WIHM Interview: Sara Tantlinger

Sara Tantlinger.
Sara Tantlinger.

My Women in Horror Month interview series continues today with an interview with award-winning author Sara Tantlinger! Read on to learn more about this amazing writer and poet.


Sonora: How long have you been writing poetry? Has your poetry always been infused with horror? When did your verses start to gain a sinister or macabre twist?

Sara: I started writing some very angst-filled poetry back in middle school. It was definitely a way for me to cope with the grief I was feeling at that time to try and deal with the sudden loss of my dad. I am not one to talk about my feelings and inner turmoil a lot, so turning to notebooks and writing became my therapy. I think over the years, poetry has become the most organic way for me to deal with extreme emotions like that. It’s a pure and unfiltered way to write whether the poetry is real or fictional, rage-filled or blooming with love.

Like many others, I started reading Poe in school, which of course inspired me to look more into dark poetry. I began writing horror during college when I was an undergraduate. I took an independent study in horror poetry specifically, and my first few poems were published in my university’s literary magazine. From there, the poems have only grown in their darkness!

The Devil's Dreamland
The Devil’s Dreamland

Sonora: Tell us about your Stoker-award winning collection, The Devil’s Dreamland. What inspired you to write H.H. Holmes’ story as a series of poems?

Sara: Happily! If anyone reading is not familiar, The Devil’s Dreamland is a collection of poetry that uses a narrative arc format to tell the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes. The poems are often from his point of view but are also told through the viewpoints of his wives, his victims, the city of Chicago, the 1893 World’s Fair, and more. While the book is heavily based off the research I did, it is of course embedded with my fictionalized version of how I imagined things to transpire.

I never imagined that collection would go on to do everything it has, so I am completely honored and thankful to every single person who has read and supported the book. It continues to mean the world. When I started researching Holmes, I came across a lot of books (historical and fictional) about Holmes or inspired by him, and I knew I wanted to try and do something different. I did not find any poetry about him except an odd one here or there, and I also did not see many women writing about him, so it seemed like a great chance to craft a story in the form of poetry. My hope was that it would attract people who normally do not read a ton of poetry, and from the feedback I have received, that seems to have worked for a few folks! Being able to slightly open the gateway to show others how amazing horror poetry can be has honestly been the greatest reward of writing The Devil’s Dreamland.

Sonora: Do you have a favorite poem in The Devil’s Dreamland? I know it’s like asking to pick your favorite child, but if you had to choose …

Sara: Ha! Oh wow, that is tough. Okay, if I had to choose…there is one toward the end titled “Three Wives Dressed in Black.” The reason it stands out to me is because while I was researching and writing this collection, I tried to remain very cognizant of the fact that real humans suffered at the hands of this man. Women lost their lives. While Holmes did not, however, kill any of his three “wives” (quotations because he was only legally married to one of the women) — this poem was a small chance to kind of give the women a strong voice toward the end of the book. There are other pieces where I wrote from the women’s viewpoints because I wanted them to feel tangible to readers, and “Three Wives Dressed in Black” shows the women uniting to curse Holmes and all he has done. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

“how he tried to keep wives
hidden from one another
like butterflies inside of jars,
but they’ve broken out
shattered the glass
painted themselves in death’s
blood, black veils across
each face, praying
for the mistresses and others
massacred by this madman.

Mourn not for us,
they whisper again
casting the face of each victim
deeper into his mind as the worms
roll loose, melding with his brain
matter, eating through clusters
of nerves, extracting the closest,
botched thing to guilt
they can find”

Sonora: You also write prose fiction. Do you prefer one or the other between poetry and prose? What inspires you to turn an idea into one or the other?

Sara: I really love both, but it takes me a lot longer to plan, draft, organize, and revise a prose project than it does with poetry, but I am aiming to get better at that! Sometimes a poem will inspire a short story, or when I need help getting deeper into a character’s head, I’ll write poetry through their point of view.

To Be Devoured.
To Be Devoured.

Sonora: Your novella, To Be Devoured, follows a woman whose disgusting obsession comes out of her in a multitude of shocking ways. It’s written from her perspective. What was it like putting yourself into such a mindset for the duration of writing it?

Sara: To Be Devoured was my main project that followed The Devil’s Dreamland, so maybe that mindset transpired between projects. By “mindset” I mean locking myself down into a psychopath’s possible thoughts, goals, and desires as closely as I could. For To Be Devoured, specifically, it was one of those glorious moments where a story and a character completely invade your waking hours and demand to be written.

It was certainly interesting to ask myself what Andi, the protagonist, would do in the situations she is in … I really tried to brainstorm what would be logical for someone thinking like she did (obsessed with carrion and understanding the secrets the vultures must be hiding), and while some scenes may have seemed extreme to readers, it was what made sense for Andi’s character and I didn’t want to censor any of that back, no matter how horrifying it was to write.

Sonora: Poetry can sometimes be daunting to people who otherwise love to read. What would you say to someone who wants to read and appreciate more poetry, but isn’t sure where to start? What would you say to that same person if they wanted to write more poetry?

Sara: I believe there is poetry out there for everyone, even the skeptics. Poetry is amazing because you can find poems on almost any topic. For anyone who struggles reading poetry, I might advise to start with some spoken word poetry or watch slam poetry readings — this is a great way to find new voices in poetry, and if you like listening to these types of readings, then you might enjoy reading more from those writers.

For anyone who wants to write poetry but is not sure where to start, I think my advice would be the same to any new writer out there: read. Read as much as you can. Read the classics and read contemporary. Read the poems aloud to yourself and get to know how your words interact on the page. You do not have to study formal poetry to be a strong poet, but I do think having a working knowledge of the basics is a great stepping stone to finding out what works for you as a creator.

Sonora: What have been your experiences in horror as a woman author? In poetry as a woman poet?

Sara: I feel lucky that 98% of the time I have had positive experiences within the horror community. I am very aware that is not the case for every woman or minority in the genre. I try really hard to surround myself with encouraging, honest, and supportive people so that makes a huge difference, but sometimes you never know what someone’s motive could be. I am humbled and lucky by the positivity I have experienced, so I do my best to continually pay that forward however I can.

Sonora: How can the literary fields you’ve worked in and read stories in be better about their treatment of women?

Sara: When posting guidelines and open calls, take an extra minute to write something like “minorities encouraged to submit” — it’s a small line that does not exclude anyone from submitting, but also shows writers that diversity is welcome here. We need diverse voices in all forms of literature and genre work.

I’d also encourage anyone writing in a different voice than their own, to use beta readers and sensitivity readers with those experiences. For example, I have no problem with a male author writing from the perspective of a woman character, but ask women to read your work and get honest feedback.

Not All Monsters
Not All Monsters

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite poets? What are some of your favorite poems? What are some of your favorite poetry collections?

Sara: In regard to classic favorites, I draw a lot of inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath. Some of my favorites in contemporary poetry are Linda Addison, Sierra DeMulder, Richard Siken, Claire C. Holland, Donna Lynch, David Cowen, Christina Sng, and so many more! There are really a lot of amazing poets out there right now.

One of my favorite collections I read recently was The Demeter Diaries by Marge Simon and Bryan Dietrich. What a stunning piece of work.

Two of my all-time favorite poems are Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — I have lines from both poems tattooed on me!

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?

Sara: Some of my favorite contemporary writers are Catherynne Valente, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, Caroline Kepnes, Gwendolyn Kiste, Sarah Read, Nicholas Day, Christa Carmen, Thomas Harris, Mike Arnzen, Hailey Piper, Brooke Warra, and Paul Tremblay, and about a million more folks I’m sorry I didn’t shout out here (I could go on forever).

Some of my all-time favorite books are Valente’s Deathless, [Bram] Stoker’s Dracula, and [Stephen] King’s Misery.

Sonora: What are you working on right now?

Sara: Currently I am working on Cradleland of Parasites, my next poetry collection that will be out later this year from Strangehouse Books. It draws a lot of inspiration from the Black Death, but I’ve been researching other plagues, viruses, and diseases as well. My internet search history kind of looks like I’m trying to create a virus to wipe out humanity at the moment. But I really love historical horror, and this project has been a huge learning experience about how the Black Death irrevocably affected society, culture, art, literature, and more after it brought down such great tragedy.

I have a few other projects in the oven, including a novella I am co-writing with Matt Corley, which will become a part of his Whispers in the Dark series of investigative RPG horror. It’s such a different kind of project for me to be involved in, and I am thrilled about its potential.

And of course I have to promote that my first edited anthology, Not All Monsters, will be out in the fall from Strangehouse Books and features stories by 21 incredible women in horror!


About Sara Tantlinger:

Sara Tantlinger is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes. She is a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. Her other books include Love for Slaughter and To Be Devoured. Her poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including The Twisted Book of Shadows, Sunlight Press, Unnerving, and Abyss & Apex. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.com


Check out previous WIHM 2020 interviews:

WIHM Interview: Robyn Citzen

Robyn Citizen.
Robyn Citizen.

February is Women in Horror Month. Every Tuesday this month, I’ll be featuring an interview with an excellent woman in horror!

Today, I’m featuring Robyn Citizen. Robyn works with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has her PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies; with a special interest in horror and sci-fi. Read on to learn more about this amazing woman and the work she’s done in film and film study.


Sonora: You have your PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies (which sounds amazing). When did you first become interested in film as art? As commentary? As academic study?

Robyn: I became interested in film very young because I come from a family of movie watchers. My dad — history buff — in particular liked to watch older films and go on about the history around their release and how they were received. So I knew who Hitchcock was at an early age and since I was born liking horror and scary things, he was the filmmaker who stuck with me as I watched movies with my parents.

I’ve always had both an analytical and fan approach to films and wrote movie reviews for my high school newspaper, but was a Government major in university because I didn’t know that you could make a living in film outside of film production (turns out you can’t for the most part lol). I worked for a social justice nonprofit after graduating and hemmed and hawed between going to law school or grad school for film. When I got into NYU for Cinema Studies that made my decision for me! I earned my PhD with honours in 2015.

Sonora: As a fellow film studies student, I’m curious about your thoughts on the current state of film academia. What’s lacking in an average film studies program? What do these programs do well?

Robyn: At NYU I always thought it was weird how separate they kept film studies from film production. I wanted to take editing classes and it was discouraged. I had to get internships at production companies and talent agencies to apply what I was learning to the day-to-day workings of the industry. Also, depending on the film studies program they don’t concentrate enough on professionalization and what you can do outside of academia because there are not enough professor positions to justify the number of people with humanities postgrad degrees, unfortunately; so we have to find other places to go! What academia does well is allow you to really specialize and do a deeper dive into your niche of choice. Who else would let me write at length about representations of blackness in japanese cinema?

Sonora: What is a dream course you would teach? Conversely, what have been some of your favorite courses that you have taught? 

Robyn: Asian Horror Cinema was my baby, I proposed it to the Department of Asian Studies at UBC [University of British Columbia] and they approved it. I built the curriculum and screening list on my own. It was my favorite class to teach as a horror fan and as someone who is mainly interested in transnational, cross-cultural encounters in film, but Korean Cinema was a close second. I taught that latter course for the better part of five years so I am beyond thrilled to see what’s happening for Bong Joon-ho since I would teach Memories of Murder in every semester of Korean cinema and gush about how it was a perfect film and how he was The Korean Director of his generation.

Sonora: You say you have a penchant for erotic thrillers from the ‘90s. What do you love about them? What are some of your favorites?

Robyn: And the 80s! Erotic thrillers genuinely have interesting roles for women — not positive roles necessarily but complex, interesting, powerful. They tend to directly confront how sexuality for women is punished or transactional in this society in a way that most rom-coms only address obliquely or accidentally. This definitely has roots in my affection for Lifetime movies and the woman-in-peril TV movie genre which I grew up watching on cable. Also, these films are totally over the top which makes the woman’s punishment seem less egregious somehow because its already bracketed by the unreality of the film. The histrionics draw attention to the films’ own problematic characterizations and plot twists.

I remember seeing Jagged Edge AND Fatal Attraction in the theatre with my parents — I was 5 and 7, so not my parents best parenting choices for sure; but they had a big effect on me. And of course Jeff Bridges is the seducer in Jagged Edge while Glenn Close is the slow-on-the-uptake dupe so that gender flip was very productive for me when I rewatched the film as a tween. I also love The Last Seduction and Basic Instinct as the peak quality works of the subgenre, and Body of Evidence and Sliver as truly dumber, yet hilarious examples of the subgenre.

Sonora: How long have you been interested in horror films? 

Robyn: My whole life! But horror literature came first for me. I’m hyperlexic and was reading at 2, then onto dark fairy tales, then Fear Street and Christopher Pike books, then Stephen King books by 9. One year later I watched Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at a sleepover and it utterly blew. my. mind. I was an anxious kid and still an anxious person and somehow horror’s worst case scenarios are therapeutic for me to watch. It’s a safe space to play out what I would do if the Worst Case came to pass.

Also, Stephen King in particular resonated with me as a black girl growing up in the U.S. because his stories are all about familiar, even friendly things — cars, dogs, drains, cameras, libraries — becoming menacing. It may sound funny because he’s not known for his balanced crafting of characters of colour in The Green Mile and The Shining for example. However, the experience of being a racialized person in Texas was one of doing regular things throughout your day, but being constantly confronted by micro and macro-aggressions as you move through the world. I’d be around people and friends I thought I was cool with and suddenly someone would tell a racist joke or ask a crazy question or I’d be singled out to be followed in a store — people having such a strong reaction to you simply existing in a certain body is a surreal, often horrific and violent experience.

Sonora: Recent films like Get Out and Us have opened up new conversations about Black horror films, but Black horror has been around for much longer than 2017. What are your thoughts on the way Black people and their experiences are treated in horror films? What do you think is done well? What do you think could be done better?

Robyn: I think black characters are not treated as badly in horror films in terms of the popular discourse about us always dying first. However, it’s more relational about how we die and then how are those deaths treated in the text of the film? Do the other characters just move on without registering it or is the death solely to advance the plot? Is it much more gory and focused on facial suffering and abject fear than other deaths? That’s the real issue for me and something that overlaps with non-final girl white women characters in horror films. Horror tells us a lot about who is valued in our culture and what traits are valued in our culture, what is worthy of protection and what is disposable.

Generally, horror films don’t deal directly with black experiences, rather those experiences are allegorized and mapped onto the monsters — the things that make them monstrous and their outsider quality are the traits that racist culture has historically associated with blackness.  Get Out is not the first horror film to use black experiences but it is one of the first mainstream horror films to be so explicit about depicting whiteness — the historical construct and how it is practiced — as something monstrous.

Sonora: You also study Asian cult cinema. What are some of your favorites? How do Asian cult films compare to American cult films? In your experience, how do audience reactions to both compare?

Robyn: Some of my fave Asian cult films are Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, and Mystics in Bali. It’s hard to say how Asian cult films as a group compares to American cult films because there is such a wide range of what constitutes “cult”. But in my experience sexploitation and sexual violence seems to feature in more Asian cult films (and European ones) than American cult which are often given that designation for transgressive gore, body horror, and cheesiness or kitschy elements related to production value and ironic reception.

Sonora: What have been your experiences as a Black cinema studies professor and doctoral student? What have been your experiences as a woman?

Robyn: I was the only black student in my M.A. and PhD program and while I made some friends in those programs and there was one black tenured prof who was great, it was a very lonely experience. Particularly challenging is when you choose a dissertation topic that is partially based on your identity and only one other person in the program is well-versed in that literature.

My proposal process was a mess. I had to frontload it with all this literature review and arguments that black-Japanese cinematic encounters were an actual thing, and something that could be traced and studied because there weren’t any book-length texts on black-Japanese cinematic encounters in the film studies canon. I incorporated a lot of sociological information and political history in my project and there was resistance to that as well. The professor leading the proposal seminar chose to tell me that my proposal likely would not pass two weeks before it was due. I ended up rewriting everything 3 times before the proposal defense, which I passed.

I really wish that me and the other women in my cohort had been more of a unified group but it was very “every scholar for him or herself” and people were more concerned with networking. The offshoot of this emotionally and professionally alienating experience was that I worked very hard to perfect my dissertation and therefore, my defense was very relaxed and short. My committee mostly spent time complimenting my prose and my project — I couldn’t believe it because it had been such a torturous process! —  before telling me that I passed with distinction.

My grad school experience had a good outcome on paper but was also quite traumatic, and I struggle with imposter syndrome and serious anxiety around writing that did not exist prior to grad school, to this day. My advice to other women of color and white women is to find your people as soon as you can and form writing support groups or even ‘whine and wine venting sessions’ (these exist apparently!) and yes, zero in on mentors that can help you professionalize and understand how your racial, gender identities will affect your career trajectory. Friends that have done these things have come out of their M.A. and PhD programs in a much better place and even find tenure-track appointments faster.

Sonora: What are some of your favorite movies? Who are some of your favorite directors?

Robyn: I have a rotating list of fave movies but the ones that have been most influential to me are: Sex, Lies and Videotape by [Steven] Soderbergh, Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee. Probably add Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to that!

Right now my favorite directors are Masaki Kobayashi, Hong Song-soo, Bong Joon-ho, Agnes Varda, Charles Burnett, Mary Harron, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Byun Young-joo, David Cronenberg, and I’m very excited to see more from Nia DeCosta and Carol Nguyen.

Sonora: What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Robyn: I was in a real Stephen King and Haruki Murakami rut for years because I prefer short stories and horror/weird fiction, both of which can be really bad in the wrong hands; so it was easier to stick to the people who I know do it well. Short stories are a more precise medium in my opinion. But, I became increasingly annoyed with Murakami’s portrayal of women in his later works so I had to branch out. Finally, this year I’ve discovered other writers! I’ve been enjoying Tananarive Due, Eden Royce, Carmen Maria Machado, Charles Yu, Nnedi Okorofor, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, and others. These aren’t new writers but they’re new to me!

Sonora: If you were in charge of making a movie — your perfect movie — what would it be about? What would its style be?  

Robyn: Even though I’m a genre person when I write creatively what comes out are these chamberplay type dramas with surreal elements. It would probably look like a cross between a Hong Sang-soo film, [Ousmane] Sembene’s Black Girl and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant – very precise framing and blocking.


About Robyn Citizen:

Robyn Citizen, PhD is the International Programmer for Short Cuts at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Her primary programming interests are in representations of race, ethnicity and national identity and the horror/science-fiction genres. She was a lecturer in the departments of Asian Studies and Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia from 2012-2017, has written critical analyses for edited collections, is board co-chair of Breakthroughs Film Festival, and served on juries for the Philadelphia Film Festival, Reelworld Film Festival, and the Norwegian Short Film Festival.

Read her forthcoming book chapter on Get Out: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814214275.html

Read her just-released chapter on Asian Cult cinema: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Cult-Cinema-1st-Edition/Mathijs-Sexton/p/book/9781138950276

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Steve Stred

steve stred
Steve Stred.

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.

the stranger by steve stred
The Stranger.

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.

The Horror of Motherly Love

This Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day. Sadly, my mom lives several hours away in North Carolina; but we chat every Sunday and I always send her a gift (though it’ll be late this year — sorry Mom).

Ahead of the holiday, I found myself reflecting on how most of my love stories fall into two categories: romantic (however twisted it may be), or familial between a mother and her daughter. The titular stories in my two collections, “The Crow’s Gift” and “Wither,” both focus on relationships between the main female protagonist and her mother. “Wither” goes one step further and includes Mother Nature — and the destructive relationship that can occur between her and her children.

sharp objects
Left to right: Amma, Camille, and Adora from Sharp Objects.

Without Condition is my first story to examine both motherly love and romantic love. While the focus is largely on Cara and her boyfriend, my first inkling of the story was rooted in the relationship between Cara and her mother. It was her mother’s unconditional love for her, even in the face of horrendous activities, that helped me think of the rest of the plot (not to mention the title).

I once read a study that claimed the bond between a mother and her daughter is the strongest possible bond between any parent-child pairing. While I can’t say that for sure, there is certainly something special about the way a woman is bonded to her mother in ways we don’t see with her father, or don’t see between a mother and her son. It’s something special to witness when it’s good, and something terrify to witness when it’s broken or abusive.

Carrie touched on this perfectly. The terror doesn’t lie in Carrie’s powers, nor just in the way she’s bullied; but in the power and influence Margaret White has over her daughter. As evil and tormented as she is, you still see their bond and the fact that Mrs. White truly worries about her. I think of in the movie, when Carrie shatters the mirror; and Margaret stops playing the piano and says in her most normal, concerned voice, “Carrie?” She’s worried her daughter is hurt, even as she calls her sinful. It almost makes it all the scarier when Margaret comes for Carrie with a knife in the climax.

margaret white
Also, this scene is just creepy AF.

I also think that the TV show Riverdale has done an excellent exploration of mothers and daughters in the fraught connection between Betty and Alice. Season 3 has been a little uneven, but the show has quietly shown how hard it is for a daughter to sever a tie with her mother, and how that tie — even when dangerous — may be the least dangerous option she has. Alice has joined a cult called The Farm, a group that Betty wants no part of; even if it means losing a connection to her mom. Out of desperation, Betty turns to her jailed serial killer father instead of her cult-worshiping mother, but when her father is (purportedly) free, he comes for her and tries to kill her (this post was written on May 7, and it’s possible revelations in later episodes may dispute these facts, because that’s what Riverdale does and that’s one of the reasons I love it in all its messy glory). Betty gives in to her mother for safety, and she’s embraced. She may still be in danger, but she’s with her mother; and with her mother, the feeling of safety is stronger and perhaps more real. This could be to Betty’s advantage or her detriment — only time will tell.

A final story that delved into this in spectacularly creepy fashion is Sharp Objects (which I also wrote about when the HBO adaptation aired last summer). Here, you have three female bonds: mother, daughter, and sister; none of whom can abandon the other completely despite the misdeeds of each. It also shows the darker side of a mother’s desire to feel needed, and how her daughter will nearly die to fill that need.

Betty and Alice Cooper
Betty and Alice Cooper.

The bond between a mother and daughter can make for excellent dark fiction when done well. I’m less interested in “crazy mom/rebel daughter” narratives, and more the stories of daughters who can’t leave their mothers behind, or vice versa; despite their dark deeds. The bond is strong, even when it’s frayed — maybe even the strongest of all. But that isn’t always a good thing.

I hope that those of you with good bonds, though, have a wonderful Mother’s Day. And, I want to wish the happiest of Mother’s Days to my mom. Thanks for reading my work, supporting me, and being an all-around gem.

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Tiffany Michelle Brown

tiffany michelle brown
“Writing is just … in my bones. Always has been.”

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.


Follow Tiffany’s adventures at https://tiffanymichellebrown.wordpress.com or @tiffebrown on Twitter.

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

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Sonora Taylor

sonora taylor
“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. 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.”

(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.


Both Please Give and The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales are available now. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Happy Birthday, Stephen King

Today is the one, the only Stephen King’s 70th birthday!

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I maintain that horror writers have the best sense of humor.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite story of his, though when trying to decide, I gravitate towards Pet Sematary, Hearts in Atlantis, and a short story that, for the life of me, I cannot remember the title of. I think it’s called First Date. I’m mad I can’t remember, because that story had a huge impact on me and the types of stories I both read and tell. It’s very short, and details a man as he gets ready for a date — gets dressed up, buys flowers, etc. He walks down the street and sees his date. He greets her. She stares at him, asks who he is. He gets upset that she doesn’t know, then angry as he realizes she’s not his date, then kills her. He’s a serial killer, and all those motions he goes through are his thing. It ends with him walking off innocently, like nothing brutal happened. It’s an excellent story, and if any of you can tell me the title, I’d be much obliged.

King is a big deal in my family. I still remember receiving my first book of his. I was fourteen and on summer vacation, and reading a comic book when Mom came up to me with a book. She told me if I was interested in reading Stephen King — a name I’d only heard uttered around the house and in movie trailers — that she recommend I read this one. She held out Salem’s Lot, and said she was around my age when she read it and that she loved it. I read it, and I loved it too.

I loved it so much that I got a steady stream of his books from the library. I still remember reading Stephen King on my grandmother’s porch one summer. She looked at my book, and with the blend of curiosity and judgment that she was a master at, she asked, “Stephen King?”

I nodded. I was used to these sorts of questions about my taste and interests. One needs to be when they’ve been into the weird and macabre since they were five. I also prepared myself to hear about how other relatives of mine weren’t into those things, the subtle message being that I was odd and that that needed to be noted at all times. Again, something I was used to.

She clucked her tongue, and rolled her eyes a little. “Just like your father,” she said.

I smiled.

My family and I still talk about Stephen King — I read Doctor Sleep on both Mom and Dad’s enthusiastic recommendation last summer — and I still enjoy both reading and watching his tales. Happy birthday, Stephen King. Thank you for the memories — the ones in your books, and the ones I have because I’ve read them.

The Rejection Collection

I received my first rejection letter yesterday. I’m not sad about it. Every writer in the history of time has been rejected by someone or some institution. It’s all part of the process, and I almost feel a sense of accomplishment at having gotten one. It’s a first step, another writer milestone to cross off the list.

I enjoy reading accounts of authors who save their rejection letters. I wanted to do the same, but was at a loss at how to do so. I liked Stephen King’s nail on the wall (which later became a spike to hold all the letters), but I didn’t want to copy that, if only because hanging them on my wall didn’t really feel like me. I thought of boxes, notebooks, photo albums (which is how I save postcards) – all good means, but means that didn’t feel right for these letters.

What finally felt right, though, was a means of presentation from one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips:

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The strip is part of a series where Calvin has to write a report on bats. He approaches the project with the same care he usually takes with schoolwork, meaning zero to none. The whole series (which starts here) is a scream, but what tickled me most was Calvin being convinced that the key to success was a Professional Clear Plastic Binder.

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Naturally, that was not the key to Calvin’s success. He failed the report, but even in the end, he was still convinced the binder had power – it was just ignored:

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I remembered this series as I thought of ways to collect my rejection letters, and after laughing at the memory of the whole series, I decided that I had to collect them in one of my favorite running jokes.

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The binder itself is not clear, but it is filled with clear plastic sleeves which will hold my letters with pride.

I had a lot of fun putting this together. In addition to Calvin and Hobbes, the title also pays tribute to Pearls Before Swine and the running gag of creating an Item o’ Something (such as the Box o’ Stupid People). I chuckled almost the whole time as I printed the cover and placed the clear plastic sleeves in their rings. I smiled as I christened it with my first rejection letter.

I could wax poetic about the deeper meaning of presentation versus substance that Calvin’s report signifies; as well as the fact that he buried the report and moved on (though I’d like to think I learn more from my shortcomings than Calvin usually does). Honestly, though? I chose this collection method because it made me laugh. I laughed all over again as I loaded the comic strips to the blog post and read them on Go Comics. I laughed and had fun in the face of rejection. Ultimately, that’s what the process needs to be – and collecting them in one of my favorite jokes, one that always makes me smile, will help me do that.

I truly look forward to filling my Professional Clear Plastic Binder o’ Rejection with more letters. I look even more forward to starting the Binder o’ Acceptance. But, one collection at a time.