The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Nikki Nelson-Hicks
Ruschelle: It’s great to spend some time getting to know you. Especially, since it’s most Horror author’s favorite time of the year. So let’s explore that. What was your first Halloween memory, and did it shape and inspire your writing?
Nikki: I was of trick or treating age way back in the 1970’s. When I think back to those days, the first memories are of my cousins and me sneaking into my granddaddy’s room and going into his closet. He had one of those deep, walk-in closets made for storage more than for clothes. It smelled of tobacco, dull sweat and something sweet that I could never figure out. We’d tunnel ourselves back as far as we could go so we wouldn’t be found and make a nest in old clothes and discarded boxes filled with who knows what.
Back there, out of the sight of any adults, we’d tell stories. The scarier the better. There were the old stand-bys: The Hook Man of Percy Priest, that urban legend chestnut that everyone knows someone who had a cousin’s whose half-brother was on the police force and saw the bodies WITH HIS OWN EYES! Or the story about the Crosslegged Man, a monster with broken arms and legs that twisted around themselves, that we made up on the fly but had spooked ourselves into believing was true. But, inevitably, we’d get to the biggest, baddest mother of them all, The Bell Witch.
Anyone who suffered childhood within the confines of the borders of Tennessee had their psyche scarred by the stories of The Bell Witch of Adams, TN. She was a ghost of a witch, a sour neighbor or a jilted lover (depending on the telling) that haunted the Bell Family in the 1800’s. She tortured the daughter, Betsy, and eventually murdered the father with poison. And then, through folklore, she haunted all of us. There was the “Red Book” that no library could contain because it would disappear from the shelves. The Nashville Children’s Theatre did a play that, for some ungodly reason, our school system thought would make a fun field trip for the kiddies. And, there, in the back of that closet, we’d tell the story, over and over again with the direst of warnings that if you said you didn’t believe in the Bell Witch three times while looking in a mirror, she’d reach out with long, bloody fingernails and scratch your eyes out!
So, did that affect my writing? Did it inspire me to read and write horror stories about ghosts, witches and other horrible things in the dark?
*Postscript: When I was 40 years old, I visited the Bell Witch cave in Adams, TN. It was a catharsis to come, face to face, with the old biddy. I listened to the tour guide gives us the spiel about the Bell family, how the cave was where the Witch hid and how if you took a stone, bad luck would follow you for the rest of your life.
I took a stone; never tell me not to do something.
Nothing ever happened because of it.
But you still couldn’t pay me to say “I don’t believe in the Bell Witch” three times in a mirror.
Ruschelle: Wonder Woman was created by her mother, Hippolyta, from nothing more than a lump of clay…and some love. And like Hippolyta, many authors are able to birth ideas from next to nothing, while others must seek out ideas and inspiration from outside stimuli? How are your stories birthed?
Nikki: All of my stories start in so many different ways.
The seed for Jake Istenhegyi started with the name. The school my kids went to when we lived in Budapest was on Istenhegyi Ute. My husband, Brian, and I joked, “Isn’t that the best name for a private detective? Jake Istenhegyi, Private Eye!” That was in 1998.
I let that little nugget sit until I was approached by Tommy Hancock in 2014 to write a short story for an anthology, Poultry Pulp. The entire book was going to be pulp stories that somehow involve chickens. I told Brian, “I think I finally have a story for Jake.”
And that’s how “A Chick, A Dick and a Witch Walked into a Barn” was born.
Many times, a story will start with a challenge.
I read a biography about Poe and it struck me as odd that many of the women in his life died. I mentioned it to a fellow horror writer, Todd Keisling, “Hey, Do you think maybe Poe was a vampire?”
“Write that story!” commanded Todd.
So I did and published it under the title, The Perverse Muse. *Spoilers: Poe’s not a vampire.*
Or, once I was challenged to write a spooky Christmas story. I wrote, Ode to the Holly King, a short story that starts off with, “Two old gods met at the Bogie Bar….” That story started me off to write an anthology titled, Bogie Bar stories, a collection of stories about forgotten monsters, gods and legends that hang out in the Bogie Bar. *Sidebar: this collection is as yet unpublished. It’s on the board to be hopefully 2019/2020.
Or some stories will be created by deadlines. A friend, Alan Lewis, texted me that he needed one more story for a collection about superheroes in a Steampunk setting that he was editing. Would I be interested in writing a story? I told him I’d be happy to although I don’t know much about Steampunk. How long did I have?
SEVEN DAYS. I had a week to learn a genre, figure out a story and crank it out.
I wrote Ectoplasmic Eradicators Wanted and it was published in Capes and Clockwork, vol. 1.
When the rights came back to me, I republished it under the title, Revenge of the Blood Red Maid: A Salt and Pepper Caper.
I’m also a voracious reader of everything. I can find so many nuggets for stories in books about history, a newspaper article or an obituary. Stories are everywhere if you know how to look at it in just the right way. I’ve often said that writers are very nice people. To us, everything is fodder. Happiness. Tragedy. It’s all fodder. Be careful when you tell me things. I reserve the right to use them in a story.
The one thing that all my stories have in common is that each has a journal devoted to it. I take special care to find a book that reflects the heart of the story. Sometimes it’s a fancy leather-bound tome or a simple spiral notebook with a kitten on the cover. The journal is like the womb where the story is formed and fermented.
Ruschelle: Perusing your Amazon catalogue, it looks as if the mystery genre gets a lot of love. What sparked your love of THE QUESTION? Who Done It? It was the board game Clue, wasn’t it? Or was it Mystery Date? Come on. Mystery Date was awesome!
Nikki: Never played Mystery Date. I love the game Clue but my husband always wins which really pisses off my inner Sherlock.
I have always been fascinated by mysteries and the big WHAT IF. That’s what drives me. Not only creatively but personally. How does a person remain sane without it?
But consider these facts:
When I was five years old, I wanted to marry Rod Serling.
When I was nine, I was entranced by Kolchak the Night Stalker. I skipped out on slumber parties because I had to be home to watch the tv show. I love Carl Kolchak and, to this day, I will FIGHT YOU if anyone says a wrong word against him.
When I was eleven years old, I was crazy for Bigfoot. I created the Monster Hunters Club at school and entered the first Cryptozoology entry in the science fair. We won an honorable mention.
That same year, Mrs Tarkington, my long-suffering teacher, allowed me to put on a play, The Hunt for Bigfoot. A classmate, Trent Ridley, put on a parka and we hunted him all around the classroom by following the footsteps cut out of construction paper we laid on the floor. After we caught him, we autopsied him behind a bedsheet screen and threw organs out into the audience. The kids LOVED IT.
In high school, I was pegged as the Vampire Chick and a Witch. I can’t say that I was bullied because, hell, I dug it.
Later in life, I joined several paranormal investigative groups and dipped my toes in a dozen or so New Age weirdness.
What I’m trying to say is that it takes a lifetime to get this weird.
Ruschelle: I’m a card-carrying member for weirdness myself. Nice to meet a fellow weirdo! Back to you. What was the first book you read that made you say, “This is exactly what I want I want to do”
Nikki: At first, I wanted to write horror stories so I drowned myself in Stephen King and a bunch of other authors that have fallen to the wayside. One day, I was reading a cheap horror magazine (the ink rubbed off the cover and the pages were pulpy) and my boss asked me, “Why do you read that trash?” I told him I wanted to be a writer and that this was splatterpunk, the future of horror.
He said, “Stop reading that shit. Read this.” And he tossed Watership Down over to me.
I read it and thought, “Man, I have been wasting my time.”
I went to the library and checked out lots of classics and quickly got bored. A story can’t just be metaphor and similes strung out with big words. There has to be more to it.
There had to be a middle ground.
I found Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Series. The richness of the world and the tapestry of her words…omg…my gut still winds up when I think about some of those scenes.
I stumbled across Flannery O’Connor’s, A Good Man is Hard to Find. After reading it, I wanted to take a shower. I felt filthy. And then I read it again but this time with a writer’s eye. It’s a simply told story. Not one word is above a 6th-grade level. But, MAN, did it have a punch.
I wanted to write stories like that. So I consumed O’Connor.
And then, I found Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I read that book a hundred times.
Years went by and when my husband and I were stationed in Oman, a Marine there gave me a copy of Terry Pratchett’s, Guards, Guards.
And I got hooked. I love how Pratchett’s stories work on different reader levels. A basic reader can enjoy a good story while a more advanced reader can marvel at the clever satire.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just one book that started me down this path. It’s all books. It’s up to me to find my own voice in this ocean of words.
Ruschelle: Since this is the Season of the Witch and the granddaddy of all scary movies, Halloween, has sliced its way onto the big screen, via 40 years later; I need to ask, do you like that they changed the whole mythos by negating all other films after the first one,– or do you feel they did it justice giving the story a clean slate? Or are you a Friday the 13th fan and don’t really care? Lol
Nikki: To cut to the chase, I don’t care. I was a teenager when Halloween came out and, hey, it was just another teen slasher movie. While I appreciated the movies primarily for the special effects (my bf at that time was a sfx guy) but, I never thought they were quality movies.
Although, it could be because, the older I get, the more I side with the chain welding maniacs. Teenagers are a pain in the ass.
Ruschelle: I can’t argue with you about teenagers being a pain in the ass. The herd does need culling from time to time. LOL Tell us a little about your unorthodox method for choosing your next project. Very nice hat by the way.
Nikki: Ha! Thank you!
Currently, I have no contracts and no deadlines dangling over my head.
So, I am free to do whatever I want.
Freedom is constipating. I am stuck on what to do next.
Like the hamster in a tornado that my brain is, I have dozens of ideas percolating up there.
Should I work on my Travis Dare story? Oooooh, what about that family drama Hand Me Down? Or the Bogie Bar Stories? Still, need to finish up those bad boys. How about that Sherlock Holmes story? Or that other Sherlock Holmes story?
Ad nauseum. You get the picture.
So, I decided to put it up to fate. I just put all the stories on pieces of paper, crumbled them up, and drew one from a hat. And because this is the 21st century, I did it live on social media.
I drew The Baby Whisperer story. Which I was happy about because it’s a coolio idea and I’ve got some real weirdness bubbling up with it.
But then…I got this idea for a haunted house story.
Don’t worry. I’ll work on both and see which one root quicker.
Ruschelle: You have been described as the unholy love child of Flannery O’Connor and H.P Lovecraft. That is a very interesting pairing. So…which do you resemble? Are you Cthulu-esque?
Nikki: My friend, Hunter Eden, gifted me with that moniker because I am fascinated by the holiness that can be found in the grotesque the same as Flannery O’Connor. However, my personal philosophy tends to be more nihilist much like Lovecraft than Catholic as was O’Connor.
I’ve written a few Southern Gothic stories which lay moldering in my desk drawer. Stone Baby was supposed to be in Nashville Gothic, an anthology, but the publisher went mad and disappeared. As one does.
The closest that I’ve written to something that could be considered Lovecraftian would probably be The Answer Bell, a lovely tale where a local Nashville tourist spot rings out the end of the world.
Baby Whisperer, if things go as planned, will be a story of Cosmic Horror that I think Mr Lovecraft would appreciate.
To be fair, I think I am an equal measure of both. Southern monstrosity with a dash of cosmic nihilism.
Ruschelle: While creeping on your website across the www, it seems you are into the weird. I like that. What is the weirdest book you’ve ever written? Or is it yet to come?
Nikki: Weird has so many connotations.
So, what I have out there in the world, I would say the weirdest story is the Jake Istenhegyi: The Accidental Detective series mainly because I paint a huge swath across the canvas of weird. There are boodaddies, bloodthirsty alchemists, golems, pirate treasure, voodoo priestesses and zombie chickens.
The story that has the most visceral in your face weirdness is Stone Baby. The editor of Nashville Gothic said he needed to shower after reading it but he went nuts, so….
BUT I really think my most weird book is yet to come. I have a story called Church of the Living Waters, unfinished, that is delightfully cruel, terrifying and flesh crawly Lovecraftian. Oh, I definitely have to get back to it very, very soon.
Ruschelle: You are an editor and writer for Pro Se Press. How do you change you writers hat to an editors hat? They can battle sometimes…if hats had hands and could throw down…
Nikki: OH man….when I’m editing, I can’t write. I’m too judgmental, too hypercritical and looking for errors and I can’t be in that brain space when I am creating a new story. I need to be fluid, ready to go anywhere and everywhere without worrying about whether it’s good or not. I need to be a kid. Being an editor is far too Adult.
I don’t do much editing any more. I’m spending all my time writing.
Ruschelle: You are a pulp fiction girl! Your books delve into the gritty crimes of Jake Istenhegyi: The Accidental Detective, and the bizarre cannibalistic trolls in the Western, The Problem at Gruff Springs. Hell, you even go full bore smashing into the present day with Mongolian Death Worms battling the Mole People in Rumble (Cryptid Clash! Book 5)! So what sparked your love of pulp fiction?
Nikki: I never realized I was a pulp fiction writer until I fell into the clutches of Tommy Hancock and Pro Se Press BUT I AM! It’s so obvious. I love good old-fashioned adventure stories with ghosts and ghouls and all sorts of over the top plots and characters. If there isn’t a monster or a murder by page three, I’m bored.
I write to entertain. It is as simple as that.
I came to that realization when I was on a panel and we were asked what social responsibilities we believed our stories owed to the world at large.
My friend, the late Logan Masterson, had a long, pithy explanation about how he wanted his stories to create a bridge between the mainstream religions and the pagan beliefs. He had lofty aspirations and wanted his stories to spark conversations and show the legitimacy of his own personal belief systems. It was heartfelt and well spoken.
And then it was my turn. Oh, man.
I said, “Look, I’m not here to teach you anything and my stories sure as hell won’t fix any sort of social problem. My stories are there to give you a diversion. Something to pass the time when you’re in a waiting room, riding on the bus or sitting on the toilet. The highest compliment I’ve received so far is when a reader emailed me that she was got so into the story while reading Sherlock Holmes and The Shrieking Pits, she missed her bus stop and had to do the entire circuit again to get home. My stories are here to entertain. I don’t have any higher goal than that.”
I believe that diversions are not a luxury; they are a necessity. Especially now when the world seems to be spinning off its axis.
Ruschelle: I was stalking you on Twitter and I was drawn to your spirit animal. Tell us about the frog and how he guides you. It doesn’t look like guiding it’s more like demanding your presence. Is it because he’s “packing” and you feel you have to let him guide you? Are you afraid he may put a cap in your B-HIND? (Insert frog photo here)
Nikki: Confession Time: I’m a puncher. I don’t know why. I just am.
For example, one day at my day job, I was contently listening to a podcast on my iPod when a coworker leaned over my desk to get my attention and startled me. My innate reaction to being startled is to reach out with my left hand to grab the offender, rear back my fist, scream “JESUS CHRIST!” and punch the son of a bitch in the face.
Luckily for her, I had only gotten to the “JESUS CHRIST!” part before I realized it was Julie and not, I don’t know….some rando axe murderer.
Julie’s eyes got as big as dinner plates and she stepped away from me saying, “I have never felt that much in danger of being punched in my entire life!”
Anyone who knows me knows this truth: Never, Ever, EVER come up behind me…unless you want a broken nose.
Ruschelle: ‘Note to self…Stay out of punching distance when around Nikki.’ You’ve leapt into the world of audiobooks. As an author, how does it feel to hear someone voice your creation? Will you ever put your own voice to book?
Nikki: I had to push myself to listen to the Jake Istenhegyi audiobook. I remember walking around in circles, full of anxiety because it’s so weird to hear your words actually in the air. My only real complaint was that he mispronounced Istenhegyi (understandable) and Harleaux (what?). I wish he’d asked me for some pronunciation guide.
Would I do one? Maybe. I think I could do it. I have an acting background. I don’t know if my voice is good enough but, I’d give it a try.
Ruschelle: I read, in a previous interview (Yes I do stalk my prey…I mean authors), that when you were young you believed in everything. But that changed as you grew older. We are kindred. I also was a firm believer in anything and everything but it changed quite a bit as I grew out of my size 5 jeans. ( Yeah I like to eat.) What makes you forge on to write and create fantastical beings that you now know aren’t real?
Dammit, I still really want to believe!
Nikki: While my gullibility is definitely dimmed as I’ve gotten older and a lot less bold, my desire to WANT to believe is still there. I desperately want to believe that a talking mongoose named Gef that lived in the walls of a house in the Isle of Man in 1930. The idea that Bigfoot secretly walks in American woods, giant underwater dinosaurs survived and live in Loch Ness, fairies, ghosts and extraterrestrials…..all of these things make me happy. I don’t want to live in a world where these things can’t exist.
A few years ago (omigod, don’t make me count), I was very active in the paranormal investigation community. Yeah. Ghost hunters. I was kicked out of one because I was too skeptical and received a really nasty email from another because I was a bit too…um….frank…at a ghost hunters conference. Yeah. Ghost hunter conferences are a thing.
But, dammit, I still want to believe! So, to quell that need, I make it real. It’s every writer’s superpower.
Ruschelle: You’ve written pulp in so many genres. Which is your favorite to pen?
Nikki: So far, my most favorite has been The Problem at Gruff Springs, a weird Western with cannibalistic trolls and Rumble, the Mongolian Death Worm/Mole People stories. I think it’s because they were stand-alones and I didn’t have to worry about any sort of continuity for the next one.
And, also, because of monsters. I love monsters.
Ruschelle: From your first book, A Chick, a Witch and a Dick Walked into a Bar, (I love the title) to your most recent offering, Revenge of the Blood Red Maid, how has your writing evolved? Tell us a little about your writing process and how its morphed.
Nikki: Oh, man. I’m thinking about stories that I wrote WAAAY before Jake or Red Maid and….it’s embarrassing how much my writing has changed. I want to use the word improved so, I will. Yeah. I’ve improved tremendously. Mainly, it’s in the streamlining. I’ve learned to carve out the boring stuff, keep it fast, lean and exciting. Nobody cares about your hero’s morning ablutions. If it doesn’t help the story, cut it. Murder those darlings, sweetheart.
And the biggest reason I’ve improved? That’s easy. I’d like to say it’s because of practice, practice, practice and that’s part of it but the real reason? The community of writers I’ve been so lucky to find myself a part. Editors, beta readers, critique groups and friends who are there to keep my head above dark waters when I feel overwhelmed.
Nothing is created in a vacuum. That’s basic physics.
Now, about my writing process.
1) Decide upon a story
2) Write out a crude plot outline. I’m a hybrid pantser/plotter. I need the beginning and the end to be in stone so that I can make that wobbly middle bit make sense.
3) Sit your butt down and write. Just write. Vomit it out.
4) Finish it.
5)Take a walk. Just get away from the story. Clear your head.
6) Read what you wrote. Cut and slash. Find the story in all that mess.
8) Repeat actions 1-6
9) When finally satisfied with the story, send it to 3-5 trusted beta readers. Listen to their advice. Take some of it. Ignore some of it.
10) Once that revision is done, send to your editor. Wait. TAKE THEIR ADVICE. PERIOD.
11) Publish, if you’re an indie publisher. Send it out to publishers, if you are not.
12) Repeat actions 1-7 ad infinitum.
I’ve often said that if you think being a writer is all about drinking and being witty, become a drunk. It’s easier.
Ruschelle: Becoming a drunk does have its perks…Do you prefer to pen short stories or novels?
Nikki: So far, short stories have been my forte but, dammit, I really want to do a novel length story. I want to try it primarily because they are more marketable.
However, I believe a story length is dictated by the story and not by some perfunctory word count definition. I have a short story, Coon Hunt, that won the Jack Mawhinney Fiction Prize in 2015, and is only 900 words long. I have tried to make it longer, but it falls like a souffle when I try to force more words into it.
Sometimes a story is as long as it needs to be.
Ruschelle: You do some awesome blogging on your WordPress, ”Nikki Nelson-Hicks: A Friendly Wolf Among Sheep”. Not always an easy task when life grabs all twelve of your arms and pulls you in different directions. So the long and short of it…why do you blog? It’s an interesting question because…I also blog and I wonder why I put black to white. Could you enlighten me and our readers?
Nikki: I started my first blog mainly to keep my sanity.
It was 2005 and I had just started my latest mind-numbing desk job. That old Black Dog was howling and I knew I had to do something. Would I just fall back into depression or finally get off my ass and use this time to work on my stories?
At first, I fell into a depression because that’s my pattern but, afterwards, I got up and started up my first blog, Nikcubed, on Blogspot. It was a way to write and just blather into cyberspace.
Later, I opted to start up a tad bit more professional (i.e. paid for) blog on WordPress, www. nikkinelsonhicks.blog.
I’m a little embarrassed because I don’t do enough with it. I wish I had the devotion like Chuck Wendig or Neil Gaiman but I don’t. Who has time? I have a day job, a family, pets, and stories to write.
I also blame Facebook and Twitter. I can easily post funny little anecdotes, blast them out and get immediate satisfaction. #addict
Ruschelle: Your new fans need to know what you’re up to and what to patiently wait for. Could you give them a hint or just a tiny smidge of your upcoming offerings?
Nikki: Right now, since I don’t have any contracts or deadlines hanging over me, I’m like a divorcee a year after the papers are signed. I’m playing the field, baby.
Here are a few of the projects I’m playing with:
- Bogie Bar Stories: It’s a running anthology of stories much like the old Thieves World series. All the stories somehow involve the Bogie Bar, a pub where all the gods, nightmares, monsters and legends hang out for drinks. A running thread throughout the book is the story of the Kalupaluit, a mythical boogey man, that becomes a Messiah to the fading, forgotten legends.
- Morbid Mommy series: It’s an anthology series of YA horror stories. Think Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark kind of thing. I have five stories already lined up. I’m just waiting on the illustrations.
- Jake Istenhegyi: When the final rights come back to me next year, I plan on rewriting, editing and releasing each story with a bonus new short. Each book will include at the end a new adventure featuring Bear Gunn and Melinda Paige, Jake and Bishop, Mama Effie, or a Radu caper.
- The Baby Whisperer story: It’s going to be a cosmic horror, tad Lovecraftian, story about a trapped interdimensional being that just wants to go home and doesn’t care if it means destroying this polyp of a universe to do it.
- Have you ever noticed that ALL haunted house stories are written about rich, white people in huge mansions? Every damn one of them. I want to write a haunted house story from a poor person’s perspective. I also want to explore the idea of the Haunted Mind, a theory created by the psychical researcher, Nandor Fodor, that postulates that it is the PEOPLE, not the place that is really haunted. I’ll finally get to use the info I learned from my years as a ghost hunter.
Ruschelle: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and your newfound friends and fans. Give us the 411 on all your books, blogs, tweets and everything in between.
Nikki: Thank you for this opportunity to ramble!
You can find all my books available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle. Go to my author page, amazon.com/author/nikkinelsonhicks and click on the Follow button to get updates.
I’m on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nikcubed
I also have a fun thing that I’m playing with called Dinosaur Cubicle Fun Time: https://www.facebook.com/dinosaurcubiclefuntime/