Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Sarah Langan

What was the spark for this story?

Oh, the usual drama.

I can say that I wrote it in an hour, all hopped up on emotional turmoil. This is a very good argument for avoiding social media. If I’d decided to peruse LiveJournal (or Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, whatever), or post something ridiculous as a means of distracting myself from what was bothering me, I doubt I’d have written that story.

I was struck by the choice to reveal early on the relationship between the changeling and the child in the opening scene. Most authors, I think, would have held that back for shock value until the end. Were you tempted?

I love this question. I typically thought every piece of advice I got from writing professors was terrible, or at least, not applicable to my goals. But in college, a professor announced to the class that you should never have a twist ending. If you know something, reveal it sooner. This is great advice. Twist endings are stupid. As a writer, if I know something and hold back, I also hold my story back. It can’t evolve because I’m depending on a very static ending (Soylent Green is people!). But if I tell you from the outset what’s happening, then suddenly my characters can grow. I can complicate the plot. I can have an ending that fosters deeper emotional arcs, and greater discoveries. Maybe the ending will be a new twist that only became apparent as I wrote it. My writing should always surprise me.

You make an unsympathetic character so sympathetic without flinching away from showing the evil they do — can you talk about the choices you made in what you showed and how it was presented?

I think it’s easier to sympathize here because the character is the victim of a greater crime than she’s committing. Also, it’s so clearly the stuff of nightmares and dream logic. Readers would never do the things she’s doing, but in their nightmares, they’d imagine them.

There’s a lot going on in this story — the dead devouring the living, the changeling who feeds on blood, the non-legendary creature origin of the changeling, no swapping of babies for changelings, mother’s milk not being healthy for the changeling, etc. Can you talk about how you wove it all into something still recognizable but also so new? Were there any twists on folklore that you ultimately decided not to use?

I’m an instinctual writer when it comes to using mythology and genre tropes. I take what I like and leave the rest. It would never occur to me that I’m doing anything new. More like pillaging. I forget who said it, and this is a bastardization, but the line goes something like: Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.

The Batman sheets, the little arms reaching out until the end, the trusting embrace: you spared our tender hearts nothing, or did you?

I didn’t have kids when I wrote this. It seemed saccharine sweet, and from the monster’s perspective, enragingly perfect. Honestly, I’m not sure the kid is very realistic. If he were, this might be a less popular story.

Are there any particular changeling stories that stick with you?

I’ve only read my husband’s The Hobgoblin Proxy, a kid’s book involving changelings, which I’d recommend to all middle readers!

Whose stories scare you?

That’s tough these days. I don’t scare as easily as I used to. I think the front cover of the New York Times is pretty scary. Frontline, too. The possibility that the era of Enlightenment isn’t a right, but something we have to fight for every day. There’s these people, they behead reporters. There’s these school girls, they’re missing. There’s these black kids, they keep getting shot.

In one of your interviews, you talked about Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood, and how the struggles they faced over the years kept them and their work fresh. How has struggle proved fruitful for you so far?

Oh, I love this interview. Thank you for giving it so much thought. The above are mostly moms. I slowed down after kids. Some of that’s because I had less time. Some of that is because I was always too exhausted for creative thought. A lot of it’s because I struggled against the new person I’d become. My kids made me different and I feared this difference. I grew up with a mom who stayed home and sacrificed everything for her family. I didn’t want to go that route. I’d worked my whole life like a dog to get a book deal. And then, poof! Derailed! What was weirder, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted or who I was anymore.

Was I that pretty young girl who pretended to be a little happier and dumber than I really am at conventions? No, I wasn’t that anymore. Couldn’t be — I’d gained twenty pounds and looked haggard. Was I a serious writer? Well, sometimes. I tried to be. But novel work means only writing novels. Going to sleep thinking about them. I wasn’t that. I was too worried about whether my daughter and her nanny were a good fit (they weren’t), and if I was doing any of it right. I’d always been an anxious person, but now, oh, boy. If you’d plugged me in I might have powered Brooklyn. So, that’s probably where a lot of that novel writing energy went.

I still don’t know who I am, but I’m clearer on what I want. It’s less the fame and success than the happiness. I had to break a little to get to this place. I had to open up and make room for my new family. Don’t get me wrong, I fantasize pretty constantly about my next bestseller. But I don’t much care about how strangers feel about me. I have no interest in being anyone’s cute young thing. I care about what my daughters and husband think. They don’t have to like my work, but it is important to me that I’m a good role model. Jesus, that’s so much harder than writing a good novel!

So, it’s been a struggle, and not one that every woman goes through. I suspect I’m a throwback from a more uptight era. But the struggle has definitely changed my work. I’m a mature writer. I can identify with more kinds of people. I’m more perceptive and more my own master. In addition, everything feels fresh to me. Every day I get to write is special. Early in my career, I had a hard time deciding what to write about. It felt like work. Nothing feels like work anymore. It all feels like gravy.

Any news or projects you want to tell us about?

“The Old Jail” is coming out in July in an anthology called The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares. I’ve got the first halves of four novels written(!). I think I was afraid to finish anything for the identity crisis reasons above. But now that that’s over, I picked one and am finishing it. It’s called The Clinic. I think it’s fucking awesome. Hopefully after I finish it and my agent sells it, the people reading this will judge for themselves.

Enjoyed this article? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She has trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.