Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Nancy Holder

The 1980s and ’90s may have seen a horror explosion, but female voices often seemed to be drowned out in that sonic boom. One of the few exceptions was Nancy Holder. Although she wrote and published romance novels prior to her horror work, Holder soon established herself as an exciting new presence in the genre with a series of short story appearances in the influential Shadows anthologies, edited by Charles L. Grant. In 1991, she became the first female author to win the Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction (for the story “Lady Madonna”), and her novels in the groundbreaking Dell Abyss line earned her more awards and accolades. These days, she makes much of her living writing bestselling young adult fiction series, tie-in novels, and nonfiction guides, often set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is a Guest of Honor at this year’s World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon, and she travels frequently as both an author and a writing instructor. She lives in San Diego, California with her daughter Belle and a menagerie of non-human animals.

As a child, you were a military kid who got moved around a lot and even spent time as a student in Japan. How did all that shape your later work?

I started to say to you, “I didn’t move around that much,” but then I totted up how many schools I went to: three elementary schools, one middle school, and three high schools. I did have a nice long run from second to sixth grade, and I did go to the same middle school for both years. I think that gave me a foundation to build on, but I watched many friends come and go. This lack of permanency was exacerbated by the fact that by the time I was sixteen, both of my parents had died. I’m so happy that in the seventeen years of my daughter’s life, I haven’t moved once. She’s on her second high school, by her own choice, but other than that, she’s been at the same schools all the way through. This to me is amazing and I’m really happy for her.

I think all this moving and loss has created a me that seeks stability even in a relatively unstable profession. I’m a single mom and that adds to my desire to make sure we have stability. Girlfriends of mine who are not writers and are not single criticize me for being a workaholic. They don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a freelancer, and, as with many writers, I feel a bit of an outsider around “regular” people.

Is it true you started with romance and YA novels? How did you segue into horror?

The first novel I ever sold was a young adult romance novel. I wrote a baker’s dozen of young adult novels and romance novels, and I had a great time doing it. Three of my trunk novels are historical romance novels. But I was drawn to horror, always had been. My first early horror efforts were two screenplays I wrote because I had been given a black wig for part of a Halloween costume: The Monster in the Furnace and The Monster in the Swimming Pool. Early on, I discovered every terrifying comic ever written and Shirley Jackson. Then I went on to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Charles L. Grant, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Ira Levin, and Anne Rice, and I loved their work. I met Kathy Ptacek, Charlie’s wife, at a romance conference and she in turn introduced me to Charlie. I made my first horror short story sale to him (after selling five novels). When his father died, we got drunk on Black Russians and he told me that life was short and I should write what I love. He told me to look at my bookshelves and that would tell me what it was I loved. So I called my agent and told him I wanted to switch to writing horror. And I did.

Tell us about your Edgar Allan Poe obsession. Was he a major early influence on you, for example?

I’ve always had a little thing for Eddie, as I call him. I loved all the cheesy Poe-inspired Vincent Price/Corman movies and in the ninth grade, my father and I recorded a play we wrote based on Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles story, “Usher II.” I read comics based on his stories. But it’s hard to say if all this was more of an influence on me than on most people. EAP is such an icon in popular culture that it’s hard to separate my own experience from mass culture. He was just always there.

I actually made a commitment to my darling Eddie about three years ago. I teach at the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program, and I suggested we create a collage of our literary crushes, then hold a salon where we would introduce our crushes to each other. Of course I brought Eddie. But I tried to keep my fascination at bay because I already have so much going on in my life and he’s so “done,” so ubiquitous. I also wanted to have an obsession with someone who had a happier life. Then Lisa Morton told me that the Iliad Bookshop had a first edition Literati and I had to have it. I knew if I bought it I would be giving in to my obsession and I have. I have Poe jewelry, a period costume, a Poe sister wife (writer Leanna Renee Hieber), and people give me Poe-inspired gifts now (yay). Poe is in many ways misunderstood; he was a sharp critic, a skilled editor, and a brilliant cryptographer. He had a great sense of humor and he perpetuated hoaxes. He was also bitter and wounded and he sabotaged himself. For a while I tried to find another writer to leave him for, but he’s my man. I’m especially thrilled that his Auguste Dupin inspired many of the tropes we attribute to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and authors such as Baudelaire and Conan Doyle cite his influence on them. I’m a total Sherlockian and have written some Holmes pastiches. I discovered Paul Kane and Charles Prepolec’s Beyond Rue Morgue, stories about Dupin, and I absolutely loved it. I was thrilled to go to the mass signing of Beyond Rue Morgue in London. I’m going to teach a class at Stonecoast next summer called The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. My dream is to spend an entire month doing nothing but reading works by Poe and biographies about Poe.

In the early ’90s—when horror seemed very much a boys’ club—you were one of the rare successful women authors. You were, for example, the first female author to win the Bram Stoker Award in both the Short Fiction (1991, for “Lady Madonna”) and the Novel (1994, Dead in the Water) categories. Has the genre progressed for women writers in the twenty years since?

I want to think so. I definitely see more women novelists and I see anthologists making real efforts to include women. Huzzah for HWA having a “Women in Horror” month blog series. I started writing splatterpunk because a man at a World Fantasy Convention turned to me and said, “Of course, women can’t write splat.” I found that so stupid and annoying. I find blanket statements about just about anything stupid and annoying.

Your story “Passion Play” appeared in the 1992 anthology Still Dead (the second in the John Skipp and Craig Spector-edited zombie anthologies), marking you as one of the first women to write zombie fiction. The story includes a spectacularly gruesome crucifixion and casts Catholicism in a strange light. When you wrote that story, were you conscious of competing against the extreme gore and taboo-breaking of the first volume, The Book of the Dead?

I wasn’t conscious of competing against The Book of the Dead, but I was conscious of trying to hold my own writing gore. Ed Bryant called me “the first splatterpunk to chew with her mouth closed” and I absolutely loved that. But I will say that I have avoided all the torture porn movies. I haven’t seen any of them. That makes sense because I’m also very cautious about what horror movies I watch. I get really, truly terrified and it lingers, and I don’t enjoy the lingering. I’ve never seen any of the Paranormal Activity movies, for example. But I love A Tale of Two Sisters, Ringu, Ju-on, The Lady in Black, and El Orfanato.

Now you write both mainstream adult horror and young adult horror. Are there lines you can’t cross when writing for younger audiences? Are you sometimes forced to rein yourself in?

In young adult horror, I go more for creeps and scares than violence/gore. There’s significantly less (if any) sex. I try to be more linear in YA horror. I just turned in a YA horror novel and a teen thriller. Both are tightly plotted. Young adults tend to get bored and irritated with flashbacks or flashy language. That’s okay with me.

You published three novels (Dead in the Water, Witch-Light, and Making Love, the latter two co-authored with Melanie Tem) under the Dell Abyss imprint, which was a deliberate attempt to change the direction of horror in the 1990s. What was it like being part of that line?

I liked being part of the Abyss line. I thought we were bad-asses and I liked it that Stephen King gave us a quote. How cool were we that our swag was night lights and box cutters? I was writer-in-residence at Jeanne Cavelos’s (our editor) Odyssey Workshop last summer, and just finished teaching an online class for her. New York lost a great editor when she decided to move to New Hampshire. I’ve learned so much watching her teach and critique. That makes up for her leaving us.

Dead in the Water starts with the line “This is how it will be when you drown,” and of course the novel is centered around the sea. Does deep water hold particular terrors for you?

I’ve sold that prologue as a short story titled “Ms. Found in a Bottle, II” which is a direct homage to Poe, of course. Here I am a native Californian and I hate going swimming in the ocean. All I can think of is that there are dead bodies of people and animals sloshing around in there, and rusting cars and all kinds of crap. I don’t even like to stick my feet in the water. The only times I have really enjoyed the water was snorkeling in Hawaii. I could see everything. That made me feel better.

Your short fiction (my personal favorite is “Cafe Endless: Spring Rain”) sometimes makes use of unconventional storytelling techniques (like shifting point-of-view or stream-of-consciousness). Is that one of the reasons you enjoy the short form?

Thank you. I love that story. I loved writing it. I went back to Japan, where I lived for three years when my dad was in the navy, and I loved being there. Yes. I adore writing short fiction. I would do nothing but write short stories until my dying day if I could make a living at it. I love experimenting with forms and language. I used to be a linguistics major and I believe that there are deep structures in language that our minds lock onto. I’m so grateful to my early editors for buying my work, which has given me opportunities to sell more.

You’ve written several short stories about Dwight and Angelo, a pair of excessive glam rockers known as the Cannibal Cats, and their tales are frequently satirical and very funny. Are stories like that a way to blow off creative steam?

Dwight and Angelo came about because I had been to see Cats. There’s a song that goes “Jellicle cats come out tonight . . .” And I kept singing “Cannibal cats come out tonight.” My favorite part of writing about them is exploring Dwight’s codependence. He knows he’s codependent and he truly hates Angelo but Angelo is cooler and he knows that, too. Poor Dwight. I pour my angst and frustration at life into Dwight’s Dwightness.

You’ve said, “Even in the darkest place there is hope.” Should more horror fiction express hope?

I don’t know how much hope horror fans can put up with. I think that is one thing I do include more of in young adult fiction, now that I think of it. In the novel I just turned in, the main character works at a teen-to-teen helpline, and she has had to deal with suicidal kids (my thanks to Steve Elliot Altman for helping me with the details on teen hotlines). She always believes that there is hope, and even though her thesis is sorely tested (especially at the end of the novel!), I like that she keeps believing that and doing everything she can to move toward positive outcomes. My daughter was quite concerned that I was writing about teen suicide and didn’t want me to glorify early death. (For this reason, she despises Romeo and Juliet, and I think she’s got a point!) I think that’s an important mandate and I followed it.

You’ve noted that you actually find more flexibility in working within someone else’s universe than your own. Although some of that has to do with business, does it extend to the artistic side of writing as well?

For me, the most artistic freedom is found in short fiction. The artistry of writing in other people’s universes lies in figuring out what the benchmark elements are and honoring them. I’m working on a novel for the TV show Beauty and the Beast right now. I’m very conscious of trying to hit the notes that I think the fans love, and that makes me feel so connected to them. I love that feeling. That’s the same feeling I get when I’m working on original material that I think is going well—that famous “flow” we talk about. So it’s artistry in a different way.

How important was Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the entire horror genre? Did its influence spread beyond television and cinema?

Joss has said that he did the episode “Hush” because there wasn’t all that much horror in the show. I think we have urban fantasy as a result of Buffy, and stronger women characters in a lot of horror as a result. I also think Buffy showed that audiences are smart and that banter and wit are sexy. It’s no surprise to me that Joss loves Shakespeare. Buffy has become the icon he hoped she would, and so, yes, I do think the show’s influence has spread beyond television and cinema.

You’ve written both traditional horror and paranormal romance, and yet many horror writers are (ahem) disdainful of paranormal romance. Does paranormal romance get a bad rap?

People who love to read paranormal romance know good paranormal romance when they read it, and that’s all I’m concerned with. It’s very relaxing to be around romance writers because they don’t bother dissing other genres. They’re more interested in becoming better writers and getting better royalty rates on their e-book sales. When I first started writing, the number one favorite non-romance writer of the majority of romance writers was Stephen King. A discerning bunch! However, in the interest of educating my fellow horror readers, some of what “we” read could be indexed as paranormal romance. If there’s a strong romantic element, a paranormal romance reader would read it.

Although you’ve mentioned the notion of being a “brand” in some interviews, your success in numerous genres seems to indicate that you’ve avoided that. Or do you maintain a number of different Nancy Holder brands?

I was kind of into thinking that way for a while—about branding—when I was taking a bunch of marketing classes and now I think I’m just me. I had an agent once (not my current agent) tell me I really had to decide “which Nancy” I was going to be and it really worried me for a while. I’m glad I never did. I just keep going and I love trying all kinds of new stuff. I do think of HWA as my home base and I feel most like myself around horror people. I have a lifetime subscription to Cemetery Dance.

You’ve won numerous awards, including five Bram Stoker Awards, and you’re being fêted this month at the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon as a Guest of Honor. Do awards and similar recognition matter?

I can’t deny that I like receiving awards. I try to tell myself that they don’t matter, but if I believed that, why did I just serve as a juror for the Stokers? It’s nice to have a place in the sun now and then. My thanks to everyone who has voted for me for various awards.

Given how prolific you are . . . How many projects are you likely to be working on simultaneously?

I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it because then I will panic. After this interview is finished, I will finish listening to Dracula in preparation for a short story I’m working on and edit a student’s homework assignment. Tomorrow I will go back to working on my novel. I occasionally think about scaling back on something and have said no a few times, but everything is so interesting.

Your favorite place to write is Disneyland, surely one of the most frantic places on earth. Do you need activity around when you work? Do you have tricks for maintaining focus?

I’m chuckling because at this very moment I’m sitting in the Anaheim Hilton across the street from Disneyland. (Eating Raisin Bran for dinner, but still!) My daughter went on a four-day school trip and I high-tailed it up here. I can’t write-write very well at Disneyland; I usually do student manuscripts and/or research reading and/or copyediting inside Disneyland, but I can write just fine in the lobby of the Grand Californian. But the sense/need to be around activity has been sated in other ways because of my current schedule. My daughter’s school is a long way from my house so after I drop her off in the morning, I don’t go home to my office to work. I work at Starbucks or Panera Bread, places like that, until the library opens and then I work in the library. I also just sit in my car. Twice I have killed my car battery charging all my electronics to keep working in the car. I miss being in my house, in my office, so the excitement of being around people while at Disneyland isn’t quite as unique as it was.

I listen to music to stay focused. Soundtracks. I have tons of them and I love them. I also try to work on one thing at a specific time of day. Getting things turned in feels great.

Are we ever going to see a Nancy Holder short story collection? Don’t you have enough for at least six volumes by now?

I am currently entertaining offers! Email me at [email protected]

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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.