“The Lost” is a story of the suffocating weight of the everyday taking its toll on one woman’s life, how the little things are important and razor sharp. What can you tell us about writing this story?
I can tell you I worked at the Filene’s Basement in Carle Place, wearing heels badly until my feet bled. I’d applied to every store for a square mile and it was the only clerk job I’d been able to get. Totally miserable summer.
I heard some NPR story about how extroverts don’t have internal dialogues with themselves—there’s no constant narrator. How free that must feel! Also, how oblivious they must be, to nuance.
I remember being so awfully earnest back then, doing every bit of work and more, and getting teased for it by some high school kid who spent most of her time flirting with the stock guys. I wish I had slugged her, so that part’s real.
“The Lost” is one of my earliest genre efforts. I’d gotten out of Columbia for my MFA not long before, and finally felt free to experiment. Columbia’s a lot more open-minded now, but back then genre wasn’t permitted. So I tinkered a lot—trying to figure out the line between literary and genre, between symbolic loss and real loss, and how to show that. Turns out, there are no rules, right?
I guess this story’s for all the tender-hearts, for whom, some days, the obstacles seem way too big. They have such shimmering souls, don’t they? Even the craziest of them is so alive.
The emotional complexity of the story resonates on many different levels, with issues of grief, loss, fear, anger, bitterness, and loneliness. How do you respond to critics who call horror a schlock genre with no true emotional depth?
It’s such a tired point of view. I’m sick of defending the obvious. It’s like walking into a room full of people who insist the sun is the moon. They’re not the people I want to reach, and happily, there’s less and less of them.
My fan mail is just as likely to come from that giant swath of land between the coasts as New York or LA. A lot of enlisted kids write to me, too. That’s an honor, and something I take a lot more seriously than the clown at the fancy cocktail party who assumes I’m a moron who just got lucky. Keep walking, guy (and gal).
More seriously, the “schlock” assertion has an insidious undertone because horror so often appeals to the disenfranchised who’ve seen or been victimized by real violence. And who wants to be associated with those losers? Why not shit on what they like, their very mode of discourse, and disenfranchise them a little further?
One line that has stayed with me is, “But like anybody survives mom without a few bruises.” This single line speaks to the dysfunctional family life that forged Olesia’s shackles. As a writer, how do you invite readers into the horror stories you want to tell? How do you get them to reach out a trembling hand to turn the rusty knob?
I have no idea. It’s all instinct. Stories feel like articulated joints (imagine a mile-long bicycle chain) that ideally curve into a complex sculpture. I spend most of my time adjusting the joints until my narrative looks like something. An octopus, maybe. The goal should always be octopus.
As for inviting them in, well, I try to keep it grounded and relatable. I want them to think this could all happen to them. In a parallel universe, it is happening to them.
Your novel The Missing won the 2007 Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Novel. How do you feel you’ve grown as a writer?
Audrey’s Door won a Stoker, and so did “The Lost.” Which is cool! I don’t know how I’ve grown. I lack self-awareness to a dangerous degree. I also can’t find my way out of a paper bag and haven’t matched my socks since 1990. But that’s my problem.
I’ve finished another novel, called Clinic, and am waiting to see what happens with it. I think my short stories are a little more complicated than they used to be—my worlds are much larger and more ambitious. I’ve taken on more science fiction, more fantasy, though I still love me some gore. Sometimes I open my laptop and think, why am I making this so hard for myself? Why not write something easy that I know how to do already? Wait a minute! Am I a masochist?
Women have always been a vital presence in the horror genre. If you could reach out to women just starting to write horror today, what would tell them about writing and darkness and dreams?
It’s lucky to have something you love. Most people go through life without dreams. If you have the dream, hold onto it. It will provide you with more comfort than you could have imagined. Even if your success is not evident, you still have something most people will never have—that’s for everyone.
For women: be kind to each other. Compete, keep your elbows out in the race and take no prisoners, but when it’s over, shake hands, stay friends, and do it again, competing even harder next time. If you can help someone, and it’s no skin off your back, do it. Every time. Do it.
What’s next for Sarah Langan? What can eager fans look forward to in 2016?
I finished Clinic, so hopefully that’ll sell and get a pub date. I’ll let you know! Otherwise, I’m polishing a screenplay called “Glen Cove,” then going back to Empty Houses (another novel, of which I have a full draft, but somehow forgot about). After that, Kids, a series I’ve been tinkering with. Full deck!
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