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
Check out previous WIHM 2020 interviews: