As an author, Amber Fallon has been publishing unabashed “guilty pleasure” horror for years. In addition to her novels The Terminal and The Warblers, her short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and her own collection, TV Dinners from Hell. This September, Fallon made her editorial debut with Fright into Flight (Word Horde, 2018)—a dark speculative anthology themed around flight and featuring only women contributors. This anthology was conceived of in direct response to the similarly titled Flight or Fright (Cemetery Dance, 2018) which, despite sharing the theme, only included stories by men. Although seemingly an oversight, the lack of inclusion in the original anthology sparked discussion in the community and launched Fallon into action.
Amber Fallon lives in a self-described weird cave in a small town outside Boston, Massachusetts that she shares with her husband and their two dogs. A techie by day and a horror writer by night, Fallon has also spent time as a bank manager, motivational speaker, produce wrangler, and apprentice butcher. Her obsessions with sushi, glittery nail polish, and sharp objects have made her a recognized figure around the community.
First off, congratulations on the release of your editorial debut Fright into Flight! There’s a lot to discuss there, but let’s begin by talking about your own work as an author. I’ll start by noting that you’ve previously said (bit.ly/2B9Delj) that you aren’t troubled by the connotations carried with the term “horror,” and that not only do you identify as a “horror writer” but that you are “alright with being classified as a ‘guilty pleasure.’” Could you talk a little bit about what you write and how the above applies to your work? Do you still feel that way?
I write horror. That’s the simplest way to put it. I’ve done other things: bizarro, most notably, but also some SF, and I even dabbled in erotica very briefly . . . but there is always a horrific angle to the things I write. It’s just part of who I am. When I get creative, my mind just tends to stray towards the darker, more disturbing parts of my psyche, so that’s where the stories usually come from.
Some of my favorite writers (Mary SanGiovanni, Victor LaValle, Bracken MacLeod, Livia Llewellyn, to name a few) write beautiful, thought provoking, profound horror . . . while I love that style, it’s not me. I tend to write what I have fun with . . . gleefully giggling over aliens going on murderous rampages, or a giant shark taking down a helicopter, for instance. That kind of stuff usually falls under the “guilty pleasure” heading, and I’m good with that. At the end of the day, if my words can entertain someone, I am absolutely thrilled.
For readers unfamiliar with your work, what do you think is the ideal starting point? Is there a particular piece that you think not only embodies your aesthetic, but also captures your authorial voice and current artistic concerns?
Now that is a difficult question. I’m honestly sort of eclectic as a writer. My first book, The Terminal, is pulpy, gory, fast-paced, and highly action oriented. The next book I wrote, The Warblers, is quiet, slow, creeping rural horror with only one scene that involves any sort of gore and could probably be turned into a PG-13 movie pretty easily . . .
If I had to pick just one thing, I’d probably say my debut collection, TV Dinners from Hell. Think of it kind of like the literary version of an appetizer sampler. Beneath an 80s horror tribute cover illustrated by the talented Marc Schoenbach of Sadist Art Designs rest topics as varied as squirrels possessed by cursed objects, suicidal psychics, zombie roller derbies, and the only Lovecraftian tale I’ve written . . . so far, anyway.
I was hoping that you could also talk a little bit about your influences, both who they are and where you see their contributions to your work. For example, I know that you were influenced by J.F. Gonzalez—you interviewed him once (bit.ly/2P7RQoe) and also wrote a story set in his Clickers universe (aptly titled “Clickers in Space”)—but I was wondering which particular sensibilities in his work resonate with your own? What about other authors?
I’ve actually written two Clickers stories: “Clickbusters” appears in the J.F. Gonzalez tribute anthology, Clickers Forever.
Jesus (J.F.) had a really wonderful pulp sensibility to his stories. Even when he was writing more serious things, like The Corporation, that sensibility is there: economy of words, fast pacing, and inherent brutality. I like to think those things are present in my own work, even if I don’t have the skill with them Mr. Gonzalez did.
Ruby Jean Jensen is another of my influences. She, too, displayed those leanings.
Mort Castle is another influence on me, from an earlier age than I should probably admit. The way he seamlessly blended innocence with violence and showed the results as a broken pestilence on all it touched . . . that’s something I strive for.
While I enjoy literary fiction (especially horror) a great deal . . . it’s those pulpy, cheesy, junk food horror novels I find myself most attracted to, both as a writer and as a reader. You know the ones. They usually have a skeleton on the cover. There’s some foil embossing on the over-the-top title fonts. They might even have a double cover: the front with cut outs revealing something darker beneath. Yeah, those are my jam.
On the topic of influences, your biography is also quite diverse—in addition to writing, you’ve worked in jobs as disparate as bank manager and apprentice butcher. Intriguingly, you also have a podcast called “It Cooks!” As a brief digression, are you more of an improvisational cook or a recipe-based one? Tying it back to your writing, do you find that be similar to or different from your approach as an author?
Note: I had a podcast. It was cancelled earlier this year.
I make up a lot of my own recipes, if that counts. When cooking or baking, I tend to focus primarily on tactic or methodology. Once you have a good understanding of the rules involved, you can bend or break them without making a big mess. I think writing can be similar, but I tend to be far more of a pantser, so to speak, when I write than when I cook. When I cook (or bake), I generally have a fairly solid idea of where I’m going and what the final product is going to be. When I write, a lot of the time I am just typing out whatever comes into my head and it could be completely different from what I imagined at the get-go.
Before we discuss the themes in your work, I wanted to touch on a few elements of your style. One striking aspect of your short stories in particular, but also your longer works The Terminal and The Warblers, is that they tend to be very focused on the story’s crucial event. There isn’t a lot of time spent in set up or in denouement, which gives the stories a visceral, gut-punch quality. In this way, they often serve as a springboard for the reader’s imagination, as opposed to neatly wrapped-up packages. I was wondering if this is an intentional goal that stems from your conception of story, or if it’s a part of your influences?
It’s intentional. Not to pull us back to the previous question but . . . . A lot of my favorite, or even signature, recipes came about because I didn’t like something in the “traditional” version of the dish, so I replaced it with something I did like. For example, my famous spinach and artichoke dip doesn’t have any mayo in it. I don’t have anything against mayonnaise, but I feel like it gets a bit greasy in hot applications like dips, so I use sour cream instead. My stories tend to work out the same way. If a book loses me, it’s usually the beginning. Sometimes there’s too much fat, too much build up or back story . . . I tend to prefer the stories, whether long or short, that put me right into things. Those are the ones that get (and keep!) my attention.
I’m also struck by the sensory detail and kinetic pace of your writing. Perhaps part of this stems from the fact that some of your work seems to draw influence from movies as well as books. For instance, there are lots of 80s action movie references in The Terminal and it probably isn’t too much to read a similar influence into the title of your collection TV Dinners from Hell. I’m curious, though, how you see that influence playing out as your career progresses, especially as your second novel, The Warblers, moved away from the current setting into the past (although it did retain a hint of creature features and siege movies). Do you see that sort of cinematic influence changing over time as you continue writing?
I’m a big visualizer. When I write, I tend to see each scene as a little movie in my head and then I sort of transcribe them from there. I can’t imagine that ever changing for me, so there will probably always be that cinematic feel to my work. I really hope someone adapts something I’ve written someday. It would be incredibly fascinating to see how a real screen version would compare to the version in my head.
In Mary SanGiovanni’s introduction to your first collection, she notes that “there is a pervasive sense in each of these stories of being alone,” but also the “gnawing certainty that these are stories about hunger.” I certainly agree and see these two as almost inextricably tied. Just drawing from TV Dinners, the desire for companionship leads people to fatal peril in stories like “Night Music,” “Tell Me How You Die,” and “Odessa.” However, in “Dawn of the Death Beetles” a family of warriors makes a brave stand while knowing that they’re doomed, which subtly challenges the idea that we all die alone. “The Dick-Measuring Contest at the End of the Universe” then completely upends that notion by suggesting that even dead and consigned to history, we’re surrounded by the possibilities of ourselves. Stepping away from our outside views, though, do you also see those themes in your work? What other preoccupations and ideas do you see?
I do. Growing up, I often felt alone. Even as an adult, even though I’m happily married and have wonderful friends, I still sometimes feel that gnawing loneliness that twisted through my childhood like windblown old ribbons on a chain link fence. It’s a feeling I’ve never quite gotten used to, and one I’d love to someday escape. So it’s fitting that it would find its way into my work. My subconscious has never been very subtle. Hunger, yearning, longing . . . most of those feelings have to do with belonging, with fitting in and being accepted. Those feelings usually find themselves into my work in one way or another.
Security and safety are other themes I find myself tying to my stories.
Another motif I see in your work is how the desire for safety is a futile gesture and, in fact, often leads to even worse outcomes. This arises in stories like “Behind the Smile,” “78154,” and “Blind,” as well as the unorthodox method of clearing the monstrous infestation of The Warblers. To me, however, nowhere is this more tragically illustrated than in The Terminal where (no spoilers) the protagonist’s attempted heroics result in a terrible loss. Is this an aspect that you also see in your work? What do you think it is about this dichotomy that works so well in horror?
Oh yes. I’m a military brat. We moved around a LOT as a kid. My parents also had a somewhat volatile relationship . . . which sometimes caused my father to disappear from our lives for extended periods of time. Those feelings of uncertainty, of not knowing where I would be month to month, sometimes even week to week, and not knowing which parent I’d be with, were the scariest parts of my childhood. I think a lot of us horror writers use our own fears to flavor our stories, even if they aren’t in your face about it.
That one especially, the feeling of relief immediately followed with the reemergence of fear, grief, or panic . . . that one is a great one-two punch. If you can do a good enough job of hooking the reader, they’ll feel that ahhh, that sigh of reprieve, and be pulled in further when it gets rudely yanked away. I think that makes for a powerful story.
Before moving on, I wanted to ask about the pen name you used at the beginning of your career. A number of your earliest publications were under the name “Alyn Day,” which to my ear, at least, has a non-gender-specific or even masculine ring to it. What was your thought process in using that name, and how did you finally decide to publish under your own name? Writing as Amber Fallon certainly doesn’t seem to have inhibited you, so do you see a difference in how you wrote as “Alyn” versus now? Do you sense a difference in how people receive your work?
There were a lot of reasons I used a pen name at first. The most significant was that it served as a shield of sorts. If I tried and failed, it would be easier to distance myself from a failure that didn’t carry my name. Maybe that’s weird, but it helped me overcome some serious, nearly crippling self-doubt early on. Also, for what it’s worth . . . that name was never intended to be masculine or gender neutral. It was simply an abbreviation of my first and middle names. Initially, I was going to use A. Lynn, but then I didn’t like the way it looked, so I just decided to squish it together and it wound up as Alyn.
I published my first major professional sale under my new name, Amber Fallon, after I got married. I love my name, I love that my husband wanted to give it to me and is proud to share it with me. I’d gotten over a lot of the initial fear of failure, too, so it seemed safer.
There is a difference in my writing, but I don’t attribute it to my name. I think I’ve grown and matured as a writer. I’ve gotten better about overusing commas, I’ve learned how to outline effectively in a way that doesn’t drive me bonkers, I’ve evolved. I’m very proud of that evolution. If we’re not growing, we’re stagnating. Who wants to do that?
I really hope that people don’t perceive me as anything other than what I am: a woman trying to do her best to write and produce words that people want to read.
This interview will be published not long after the publication of your editorial debut: the all-women, flight-themed anthology Fright into Flight. I’m eager to delve into this because it seems to be a response to a recurring problem with marginalization that we keep seeing not only in the horror genre, but in society at large. Could you start by telling us about the anthology, particularly what it’s about and the inspiration behind it?
In this day and age, there is no reason that a non-gender-themed anthology should be all men. There are some great gender-themed anthologies out there that include only stories from specific groups: trans women, trans men, gay men, single fathers, women who have survived domestic violence. I applaud those. But for a general anthology? No. Not when there are extremely talented women out there, ready, willing, and able.
If you’ve read my blog (specifically, my open letter to Stephen King), you know I’m a lifelong King fan. I own copies of every single one of his books, some in multiple editions. So I was excited when I saw he was editing an anthology. And crushed when I saw that every single name in that table of contents was male. Every single one. I knew there were stories out there by women that would fit the theme. I just knew it. So I looked into it and there were. Lots of them. I wasn’t able to get the rights for every story I wanted, but suffice to say, I was able to fill a table of contents of my own with really wonderful stories around the theme of flight all written by women.
I think there’s this idea out there that women can’t write effective horror for some reason. Like maybe we’re too sensitive? Or we’re supposed to be sweet and kind? I’m not sure. But I hate it with a burning passion. Some of the most brutal, gruesome, gory stuff I’ve read has been by women. So when I saw that table of contents . . . it both broke my heart and enraged me. I wanted to do something about it. I felt like I had to. So it was nothing short of fate when Ross Lockhart from Word Horde reached out to me and asked if I was up to editing an anthology for him. I replied with the most enthusiastic yes I may have ever uttered, and the rest is history.
In your introduction to the anthology, you raise the idea that fear of flight is one of humanity’s top phobias, and you speculate that perhaps it’s because, deep down, we somehow know that the sky doesn’t belong to humans. It’s an intriguing idea about places where we don’t belong, and what happens when we come into contact with the things that do. Is that something that you see in horror fiction, not just in this collection but in the wider genre?
Definitely. It goes back to that ancient fear . . . sacred grounds, the dark forest, evil at the edge of the world . . . Hansel and Gretel out in the scary woods all by themselves. The Ruins by Scott Smith is a great example, as is Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The feeling of being out of sorts, of not fitting in, and that someone or something is going to realize you don’t belong is a terrifying device when used correctly.
Building on that, too, do you think this sort of fear spills off the page and is perhaps part of why there seems to still be backlash to efforts to promote marginalized voices—that self-appointed gatekeepers see new voices as interlopers who don’t belong, which provokes a fear reaction? When these discussions arise, what responsibility—if any—do you think other authors and readers have? Perhaps responsibility is too strong a word, as there is clearly a spectrum of people’s willingness and ability to directly engage, but what do you think about the range of possible responses?
That’s an excellent question. Personally, I don’t think it’s about fear, at least not on a large scale, although there may be case-by-case examples. I think it has to do with what makes up the idea of a “good story” to the vast majority of readers out there. Yes, Mary Shelley exists, and yes, Shirley Jackson wrote some phenomenal fiction, but for the most part, the horror genre has been historically dominated by men. So if you’re a reader, and male stories are what you’ve been taught are “good,” especially white male stories, which often have similarities in perspective . . . that can lead to you, as a reader, feeling that those stories are the only “good” stories. When someone feels that way, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, and they encounter something like “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong . . . well, they might feel uncomfortable. And that discomfort is so easy to shift into “bad.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if we want diverse writers, we need diverse readers, and readers who seek out new stories even if they fall outside of their comfort zones.
I think the best thing someone can do when confronted by a person who believes women, or people of color, or LGBTQIA people can’t write good horror, is to show them that they can. Offer a book recommendation. Even a short story. Chesya Burke’s brilliant “Say, She Toy” is on Apex Magazine (bit.ly/2OynMRf)—and that’s a great example.
As you edited Fright into Flight, I’m also curious if you noticed any underlying links between the stories. Not just that they have to do with flight, of course, but if there were certain patterns or commonalities that emerged and, if so, did they guide the book’s final shape? Having spent time working closely with these stories, do you see any of those influences beginning to seep into your own work or views?
There are a few stories that had similar undercurrents—revenge was a big one, as was justice (which are two very different things). But the stories themselves are wonderfully diverse. The final shape of the book was mostly guided by what I thought was a powerful story. I spent many, many hours poring over the submissions we received to find the right capstone, the jewel in the crown of this beautiful book I’d worked so hard to put together . . . There were so many really wonderful stories. What it finally came down to was the one that made me feel something the most strongly.
While I dearly love each and every story in that book for very different reasons . . . no, I don’t think they have individually influenced me. As a collective, they’ve made me feel humble, powerful, and incredibly lucky.
Do you have any current plans for further editorial work? Are there any particular themes or issues that you are interested in trying to build another anthology around?
I have actually been shopping a post-apocalyptic anthology idea around for quite some time. I have some really stellar talent lined up, too . . . But no bites yet. I’m also proud to be co-editing the New England Horror Writers’ latest anthology, Wicked Weird, with Scott T. Goudsward and David Price.
Because you are an author and editor with connections in the genre community, I’d like to explore the idea that great movements in horror emerge from times of strife. Is that something you see happening now? Is there a way to distinguish (or is it even useful to distinguish) whether socio-political strife leads to good horror, or if instead, good horror artists are always plumbing the anxieties of the world, but are only widely recognized when the public is thrust into a similarly dark mindset?
Writers are artists. Like all artists, we tend to use the palette in front of us to color our works. In times of strife, we see poets, artists, singers, musicians, writers, creatives of all kinds turning their fears, their inner turmoil, into an expression of their art. That’s been happening since cave paintings, I think.
Whether or not horror that results from socio-political or socio-economic strife is any better than other horror . . . that’s up to the readers.
Thinking particularly of the comparatively recent pushes for inclusion like Women in Horror Month (started in 2010) and even up through your own anthology, is it that women in the genre are creating vital art because they are under attack, or is it that their work is finally being recognized as the larger public acknowledges the intolerability of the situation? There might not be an answer, but your thoughts are much appreciated.
I think that, as a society, we’re starting to look at the way marginalized groups are treated, and maybe even starting to shift things in the right direction. We have a long, long way to go, but I feel like the world in general is at least a tiny bit less racist, less sexist, less bigoted and prejudiced than it used to be. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but I’d like to hope it’s true, that maybe the wheels of change are turning, and future generations of horror writing (and horror loving) women won’t have to fight as hard as we did.
As to inspiration, well . . . everyone is a bit different. And every story is, too. I contributed to an amazing anthology of nonfiction essays by women called Nasty! (King Shot Press), and that story was definitely inspired by some gender-related strife. I think writers, like all people, have different facets and different feelings about different things at different times. I might write a short story because I was angry that a pair of men tabling next to me at a convention made snide comments and tried poaching people in line at my table, or I might write a short story because I got stung by a bee and who doesn’t hate that? Sorry if that’s a non-answer.
You’re active on social media, as well as in the real world, and another topic that you’ve addressed is the idea of the “Buddy System”—which is basically the idea that writing is a closed system where established gatekeepers determine which authors may enter and, once they do, they form a self-perpetuating circle of publication and promotion. You’ve pushed back on this idea, including through your blog post called the Un-Buddy System (bit.ly/2P7SZfw) but I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that. Can you help distinguish the difference between a “Buddy System” and networking? Do you think that having a background in professional industry where networking is a common thing affects your perception?
Oh, that is a can of worms . . .
This is my experience, so your mileage may vary, but . . .
I have spent a lot of time in various writers’ groups. A LOT. I’m always pushing myself to be a better writer, and now a better editor, too. So there have been many, many writers’ groups over the years. Some in person, some online. Some paid, some free to attend . . . but I didn’t end up sticking around in most of them, and the reason was almost always the same: people not really wanting, or not knowing how to take, constructive criticism. Feedback is critical to improving, so I was really taken aback when I would join these groups and time and time again, run into people that basically wanted other people to stroke their egos and tell them how talented they were. I remember one in particular, early on in my writing career. The group met in the community room of a little church near where I was living at the time. At first, I didn’t know better, didn’t know what to expect or what I needed from a peer review group . . . but I remember getting frustrated. I remember standing up one night after a short story I had written had received loads of praise, and asking “Ok, but what’s wrong with it? How do I make it better?” to which I received nothing but bewildered stares.
There was another incident at a local independent bookstore. My first (and last!) meeting ended with a shouting match when I had offered what I thought was valid and polite constructive criticism to one of the members, who took it poorly, decided to call me names and say I just didn’t understand good writing, and then to storm off in tears, leaving me shocked and bewildered.
Based on these experiences, I feel like a large number of writers are surrounding themselves with these sort of ineffective ego-bolstering groups. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t good writers’ groups out there. I’ve found a few of those and they are worth their weight in gold . . . and perhaps it was just my luck . . . but I saw a disproportionate number of ego stroking groups to real criticism focused ones. And that is a problem.
If you’re a writer and the other writers you’ve interacted with, trusted to read and critique your work, all tell you that you’re amazing and undoubtedly the next Stephen King . . . then you submit something to an editor without a vested interest in your feelings . . . well, you’re going to be disappointed. There are two ways that can go . . . you can either look at the rejection as a sign, a first step in improving your craft and maybe go about finding a more honest writers’ group . . . or you can blame the editor. Blame the publisher. Blame the authors that did make it in. You’re amazing, right? The next Stephen King! How could they reject you? They must be jealous! They’re keeping you out because they’re afraid of how good you are! Yeah, that’s it . . .
This is where I think The Buddy System (™) comes from. That idea that if you aren’t successful, it’s because of someone else.
Networking is just making contacts, even friends, in the same industry.
Along those lines, I know you’ve mentioned in the past how important it was for you to have formed mentorship relationships with others in the field. What was that like? Do you see that kind of relationship as a barrier to entry for people who don’t have access to conventions or other personal meeting space? I know that your website also includes a lot of advice for new writers, so could you talk a little bit about your goal with that and maybe what you’ve found to be the most helpful in your career?
A great deal of my early mentoring came via the internet. At first, I wasn’t in a position to travel anywhere. I was working two jobs and dealing with some monumental personal stuff besides. I reached out to some people I respected a great deal. I was polite. I didn’t harass anyone (one single contact, be it email, tweet, etc., and if they didn’t respond, I moved on). I asked specific questions. I thanked them for their time and made sure not to waste it. Eventually, my life situation changed for the better and I was able to start attending conventions and that definitely helped . . . but my point is, there is information out there if you seek it, and if you do so in the right way.
As to newbie advice . . . I like to post things I come across that others might not be aware of. If something trips me up, or if I find something helpful out, I like to share it. We’re all in this together, and everyone has something they can learn.
The most helpful thing I have found is this: be willing to put in the effort. Success takes work, even modest success. And the work is often disproportionate from the outside. That’s why people like Paul Tremblay and Sarah Pinborough are seen as “overnight successes” when the truth is anything but. Both of them have been writing, publishing, and putting forth herculean amounts of effort for years. While there are Cinderella stories out there, for the most part you can expect to sacrifice and work, usually a day job in addition to your writing, to make it happen.
On the topic of personal connections, you make it a point to attend conventions and other horror gatherings. Which are your favorites, and what is it about those that make them special? In particular, you’ve been a part of Scares that Care—a charity focused on helping children—one of the supporters of which, author Brian Keene, recently suffered a serious injury and had to turn to the community for help in covering his medical experiences.
Scares That Care is my all-time favorite convention. It’s like a great big family reunion filled with people you actually like. Even for first timers. It’s an absolute blast, and on top of the fun, the networking, the panels and podcasts and readings . . . the proceeds go to charity. Scares That Care is an organization that helps burn victims and cancer patients (a cause near and dear to my heart, as a cancer survivor myself). So if you can only attend one convention, make it that one.
I also love Necon. That’s smaller, more intimate, and more relaxed than your average convention. It’s not a fan thing, it’s mostly industry pros and maybe their spouses, so don’t go expecting to sell a lot of books . . . but it’s a wonderful time full of wonderful people.
Finally, what are you currently up to? Where can we catch you in person and on the page? Do you have any further editorial plans coming up soon?
I am an insanely busy bee these days. Like one of those awesome giant wasps from the movie Stung, who happened to land on a tanker full of energy drink and liked what it found inside . . . I have two books out with publishers (one of them shortlisted, as of the time of this writing) and a third to be released this coming October. I’m co-editing an anthology. I’m writing a book for [publisher redacted] that should be super fun . . . as well as a few short stories I owe people . . .
You can find me day or night at amberfallon.net or on Twitter @Z0mbiegrl. I’ll be at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival in Haverhill, Massachusetts on October 13th. That is definitely an event you won’t want to miss. Over fifty talented authors will be hocking their wares, signing books, participating in panels, and giving out candy. If you’re in the New England area, come out for a spooky good time!
As to future editorial plans . . . I have my fingers crossed on selling that post-apocalyptic anthology to a publisher! Wish me luck!
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