As Women in Horror Month enters its final week (sniff), here is the final interview in my WIHM interview series. Today, I’m chatting with author Hailey Piper. Read on to get to know this awesome writer!
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Hailey: I’ve been writing since I was little, telling stories about werewolf weddings and Bigfoot. I don’t think I could ever get away from it, and I wouldn’t want to.
Sonora: Tell us about your novella, The Possession of Natalie Glasgow. What inspired the story?
Hailey: The setup isn’t all that different from The Exorcist in that we have a single mother whose daughter is acting strangely and the doctors seem useless, so she reaches out for spiritual help. The novella starts at that point, where the narrator swerves from the usual, so as not to retread well-explored territory. I wanted to tell a possession story outside the organized religion worldview, where witchcraft isn’t the devil and the evil lies in human hands.
Sonora: Since its initial release, Natalie Glasgow has had a title change and also became available in paperback. Tell us more about the experience of making these updates after the novella was out. What motivated you to do it? Did you notice positive changes afterward? Is there anything you would do differently?
Hailey: I had never planned it to be more than an ebook, and I hadn’t expected anyone to pay much attention to it. I had considered The Exorcism of Natalie Glasgow; Possession hadn’t occurred to me until Steve Stred suggested the title change. Months later, I decided to just do it, at which point Eddie Generous offered new cover art, and then a few cool people (including you, Sonora!) won me over on creating a paperback. Since then, the novella has seen entirely unexpected success, with an explosion of Goodreads ratings/reviews, a featured group review from the Night Worms bloggers, and people sending friendly messages to say they enjoyed it. I think this proves the value of a strong title and cover art, and while I’m happy with the path Natalie Glasgow has taken, I’d definitely try to come out of the gate stronger if I ever self-publish again.
Sonora: Your latest release, Benny Rose: The Cannibal King, is part of Unnerving’s Rewind or Die series. What was it like writing a novella for such a series? Did the idea come to you when you read the call for submissions, or had Benny Rose already introduced himself to you?
Hailey: Benny Rose as a concept has a complicated history. He was a lot of things for me at different times through 2018 as I tried to make his and Desiree’s story work in notes. I had characters, backstory, but there was something wrong. When the call went out for Rewind or Die, everything clicked—the 1980s was the perfect time. I had to cut some elements, but that only made the novella stronger. All the stuff I really cared about stayed.
Sonora: Tell us about Benny Rose. How is it like your previous works? How is it different?
Hailey: Blackwood, Vermont is a small town, its only claim to fame being local folklore ghoul Benny Rose, allegedly based on a serial killer active in the 1950s. On Halloween night, Desiree St. Fleur and her friends decide to play a Benny Rose-themed prank on town newcomer Gabrielle Walker, unaware that they’ll stumble upon the truth behind the legend. As Natalie Glasgow twisted possession tropes, Benny Rose is my stab at slasher tropes, but where Natalie Glasgow focused on family and pride, I hope readers find Benny Rose a harrowing gauntlet of friendship, tragedy, and sacrifice.
Sonora: What have been your experiences in horror as a queer author? As a woman author?
Hailey: Rewarding, if daunting. I had stopped writing for the longest time, and when I bounced back into it, I was unapologetic about letting myself out in the open. I wanted to write queer stories. And I definitely wanted to write feminist stories. I drew back a little at first—I don’t think anyone realized Natalie Glasgow’s protagonist Margaret Willow is gay because I cut almost every reference to that—but I’ve come back from that with a vengeance. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have the support of publishers and readers alike.
Sonora: Horror is often analyzed as inherently queer. Even stories that don’t explicitly have LGBTQIA+ characters are viewed as queer narratives. What are your thoughts on horror as queer?
Hailey: I think horror is the genre most-suited to telling queer narratives, even without queer characters, but that could be my own queer perspective talking. We’re innocently existing and then someone horrible intrudes. Or, the world doesn’t want us, so we’re monsters to be destroyed.
Sonora: Similarly, horror, like other genres, is often seen as a safe way to present queer narratives to mass audiences, since it’s “disguised” under classic genre tropes. Do you agree with this? Do you think this is still the case, or is explicitly queer horror coming more to the forefront than coded horror stories?
Hailey: I think there’s room for both queer-coded themes and narratives in horror and for queer characters at the forefront to co-exist. A winning story in Pseudopod’s 2019 flash fiction contest that will appear in a future episode presented what felt like a transgender narrative through a speculative lens, and it was brilliant. In the same year, Sarah Fannon’s short story “Consumed” told its horror through a gay woman’s point of view as she searched for companionship, and it was also brilliant. I want both kinds, and lots of them.
Hailey: How can the horror genre be better in its treatment of LGBTQIA+ characters and stories? How can the industry be better?
Hailey: We need more queer creators and decision makers. While there are excellent stories told by allies, there’s only so much that can be understood without firsthand experience. Different perspectives mean different voices which lead to different stories. It’s not enough for allies to tell their stories but with queer characters, wonderful as some of those stories have been. We need to tell them too, share our unique worldview, both lovely and terrifying.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Hailey: It’s hard to list favorite books when I’m reading so much excellent short fiction that I want to shove in everyone’s faces, but some favorite authors would be Gwendolyn Kiste, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Sara Tantlinger, Caitlin Kiernan, Christa Carmen, and Ray Cluley.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Hailey: The dreaded question that outs me as a workaholic! I’m a third into writing a new novella, halfway through a novelette, planning a new novel, revising another, and editing short stories. There’s a lot going on.
About Hailey Piper:
Hailey Piper is the author of horror novellas The Possession of Natalie Glasgow and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King, and her debut dark fantasy/epic horror novel, The Verses of Aeg, will be published by Bronzeville Books in Q4 2020. An active member of the HWA, she enjoys consuming horror, writing it, and sometimes haunting her wife through their apartment. Find her on Twitter via @HaileyPiperSays or at her website www.haileypiper.com.
My Women in Horror Month interview series continues with a conversation with author V. Castro! Read on to hear more from this wonderful writer.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
V: I have been writing since I was a kid, but I didn’t seriously begin to consider publishing until three years ago. I always thought it would be unavailable to someone like me.
Sonora: You made a welcome splash into the vampire genre with Maria the Wanted and the Legacy of the Keepers. Tell us about this book. What inspired the story? What was it like writing it? Publishing it?
V: Maria works in a maquiladora in Juarez, Mexico to earn enough money to pay a coyote to cross the border. During one of her shifts, she and her co-workers are attacked by vampires. This is the beginning of her journey to becoming a dark enforcer of justice that even Lucifer cannot resist.
This story was inspired by a dream, but it wasn’t about Maria. She emerged while I wrote what is now book 2 of the series. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and what she stood for.
Sonora: When will we see Maria’s next adventure?
V: I have written parts of the sequels already. My hope is to find a publisher to take on the series because it is a pretty big project. I envision at least 2-3 more books.
Sonora: You also wrote another vampire tale, The Erotic Modern Life of Malinalli the Vampire. As the title suggests, it’s very sexy. What draws you to writing erotica?
V: I just love sex. That might sound crass, but it is true. Writing about it is an escape that I find exciting. I have lived a pretty colorful life so some of those experiences make their way onto the page.
Sonora: Sex in horror is interesting. I often find that horror stories treat sex as something that should be shocking, violent, and/or a means of punishment; so it’s refreshing when I see an honest-to-God, sexy, consensual sex scene in a horror novel. What are your experiences reading sex in horror? Is there anything you would suggest authors do to improve the state of sex in horror?
V: I think you hit the nail on the head. We should have normal sex in horror because humans have good consensual sex all the time. Women are not just toys to be degraded for the sake of a plot. If it is part of a back story, handled with respect or if it is written by a survivor, I can understand.
If authors want to improve sex in horror, I suggest they write it in a way they might enjoy it.
Sonora: Tell us about your next novella, Hairspray and Switchblades (out February 22). I can’t wait to read it!
V: Maya is a dancer at a gentleman’s club, but she is also a jaguar shifter. After her parents are murdered, her options are limited that will allow her to retain custody of her younger sister Magdalena and pay for her education. But there is a predator on the loose and it wants their hide.
Sonora: You’ve also written several short stories, which have appeared in different anthologies. How is the experience of writing a short story different for you than a novel? A novella?
V: In some ways it is more difficult because you have a finite space to create a rich world and developed characters. I love writing short stories because where else can I pursue all my crazy ideas!
I also find that a novel can feel like a slog because 65k and over is a lot of words. Then you have the editing that consumes significant time and energy. When I need a break, short stories help me to break up the monotony of bigger projects.
Sonora: What have been your experiences as a Latinx author? As a woman author?
V: In horror there are so very few Latinx authors and it is discouraging when you only see white men getting all the fanfare in horror. However, the indie horror community has been great to me as a Latina and a woman. With that said, I truly believe you get what you give. Supporting others is important to me.
Sonora: What can the genre do to improve representation of diverse voices? What can the industry do?
V: The industry is off to a good start by stating in their submission calls that they want to see diversity in the author pool. It is not enough for just asking white authors to write diverse stories. Those stories need to come from us.
Editors need to look at their anthologies and try to include stories by authors from marginalized groups.
Reading diversely and reviewing those books goes a long way because word of mouth is crucial.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
V: Honestly, the indie horror scene is really hot as it becomes more inclusive and women are killing it. I can’t just name a few! Everyone on the hustle deserves a nod.
One book I read last year that has continually inspired me is a non-fiction book by fellow Mexican American author David Bowles. Feathered Serpent Dark Heart of Sky is a book of all the myths of Mexico. It is so lush, and I love it.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
V: So many things! Working hard on making Latinx Screams the best it can be. I’m curating a Latinx dark fiction book bundle for StoryBundle.
About V. Castro:
V.Castro is a Mexican American writer from San Antonio, Texas, now residing in the UK.
As a full-time mother, she dedicates her time to her family and writing Latinx narratives.
Currently she is co-editing Latinx Screams with Bronzeville Books due out in the fall.
Her titles include:
Maria The Wanted and the Legacy of The Keepers
The Erotic Modern Life of Malinalli the Vampire
Rigor Morbid: Lest Ye Become — “The Latin Queens of Mictlan”
Hairspray and Switchblades — Feb 2020 (Unnerving)
Violet is a reviewer for www.scifiandscary.com and Latin Horror. She has contributed to Ladies of Horror Fiction, Ginger Nuts of Horror, OctoberPod Podcast, and Burial Ground.
My Women in Horror Month interview series continues today with an interview with award-winning author Sara Tantlinger! Read on to learn more about this amazing writer and poet.
Sonora: How long have you been writing poetry? Has your poetry always been infused with horror? When did your verses start to gain a sinister or macabre twist?
Sara: I started writing some very angst-filled poetry back in middle school. It was definitely a way for me to cope with the grief I was feeling at that time to try and deal with the sudden loss of my dad. I am not one to talk about my feelings and inner turmoil a lot, so turning to notebooks and writing became my therapy. I think over the years, poetry has become the most organic way for me to deal with extreme emotions like that. It’s a pure and unfiltered way to write whether the poetry is real or fictional, rage-filled or blooming with love.
Like many others, I started reading Poe in school, which of course inspired me to look more into dark poetry. I began writing horror during college when I was an undergraduate. I took an independent study in horror poetry specifically, and my first few poems were published in my university’s literary magazine. From there, the poems have only grown in their darkness!
Sonora: Tell us about your Stoker-award winning collection, The Devil’s Dreamland. What inspired you to write H.H. Holmes’ story as a series of poems?
Sara: Happily! If anyone reading is not familiar, The Devil’s Dreamland is a collection of poetry that uses a narrative arc format to tell the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes. The poems are often from his point of view but are also told through the viewpoints of his wives, his victims, the city of Chicago, the 1893 World’s Fair, and more. While the book is heavily based off the research I did, it is of course embedded with my fictionalized version of how I imagined things to transpire.
I never imagined that collection would go on to do everything it has, so I am completely honored and thankful to every single person who has read and supported the book. It continues to mean the world. When I started researching Holmes, I came across a lot of books (historical and fictional) about Holmes or inspired by him, and I knew I wanted to try and do something different. I did not find any poetry about him except an odd one here or there, and I also did not see many women writing about him, so it seemed like a great chance to craft a story in the form of poetry. My hope was that it would attract people who normally do not read a ton of poetry, and from the feedback I have received, that seems to have worked for a few folks! Being able to slightly open the gateway to show others how amazing horror poetry can be has honestly been the greatest reward of writing The Devil’s Dreamland.
Sonora: Do you have a favorite poem in The Devil’s Dreamland? I know it’s like asking to pick your favorite child, but if you had to choose …
Sara: Ha! Oh wow, that is tough. Okay, if I had to choose…there is one toward the end titled “Three Wives Dressed in Black.” The reason it stands out to me is because while I was researching and writing this collection, I tried to remain very cognizant of the fact that real humans suffered at the hands of this man. Women lost their lives. While Holmes did not, however, kill any of his three “wives” (quotations because he was only legally married to one of the women) — this poem was a small chance to kind of give the women a strong voice toward the end of the book. There are other pieces where I wrote from the women’s viewpoints because I wanted them to feel tangible to readers, and “Three Wives Dressed in Black” shows the women uniting to curse Holmes and all he has done. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:
“how he tried to keep wives
hidden from one another
like butterflies inside of jars,
but they’ve broken out
shattered the glass
painted themselves in death’s
blood, black veils across
each face, praying
for the mistresses and others
massacred by this madman.
Mourn not for us,
they whisper again
casting the face of each victim
deeper into his mind as the worms
roll loose, melding with his brain
matter, eating through clusters
of nerves, extracting the closest,
botched thing to guilt
they can find”
Sonora: You also write prose fiction. Do you prefer one or the other between poetry and prose? What inspires you to turn an idea into one or the other?
Sara: I really love both, but it takes me a lot longer to plan, draft, organize, and revise a prose project than it does with poetry, but I am aiming to get better at that! Sometimes a poem will inspire a short story, or when I need help getting deeper into a character’s head, I’ll write poetry through their point of view.
Sonora: Your novella, To Be Devoured, follows a woman whose disgusting obsession comes out of her in a multitude of shocking ways. It’s written from her perspective. What was it like putting yourself into such a mindset for the duration of writing it?
Sara: To Be Devoured was my main project that followed The Devil’s Dreamland, so maybe that mindset transpired between projects. By “mindset” I mean locking myself down into a psychopath’s possible thoughts, goals, and desires as closely as I could. For To Be Devoured, specifically, it was one of those glorious moments where a story and a character completely invade your waking hours and demand to be written.
It was certainly interesting to ask myself what Andi, the protagonist, would do in the situations she is in … I really tried to brainstorm what would be logical for someone thinking like she did (obsessed with carrion and understanding the secrets the vultures must be hiding), and while some scenes may have seemed extreme to readers, it was what made sense for Andi’s character and I didn’t want to censor any of that back, no matter how horrifying it was to write.
Sonora: Poetry can sometimes be daunting to people who otherwise love to read. What would you say to someone who wants to read and appreciate more poetry, but isn’t sure where to start? What would you say to that same person if they wanted to write more poetry?
Sara: I believe there is poetry out there for everyone, even the skeptics. Poetry is amazing because you can find poems on almost any topic. For anyone who struggles reading poetry, I might advise to start with some spoken word poetry or watch slam poetry readings — this is a great way to find new voices in poetry, and if you like listening to these types of readings, then you might enjoy reading more from those writers.
For anyone who wants to write poetry but is not sure where to start, I think my advice would be the same to any new writer out there: read. Read as much as you can. Read the classics and read contemporary. Read the poems aloud to yourself and get to know how your words interact on the page. You do not have to study formal poetry to be a strong poet, but I do think having a working knowledge of the basics is a great stepping stone to finding out what works for you as a creator.
Sonora: What have been your experiences in horror as a woman author? In poetry as a woman poet?
Sara: I feel lucky that 98% of the time I have had positive experiences within the horror community. I am very aware that is not the case for every woman or minority in the genre. I try really hard to surround myself with encouraging, honest, and supportive people so that makes a huge difference, but sometimes you never know what someone’s motive could be. I am humbled and lucky by the positivity I have experienced, so I do my best to continually pay that forward however I can.
Sonora: How can the literary fields you’ve worked in and read stories in be better about their treatment of women?
Sara: When posting guidelines and open calls, take an extra minute to write something like “minorities encouraged to submit” — it’s a small line that does not exclude anyone from submitting, but also shows writers that diversity is welcome here. We need diverse voices in all forms of literature and genre work.
I’d also encourage anyone writing in a different voice than their own, to use beta readers and sensitivity readers with those experiences. For example, I have no problem with a male author writing from the perspective of a woman character, but ask women to read your work and get honest feedback.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite poets? What are some of your favorite poems? What are some of your favorite poetry collections?
Sara: In regard to classic favorites, I draw a lot of inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath. Some of my favorites in contemporary poetry are Linda Addison, Sierra DeMulder, Richard Siken, Claire C. Holland, Donna Lynch, David Cowen, Christina Sng, and so many more! There are really a lot of amazing poets out there right now.
One of my favorite collections I read recently was The Demeter Diaries by Marge Simon and Bryan Dietrich. What a stunning piece of work.
Two of my all-time favorite poems are Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — I have lines from both poems tattooed on me!
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Sara: Some of my favorite contemporary writers are Catherynne Valente, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, Caroline Kepnes, Gwendolyn Kiste, Sarah Read, Nicholas Day, Christa Carmen, Thomas Harris, Mike Arnzen, Hailey Piper, Brooke Warra, and Paul Tremblay, and about a million more folks I’m sorry I didn’t shout out here (I could go on forever).
Some of my all-time favorite books are Valente’s Deathless, [Bram] Stoker’s Dracula, and [Stephen] King’s Misery.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Sara: Currently I am working on Cradleland of Parasites, my next poetry collection that will be out later this year from Strangehouse Books. It draws a lot of inspiration from the Black Death, but I’ve been researching other plagues, viruses, and diseases as well. My internet search history kind of looks like I’m trying to create a virus to wipe out humanity at the moment. But I really love historical horror, and this project has been a huge learning experience about how the Black Death irrevocably affected society, culture, art, literature, and more after it brought down such great tragedy.
I have a few other projects in the oven, including a novella I am co-writing with Matt Corley, which will become a part of his Whispers in the Dark series of investigative RPG horror. It’s such a different kind of project for me to be involved in, and I am thrilled about its potential.
And of course I have to promote that my first edited anthology, Not All Monsters, will be out in the fall from Strangehouse Books and features stories by 21 incredible women in horror!
About Sara Tantlinger:
Sara Tantlinger is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes. She is a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. Her other books include Love for Slaughter and To Be Devoured. Her poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including The Twisted Book of Shadows, Sunlight Press, Unnerving, and Abyss & Apex. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.com
Kaitlyn didn’t believe in ghosts—not until one killed her boyfriend and her best friend. Now she must stop the spirit haunting the Devil’s Tree, or she could be next. Seventeen-year-old Kaitlyn wants to escape her drunk mama and her trailer park home life to enjoy a Saturday night off work. Instead, her boyfriend, Hunter, convinces her to go with him and their best friends, Dylan and Keisha, to photograph a desolate tree with an evil past. A terrifying presence chases them from the tree, killing Hunter and Keisha. Left alive with Dylan, Kaitlyn must struggle with her unexpected romantic feelings for him, come to terms with her loss, and face being trapped in a dead-end town. Kaitlyn is desperate to put the past to rest, but when their friends’ spirits begin haunting them, she and Dylan have no choice but to seek help from a Catholic priest and attempt to set the trapped spirits free.
I was a fan of McCauley’s story, “The Cask,” in Quoth the Raven; and I’m sure readers of The Devil’s Tree are in for a real treat.
If anyone’s working on their first book and wondering if each subsequent book gets easier to write, I’m here to tell you now that this is not true.
I almost couldn’t stop writing my first book, Please Give. I slowed down on Without Condition. Now, I’m on Book #3 — tentatively called Seeing Things — and I’m typing more slowly than molasses moving uphill on a cold day. Some days are faster. For instance, I wrote over 1200 words the other day (woot!). But other days, I’m lucky to write a paragraph; and I’ll only do it after I’ve exhausted my social media loop of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.
But, it’s being written; which is better than the alternative. The words are coming a little faster now that I’m getting closer to the meat of the plot. I’ll be taking a break from it once I get Little Paranoias back from Evelyn with her edits, but when that happens, it’ll be good to have a nice foundation to return to and give my undivided attention.
Speaking of Little Paranoias, it’s out for edits, as I mentioned above. I’ve been working on other parts of the book, namely the back cover description. I write my own descriptions (which Evelyn reviews as well. Cardinal rule of self-publishing: always have someone else review something you’re putting together yourself, even things like the back cover description), and let me tell you, they’re hard! You don’t want to give too much away, but you also don’t want it to be too vague. Short story collections can be especially tough, since you need to pick and choose which elements you want to highlight.
I’ve been working on a few short stories as well, though I’m trying to keep my focus on Seeing Things. I submitted a poem and a short story to two different journals for consideration, and entered my Pi Day tale, “Crust,” in a contest (read it here). I also discovered a call for submission for a Penny Dreadful issue of a horror journal. Each story has to be 19 words exactly. That was a fun challenge to partake in, and I hope at least one of the five stories I submitted is accepted.
I will keep all of you posted on these pieces as they come together (heh). Have a great week!
One thing I don’t want this blog to ever become is a string of posts promising to write more. I figure, if there’s a prolonged period where I don’t have much to add, I’ll let the blog sit and hope that people see me tweeting or Instagramming to see what I’m up to. Of course, on Twitter and Instagram, I’m usually talking about hockey or terrifying beauty rituals if I’m not talking about writing.
That said, I realize it’s been a minute since I’ve posted; and I wanted to check in, especially since I already recapped a prolonged absence following the release of Without Condition. This time, my absence hasn’t been because of writing. I have some exciting things going on in my personal life, which I’ll talk about more once those pieces are in place; but I can assure you that they’re all good!
I’m also letting Little Paranoias sit before giving it one full read-through. I plan to send it to Evelyn for editing in June, and in the meantime, I’ve started working with Doug on what the cover will look like.
Today is Feb. 1, meaning it’s the first day of Women in Horror Month! (Though really, every month can be Women in Horror Month if you try hard and believe in yourself)
I plan to celebrate as both a writer and a reader. I’m participating in the monthly Ladies of Horror Flash Fiction Picture Contest, and will be featured as part of author Elaine Pascale’s “Ones You Don’t Bring Home” series throughout February. You will also see me popping up on various blogs and review sites, doing interviews and being reviewed, because …
Without Condition will be released on February 12!!!
We’re less than two weeks away from the release of my next book. You can check out more on this very site, and also see some early feedback from reviewers on Goodreads.
I’m also pleased to see Without Condition included in the Ladies of Horror Fiction’s Women in Horror Month Read-Along. They’ve set up five categories for their readathon, with the books they both recommend and plan to read. Without Condition is included under Indie Author.
2019 has started with me working in pieces. A flash piece here, a submission there, a proofread right here, and bits of stories in between. At the moment, I’m working on an epistolary piece for a themed submission. Epistolary pieces are usually told through letters. I decided to take a different approach and tell a story through an ongoing thread on a fictional Reddit forum devoted to nightmares. The title may change, but right now, it’s “r/uawake.”
Writing it has been a challenge, mostly because with the setting of a forum and for the plot itself, time stamps are important. As such, I have to write time stamps for each post, which has made my eyes cross more than once. Balancing it out, though, are the names of the users. I’ve had fun coming up with punny usernames. My current favorite is Constant Craven (if you take it and/or it already exists, then, insert disclaimer about how all characters in this story are from the author’s imagination).
I’m also in the final stages of preparing Without Condition for publication on February 12 (mark your calendars). I received my ebook and paperback proofs from Doug, and just finished reading through my paperback to make any final corrections. I’m also sending it out to reviewers. If you’re interested in providing an honest review in exchange for a free ARC, let me know in the comments; or feel free to contact me at sonorataylor (at) gmail (dot) com. Please include a link to your site or your social media pages (Goodreads, Instagram, etc.) where you’ll post the review.
I’m happy and proud to announce that I have two new stories included in the latest issue of The Sirens Call! Issue 42: The Bitter End features short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and artwork around the one fate we’ll all meet eventually: death.
I have two short stories included: “Death is a Hunter” and “Dead End.” “Dead End” is an extra special treat, as it’s the first chapter of my upcoming novel, Without Condition. The novel will be out on February 12, 2019.
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.