Charles Tan interviews Maureen F. McHugh

Maureen F. McHugh is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story collection AFTER THE APOCALYPSE.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Choosing a title for a collection is tricky. How did you settle on After the Apocalypse and what was the genesis of the short fiction piece?

Like a lot of writers, I have a lot of funny rules.  I don’t write stories about writers, because I think I’m being lazy if I do.  When I write something set in the future, no one smokes because I would like to think that smoking has pretty much disappeared from culture in the future.  I think depressing endings are easier to write than non-tragic endings but that non-tragic endings are often more true.  But my writing life changed drastically in the last couple of years and I started getting paid to write other people’s stories (quite a bit more than I was ever paid to write my own, honestly) and more people are seeing those stories than buy my books.  It gave me a curious sense of freedom.  I had written the first story of the book, “The Naturalist” and it was about zombies in Cleveland.  Then I wrote the story called “Useless Things” which is set in a near future wracked by climate change.  There’s something self-indulgent about the whole world is going to end story.  Culturally in the West we’ve been believing the world was about to end for about two thousand years.  And it keeps stubbornly not ending.

Like the stock market, past performance is not a predictor of future profitability but it’s hard not to notice that apocalyptic stories keep getting it wrong.  For me, it’s a chance to wallow in my own anxieties.  I’m really more interested in how people deal with stuff than I am with the stuff that is happening.  It always felt to me that catastrophe, like technology, is unevenly distributed.  That some random sample of the lucky and capable (but mostly the lucky) will be sitting around at the end, and that someone will be desperately attempting to maintain some semblance of order.  Hence the title After the Apocalypse.

I actually wrote the story “After the Apocalypse” after I’d already talked to Gavin Grant at Small Beer Press about doing the collection.  So I had the title first and then the story.  But the genesis of the piece came from several conversations over many years.  Karen Joy Fowler has been talking about the absence/portrayal of mothers in stories for years.  I got interested in writing about mothers.  Then Kelly Link asked me to write about a bad mother.  That was terribly hard for me.  I many ways the title story took me fifteen years to get to the point where I could write it.

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you?

Well, it’s short.  If the story doesn’t work, it’s not as if I’ve invested two years in the project pretty much exclusively, as I would for a novel.  Also, I’ve been able to write more of them than I have novels, so I’ve had more practice.  Lastly, and this is very important, I’m lucky to have editors willing to publish them and people willing to read them.

In terms of genre, your fiction strikes me as going beyond boundaries. How would you describe your fiction?

I very much like a lot of literary short fiction.  (And like any other genre, there’s a lot of literary short fiction that I don’t like.)  I like the specificity of it, the particularity of certain kinds of craft, and its emphasis on the personal.  I like the springtrap artifice of a Raymond Carver story where the ending just snaps shut on you.  I like the way Alice Munro moves through time.  I like the way Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri make familiar places freshly alien.

But I keep wanting to write about plagues, and zombies, and artificial intelligence because I think our lives are constantly being torqued by this future I’m living in.  I may not have a jet pack but I carry an amazingly powerful computer barely larger than a cigarette pack wherever I go.  It’s hard to describe how strange our lives have become because they’re not strange, they’re ordinary as we live them day to day.  I’m a little obsessed with our stubborn, admirable desire to keep living our vital and animal lives while miracles, both wonderful and terrible, keep happening all around us.  In a funny, old-fashioned Victorian way, I am forever trying to write the sublime.

Charles Tan interviews Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominee “Things to Know About Being Dead.”

Hi Genevieve! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In “Things to Know About Being Dead,” what made you decide to tacle Chinese vampires?

I knew I wanted to write about a non-Western vampire tradition, especially as my protagonist was Chinese-American; it gave me a chance to subvert some assumptions about vampires in the European tradition.

What were the challenges in writing YA fiction?

There’s often a particular intensity in teenagers that’s easy to get across in, say, film (that time-honored archivist of the longing stare), and you want to be able to transfer that same tension to the page. Plus, rare is the teenager whose inner monologue isn’t running anxious circles around whatever’s actually happening externally, so that has to be taken into account, as well.

While I wouldn’t call it outright horror, some of your fiction has this tinge of darkness and/or tragedy to it. What’s the appeal of this element for you?

I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing someone can answer on their own behalf! I suppose I’m just an enemy of fun.

Charles Tan interviews Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated author of “Absolute Zero.”

In “Absolute Zero”, what made you include the Stag-Man?

The entire story came together as a result of my taking a trip through western Nebraska, and I think deer have an interesting place in the social eco-system out there – they’re wild animals, and they’re beautiful, but they’re mostly seen as giant pests who can mess up your car and cost you lots of money in repairs if you hit (and kill) one in the dark – so hunting is not just recreation, but obligation and social duty.  Our standard relationship with animals and nature is one I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you?

I feel like it’s conducive to experimentation.  My favorite short stories are like punches to the gut that you don’t see coming, and when you look around trying to figure out what just happened, you still can’t piece it together.  They’re perfect for horror.

What is it about horror and its elements that makes you include them in your fiction?

That’s the million dollar question, right?  Right now my answer is that I really like the hidden/revealed dynamic in horror – that so much of it involves the ugly parts of ourselves and our world that we almost kill ourselves trying to conceal, or control.  Given the amount of desperation and hatred that goes into this concealment effort, no wonder that stuff comes back to us in such terrifying form.  In that sense “horror” really squares with how I see society in general, so it feels very honest to write horror.

Charles Tan interviews Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story “Sunbleached.”

Hi, Nathan! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of vampires for you?

I have to be honest: when I was approached to write a story for this anthology (TEETH), I came very close to saying no. Vampires have very little appeal for me these days. They’re everywhere you look these days, and I can’t even see the word anymore without cringing. That said, my indoctrination into the horror genre came when I was a kid, and my mom let me watch Salem’s Lot on tv. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and I’ve been chasing that thrill ever since. I thought about that, and I thought about Stephen King’s short story, “One For the Road,” and I realized how much fun it could be to write a story in which the vampire is downright scary. Our culture has rendered vampires into soulful cover models, or guilt-ridden, self-loathing weaklings. I decided to write about the vampire I loved as a kid, the creature that first brought me into the genre: the predator. The shark. And what appeals to me about that vampire is that it is merciless and yet terribly beautiful, terribly attractive. And not necessarily in the physical sense. I decided to write about a vampire that had been burned nearly to death by the sun: about as far away from physical beauty as it was possible to get. If a vampire’s primary tool is seduction, how would he use it, looking like he did? What would he do? That was a lot of fun. And I’m pleased to note that there has been a larger reaction against the pretty vampire, as evidenced by good, dark vampire novels by Michael Rowe and, soon, Glen Hirshberg.

What were the challenges in writing for a YA audience?

This froze me for a while. The story had a lot of false starts as I tried to figure out what YA really meant. I don’t read a lot of YA fiction and so I had some misconceptions about it. I felt like I was supposed to be writing for children, and I didn’t know how to do that. Nor did I really want to. Finally, though, I just thought about what I was reading when I was fourteen or fifteen — it was Stephen King, for Christ’s sake. I thought about the kind of story I would have wanted to read when I was that age, in a book like this, and the scales fell from my eyes. In the end, I decided to just write “Sunbleached” as though I was writing it for adults. I kept the profanity to a minimum, but other than that I let loose. The end is graphic and very bleak, and I was kind of surprised it passed muster. You must never condescend to your audience; I had to relearn that to write this story.

What’s the appeal of the horror genre for you and what makes you keep coming back to it, or at least including elements of it into your fiction?

The appeal is that it reflects the world I know. The human world is, by default, a sad and uncaring place, and it takes a committed energy to carve out a niche of safety and love. I respond to horror fiction because it seems honest and true to me. I’ve been reading horror pretty steadily since I was a kid. To me, horror is a lot like comedy: it’s very difficult to do well, and pretty ridiculous when done badly. I think of it as the literature of antagonism: at its best, it undermines conviction in authority and convention, it interrogates societal norms and even personal moral infrastructures. A literature which engages us in this way is vital. I can’t help feeling that people who disdain this genre are somehow hiding from themselves; that there are places inside that they’d rather not acknowledge. And, you know, that’s understandable. But it’s also somewhat dishonest. The thing is, though, horror exists all over the place outside the genre, too. I’ll go to my grave maintaining Donald Ray Pollock is writing horror fiction, for instance. You’ll find it in Richard Price and in Cormac McCarthy. In the poetry of Sharon Olds. It’s not just a genre, it’s an atmosphere. And that’s why I have resisted the “horror writer” label. It’s not out of disdain for the genre; just the opposite. It comes from the belief that it’s too big to be codified in terms of genre, and from the fear that, were I to try to do that, my writing would devolve into parody. It’s just like writing YA: I had to stop thinking I was doing it in order to do it. I was accused once of being disloyal to the genre for resisting the label, but that just strikes me as absurd. Horror is everywhere, and it’s a part of the world that fascinates me right now. But the world is too big, and the human experience is too big, for me to identify myself so specifically. I reserve the right to be whatever kind of writer I want to be.

Charles Tan interviews S. P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Knock Knock.

First off, what was the most challenging aspect when it came to writing Knock Knock?

The most challenging aspect was establishing the point of view that would work best. When I found the point of view the story opened up for me.

The first draft of Knock Knock was about a young couple coming to live in a small town in Washington State and falling under a malignant, possibly supernatural influence. The husband had relatives in this rural town and was content to live there temporarily. The wife (Lydia) was pregnant, missed the city, and felt trapped by circumstance. The early draft alternated between third person omniscient and third person limited (Lydia).

This approach was never quite satisfying. I wanted to look more closely and intimately at the town and its inhabitants. I wanted to do more than catch glimpses of them from the perspective of an outsider. Lydia was a bit of a snob. She had a tendency to reduce and caricature the country people she met. All along I thought there was a deeper story hidden in the lives of the town’s residents. Eventually I would also discover Lydia’s real connection to the town.

I tried looking at the interior world of a resident. This was better. It provided a contrast, and I ended up with the story of Ethel, a woman who didn’t want to have a child. I wrote a whole draft of the novel following Ethel. That was too bleak for me! I started longing for another contrast. And I wondered what it was that made Ethel afraid to have a child.

Considering Ethel’s friends Beverly and Marietta as they might have been in grade school gave me the idea of a childhood oath, a bit of foolish magic that prompted an uncontrollable entity. The more I wrote about these three girls the more I wanted to see them advance through several decades. How does the girl become the woman? How does the oath haunt each of the girls?

In each chapter I took a different character and adopted third person limited point of view. We see the town from all of these vantage points. In this way I was able to cover many years and changes in a novel that is 300 pages long instead of 700 or 800. I hope the shifting perspective allows complexity and subtlety in a book where I am not doing extraordinary things with language. I think the novel is both straightforward and layered.

How different was writing a novel from writing short stories and plays? Did the latter influence the former (and vice versa)?

I began my writing life with short stories and had quite a few stories in literary magazines before I turned to drama. Theater was a lark. I took it up out of a desire for camaraderie in the creative process. I stayed because the theater artists I met were wonderful people with a lot of talent and wit, and because the form was such a challenge.

In novels and short stories you can cheat a little if you want. You can show for a while and then tell. You can let the reader know the ideas and themes without sounding ridiculous. On stage this hardly ever works. Unless you’re deconstructing you have to strive to build your ongoing ideas into the structure of the play. You have to use repetition, juxtaposition, contrast. Having characters stand around discussing the play’s ideas will be deadly unless you’re Tom Stoppard and it’s a comedy about people who discuss ideas.

The discipline required to write drama, therefore, was good practice. Sometimes I got it right and sometimes I failed, but the struggle was worthwhile. I think my short stories are better for it. In a short story I’m now less apt to pontificate than I was in my twenties. I trust the reader to figure out what the story is about, if that matters to her.

Novel writing seemed so daunting that I never expected to tackle it. Then I encountered a place, an imaginary town where people construct their lives around local myths and personal fears. This place required a novel in order to expand and take on the nuances I wanted it to have. So without knowing exactly how to write a novel I pursued the story and made changes as I went along.

Last week I finished a novella related to Knock Knock. It’s fairly complex for a novella. Yet it took a fraction of the time to write. I knew the characters well and I knew from the beginning it was crucial to establish the point of view that could sustain the book. So I gave it a lot of thought before I started, and the writing took less time than I expected.

Ultimately, the writing process is largely solitary whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a play. A play or a novel is a long haul. If you’re writing a play that long haul is punctuated by moments when you gather with charming, delightful people and read the script out loud. That’s fun. Then you have to go away again and write the next draft. So the nuts and bolts are slightly different, but there is no way around the solitude. You are alone in a room inventing a world.

What’s the appeal of horror for you?

Horror is merely an extra layer on literary fiction. It is the acknowledgment, by the author, that mortality is horrifying. The idea that we must die and everyone we love must die. I think horror is a perfectly reasonable response to that.

For years I read more general fiction and was vaguely dissatisfied. What I found appealing was fiction that people usually labeled dark or strange. Flannery O’Connor’s work is too easily dismissed as moralistic. Whatever her personal beliefs, her fiction is often marvelously ambiguous and edged with an awareness that we are all playing for time in an uncertain universe.

I always liked strange writing, even if it was non-fiction and came from a place and time that was foreign to me (Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” for example.) Editors and directors have always said that my stories and plays are dark and strange. So embracing horror is nothing more than recognizing that what I have to say, and how I say it, is often dark, even when it’s funny.

Charles Tan interviews Donald Ray Pollock

Donald Ray Pollock is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel The Devil All the Time.

For The Devil All the Time, what was the transition from writing stories to novels like?  Was the novel always the goal?

I tend to write very spare prose–most of my short stories are somewhere between 9 and 12 pages–so the thought of writing a 250 page novel was a bit intimidating at first, to say the least.  I finally decided that the only way I could do it was to write a very fast, sloppy draft, and then begin revising (in the past, with writing stories, I pretty much just moved slowly ahead with one finished sentence at a time, but realized writing a novel that way would take me years).  The first draft took maybe 4 months, then I revised and changed it considerably over the next two years.  As for the novel always being the goal, no, I can’t say that was the case.  When I decided to try to learn how to write (I was forty-five and had been working in a paper mill since I was eighteen), my aim was just to write one decent short story.  I thought if I could do that, then I would be satisfied.  But good things happened, and I landed a publisher for Knockemstiff, my first book, and then they asked for a novel.

You’ve created an ensemble cast of compelling and disturbed characters.  What was your approach in developing these characters?

I just kept typing!  I suppose everything and everyone in the book came from a wide variety of influences:   movies like Night of the Hunter and Badlands, psychological horror stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” crime fiction, the nightly TV news, people I’ve met, etc.  I wanted, if at all possible, to present the characters in a way where the reader might find a bit of empathy for them, no matter how horrible they might be, and that was certainly the toughest thing to do.  Though I tend to see the world as a sad and violent place, I think there are often “legitimate” reasons for the way most bad people turn out the way they do.

What made you choose Ohio as the setting?

Well, I’m fifty-seven years old and I’ve lived in southern Ohio, in the same county actually, all my life.  I believe “place” is very important in fiction–as someone once said, “Nothings happens nowhere”–, and Ohio just happens to be my place.  I realize that this might sound a bit constraining to some people, but good stories happen everywhere, not just in big cities or exotic locales.


Charles Tan interviews Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are the editors of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated anthology Teeth.

For Teeth, what was your collaboration process like? Has it remained the same, with each of you being able to pick one story that the other didn’t necessarily like?

Ellen:  Yes, our collaborative process remained the same, although I don’t recall us disagreeing about any of the stories in Teeth….

Terri: It’s true that we’ll sometimes publish a story that one of us is lukewarm about if the other really loves it (though not a story that one or the other of us actively dislikes). This doesn’t happen often, however…and with Teeth is didn’t happen at all. We both loved every single tale we chose — and even a few that we had to turn down because we ran out of room!

For your YA anthologies, when it comes to themes, you’ve done fairy tales and mythic fiction. Lately, you’ve been wading into “darker” territory, whether it’s villains, or in Teeth’s case, vampires. What’s the appeal of this darkness for you, and why do you think it appeals to readers of YA?

Ellen: There have always been at least a few dark stories in the books that we’ve co-edited…but yes, you’re right, we do seem to have moved into somewhat darker territory with Teeth, Troll’s Eye View, and also with our forthcoming dystopian anthology, After. I’ve always been attracted to dark fiction, and have edited many horror anthologies, so for me this darker content is nothing new. Teeth, in particular, was a natural for me as I’ve previously edited three anthologies of vampire stories for adult readers.

Obviously the success of Twilight influenced us in thinking that an anthology of vampire stories would be of interest to young adult readers. But Teeth is meant to be the”anti-Twilight”…not just in terms of emphasizing the quality of the writing over romantic intensity, but also because most of the stories are very effective in demonstrating the down-side of being a vampire, and why it may not be a dream come true. We hope that young readers who are tired of the sparkly vampire will be attracted by our book.

Terri: It seems to me that our strength as an editorial team has always been that we come at the literature of the fantastic from two different directions: Ellen with her background in dark fantasy and horror, me with my background in high fantasy and mythic fiction. Thus we cover a broad spectrum of tales, with our taste overlapping in the middle.

I’m a folklorist, so our various myth and fairy tale anthologies were built upon themes that I had a strong personal interest in, whereas Ellen was the driving force behind Teeth, and After, and I followed her lead on these two books. As the writer in our editorial partnership, it fell to me to write the introduction to Teeth (with input from Ellen, which is why her name is on it too), which required a good deal of reading and research to make sure I was up to speed on the topic…as opposed to the intros in the myth and fairy tale anthologies, where I was covering familiar territory. Teeth pushed me out of my editorial comfort zone, but sometimes that can be a very good thing. Our goal from the beginning was to take a familiar (almost too familiar) topic — YA vampire fiction — and do something fresh and original with it. A daunting task! I feel that we achieved it, however — although the credit, of course, really belongs the wonderful group of writers we worked with.

What was your criteria in selecting the contributors/stories for Teeth?

Ellen: We wanted to combine stories by authors known for YA fiction with stories by those better known for adult work — including writers you wouldn’t immediately think of when you hear the words “YA vampire fiction,” but who we knew were up for the job! With all our anthologies, we begin by drawing up a “submission invitation list” of writers whose work we admire, and who we think can write a smashing story on the theme. These lists always include a mix of well-established writers and talented newcomers.

Terri: As the stories began to come in, our criteria for selection was based on the quality of the writing, of course, but also how each story fit the anthology as a whole.

Ellen: When an anthology is built on a single theme, it’s important to acquire different types of stories with different voices. That was our aim, and I think we succeeded.

Charles Tan interviews Michael Cisco

Michael Cisco is the author Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel The Great Lover.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what was the genesis of your character the Great Lover?

Most of my characters simply present themselves to me, and there are many who return again and again in more or less altered form.  So the Great Lover is a variant of other, similar demonic characters I’ve done.  That these characters keep coming back can be a sign that originality is flagging, but I think it’s often a sign that the writer keeps finding new things to say or do with such a character.  The character itself doesn’t “grow” in the conventional sense of character development, which is almost always a scheme that really cripples and domesticates change, but the character keeps becoming new aspects of itself.  The Great Lover is a character that begins before the novel does and who will go on doing things in other novels under other names, provided I keep writing them.  At one point in The Great Lover (the book) he encounters the other versions of himself from my other novels.

The idea behind the character this time was I guess that here was someone who is entirely trapped in a wild and exalted state of hyperbolic, reverential yet carnal desire for love, but who won’t approach them directly and flees whenever someone turns their desire on him.  He flees either by running away or by turning into a cartoon character, not a superhero but somewhere between a more or less stable persona like Popeye and a crazy protean thing like Bugs Bunny.  There’s a murky impasse there emotionally that I wanted to get in front of people.

The Great Lover is very different from the traditional narrative. How would you describe your writing?

The Great Lover is not as radically different from traditional narrative as all that;  Finnegans Wake is much more untraditional and it’s nearly a hundred years old.  Redundancy is necessary for understanding;  you need some level of redundancy – characters, a plot, chapter breaks and so on – to make what you’re doing a novel and not some other kind of written thing.  I am a phantasmagoric maximalist.  I like things to be overwhelmingly strange and capacitous.  I want what I write to live;  it isn’t about something, it is something.  Something new, if I’ve done what I set out to do.  The mad scientist makes his monster thinking that he’s going to prove himself to the scientific community or something like that, but he’s being too modest and even too self-deprecating.  His motive is much more honorable than a desire to applause;  whether he is consciously aware of it or not, he wants the monster to explode out of control and go out marauding into the world, because the desire to create, at its highest level, is the desire to create something bigger than you are and so out-create yourself.

What were some of the challenges in writing the book?

The novel won’t live if it’s just a heap of weird.  It has to contact the reader to seem real, so that the reader isn’t just passively watching all this unaccountable stuff going on without any feeling of attachment or participation.  This is the problem that abstract art often has;  it’s so obliquely angled or so flat that you just can’t care about it unless, for some reason, you happen to be one of the few people who loves obliquity or flatness.  I struggled horribly to get love into the novel, but love is the most enslaved, falsified element in art.  It’s all Hallmark cards, and I can barely manage to get any of it in.  I struggled with the density of my own style;  I can only stare in hapless admiration at the minimal writers, like Beckett, who can do everything in the world with nothing, or the light writers, like Vian, who never fail to keep flying speed.  I struggled with the politics of the novel too, because it can’t be a political novel in the conventional sense nor can it be apolitical, since it has to be alive in the world it conjures, which is a political world.  There’s so much I want to get into the novel, but the more I put in the slower things go, and a novel has to sustain a slightly sub-conversational velocity if it’s going to work.

Charles Tan interviews Sheri Holman

Sheri Holman is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Witches on the Road Tonight.

Hi Sheri! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In Witches on the Road Tonight, what was the genesis of Eddie’s character to the point that made you want to write a book about him?

When I was a kid growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1970s, I was obsessed with my local horror host, The Bowman Body.  His show, Shock Theater came on Saturdays at midnight, right after Soul Train, and I rarely made it til the end — the movies were always so bad I fell asleep. Bowman, however, made it all worthwhile.   A dead ringer for Bob Newhart, he was balding and nebbishy, wore a black unitard and white sneakers and told really painfully corny jokes.  But staying up that late watching horror movies felt like an initiation of sorts.  I was being invited to witness something terrifying (I still have nightmares of Tallulah Bankhead in Die, Die My Darling!) in the safety of my own living room.  I was nine or ten, too young for boys and sex, but ripe for mystery and transgression.  I instinctively knew this was where I was heading, the world beyond childhood.  And of course the horror host is a modern day Virgil leading you into the dark wood and out again.  As a grown-up, I thought a lot about the death of regionalism and the onslaught of global media.  How all those wonderful characters from my childhood — Sailor Bob and Bozo the Clown and Bowman Body — were gone for good.  It seemed to me the torch of late night horror had been passed to the news.  First to Ted Koppel’s Nightline, the news that came after the news (with its ticking clock on the Iran hostage crisis) and then to CNN and FoxNews and the rest — info-tainment models that took fear to a whole new level, and have probably done more to boost the sales of sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications than anything else in the history of our country.

What was the most challenging aspect when it came to this novel? 

I originally conceived of this book as a more straightforward historical novel based around a Depression-era family of ginseng hunters.  When I started the book, I had three children under two, and one of my twin sons was undergoing a major health crisis.  I was about as strung out and terrified as I’d ever been in my life and didn’t feel I could afford to take any risks with my work.  But then I realized if I played it safe right then, I’d consign myself to being a fearful little writer for the rest of my life.  It was probably a choice made as much out of sleep-deprivation psychosis as anything else, but I threw out the safe book and incorporated two other characters I hadn’t been able to shake as much as I tried — Eddie, aka Captain Casket, and Wallis, a career driven 24 hour news anchor destabilized by motherhood.  At first I couldn’t see how these three storylines fit together, but then I realized I was writing about a family and the arc of fear in the 20th century.  It begins with Cora telling ghost stories in the mountains, moves to Eddie who defangs scary movies during the golden age of regional, independent television, and ends with Wallis, who peddles anxiety and terror on a global scale.  Dealing with the constant time shifts was extremely challenging,  but I wanted the reader to make the thematic connections that would arise from the juxtaposition of these three stories.  I’d been reading a lot about neurobiology and learned that the chemical loops of memory are always on and running, like a million movies playing silently in the background, ready to be retrieved in an instant.  There is really no biological distinction between past and present.  Moreover, we carve our neural pathways by walking and re-walking certain memories more than others, which is why trauma can become so deeply entrenched. This suggested  gorges and mountain paths to me and so landscape along with the folklore it generated, became an organizing principle.  We are leaping around in time and chemical impulses are leaping synapses and characters are leaping chasms in this book.   I took a lot of risks with the writing of it and it came from a very raw and honest place in my life.  It was maybe a little bit of a personal exorcism for me.  But there were times, especially writing Cora’s midnight rides,  where I almost felt like I was casting a spell — I got so caught up in it.

Some might consider the book to be horror, gothic, or weird, but how would you describe your fiction?

For me there is nothing more horrific than betrayal and loss of trust — whether it’s in a family or a society, it shakes your faith in what you’ve always understood to be reality. You’re left alone, without guideposts, filled with doubt.   So all the horror in this book lies less in the supernatural shedding of skins, and more  in the ease with which we do it.  Lovers betray each other, parents betray children, children betray parents, and all of this is played out against the existentially terrifying reality of war with its own asymmetric power dynamic.    I think good fiction pulls from lots of different genres, so I never try to label what I do. (Though I’d probably make more money if I stuck with just one thing!)  The Dress Lodger, my novel about a doctor and prostitute stealing bodies during the cholera epidemics could have earned a horror label, too.  I’m always happy when anyone considers my writing gothic.  Again, I never set out to do it, but I think growing up in the rural south where the dead are constantly with us, it can’t be helped.  Everyone told ghost stories where I grew up, and no one thought twice about terrifying the kids then sending them off to bed.  I grew up understanding that the ability to wield fear equaled power, which might not have been the healthiest lesson, but is something I continue to be fascinated by.  Of course Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson were enormous inspirations for me growing up.  Their writing, in its day, was considered “weird,” but I’m not sure what to do with that word.  When I first moved to New York, iced coffee was weird to me. Maybe I’ll write a gothic horror novel about that!

Charles Tan interviews Deborah Biancotti

Deborah Biancotti is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novella “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living.”

Hi Deborah! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. The three novellas in Ishtar are different and unique. What kind of planning/communication did you do when planning to write “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living”? Why choose the contemporary setting?

Mark Deniz was the genius behind the settings. It was his idea to do 3 stories: one historic, one contemporary & one futuristic. I was ecstatic to get the contemporary story because I’d realised by then that I had a very particular love for that setting, as opposed to fantastic or wholly imagined worlds. We brainstormed & planned at the beginning of the process and then Kaaron Warren – whose research into the Ishtar mythology was excellent, and far better than mine – was kind enough to share an early draft of her story with some of her research intact. From there we all settled in to write our own stories. As I started writing I realised the thrill of present tense story-telling, with its immediacy & energy and that special way it has of implying nothing-at-all about the future. As if the future maybe doesn’t exist, maybe nothing exists beyond this point. It was a blast, one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on.

What is it about the Ishtar myth/concept that fascinated/interested you?

A few things really stood out for me about Ishtar, though there’s a wealth of mythology surrounding her. Firstly, that she was the goddess of both love and war – a complex dichotomy that should be disabling, surely, but somehow she’s managed to make it work. That she descended into hell and was hung on hooks for centuries, only to return to the world to find someone to take her place (she sends an ex-lover, which perfectly suits her whole love-and-war approach). And the way she was re-interpreted by several cultures and had several names but is still recognisable as the same deity – or at least, as a goddess fulfilling the same role: Ishtar, Inanna, Isis, Astarte – even Aphrodite and Venus have been linked to Ishtar & might be her, in other clothes.

What’s the appeal of the novella format for you?

I’m working on a couple other novellas this year and I have to say I love the format because I can play with my characters’ backgrounds and journeys more than I can with short stories. But at the same time novellas require a certain energy level, a certain consistency that is sometimes missing from novels (especially those novels that we, as readers, describe as ‘sagging in the middle). Novellas don’t allow for extraneous detail. Novellas stick to their stories, they can’t sag or fall apart – there isn’t room for it. As a reader and not just a writer, it seems to me to be a new era of novellas, particularly since eReading is so popular. No more worrying about the economies-of-scale that printing requires, where a book has to contain a certain number of pages to be cost-effective. Now we can write at any length! Even though novella-writing has a long history, it feels cutting-edge again.