Ask the Author: A Q&A with Jessica Guess

Jessica Guess
Jessica Guess

First, I hope you all are doing well and staying safe during this pandemic. It’s a scary time, one made even scarier without knowing what the next steps will be, since they seem to change every day. All we can do is practice social distancing, watch for our symptoms, and help our neighbors near and far as safely as we can.

I know a lot of people have spent their extra time indoors reading. Unnerving is still releasing their Rewind or Die series, and I recently spoke with one of the series’ authors, Jessica Guess. Read on for our conversation about haunted carnivals, blogging, and more.


Sonora: How long have you been writing?

Jessica: Since middle school. I’ve been telling stories for forever though. They started as lies I’d tell my younger cousin to scare her into doing something for me. I’d tell her there was a witch who ate little girls who ate more than three cookies so she’d give me the rest of hers or something like that. I know, I know. Horrible. Those are the earliest stories I remembered telling. I only started writing things down in middle school after this one girl read a poem she wrote in class. I remember thinking if she could do it, I could too. I’ve been writing ever since.

Sonora: Tell us about Cirque Berserk, your novella in Unnerving’s “Rewind or Die” series. What inspired the story? What was it like writing it? Submitting it? Having it published?

Jessica: I was watching The Strangers Prey at Night and that movie was so colorful towards the end and had a great soundtrack. That night I was in bed and I got this image of a character on roller skates doing something horrible to the tune of Rhythm of the Night. I was so jarring and vivid. I had to write it. Not long after, I saw the Rewind or Die call for queries, and it seemed perfect for my story idea. At the time I hadn’t written anything yet, but I had an outline. I decided to query it and the publisher said he’d like to read it. That was around June or July. I wrote all summer and got the manuscript to him by September and he accepted it. I’m really lucky because the story came out very naturally. It wasn’t exactly easy to write, but it was easier than a lot of other long form things I’ve written. I was super proud of the story, but I was also a little shocked that he accepted it because I don’t think a lot of people get my writing. So far, the reactions have been good though.

Sonora: The carnival, a place of joy and delight, is a popular setting in horror. What do you think draws us, as readers and writers, to the carnival as a place of terror?

Jessica: Carnivals are supposed to be fun, but there’s a natural element of terror that goes along with them. Those rides are fun, but if you look closely at how rusted they are, or how maybe there’s a screw a little loose, or that the operator looks a little drunk, it gets scary. That’s the thing about carnivals. You’re supposed to only pay attention to the surface of things and not think too hard because that’s when it gets terrifying. In a carnival, things aren’t what they seem. We all know that, but we ignore the scary part for the sake of fun. Horror is the place where you don’t have to ignore it. You can look it right in the eye.

Sonora: Cirque Berserk is, among other things, a throwback to ‘80s slashers. What are some of your favorite slasher flicks?

Jessica: A Nightmare on Elm Street will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first slasher I remember watching as a kid. It’s what made me obsessed with horror movies. Urban Legend is probably my favorite from the 90’s, followed closely by Scream. I know everyone hates the 4th and 5th Halloween movies or pretend they don’t exist, but I really like those two. There’s a part in the 4th one where Jaime (Michael Myer’s niece) askes Michael to show her his face and weirdly he does. It’s a sweet moment where you think he might not be so evil but then he freaks out and goes back to being a monster. I liked that. Lastly, I mentioned The Strangers Prey at Night earlier. That has to be one of my recent faves.

Sonora: What are some of the unique strengths of slasher stories? What are some of their weaknesses?

Jessica: One thing I love about slashers is that no one debates whether they’re horror movies or not. Almost every other subgenre is re-imagined by non-horror lovers to be something else if the movie/book is considered commercially good. You see that with movies like Silence of the Lambs or Hereditary. No one does that with slashers because they are so purely horror. I love that about them. I also love that they all follow a formula. Sure, you can tinker with it, but it’s usually going to be some teens or young adults who are paying the price for something. Either for something they did or they’ve inherited some type of primordial debt from their parents or people who came before them. There’s also a visceral bad guy that either is or seems to be supernatural. That all kind of leads to their weaknesses though. When you don’t do something to tweak that formula or make it new, it becomes stale. A lot of slasher tropes are so overused that they become cringe worthy.

Sonora: When writing your own slasher, what did you want to add to the genre that you thought had been missing?

Jessica: I’ve always wanted a slasher with a black girl as the main character. That was the main thing for me with Cirque Berserk. I thought, what would I have loved to read when I was 16? What character would have satisfied teenage Jessica? Rochelle was born from that. I also wanted the story to be fun. Slashers are so fun to me. Right now, there seems to be this push to make horror serious and elevated. Sure, we can have that, but let’s not lose the fun stuff. Please. There’s room for all of it.

Sonora: Tell us about your blog, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. When did you start it? What’s been your experience with it since the launch?

Jessica: Honestly, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror started as a way for me to talk in depth about my love for horror movies. I wanted to offer a perspective I wasn’t seeing a lot of or discuss movies I wasn’t seeing people talk much about. I started it right after I finished my MFA program. I was looking for jobs and that was going horribly, so I decided to do something fun and rage about All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. The most successful post was the one I wrote about the importance Rachel True’s character, Rochelle (yes, my character is named after her) in The Craft. There was all this stuff last year about her not being invited to the panels and conventions that the other three actresses were. It’s ridiculous. And racist. BUST magazine reprinted that post with my permission.

Sonora: As you say on your blog, horror is dominated by white protagonists. How can the horror genre improve its treatment and representation of people of color? Of Black people? Of Black women in particular?

Jessica: I feel like people in power need to ask themselves this question more and then act on it. That would be a first step. If you have a publication, or are a literary agent, or an acquiring editor, or have any other position that creates opportunities, look for writers of color. Look for black women writers. We’re out here. It’s really good that some submission calls specify that they are looking for women and writers of color. Unnerving did that with Rewind or Die and that was the only reason I felt confident enough to submit Cirque Berserk. We’ve been left out and pushed to the side for so long that sometimes it’s hard to believe that anyone wants to give us a chance, so specifying that you want to hear from us is good. Also, hire black women as acquiring editors and literary agents. And believe women of color when they tell you something is harmful or damaging.

Sonora: What are some examples of horror stories — be they books, film, TV, anything — that handle diversity well?

Jessica: This is a hard one to answer because I’m not sure how exactly diversity should be handled. It seems that some people think of diversity as these boxes you have to tick off and the more you check, the more diverse you are. Kinda like, do we have a Black person? Check. An Asian person? Check. A gay person? Check. Wow, three checks. Look how diverse we are. But how are you treating those characters? Are they actually doing anything? To me, diversity is giving different types of people the space to tell their stories. Like the movie What Keeps You Alive. That movie had only white women in it, but it was the first horror movie I had ever seen that revolved around a lesbian relationship. Chambers was a show on Netflix that had the first Native American woman in the lead role. It was a great show that revolved around family, Indigenous lore, and cultural appropriation. My Sister the Serial Killer is a great book I read over the summer about a Nigerian woman trying to cover up her sisters string of murders. What I’m trying to say is that those examples didn’t have those characters in there to fulfill some kind of diversity quota, instead it was about creating stories about people we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear a lot from before.

Sonora: What are some cliches about horror’s treatment of people of color that you never want to see again?

Jessica: The only black character dying first. Please just stop doing that. It’s tired. Also, Native American burial grounds. Stop. I cringe every time.

Sonora: What are you working on now?

Jessica: A story about an iguana apocalypse. I know that makes no sense. It’s set in Florida if that helps. We have an iguana infestation that’s pretty bad. I’m also cooking up a gothic werewolf romance. I know that also makes no sense.

Bio:

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is for purchase on Amazon.

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Melanie Cossey

melanie cossey
“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’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.


 

Check out Melanie’s book, A Peculiar Curiosity; and Quoth the Raven. (U.S. link to A Peculiar Curiosity here)

Follow Melanie on Facebook.

Check out Melanie’s interview with me on her blog!