NEW BLOOD: The Rebirth of Indie Horror – A Conversation with Laurel Hightower
NEW BLOOD: The Rebirth of Indie Horror
A Conversation with Laurel Hightower
By Matt Micheli
These interviews are intended to be very candid and conversational. There is nothing off limits.
“There’s a single note that plays through all of Laurel Hightower’s Crossroads, and in that note you can hear a mother’s justified devastation, a lover’s acceptance, and the haunting displacement of a ghost. Refreshingly nuanced character, down to earth in the rightest of ways, Crossroads will sincerely move you. There is a big mind, and an even bigger heart, behind this book.” — Josh Malerman, New York Times best-selling author of Bird Box and Malorie
What better person to have to kick off the New Blood series than award winning-horror author, paralegal, wife, mom, fitness enthusiast, and expert in badassery, Laurel Hightower?
Laurel, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. I know I speak for the Horror Tree readers when I say, we’re thrilled to have you. Let’s get to it.
Every great story has a beginning, and that’s where I want to start. You grew up in Kentucky. What did a typical Summer afternoon look like for Laurel the kid, and what was your fondest moment—a memory that always induces a welcomed nostalgia?
Hi Matt! Thanks so much for having me!
I love this question, what a great excuse to revisit that nostalgia. I loved summer when I was a kid – every week we’d go to the library, and I’d stagger out under a wobbling stack of books with ghost stickers on the spine. My dad was at work all day, so I’d claim his cracked leather recliner and lay upside down, reading all day. It was heaven.
As far as my most nostalgic memory, it also involves the library. I remember stepping out into the empty parking lot at closing time, leaves swirling around my feet. It was fall, dusk coming on early, and I had the delicious realization that Halloween was coming. It was the first time I remember that anticipation, the understanding I could revel in the season for the full length of it, create and settle into that feeling.
So your love of books started early… What was your favorite book or series as a kid?
I had a bunch of them, if I recall—I’m not kidding when I say I was always reading. I learned around age 5 and from that point on, I always had my nose in a book. I never paid attention in class, always chose my seat in the back next to the bookshelf and worked my way through whatever they had. I loved James Howe’s stuff—Bunnicula and The Celery Stalks at Midnight were some faves, and especially What Eric Knew. I read a lot of Beverly Cleary’s stuff—I read Ramona Quimby: Age 8 when I was in Kindergarten—it was my first chapter book. I also had an illustrated copy of a big book of Norse myths which fascinated me, and when I got a little older, I plowed through Fear Street and Sweet Valley High books with equal gusto. If it had a ghost or a horse on the cover, I was all in.
I don’t know how I never knew Fear Street was a thing and the Netflix trilogy was written by R.L. Stine! Learn something, everyday! I just bought my daughter a ton of Goosebumps books (fortunately, she takes after me with liking scary and supernatural stuff:). And Halloween parties… Oh, man, those are just a tad bit different with kids. Ha.
Since you brought up Halloween as one of your fondest moments: were you big into dressing up, and do you and your husband and son dress up, now? If so, give us an idea of costume choices.
Absolutely! Costumes in the 80’s were pretty simple—a lot of times our parents would just draw whiskers and a nose on us with eyeliner. If your family was fancy, you’d get one of those bizarre sets with a plastic smock and thin, crinkly mask you could barely see through. I got a My Little Pony one once, and I was thrilled.
Back before we had my son, my husband and I used to attend a friend’s Halloween party every year, and he got into it with me. One year we were The Eleventh Doctor (me) and a zombie (him.) I also went as Grumpy Cat, a cenobite, and Death, which was probably my favorite. Since my son was born, it’s all about his costumes. He’s totally into it, but even before that, I dressed him up as a peacock for his first Halloween. It was hysterical—a good 50 percent of the reason I procreated was to dress him up in Halloween costumes. In years past he’s been a dinosaur, a lion, and Chase from Paw Patrol. He also has “casual” at home dragon costumes, because why not? Make believe is the absolute best.
Laurel, professionally, you’re a paralegal and a writer. With that, let’s take one more dip into the nostalgia pool before moving on. When you were a kid, what did you dream of becoming? And here’s the tough part: would you switch what you’re doing now for what you dreamt of doing, back then?
Hmm, as a kid I know I cycled through a few career dreams, likely something to do with horses at certain points. But I think my most persistent dream was to be an actress. (Like, you know, 90 percent of the world, lol.) I was in drama and acted in some community theater and had a blast doing it. Speech team and all that, I was immersed as much as I could be without having stage parents (for which I’m grateful!)
Would I trade? Nah. There’s so much strange pressure being in the limelight it seems, and for women in Hollywood, an unhealthy focus on bodies. Heaven knows what I’d have talked myself into by now to get those coveted roles, and I actually enjoy what I do now. Law is eternally interesting to me, and constantly evolving. Plus I get the benefit of not being the attorneys—they work insane hours. I enjoy the few opportunities that come my way to dabble, mostly in the form of readings, and I’d enjoy doing more of it, but the career I have now combined with writing is a pretty sweet spot to be.
It’s awesome to hear that you are in a position in life where you wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It’s hard to come across folks who are grateful and happy for what they have, which makes me happy for you. I’ll occasionally look back at missed past opportunities but then remember that everything I’ve ever done, every decision I’ve ever made, has led me to exactly this point and placed people around me–my wife and daughter–who I wouldn’t trade for the world. So, yeah. I’m with you. Nah on trading it.
Okay, let’s talk about the fun stuff: writing.
Tell me about the first story you wrote strictly for enjoyment; not for school or work, but just for you.
What was that story about?
What inspired you to sit down and actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keys)?
Was it ever published, and where?
Ha! So the first story I remember writing for myself was in eighth grade – I’m sure I did some before that but they’re lost to the haze of time. It was called RACE THE CLOCK and finished at 108 handwritten pages. It was a mishmash of X-Files and THE STAND mini-series, because David Duchovny and Gary Sinise, of course. What inspired me, oddly, was having to walk from my dad’s to my mom’s late at night. It was dark, and I was a bit nervous, so I actually drew on my face with markers to look weird and unapproachable. (Kids – I have no idea on the thought process there.) But it worked – I ran into someone on the way out of the apartment who gave me a look and a wide berth, and it sparked an opening as I walked. I started writing during my teacher’s aide period at school, and honestly during classes too because I was a dreamy kind of kid, rarely paying attention. It was not published, thank goodness, and if it still exists at all it’s rotting in the bottom of a probably moldy box somewhere.
I’m seeing a pattern, here. This isn’t the first time you’ve mentioned not paying attention in school… You weren’t the best student, now were you?
Did you struggle with grades or were you able to coast by with minimal effort?
Ha! I was a good student in some ways, but not others. I had a need to be a high achiever – the grades were their own reward, but you’re right, I coasted for a lot of school and did okay. I hit a wall with that when it came to Algebra, however. That ended up being something I couldn’t just figure out on my own, so I pulled a C and repeated it the next year.
Before we move on, you know I couldn’t leave this stone unturned. In the battle of schoolgirl crushes, who wins: Gary Sinise or David Duchovny, and why?
Oh Gary Sinise, hands down. The answer might have been different many years ago, but I have a weird quirk with my celebrity crushes. I like family men, but not in the sense that I would ever want to break up that family. I admire and appreciate loyalty, and Sinise has always struck me as a loyal guy. He’s in a long-term marriage and makes commitments to his beliefs above and beyond his career. So basically if any of my crushes ever made a move on me (hahahahaha, right) the crush would fizzle, because dude, what are you doing?
So much for the infamous “hall pass”… Ha.
Your first piece of writing (which is buried somewhere in a gelatinous mold in an unfindable box) was inspired by television series, starring heartthrobs, Duchovny and Sinise. All these years later, what inspired you to make the bold move of becoming a serious writer/author, and who published your first real piece? Tell me about that first publication experience and feeling.
I don’t think I ever set out to become a writer intentionally—it was more a result of having words in my head. I attended college full-time and worked full-time in my twenties, and as I was nearing the end of my paralegal program. I wanted something that was just for me, that didn’t require case citations and Latin phrases. (Although nunc pro tunc is delightful to say.) I gave myself an hour or so a week to put those words down on the page and came up with something that was slightly better than that eighth-grade manuscript, but not by much. After that I worked on Whispers in the Dark, which was eventually published after a very long road of rewrites and marketing. When I got the offer, it took forever to sink in because I’d given up on it—life was nuts, and it had kinda drifted out of my awareness. It didn’t seem real until I got the cover art, and then it was just kind of a runaway train from there.
You were at a young age when your parents split (same here). Do you think that had any influence on your writing, for better or for worse?
I’m not sure if the divorce itself had an effect on my writing – certainly all the family dynamics that went along with it have shaped who I am and how I experience the world, and that’s had an effect on the kind of characters I create and the lens I write through. There’s a recurring theme of blended family in my stories, which wasn’t something I initially noticed until it was pointed out, but I think a lot of that has to do with my stepson, and the idea of choosing family instead of sticking with folks who don’t treat you like blood, if that makes sense.
That’s the really cool thing with creativity: it comes from somewhere deep inside us; we usually have no idea or control over it. Since the birth of my daughter, like you, I found an unintentional recurring theme in my writing: most stories involved a couple with a young child. They (whoever they are) always say to write what you’re scared of. For a parent, what’s scarier than losing a child?
Exactly—you can imagine before you have kids, but having a person to pin that fear to brings it to a whole new level.
Let’s talk book lengths and salability. Your first novel Whispers in the Dark is a full-length 318 page novel. Your last 2 books Crossroads and Below (just read Below which I love and am reading Crossroads as we speak, by the way) fall into the novella range both sitting right over 100 pages each. For the longest time, publishers wouldn’t even look at anything under 300 pages, but now that trend is shifting. There are a lot more novellas and novelettes hitting the market, more than ever before. For me personally, someone with limited time and a fairly-short attention span, I love shorter works and rarely anymore read longer books. I just don’t. Which is why I also tend to write shorter books—write what you love, right (that’s something else they say)? But I also fear that we as a society have less and less time and want everything faster and shorter—instant gratification—which may be why we’re seeing many more shorter book options… I’m not sure if that’s such a good thing or not. What are your thoughts on this?
First of all, thank you so much for reading! I’m still consistently blown away and grateful that people choose to spend some of their limited time with me and my characters – it’s humbling. This is a great question about length and salability – it’s true, when I was first working on Crossroads I was told novellas didn’t sell, so to expand it. I chose to trust the work though, and see where it went. That worked out well for me, and Below was a lot of fun to write, since I’d gotten more comfortable with that length of work. As far as whether the novella’s increasing popularity is a good or bad thing, I choose to see it as a positive. The world and its expectations upon us is constantly shifting. I’m sure that you, like me and countless others, have a large number of demands on your time. Reading through a shorter work gives us the same satisfaction and enjoyment of experiencing the story and allowing ourselves that grace is a form of self-care. Enjoy that sense of accomplishment, and the pleasure of writing and reading what you love. Many readers still delve into longer works, myself included, so I don’t think that’s going anywhere, and the style and feel of a story that can be told in a novella length work is very much its own thing.
Let’s talk a little about the award-winning Crossroads and being a parent. As a parent, I’m struggling to get through this one. Not because it isn’t good, but because it’s fantastic, and I feel Chris’s every emotion and desire to get her child back. It’s beautifully heart-breaking, if that makes sense.
Did you write Crossroads before or after the birth of your son, and what was your frame of mind while writing this project?
I wrote Crossroads in 2019, when my son was about a year and half old. I don’t honestly think I could tackle writing about losing a young child. But we were driving to visit my sister, and I saw a cluster of roadside crosses. I started thinking about whether I’d do that or not—if it were a road I drove all the time, would it be a knife in my heart every time I passed? Or would it be a comfort, a way to hold on? I unabashedly live for my son—I do most everything with him, and for him. I thought about a single mother who lost that after a couple decades with her kid—what would I do? I figured I’d avoid facing it as much as I could, and keep talking to him, so that’s where Chris’s character came from. And asking the question, what would you do to get them back? For myself, as for a lot of us, it was what wouldn’t I do.
Again, when I say I’m struggling to get through it, that is a compliment in its highest form. I normally read right before bed, and simply put, I can’t read this before bed if I want to sleep. There’s only been one other story I’ve read that has kept me up at night, and it was from an author who you’ve probably never heard of named Stephen King with a little story you probably wouldn’t know Children of the Corn. Of all his work, that one got to me. Anyway, there is no wonder why Crossroads has gotten rave reviews, touched so many people (including me who doesn’t like to be touched, at least emotionally—ha), and received the award for Best Novella at This is Horror. We’ll come back to that…
Your newest hit Below: Where were you when the story idea came over you, and what media were you consuming at the time that may have inspired some of the action (which it is full of!)? Just when you think Addy is good, someone or something else brings the tension and scares!
So the idea for BELOW came in a few increments – I knew I wanted to write about Mothman, but I wanted to make sure I had the right story. Then I drove to Scares That Care last summer through WV, and that went horribly, lol. I was terrified and would have handed my keys to a serial killer to get me through. I knew that part would make it in, and then on a later drive with my husband, I started picturing cars flying off overpasses (can you tell I’m a nervous driver?). That was the last piece, and I took off from there. I’ve been told a few times it reads like a fever dream, which makes sense—I wrote it in 3.5 weeks, just flying. As far as the media I was consuming—hm, I don’t get a chance to watch horror all that often since no one else in my house is a fan, but the movie Terrified stuck out to me—I don’t think there’s anything similar in it to Below, but the relentless nature of the scares was something I really enjoyed.
My daughter’s name is Adelyn, Addy for short (just like Below’s protagonist), so I’m obviously a fan of that name.
Naming characters seems to be a heated topic in the writing world. For me, I keep it as simple as I can, naming characters after people I’ve met whom the characters are loosely based on, or I go with the first name that comes to mind as long as I hadn’t already used it. I HATE big fancy names, because to me, they just aren’t believable. Example: Anastasia from Fifty Shades of Grey, the cliche trope, thirty-something simpleton virgin who needs rescuing in the big scary city… Gag. What’s your take on naming characters?
For the most part, my characters tell me their names. Oftentimes in planning stages you can see where they introduced themselves—I’ll be writing up notes and be calling them one thing, or just “woman” or “man” and then at some point their name slides in. I usually stick with simple names, although I have this weird thing about stories that name kids Billy, Timmy, Sally…I realize kids are named that, but it’s so cliche. Like when every western you read has a female lead named “Kitty.” I know, I know—bring on the hate mail. And then sometimes for minor characters, if I’m stuck, I use my friends or Tweet for volunteers. It’s amazing how many people want to be murdered in fiction.
Let’s talk accomplishments. Crossroads won Novella of the Year at This Is Horror, which is really cool, and much deserved. All of your books are highly received, and your name is all over the place in the Indie Horror World and spreading, as it should be.
First off, being an author with NO awards (yet, hopefully), tell me what it was like to win Novella of the Year by such a respected group in the horror community and how did you celebrate?
Thank you so much for your kind words! I’ve been so blown away by the support from the horror community—I pretty much never assume anyone will read my words, it’s never something I take for granted.
It was really amazing to win—I know Michael and Bob put a ton of work into coordinating those awards, and to be chosen by the community was so fantastic. I wish I had celebrated! That’s actually something I’m pretty terrible at—I don’t know why, but I don’t really let myself have time for that. I can’t recall there being any time I celebrated much for my writing accomplishments, and I need to make that time.
I’ve known Bob and Michael for some time. Both great guys and talented writers, great warriors for the Indie Horror community.
Every writer has their own processes and idiosyncrasies. What is your writing process like?
Let’s start with outlining. Do or don’t?
Always outline! That’s a me thing – some writers do great without, but I get lost on the path so easily without a map.
Do you have a designated area, or can you open up your laptop anywhere and put fingers to keys?
Pretty much anywhere as long as it’s quiet. I mostly write in the shared/combined office/playroom in our house, but it’s not terribly important as long as I have silence and a place to sit.
What soundtrack (if any) is playing in the background?
Mostly I write in silence to avoid distractions – occasionally it’s to film scores, primarily ones composed by Clint Mansell. The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream are some faves, though It Follows is also suitably creepy.
A lot of writers give themselves a minimum daily word count. I’m not a fan of this because to me, the last thing I want to do is force my writing, but it seems to work for many. Thoughts?
When I’m trying to finish a project, as opposed to just exploring it, I give myself goals but they’re very modest. I have “long” and “short” days so for a long, I might aim for 500, and 250 for a short. I generally surpass, but really the important thing for me is to engage with the story at least a bit, so I don’t lose the thread.
You mention bourbon quite a bit in your writing. Do you drink while you write? If so, is it bourbon or something else?
Hmm, with respect to the bourbon, it depends. I don’t drink while I write if it’s the morning, but I’ve been known to have a glass if working in the evening. And hell yes, it’s bourbon, or whiskey. The brand depends, but my faves are Larceny, Basil Hayden and Red Breast.
All great choices, so I’ve heard. I’m still drinking from the plastic bottles having yet to advance to the good stuff. Maybe after my first award…?
What’s one nugget of advice you can give to aspiring authors they probably haven’t heard before, something you wish you knew when you first put yourself out there?
You’ll see a lot of talk about there being no new stories, and I’ve gotten that feedback myself – oh, I’ve seen this done before, I’ve read this exact story. Ignore it, because the point isn’t always coming up with the newest thing, it’s to tell your story in your own voice. You’re the only person who can, and we know each other best through our stories. Come to the campfire and tell me yours.
Yes, just about everything has been done. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it differently. Great advice!
How do you deal with friends and family who believe you have to be a demented, scary person to write demented, scary stuff—the infamous stigma of a horror writer—and how did folks react when you told them you were going to be a horror writer?
I must be lucky in my circle, because I don’t really get that from people I’m close to, maybe because I’ve always been into spooky stuff. Every so often I get the “but you seem so nice!” comment, but if people ask, and are actually open to listening, I’m happy to tell them the positive ways horror has impacted my life, and what I get from it. Sometimes they glaze over and then I enjoy myself by going on and on and on until they pass out.
Let’s touch on that: what are some ways horror has positively impacted your life?
Let me count the ways! I often say we know each other best through our stories, so reading horror, and in particularly reading diversely, has helped me see my fellow humans more clearly. We simply can’t know what people are going through, but horror is a way to express terrors that don’t come my way, like the simple necessity of using a public restroom as a trans person. That’s something I take for granted, but reading stories helps me see where that horror lies for folks. It’s also helped me think critically, and explore why a certain story elicits a particular reaction in me and not others. As far as my own writing, it’s cathartic as hell to sit down and write a furious short story about issues that frustrate me and make me feel otherwise powerless. And aside from the way it helps me, if I’m lucky, I paint a picture that helps readers connect with me. In a way we’re all an audience in a dark movie theater, here for the same purpose, experiencing it in different ways, but sometimes we can turn to one another to know we’re not alone in the dark.
Who’s your favorite Indie Horror writer at the moment?
Omg, this is so frickin hard. It changes often, because what I love is variety – give me a bit of this and a bit of that. But now, today, if you ask me what publication I’m most excited about, it’s Rhonda Jackson Garcia’s Hell Hath No Sorrow Like a Woman Haunted. (She also goes by RJ Joseph.) Everything I’ve read by her has dropped my jaw – she has an imitable voice, and her prose is just…chef’s kiss.
I’m sure Rhonda Jackson Garcia won’t mind having her name in your mouth, or well… you know what I mean.
Okay. Fans want to know: what’s on the horizon for Laurel Hightower? Can you give us any hints on current and future projects you’re excited about?
Absolutely! I just signed with Flame Tree Press to publish my second novel, Silent Key – it’s slated for publication in Fall of 2023. This one is special to me—I spent a lot of time with these characters and feel a deep connection to them. I’m a bit nervous because it’s more in line with my first book, Whispers in the Dark, and I always wonder if my readers will follow me down a new path, but I just love it so much. Beyond that, my first collection, Every Woman Knows This, is coming out from Deathknell Press early next year, and I’m working on a novella project I hope to announce soon. And I’m having a blast working on my first collaboration with Matt Wildasin! It’s been such a cool and invigorating process, and Matt’s an amazingly talented author and artist, and also just generally a good dude.
Wow! A lot of exciting stuff for Laurel Hightower fans, including myself! I haven’t read Matt Wildasin as of yet, but have heard his name in the indie world, so I’m sure whatever comes of the collaboration will be epic (is epic still a thing?)!
Take your time on this one: What will loved ones put on your tombstone; how will the world remember you?
What a great question, but a hard one as well—there’s likely a gap between how I hope I’ll be remembered versus how my family feels about me, right? But my wish, my hope for how I leave this world would be: She loved freely, without grudge or constraint. She forgave others and herself easily, and helped others to see the best in themselves.
Ambitious, eh? lol
Ambitious, maybe. But I have a strange feeling you just might pull it off.
Last but not least, where can people find/follow you and your work?
I’m on Twitter, to a detrimental degree, @hightowerlaurel
And I have a woefully outdated website, www.laurelhightower.com
Again, Laurel, thank you so much for helping us kick off this series with a bang! You embody what Indie Horror is meant to be—horrific worlds written by genuinely fantastic people. I wish you all the successes that come your way, and although I was late to the Laurel Hightower party, I am now an unabashed fan of yours. Cheers, Laurel!
For those not yet familiar with Laurel Hightower, become familiar. She is definitely making waves in the Indie Horror World.
Note: After wrapping up my conversation with Laurel, I finished reading Crossroads, and all I can say is: this one hits, and hits hard. Read it and read her others. You won’t be disappointed.
Please join us for part 2 of the New Blood series scheduled for August 22nd when we get a little weird (there’s your hint) and as always, share, share, share! Thank you!
- About the Author
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Matt Micheli is a writer out of New Braunfels, TX. He has several fiction and non-fiction pieces featured in various magazines and is a multi-contributor/reviewer/columnist at This Is Horror. Most recently, his work can be found in horror anthologies: Executive Dread and Night Terrors vol 18. His new horror novella The White is slated for release in December of 2022 by D&T Publishing which will be followed by his second horror novella Two Minutes with the Devil tentatively scheduled for the Summer of 2023.