Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Lucy A. Snyder

Lucy Snyder is one of those rare genre-hopping writers who are equally at home in horror, science fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Throughout her career, she has (almost gleefully) defied clichés and reveled in contradiction: She was raised in what she calls the “cactus-and-cowboys” area of Texas, but her work is often urban in setting and tone; she has published collections of both erotica (Orchid Carousals) and humorous essays about computers (Installing Linux on a Dead Badger); she can be outspoken about the difficulties facing women in publishing, but she also calls her urban fantasy series (which began in 2009 with Spellbent) “guy-friendly”; and this year she won the Bram Stoker Award® for both Fiction Collection and Nonfiction. She’s currently working on her fourth book in the Jessie Shimmer series, Devils’ Field (which was financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign), and her poetry will be featured in the forthcoming young adult horror anthology Scary Out There. She lives in Worthington, Ohio with cats (no ferret, unlike her frequent heroine Jessie Shimmer), and her husband, author Gary Braunbeck.

You grew up in Texas and cite Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time as an early influence, in large part because of its effectiveness in provoking wonder. Was there something that also inspired you to explore darker notions?

Yes: nightmares. I’ve had nightmares for as long as I can remember. For instance, when I was three or four, I had a recurring nightmare that a large pile of avulsed eyeballs would chase me around the third-story wraparound porch of our house in South Carolina; the doors were locked and I couldn’t get away from it. I wasn’t allowed much TV back then, and my parents certainly hadn’t taken me to see any scary movies, so I’m not sure where all that came from.

People said I would grow out them, but I never did. My brain is a nightmare factory. Even now I can generally count on having at least one memorable nightmare a week, and at least once a night I’ll wake in a panic.

If any of that sounds like fun . . . it really isn’t! But the major silver lining is that I have gotten many, many story ideas from my dreams. My first novel, Spellbent, germinated from a particularly terrible nightmare I had, but ironically my editor decided those parts of the book were too horrific and I had to rewrite them.

Your first degree was in biology. Had you planned on pursuing a career in that area? Have you made use of this degree in your writing work?

Right up until my senior year in college, I planned to pursue a PhD in botany and become a researcher. But I started visiting a few graduate schools, and the students I met spent pretty much all their time in the lab and didn’t seem happy. So I applied to a multi-disciplinary environmental science grad program . . . which turned out to focus far less on ecology and far more on economics. I took a science reporting class as an elective, loved it, and ended up transferring to the journalism program.

I do use my biology background in my work. My Stoker-winning poetry collection Chimeric Machines has a strong science thread running throughout. And I’ve written a fair number of dark stories that are either science fiction or have themes of biological horror, such as “Magdala Amygdala” and “Antumbra.” I was able to get my geek on entirely when I wrote a story for A Field Guide to Surreal Botany.

From your website: “If genres were wall-building nations, Lucy’s stories would be forging passports, jumping fences, swimming rivers, and dodging bullets.” Have you made genre-hopping part of your “author’s platform”? Do you ever worry that it might make you more difficult to market?

People stick me in boxes no matter what’s on my website, so I’m not too concerned about that! I’ve met a fair number of people who base their view of my work on the first thing of mine that they read, and that impression is set in concrete. For instance, if they read one of my poems first, from then on they think of me as a poet, and nothing will sway that notion. I actually had to point out to a writing workshop coordinator (who was sending me loads of epic fantasy manuscripts) that I could help students who write horror, too, and she just sort of blinked at me and said “But your novel is fantasy!” And so I started talking about my horror publications and she had an expression on her face like I’d suddenly started speaking in Esperanto riddles.

It’s as if we’re all allowed to be good at just one thing in our culture, have just one identity, and that gets frustrating.

My goal as a writer is to be able to write anything, and write it well . . . and make it known that I have those skills. I don’t want my own skills to ever keep me out of the running for a writing gig that interests me.

Is there anything you wouldn’t want to write?

I’d hate to have to write something I found incredibly boring or morally repellent. That said, I’ve written a whole lot of technical documentation, so I can cope with most garden-variety boredom.

You went through the prestigious Clarion Workshop. What was the single biggest thing you took away from that?

I think most of us who attended the 1995 class will remember Gay Haldeman cheerfully ordering us to always keep the receipt! She had a lot of excellent advice about the business of writing. But it was Joe Haldeman’s dissection of the five-point-plot structure that was a real epiphany for me. I’d had some literary writing courses before, and they all treated plot as something that just sort of magically happened. Nobody before then had popped the hood on a story’s engine and showed me how the different parts drove the narrative.

Since you write in so many different formats and different genres, are there any writing rituals you go through before you sit down to write in a specific genre or area? Do you choose different music, for example?

My preparation is pretty much the same for any writing session: coffee in hand, fuzzy socks, comfy pajama pants, music. However, if I’m working on an intense scene, I’ll choose more intense music (Tool, NIN, etc.) If I’m writing nonfiction I might listen to Mozart. My default writing music lately has been a mix of Juno Reactor and Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s RaRe Elements. I usually prefer music without vocals when I’m writing, but I’ve found myself listening to Glass Animals’ Zaba a lot.

The Jessie Shimmer novels — which begin with Spellbent — are classified as “urban fantasy.” Do you think that made them easier for you, a female author, to sell?

Some horror fans see urban fantasy as a “female” genre but the authors my writing in Spellbent has been compared to are male: Jim Butcher and Tim Pratt. And if you look at Butcher’s career as an urban fantasist, or the careers of Chuck Wendig, Simon R. Green, Kevin Hearne, Richard Kadrey, Neil Gaiman . . . nobody’s lamenting “Oh, if they’d only been ladies, their work would have been taken so much more seriously and sold so much better!”

I think what happened was that I wrote a decent dark fantasy novel and market forces dictated that it be sold as urban fantasy, largely because of the genre’s popularity but also because I am female.

My first editor had me make changes to the novel — such as re-writing it in first person, emphasizing the love story and nerfing the horror in the final quarter of the book — to make it appeal more to the vast paranormal romance market. While I can understand the desire to tap that market, most romance readers found Spellbent way too dark and violent, and meanwhile the horror fans I’d written the book for in the first place often skipped it unread (despite the Stoker nomination) because they figured it would be too fluffy. I sometimes wondered if a male author would have been asked to make the same changes that I was asked to make.

And I can compare my edit requests with Gary A. Braunbeck’s experience of being told to cut an important romantic sub-plot from his novel Keepers because his editor at Dorchester figured that horror fans didn’t want to read any of that icky, kissy stuff. Which was annoying from the start, but reached a “Fall to your knees and scream Khaaaaan!” level of frustrating when the book was released and reviewers criticized it for having an undeveloped love story.

You financed the fourth Jessie Shimmer novel, Devil’s Field, via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Would you use Kickstarter again to finance a book? Will crowdfunding become a more commonly accepted tool for writers to use in the future?

I’ve never really understood why people were so skeptical of crowdfunding, because small and mid-sized publishers have a long history of taking pre-orders to fund books and determine print run sizes. Yes, if you fund a Kickstarter, there’s a risk that you might not get a finished product, but guess what? There’s the exact same risk involved in pre-ordering a book from a traditional small press. It’s not really any different.

That said, crowdfunding offers huge promotional advantages over traditional pre-orders because everything is so tied in with social media. There’s also a gamification aspect to the whole thing that can inspire people to fund a publishing project when otherwise they might wait to get the book later.

Crowdfunding is a whole lot of work — I’ve participated in over a dozen campaigns at this point — but it can provide excellent results for novelists who’ve already established readerships and for anthology editors with engaging concepts.

You’ve called your work “guy-friendly.” How deliberate is that on your part?

Because publishing companies have blurred the lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, some see UF as simply a “harder” version of paranormal romance and therefore squarely in the realm of books for women. But I did a signing at an upscale Barnes & Noble in San Antonio to support Shotgun Sorceress (the sequel to Spellbent); the place was full of white suburban women but eighty-percent of the readers who came to get books at my table were working-class Hispanic men.

That floored me, because the standard publishing industry wisdom is that men tend to stick to male authors, whereas women will read authors of any gender if it’s a genre they like. And yet the men who are picking up my books are enjoying them as much as my female readers do. My statement of guy friendliness was an effort to reach out to the male readers who haven’t given my work a shot yet because of preconceived notions that it won’t be interesting or entertaining.

Your story “Magdala Amygdala” deals with both transformation of the body (or “body horror”) and the role of the outsider. Did that story have a particular inspiration?

I was inspired to write the story because of my experiences working the weekend graveyard shift in a computer data center at a Very Large Computer Company. The night shift can do horrible things to your brain after a while, because often you just don’t get the right kind of sleep (if you can sleep at all during the day; I never got the hang of it), and it kills your social life dead. I felt disconnected and zombified, and my short-term memory was starting to slip.

My story emerged from my wondering: what if I’d been put on that shift precisely because I was some kind of monster who couldn’t be allowed around normal people?

Why are we so frightened by the thought of our bodies reshaping themselves?

There’s the old idiom, “I know it like the back of my hand.” If our hand abruptly and inexplicably changes, what does that mean for the rest of our world? There’s a lot of terror in that.

Much of your work has been first published in the small press. Why choose the small press over self-publishing?

Because I like being paid for my writing!

Let me elaborate. I could self-publish, but doing self-publishing right involves a murderous amount of work, and I’d rather spend my time writing if I can. Most of the people I know who have done really well with self-publishing (and who haven’t turned themselves into small-press publishers in the process) are either writing niche porn or developed sizeable audiences through traditional publishing before they made the leap.

It’s valuable to me to have someone who’s a competent publisher sharing the workload and who will be invested in the book’s success. Even if a small press is just a couple of people, they’re taking care of the book production and a portion of the promotions, and chances are good that they’re more experienced at all that than I am. Further, through them my work will be put in front of new readers I couldn’t easily access on my own.

Your nonfiction book Shooting Yourself in the Head For Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide is unique among writing how-to guides in covering everything from establishing setting to the usefulness of library catalog listings. What made you decide to tackle a book on writing?

Most of the pieces in that book started out as standalone freelance articles or as Horror World columns. I realized that I had written a whole lot of writing how-tos, and so I put the book together and wrote some new pieces to fill in the gaps. The big challenge with the book was figuring out how to order the chapters to provide a good flow for the reader.

In interviews and in Shooting Yourself . . . , you’ve spoken about the necessity of balancing writing and family. Do you think that’s harder for female writers?

Oh, definitely. In most communities and families, women are still expected to be the ones who largely take care of the kids, do the cooking, do the cleaning, care for aging parents and sick relatives. Women are still expected to put their husbands’ career aspirations and children’s needs first. The result is that women are often left with less time and energy and support for their writing.

Even just getting ready in the morning — women are expected to sink more time and energy into our appearances, and we are criticized more harshly for looking unkempt or sloppy. I try to be as low-maintenance as I can, but I’m sure I spend a solid half-hour more per day on grooming and dressing than my husband does. That works out to over 180 hours per year! Most women spend a whole lot more time there than I do; I don’t even wear makeup every day. It’s very hard for us to set that time sink aside because we’ll be penalized socially and professionally for it.

More men are pitching in on childcare and household chores than they did in past decades, but the cultural conditioning men and women both receive make it harder for women to preserve the time and energy they need to develop careers as writers and artists. It’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go.

Are you ever aware of yourself as a potential role model to other up-and-coming female genre writers?

I’m mostly aware of it in terms of my being a mentor in the Seton Hill MFA program; I feel a responsibility to give all my students good advice to navigate the difficult waters of publishing. And sometimes, with my female students, it involves warning them about crappy situations they may find themselves in, and discussing ways they can get through those problems.

The sexuality in your work is often playful and genuinely affectionate, and is refreshingly free of the clichés often found in genre sex scenes. Do you work to make your erotic elements feel new?

My feeling is that if you’re writing any type of fantasy fiction, you need to “sell” the reader on the supernatural or otherworldly aspects of the narrative by grounding them in as many realistic, believable details as you can. So, I try to present people and their relationships as believably as possible. But my own interests temper all that; bad, boring, awkward sex is entirely realistic but I don’t usually want to read or write about it.

Your work often features a lot of action and colorful settings, which makes me wonder if you’ve ever thought about writing graphic novels . . .

I’d love to write for comics or graphic novels. But right now I haven’t a clue as to how to crack that industry, mostly due to a lack of time and proper research on my part.

You’re married to the esteemed horror author Gary A. Braunbeck. Is living with another genre writer ever stressful or competitive?

It’s certainly stressful if we both have deadlines at the same time and we’re both in bad moods because the writing isn’t going well. But we’re not competitive; we want each other to succeed.

Gary was the first man I dated who was genuinely supportive of my writing ambitions. When I was starting out as a writer, supportive boyfriends were few and far between. One boyfriend read one of my stories and asked me “Why can’t you write anything nice?” Another, who had literary ambitions of his own, looked disdainfully at a contributor’s copy of a magazine that had come in the mail and sniffed, “Well, I could do that, too, if I wanted to be in some silly SF magazine!”

Gary and I are polyamorous, and we both have sweeties who are very supportive of our work. We are both extremely lucky in that regard. For instance, if we’re both losing our minds over difficult projects, we can count on our girlfriend to bring us dinner and keep the cats from destroying the couch. If Gary’s busy and I have an event, I can count on my boyfriend or girlfriend to help me schlep books and keep me company at my table.

Have you really worked as a bassoon instructor?

Yes. When I was a teenager, I lived and breathed music. I played saxophone and bassoon and was in band, jazz band, and orchestra. In my first year of undergrad, I got a music performance scholarship because the band needed a bassoon player. So, I was doing a lot of the things that the music majors were doing, and my music professor arranged for me to give paid private lessons to junior high school kids who were just starting to learn the instrument.

But after that first year, I realized that I just didn’t have time to do all the things I wanted to do. I took a hard look at what I wanted to do with my life and decided I just couldn’t keep playing. So I turned in my bassoon and haven’t looked back since.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.