Kelly Link Looks for the Perfect Ghost Story

Kelly Link is primarily known for her short stories and has released four short story collections characterized as weird and slipstream fiction—a blend of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction—Stranger Things Happen, Pretty Monsters, Magic for Beginners, and Get in Trouble. She also works as an editor and runs Small Beer Press, a publishing house, with her husband. And now she’s working on a novel for Random House about a haunted house.


Horror has been a big influence on Link’s fiction, especially ghost stories. “I’ve always loved horror, although I have trouble with gore…In fiction, I love ghost stories and stories of the uncanny the best,” she says.


Link loved being read to as a child, but when it came to learning how to do it herself, she was reluctant. “I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. My dad read me all of Tolkien when I was in kindergarten. My mom read me all of C. S. Lewis. And then when once I learned to read—I was a little bit slow—I would just go to the library and sort of work my way through the shelves,” says Link.

“My parents have explained to me that apparently I was…a little bit lazy. I felt that if I learned how to read, that in fact they would stop reading to me…I think what they finally did to get me to read was, they sat me down on the couch and explained that if I would learn how to read, I could read any time I wanted to read. And that was persuasive.”

Link studied writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but says what she mostly did during her workshop was reading. And she believes that one book taught her everything she needs to know about writing: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. “Everything I needed to learn I found in The Bloody Chamber: the playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the realistic. Here are ten overlapping stories about marriage and sexual awakening, decay and transformation, house cats and big cats, wolves and people who act like wolves,” says Link. “There are retellings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Bluebeard.’ There are counts and countesses, brides and husbands, mothers and fathers. There are only a handful of named characters, many just signifiers: Mr. Lyon and Beauty and Wolf-Alice.”


Having taught writing, Link advises authors to read as much and as widely as possible. “I write genre fiction, and so I encourage my students to become well read in genre fiction at the very least. I tell them that even if they don’t plan to write straight-out fantasy and science fiction and horror, they may want to borrow the techniques and the tropes of genre, even if they want to put these to slightly different purposes. I believe every good writer has at least one good ghost story in them, and I badly want to read it,” she says.


Link admits to being hooked on love stories and romance and encourages writers and readers not to be ashamed by going after what they like. “I do love love stories. I spent a lot of the time when I was going through an MFA in creative writing program sneaking out to bookstores and reading paperback romance novels…and I would really hope now that if anybody out there is in a writing program, that they would boldly read their romance novels. That’s one of the things about figuring out what kind of story you want to write, is figuring out the kinds of things you are drawn to, even if you feel you shouldn’t be drawn to them,” says Link.

A big part of Link’s reading diet is rereading things she’s liked before. “I do reread books and stories, all the time. Often children’s books and ghost stories, especially anthologies of ghost stories,” she says. “Stephen King’s novels or collections. I reread things that I loved, or that had a particular effect on me. I once asked a bunch of horror writers why it was still pleasurable to reread scary stories when their power to scare us has diminished. The writer Nick Mamatas said, ‘I read to feel a sense of dread.’”


Most of Link’s writing process, she says, is avoiding it. “I find it hard to make myself sit down and write. I have a hard time making myself continue to write. But once I have a solid first three to five pages of a story, things improve. I like getting to the last third because by that point I know what I’m doing,” says Link.

As for the most satisfying part of the writing process, Link says that is working out the issues of a story. “The part of writing that is most pleasurable to me is problem-solving. Story math. How do I achieve a certain kind of mood? What can I leave out? What are the different ways to read the fantastic bits of the story?” says Link. “The introduction of the fantastic means that there are going to be metaphorical meanings, and this gets messy very quickly, especially with horror. What are we afraid of? Who is the other? Who is being punished and why?”



Melissa de la Cruz Slays with Vampires and Witches

Melissa de la Cruz was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated with her family to San Francisco when she was thirteen years old. De la Cruz studied art history and English at Columbia University and that’s when she fell in love with New York.


She began writing her YA vampire series Blue Bloods after she moved back to California when her dad became sick, and because she missed New York, she chose the city as her setting. “Blue Bloods was my love letter to New York, set in my favorite nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants and featuring the sardonic, sophisticated and sly sense of humor of its citizens,” says de la Cruz

She also says Blue Bloods is based on her life in Manila. “I grew up in an insular, elite society in Manila, and that was the foundation of Blue Bloods more than anything I knew about New York,” says de la Cruz. “I understood the way a rich and sheltered and protective society works. My dad always said New York is Manila with more money, and people are the same everywhere truly.”


Besides vampires, de la Cruz has penned another series about witches. Witches of East End came near the end Blue Bloods, and de la Cruz says she was inspired to write it because of her family. “I wanted to write about a family of women, about sisters and a mother. I wrote it after my dad had died, and maybe in a way I was trying to console myself by saying, ‘Hey, Dad’s gone, but look how amazing it is that you have such a close relationship with your mom and sister (and brother, too).’ The family structure is my family structure (two girls and a boy), but their characters are their own and of course it’s fictional!” says de la Cruz.

“I was tired of writing glamorous big city stuff. I wanted to write about something else. There’s so much of me in that book, about my values and my thoughts about women. I really wanted to write a woman who was sexual and powerful, and her sexuality was not something that weakened her, but strengthened her. I’m tired of the slut-shaming in our culture. I wanted to celebrate beautiful and sexy women.”


De la Cruz’s Witches of East End novel was picked up by Lifetime and made into a series that lasted for two years, created by Maggie Friedman. Seeing her work transition to the screen wasn’t a rough step for the author, but she believed in the team behind it. “When Maggie Friedman’s script came in, I cried. I thought it was beautiful and such a great translation of the book into a television show. I didn’t even notice the changes. Of course, you have to see the girls learn they are witches on-screen! I understood the decisions she made. I saw my book in the script and I was very moved that she had read it so deeply and then translated it into another language—television language. When I read the script, I knew the show would get made. It was good and I knew other people would see that, too,” says de la Cruz.


De la Cruz’s writing process changes all the time. She tries to start with a concise outline, but has actually approached each one of her books differently. “The creative process is hard to pinpoint and explain. Mostly I’ve talked about writing an outline and then fleshing it out, and that seems to satisfy a lot of people, and it sounds neat and tidy and wonderful and connect the dots and easy. But it’s not like that. Writers lie,” she says.

“I’ve done everything. I’ve outlined. I’ve jumped around. I’ve worked toward the ending, and I’ve gone in order. I’ve done it all. There is no ‘right’ way to write a book. They all work, and everyone does it differently, and I would say each of my books has had a different process from the other. But I never know what it will be. What I do know is I start with an idea, then I figure out the story, which means I have a hazy idea of what the story is and I know the ending. I always know the ending. But see, that’s not true either because sometimes I’ve changed endings. For instance, Witches of East End had a very different ending in my drafts than the one that is in the final book. I knew the ending didn’t work, and it drove me crazy. Finally, when I figured out the right ending, I rewrote the book to match it.”



Artist Fiona Staples Blends Horror with Sci-Fi Fantasy

Fiona Staples is a Canadian artist who’s drawn for Trick ’r Treat, 2000 AD, and the wildly popular Saga series. She’s been making art since she was a kid, but where most quit, she kept on going. “I think all kids like to draw and I just kept doing it; I never stopped. When I got to high school, I decided I’d like to go to art college and somehow make a living out of it,” says Staples.


Archie comics were the first comics that Staples began reading, she remembers. “They were…pretty much the only ones I had access to as a child. You really have to go out of your way to get into superhero comics or anything like that, and you can only really buy them at specialty comic shops, which is not the case with Archie, obviously; it sold at every grocery store and gas station,” she says.

While in college at the Alberta College of Art and Design, Staples was influenced by American, Japanese, and European comics. “I was really into Heavy Metal for a while,” she says. “Stuff like Heavy Metal made me realize painted comics were a thing—that comics didn’t have to look a certain way or be a particular style. That was a huge revelation.”

Staples started drawing her first comic series during her last year of college. “We had this sort of portfolio building class where we would put together whatever we wanted to do, so I started working on this comic. I worked with this writer, Andrew Foley, from Edmonton. We met on a message board for local creators and he sent me the script for Done to Death. It was five issues and the first issue was out by the time I graduated. That summer, in fact,” says Staples.

From her work with Foley, Staples landed her job on the horror graphic novel Trick ’r Treat, which also coincided with the last time she did work by hand. “Trick ’r Treat was the last thing that I did drawn in pen and ink, but colored digitally. The next series was Hawksmoor, which was on a really, really tight schedule. I had to turn around a fully colored issue in four weeks for six issues, so I thought there’s no way I can do this unless I go digital,” says Staples.


Of the comic genres Staples has worked with, she’s found herself drawn to horror. “I really enjoy doing horror stuff actually. A lot. I don’t have any particular affinity for superheroes. It’s not something I’m really interested in doing,” she says.

Staples finds the superhero genre to be limiting and wants to bring diversity to comics, something she and Saga writer Brian K. Vaughan have especially concentrated on in their series. “All the corners of the comics world except mainstream superhero books have pretty much agreed that diversity is a positive thing. I think the important thing to do now is create women-friendly books, and that will lead to more female creators in the next generation,” she says.

Though Saga is “not horror, unfortunately,” Staples has injected some elements of the genre into the series. “I’ll always leap at the chance to draw a weird monster. I loved doing horror work, so it’s always cool when Saga takes a turn for the creep—although I don’t think our ghost girl Izabel is scaring anybody,” says Staples.


As far as her top characters for the Saga series, she says, “Lying Cat is a favorite!” She’s learned a lot while drawing the series and is happy with the artwork and characters she designed early on. “There’s nobody I’d change, because accepting weird decisions you made on the fly years ago is part of doing an ongoing series. You just live with it! My favorite moments are whenever we see the surface of a new planet for the first time, or a new character is introduced with a splash page.”


When buying comics for herself, Staples goes after what pleases her visually. “If I don’t enjoy the artwork, I can’t enjoy the book,” she says. “Sometimes the story can be enough for me to get into, but usually I buy what looks good. What can I learn or steal from them?”

Looking at others’ work has helped Staples develop as an artist, and she does not limit herself to just comics. She’s also influenced by painters, classic illustrators, and especially animators. “You have to look at everything else that’s out there. That’s how you improve your taste, how you see what’s good. You study it and then go back and give your own work a very hard look to see where it is and where it needs to be. It’s something I try to do constantly,” says Staples.

Staples’s work process varies somewhat day to day, but she tries to be consistent when working freelance. “I try to stick to a schedule, but it doesn’t come easily. I usually double my workload as a deadline looms. Probably like most people, I would imagine,” she says.

She’s found that to be the hardest part of working as a freelance artist. When asked what is her biggest obstacle in regards to work, Staples says, “Fighting procrastination or anxiety at your own work and sticking to a schedule, which can be hard to do when you’re home alone all day with no one really monitoring you. Yeah, that’s the hardest thing to get right, but I think I’m there now or at least close enough to where I can do an almost monthly book on time.”


The success of Saga staggered Staples since she considered it an odd story unlikely to get much of a following. “I’m really, really grateful to our readers who decided to show it to their friends or give it to their mom or their girlfriend or husband because I’m pretty sure that’s how we got our readership—through word of mouth and people lending their books out. It’s been really amazing to see. I never thought a book this weird would reach this many people and I’m kind of continually surprised,” she says.

Though Saga is not ending anytime soon, Staples would like to dabble in more projects that focus on horror. “I think it would be cool to do something in the Hellboy world some day. I love that sort of folklore-based horror stuff,” says Staples.



Lauren Beukes Springs from Serial Murderers to Horror Comics

Lauren Beukes was born in South Africa and says, “I’m a South African writer who is incredibly lucky to get paid to make up stories all day. It wasn’t always like this. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve been a journalist, a TV scriptwriter, a documentary maker, and a mom to a small and amazing daughter—and had to find time to writer novels in between.”


Beukes’s big break came with her YA horror novel The Shining Girls published in 2013, which went on to win several awards. The book is now in development with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Ways with plans to adapt it into a TV series.

The Shining Girls began as a tweet when Beukes was avoiding her work. She says, “This is a little embarrassing. I was messing around on Twitter instead of writing (as you do) and threw out the idea in the middle of a random conversation. I immediately deleted the tweet because I was like, Yes! That must be my next book! Quickly! Before someone else thinks of it! But I think that’s often the way of interesting ideas—they come around when you’ve let your subconscious off the leash to romp in the grass.”

Taking a cue from police procedurals, Beukes created a large “murder wall” in order to track the movements of her time-traveling serial killer character in The Shining Girls. “It’s full of crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”


Though the novel took a fantastic amount of research, Beukes says, “I wanted to use time travel as a way of exploring how much has changed (or depressingly stayed the same) over the course of the twentieth century, especially for women, and subvert the serial killer genre by keeping the focus much more on the victims and examining what real violence is and what it does to us. The killer has a type, but it’s not a physical thing—he goes for women with fire in their guts, who kick back against the conventions of their time.”

For her follow-up horror novel Broken Monsters, set in Detroit, Beukes stayed in the serial killer genre, but she decided to root the story in the present, using lots of pop culture and social media references. Beukes interviewed teenagers in Detroit about how they used social media and found that “your social media identity is something that is very carefully curated. And it’s not necessarily real life, the real-life Detroit teenagers that I interviewed, we talked about the idea of Shakespeare and all the world’s a stage, and I was like, ‘Well, what’s the stage? Is the stage social media or is it your real life?’ And they were like ‘No, no, social media is the stage where you present this idea of yourself. And real life is what happens in the wings.’ And that’s the rehearsal. That was very interesting, that these kids were living their lives so absolutely on social media.”


Being a stickler for details, Beukes went to the Detroit police station, hoping to find an old precinct with character. What she found instead was something shiny and new and felt it necessary to represent modern Detroit accurately. “I went to visit Detroit Homicide with a box of doughnuts and it’s a brand swanky new building,” says Beukes. “Everyone has computers, they have their own gym with TVs and this sort of thing. I was like, Are you kidding? It looks like a fucking Dilbert cartoon! And I’m like, ‘No, no I don’t want this!’…I could have said, ‘Oh, we’re in the police station and it’s so fucked up and there’s stains on the floor and there’s this creepy interrogation room and there’s broken glass…,’ but that’s not the reality and I did feel a moral responsibility not to misrepresent Detroit like that.”

Growing up in South Africa, Beukes witnessed the horrors of apartheid and that has made it into her work. “There are a lot of social issues that leak through my novels. It comes from having grown up under a terrible repressive racist regime and ten years as a journalist, getting backstage in the world,” she says.

Beukes says her dark, morbid ideas come from a strange place in her mind. “There’s this crazy insane hoarder room in the back of my mind, all kinds of weird stuff I’ve kept back,” she says. “Actually, it’s more like a mad science experiment, with all sorts of horrible mutations.”

Now Beukes is hard at work penning an original horror comic with writer Dale Halvorsen (aka Joey Hi-Fi) called Survivors’ Club, which is being published by Vertigo. It’s based on children from the 1980s who have lived through scenarios from various horror movies, such as surviving a killer doll, being possessed by a poltergeist, etc.

Beukes felt this story would do better as a comic with big visuals rather than with prose. “The concept is very visual. Comics just felt right, although it is much harder juggling a large cast in a comic book. It’s like a horror super team, all with their own dark secrets and terrifying backstories and little reason to trust each other, so we’re dealing with the over-arcing mystery, the immediate mystery, and all their backstories,” says Beukes.


Her horror novels have taken place in the United States with American characters, but in Survivors’ Club, Beukes introduces a South African character, Chenzira. “She grew up under the extreme oppressive racism of the apartheid government and her mom, a freedom fighter, was killed in police custody. As a kid, playing video games at the local arcade in Soweto became her escape from the monstrous society around her, but then the game she played opened a doorway to allow real monsters through,” says Beukes. “A running theme in my work is how we’re haunted by the past, how those monsters come back to bite you, and Chenzira is very aware of that because of her personal and political and supernatural experiences. It’s made her keenly focused and driven to confront her demons head-on, which is why she called the other survivors together.”



The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Tananarive Due Digs Out Horror from History

Tananarive Due was born in Tallahassee, Florida, to parents who were prominent civil rights advocates, and later in college, she majored in journalism. She worked as a reporter at the Miami Herald while writing her first horror novel The Between and another called My Soul to Keep. Due says, “The advance for my first novel, The Between, had been slightly higher than my annual salary as a reporter for the Miami Herald.  My next, for My Soul to Keep, was higher still.”


Due says her publishers were trying to push her as the next Terry McMillan, but her stories were much different. She found the horror community to be welcoming toward her work, though. “It was a surreal experience to publish my first novel…I was given a book tour and a nice advance…And then the Horror Writers Association discovered me and this was my first entry into that world of what is known as ‘fandom,’” says Due. “Going to that Horror Writers Association meeting felt like going to a family reunion for the white side of your family that you’ve never met. It was estranged and thrilling.”



Due has been attracted by the ideas of death and fear since an early age and found an outlet for it in her writing. She still does to this day. “My fascination with mortality began at a young age, and I have been trying to process it ever since. I don’t have the ability to pretend it away, and less so since I lost my mother in 2012,” says Due. “This awareness has driven my ambition, my faith, my writing. I write stories of unimaginable crisis to process my fears of loss, illness, death. I write to witness the amazing inner strength of my characters. The zombie apocalypse is fiction, but every generation suffers its apocalypse. We are the walking dead.”

With the success of her first two novels, Due quit her job at the Miami Herald in 1998 after working there for a decade. But it got difficult for her once her creativity was monetized, and she had to produce novels in order to support herself. “‘Celebrated author’ and ‘rich author’ are not synonymous—and never have been…Most novelists you read and admire have day jobs, often as college English or writing professors. I have been teaching part-time in an M.F.A. program at Antioch University Los Angeles since 2007, and I have private writing clients. Writers also earn income through speaking engagements and writing workshops,” says Due. “But it’s a piecemeal and unpredictable living.”

Besides horror lit, Due has also written historical fiction in the vein of Alex Haley. She used his research for her YA novel The Black Rose about Madam C. J. Walker who became the first black female millionaire from selling her hair care and beauty products. But Due says her work tends to be more on the scary side. “Horror is just a label. But I like to write scary stuff. I don’t know why.  If I want to write about a woman in a difficult relationship, her lover is an immortal. If I’m reuniting a character with her grandmother, Grandma has been dead for years. I can’t help myself. Sometimes I wish I could,” says Due.

“The scariest book I’ve written may be a novel called The Good House.  It’s my only book about characters facing a force that’s evil through and through—so evil it had to be put to sleep hundreds of years ago, and my characters accidentally woke it up.”


Though Due hasn’t published a novel in a while, she’s working on one now based on horrific history involving one of her own relatives. “I am, at last, researching a new novel. My working title is The Reformatory, and it will be a historical supernatural suspense novel set in 1930s Florida. As for The Reformatory, I’m not going to say much else about it except that it’s from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy who get caught up in the horrors of the era’s criminal justice system,” says Due.

“My research into the abuses against children at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, has been a vivid reminder of how so-called ‘horror’ in fiction is mild compared to the horrors in history.”



Changing Bodies in the Fiction of Octavia Butler: Slaves, Aliens, and Vampires by Gregory Jerome Hampton

Shirley Jackson Pens Legacy in Haunted House

In horror literature, Shirley Jackson would certainly rate as one of the four on its creepy Rushmore. Born in California, Jackson moved to the East Coast when she was seventeen years old and attended Syracuse University. There she met her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would later become a critic and writer for The New Yorker. Jackson experienced almost immediate success with her short stories and had the first of her two children. They lived in New York for a time and then moved to Bennington, Vermont, in 1945 when Hyman was offered a job at Bennington College.


There they rented an old rented Victorian home that appears to have been haunted. Jackson said that at first they weren’t accepted in the town, and when she tried to have work done on the house, painters, plumbers, carpenters, and such wouldn’t come out once they found out she lived in “the old Ogilvie house.” Even her groceries would be dropped off at the end of the lawn because the delivery boy didn’t want to come close to the house. Jackson said, though, that she and her family adapted to the ghostly presence.

“Once, a little round rug disappeared for almost a week from the study, as though it had been absorbed into the floor, and reappeared after a while looking the same as ever, and so natural that for a while we forgot to be surprised that it was there. Several times I left groceries on the kitchen table and found them later neatly put away in the pantry; one reason I am sure I do not do this myself in a sort of trance is that the refrigerator is never used—butter and milk and such are set on the pantry windowsill, where it is cool. Once, buttons appeared, newly sewn onto my son’s jacket, and another time my daughter’s stuffed lamb had a blue ribbon removed and a pink one substituted. A day or so later the blue ribbon was back, washed and ironed,” Jackson writes in her essay “Good Old House.”


This is the same house where she wrote “The Lottery,” which appeared in 1948, the short story that made her both famous and hated in the United States. “I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name,” said Jackson. “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me.”

Her son Laurence Jackson Hyman, who helped edit Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson along with his sister, said, “My mother wrote often about alienation and withdrawal, fear, phobia, disassociation and paranoia, in ways that often leave the reader uncertain as to whether things are real or imagined. She created one of the most famous ghost stories of the twentieth century—The Haunting of Hill House—without revealing any ghosts at all. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle and many of her stories, she gives us narrators so obviously unreliable that the reader has to decide for himself what to believe.”


He dissects her unnerving style, a huge influence on Stephen King, saying, “Shirley would typically present scenes of seeming tranquility, whether in the city or the country, and then would go on to find, as one of her stories puts it, ‘The Possibility of Evil’ within her characters, and sometimes within buildings and other inanimate objects.”

Though Jackson wrote every day, she also was the mother of four children and did a lot of housework. This is where she would start weaving her stories, while caught in the boring cycle of laundry and cleaning. “All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it? I tell myself stories. I have a whopper of a story about the laundry basket that I can’t tell now, and stories about the missing socks, and stories about the kitchen appliances and the wastebaskets and the bushes on the road to the school, and just about everything. They keep me working, my stories,” said Jackson.


Writer Joan Schenkar was a student of Jackson’s husband and came frequently to the house for dinners, though she never stayed all the way through one, finding its atmosphere too tense and uncomfortable. “The first thing you heard about Shirley Jackson was that she was a witch. Shirley tacitly encouraged this rumor, although the evidence supporting it would have been admissible only in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Shirley had written a book about witchcraft; she was known to ‘read’ Tarot cards; she inserted into her exquisitely written fictions quotations from her large collection of grimoires and magic books; and she gave to some of her many cats—eleven cats! they must be her familiars!—the names of the dukes and demons of hell,” said Schenkar.


It was in what some might see as the mundane details of daily living that Jackson found the material for her stories. She said, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.”



Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson

Mira Grant Revolutionizes Zombie Lit

Mira Grant is the pen name of amazingly prolific writer and blogger Seanan McGuire. Grant was finally able to quit her day job in 2014, so she could write full-time and add even more titles to her extensive list. “It’s been two years of self-employment,” says Grant. “I’m still learning. Budgets aren’t easy, either of time or money. I’m still figuring things out. But I’m still moving, and I’m still not bored. Saying ‘I quit’ was the smartest thing I ever did.”


Grant came up with her pen name because she wanted a separation between her horror/sci-fi writing and urban fantasy titles. “I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some distance between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write,” says Grant.

Grant has published the zombie trilogy Newsflash—Feed, Deadline, Blackout—and will be adding a fourth book to the series in September, Feedback. When asked to describe the series, Grant says, “The zombie apocalypse happened more than twenty years ago. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t all die out, largely because we’d had years of horror movies to tell us how to behave when the dead start walking. We fought back, and we won…sort of. The dead still walk; loved ones still try to eat you if you’re not careful; the virus that caused the problem in the first place is still incurable. But at least we lived, right?

“The Newsflesh trilogy is a story about blogging, politics, medical science, espionage, betrayal, the ties that bind, the ties that don’t, how George Romero accidentally saved the world, and, of course, zombies. It’s thoughtful horror, and horrific science fiction, and I’m very fond of it.”


While doing research for the Newsflash series, she reveled in the varied ways she was able to spend time getting things ready for the writing process. “Feed was a fantastic excuse for me to watch every zombie movie made in the last thirty years and call it serious research. It was an even better excuse for me to audit epidemiology courses and read books with titles like Virus X, The Speckled Monster, and Return of the Black Death: the World’s Greatest Serial Killer. It was a good time,” says Grant.

While working on the series and a couple of short one-offs, Grant looked for a fresh approach to the zombie genre. “I love zombies and I love epidemiology, and my big problem with a lot of zombie fiction is that ‘well, it was a disease’ seems like an easy answer, but really isn’t. So I started thinking about what sort of a disease you’d need to actually have a zombie apocalypse—and the thing about diseases is that they don’t actually want to be slatewipers (diseases that wipe out the entire susceptible population), because doing that also destroys the disease itself. I started tinkering with my post-zombie world, trying to figure out what it would take to rebuild society, what kinds of social structure would arise…”

Grant also wanted to up the horror factor and really scare her readers. She says, “I’m fascinated by the difference between terror and fear. Fear says, ‘Do not actually put your hand in the alligator,’ while terror says, ‘Avoid Florida entirely, because alligators exist.’ I figured terror would be a huge component of the post-zombie world. Everything arose from there.”


With the success of her Newsflash series, Grant is pleased that her dreams have become reality. “I have wanted to be a horror writer my entire life. The fact that Feed is more science fiction was sort of accidental, because I am in love with the transcendent ‘why,’ but I wanted to write my take on zombies so bad,” she says.

“What’s kind of funny is that Feed was started long before the current zombie boom. I spent a couple of years kicking the world around in my head before it got a story to go with it, and then it took me about two years to write the book, because I was still trying to feel my way into things. So the timing of it all was just an incredibly happy accident.”

Along with her frequent publishing schedule (she usually comes out with several novels and short stories a year under both her pen name and real name), Grant is a constant blogger, which was a huge influence on her Newsflash series. She’s even been able to make a little money with her blog writing. “When I was getting ready for the release of Deadline, when it was coming out soon, I decided that the appropriate way to get people excited about the book would be to write a novella in thirty pieces, and publish a piece on my blog every day for a month…during a convention, a week-and-a-half-long trip to New York, and a doll traders’ expo. And I managed to do it without missing a single day,” says Grant.

“And when it was all done my editor at Orbit was like, ‘Hey, that thing you did, you want to sell it to us?’ So I said, ‘Sure,’ and they bought it, and they put it in the Orbit short fiction program. So I think that that actually counts as ‘monetizing my blog.’ I’m very proud of that.”


But along with that Internet presence comes problems, especially with comments from angry readers. After a mishap happened with the timing of a hardback book and ebook (which she had no control over), Grant was shocked by the vitriol she got via e-mail. “The amount of hate mail I received in a twenty-four-hour period exceeded the previous eighteen months. I was called a ‘greedy cunt.’ I was called a ‘stupid whore.’ Pretty much any variation of ‘cunt,’ ‘whore,’ or ‘bitch’ that you can come up with was applied to me directly,” says Grant.

“I had several offers to ‘rape the stupid out of me.’ I had one particular master of the rape threat threaten to rape my best friend in front of me repeatedly, so that I would understand his position—somehow raping my best friend is equal to you not getting an ebook when you want it, when when you want it is prior to the release date. And I looked at the fact that I was crying so hard I was shaking, and I said, ‘You know what? That’s why I have a personal assistant.’ And I gave the password to that e-mail box to my PA, and told her not to let me see anything.”



Mo Hayder Goes for the Gore

Mo Hayder was born in Essex, England, and took a circuitous path to becoming a writer. She ran away from home when she was just fifteen and moved to London, where she worked in the bar scene. After a brief marriage, Hayder bought a one-way ticket to Japan while in her twenties, thinking she might become a geisha. Instead, she worked as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub, where one of her coworkers was beaten and raped. This set off a chain effect of death it seemed to Hayder. “After my friend was raped, I went through a phase where I kept seeing people die,” says Hayder. “The first time, I was sitting in a coffee bar when someone at the next table died of a heart attack. A week later I saw a workman fall to his death from a high building. Then I saw a young boy die of a snakebite.”


Shortly after this, she moved to Los Angeles to study film, but again she ran into problems—this time dealing with people. For film projects, Hayder found she couldn’t speak to people, so instead she made fanciful works using Claymation. “There was one film where this couple go to bed together and then he pulls her head off and eats it and throws the skull out of the window,” says Hayder. “I won an independent film award for that, but the local TV station wouldn’t run it with the other category winners. I got this apologetic note saying, ‘We’re really sorry…but on this channel we don’t agree with cannibalism.”

Hayder was inspired to write her particular brand of gore after becoming upset with psychological horror and thriller writers who wouldn’t go there. “There was a time when I became suddenly very cross with P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, because you read their books and never see the reality, you never saw the shit and blood and vomit. Or any of the mess the killers made,” says Hayder.

The daughter of a scientist and English teacher, Hayder’s approach to horror reflects this as she gives minute details of viscera and gore in her writing. For her first novel, Birdman, which took three years to write, she displays a clinical approach to her description, but that coldness adds to the horrific imagery: “The corpse’s scalp had been peeled from the skull down to the squamous cleft of the nose, and folded over so the hair and face hung like a wet rubber mask, inside out, covering the mouth and neck, pooling on the clavicle. Krishnamurthi lifted the intestines out and slopped them into a stainless-steel bowl.”


Hayder got lucky with Birdman. She sent her completed manuscript off to five agents with the intention of getting a little writing help, not selling it. Hayder says, “I’d had little formal education having left school at fifteen and didn’t know a soul in the writing business. I was also incredibly naive. So when four of the five agents I sent the manuscript to wanted to take it, I was understandably delighted.” This novel ended up setting off a bidding war at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where she scored a two-book deal for 200,000 pounds.

Hayder explains that her love for gore “is a kind of obsession. I have this kind of compulsive need to wriggle my toes in life’s gutters. I’m sure a lot of people think it is a prurient interest, which is a bit destructive, but for me it is about getting rid of ghosts.”


Doing so much research on sexual violence, corpses, and serial killers, Hayder has become inured to death. “If I drove past a car crash now, I wouldn’t be frightened,” she says. “Before I might have been nervous about what I might see. But now I’ve seen pretty much everything. On the negative side, having read so much about sexual crime, I realize how we are always, always at risk. Since writing, I’ve become a kind of cave fish. I won’t go anywhere. I sit at home with big bars on the window. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I do now find it difficult to be on my own.”

Some object to Hayden’s portrayal of such graphic violence, but she’s not bothered by this, saying, “If people don’t like the blood and violence in my books, fine, they can always close the cover and put it aside and maybe read a romance instead.” In fact, she finds much of what she sees in the real world more bloodcurdling than what she’s written about. “Compared to some of the real-life crime I’ve researched,” she says, “a lot of that is so gruesome you couldn’t fictionalize it—it would sound ridiculously over the top.”


Hayder thinks she has such an audience for her writing—particularly women—because there is something cathartic in her horror and violence. She says, “I think readers, particularly in this genre, read because—whether they admit it to themselves or not—they are scared on some level and are looking for pointers. They’re scared about some unidentifiable threat out there, and they’re searching for role models to help them cope with that violence. If they read about a character who is subjected to a violent experience, they’re very often finding clues in that character’s response to the violence and maybe even preparing themselves in case it happens to them. I think a lot of women walk around thinking it could happen any day and wondering what they would do.”




Libba Bray Terrifies with YA Horror

Libba Bray had a tumultuous childhood, growing up in Texas after her parents moved there when she was three. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, who was also gay, and her mother a high school teacher. Starting when she was fourteen, Bray helped her family cover up her father’s homosexuality because they were afraid of him losing his job. It was the thing they didn’t talk about: a secret.


Bray lost her eye when she was in a serious car accident at age eighteen, and during the next six years, she went through thirteen surgeries to repair her face. She went through a terrible depression during this time, but writing was her lifeboat. “It literally saved my life,” she says.

She’s been writing and reading horror for as long as she can remember. Her first horror story was written in fifth grade. “It was a graphic novel/horror comic–style tale, which included colored pencil illustrations of buxom, semi-clad women being ravaged by vampires. No one was alarmed. In fact, I think I got an A,” says Bray. And Bray says that some of her favorite books when she was growing up were Helter Skelter and Catcher in the Rye, which she calls “the preferred tome of serial killers and dysfunctional stalkers…” But “Salem’s Lot is the book I have reread above all others.”

It’s two young adult series that combine horror, historical fiction, and fantasy, which have made Bray’s reputation. There’s the Gemma Doyle trilogy, which she has already completed, and The Diviners, where she’s published two of the intended four-book series. She also has two stand-alone YA novels, as well as others that she ghostwrote while under contract with the book packager 17th Street Productions.

Writing YA literature was an easy choice for Bray to make. She married children’s book agent Barry Goldblatt, and he encouraged her while she was writing her first solo novel. When asked how she feels about young adult lit, Bray says, “I just read this great quote by Junot Diaz, he was talking about true intimacy, and he was saying that it was the willingness to be vulnerable and to be found out. That’s what I felt that YA did. It wasn’t pretentious, and it wasn’t hiding its heart. It wanted to be found out…”

When it comes to genre, Bray says, “Horror has always been my genre of choice. The creepy, the spooky, the phantasmagorical—all catnip to me. Summers when I visited my superstitious, Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, she would regale me with ghost stories about my great-great-great-grandmother, an undertaker’s wife and psychic who could, allegedly, see and speak to the dead. Then she’d send me to sleep in the attic. This is why I have issues.”

Bray says she was inspired to create the Gemma Doyle series (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet and Far Thing) because “I wanted to write a gothic creepfest of a Victorian story with a heroine who could kick butt and take names all in a crinoline and corset—sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Henry James and Charlotte Brontë.”




Now Bray’s immersed in her four-book series The Diviners, which she describes as a “supernatural historical series set in 1920s New York City. It’s taking me back to my love of horror and sprawling, historical dramas. By that I mean that when I realized my historical story was becoming a sprawling mess, I felt a sense of true horror. It is filled with all of the things I love: creepy things, politics, history, serial storytelling, New York City, and good versus evil.”

Bray’s writing process is often long and painful, and sometimes she ends up scrapping half of what she’s written. “When I’m working on a rough draft, I usually write most of it longhand in a spiral notebook. I go to my favorite coffeehouse across the street, the one where the college kid baristas play these multiple-personality music mixes that range from old Dusty Springfield to the Grateful Dead to electronica. There’s something comforting and stimulating about being surrounded by people but being in my own head at the same time. If I get stuck, I can people watch for a bit, and that usually sparks something,” says Bray.

But she stumbled when writing her follow-up to The Diviners, Lair of Dreams. “One of the wonderful parts of writing a series is that you really get to immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. You get to spend a great deal of time digging into your characters, getting to know their wounds and strengths, reaching greater understanding over time. As someone who really enjoys the serial as a form, this is terribly exciting and addictive,” says Bray.


“The negative aspect is that series, by their very nature, require stringent scheduling. Anyone who has ever waited five years for the next installment of a beloved series can understand how that feels. But sometimes, the novel isn’t cooperative with your time frame. And then the panic starts.”

Eventually Bray found a way through Lair of Dreams, but it took a lot of heartache. “I asked two of my good writer buddies, writers I trust implicitly, to read the first three hundred pages. As delicately, but honestly, as possible, they confirmed what I felt in my gut: The novel was a stone-cold mess…,” says Bray.

“I tried organizing scenes on note cards.

“I wrote out emotional arcs on paper.

“I tried writing scenes that come later in the book, hoping that the deeper emotional wounds of those scenes would lead me in a circuitous route back to what was wrong with the first three hundred pages.

“When that didn’t work, I went back to the beginning and wrote my sixth new opening chapter, carefully crafting it to set up the reworked plot so that it could segue seamlessly into the new, restructured second chapter, which had previously been the tenth chapter.”

Lair of Dreams was finally ready after Bray wrote a seventh new opening chapter, and she’s now hard at work on the third novel in the series.



Stacy Schiff Breaks Down Horror of the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Stacy Schiff started her publishing career as an editor for Simon & Schuster, where she took on about an equal number of fiction and nonfiction titles. But then she really wanted to see a biography done on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a pilot and writer who penned the classic story The Little Prince. Originally she planned to find a writer for it, but she became so consumed by the subject that she decided to write the book herself. And that is how a biographer was born. “That always happens with biography—you become obsessed with someone else’s life,” says Schiff.


Schiff was born in Adams, Massachusetts, on the other side of the state from Salem, but she says she became interested in the Salem witch trials when she was a teen. She says, “Everybody goes through a Salem phase.” However, Schiff’s obsession grew into a five hundred–page book, The Witches: Salem, 1692.


Schiff is interested in giving women a voice, and much of her writing has focused on those who couldn’t tell their stories, such as Cleopatra and Véra Nabokov, determined to show what was the truth. Unfortunately, it was difficult for her to find a voice from any of the teenage accusers during the Salem witch trials. At that time, women were taught to read the Bible, but not to write. “Could one of these girls just have left a diary!” says Schiff. “To do this without them speaking for themselves just seems like writing a book with your hands tied behind your back.”

Schiff points out what was going on, though, around the time of the witch trials to give it context. Most of the teen girls during this period were traumatized by violence that they could not control. “The amount of pressure on these women were extraordinary,” says Schiff. “Everyone knew a story about a dismembering or an abduction. That was especially true of the convulsing Salem girls, of whom at least half were refugees from or had been orphaned by attacks in ‘the last Indian war.’”

Almost everybody in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 was a Puritan, and they were frightened on all sides by Native Americans, who came and went silently; the French; and the Quakers. Cotton Mather, who was a famous pot stirrer during the witchcraft trials, liked to compare them to all matters of beasts, says Schiff: “He routinely muddied the zoological waters: Indians comported themselves like roaring lions or savage bears, Quakers like ‘grievous wolves.’ The French, ‘dragons of the wilderness,’ completed the diabolical menagerie.”

The eerie event started when two young Salem girls were afflicted and witchcraft was blamed for their strange symptoms. Schiff says, “Their limbs are paralyzed, they contort, they’re going into trances, and they’re screaming—night and day, screeches. And one of their first acts after the witchcraft has been diagnosed is to interrupt a minister in meeting. And you can imagine how that went over in a place where women were meant to be submissive and meek and silent.” By the time the year drew to a close, nineteen people were hung for witchcraft and another pressed to death by stones.


More than a hundred people were accused of witchcraft, and the father-and-son ministers Increase and Cotton Mather both wrote books on the subject of witchcraft and how to tell a witch. The two disagreed in their dueling books Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, by Increase Mather, who believed it was better to err on the side of a witch going free rather than killing an innocent person, and The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather’s book, which was more in the vein of the Old Testament “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Cotton Mather suffered a lot of fallout from his book, with people saying terrible things to him and behind his back. And the topic of the Salem witch trials faded from the public consciousness.

“It’s a little while before anyone is even willing to address the episode. The weight of the tragedy is clearly enormous. There will be a commission established by 1711 to weigh the claims of those families who had lost members. And at that point, you get this tremendous groundswell of people demanding justice, demanding that their prison fees, that their properties be returned to them. But then for the most part, you still get this chilling silence,” says Schiff.

While undertaking the project of writing The Witches: Salem, 1692, Schiff says, “I realized the only way to do justice to it, to make it seem real, was to begin by buying into the idea of witchcraft. Because if you just think of this as a weird, superstitious belief, which it wasn’t, then the whole thing doesn’t make sense.”

Though Schiff wasn’t able to find teenage girls’ diaries to help with her research, she did find the nine-volume Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts to be a gold mine of information. “It’s an irresistible anthology of infractions and abominations. Our Puritan ancestors filched marmalade from one another’s cellars, and defamed ministers (one was ‘more fit to be in a hog sty than in a pulpit’), and attacked constables with scissors, and stuffed hens down their breeches. Men turned wives out in the snow; women cracked pots over husbands’ heads. They drank until ‘they could not tell ink from liquor.’”


She was disturbed by what she uncovered while researching and writing the book for three years. Men were accused as well as women, and many relatives went against one another, giving false confessions. Daughters accused mothers and fathers while husbands turned in their wives. Schiff recounts one case where a young girl rode to jail with her brother on one side of her and a minister on the other—both had accused her of being a witch—and there was nothing she could do about it. “Anyone who really stands up to the authorities isn’t going to make it. Defiance comes at a price,” she says.