How did this story come about?
Over the past year, I’ve been writing a number of short vignettes for what may or may not someday be a novel. I’ve had this idea in my head about a suburban neighborhood that “goes off,” so to speak—somehow, for some unknown reason, it physically and supernaturally rots and changes, and that in turn affects anything living in the blighted area (people, insects, fauna, flora), who either fight back or succumb. This particular story started out as one of the vignettes, just a couple hundred words about one of the houses in this neighborhood and what happens to the family living in it. But once I finished the first several paragraphs, I decided I needed to push to the end to find out what happened. That’s how it turned into a story.
The story is in turns formal and then lyrical: can you talk about the choices you made about how language underpinned the story arc? The power of lyricism paired with horror?
I have to confess that I didn’t give any thought to structure when I was writing it. Unlike everything else I’ve written, which has been either deliberately baroque or deliberately spare and modern in language, this was sort of all over the place; there was no consistency between one paragraph and the next—and for once, I went with it. I tried very hard to just let it pour out and not censor or manipulate the odd shifts in tone. And it was a bit unsettling because I wasn’t sure where I was headed with the end or what point I was trying to make by writing it. This is one of the few times I’ve felt very lost during the process. When I finished and had read it over a couple of times, I thought, well, this isn’t like anything I’ve written before, so maybe it’s crap? I have no idea. And this is where having an editor like Ellen and a beta reader like Robert Levy comes in handy because like many (i.e., most) writers, I’m pretty much the worst judge of my work. Needless to say, they did not think it was crap.
Which writers, in horror or further afield, do you most admire for their command of language?
Lately, I’ve been rereading old favorites from the theater section of my bookshelves. Right now in my “currently reading” book pile, there’s Robinson Jeffer’s Medea and Robert Grave’s Greek translations—very formal in meter and yet almost erotic in their use of imagery. Same for the plays of Christopher Fry, in particular The Lady’s Not For Burning; and Normand Chaurette’s The Queens, which is a sumptuous and extremely vicious retelling of the events of the War of the Roses (specifically Richard III), with an all-female cast. I’m also reading Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, and (okay, here’s one contemporary writer!) Peter Dubé’s Conjure: A Book of Spells, which is a book of beautifully-crafted prose poems that I picked up at Readercon.
And one more contemporary writer who I particularly want to single out: Joseph S. Pulver. He’s typically compared to a Lovecraftian version of the Beats, but his next short fiction collection, A House of Hollow Wounds (which I believe is coming out later this year), is in my opinion closer in style and emotional tone to writers like Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Rodenbach. It’s both wildly modern and original, and yet evokes those unsettling gothic and classical “vast chthonic wilderness pressing against the slender marble columns of civilization” themes that are like heroin to me. Dark, poetic, sexual, obsessive, and exquisitely hallucinatory, yet still just formal enough in structure and meter to keep it as sharp and exacting as a whip—that’s the type of writing I’m seeking out as a reader nowadays, and Pulver writes exactly what I love.
Why did you choose an abandoned neighborhood as the setting?
It’s not just any abandoned neighborhood—and it’s not actually abandoned. When my parents first moved to Washington State from Alaska, they settled in a part of Tacoma that wasn’t fully developed—it was the early sixties, and many areas of the Pacific Northwest were still flat-out wilderness. The street we lived on was surrounded on one side by another completely ordinary neighborhood of small mid-century ranch houses and cottages, and on the other side by some of the thickest, darkest forest you’ve ever seen outside of a Grimm fairy tale. We’d be having a family picnic on our perfect green lawn neatly edged with beauty bark and flowers, and just across the fence all you could see were massive evergreens dripping with ravens, and ferns the size of dinosaurs. Of course, over time, the trees were chopped down and sawed into bits, and a new neighborhood of skeletal house frames and gravel driveways started to take their place. But for some reason construction stopped, and for a few years only half the houses were finished. It was like living next door to some land-locked, wooden-boned leviathan, rotting away in the wilderness after a terrible battle to the death with the rusting construction equipment that was left behind. And of course, all our parents yelled at us not to go near the area because it was dangerous, and of course, we all did anyway. I had to write about it. I’m sure I’ll write about it again.
Do you use any visual methods to build your story/characters, for instance, collaging or collecting images on Pinterest?
I have a Pinterest account, but I’ve pretty much abandoned it—I only ever used it to post pictures of ridiculously expensive clothes and weird kitchen equipment, but never as a place to display artwork or photos for WIPs or finished stories. When I do need visual cues, which is maybe for every other story I write, I create a folder on my flash drive and stick everything in there. But the photos and art are primarily to get a sense of time and place—I look at maps and architecture and geography, but never people. No celebrity casting, or anything like that. For example, a novelette I’ll be writing later this year will take place in Leuven, Belgium—specifically in the Groot Begijnhof, where I spent several weeks in a sixteenth-century house. I took a ton of photos of the houses and canals; I downloaded some maps—because I’ll need to remember what it was like to live there when I start writing. I’ve done the same thing for stories set in Ellensburg, Washington, and for “Omphalos,” which was set in the Olympic Mountain Range and Peninsula. Just last month I bought a fifty-year-old brochure of The Crest Motel in Victoria, British Columbia—it’s a (now demolished) motel my family vacationed in during the sixties and seventies, which will be showing up in another novelette that’s in progress. Basically any time I’m writing about a very unique, particular place, or a very specific time period, I use visual aids. For those who are curious, I didn’t use photos or art for “Biting Down,” because I didn’t have to—it’s become one of those places that now lives better in my memories than in photos. I did, however, listen to some pretty creepy music. I highly recommend the soundtrack to the movie Sinister—it’s insane.
What would you like to look back upon in your writing ten years from now?
Well, I started writing ten years ago in the summer of 2004. And looking back on those ten years, I can say that I’m proud of my small body of work. It hasn’t been read or reviewed much, but I have a few fans, authors and editors who like and champion my fiction, so that’s good enough. And that has to be enough. Because I think you only get so long to make an impression, and in that time, outside factors (people, cultural trends, industry shifts, etc.) pretty much decide who you are and if you’re important, and that can often set the tone for your career. And the tone of my career has been set: the next ten years, no matter what I accomplish in terms of writing, even if it includes a novel, probably won’t be much different than these first ten years have been. In 2024, I’ll look back on the same thing I’m looking back on now—a quiet career as a writer who is very much on the periphery of the genre writing world, and not one of the cool insiders or influential superluminaries or Big Names. And that’s fine with me. Because first of all, I can only control that part of the process where I sit down at the desk, turn the thoughts in my head into stories, and send them to the editors—the rest is largely out of my control. And second—as blasphemous as this may be for a writer to admit—I’m more interested in looking back on my life from 2024 and thinking about accomplishments other than writing. I want to look back and be able to say that I’m living in a better place, I’m in better health, and I did interesting things that made me happy. Because those are the things I need to do in order to continue writing. Yes, it’d be great if I got on a panel at Readercon or won an award in the next ten years, but honestly? I’d be better off if I moved to a new apartment, or traveled to Patagonia, or got a dog. Especially a dog. I would really love a dog.
What in horror needs destroying?
I would like to destroy this notion that some editors have that there seems to be a lack of women writing horror (not “dark fiction.” I mean horror. Real. Damn. Horror.), or that they’re unable to find new and different women writers to contribute to their various anthologies, which is why they can only invite the same two or three women to contribute to their anthologies. And if those women aren’t able to submit stories, then there’s nothing else to be done. Well, I guarantee that more than two or three women are writing horror—women all over the world are writing the fuck out of horror and knocking it out of the ballpark, because this is a golden age for us as much as it is for the men. And yes, I realize that many editors may feel they simply don’t have the time to seek out new, or any, women horror writers while attending to their myriad editorial duties. However, writers are told over and over again: if you want to be good, if you want to improve, then you have to make the time to read and you have to keep reading, you have to read deep and wide and far. So, here’s what I think: if you’re an editor and you want to be good and you want to improve (and by improve, I mean “expand, strengthen, and diversify your contributor/invite list to include more women”), you need to do the exact same thing. You need to read. And if you do that, you’ll find as many women writing horror as you need.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
Next year, I have a novella due to Brian Keene for a project he’s briefly mentioned online but not revealed specific details about—I’ll leave it to him to make the full, official announcement, but I will say that it’s set in an office building in my fictional South American Lovecraftian megalopolis of Obsidia, and it’ll be similar in style to “Her Deepness.” In the meantime, I’m finishing a very large number of short story and novelette invites, most of which are due by the end of the year, in addition to continuing work on my novel, which is about fifty-percent complete. I have enough short fiction for a second collection, but a lot of those stories have been sold but not yet published. I’m not quite sure how to query publishers with a collection that I only have half the rights to, so, yeah, that’s currently on hold. But that’s okay. I just keep on keepin’ on, as they say in the language of my people.
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