Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Gwendolyn Kiste

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions”?

I spent five years in university research labs, coding and analyzing surveys. That probably sounds boring to a lot of people, but the analytical part of my mind really loved it, and I thought it would be fun to write a piece with a psychology questionnaire as a framing device. It took a while and a couple false starts to find the right story to tell this way. In my opinion, any time a writer uses an unusual format, it can come across as gimmicky, so it was important to me that the questions were fundamental to the storytelling process.

An idea finally started to coalesce after I watched Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was based on a book by Joan Lindsay. Although that work is pure fiction, the topic of real-life disappearances has terrified me ever since grade school, when my history teacher described the founding of Roanoke Colony and then basically told the class, “Oh, and by the way, everybody vanished, and no one knows why.” As if that was somehow an answer. In writing this story, my goal was to create that sense of the unknown coupled with an all-pervading paranoia about why something was happening, even though, like Roanoke, there are no clear-cut answers.

You have experience writing fantasy and horror short stories as well as screenplays. Do you take a different approach when working on one versus the other? Do you have a preference for a particular form or genre?

My preference is definitely for horror stories. I love all forms of speculative fiction, but because I grew up with a father who would recite Poe from memory—anytime, anyplace—horror is like my comfort food.

In terms of process, I started in screenwriting, and I like to think it’s helped my fiction because now I’m conditioned to imagine a scene from every angle. My approach to both forms is quite similar—coming up with a concept, developing characters, revising a work at least four or five times—but these days, I’ve moved away from screenwriting. I enjoyed it, but I always produced and directed the films too, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not great with people. Consequently, that made me a terrible director, since I was perpetually disgruntled on set. Fiction makes my life easier since my performers are never late and don’t forget their lines. At least not usually . . .

Was this story particularly challenging to write? If so, how?

Yes and no. The questionnaire was the easiest part to write. I had that done in an hour or two. Also, developing Vivienne and Tally was an incredibly joyful process. They are two of my favorite characters I’ve written so far, and it almost felt like an honor to “meet” them. But finding the central story was difficult. Initially, I had a huge amount of material, and I wanted to expand the world. In early drafts, there were lots of extra scenes, including one toward the end that had Vivienne meeting someone who had vanished and returned. I liked the idea, but it took the thrust of the story away from her friendship with Tally. Ultimately, once I forced myself to trim all the extraneous pieces, the story came together very quickly.

As I read this story, I found myself rooting for Tally and Vivienne and bothered that the people in their lives found them to be deviant. Fear of the other—anyone or anything different—is common in today’s society. Is this a theme you feel strongly about?

Fear of the other is a theme that fascinates me and one that comes up again and again in my work. This stems in part from my youth spent as a Shakespeare-spouting, fishnet-wearing punk rocker who thought that living in a small cornfield town in Ohio was akin to being exiled to the Tower of London. I didn’t understand then—and I still don’t understand—why people have such a problem with those who are different. From a social psychology standpoint, I get the in-groups and out-groups and desire to preserve a “clan” mentality, but human beings are capable of moving beyond our evolutionary roots. We can embrace life in all its wonderful permutations if we let ourselves. But that nagging fear of something different too often stops us.

To comfort myself when I was growing up, I always believed I’d someday find a group of people who would understand me, as though they were all hiding in one place like the bee people in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video. Obviously, though, there are no bee people hippie-dancing in a field, not that I’ve found in my travels anyhow, but I think that wherever Tally went in the story that maybe she found the bee people there. That could be the start of a horror story unto itself, but hey, it sounds like home to me.

I like how open the ending feels. I was left questioning the fate of these characters, but felt hopeful that Vivienne would ultimately find peace. Why did you choose to end the story at this point?

My personal favorite stories have always been ones that leave some interpretation up to the reader. Two of my go-to writers—Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson—possessed an uncanny knack for calculating the precise moment to end a story in order to maximize the gut punch. But they often left things in a nebulous place. You’re never sure if their characters will be able to move beyond the trauma of the past. For example, I love the last line of Bradbury’s “The Lake,” the story from which I borrowed the name Tally. No matter how many times I read it, I still feel nauseous when I’m done.

All that said, as a writer, I rarely finish a story on a sour note. I’m a total sucker for a happy ending, so in this case, I believe Vivienne and Tally find each other again. They suffered enough, so they earned their bliss.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?

The psychology nerd in me hopes that readers take the test in the story and calculate their score. If anyone does, I’d love it if you’d find me on Facebook or Twitter and share what number you got. I was a thirty-two. Well on my way to deviant status, but not quite in full bloom yet.

As for what’s next, I always say there’s a novel in my future somewhere, but I enjoy short fiction so much that as long as I’m writing, I’ll be happy. Maybe even as happy as a hippie-dancing bee.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.