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Interview: Eric LaRocca

Eric LaRocca (he/they) is the author of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales. He is an active member of the Horror Writers Association and currently resides in New England with his partner. For more information, please follow @ejlarocca on Twitter or visit ericlarocca.com.

First of all, Eric, thanks for joining us here! We’re going to dive into your work soon, but for our readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure of encountering you on the page, could you introduce yourself and tell them a little about what kind of fiction you write?

Thank you so much for having me, Gordon. I have been a devoted reader of Nightmare for several years now, so this is truly such an honor. I suppose to succinctly and deftly introduce myself to readers unfamiliar with my work I would say that I’m the literary equivalent of a mortician. A mortician’s responsibility is to preserve the human body and render the deceased as presentable, as graceful as possible so that loved ones can recognize the beauty, the peacefulness of death and decay. That’s exactly how I consider myself when I’m writing fiction—I write about the unpleasantness in the world, and I try to present it in such a way that it’s palatable and entertaining to read.

To date, your published books include the novellas Starving Ghosts in Every Thread and Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, as well as the short story collection The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales. That last title is particularly telling, because one of the key themes that seems to run through your work is transformation. Can you tell us a little bit about what “the strange thing we become” refers to, and what it is about this theme that you are drawn to?

“The strange thing we become” refers to how we transform, how we mutate when we’re in love. For most of the stories collected in The Strange Thing We Become, the tales explore “the shadow side of love” and how easy it is for us to lose ourselves completely when we’re in a relationship with another human being. I think I’m so drawn to this theme because I’m so deeply cynical when it comes to addressing thoughts of love. Moreover, I think that’s where excellent drama and confrontation lie—in the exploitative relationship, in the disintegrating marriage, etc.

I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to note that you’ve got a real gift for titles. With those mentioned above, as well as your forthcoming book We Can Never Leave This Place, many of your titles imbue almost conversational snippets of everyday speech with an enticingly sinister weight. How does coming up with titles fit into your writing process? Is there a strategy you have for developing these?

Titles for me are hugely important and I feel as though a compelling title can really catapult a book to a reader’s attention. A bizarre, evocative title (and cover art) can truly be the deciding factor for a reader to pick up a book or not. (I think the title and cover art for Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke are largely responsible for the book’s massive following.) I’m quite superstitious when it comes to my writing process, and I usually cannot begin working on a piece unless I have a title in place. It may very well be a working title that I will later scrap in favor of something far more fitting or exciting. Regardless, I work with titles assiduously and I do everything I can to make certain I’ve crafted an engaging and enthralling title for readers.

Going back to the idea of transformation, over the past year or so your career has also made an incredible transformation, from self-publishing with a cult following to working with publishers and garnering phenomenally wide-spread acclaim. Can you tell us about that transition and what it’s been like?

I love that you use the word “transformation,” because in all honesty that’s what the past year or so has felt like for me. I feel as though I’ve completely changed and grown into something truly exceptional. Not only as a writer but also as a human being as well. When I was first starting out and attempting to release my debut novella (Starving Ghosts in Every Thread) independently on Amazon, I recognized the fact that I was so worried about what other people thought of me and my work. I agonized over every review, and I took the negative criticisms so personally whenever I received a less than favorable review. In more recent months, I’ve found my focus shifting from others to myself. I used to write and ask myself, “Will anybody like this? Will anybody respond to this?” Now as I write, I think to myself: “Do I like this? Is this work that I can proudly stand behind?” That’s not to say that I don’t pay mind to what my readers will appreciate and enjoy; however, what’s most important to me is believing in myself and the integrity of my writing.

In particular, your novella with Weirdpunk Books, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, has really connected with a broad audience. Can you tell our readers a little bit about how that book came about and what’s it been like to see it take off?

It has been so uniquely surreal to watch Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke flourish the way it has over the past several months since its June 2021 release with Weirdpunk Books. It’s been so surprising that most readers are first introduced to me through this particular novella because this novella isn’t necessarily a perfect representation of my writing style or the kinds of books I might like to write in the future. It’s very much fixed in a specific niche genre and it’s been so remarkable to see a book from a small, independent press take the literary landscape by storm. I suppose Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke first developed from my fear/apprehension of navigating the internet in general. I’ve always been so fearful of coming across content that I’m not supposed to see. Moreover, I think claustrophobic settings work especially well in the horror genre and I was so interested in exploring a concept set entirely inside a chat room. Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts also employs a similar setting/format. I think some of the comparisons are valid; however, readers should note that both works are vastly different when it comes to plot and content.

One of the ideas the characters in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke raise is that hearing stories about horrible things can comfort the listener by demonstrating that no matter how bad things are for them, there’s always someone who has it worse. Do you think that horror fiction also provides this sort of comfort for readers?

For me, horror has always been hugely comforting. I’m probably one of the few people in the world that can fall peacefully asleep to films like Martyrs, High Tension, and Irreversible. I suspect other horror lovers find the same level of catharsis and tenderness in the genre that I do. I think Stephen King once explained our fascination with horror and compared consuming a horror film or book like passing a car accident on a highway. We recognize that the worst has happened to someone else; however, we’re assured in our assessment that we are safe. Horror is a genre where one can healthily dissect and confront their fears.

In addition to a comforting aspect (or not), what else do you think horror fiction can do for readers? When you’re in the process of writing, do you have in mind the eventual audience and what they might get from the work?

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of horror fiction and cinema has to do with its accentuation of those who are disenfranchised or marginalized by society in general. Though horror has a sordid history when it comes to presenting diversity, I am delighted to see more creators stepping forward and creating transgressive, boundary-breaking content that not only includes diverse characters but illustrates them as powerful, alluring, and dynamic. I honestly don’t think too much of my audience or even the queer community in general when I’m creating. That said, I certainly hope that readers (specifically queer readers) will connect with my work and recognize the fact that queer characters are allowed to be complex.

Speaking of what horror fiction can offer readers, your work contains a lot of queer representation and doesn’t shy away from portraying those characters as complicated individuals with conflicted feelings or messy relationships. There seem to be many ongoing discussions regarding queer representation in contemporary horror fiction, but I wonder if you have any particular thoughts you’d like to share regarding how it fits into your work?

Yes, there’s been a lot of discourse surrounding Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and its portrayal of “problematic” or “messy” queer relationships. I think a lot of the discussion that’s happening in this space is really misinformed and quite trite, if I’m being perfectly honest. I think those who are upset with the book’s portrayal of lesbians were looking for a romantic and sapphic offering and were consequently disgruntled with the fact that the book presents queer relationships as complicated and not as easy to define. It’s obvious to me that some readers are still not prepared to see evil, complex queer characters in their fiction. Whether it’s an issue of maturity or taste, I remain uncertain. Of course, queer representation is very important to me as a queer author; however, I will never write perfect, generic queer cardboard cut-outs to satisfy the more inexperienced or sensitive readers who are hesitant to admit that we, as queer people, can do vile and monstrous things.

You’ve been open in discussing how your fiction can sometimes be a way of working through personal issues. For example, I believe you’ve mentioned how your short story “Bodies are for Burning” portrays a character who struggles with intrusive thoughts, which is something you’ve dealt with personally. As far as you’re comfortable sharing, what have you learned or noticed from drawing on these kinds of personal struggles in writing horror?

I try to be as open as possible when discussing my writing process and what leads me to write a particular story. “Bodies are for Burning” was a very difficult and yet cathartic piece to write as I’ve struggled firsthand with intrusive thoughts. I don’t necessarily share this to draw sympathy from the reader, but rather to illustrate just how powerful the connection is between me and the story in general. I think readers appreciate vulnerability and honesty when consuming fiction. I notice that when I’m honest with myself and when I’m vulnerable enough to open a fresh wound, the effectiveness of the horror I’m trying to present in my story becomes much more actualized. I always urge burgeoning writers to write from what pains them, to channel their misery, their suffering into their art. After all, readers are intelligent and know full well when an author is baring their heart and soul to them.

On a lighter note, one delightful aspect of your stories is how you build subtle connections between them. In particular, a number of them are set in the fictional town of Henley’s Edge . . . at least, I hope it’s fictional. What interests you in building a shared world for your work? Are there any particular models you have for this?

Yes, Henley’s Edge is (thankfully) a fictional village that’s loosely based on the small Connecticut town where I grew up. Very much like my peaceful and bucolic hometown, Henley’s Edge is located in the northwest corner of Connecticut and also shares similar landmarks with the town on which it’s based. At first, I created this fictional landscape simply because I find myself intrigued with writers who have developed entire fictional worlds in their books. I find it fascinating when an author builds a fictional town, community, etc. that’s so expertly drawn and fully realized. The most iconic example I can think of is Stephen King’s Derry, Maine. For me, it simply made sense for my works to exist in a shared fictional universe simply because I hope to build a shared universe—a realm in which horrible things happen quite naturally.

Speaking of models, what authors do you see as your influences? In addition to your literary forebears, are there any other artists or individuals whose influence you feel keenly, even if it’s not explicit on the page?

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to emphasize my love and admiration for openly queer writers such as Clive Barker, Michael McDowell, and Chuck Palahniuk. All three of these writers have shaped me not only as an author but as a human being as well. Clive Barker’s psychosexual work allowed me to deeply explore the rich, limitless boundaries of my sexuality and gender as a queer person. Michael McDowell’s poetic prowess opened the possibility of marrying sumptuous, beautiful language with visceral and unsettling descriptions. Finally, Chuck Palahniuk dared me to explore the furthest reaches of my imagination and go beyond what I had once deemed presentable or tasteful. I think if you’ve read my work, you’ll unquestionably discern the influence each of these writers has indelibly left upon me.

Beyond those authors who have influenced you, who are some current authors whose work you enjoy? Feel free to recommend authors from inside the genre or out.

There are so many talented and truly audacious voices operating in the indie horror scene currently. I immediately think of writers such as Joe Koch, Sonora Taylor, Gwendolyn Kiste, Laurel Hightower, Cynthia Pelayo, Tim McGregor, Tyler Jones, and Ross Jeffery to name just a few that are on my radar.

Interestingly, a lot of your recent horror is very grounded in reality and doesn’t deal much with the fantastic. Of the books currently available, only your early novella Starving Ghosts in Every Thread and maybe one or two stories in The Strange Thing We Become have overt supernatural elements. What is it about that kind of “realistic” horror that you find appealing?

I think I’m most fascinated by the horror that’s quite possible and likely when two people come together in times of confrontation, disagreement, etc. I’m a devoted student of humanity and how mankind operates when the stakes are high and when matters are tense. Perhaps it stems from my background in writing for the theatre, but I’ve always found the most engaging and most viscerally upsetting work to be grounded in reality when two people do horrible, unspeakable things to one another. When I’m writing, I’m especially mindful of uniquely disturbing plays like Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined—all these mesmerizing theatrical works skillfully illustrate the horrors, the dreadful cruelties that human beings are capable of performing on one another.

Now, ignoring everything I just said, your upcoming novella, We Can Never Leave This Place (Trepidatio Publishing, June 2022), seems in some ways like a departure from your recent work in that it foregrounds the resolutely weird and unnatural. Without spoilers, what can you tell readers about this upcoming book?

I suppose on the surface We Can Never Leave This Place might seem like a visible departure from my reality-grounded work in horror; however, I would inform readers that the novella really explores the visceral theme of trauma and illustrates how our imaginations can help us cope through times when we are feeling especially violated. We Can Never Leave This Place was one of the first pieces I wrote in my MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, MA. At the time, it was titled something different; however, the plot of the novella was largely the same. Without divulging too much, I would merely say that the piece explores themes of inherited grief and familial trauma. I struggle to summarize the plot effectively and, moreover, I think it’s imperative that readers go into this novella with as little information as possible. I’m so looking forward to our June 2022 release!

Regardless of whether the horror element in your stories is supernatural or not, your work focuses heavily on the emotional lives of the characters and, in particular, their interactions with one another. Do you think of your work as primarily character-driven? How does the focus on character fit in with or inform the other elements of your stories (e.g., plot, style, etc.)?

Yes, I would agree that my work is primarily character driven. Actually, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is essentially a character study—an exhibition of a queer relationship between merely two players. For me, as an author, I always begin a story with character. Of course, I’m interested in plot and narrative structure; however, I’ve always been so drawn to crafting unique and complex characters. After all, it’s arguable that most plots can be easily recycled or replicated. Characters, however, have more depth and possibility for originality.

Your author biography also mentions that you’ve written plays, and it seems like maybe some of these tactics come through in your prose. For example, your characters have wonderful exchanges of dialogue and there is a fantastic use of stories within stories, where characters tell each other horrible things that reveal something about them while also engrossing the readers. Have you noticed your skills from different forms of writing melding with—or bouncing off of—one another?

I think my work as a playwright certainly informs some of my skillset as a fictionist. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wrote much of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke as if I were structuring a script that would be performed live by two actors. Not only have I written for theatre, but I attended an MFA program where I studied screenwriting. I think my experience in writing scripts really informs my sensibilities when it comes to building an original character or devising a narrative arc.

Going back to themes that appear in your work, one argument that seems to recur is the question of which is worse: letting go of something or having nothing left to hold? What does it mean to you to have this discussion in your work? What does this fiction—and horror, in particular—offer you in the ability to have these sorts of debates without necessarily having to take sides?

I think this discussion is so permanently fixed in my work because both ideas seem to be symbiotic when it comes to engaging in relationships with other people. You either are given something or you have something taken away. I think horror fiction is the ideal place to discuss some of these concepts because, as you say, you (as a writer) don’t necessarily have to take sides. I often find myself discussing matters that I wouldn’t necessarily bring up at dinner parties in my work. It’s cathartic for me simply to explore these debates without inserting my own opinion and instead engaging in a healthy discussion with my readers.

Another idea that appears is a variation on the observation that people hurt the ones they love because those relationships put them in a special position as to one another’s vulnerabilities. However, this is sometimes presented as a question about whether people should hurt those they claim to love, rather than waiting to let the uncaring world do it. How do you see this argument developing in your work?

I think this argument develops throughout my work so noticeably because I’m quite pessimistic when it comes to love and relationships. It’s unfounded as to why I’m so cynical seeing as I’ve been with my partner for over two years, and we have (at least what I consider to be) a healthy, trusting, and equal relationship. Regardless, I think perhaps my fascination with lovers exploiting one another stems from some of the traumas I faced when I was a child—a time when I was especially vulnerable and when I was hurt by those whom I trusted implicitly.

So far, you’ve published short fiction and novellas, but your debut novel, Everything the Darkness Eats, is scheduled to come out in February 2023 from CLASH Books. Although it’s still a ways away, what can you tell us about the novel?

I’m so excited and honored to be working with Christoph and Leza at CLASH Books and I suspect this will be such a special release! I consider Everything the Darkness Eats to be a perfect union of the realistic horror of complex, toxic human relationships I’ve employed in my shorter fiction as well as some of the supernatural, otherworldly elements I’ve conjured in other notable works. The novel chronicles a string of mysterious disappearances in a small Connecticut town (Henley’s Edge) and how several fragile and unsuspecting lives are interwoven and forever changed by a dark, evil presence. Once again, it’s very difficult to summarize the novel without giving too much information away and I would really urge readers to know as little as possible before beginning the book.

How has it been moving into longer works? Have you changed your approach in writing these, or were novel-length stories always just waiting for the opportunity to come out? Having now written across the spectrum, do you see yourself gravitating towards any one particular format in the future?

Although I was so hesitant to begin writing longer works, I now find myself really enjoying and relishing in the process of novel-writing as opposed to merely working in novella or short fiction territory. I don’t necessarily think my approach to writing has changed considerably as many of the ideas I’m currently developing have been stored away in my arsenal for several years now; however, I’ve noticed I’m less apprehensive of developing bigger, more complex ideas. I used to write very small, contained pieces and lately I’ve found myself eager to acquaint myself with a cast of characters and intricately explore each character until I’m satisfied. Although I’ve had the pleasure of writing across a multitude of varied formats, I think my true love with always be the novella. I will forever be drawn to the sweet spot of 20k-30k words. Moreover, I think horror really excels as a genre and as an art form when it’s in a shorter, more concise format. If I’m not mistaken, I believe horror master Richard Matheson once explained in an interview how true horror, true dread is very difficult to sustain for a 300+ page novel. A novella, however, is an ideal format as it’s pithy and succinct.

Finally, other than We Can Never Leave This Place and Everything the Darkness Eats, what else is coming up for you? In addition to your upcoming releases, are there any new ideas you’re just starting to explore but which you can share to whet our readers’ appetites?

I have a ton of exciting news to share that involves fiction releases coming in late 2022 as well as early 2023; however, contracts are still being negotiated and drawn, so, unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to say until the publisher’s make the official announcement. That said, I would love to take this opportunity to thank those who have supported me as I continue to grow and evolve as an author. I sincerely look forward to greeting you all in June 2022 with the release of We Can Never Leave This Place and I hope to have the honor of sharing more projects with you for many years to come.

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White is a Seattle-based author of horror and/or weird fiction. He is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist, a Clarion West alum, and the author of As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions; Rookfield; and And In Her Smile, The World (with Rebecca J. Allred). Gordon’s stories, reviews, and interviews have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com or on Twitter @GordonBWhite.