WIHM 2022: An Interview With Laurel Hightower
The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview With Laurel Hightower
- You grew up in Kentucky but studied in California. How have these different backdrops influenced your writing?
Kentucky has always been my home—I moved here at two months old and have spent the majority of my life here. Living in California gave me a taste of somewhere far different from my usual, and it was utterly gorgeous—I’m grateful for the experience. If anything, I hope it helped broaden my range with respect to characters and landscape. I met a lot of amazing folks out there and everyone left their mark on my life, and therefore my writing. I think Kentucky will always be the biggest influence, though. My work is riddled with bourbon and southern quirks, and there’s a rich vein of love for my home state in most of what I do.
- How was your writing process different between writing a novella (in the form of Crossroads) and a novel (in the form of Whispers in the Dark)?
It was night and day really, but I think some of that has to do with my experience level. It took me eleven years to write and polish Whispers, a big part of which was disorganization. The plot rambled on, went a bunch of places and never found an ending. With Crossroads, I was a bit more experienced, and the idea just hit me and flowed onto the page. I wrote it in the space of four months, and while I definitely made revisions and edits, it never needed any developmental changes. I think that’s one of the benefits of the novella format—as Josh Malerman phrased it, a novella holds a single note all the way through, and that’s easier to hone into a sharp enough point to really hit home.
- What are you most proud of professionally?
It’s got to be my work on We Are Wolves. I didn’t know what I was doing, but partnering with Gemma Amor and Cina Pelayo made everything work out. They’re both amazing women, writers, and people, and seeing the project come together, reading the stories our authors bled onto the page for us, it was incredible. I loved getting stories from some folks who hadn’t published much previously, and weaving everything together into a powerful finished product. We got a lot of great feedback on it, and it still feels like a powerful volume, and all profits go to charity. I also really love the identity horror anthology, The Dead Inside, that I edited with Sandra Ruttan for Dark Dispatch.
- Family seems to be a central theme to your writing. Where does this emphasis come from in the context of dark fiction?
Characters are everything. We can’t really experience the true depth of horror in a story if we can’t connect with a two dimensional character—we need a reason to care when something terrible happens to them, and everyone has a family. Whether chosen or blood, estranged or close, it’s one of the central facets of humanity, and from a writing standpoint, our family experiences shape us and our reactions to obstacles and horrors. So exploring family is one of the methods I use to hopefully create more authentic characters. In addition to which, so many of our worst fears center around family connections. Not only the fear of losing a child or spouse or any other person we hold dear, but things like rejection from families of origin and how being raised by narcissists shapes a person.
- What is the spark you look for before developing an idea into a story?
Primarily, I want to be excited by it. I want something that wriggles its way into my consciousness and tells me its story. Writing is by no means a passive activity, and there have been plenty of times I’ve been under deadline, or writing for a specific call, and I’ve done things a bit more methodically with brainstorming. But the ideas that just flow, that shoot a spark of themselves onto my radar and I can see where to take it, those are the most fun, and usually end up as novellas or short stories. For longer works, it’s the characters, and yes, often the romance. I’m a sucker for a love story, and sometimes I’ll craft a novel around the people I’ve created and where I want their relationship to go.
- How has your career as a paralegal influenced not only what you write but how you write?
On a basic level, I have a good understanding of the mechanics of the legal system, so hopefully I write those bits with some accuracy. One of the primary tenets of working in a law office is absolute non-disclosure, so I’ll never be in a position where we work on a case and I end up writing about it—regardless of the outcome, discretion is key. But I do run into peripheral situations sometimes, cases I read for research or just oddities that are public knowledge, and that stuff can be fascinating. Sometimes even the most boring on the surface situations are rife with underlying possibilities, so if anything it helps me think outside the box. The other thing is it helps me to write directly—the attorneys do the majority of the actual writing, but I proof and edit a bunch and that helps hone my own writing. I also just love my job, and the legal profession, so that becomes a part of my writing and who I am.
- From your perspective as a woman in horror, what is something that needs to be said about the horror industry?
I’m far from the first person to say it, but it bears repeating: horror is for everyone. There is a place here for anyone who wants to play, whether as a reader, writer, reviewer, editor, cos-player, film buff—across the board, there’s just so much here to love, and the more the merrier. Occasionally we run across the odd gate-keeping attitude, and that usually causes a kerfuffle, but hopefully as a community we’re getting better at recognizing that we don’t have to give these folks air. We need to be welcoming, and also protective. There are predators in every industry, and they rely on silence and fear. And it is scary, especially for the targets, which is why it’s that much more important for us to have safety nets in place and work to keep our events and spaces safe for everyone.
- Who are some fellow women who need to be spotlighted and why?
This is both a hard and a joyful question to answer, because there are so many! I’m in awe of so many of my peers, but a few that might not get as much recognition as they should include Red Lagoe, who’s storytelling and poetry is dark and complex, with so much range. I’m a big fan of Sonora Taylor’s work as well; she writes some of the most enjoyable stuff around. R.J. Joseph is an incredibly visceral storyteller and I’m dying to get my hands on her first collection—her work is just stunning. Eve Harms writes the most unique blend of quirky, dark, funny, and well researched stories—I love her Kendra Temples series, and her novella Transmuted is one I always recommend. Tabatha Wood has a distinctive and inventive style, and I always enjoy their stories. And if I could, I’d load a cannon with S.H. Cooper’s books and shoot them into people’s hands. Grab Inheriting Her Ghosts—you won’t regret it.
- What is the future for women in horror?
In a word: more. We’re making a space for ourselves in this sphere, quite often with a welcoming hand-up from many of our male counterparts. (There are absolutely still gatekeepers and misogynists who pop up to troll, but I prefer not to give them air.) There’s still a great deal of disparity in what shows up on bookstore shelves and “best of” lists from larger publications, as well as overall percentages of who’s writing horror, but that part was always going to be slow going. I’m excited to see so many women horror writers of varying backgrounds, as well—diversity in horror leads to richer experiences and amazing tales for everyone involved. I hope the trends we’re seeing in diverse authors and own voices stories continue, and I love doing my small part to make that happen. Read and buy diversely, pre-order when you can, and shout it from the rooftops!
- What does juggling a writing career and motherhood look like?
It takes a lot of adaptability! Kids are all about routine, but at this age, those routines are constantly changing. I used to work during his naps, but then he stopped napping, so I had to pivot. I just accept that I’ll have to change things up every couple of months—I’m lucky in that I can work any time of day, as long as I have the quiet to do it. So if it’s mornings, I write mornings, and if it’s night I do that, too. It’s also made me more organized—I have lists to check off and daily goals to accomplish. They usually look like: write 200 words on WIP, edit one antho story, respond to two emails…etc. Things that are doable, and keep me moving forward. And I do a lot of my planning and plotting on the fly—I keep notebooks EVERYWHERE so I can make the most of my writing time.
- What is the biggest strength you see in the horror community?
Our support of one another, in a lot of areas. I’ve never seen a group of people more willing to celebrate one another’s wins, spread the word about work they love, and share ideas and knowledge. And when someone has a personal crisis, we’re usually good about banding together to raise money, or offer support. Having just been through my husband’s hospitalization for COVID, it meant the absolute world to me to receive so many messages of support, and that people didn’t expect anything of me except to survive it. The last time we had a major medical crisis, I was very alone. This time I felt the love and support from the whole community—thoughts and prayers aren’t a sufficient response to, say, gun violence, but those messages of hope and love—man, it casts an incredible light over the darkness of solitude.
- Where can the horror community improve?
I’d like to see all of us, myself included, listen more and react more thoughtfully. When someone tells you their experience, don’t immediately refute or dismiss—there’s a long and gross history of women being ignored, especially when we speak up about abuse or harassment. That goes double for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks—I have my own experience of this community, but I don’t expect everyone else’s to line up with that, and by listening to one another, we can hopefully make that better. Far too often I see someone dismiss another person’s suffering as “drama” and therefore not worthy of attention. Sure, there’s drama everywhere—you should see the performance my son enacts when he doesn’t get the right lid for his cup. But guess what—it’s important to him, so as his mom, I’m not going to dismiss his feelings. And the same goes for people in our community. There’s always manufactured controversy and hot takes, but as with many things, if we don’t give them air they’ll fizzle out. But we need to know about predators in our community, be they sexual, bigots, or predatory presses, and when someone is asking for help, we need to try to be there. Sometimes the only way to get bad behavior to stop is by shedding a light on it. I also totally get not having the head space or emotional bandwidth to deal with situations as they come up, but I’d encourage members of the community to protect their mental well being without dismissing others. And as with all of this, I need to take my own advice!
- What draws you to dark fiction?
It’s just so delicious. I love the creepy anticipation of opening a new book, of descending into the dark cellar with the protagonist, on pins and needles to see what’s on the next page. And I believe dark fiction has the breadth to explore the spectrum of emotions and experiences in a way other genres don’t. I never get tired of ghost stories, and of exploring new and disturbing worlds between the covers of a book.
- What aspect of horror do you dislike?
That’s a hard question because I love horror so much, and even the sub genres that aren’t really for me, I get a kick out of them being there. If I had to choose I’d say there are some tropes I truly despise. In my house we call those tripes—tropes are a standard in any genre, and they’re not all bad—writers can put an incredible spin on a trope and make it new. But a tripe…well that’s one that needs to be retired. Most of the ones that fit that category are things like fat-phobia, killing off characters of color immediately or relegating them to comic relief; characters running in high heels (as if, you’d kick those things off before you took your first step); women being murdered for the unforgivable crime of having sex; you get the picture. Some of it’s actively harmful, and some of it’s just lazy writing, and it throws me out of the story immediately. And because I read a piece once that broke me of this habit, I’ll share it with y’all: your characters are always perfectly aware of the breaths they’re holding.
- Where do you see horror evolving in the next couple of years?
Diversity! Not just in the voices we’ll see, but in new takes on the standard mediums. I love that the indie scene is thriving, because it allows us to be more experimental, to find new buttons to push and ways to explore real life problems. I also love that it translates to the film world—indie directors and producers are getting new and different movies into the hands of the public without having to wait on a major studio to take a nibble. We want things fast, and indie is best placed to deliver that.
- What’s next for Laurel Hightower?
My Mothman novella Below is coming out from the new Ghoulish Books imprint of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing on March 29th, and I can’t wait for people to read it! I have some short stories coming out this year in anthologies, and hope to publish a collection soon. I’m also working on a couple of novellas when time allows, and gearing up for the charity event I’m helping organize at The Stanley to kickoff Stokercon—Spirited Giving. I’m also going to try my hand at adapting one my manuscripts to a screenplay—I’ve never done it before, but I’m excited to try!
You can follow Laurel’s work at: https://laurelhightower.com/.
- About the Author
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Franklin Charles Murdock is a fiction writer from the Midwestern United States. Though most of his work is harvested from the vast landscapes of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Franklin strives to spin tales outside the conventions of these genres.
His work has appeared in DarkFuse, Under the Bed Magazine, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, MicroHorror, Liquid Imagination, Yellow Mama, Heavy Hands Ink, WEIRDYEAR, Phantom Kangaroo, PrimalZine, and various other publications. Most recently, he’s been coauthoring the serial epic BEARD THE IMMORTAL on swordandportent.com.