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 5thHalloween 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.
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.
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.
I first met author Steve Stred last year, when we followed each other after liking each other’s replies on a friend’s Twitter thread. He offered me an advance copy of of his early 2019 short story collection, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, in exchange for an honest review. I was immediately struck by how visceral his storytelling was, and how much it scared me. I don’t scare easily in print form, so when I read a story that truly creeped me out, I knew I’d read something special.
I felt the same way when I read an advance copy of The Stranger, Stred’s upcoming release (out June 1, but available for pre-order now). I asked Stred if he’d like to have a virtual chat with me about his writing, and he was kind enough to do so. Read on for why forests are a draw for dark tales, what separates Canadian horror from American horror, and thoughts on triggers and sensitivity in the genre.
Sonora: When did you first start writing? Tell us about your early work versus your more recent pieces. Have there been any major changes? What’s stayed the same?
Steve: I started out writing some short fiction and poetry in high school — so about 20 years ago. Back then it was more of a passing thing. I loved it but I had no real direction and it was more about me following a desire to write.
Fast forward and in 2010 I really got the bug and started to develop my first novel Invisible. I had the basic premise and the ending really locked in place but through a series of events it kept getting delayed and delayed. I kept working on it and really finished it up in 2016.
At that time I found a passion to write and release stuff. So I worked on my first short story “For Balder Walks,” then developed a few more — “The Fence,” “Time Out Noose” and “Edge of the Woods.” Then as life progressed I wrote “Jim and Mr. Tross.” I got to the point where I submitted and contacted different folks and got some great advice.
Now the biggest change, I think at least when I look back is the ability to edit myself, but also have the story flow easily. Working with David Sodergren so much has helped me beyond anything, really. He is ruthless with line/copy editing, so I figure if I can give him less work on his end, I’m being more efficient and a more effective writer.
Sonora: Do you gravitate more towards long or short fiction? Do you know when you sit down to write how long a piece will be?
Steve: It’s an interesting question — because I’ve come to a cross roads with my work. I think it’s more of an enlightenment, truthfully. I’ve had one long read (Invisible) and my second comes out June 1st (The Stranger). I have one more novel planned this year (Piece of Me) which is completely written but I need to go through it one more time, then send off to Sodergren and fix what he finds wrong. But going forward everything will be novella length or collections. It’s just how my writing mind works. I can’t describe it other than thinking about writing a novella makes me happy, whereas trying to force a full length does not.
Sonora: You also wrote a collection of poetry, having been inspired by Erin Al-Mehairi’s Breathe. Breathe. Tell us about that. What was it like writing poetry versus prose?
Steve: Yes! God, I was a pretentious snob before reading that, haha! Erin has been so helpful and always supportive and I really, really like to support those who support me. In this case though, I believe she sent me a copy as a birthday gift! When I read it I was blown away. She just has this gift of absolutely decimating your mind with the way her words jump off the page. I would read a poem and I felt like I’d read a novel. The imagery she created was incredible.
I don’t think I can ever match what she did, not by a long shot, but it kicked me in the butt and made me step back and look at my previous history with writing poetry as well as the joy and impact it’d had on my life. So I gave it a shot!
It was a weird process to go back to writing poetry. I don’t think I have a very large vocabulary so I really had to push myself to not sound like a 75 year old, white male rapper who used the same word to rhyme over and over again, haha! I also worked hard to tell a story without telling a story but implying a story and it was tough. Erin’s collection is a must read.
I wrote Dim the Sun with the goal to also help raise some funds for my buddy Rob Derman, who is an amateur athlete. Right now, while writing this, I’m not sure what his future holds as the sport of Skeleton in Canada is going through a shakeup, with the closing of one of the training tracks.
Sonora: Your latest release, The Stranger, is a summer vacation tale with several haunting twists. Tell us what went into writing it.
Steve: Well, surprise twist — I like to write stories set in the woods! I think a big part of my constant theme with Mother Nature, more specifically the woods, is from where I grew up and how much time I spent in the forest and in the mountains. I love the mountains, but I’m also scared to death of them. Too many things lurk that you can’t see. When I go there, I’m in their home. They have the advantage and that scares me.
I wrote it after being inspired on a camping trip and spotted a unique looking smudge mark or burn mark on the cement bin around the camp fire. Coupled with the sights from far above on some plane flights and I just let my imagination go where it wanted!
Sonora: A major theme in The Stranger is the monstrosity of racism. What was it like writing this story? How was it inspired by the current political climate? How was it inspired by your own experiences?
Steve: Oh lord, haha! You write something and then you don’t want to talk about it! For those unaware, I grew up in Canada, in a very small town in BC, which is the farthest west province in our country. My father was from northern BC, my mother from the town I grew up in. There’s a generational thing that casual racism seems to occur and I found that it would pop up time and time again. I don’t believe some of my relatives are straight forward racists but these little comments you’d hear at family gatherings, whether in jokes or whatever just kept getting too me. Even when I was young. In the afterword I mention how I overheard a joke that was very poor and crude and repeated in front of my mom. She was livid.
I just felt I needed to write this book but also early on, by having a Native American creation type tale involved, which I don’t think is a spoiler at all to say that, I needed to tell a bit of the other side of it. The privileged aspect I guess. I really struggled with writing it. I also typically don’t swear a lot in my writing. I did in The Girl Who Hid in the Trees and it just felt odd haha! So I worked really hard to show disdain for a specific group of people but not go the Tarantino route of expletive after expletive.
Our political climate is usually very different from the US stuff, but funnily enough, we had a guy come onboard to run for Premiere of our province who follows a very similar path as the current sitting President down south. Unfortunately he won our election so now we kind of have to hold our breath and wait and see the damage he wants to bring in.
Sonora: In writing about racism as a white, straight, cis-man, you talk about the how and why of what you wanted to accomplish in both the foreword and afterword. This isn’t something I see a lot from other authors, and it was nice to see in your piece. Do you think more authors, especially authors from privileged demographics, should talk about this when they write similar stories?
Steve: I had to write the foreword and afterword. I wanted it there as a warning for readers. In the afterword I did say that with the story coming from me (from my perspective at least) people may just take it with a grain of salt. I hope they don’t, but they might. I myself have no triggers, but that’s me. I usually write dark horror and I didn’t want to surprise anyone who snagged this and who maybe loved Wagon Buddy or YURI and then started reading and had to stop because they weren’t expecting the subject matter. So I wanted to write the foreword to let folks know that there was some difficult themes ahead. I have a whole environmental/human footprint narrative in the story as well, but at the end of the day if someone writes me a 1 star review and says “this guy sucks he wanted me to think about how much garbage I create or I need to recycle,” I’ll smile, because I don’t think you’ll see that. But the racism/bigotry stuff is a tough, tough area and I wanted to make sure I was upfront with it and to make sure people wouldn’t go into the story oblivious to what was about to happen.
The afterword I also felt I needed to do. I just wanted to lay things out there so people knew how I felt and it may sound a bit cowardly, but I wanted to protect myself and let people know I’m no Malcolm (main character in The Stranger). I mention it in the afterword but Kealan Patrick Burke gave me some great advice and I took it to heart. I knew this was a story I needed to write but I knew it was a story that I might have to defend myself about writing a bit and that’s fine, but I wanted to make sure people knew my intentions were genuine and my hope for what readers took from it was purposeful.
As for others doing it — I think it would be fantastic to see it when the subject matter suggests we should. If it’s a creature feature that’s just gore and death, well, I think we know it was written with some fun behind the scenes!
As I side note — I wish more authors would write an afterword. I absolutely love reading about where they got the inspiration for the story. Even if it’s something as mundane as ‘I was playing with my son in his sandbox’ (which was where I got the inspiration for one of my upcoming 2020 releases FYI), I want to read about it!
Sonora: You also hired a sensitivity reader for The Stranger. I’ve seen a lot of arguments for and against sensitivity readers from many different voices. Have you worked with a sensitivity reader before? Do you think hiring sensitivity readers should be common practice?
Steve: Oh man, the sensitive reader thing shows just how out of touch with a lot of things I am! I honestly didn’t know that was a thing, haha! I had written most of the story and messaged KPB. He mentioned I should get a sensitive reader and make sure what I had written was in line and not offside. So I put out a call on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had two people contact me and I was just not sure. I received a message from J.H. Moncrieff who’s been super helpful as well with my writing and she said that I’d need a sensitive reader and that typically they can be very tough. Then I was contacted by Cassandra [Chaput] and we hit it off. I told her upfront — if I’ve done things wrong, tell me. Please don’t be worried about my feelings and if I’ve done it poorly I’d scrap a bunch of it and start again. And she was fantastic. She gave great feedback and really made all of the negatives she’d found as positives and constructive. Couldn’t have asked for a better beta-reader, let alone a sensitive reader. So my first experience was a good one!
As for others using it — I think it’d be an ideal practice if the story needed it. As an example (purely made up here) but if a story had a significant story line involving sexual assault, I’d think it’d be prudent to maybe find a sensitive reader who works in the care side of that world to help make sure things are written correctly but also in a manner that doesn’t detract from the story.
Sonora: Some readers and writers argue that sensitivity readers (and, related, trigger warnings) are especially unnecessary for horror, as the idea of horror is to disturb you. What is your response to those individuals? And, as someone who wrote a horror story (and in my opinion, a damn good one) and hired a sensitivity reader, what would you share about that experience in terms of how it affected your writing?
Steve: Thank you! That’s a tough question. I think trigger warnings are a good thing, but I personally don’t need them. I hope that doesn’t sound insensitive! Everyone reads things differently and everyone comes from very different backgrounds and what may affect one person may not another. For me, I think if the story contained a lot of animal abuse/deaths and/or infant/toddler abuse/deaths, I’d want to know going in. If it was a specific part of the story and was a key aspect, I’d be fine with it, even though I’d cringe a bunch, but if anything is written specifically for gratuitous reasons or shock value, I’m not on board. I also understand the argument — horror is written to horrify us, to make us pull up our feet and turn on the lights. There’s a difference between being scared and being personally affected and I think that’s a big differentiator for me.
Sonora: The Stranger features scary things happening to a vacationing family at the hands of a vengeful wood spirit. Your last release, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, also features violent monsters in the woods. What draws you to the forest as a setting for horror?
Steve: As I mentioned earlier, the thing that’s always drawn me into the woods has been the idea that I’m in its territory, its world. Where I grew up the forest came pretty close up to the back of our house. We cleared it out a number of years ago, but having a forest to play in and a mountain as a back drop was always really amazing but also scared me too no end. We had Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and a variety of random animals that would trek through the back of our place. We had chickens and fruit trees so there was always something that drew them down from higher up in the mountain.
In the middle of the forest in our back yard was a massive slab of a rock, so that was always our base of operations, our meeting point.
My grandparents lived just down the street from us and my grandpa used to have a trap line and when he was younger he used to go on horseback up the mountains with some of the native population to go hunting. So the mountains and the forest have always been a place I grew up in but also a place that creeped me the hell out!
Additionally I’ve always loved movies set in the woods with creepy characters. I mean two of my favourite movies ever are Predator and Harry and the Henderson’s. While both are at different ends of the spectrum — both are based on creatures in the woods. So it’s always been a big draw for me.
Sonora: What is the creepiest forest you’ve ever visited?
Steve: Easily, the forest behind our house. I’ve never travelled to any of the exotic forests around the world like J.H. Moncrieff has and she’s got some fantastic blog posts regarding her travels, but the forest behind our house where I grew up was both the single greatest place where my imagination went wild, but also the scariest place I visited. The second creepiest would be the stretch of forest between the end of our road through past the garbage dump.
That forest has inspired so many of my stories — “Edge of the Woods,” “The Call,” “Eaten,” and even “The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.” One of my 2020 releases is also inspired by the forest behind our house as well. The number of times we would play in the woods and we’d pretend to be chased by a giant beast of whatever, I mean those moments directly impacted me and it comes out in my writing. Hell, Invisible is 50% a beast chasing a man as he drives on a winding road through a forest!
Sonora: Do you notice any differences between Canadian horror and American horror? Canadian and American audiences?
Steve: I actually do notice one specific difference, but it just may be me looking for it! I find American horror always has a defined place where the story happens. It’ll be “Boston,” or “New York” or a small town somewhere, whereas I find most of the horror writers I read who are Canadian seem to be a bit more elusive as to the exact location things play out. I personally never try to have an exact place. I do it for two reasons — I want it to be more relatable for the individual reading it — they can picture a place near them easier if I don’t specifically say the location, but also so I don’t have to worry about screwing up a specific detail hahaha! I won’t have someone saying “WAIT A MINUTE — THAT STREET DOESN’T EXIST!” Ideally you read that all caps section in Jim Gaffigan’s voice!
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Steve: The people who believe in me. The horror community is a fantastic community. It’s amazing and I’m so blessed to have met so many folks who want to help and support and promote. My family has been so amazing. And of course, my son. I write stories and release them, so that one day (I hope at least) he’ll see our book shelf with my books and be inspired himself.
I had a blog post before where I said I’ll probably never be a best seller and that’s fine. I still stand by that statement, but my sentiment was more about the fact that I’m not writing with the sole purpose of seeing a shiny gold star by my release on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, that would be amazing — but not getting one isn’t going to stop me from writing and releasing the stories I want to tell.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Steve: Is there really someone on this planet who doesn’t know who my favourite author is? Haha!
For those who have somehow missed it — my favourite author is Andrew Pyper. He’s written some truly stunning works, he’s Canadian and he’s been so amazing whenever I’ve messaged him. I’m currently celebrating all things Pyper with PYPER-MAY-NIA and using the hashtag #pypermaynia
I’m also a massive Stephen King fan. Huge Joe Hill, Ania Ahlborn and J.H. Moncrieff fan. As for my other must read authors: David Sodergren, Justin M. Woodward, Andrew Cull, Joseph Sale, Joe Zito, Mason McDonald, Jonathan Janz and Hunter Shea would really round that list out. There’s just so many amazing authors right now!
As for some of my favourite books, well Andrew Pyper really dominates that haha! The Homecoming, The Wildfire Season, The Only Child, The Demonologist, The Damned, and The Lost Girls all are stunning. I’m currently reading The Trade Mission and still have a few more of his on the TBR. Loved Tamer Animals from Woodward, Now Comes the Darkness from Zito, The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot from Sodergren, Bones and Remains from Cull, The Art of Racing in the Rain from Garth Stein, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave by Moncrieff, Brother and The Devil Crept In by Ahlborn. So much goodness.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Steve: Good lord what a question. If you’ve followed along with me at all, you’ll have come across me discussing this. I like to get everything prepped and prepared well in advance.
So currently on the go;
Ritual — Novella, release date Oct 2019. Stage — 60% through final read through, then off to Sodergren for edits.
Piece of Me — Novel, release date Dec 2019. Stage — I need to read through one more time completely, then off to Sodergren. This tale is set in the same world as my short stories “For Balder Walks” and “Poppa?”
Untitled — Novella, release date Feb-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and tweak the ending, then off for edits.
The One That Knows No Fear — Novella, release date June-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and adjust a few spots. Then off for edits.
456 Blatchford Drive — Novella/Possible Anthology. Release date Oct 2020. Stage — I need to get my butt in gear and contact a few more folks and see what I can do to get this off the ground or if I’m doing it alone.
Then I’m also prepping a short story collection for 2020/2021 release tentatively still titled The Night Crawls In and a poetry collection hopefully for 2020/2021 release as well.
I am always on the go and always blocking out when and where things will fall, so some of 2020 may change depending on a few things!
Steve Stred is an up-and-coming Dark, Bleak Horror author.
Steve is the author of the novel Invisible, the novellas Wagon Buddy, Yuri and Jane: the 816 Chronicles and two collections of short stories; Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery and Left Hand Path: 13 More Tales of Black Magick, the dark poetry collection Dim the Sun and his most recent release was the coming-of-age, urban legend tale The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.
On June 1st, 2019 his second full length novel, The Stranger will be welcomed to the world.
Steve is also a voracious reader, reviewing everything he reads and submitting the majority of his reviews to be featured on Kendall Reviews.
Steve Stred is based in Edmonton, AB, Canada and lives with his wife, his son and their dog OJ.
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.
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.
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.
(It’s weird writing a headline about myself in the third person, but not as weird as writing “A Q&A with Me”)
Last week, I posted a Q&A with my editor, Evelyn Duffy. In addition to answering my questions, she turned the virtual mic around and asked some questions of me. Read on to learn more about what it was like writing my first book, how I navigate through both the writing and publishing parts of the process, and how comic strips and sitcoms influence my literary work.
Evelyn: What is your writing process? How has it varied or stayed the same from your short stories to your novels?
Sonora: It’s a simple step, and yet some days, it’s the hardest one to take: I make myself write something every day. Even if it’s just a sentence, or a note, or a revision, I need to engage with a piece every day to keep the momentum going. I can’t count the number of times I put off actual writing because I thought I had nothing, and then when I made myself do it, I got something — something that often surprised me. The story needs to get out of my head in order to form fully, and I need to write it to get it out of my head.
I work better with set, numeric goals — a specific end date, a number to reach, etc. When writing a novel, I set a goal of 1000 words a day. When writing a short story, I aim for 500 to 1000 words. I often surpass these goals — at its peak, I was writing closer to 2000-3000 words a day for my novel, Please Give — but there are also plenty of days I fall short. This is okay. What’s more important to me than a word count is engagement with my work.
Evelyn: What is your revision process? Who do you share your work with pre-publication, and how do you decide? Can you tell us how you incorporate an editor, beta readers, friends and family, and/or your cover artist?
Sonora: Whether a novel or a short story, I always wait until I have a draft I’m mostly satisfied with before sharing it with others. I do this because I don’t want to give someone something to read that I still have a lot of issues with. I want to send it to others when I’ve reached the point where I can’t do more without hearing from someone else. I often say to people reading it that what the story needs now is another set of eyes. My stories usually reach this point after three or four passes on my own.
Beta readers usually give me general thoughts and some copy-edits. My editor is very thorough, with longer assessments on what is and isn’t working in the story, and what I need to draw out or revise. I highly recommend that self-published authors get both beta readers and an editor. You need that span of feedback to really make your story pop.
Evelyn: Please Give is your first novel, but not your first book. What are some of the differences you’ve found between writing a novel and a collection of short stories? Are there any that took you by surprise?
Sonora: The biggest difference was what each piece started as when I wrote the first words. Even when the story was vastly different, I knew Please Give would be a novel. However, I didn’t write the short stories in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales with the intention to publish them together. When I decided to publish them together, I was pleasantly surprised by how closely connected they turned out to be. Funny enough, that theme was connection: each of the protagonists in the four stories has a goal of making a connection with someone else, and each get different results.
Evelyn: I understand your knowledge of the nonprofit world of Washington D.C. influenced Please Give. Can you talk a little about that?
Sonora: I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for almost ten years. I interned for an animal welfare organization while I was in graduate school, and have worked for two foundations and an advocacy organization since entering the workforce full-time.
Some may think that working for a nonprofit means your 9-to-5 is saving puppies, or going to protests, or traveling the globe to help save the world. For some nonprofit workers, that’s the case; but for many of us, it’s going to the office, sitting in meetings, writing drafts, doing busy work, going to more meetings, fielding phone calls, and going to one or two more meetings before you leave for the day. If you think that sounds like any other office, you’re right.
In every nonprofit office I’ve worked in, though, staff have cared deeply about the organization’s mission. There’s also an overall sense of camaraderie — one that isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, of course, but one that I think is heightened by the nature of the field. This can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because you’re part of a team focused on a goal rooted in service, and everyone wants to work together to achieve that. But it can be bad if that common goal is used to try and justify things that wouldn’t be okay in any office, with the excuse that it’s the mission or the greater good that’s more important. This isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, but like camaraderie, I think this is heightened in a mission-based office. Why should we complain about things like pressure to work too hard, or frequently missed deadlines, or excessive micromanagement, or lack of promotions or benefits, when The Mission is there and we have so many more important things to think about? But you can care deeply about the greater good and still want better in your office, because it’s still an office and it’s still okay to ask for better in your work environment. I hope that anyone working or thinking of working in the nonprofit sector remembers this.
Evelyn: As I wrote to you when I edited your book, the protagonist of Please Give is refreshing and complex. Beth has a clear, distinct voice. She owns her unique hobbies and interests, and is sexually confident. She has no physical hang-ups and isn’t trying to define herself based on a relationship with a man. At the same time, she’s also one of the most anxious characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. What went into writing her? Is she the same character now, after multiple drafts and revisions, that she was when she started?
Sonora: When I started Please Give, I was thinking less about Beth and more about where she worked. Her observations on her job — ones that were much snarkier in the initial drafts — were more my own than hers. While I never intended Please Give to be a memoir, a story that was inspired by my own experiences was going to start with a blurred line of where my story ceased and Beth’s began. This line became more defined as I gave Beth her own world. As her story opened up to me, she did too; and I was better able to step back and write about her instead of me.
A lot of what you like about her are things I see in women, yet don’t see enough of in fictional women. For instance, 95% of the books I read have women say something about eating too much and getting fat, no matter their size or their self-esteem. I find myself thinking, can’t I just read one frickin’ book where a woman eats a burger and doesn’t say “Oh no, I’m going to get fat”? Same goes for Beth’s sexual confidence. I wasn’t interested in yet another story where a woman is either super awkward or weird about sex (sure it’s real, but it’s not the only reality of sexual women); sleeps around with the hope that maybe this guy will want to commit (because we can’t have a woman who dates to date — she must be looking for a husband or a long-term boyfriend, and the men must always be the ones who are reluctant to commit); or else sleeps around because she has emotional baggage that drives her libido, giving her a reason other than her own gratification. Beth has sex because she enjoys it, and it’s something she both likes and knows she’s good at. I want to read more about women like that.
At the same time, Beth is very anxious. She fears offending others and polarizing them; and also fears that she’s not actually deserving of the things she wants. This is most apparent in her office, but it seeps into how she interacts with her friends and her dates (outside of sex, at least). This combination of anxiety and confidence creates its own special brand of despair. Beth very much wants more, and wants this because she knows what she’s capable of — and yet, she still wonders if she can actually do what she wants to do. This leads to a battle in her head between what she thinks, what she thinks others think, and what she thinks she should think to make everyone happy.
It’s exhausting to go through these motions — and they’re motions I’m very familiar with. Even though Beth is her own character, I wrote her inner workings with a clear understanding of them because I go through similar thinking almost every day. It’s a train of thought that can make you feel very lonely. I tend to internalize these anxieties because I hold to the times I’ve opened up about them and been told to just get over it or that I was being ridiculous. While such anxieties aren’t fixed overnight, it helps when I hear from others that they know how it is, or feel that way too, or at the very least understand. This applies to books as well as people, characters as well as friends. I started writing Beth and her story so I could tell a good story. But I hope that by including something personal to me — something hard to share, but necessary — that I can do my own part to let others who go through this know that they’re not alone.
Evelyn: As the author, what is your favorite thing about Please Give? As a reader, do you think it would be different?
Sonora: One of the reasons I loved writing Please Give was because it made me happy to inhabit its world and spend time with its characters. I found several of the scenes hilarious, and would laugh to myself as I wrote them or said the dialogue out loud to myself. It seems odd to say that, given it’s about a woman anxiously navigating through her own head to get through her day-to-day. But I’ve found that my own rough day-to-day’s, ones that can be very rough when my anxious thoughts are getting the better of me, are improved when I find something funny about them. I can make them better with a joke, or a snarky observation, or talking to an understanding friend and making light of everything we’re going through. So while the book isn’t a laughfest from beginning to end, it’s also not a pit of despair. Many things happen in the world of the book, things that sometimes feel like nothing but downs after the ups; but all can perhaps still feel okay because of a good joke and some good people to share it all with. I felt that way while engaging with the book and its characters, and I hope that readers will feel the same.
Evelyn: “All the Pieces Coming Together” is a sexy, funny, dangerous short story, and one of the most unique I’ve read in 10 years of editing. How long did it take you to write? What gave you the idea? Who do you hope will read it, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Sonora: “All the Pieces Coming Together” was the first short story I wrote when I got back into writing in 2016. I’d nursed the idea for a year or so beforehand, focused mainly on one of the first lines: “It’s the perfect place to hide a body. The trouble is, there isn’t anybody to hide.” I found the idea of a wannabe serial killer finding a hiding spot so perfect that no one was around to kill to be darkly hilarious. I wrote down a few notes, including the line, his course of action, and the first part of the ending. Everything else fell into place as I wrote it. Once I started writing the story, it took me a little over a month to complete. I hope people with morbid senses of humor read it, or perhaps people who don’t think they’re into horror or dark comedy. It delves into themes of control and making things just so, something I think we’ve all gone through in less morbid ways (well, hopefully less morbid ways).
Evelyn: Both Please Give and The Crow’s Gift have gorgeous cover art. What can you tell us about your cover artist?
Sonora: Both of my books’ covers, the cover for “All the Pieces Coming Together,” and the illustrations in The Crow’s Gift were done by the immensely-talented Doug Puller. He is an illustrator and graphic designer, and I highly recommend him. You can see examples of his work on his website.
I am also collaborating with Doug on a graphic novel. It’s called Wretched Heroes, and will be released as a multi-volume series. We expect Volume 1: The Man in Rags to be released later this year. You can learn more about it on Facebook.
Evelyn: You’ve mentioned that you attend meetups and classes in the D.C. area related to writing and publishing. What about them did you find helped you? You’ve also learned a lot in a relatively short period of time about self-publishing and promoting your work online. What are your suggestions for someone who has a book finished and wants to self-publish but isn’t sure how to get started?
Sonora: I’ve been going to Write2Publish classes, which meet once a month at my local library. An assortment of writers attend the classes, and they are led by Robin Sullivan, whose husband, Michael J. Sullivan, is a popular fantasy author. She is his business manager. The classes are focused on the business end of writing — how to market your book, query-sending strategies, tips for which publishing avenue to pursue, and more. The classes have been extremely helpful in guiding my foray into self-publishing, while also giving me a primer of what to expect if I ever decide to pursue traditional publishing.
Much of what I’ve learned about self-publishing has come from a combination of writing blogs and these classes. When Robin shares her tips, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you are handling all of your own marketing. While I have an eye for marketing, I am a writer first and foremost; and everyone will tell you that the author’s job is to write. Thus, it sometimes feels like I’m always going to come up short meeting every recommendation people like Robin make to ensure self-publishing success — and subsequently come up short in getting my books into the hands of readers. However, one of the nice things about books is that they don’t get just one chance to be read. Think about your favorite author. You probably didn’t hear about their first book — you probably heard about them after their third or fourth. Books stick around, and can gain traction over time.
I think it’s important to remember, then, that while doing it all is helpful, so is doing some of it. Your self-publishing prospects aren’t D.O.A. if you don’t have a full website, social media presence, Google Analytics report, multiple reviews, and well-placed promotion on blogs and in newspapers all before launch day. Maybe aim for two of those things, and the two that come most naturally to you. I’ve had a Twitter presence for years, and while I still use it to talk about non-writing things like hockey and beer, I also use it to talk about my writing. I also started a writing blog where I talk about my projects as well as general writing thoughts. That blog eventually became my website. I’d like to do more to market my work, and when I have some more pieces to promote, perhaps I will. But for now, I have a website and a social media presence, which is a great first step to getting my work out there.
Evelyn: Generally speaking, you draw a lot from film and pop culture. You also read voraciously. Who or what are your greatest influences?
Sonora: I really enjoy both humorous and dark stories, such as Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs and essays. I read Running with Scissors in high school and loved every word. Burroughs has a knack for drawing you into such darkness and sadness but with a laugh and a wink throughout; and his sense of humor is incredibly biting. My favorite authors (with my favorite book by each in parentheses) include John Irving (A Widow for One Year), Anita Shreve (Fortune’s Rocks), Rainbow Rowell (Landline), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd). I also read a lot of comic strips growing up, which were very influential on my writing and my humor — in no small part because of the way the dialogue flows. I spent many an afternoon reading Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes; and owned many Archie anthologies.
Sitcoms have also had a big influence on my writing. Growing up, my favorite shows were The Golden Girls, The Nanny,That ’70s Show, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m also a big fan of sitcoms without laugh tracks. The speed and naturalness at which the jokes come is just so good in the right hands. They’re an excellent primer on how to write good, convincing, and funny dialogue in stories. Some of my favorites include 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Master of None.
Most of my favorite stories are about generally everyday people going through generally everyday things; or else things out of the ordinary being shared as if they were an everyday occurrence, because to that person, it is their everyday. Even a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a point to emphasize the averageness of Joel and Mike (and now Jonah) in the face of their circumstances. These stories showed me people I’d know, telling jokes and going through things I could at least see myself going through, even if I didn’t actually go through them. Those are the stories I like writing the most.
I am also a horror fan, in case anyone was wondering how my love of Golden Girls and Archie resulted in a story like “All the Pieces Coming Together” (though Riverdale would lend itself well to that). I’ve been a Tim Burton fan since I was a kid, and of course read Stephen King. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman and the way he builds worlds and turns a phrase. He makes the darkest corners of the imagination beautiful, even when they’re deeply unsettling.
Evelyn: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
Sonora: I’ve read so many author interviews where they say the final version of their book was almost nothing like it was when they started. I read an interview or two like these as I was just getting started on Please Give, and thought, “Well, my story isn’t changing. It’s going to stay exactly the same, and I’m going to follow everything I outlined or noted exactly.”
What a joke. It changed drastically, and many times. I kept some things intact — Beth’s job, for instance; and Beth as the protagonist, and most of the main characters. But at one point, I had a speaking cast of thirty. I still remember a character about whom Beth said, “I don’t know why she was there. She had no reason to be.” One of those magic moments where your characters talk to you and you should listen. Beth was also running an advice blog in an early draft, which will make you laugh very hard when you learn more about Beth and how she feels about sharing her opinions.
But Please Give changed a lot — it even changed titles — and changed even more when I got it back from being edited. It changed despite my naive, stubborn self thinking my novel would be the first rough draft that stayed the same into final form beyond copy clean-up. It’s that stubbornness that makes me wish I’d known how much a story can change sooner. While I want to go into my stories with some sense of what will happen, I also don’t want to go in so sure of how it will go that I’ll get stuck and write myself into a corner. I came around on what did and didn’t need to change in Please Give, but there were pieces I definitely hung onto longer than necessary so I could follow a notion I had of what the story was before I even wrote it. It’s better to write and see where it goes — and if you see it going somewhere else, follow it. More often than not, you’ll be lead in the right direction.
Evelyn: I know you have several other irons in the fire. Would you like to tell us about some of your upcoming books and short story collections?
Sonora: While Please Give was out for edits, I wrote several short stories. I’m publishing five of them in a new collection, tentatively titled Wither and Other Tales. Many of them are on the darker side, like the stories in The Crow’s Gift. It’s currently being edited and revised, and I plan to release it in September.
I’m also hard at work on my next novel. Right now, it’s called Without Condition. It follows a woman named Cara, who tempers her mounting fears and frustrations in less-than-savory ways; and her mother Delores, who’s proud of the way she handles herself. It explores the idea of unconditional love, but in a dark and twisted way. It also explores how Cara reconciles with who she really is — a piece she hides from everyone but her mother, because her mother loves her no matter what — and how that reconciliation affects Cara when she meets and falls for a man named Jackson. It’s dark, bemused, and tender — my favorite kind of story.
No story is complete without a good edit. I often reference my editor when I talk about my work. Her name is Evelyn Duffy (pictured, right). She edited both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give; and is currently working on the short stories I plan to include Wither and Other Tales. Evelyn was kind enough to take part in a Q&A with me. Read on for editing advice, writing advice, and why you should consider proofing your tattoo.
Sonora: You’ve edited a wide variety of authors and genres. Do you find yourself switching hats when switching from short story to novel, fiction to nonfiction, stories to plays? Can you describe such a switch? What’s it like editing each? What’s universal about editing each?
Evelyn: There are a lot of universals. Good writing is nearly always character-driven, with fully-imagined individuals living full lives, whether or not we see much of them on the page. (If you think nonfiction has to be an exception to this, I encourage you to reevaluate.) Structure is crucial, no matter what you’re writing. I think structure is harder to get right at first in a short story or a play. From an editing perspective, it’s easier to tell when and where these go wrong. A novel’s structure may not be fully clear until quite a way into it.
Dialogue matters, always, but in different ways. In novels, short stories, and nonfiction, there should almost always be more and better-written dialogue; in plays, there can nearly always be less, replaced with trust in one’s actors to communicate through physical movement on the stage. Nonfiction is a big umbrella; if you’re writing the annual finance report for the Association of American Lichen Enthusiasts, you won’t have many opportunities to integrate scenes, narrative structure, dialogue, or themes — but if you’re crafting a longform article with the hope of publishing somewhere like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, these are crucial starting points.
One timeless universal is that every piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.
Sonora: How do authors typically find you? Do you accept unsolicited queries? How do you decide which clients to take on?
Evelyn: I am typically reached through my website at www.OpenBoatEditing.com. I work with many repeat clients and find that new ones often reach me via their recommendation, which I deeply appreciate. Another way new clients reach me is through my profile at the Editorial Freelancers Association, a wonderful organization I’m proud to be a member of.
Sonora: Your website shows that you have edited four New York Times best-selling nonfiction books, numerous fiction and nonfiction books, a journal article, academic papers, and a play. You’ve also worked on many other projects not listed online. Are you open to editing other pieces of writing, such as screenplays or comic books? Is there anything you would not edit under any circumstances?
Evelyn: I’m open to editing pretty much anything, I think. (In fact, I’ve worked on several screenplays and really enjoy them.) Due to time constraints, I haven’t been able to do much academic work or many book proposals in recent years.
I don’t feel particularly qualified to edit poetry, unless someone is looking for a straight proofread — but even then, poetry has such freedom to invent that I’d be more comfortable with the author asking an editor who is a fellow poet to look at it.
Sonora: How have the editing services you’ve offered changed over the years? What do you offer now?
Evelyn: My editing practice has evolved into one that focuses on keeping an author’s book-length manuscript for four to six weeks and providing a thorough critique and set of line edits.
I also offer proofreading for businesses and corporations (publications, websites, etc.) and have a wedding-related sideline called The Proofread Bride.
Sonora: In addition to copy edits and comments, you provide a memo to your clients that outlines in-depth changes and feedback. What inspired you to incorporate this into your work? Is this common practice amongst editors? What do you most want your clients to gain from this memo?
Evelyn: When I first began freelancing, I started out purely as a proofreader/line editor. As time went by, I found I increasingly had thoughts that weren’t accommodated by Track Changes or a list of line edits, so the memo began as a way of merely organizing the extra thoughts that emerged. As time went by and my skills and experience expanded, I began to enjoy this part more and began to make thematic elements and structure my focus.
These days the memo has evolved into anything between two and ten pages and tends to emerge as a love letter of sorts to the book I’ve spent the past four to six weeks with — what works well, what can be tweaked, and what needs large structural revision. I always encourage clients to read the memo before the line edits, and my hope is that the larger thoughts in it will sit with them and marinate as they revise.
Sonora: I like to write to you as I incorporate your edits, and keep you in-the-loop on my progress. Do you usually hear from authors after they receive your edits?
Evelyn: Yes, authors often go back-and-forth with me throughout the publication process, especially those pursuing self-publication, asking follow-up questions and sharing thoughts as they go. I always love to at least find out if they go ahead with it!
Sonora: If a client seems worried or discouraged, how do you go about encouraging them?
Evelyn: In every memo I write, I encourage the author to follow up with me with anything they have questions about or want to discuss further. I’m happy to delve into anything that concerns them — a question about one of my suggestions, doubts about moving forward with the book, or how to approach publishing.
Sonora: You make it a point to tell me that your edits are suggestions, and up to me on whether or not I should include them. Do you find that your clients usually accept most, if not all, of your edits? Has there ever been a time when your client refused most or all of them? Did they discuss this with you, or were you left wondering?
Evelyn: Generally on the big things — character questions and plot issues and thematic points — I find it’s less of a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, and more that an author is so close to their own work that they couldn’t see something was unclear, or hadn’t noticed they’d developed a theme and then dropped it 25 pages before the book ends, etc. In the case of the latter (which happens often), it’s an open-ended option of eliminating the things that produced that theme or drawing it to its natural conclusion — I may not necessarily recommend either, but I do bring their attention to the theme and fact that it’s unresolved and walk them through their options.
On smaller things, line edits and such, I don’t usually find out until the book is published, and by then I probably don’t remember what I recommended! But in some cases I’m sure the authors choose not to implement my changes. I suspect a few get line-edit fatigue — I can be quite thorough — and others may simply disagree. All this does is reinforce the point you reference: all of my edits are merely suggestions, and it is up to the author which ones to accept or reject. I remind every author I work with of this every time I work with them, even the ones I’ve collaborated closely with for over a decade. It is my Prime Directive, so to speak, and it bears repetition.
Sonora: Writers need readers, especially before a book is published. What are your thoughts on beta readers? What sets you, an editor, apart from a beta reader or even just a reader? Do you think all authors should seek out beta readers?
Evelyn: The best beta readers are talented and dedicated people — but they’re hard to come by, because being a beta reader is rarely a great experience. Being a book’s first reader can be a challenge. When an author hires me to edit and critique their book, one of the things they’re buying is professional distance. I have not only the freedom but the duty to give an author my complete, most candid opinion, where a beta reader might feel constrained by any number of factors — time, friendship, awkwardness, etc. Even when I edit for friends and others I know well, entering into the professional relationship of author and editor allows for a freer exchange of ideas. There are certainly beta readers who provide this, but again, they’re rare — and, in my view, wearing dual hats of beta reader and editor.
As an editor my goal for every manuscript is different, but generally speaking it can be summed up this way: an editor should aim to help get the manuscript to a point where they’d gladly read it for free. A beta reader (or, ideally, two or three) should read it after the editor and give the author a sense of broader audience reaction. It’s all about getting as many pairs of eyes on the finished product as the author can stand.
Sonora: What do you think of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Do you recommend one path over the other to aspiring authors?
Evelyn: They both have their merits, and their low points. I tailor my advice to individual authors, but generally I’d say follow all the publishing opportunities you find, do lots of research and consult with other authors, and be realistic about your prospects and expectations.
Sonora: How do you think your own writing experience influences your editing? How does it influence your interactions with authors? With other editors?
Evelyn: It makes me deeply sympathetic toward writers who stumble into the traps every writer stumbles into, especially in early drafts. To be slightly facetious with a serious story, I refer you to the tale of the man who fell in a hole:
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books? Does the writing you read for fun influence your editing at all? If so, how?
Evelyn: My favorite book of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’m also a huge fan of John Irving (it’s not a big leap from Dickens to Irving) and Margaret Atwood (particularly her short stories).
Wolf Hall is a book I return to again and again. Like the rest of the internet I’m waiting for The Winds of Winter. I also really enjoy YA books, especially Philip Pullman. When it comes to nonfiction, Mary Roach is a favorite. The two nonfiction books I’ve read most recently that have really stayed with me are Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz and Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.
Favorite playwrights are Neil Simon, David Mamet and Eugene O’Neill. Since it’s 2018 and we’re living in a golden age of television, I’ll add Aaron Sorkin and David Simon in the same breath.
I think the most straightforward way what I read recreationally influences how I edit comes up whenever I’m asked to edit something that is already phenomenal by the time it comes to me, or when the author is someone I admire. It’s good to remember that all the writers I named above have had editors, and surely appreciated their catches and contributions.
Sonora: What advice would you give to aspiring editors?
Evelyn: My advice for aspiring editors is — at first — the same as it would be for aspiring writers: read constantly, and read widely. Where it differs is this: try to actively read things that don’t interest you. If you’re indifferent to football, read the sports pages. If you hate ballet, read reviews. If statistics put you to sleep, read scientific journal articles. If you’re a Twitter junkie, take up War and Peace or Moby Dick. It’s crucial to be able to form objective opinions and put yourself in the shoes of other readers when editing, rather than basing your advice on your personal reaction to what you like and dislike.
Also, find a community. Editing, especially freelancing, can be a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. I recommend checking out the EFA and ACES for camaraderie, referrals, conferences, classes, and other resources.
Sonora: Are there things people tend not to have edited that they definitely should? What would you like to see people ask for an edit of more often?
Evelyn: Tattoos! In fact, I will give anyone who sees this an on-the-house, thanks-for-being-smart-about-life review of their English-language text for a planned tattoo. (If it’s already tattooed on you, sorry — it’s too late for me.) Contact me through email, and include “Tattoo Edit – Sonora Writes” in the subject line. (Note from Sonora: as someone with twelve tattoos and counting, I second this advice.)
Other than that, I started a whole separate side business because of the rampant typos in wedding stationery. There’s a lot of paper involved in weddings — save the dates, invitations, menus, signage, programs, thank you notes — and a lot of opportunities for expensive typos.
Check out Ask the Author, where Evelyn interviews me! Thanks for reading, everyone.