Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Kat Howard

Can you tell us a little about your writing process and what inspired “Returned”?

I honestly don’t remember the precise spark that inspired me to write “Returned.” But I’m generally fascinated with stories that involve a trip to the Underworld, and one of the things that happens fairly often in those stories is that someone goes to the Underworld to rescue someone else. And we all think, “Yes, great! A Get Out of Hell Free card!” And we don’t often think, “hmm, I wonder if the person in the Underworld maybe wanted to stay there.” So I wanted to write a story where that seemingly great rescue was twisted all the way around.

I do remember the process for this story, because it was utterly unique in my history of writing. I had gone out to New Hampshire to house and pet sit for my parents, and have sort of a writing retreat. And I had gotten all set up at the table with my notebooks and my snacks and my coffee, when the tornado warning went off on my phone! And then the power went out. So I grabbed all the pets and evacuated them to the basement — cats, by the way, do not like being evacuated — and grabbed my notebook, and scribbled out most of the first draft by battery lantern in the basement, waiting for it to be safe to come back upstairs.

Why did you choose to tell this story in the second person? Do you feel that horror lends itself to the second person point of view? If so, why?

I chose the second person because I wanted to make the reader uncomfortable. I wanted them as close to the story as possible. (Plus, honestly, I wanted the challenge of seeing whether or not I could pull it off.)

I’m not sure if I believe that horror lends itself to the second person any more or any less than any other genre. I think that — like many things — point of view is one of the tools that a writer can use to do things (to use the highly technical term) to the story, and so we ought to consider it when we write.

As I read this story I found myself thinking of the ugliness of abusive relationships. Why use the fantastic to tell this story? Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges?

I used the fantastic to tell the story because that’s where the idea came from — to the best of my knowledge, someone walking into the Underworld and bringing someone back out of death is not the sort of thing that generally occurs in the world as it is. And I prefer to work in the fantastic and the speculative because that gives me a freedom to really push on things, to take them beyond the extremes that I could if I were writing mimetically.

But of course, even while working in the fantastic, I try to ground the story in the real. And in this case, the real emotion, the real underlying situation. So yes, it was a challenge to write, and it wasn’t a pleasant headspace to live in while I was writing it.

There are beautiful descriptions and imagery throughout this story. It’s obvious you care about the language. I’ve read that most writers fall into one of two categories: storytellers or wordsmiths. Do you agree with this idea? Would you put yourself in the wordsmith camp?

I’m going to dodge this question a bit, because I think it is always dangerous to ask a writer to categorize herself. And while I agree that I care about (love, am fascinated by) language, I am also fascinated by story. I could give you some of my favorite words — quintessence, tenebrous, rife, iamb, scintillate — but on their own, they aren’t anything except fun to say. And while there are times where lush, baroque prose might be the best way to tell a story (and the language I used in “Returned” was indeed a choice), there are also times where it serves a story better to be told in language that is stark, or is simple.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about “Returned”? What’s next for you?

I am very excited to have my first novel, Roses and Rot, coming out from Saga Press in 2016. Beyond that, I’m working on a variety of things, both short fiction and long.

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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.