on history tours in England and Europe, and those always bothered me. The horror of imagining what those people thought and felt knowing they were never going to get out struck a chord of terror in my heart. I still have a visceral response in my chest when I think about it. I suppose the true stories I heard made Poe’s even more impactful for me. And, when I lived in London, a disgusting, rotten smell started coming out of the wall of my flat … Eventually the smell faded away. (I think a rat died and decomposed in my bedroom wall). But I thought of that, too, when I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was also bothered that I never knew why Montresor killed Fortunato in such a horrific way, and I wanted an opportunity to explore Montresor’s motivation. So, when I saw a call for adaptations of Poe stories, I knew I had to adapt “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Sonora: “The Cask” is also a short film, which you wrote and produced. Can you tell us more about it?
Susan: I was teaching an online course for Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy about adapting fiction for film and, as I was pulling together material for the course, I adapted my short story, “The Cask,” into a short screenplay to use as an example. When I finished the script, I thought, “This would make a good short film.” So, with my background in film, I started reaching out to some friends in L.A. to help me make it happen. At the time, nothing came out of Los Angeles, but I was led to some filmmakers in Houston, where I live, who really loved the script and wanted to help me make it. In hindsight, I wish I would have directed “The Cask” since Hollywood really wants to see more women directors and it’s something I’m getting more interested in — but at the time, I was solely focused on getting the script produced. Long story short, I was the executive producer on the project. There isn’t money in short films so it wasn’t something I could go and seek out investors for. So, about half of the budget was my money, and the rest came from an Indiegogo campaign. I wish we’d had a bit more money since a couple pages were cut from my script … but we did the best we could with what we had (which is typical of filmmaking — especially indie filmmaking).
For those who are interested, here is The Cask on YouTube. (It did win an award for best film adaptation and played at several festivals around the United States.)
Sonora: Which short story of Poe’s would you like to adapt next?
Susan: I haven’t even considered adapting another Poe story. So many of them have been adapted, and adapted well. But, if I were to do another, I would likely do “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Sonora: What is your favorite film adaptation of a Poe piece?
Susan: I honestly haven’t seen any others than my own! I probably should, but I purposely didn’t watch any when I was adapting “The Cask” because I didn’t want my work to be colored (or attributed) to someone else’s.
Sonora: How long have you been writing fiction? What drew you to horror?
Susan: Armed with my dad’s video camera, I started making movies for fun when I was eight years old … but I didn’t get into screenwriting until I was in my early 20s. I dabbled a bit with fiction in graduate school, but I didn’t fully swing my focus to it until about 8 years ago.
I blame my interest in horror and the supernatural on my parents. LOL. They took me on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World when I was three. That’s the first time I knew I had any interest in horror. I hid by my parents ankles on the ride, but then begged them to take me again. I think I write horror because it’s a fun and engaging way to experience things I wouldn’t want to experience or do in life. I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid. To an extent, I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear. For hundreds of thousands of years (or more), our ancestors had to hunt and fight to survive. They experienced adrenaline on a regular basis. We’re much safer in modern times. And because of that, I think we still have a primal need to feel that fear — even if it’s in the safety of our local coffee shop with a book, or in a cinema watching a film.
Sonora: What are some non-literary influences on your writing?
Susan: Life. There is always something from my life in what I write. It could be a story I heard, history, a place, a person, an animal. But there are always grains of truth from life in my work. I think that’s probably true for most writers.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Susan: As a child, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. Laura Ingles Wilder’s accounts of life on the prairie also fascinated me. As an adult, some of my major influences have been William Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson, Johnathan Stroud, and Mary Downing Hahn. Some recent favorite books have been Took by Mary Downing Hanh and the Lockwood & Co. series by Johnathan Stroud.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite directors? What are some of your favorite films?
Susan: Guillermo del Toro does some beautiful work. And Steven Spielberg is, of course, an icon. His films are extremely commercial, but he’s a master at storytelling.
I’ll admit, I don’t make it to the theater nearly as much as I used to because I have a nine-year-old son, but I watch what I can on Netflix and Amazon. As for favorite films, I won’t even try to explain why … but these have been some of my favorites over the years: The Color Purple, Star Wars, Alien, Ghostbusters, The Others, Quills, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs.
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
Susan: I have a novel I recently “finished,” and is back in revision. It’s a young adult story called The Devil’s Tree, which is actually an expanded version of my short story of the same name on WattPad. It’s a ghost story about a teenager overcoming her life-situation and learning to accept herself.
I also have two feature films in development, for which I’m a writer and producer. One is a psychological horror, The Murdering Kind, which is being directed by my amazing, long-time friend, Academy Award winner Barney Burman. The other is The Lost Children of York, which is an adaptation of the play I wrote when I lived in London. The lovely and talented Edmund Kingsley is working with me on The Lost Children of York as a co-producer and lead actor.
Have you gotten your copy of Quoth the Raven yet? I just finished my own copy — after all, I share space with 29 (!) other authors and poets — and I really enjoyed the collection. I’m honored to appear alongside so many talented writers, including Tiffany Michelle Brown. Tiffany’s short story, “My Love, in Pieces” is a creepy and modern take on “Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe.
I asked Tiffany if I could interview her, and she agreed. Read on for what inspires her work, some of her favorite whiskeys, and how improv influences her writing.
Bio: Tiffany Michelle Brown is a native of Phoenix, Arizona, who ran away from the desert to live near sunny San Diego beaches. She earned degrees in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and her work has been featured by Electric Spec, Fabula Argentea, Pen and Kink Publishing, Transmundane Press, and Dark Alley Press. When she isn’t writing, Tiffany can be found on a yoga mat, sipping whisky, creating zany improv scenes, or reading a comic book — sometimes all at once.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Tiffany: Gosh, as long as I can remember. I was a super precocious kid who loved stories, so I started writing “novels” on lined notebook paper in grade school. I still have them, and they fall into two camps—mysteries a la the Encyclopedia Brown books—or melodramatic love stories. Like telenovela-level stuff. These early stories are some of my most precious possessions and a great reminder that writing is just … in my bones. Always has been.
Sonora: Someone starts a conversation with you while waiting in line for coffee. They discover you’re a writer, and ask you what you write. The person is next and about to be summoned by the barista. What do you tell them in as quick an answer as you can?
Tiffany: I’m a horror writer at heart, but I also like to dabble in erotica and paranormal romance.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Tiffany: I am eternally in awe of Neil Gaiman’s work (especially American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and I’ve read a ton of Stephen King. The Dark Tower series was like crack for me during college, and I’ve really loved Insomnia, The Shining, Joyland, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and his short story collections. I’m also a sucker for the stuff I consider the classics, including A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and basically everything by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
Sonora: For “Quoth the Raven,” you chose to put a contemporary twist on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice.” What made you choose that particular Poe story? What was your favorite part about writing your updated take, “My Love, in Pieces”? Did you face any challenges while writing your story?
Tiffany: “Berenice” is a really visceral story. It’s straight up body horror. And this tale was so shocking that Poe self-censored the piece not long after its original publication to make it more palatable to the general public. I hate censorship, so I loved the idea of building a story around the truly creepy and disturbing elements of this story. I absolutely wanted to keep the startling conclusion of “Berenice” intact (the part that really got under my skin when I read it – no spoilers, in case you haven’t!), so I worked backward, trying to figure out a plausible way to move toward that phantasmagoric twist, while also writing a contemporary story set in present day. The hardest part for me was figuring out the protagonist’s voice, but as soon as that clicked into place, the whole piece was a joy to write.
Sonora: What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe story? Or, if you can’t choose one, what are a few of your favorites?
Tiffany: It’s a toss-up between “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” The voice of the narrator in “Tell-tale Heart” is so fantastic, and his paranoia-turned-madness is completely palpable. (I’m actually querying a dark erotica short based on “Tell-tale Heart” right now!) As far as “Cask” goes, what dark little heart doesn’t love a story about wine, a carnival, and truly horrific revenge?
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Tiffany: I’m definitely inspired by whatever books I’m reading (or listening to) at the moment. Listening to the audiobook of Paula Hawkins’ “Into the Water” influenced the voice of my protagonist in “My Love, In Pieces.” The main character in “My Love” speaks to his wife throughout the story as part of an internal monologue—just as one of Hawkins’ many characters does in “Into the Water”—and the effect is incredibly eerie.
I’m also inspired by news stories (I read an article about robots as babysitters a few weeks ago, and there’s totally a horror story there), strange occurrences that happen in my life (like when I wrote a story about the time a fuck-you-up knife fell out of the pocket of a seemingly straight-laced dude’s pocket at a book signing), or themed anthologies and calls for submissions (like Quoth the Raven!).
Sonora: You are a self-described yogi. Do you find that practicing yoga influences or affects your writing in any way?
Tiffany: I don’t think yoga necessarily influences my writing, but it does wonders for my mental health. Yoga helps me turn off my brain, focus on physicality, sweat out my worries, and remember to breathe. It’s also physically communal, unlike writing. I’m a total extravert, so I enjoy the energy that’s produced in a room full of folks slaying warrior, crow, and corpse poses.
Sonora: You also describe yourself as a whiskey enthusiast. What are some of your favorite whiskeys? Do you have a particular whiskey that you like to sip when writing?
Tiffany: I am obsessed with Japanese whisky, especially Yamazaki 12-Year! It’s incredibly smoky and smooth, and it makes one hell of an old fashioned. I also really like Highland Park, Aberlour, and Glenlivet.
Breaking out the good stuff is a publishing tradition for me. I will generally pour myself a finger or two, neat, in celebration. My friends and family know about this tradition and have helped me steadily build my collection over the years. If you’re ever invited over to my place, you will certainly drink well.
Sonora: You take improv classes. How do the classes influence your writing? Do you see any overlap between the lessons of improv and lessons that writers could apply to their work?
Improv is new for me, and it’s been a transformative experience! Personally, it’s helped me build confidence and consistently step outside my comfort zone. And yes, there are so many concepts in improv that I can apply to writing.
First and foremost, failing is part of the journey and should be celebrated with hearty rounds of applause! On the very first day of my Level 1 improv class at Finest City Improv, our instructor, Gary Ware, established that our classroom was a safe space for experimentation and, contrary to our natural inclinations, we should clap when things went sideways. With this mindset, “mistakes” quickly became “gifts,” things we could use to usher a narrative forward. Can you image if writers were more forgiving of themselves and gave themselves room to fail gracefully and just keep going? I’m really trying to apply that to my craft.
Secondly, successful improv is all about storytelling. Improv scenes can seem extremely bizarre or outlandish, but at their core, they’re about relationships, conflicts, and resolutions – just like the stories we authors put on paper. Without those elements, a scene (or a story) will fall flat.
Lastly, trust in your gut. Make decisions. Stick with them. Let the scenes (or stories) evolve and grow. Play. Do something silly. See if it works. Essentially, improv has given me a ton of freedom and has validated that whatever I’m thinking in a particular moment for a scene (or a story) is completely right.
Sonora: You’ve appeared in many anthologies, and also published your own standalone work. How long have you been publishing? What was your first acceptance? How do you decide between pieces you’ll submit and pieces to publish as standalones?
I finally mustered up the courage to start sending my work out for consideration in 2013, and I published my very first piece, “Invidia,” in Penduline Press’s Seven Deadly Sins issue that year. It’s inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” more specifically the sewing shut of a trespasser’s eyes when they’ve become envious or coveted that which isn’t theirs. I decided to tell the story from the perspective of the being tasked with the sewing, someone stuck in a very strange kind of limbo. It’s very strange, and I still love that piece.
I submit the majority of my work to publishers now, but when I was first starting out, I was frustrated by rejections and didn’t have a great idea of how to search for markets that complemented my writing style. But I was itching to get my work out there! So, I took matters into my own hands and learned how to publish my own work on Amazon. I self-published SPIN, a novelette about time travel via vinyl records, and Give It Back, a long-ish horror story about a funeral home and a theft that wakes the dead.
There are a few pieces I’ve been querying for a while that don’t fit neatly into a genre or an ideal word count, so those may be next for the self-publishing queue. I’ve also been toying with the idea of self-publishing a collection of horror stories, too. We shall see!
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to share with us?
Tiffany: I have two projects in the works right this second: a tale in the American Gothic tradition about infidelity, puritanism, and demons; and a paranormal romance novella about a vampire librarian working the night shift on a college campus who meets a cocky student he’s not sure whether he’d like to kiss or kill.
My upcoming publications include a drabble titled “All That Glitters” in Drabbledark II: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles, edited by Eric S. Fomley; a short story called “Unspoken Words” in Christmas Lites VIII, a charity anthology edited by Amy Huntley and benefiting the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and an audio reading of my paranormal comedic short, “Bad Vibrations,” on the Toasted Cake podcast.
Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems with a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, features 30 different authors (including yours truly). I spoke with fellow contributor Steven R. Southard, and you can see our conversation below. Read on for what inspires Steven, what it’s like to write both horror and science fiction, and more.
Bio: Having spent time near Baltimore, it’s possible that author Steven R. Southard has somehow absorbed a measure of the still-lingering aura of Edgar Allan Poe. During the night’s darkest hours, by the light of a single candle, Steve pens tales of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and alternate history. His stories appear in more than ten anthologies and one series. The bravest and most curious among you may venture to his website at stevenrsouthard.com, where you may discover Steve waiting, lurking, and well hidden behind his codename: Poseidon’s Scribe.
How did you come up with the name “Poseidon’s Scribe”?
My name is Steven R. Southard. Poseidon’s Scribe is just my job. Since so many people ask, I’ve written a FAQ post about the job. In case you’re wondering, Poseidon is generally happy with my work and the sea god only needs one scribe, so you need not apply
How long have you been writing?
Two answers—thirty years and fifteen years. Thirty years ago, I figured I could jot down a best-selling novel in no time, with no study. I then wasted fifteen years and ended up with an unpublishable manuscript. Fifteen years ago, I got serious about my writing, shifted to short stories and began actually submitting them. And getting published!
What are some of the things you’ve learned as an author?
I learned that I write because I have to, because I’m driven to, because some inner urge compels me. Early on, I thought I was writing to be famous, well-read, and rich, but I was wrong about that.
I’ve also learned which aspects of writing come easily to me and which ones I struggle with.
I’ve learned writing is easy, getting published is hard, and making a decent living from writing is next to impossible.
I’ve learned that books about writing are full of stern advice, but if the advice feels wrong for you, follow your instincts.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?
Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Study the craft a bit, but write a lot. As you write, don’t be afraid to experiment, to dabble, to reach deep, to explore, and to play at writing.
Seek the help that helps you most. For me, that’s a critique group. For you, it might be books about writing, writing classes, writing conferences, who knows what?
I see you write both horror and science fiction. What drew you to each? Do you feel more inspired by one genre versus the other? What similarities have you found between writing both? What key differences have you found between them when writing both?
True, I’ve written both. SF because I like it, but horror only if an anthology wants it and my muse is interested. I write far more SF, and its various offshoots like alternate history and especially steampunk. As a former engineer, I’m attracted to stories featuring technology. Think of SF and horror as two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. SF is about solving problems through technology or science. Horror is about making readers feel fear. Some stories, of course, are both.
What non-literary things inspire you?
I find inspiration everywhere. I’ve written stories based on a Mythbuster episode, caring for an aging relative, historical technologies and legends, a Thanksgiving dinner discussion, and other improbable sources. We live in a world ideally suited to inspire writers; perhaps that’s its purpose.
What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, and why? If you can’t pick one, what are a few of your favorites and why?
So many, so many … I love the tight and complex rhyming schemes of the poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” I love the precise and scientific nature of his prose in “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Tell us more about “The Unparalleled Attempt to Rescue One Hans Pfaall,” your story for “Quoth the Raven.” What made you choose “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” as the story to reimagine? What contemporary inspirations did you draw from to write the story?
I found a book of Poe’s stories and poems at my parents-in-law’s house, and the book contained the Hans Pfaall tale. It’s Poe at his most whimsical, as if he’d somehow teamed up with Dr. Seuss. It’s one of his lesser known works because it leaves too many loose ends and differs from his later writing.
At a time when hot air balloons were new, Poe captivated readers with a story of a journey to the Moon by balloon. Knowing that some readers might actually believe it, Poe kept the story light-hearted and farcical in tone (the balloon’s gas-bag is made from newspapers!). He intended to continue the story in subsequent installments and never did.
The story begged for a sequel that ties up the loose ends, so I wrote one.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?
I’m writing the second in a planned series of alternate history stories about Brother Eilmer of Malmesbury Abbey. He’s a medieval Benedictine monk who creates technological inventions far in advance of his time. My first such story was “Instability,” which appeared in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings, and was based on an actual recorded event.
When I was little, I loved spending time in cemeteries. Not in a macabre way — they were simply places where my mom and I would take walks. There was a cemetery near our apartment in Holyoke with a large, flat-topped stump, and I spent many afternoons climbing onto the stump and jumping off of it. Mom and I also fed squirrels at a cemetery in Leesburg, and because two squirrels always appeared by our bench, I named them Squirrely and Nutkin, and said I was feeding those two each time (even though in all likelihood, they were different squirrels each week).
I met fellow author Loren Rhoads online, and was delighted to find someone else who felt the same pull to visit cemeteries. Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She’s also the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes, a space opera trilogy that’s been described as grimdark. Her latest project is a collection of stories about a monster-hunting witch.
I asked Loren a few questions about her work and her travels. Read on for more information on both, and more!
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Loren: The first time I felt like a real writer was in 2008, when Dark Arts Books published four of my short stories in the book Sins of the Sirens. It was amazing to see my work appear alongside Maria Alexander, Mehitobel Wilson, and Christa Faust.
Sonora: Have you always written horror? What other genres appeal to you?
Loren: I actually started out writing science fiction, before drifting into horror. Lately, I’ve been writing cheerfully morbid nonfiction. My books have included a space opera trilogy, a succubus/angel urban fantasy, and a nonfiction travel guide called 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. In fact, 199 Cemeteries was my 11th book. I’m hoping to see another one published before the end of the year. It will combine horror, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance. I’m still struggling with its final title.
Sonora: I can’t wait to read Wish You Were Here — as I told you, I too have a fondness for visiting cemeteries. What drew you to visit them? What drew you to write about them?
Loren: I started visiting graveyards on vacation by accident, when I got routed unexpectedly to London during the first Gulf War. I discovered a photo book about Highgate Cemetery in the bookshop at Victoria Station and fell in love with the beautiful Victorian sculpture garden.
In the late 90s, I met Thomas Roche, the nonfiction editor at Gothic.Net, at a reading at Borderlands Bookstore. Tom said that he never got enough nonfiction for the site — and they paid real money — so I pitched him a series of essays about visiting cemeteries. That column won me my membership in the Horror Writers Association. The Gothic.Net essays formed the basis of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
Sonora: Do you have a favorite cemetery you’ve visited? A cemetery that’s on your wish list?
Loren: My favorite cemetery changes. I often pick Highgate, because that was where I fell in love with cemeteries, but Poblenou in Barcelona has one of my favorite pieces of cemetery art, the amazing Kiss of Death. This year, I’ve been researching a new cemetery guide about the pioneer graveyards of the San Francisco Bay Area, so I’ve seen some really charming local places, graveyards with really good stories. One of my favorites is in Oak Hill in San Jose, where Mountain Charlie is buried. Although he got between a mama grizzly and her cubs, he survived being bitten in the head. For years afterward, he wore his hat pulled low over his face to hide his deformity. That kind of wilderness is hard to imagine now, in Silicon Valley.
Wow, are there a lot of cemeteries on my wish list. I add them faster than I can cross them off. I’d love to see the cemeteries of Savannah and the Rockies and the Nevada ghost towns, as well as Happy Valley Cemetery in Hong Kong and Okunoin on Mount Koya in Japan. I’d really love to go to Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos. I have a big birthday coming up in a couple of years, so I told my husband that I’d like to see the Pyramids finally. So many cemeteries, so little time!
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?
Loren: One of my favorite writers is Martha Allard, who should be better known. She wrote a rock’n’roll vampire ghost novel called Black Light that is just devastating. Dana Fredsti’s Lilith books, about a demon-hunting stuntwoman, are a lot of fun. And I’m loving Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books. The second one — Down Among the Sticks and Bones — is set in a Hammer Horror-style of portal world.
My favorite books range from Dracula to Ray Bradbury’s early story collections to Angela Carter’s fairy tales and Dion Fortune’s books on practical magic.
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to tell us about?
Loren: I’ve been putting out a series of chapbooks this year, an ebook collection of three short stories every other month. The chapbooks collect up my stories about Alondra DeCourval, a young witch who travels the world to fight monsters. The stories were originally published in books like Best New Horror #27 and The Haunted Mansion Project: Year One and Sins of the Sirens, as well as online in Wily Writers or in magazines like Not One of Us and New Realm. The third volume just came out in June.
I’m finishing up two novellas to round out the series. One is about a firestorm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is an uncomfortable coincidence, since fire is raging near Yosemite right now [note: this interview was conducted in late July]. The final one is about the islands 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, on the edge of the continental shelf, where the naturalists are vanishing. The ghosts are hungry.