Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Sarah Langan

Sarah Langan’s first novel, The Keeper, was published in 2006 to acclaim both within the genre (it was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award) and by the mainstream press (in The New York Times, Terrence Rafferty called it “the only horror story I’ve read recently that finds adequate metaphors for the self-destructive properties of anger”). The follow-up, The Missing, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and both the Black Quill and Bram Stoker Awards. Her most recent novel, Audrey’s Door, was published to more critical acclaim in 2009. Langan has also produced award-winning short fiction (her story “Afterlife” appeared in issue number one of Nightmare), and recently published the novella Torchsongs as part of the original e-book anthology Apocalypse: Year Zero. She’s currently completing her Master’s Degree in Toxicology and planning her next novels. Langan lives in New York with her husband, filmmaker JT Petty, and their two daughters.

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Describe your life as a fiction writer prior to selling your first novel, The Keeper.

I was writing at night and working random jobs during the day. I was also taking undergrad science classes (organic chemistry, statistics) in order to apply for a Master’s in Environmental Toxicology. I had a roommate and a crazy landlady and was going on lots of bad dates—the usual. I couldn’t get much traction selling fiction—Chizine and a literary magazine had published a few short stories. No one wanted to touch my novel, because horror wasn’t selling at the time.

The Keeper did well for you—it was nominated for awards, it garnered excellent reviews, and it led to the follow-up novel The Missing. Did The Keeper’s success come at all as a surprise to you?

Honestly, I thought Keeper was an especially good book and I wasn’t surprised by its success. I think it if had been in hardcover, it might have done even better. But I was lucky to get the deal I got. Because it was horror, and horror wasn’t getting published, lots of editors liked it, but they were all afraid to pull the trigger. A major editor in the UK even told my agent that they’d thought it was Stephen King’s book under a pseudonym, and were ready to pay buckets, then realized it wasn’t his book and withdrew. Uh, okay. But it all worked out. Sarah Durand, who worked at Morrow at the time, acquired it for good money in one of the best horror deals of the year. Her second reader was Diana Gill. I was very lucky.

Sarah championed it, got Book of the Month Club deals, and treated The Keeper like serious literature, which got enthusiasm going in-house.

It’s taken me some time to realize that even though I’m lucky, I don’t have to act like it. Part one is getting the book deal; part two is being a business person, and keeping a life-long career going. The kinds of people who manage both aren’t always the best writers—art and commerce are a bad combination. But that’s my goal—a lifelong career.

When you were writing The Keeper, were you already thinking about the sequel (The Missing)?

The Keeper was finished when I sold it, in a two-book deal. I was supposed to write a sequel, but since Keeper is a pretty finite story, I wrote something interconnected, from the same worldview. I wasn’t thinking about it at all, until the two-book deal!

But it worked out for me. That tight deadline was good for my process. So was Sarah, who trusted it would be good and didn’t ask for progress reports. I love writing a book, then turning it in. Talking about partials is a nightmare.

In discussing The Breviary, the haunted apartment building from Audrey’s Door, you said, “It’s not so much the fact of a place, but its architecture that gives it personality.” What exactly do you mean by “the fact of a place,” and what is the fact of the place in Audrey’s Door?

Buildings, and lives, are shaped by their authors. I love the idea of an architect creating a building without Euclidian geometry, where balls always roll into odd places, and floors creak, and when you look at the structure from outside, you have no idea how it stands. A Gaudi without the beauty or respect for nature.

For me, that’s a metaphor for a life shaped by uncertainty, like our hero, Audrey Lucas’ life. She’s drawn to The Breviary because it’s familiar. Once inside, she’s shaped by it. Like a plant inside a small, glass cage where light comes from only one direction, she grows crooked.

What spurred you to go after a Masters Degree in Toxicology when you already had an MFA in Creative Writing (and what most of us would think of as a successful writing career)?

I love science, and it gets me thinking new thoughts I wouldn’t ordinarily have. I need that to keep my fiction fresh. I’m hoping to find part time work when I finish my thesis, just for the exposure to people outside my ordinary circle.

I also like the idea of being my own boss in pretty much every way. So, if I write something and the advance is low, I can make money in a field that pays better than teaching fiction writing, and maybe edit the book until it earns a better advance, or write something else. I want to be in a position where I always have options.

You recently mentioned writing a screenplay, Glen Cove. Was that your first screenplay venture? Did being married to a filmmaker make it easier or harder to write?

My film agent Sarah Self asked me to write a screenplay about seven years ago. At the time, I just couldn’t imagine doing it. I had too many books to write, and exams to pass. But after my second daughter was born, I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s very hard, and not at all what I expected. I enjoyed the process, but it reminds me of solving an intricate Rubik’s Cube, whereas novels are like gnawing entire trees into pulp. They’re very different skills.

My husband JT, who earns his living writing screenplays, and is one of the best writers I’ve ever known, gave Glen Cove a critique. Having that access is handy. But I think in the end, you go into your place, you do the work, and it’s either good or it’s not good, and nobody can do that work for you.

My friend Sheri gave it a read also—she’s a novelist who has also written some film stuff. My agent looked at it, too, and is waiting for the next draft.

My plan right now is to finish my thesis, then rewrite Glen Cove for May first, then finish a novel. Any novel! But most likely, The Clinic.

The American Library Association’s Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror included you as one of the top five female horror writers, in a section entitled “Ladies of the Night.” How do you feel about being identified by gender?

I like it because it gives me more attention and potentially, more sales. I’m glad the author included my name and it makes me feel good.

How do I feel about being singled out as a woman? It’s silly. Ursula Le Guin mentioned on Twitter that she’s still being called “a woman author” and she’s sick of it. Atwood, Munro, and Oates are “women writers.” When fifty percent of all writers are marginalized as “women writers,” something’s definitely broken. I’d love to know how much they earn, compared to their male counterparts. Less, I’ll bet. Wait a minute . . . Is woman writer code for “sucker?”

Writers are in a bad situation generally right now. The gatekeepers aren’t allowed to let their tastes be the judge, advances are down, and I don’t see how self-publishing earns steak dinners unless you’re spending a lot of time in promotion. Anything I’ve written you can download for free, someplace. That means I don’t make any royalties. Maybe I wouldn’t anyway, but it ought to be my option, not some web pirate who’s generating funds from ad revenue for weird crap like raspberry diet juice that I don’t believe in.

In a piece you wrote for Salon.com in defense of Stephen King, you discussed his sentimentality and noted, “. . . even as my intellect rebels, a part of me believes. He got me.” Yet your own work seems anything but sentimental; does your rebellious intellect keep you from writing in that vein yourself?

A part of it is that I’m more self-conscious that King. He got published in college; I got told I was a crappy writer in college, and for another ten years after that. In other words, I read a lot more Updike and Carver, while he was publishing in the real world.

Another part of it is that King’s kids were born already, when he published Carrie. I hadn’t yet had kids when I published my first three books.

These days, I find myself saying really cheesy things that never would have come out of my mouth ten years ago, like, “I’m so in love with you. You and your sister and your daddy are my whole world.” If I’d read something like that, pre-kids, I’d have assumed it was made-up bullshit. When I read King’s IT, I figured he was drunk for half of it. Now I know that people really do say stuff like that, and the reason those sentiments connect with people—much of America—is because they’re true.

So, down the road, expect more cheesiness (but probably not that much cheesiness).

You recently published a novella, Torchsongs, as part of a “boxed set” of four e-books that also included works by Sarah Pinborough, Rhodi Hawk, and Alexandra Sokoloff. How did that project come about? And how has your foray into e-publishing worked for you?

We all wanted to get together on a project, and brainstormed “Apocalypse.” It was a lot of fun to write, mostly for the camaraderie. Our voices are so different that it was a hard sell—no editor could figure whether it was an anthology or a novel. I’m opposed to e-publishing right now, but the majority were in favor of it, so I went along with the group decision. I can see the other side of the argument, too. The material was tied to specific moments in time—the longer we sat on it, the more dated it got. So why not put it out ourselves?

But as a rule, I’d rather not do that. I think e-publishing works if you’re a fantastic self-promoter, which I’m not. I feel like taking on that role is taking on a part-time job.

Last year your story Afterlife appeared in the first issue of Nightmare Magazine, and painted a melancholy portrait of ghost children who refuse to believe they’re dead and whose souls gradually fade as a result of that refusal. You’ve mentioned that having children changed you; does Afterlife reflect a parent’s fears for their children’s future?

I actually wrote that story before my kids came along, and edited it afterward. I think that story is more about being a child—restrained and powerless—than about adulthood, which to me represents freedom; steering your own ship. Our main character Mary is making that transition, much as I was doing when I first wrote that story. When you’re in your twenties, you live your life like there are all these rules, and constraints. Then one day you realize they don’t actually exist except in your mind.

I think there’s a wonderful strain of black humor in your work; does it ever make you laugh?

Thank you! Yeah, I laugh a lot. Hopefully it’s occasionally funny for the reader.

For several years you’ve been saying Empty Houses would be your next book, but now you’re working on The Clinic. What happened with Empty Houses?

Good question! Empty Houses is very ambitious, like The Keeper was ambitious. I researched the War in Iraq, phantom limb syndrome, tar sands, and American politics for it. The day my second daughter, Frances, was born, I put EH aside. When I picked it up again fourteen months later, I realized that I’d stagnated during the time I’d worked on it. I’d gone over chapters scores of times, rewriting, without ever finishing. I don’t remember laboring over it, but I must have done so. I think I just wasn’t in the novel headspace. I missed my daughter Clementine too much, and was adjusting to motherhood. It’ll take six months of editing to get EH back on track and finished.

It’s a good story, and what I hope is the second novel I publish, if I have my wish, in a three-book deal. But I don’t feel like editing right now. I want to write something fresh and finish it—that’s where my momentum is at.

More to the point, I’ve got an idea and I don’t want to lose it. I’ve been thinking about why the American Family feels endangered. Is it feminism? Narcissism? These baby boomers and their self-actualization? There’s a good parallel between what’s happening now, and the decline of Rome. Decadence was blamed for that decline, and for this one, too. But what kind of decadence?

I was hanging out one day with another mom on a play date, and she told me about Elizabeth’s Warren’s “Dual Income Trap.” Apparently, the single best indicator of bankruptcy is whether a couple has children. Families depend on two incomes, which means the second anybody gets sick, they can’t pay their mortgage. Which is why families have a harder time getting loans, and consequently staying solvent, than other modern income models. That kind of pressure is hard on a marriage. The structure of our economy is the problem. Which makes sense. In the end, it’s not failing morality or selfishness; it’s money, money, money, like it’s always been.

Suddenly the code seemed cracked to me. The Clinic was born.

What can you tell us about The Clinic?

Nothing! Except that it’s set in my hometown, Garden City, and about an ordinary family that gets hosed.

Where would you like to be as a writer in twenty years?

I’ve been studying Shirley Jackson lately—she wrote her best stuff while she had kids. But she also pushed herself too hard and burned out too soon. Then there’s Munro, and Oates, and Atwood. They’re all still doing interesting stuff and they’re senior citizens. Unlike men, their careers weren’t straight trajectories, but mountains with peaks. The struggle kept them fresh. That’s pretty cool.

I’d like to be in a place where I can look back on my life and decisions and feel like I did the best I could. An honest place, whatever that means. From there, good fiction grows.

In an ideal world, I’d like to hit a nerve with people. To reflect back something real, that catalyzes progress.

We’re lucky to be alive, and lucky to have these bodies, and very, very lucky to be Americans. We might as well try to do some good.

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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.