Selene – Thanks for agreeing to an interview, and welcome to The Horror Tree. First, tell us a bit about yourself.
Lenore – I’m a fifth generation Floridian, though I now live in Virginia. I grew up in a rural area near a small town outside Orlando, just as Disney World was being built. We had lots of pets — cats, dogs, fish, turtles, birds — and of course plenty of water moccasins and alligators in the lake out back. This was back in the days when parents didn’t keep such a close eye on kids, so we often ended up basically swimming with these critters, too. Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable around and relate to all sorts of animals, wild and tame — maybe more so than people, sometimes! Anyhow, I went away to college, studied art and literature and writing and a little law, then worked in various jobs. Including, but not limited to: the wardrobe department at Disney World, a golf-resort waitress, a nomadic county poet (yes, that’s a thing), a librarian at a hospital for the criminally insane, and in a large somewhat dysfunctional printing company. Then, finally, I ended up as a writer, educator, and editor.
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to an interview. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Francesco – thank you! My name is Francesco and I write words. On good days, I write them in the right order.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what about the horror genre draws you?
Francesco – I published my first book in 2004, so it has been a while. I think humans are fantastic – in some cases fantastically awful, but still fantastic. We are defined by our emotions, and as Lovecraft put it, the oldest emotion is fear. I would add wonder to that. Horror, the horror I like at least, is about fear and wonder, it is about human beings, real people. Us.
Selene – You’ve got a new book just released this month, The Book Of Hidden Things. Let’s talk about that. It’s your first book released in English, right? This might seem like a dumb question, but did you write in English, or was it translated? How did you find the process of working in English?
Francesco – It is my first in English, yes, and I wrote it in English. The process was interesting. The challenge was also emotional: I am a slightly different person when I think in English than I am when I think in Italian, and thus a slightly different writer. On the plus side, writing in a second language, and one that I learned as a grown-up, gave me, I think, a better understanding of how language works in general. It made me realise something that William Burroughs said, that language is a virus. If we don’t control it, it controls us, and it is easy to be controlled by your mother tongue. You don’t even notice the virus is there; you think words are a transparent window on the world. Then you learn another language, and you discover there are no transparent windows, only mirrors and distant echoes.
Selene – Do you have any other books or stories available in English? Other than a few interviews, I’ve only been able to find articles about you in Italian (I don’t speak Italian, and I’m afraid my French and Spanish skills don’t transfer).
Francesco – More is coming!
Selene – I picked up the Kindle version of The Book Of Hidden Things as soon as it was available, and I’m really enjoying it. Especially, I’m enjoying the sense of time and place, and the Italian setting. How do you build your settings? Do you prefer a “realistic” setting, or are you a “world-builder”?
Francesco – First, thank you so much! There is nothing better for a writer to hear in the first few days after publication. Second, I am a world-amplifier. I love to look at real settings and describe them realistically, only, turning up the volume a little bit, for better or worse. I made bright colours slightly brighter and the low tunes slightly lower, but only very slightly, almost unnoticeably so. I want to retell the real world as a fairy tale. Of course, fairy tales are terrifying.
Selene – Another thing I found interesting about the setting of The Book Of Hidden things was how familiar some of the characters’ feelings about their dead-end little town felt. This is amusing since many tourists from other places seem to want to go to these quaint little towns in Europe, but the locals can’t get away fast enough! Did you think about this irony while you were writing about the town?
Francesco – Definitely. I am a victim of this irony myself. I left my town when I was 18, which means I have been living away for more of half my life. I hated it there, but now I love going back and look at the place as someone who is a local and also a privileged tourist.
It is worth remembering how old these places in the Mediterranean are – there are plenty of settlements older than Rome, which evolved in modern towns or cities. You can have a thousands-year-old necropolis at the edge of town, as it is in my hometown, and local teenagers just shrug it off: such stuff is so common it is not even considered creepy.
These lands have been borderland forever, and there was time for a lot of layers to come into being – the layers you see as a tourist are real, but there are others, for better or worse. Hidden ones.
Selene – You have another book, a non-fiction philosophy book, coming out in November, called A Sense of Wonder. Tell us about this concept. Does this relate to magic realism, another term that’s associated with your work?
Francesco – very much. That Sense of Wonder is a popular philosophy book on how to reconnect with wonder as grown-ups, in a grown-up way, rather than chasing the elusive ‘inner child’. I think reality is deeply magical. It is strange and wonderful and terrifying, and I try to write fiction and nonfiction reflecting that.
Selene – “A sense of wonder” certainly fits the feeling of the world you’ve created in The Book of Hidden Things. Does the inspiration for your non-fiction and fiction writing overlap?
Francesco – That would be another yes. There is an overarching aesthetic project (if the expression doesn’t sound too pretentious): I want to play my part in re-enchanting the world. We tend to consider reality much more boring than it actually is, and we end up being jaded, only because we don’t look far or deep enough. My entire writing could be summed up in the words, screw that.
Selene – Do you believe there are things (magic, monsters, the supernatural, etc.) that exist outside or at the edges of human experience? How might we access these things?
Francesco – These are splendid questions which would be belittled by an answer.
Selene – Speaking of inspiration, where do you get your ideas? What inspires your stories?
Francesco – real life, by and large. I am a realistic writer who happens to see reality from an odd angle. I have an intense social life, and I try to keep my daily experiences as varied as possible. I spend as much time ‘out there’ as I do sitting at my desk. The world is ripe with ideas; the difficult bit is doing something with them.
Selene – In The Book Of Hidden Things, I’m enjoying the twists and turns and suspensefulness of the story. How do you create suspense, to tease the reader into following the “maze” of your narrative?
Francesco – I write for readers. Always, always for readers. I have a great time doing that, but I very much do not write for myself. I think of myself as a guide to another world, who must gain the readers’ trust in the first few pages, so that those readers will follow me through the strangest paths I want to lead them through. With every word and every comma I put on the page, I think, ‘If I were a reader, would I find this boring?’. There is a place, of course, for challenging, difficult books. But when boredom creeps in, the writer failed.
It is not a very technical answer, because I find the technical bits not very interesting. They exist and as a writer, you need to know them, but it is not rocket science and you can learn them comparatively easily. What makes the difference is not the toolkit but the mindset.
Selene – Let’s talk about the characters in The Book of Hidden Things. They feel like real people, with real flaws and secrets. How do you create believable characters?
Francesco – I always think, ‘how would this person act in the real world?’. I put myself in the mindset of someone who is writing a real story about real people, a chronicle more than fiction. So, rather than try to make up what could happen to my characters, I try to understand what already happened to them, and be true to that. I also believe that to an extent characters are metaphysically true, but I am weird that way.
Selene – In one interview, you mentioned you relate most to Tony. Do you write characters with elements of yourself, or try to gain different points of view through the characters?
Francesco – I try hard not to write myself into characters; sometimes I agree with their worldview, sometimes I don’t, but again, I try to empty myself of myself as much as I can, and let them speak through me, rather than the other way round. The writing of the first draft is mostly me trying to understand who they are, what they do, and why. The other drafts are about polishing that. Often, when I am stuck with a story, it is because I made a character act in a way which was not the way that person would act in the real world; because I lied.
Selene – You’ve also put together a collection of work from classic authors, meant to be read aloud. How would you say reading aloud differs from listening to audiobooks or story podcasts like Pseudopod? Why should adults read to each other?
Francesco – because we need to meet in person, in flesh and blood and skin and bones. Audiobooks are great, and so are podcasts, but meeting in person is a different kind of pleasure. Reading aloud to adults was fairly common until not so long ago; then, with the coming of the radio fist, and the television after, it disappeared. Which is a shame: reading aloud is a gently intimate act, which brings people together. And we need more of that, more time spent together IRL so to speak. A lot of fears, hatred, divisions, disappear when you meet face to face.
Selene – What advice would you give a writer just starting out? In particular, I’d like to know your feelings about working in another language.
Francesco – Have an interesting life. Everything else you can learn, but if your book is going to be a riff on other books, even a well-played riff, why bother? Meet new people, try new things, explore, and come back to report what you found. As for writing in another language… it is exhausting and exciting. Do it only in a language you love in and by itself. Be in love with words, be in love with culture, be in love with people. Writing can be hard, so you need a whole lotta love to get through.
Selene – Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about here?
Don’t get me started. I’m a talker.
Thanks for your time, Francesco!
You can follow Francesco on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fdimitri
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to an interview! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Brent – Thanks for having me! Let’s see, what about me is interesting enough to discuss in this interview… Well, I like campfires. To me, there isn’t much better than a cold beer next to a cracklin’ fire. I live in the country in northern Wisconsin, and tonight the bullfrogs down in the pond are ribbiting back and forth to each other like crazy. The moon is bright, the stars are out, and if I didn’t have to work tomorrow I’d be out back throwing another log on the fire. My wife and I have a son who is now 6. He and I study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Groundwork Grappling in Rhinelander, WI. We like hunting for treasure (geocaches), and we’re building a pirate ship in the backyard. And I have a dog in my shirt at this very moment.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what about the horror genre interests you?
Brent – I wrote my whole life, just nothing big. Anything I wrote on my own was usually no longer than a page up until I took Creative Writing in college. One of the big reasons for that was I wanted to be able to hand somebody something and watch their reaction as they read it. I was always a bit of a prankster. Jumping out of the shadows, leaving little wooden Blair Witch guys in your pillowcase, tricking people into eating human flesh, stuff like that. It was always fun to get people, and horror was the best way to do that. But then it got deeper. I started to realize there were bigger reasons to write horror and dark fantasy stories. You can actually help people deal with real-life horrors. You can give people hope. Like, if Nancy can beat Freddie, maybe Clyde can get through tomorrow. And the horror community is amazing. They’re people who have been into the darkness, and they don’t want anyone to be left there.
Selene – Is all your work published with Omnium Gatherum? What’s it like working with them? I’m curious because I’ve seen their calls for submissions periodically.
Brent – I have a few short stories published in other places, but most of my stuff is published with Omnium Gatherum. All of my novels are published with Omnium Gatherum. I met Kate Jonez, the Chief Editor, back in like 2009 or 2010. Kate liked my story about this guy named Chuggie, and she helped me workshop the manuscript into an actual book. She’s one of the hardest working people I know, and my experience with OG has been overwhelmingly positive over the years. OG authors support each other a ton. I highly recommend submitting to Omnium Gatherum if you have something that meets their call.
Selene – On your website, you describe your work as “Dark Fantasy, Horror, and Whimsy.” The stories of yours that I read (“JP,” “A Friend in Paga,” and the first 40 pages of Cruce Roosters) definitely have a thread of humour and weirdness running through them. I’ve never been all that good at writing “funny,” so how do you do it?
Brent – I don’t know how good I am at it either, but I’ll tell you my approach. When it’s time for something funny to go in the story, I write something that makes me laugh. I laugh at some pretty stupid stuff. They don’t all land, and sometimes the joke is a stretch. I don’t try to make all of my readers laugh. I try to make myself laugh and a couple of close friends. Keep Away From Psycho Joe was basically written for an audience of two.
Selene – Let’s talk about your artwork, which can be found on your website. It’s also pretty weird and disturbing. What inspires you visually, and how does the visual nature of art inspire your writing (if it does)?
Brent – I get inspired by folks like Beksinski and Giger and Wayne Barlowe and Chet Zar, among a long list of others. My art is a LONG way off from those guys, but that’s the kind of way-out stuff I’m drawn to. I love things that are strange and bewildering. The kinds of things where you stare and wonder what other bizarre marvels exist in that world. What is the history there? What is the mythology? How late for work am I willing to be today, in order to ponder this further?
Selene – Obligatory question: Where do you get your ideas?
Brent – Well, the world is full of strange things and terrifying history. Everywhere you look there’s something dark and twisted that we just accept as normal. Eavesdropping on people when you’re out and about is helpful, as long as you don’t, you know, be all creepy about it. Driving through the countryside with the radio off and the windows down has been good for idea birthing, too.
Selene – Cruce Roosters was just released a few months ago. For our readers, what is it about?
Brent – Cruce Roosters is a future-sports/dystopian horror novella. The land is governed by a man called Prophit King, and the national pastime is a sport called Cruce. It’s a violent team sport that involves getting “bombs” into the opposing team’s roost. Roosts are protected by crucibles built by each team. The players are called Roosters. Some attack the opposing roost, some defend their own. The story follows a young Crucecaster named Molly Most who catches the eye of Prophit King. He isn’t the sort of person who you can say no to, so Molly is in a tight spot. Horrific things happen, and then I don’t know, probably rainbows and friendship? I’m not positive how it ends, but people seem to like it. It’s also full of fake ads that I made.
Selene – Cruce Roosters has a pretty motley cast of characters, but the strongest is the story’s heroine, Molly. How do you develop your characters, and what goes into creating an interesting protagonist?
Brent – I think what helps me is to think about a specific person playing the character. Chuggie, for example, is inspired by Tom Waits. Developing Molly happened more in the second draft. First draft, she was just a name that stuff happened to. My editor Kate asked me, “What does Molly want more than anything?” I pondered a few days and realized that what Molly wants most is to be the #1 Crucecaster in the nation. Once I understood what she wanted, her personality became clear. Her reactions and dialog came much more easily then. Molly kind of became a mash-up of Erin Andrews, Olivia Munn, and Mila Kunis.
Selene – Do you find it difficult to write female characters? How does it differ from a male protagonist, if at all?
Brent – I definitely have to think a little harder when I’m writing female characters. Writing dudes, I don’t have to dig very deep for reactions and dialog and stuff. It’s nice to have a female editor who can say, “Uh, no, she wouldn’t do that. Throw this whole manuscript away and start over. Again.”
Selene – You also have a series of books about a character called Chuggie, which I haven’t started yet. The quality of your work that struck me, and I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, is “weird.” Not that it’s a bad thing, but I guess this is a question about “world building.” What disturbs you, and how do you use it to creep out your readers? (Again, that’s a compliment!)
Brent – I used to get sleep paralysis, starting at about age 15. I didn’t know what it was back then. I thought I might be going crazy, so I didn’t really tell anybody about it until college. It happened a lot, though, and I decided to deal with it by writing them down. I kept a little journal that would have a little write-up and a little sketch of each episode. The little ventriloquist dummy standing in the doorway, the giant dog that came into my room, lots of others. So those things used to disturb me, but then I wrote them down. Now they work for me, like little, abstract monster-slaves.
From a world-building standpoint, it’s a question of, in what world are these things possible? More questions follow: What forces allow – or cause – these things to exist? Who opposes those forces, and how? Keep writing and answering those questions, and soon you’ve got a world that’s nice and juicy… Juiceworld! Ah, Juiceworld, where the rain makes you sticky and the Shlooblian Juicefolk will kill you dead if they catch you drinking from the holy fountain of Juicikalis!
Selene – Do you find you like revisiting characters and plots for a series? How does it differ from writing a “standalone” story?
Brent – I do like revisiting. Keep Away From Psycho Joe and Cruce Roosters were both intended to be standalones. Psycho Joe ended with a bit of a cliffhanger, but I was happy to leave it there. When people ask you what happens next, though, it’s hard not to think about what happens next. Hm? You wanna know what happens to Ruby and Justine? Alright, have a seat by the fire and I’ll tell you. What happens after Cruce Roosters? I don’t know. Well, I know a couple things. Okay, have a seat by the fire and I’ll tell you that, too. What happens in Chuggie #4? Put some coffee on and wheel the big chalkboard out here.
Selene – Another obligatory author question. What authors or books have influenced your writing, and what do you like to read?
Brent – Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was a huge influence. Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Douglas Adams, Wayne Barlowe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Piers Anthony, to name a few. I get into comics sometimes, too. Most recently I read Irredeemable, and it blew me away. I’m re-reading Requiem: Vampire Knight now, because that series is so juicy they ought to change the name to Juiceworld!
Selene – OK, I have to ask. What’s the deal with JP? I read the story and it creeped me out, then I saw the real JP on your YouTube video, and I can’t imagine how something so harmless can inspire something so creepy!
Brent – For folks who don’t know me, JP is my little dog buddy. He’s a Chinese Crested, and he lives to snuggle. One time my wife was in the next room, and I go, “Hey, can you call JP in there and take a look at this thing on his head?” So she calls him in thinking he’s got a lump or something, and what does she discover? JP’s wearing a little cowboy hat. Adorable! He and I are quite fond of each other. The short story was for an Omnium Gatherum anthology called Little Visible Delight. The theme was obsession. In the story, I’m obsessed with JP’s well-being, to an unhealthy degree. What happens when your little angel dog starts to get old? Well, you do what has to be done. The story came from my real fears. I’m glad people seem to like it.
Selene – Your writing work is fairly prolific, yet you have a lot on your plate. How do you balance writing with “real life” obligations?
Brent – No idea. I don’t know how prolific I am, and right now the writing is kind of taking a back seat to real life. When things settle down and it’s time to get serious, I’ll go to bed early and get up at 4 or 5am. I prefer to stay up late, but my best writing these days comes in the early morning when it’s dark and quiet and the coffee flows like wine. A hard ride down the ol’ bike trail does wonders for boosting the creativity, too.
Selene – What advice would you give a writer who’s just starting out?
Brent – Get a tiny notebook. Put it in your pocket and take it with you everywhere. Also a pen and some fingernail clippers (unrelated, just handy). Fill the tiny notebook with notes and sketches and outlines for your story. Later, you might take a highlighter and use it to write the number of the chapter each note would go into. Then you might type those notes into those chapters and find you’re halfway to a manuscript.
Selene – Thanks again for joining us here. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about, and what’s in store for the near future for you?
Brent – Thanks for having me! I have a handful of projects in the works, all ripping along a glacial speed. I thought I’d leave you with a passage I think about all the time. It’s from “The Ladder of St. Augustine” by Longfellow:
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
Thanks so much for your time, Brent! If you would like to find out more about Brent and his work, you can find him via the following links:
BMK on Instagram
BMK on Facebook
BMK on Twitter
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to this interview! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Shannon – Hi, I’m excited to be here! I’m a mom of two, hiker, horror author, and over-thinker who loves research and freaky things. I live in Colorado Springs, in the foothills of the Rockies, and I love the rugged beauty of the area. I do miss the ocean, having always lived on the coast before I came here, but the mountains have claimed me, and I’m not sure I could leave them.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what draws you to the horror genre?
Shannon – Like most of us, I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I started writing for publication about four or five years ago, and that’s also when I started actively submitting short stories to magazines. As for what draws me to horror, I got hooked on it as a kid when I’d read historical “real” ghost stories and collections of horror short stories for middle grade, which mostly consisted of urban legend-type tales. I discovered Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe in elementary school, and I was hooked.
Even before I started reading these stories, though, I had a grandmother who used to take me to horror movies. She loved them. My mom used to get so mad at her! I was five years old when she took me to see Cat People at the theatre. Given, my parents had shelves full of horror novels by King and Koontz, and they never restricted my reading (though I snuck my first few Stephen King novels—better to apologize than to ask permission?)
Selene – I bought a Kindle copy of your collection, Blue Sludge Blues, and read a few of the stories. The next couple of questions will deal with that collection. Do you write only short stories, or do you work in the longer form, as well? What about short stories appeals to you?
Shannon – I’m actually shopping a novel to agents now, but my first love is, and always will be short stories. I can tell so many more stories and meet countless characters, all in less time than it takes to write a novel. It’s a bit of an addiction, really. There’s no roller coaster like the short story roller coaster of writing, editing, submitting, getting rejected, submitting, getting published, and having all these exciting book/magazine releases interspersed through it all.
Selene – Your stuff has a very visceral quality to it. By that, I mean I was eating and had to stop! Stephen King famously said, “If I can’t terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I can’t horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” Let’s talk about the use of gore and other sensory descriptions (especially smell) in your work.
Shannon – I like to try to engage the senses in my stories (whether I accomplish it or not is another story) for exactly that visceral reaction. The title story, “Blue Sludge Blues,” started out as an experiment in how people would react to an assault on the senses. It was also my attempt to stop holding back. I got to read the story in front of a room full of people at an open mic before I’d completed it. Hearing and seeing their reactions was amazing.
I feel like engaging the senses further engages the reader. Or I hope so, anyway. The sense of smell is often tied together with memory, and it can influence the way someone responds when they’re reading, especially if it’s a familiar smell.
Horror is about making people uncomfortable, often to make them think about things in a way they might not have before. Hitting them in the senses, the things that control their mental responses to a point, is a way of doing this. But I like to use the senses in positive ways sometimes, too. Sprinkling in positive sensory experiences can make it all the more extreme when things go wrong.
Selene – Further to the “gore” question, there are different types of horror, from splatter up to stories that are more psychological, with little violence at all. How would you classify your work, and how do you create the “creepy” factor in a story? Particularly given a short story has much less room to build suspense than a longer novella or novel.
Shannon – My earlier stories, which are the ones in “Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations,” leaned toward the more visceral, though there are also psychological horror stories in there (“Salvation Lottery,” for one.) Recently, I’ve been writing more psychological, quieter horror. At first, it wasn’t intentional; that’s just what started coming out when I’d sit to type. I’m now purposely pursuing that as a learning experience. I consider most of my horror to be what I term blue collar horror. It’s meant to get to the point and, hopefully, to entertain and satisfy the need for a monster, whether furry, tentacled, or human. Nothing flashy. After all, the first horror authors I read were King and Koontz, and I’d very much consider them blue collar horror (though I also think both are beautiful writers, and revisiting their older works lately, I’m really seeing that where I’d forgotten it existed).
On creating the creepy factor, I try to think of something that gets a reaction from me, to begin with. If I can’t at least emotionally understand why something would be scary, I don’t want to write about it. It’s why I haven’t done a clown story yet. If and when I do, it will mean I can finally empathize with why a clown is scary. Right now, the fact that they scare other people makes me love them, but I don’t think I could scare someone with a story about them without that intellectual understanding of why they would be scary.
The beauty of a short story is you have fewer characters to work with, and less expectation of story cushioning via sub-plots. I can get to the creepiness of a situation faster because I have to set the scene faster and simpler. There’s not a chapter to introduce the main character and their current situation: there are a couple paragraphs.
Selene – I’ve noticed that several of your characters are unnamed, or only identified by a first name. Why is this, and is it intentional? How do you approach character creation?
Shannon – I’m not sure it’s ever been fully intentional, but I find it can be disruptive to getting into the character’s head as a reader if there’s too much to identify them and set them too far apart from me. As a reader, I need to be able to empathize with them, but if I can identify with them, find some common ground, that’s going to draw me in even more. I want the character to matter and be someone the reader can feel for, and I want them to have a story of their own, but I also want the reader to be able to put themselves in their place, to feel afraid for them.
For character creation, I usually jump in with the beginning of the character in my head (I’m a pantser), and then I figure out what their story is outside of what they’re about to face. Is this terrible thing happening to them something that has encroached on their current, normal life, or is it because they changed something, went somewhere new?
Selene – “Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question. But at the back of Blue Sludge Blues, you include a “Story Notes” section that explains some of your processes. Have you had much feedback, and how are the story explanations received?
Shannon –Surprisingly, I have heard privately from a few people who liked that I put the story notes at the end, and I think one of my reviews even mentioned it, so I definitely plan to do that again in the future. I’ve heard most about the notes on “What the Fire Left Behind,” because that was one of my most personal stories in the collection. I wrote it to exorcise the anxieties left behind when I fled the Waldo Canyon Fire with my family. It was a terrifying experience that still haunts everyone who experienced it firsthand, and I needed to write it out.
The whole reason I did story notes in the first place is that I enjoy it when other authors do it. Often, in anthologies, the story notes are right there at the beginning of a story, and there’s something slightly more intimate about knowing what influenced or inspired the story, and what the author was thinking when they wrote it. It often gives more insight into the story itself and can change the meaning of it when re-read.
Selene – The Story Notes on “The Salvation Lottery” mention you wrote the story based on an idea for an anthology whose deadline passed. I’m terrible with deadlines, and I do this all the time! (Write stories on a theme, but don’t submit because the call is closed). How do you deal with deadlines and the realities of writing on a time limit?
Shannon – I’m actually someone who works best with a deadline (and not a self-imposed one, either). I thrive most when I’m most limited. I was one of those people who could write insane, A+ papers the night before they were due because the pressure made me work harder than I would have had I done it in advance. So far, I haven’t had many strict timelines or deadlines for writing, but I’ll say that the earlier in the process I see a story call with a deadline, the less likely I’ll write it or that I’ll like what I end up writing. So if I see a call now that’s due six months from now, even if it inspires an idea, it’s probably not going to happen. If I see a call tonight for something due two days from now, I’ll write that story and end up loving it. There’s something about the pressure. Those ones are more likely to make it into the final product than the ones I had months to work on, too.
Selene – Let’s talk about story setting. Your blog mentions you live in Colorado, although the stories I’ve read of yours didn’t mention specific locations. One of the peculiar constraints I’ve found of the short story form is that there isn’t a lot of room to describe place settings or surroundings. How do you let the readers know where the story is set, or is it better to have an “every town” fictional setting?
Shannon – There are some stories where I think the “every town” setting is best, because in horror the more you can make the reader feel like this could actually happen to them, the better. I’m a fan of normal settings versus, say, a cemetery, because someone’s more likely to be walking down a suburban street than frolicking in a cemetery. Therefore, it will feel more real with a more mundane setting. I do try to set a scene as far as the type of surroundings the character happens to have around them. Are we in the woods? If so, there will be trees, piney scents, birds chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, wind soughing through the leaves, etc. Are we in suburbia? There will be pavement and manicured lawns, the scent of grass clippings and grilled meat, other people’s voices drifting out of their windows. All of that can be set fairly quickly, and if it’s a familiar type of place, little work has to go into it to make the reader fill in the rest of the blanks.
Selene – If I have this right, Blue Sludge Blues contains some previously published stories and some newer ones. Did you self-publish, and why did you go with self-publishing, instead of approaching a “traditional” or other publisher?
Shannon – It contains mostly previously published stories, but I put in, I think, four new stories for those who’ve purchased the other publications I’ve been in. I wanted them to have something new to make it worthwhile. Some of the stories had been in magazines that have gone out of print, so the stories can no longer be found any other way, and I didn’t want them to disappear. Plus, there’s something special in having a book with just your name on the front. I was tired of going to signing events and having people look at the book that caught their eye first then call me by the editor’s name, and then having to explain the situation.
I did self-publish for a couple reasons. One, I wanted to learn how to do it, to experience that process. Two, I wasn’t sure if there was a point to going through a traditional publisher with a bunch of stories that had already been published by someone else. Would they be interested? I can’t see why. And why let someone else once again profit off my stories, when that had already happened, minus whatever payment I got, with them the first time around? I’d like to embrace the hybrid style of publishing, where I go traditional for some pieces and self-published on others, and I’m really curious to see which ends up being the most rewarding. I’m too early in the game to say yet.
Selene – A general “writer” question here. Since all writers are readers, what do you like to read?
Shannon – I read pretty much everything, but the genres I read the absolute most are horror, urban fantasy, mystery, and thriller. I’m actually doing a study project with a couple friends where we’re working through a list of 100 Best Horror Novels put out by Nightmare Magazine a couple years ago. I’ve discovered authors I had no idea existed, and I feel it’s greatly expanding the type of horror I write and my understanding of horror, the definition of which has broadened since I started this project. I’ve stopped saying, “That’s not horror!” quite as much as I used to.
Selene – You’re involved with a couple of local writing groups (Mountain of Authors, The Rocky Mountain Writing Group). Tell us about these groups and the workshops they offer.
Shannon – The groups I’ve mostly been involved with are Pikes Peak Writers and Pikes Peak Pen Women (a local branch of the National League of American Pen Women). I was a volunteer for Pikes Peak Writers for many years, and even served on their board of directors, but quit last year so I could focus on writing. They hold an annual conference in April, which was once called the friendliest writer’s conference by Writer’s Digest, and they do a variety of monthly programs, like an open mic, open critique, a writer’s night for discussions about writing with any topic requested, Write Drunk Edit Sober, and Write Brains with a guest speaker, all of these monthly and free. It’s not just a writer’s group, but also a supportive writing community.
Pikes Peak Pen Women is focused on those who are already published. They do a monthly luncheon with a guest speaker, and a lot of community outreach, such as a program doing poetry in the schools, where they introduce kids at poorer elementary schools to writing poetry and even getting it made into books at the end of the program. They also buy books to be distributed at these same schools. The interesting thing about this group is that, despite its name, it’s multi-focused on women in the arts. Membership consists of writers, musical composers, and artists/photographers. There are a lot of inter-arts programs to mix the various art forms together. This is an older organization, created when women weren’t allowed in various press clubs and men’s writing and arts groups, and it has a rich history. They have branches in different states, so anyone wanting to join could look up whether there’s a branch near them.
I’m part of an online blogging group called Insecure Writer’s Support Group, open to any bloggers. They do a monthly blog hop where writers talk about their insecurities and offer each other support, and they now do an annual anthology members can submit to. I mention this group since it’s not limited to Colorado Springs, and it’s easy to get involved, no matter where someone is, so if you don’t have a local writer’s group, check out the IWSG.
I’m fairly new to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, though there’s a lot of overlap between that and Pikes Peak Writers, but they also hold an annual conference and have monthly free and paid programming, and they’re a great group, too!
Mountain of Authors is an annual event put on by Pikes Peak Library District. PPLD does a lot to work with the local writing community, and even provides space for Pikes Peak Writers to hold some of their events.
The short version (too late) is that I live in an area with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to having a thriving writing community. I know not everyone is this lucky. There’s a lot to choose from here (and I’ve just scratched the surface—there are other organizations!) It’s a fantastic place to be a writer.
Selene – Your blog mentions some pretty scary experiences, including almost being kidnapped, being in the car when a serial killer came after your mom (!) and being chased by a shark. Now I really want to know the story behind these details. Do you think these scary experiences have shaped any part of your writing interests?
Shannon – I’m sure they have! I’ve lived a pretty interesting life, with lots of crazy experiences, and pieces of those experiences sometimes end up in my fiction. There are several stories in my collection that were inspired by real-life events, even if it was just a small piece of the real occurrence. I moved more than some (and less than, say, military families), so I got some incredibly diverse life experiences that people who’ve lived in one area might not have. It’s given me a different way of looking at things.
Selene – The profile also mentions you’re a fan of unsolved mysteries. I enjoy watching conspiracy videos on YouTube, but my favourite mysteries are the ones collectively solved many years later. What’s your favourite mystery, and in a story, do you think it’s better to “tie up loose ends,” or to let the threads hang?
Shannon – I do love unsolved mysteries! My grandmother (not the one who took me to horror movies had a bunch of books chock-full of things like the Bermuda Triangle and the lost city of Atlantis, stories we all grew up with. She also had a subscription to Fate Magazine. I especially love a good creepy mystery, like what happened at Dyatlov Pass? What happened to the Three Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers? There’s a blog challenge that happens every April called the A-to-Z Challenge, and sometimes people pick themes. In 2013, I chose Unsolved Mysteries as my theme and did posts on mysteries like those above, plus Natalie Wood’s death, Edgar Allan Poe’s final days, the Mary Celeste, etc. There was one for each letter of the alphabet, and it was a ton of fun reading up on those.
Sometimes I like to leave threads hanging in stories, and sometimes it seems most appropriate to tie it up in a neat bow, though if I can do that and still leave some doubt, that’s the best.
Selene – Another “general writer question.” What advice would you give a writer who is just starting out?
Shannon – My advice would be to read a lot and write a lot, but it would also be to SUBMIT. The number of people I know who have been writing as long and longer than I have, and who have not sent in anything for submission in all these years is staggering. Put yourself out there! Harden yourself to rejection, because it’s absolutely not personal. You can’t succeed without putting yourself out there, even though it means risking failures (yes, plural). Also, never stop learning. Even Stephen King has things he can learn, and he’s been in this game for decades. Like any other job, you should always be learning how to do it better.
If you can, find a local writing community. If you don’t have one, consider creating one. Your local library might help you out. Oooo, and another one: don’t pass up opportunities just because you’re scared. The yeses I’ve given have led to so many wonderful things, like writer’s groups, conferences, speaking gigs, signing gigs, podcast interviews, and invitations to anthologies. Try to push yourself to read new things and to write the things you aren’t most comfortable with. And if you start to lose your passion, rediscover it before moving on.
Selene – What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions today.
Shannon – Thank you for the great questions! Currently, I’m working on a horror comedy novella about killer squirrels, and I’m still actively writing and submitting short stories. I’m looking at putting together a craft book on short stories, and I hope to put out a collection of short stories either annually or bi-annually as long as I have the rights back on enough stories. Also, I’ll be a guest on the Horroraddicts.net podcast July 21, and a panellist at Denver Comic Con in June, and I’d love to meet anyone attending.
If you would like to find out more about Shannon and her work, you can follow her via the below links:
Selene – Welcome to the Horror Tree, and thanks for joining us today. Let’s start with you telling us a bit about yourself.
Edward – Thanks for the interview. My life’s been wonderfully haphazard: naval officer/diver/bomb disarmer, reporter, intelligence operative/handler, sales/marketing executive, writer, couple advanced degrees, proficiency in three languages. I’ve tried to remain immature as I aged, avoiding the ossified judgements that constrict so many adults. And I give myself permission to change my mind about issues and individuals when warranted.
Selene – From your bio, it appears you started creative writing after retirement. What’s it like, starting a new journey later in life?
Edward – I wrote corporate marketing plans for years, which prepared me for tinkering with the truth in fiction. Lots of drawbacks to starting to write late in life, but one advantage is that I’m not worried about making it a career and can try and craft each story and poem to ring true.
Selene – I notice you write mainly short fiction and poetry. What appeals to you about the shorter form, rather than writing novels?
Edward – Time horizon. At seventy-five I don’t make bold predictions about length of life or lucidity. I do have a published novella, “The Witches’ Bane,” and a novel 40k words in progress, but I’m frequently seduced by a new story or poem idea and amble off to write them.
Selene – Let’s talk about poetry. Poetry is rarer in the speculative fiction community, although there are some great spec-fic poets out there. How does your approach to poetry differ from prose?
Edward – The bulk of my poetry is ‘general’ or perhaps (shudder) ‘literary,’ but I do have a fair number of speculative poems that have gotten published. It’s harder for me to write a good horror poem than to anguish about my wounded psyche. I try and capture the delicious fear contained in Little Orphan Annie- “and the goblins’ll git you if you don’t watch out.” Good horror poetry I think is sensory. I try and make the reader physically uncomfortable and yet enjoy the process.
Selene – You’ve also got a strong background in journalism and have published a few essays. How does writing non-fiction differ from fiction, and which do you like better?
Edward – I really enjoyed my time as a newspaper reporter, and if they’d paid me more I might still be doing it. The two best brought-alongs from my reporting days are a respect for accuracy- which translates well into plot integrity- and the ability to sit down and write regardless of mood or digestion.
Selene – Because this is The Horror Tree, what about the horror genre draws you, as a writer?
Edward – I love scary stories, both reading and writing, but am not impressed by prose sloppy with gore, although I’ve written some of it. There is latent evil under every good, and good horror writing shows me how precarious my hold is on that good. Probably a third of my speculative fiction is horror, another third fairy tale and fable, and the balance fantasy and science fiction.
Selene – What I’ve read of your stories is very character-driven. Why and how do you choose the people you write about, and how do you draw your characters?
Edward – I think a story that resonates with readers lets them into the mind and emotions of characters. I try for troubled, imperfect narrators who reach behind readers’ veneers to touch the sore spots. I try for people who are heroic without being heroes.
Selene – As a horror/speculative writer, there’s one character that always seems to be lurking around the corners of your writing: Death. This may seem like a strange question, but I’ve noticed that a lot of horror seems to be “How Not to Die.” By contrast, your characters seem to be dealing with the inevitability of death in various ways. Do you notice this, as you write?
Edward – That’s a very good question. A fair amount of what I did in the military and in intelligence work involved physical risk, and my recreations of hunting and fishing are premised on something dying. I’ve come relatively close a few times and accept calculated risks. Running away from one fate sometimes just means you’ve let another one in.
Selene – I’d like to talk about fairy tales, now. At least two of your stories are inspired by Russian folk tales. Is there a particular culture or country’s fairy tales you like or that influence you, or do you like stories from many places?
Edward – It’s a smorgasbord. The published stories from other cultures are all folk rather than fairy tales- two Russian, one Norwegian, one Turkish, two Inuit, one Japanese and four Native American. Around thirty years ago the main Bridgeport, CT library had an extensive collection of folk tales and I read through most of the books, photocopied forty or so of the tales, rewrote them, and submitted them for publication. I received two nice rejection letters and put the stories in a box for the next quarter century. I finally wiped off the dust, re-rewrote these eleven pieces and individually submitted them, all accepted. Sadly, over the years the Bridgeport library got rid of the books of folk tales, so I saved a little bit of something now gone.
Selene – You’ve published a book of your own fairy tales, written for your children and grandchildren. How did that come about?
Edward – Our children didn’t breed enough to populate an entire book with protagonists. Only five of the stories in the book feature a grandchild as the hero, the rest are retold folk tales and modern fairy tales. I wanted to give our grandchildren something they could have read to them, and something they could read to their children, which is why I wrote and assembled the stories in The Witch Made Me Do It.
Selene – The Witch Made Me Do It is described as a book of “modern” fairy tales. How would you say a “modern” tale is different from a “classic” tale, and what’s your approach to writing one?
Edward – Unless it’s satiric, I avoid the classic fairy tale settings, and set the stories and characters in the present, modernizing the evil doers and monsters. There’s some bleed into stories that got published as fantasy but could arguably be called fairy tales. A “modern” fairy tale can address real time issues for children. I’m not sure we do our children a favor by always insisting on the tales we were told when young
Selene – In addition to fairy tales, what are some of your writing influences, and what do you like to read?
Edward – I hate clichés but will use one here. My reading habit is a dog’s breakfast. I love and am infuriated by David Foster Wallace, leisure-read a fair amount of place-focused non-fiction, read about 20k words/week of fiction and poetry for the review board at Bewildering Stories, critique two stories and a few poems a week for writing groups I participate in, and often purpose-read fiction authors whose techniques I’m studying.
Selene – Before you retired, you had a long career in business, and military training before that. Do you ever use your experiences in these fields as writing fodder?
All the time. It’s a lot easier to write absorbingly about experiences I’ve had rather than experiences I’m conjecturing. Sensory detail of course, but even more the emotions and conflicts that accompany the events. A story based on my spooky days, “Alten Kameraden” is as viscerally close as I’ll ever get to describing what it was like to be an operative.
Selene – What advice would you give a newer writer, especially one starting writing later in life?
Edward – The first draft sucks. Always. Frequent rejections are a given and can be accepted in stride. Writing isn’t a zero-sum game, we don’t win or lose, we just get better at playing. As both a writer and an editor I can confidently say that acceptance is a matter of editorial taste, especially in poetry. However, if more than five editors turn a piece down, revise it. An older writer, I think, has an easier time finding her voice. Doesn’t make her writing any better, just means it’s consistent.
Selene – What writing projects are you working on now, and what’s next for you?
Edward – The novel in progress is temporarily called The Rule of Chaos. It’s a paranormal thriller set in the U.S. and Iraq. I was 40k words into it and realized that I didn’t like what I was doing. After a year on the shelf I figured out how it should be written and will spend much of the next year rewriting and expanding it to 80k or so words. I write two or three poems and a short story or two a month. I’ve assembled a poetry collection that I’m shopping around now. Hopefully someone will have the bad taste to publish it.
Selene – Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about here?
Edward – Horror, like humor, doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It seems peculiar that the most intensely emotional writing- horror, humor, romance- gets talked down, as if reluctant to admit to feelings unattached to literary layering.