Next stop on the WIHM terror train is at Heather Herrman’s station. Everybody clap your claws together for Heather.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Kansas prairie-land and from there have moved around quite a bit, living in South Carolina, the deserts of New Mexico, Portland, Oregon, and I now live in Omaha, Nebraska. I like the adventure of seeing new places, though now that I have a kid, that may change.
I’m heavily influenced by my family and their history, on both sides. My dad’s ancestors are Volga Germans, and there’s this gorgeous history of their struggles to find a homeland as they moved from Germany to Russia and then to the United States and Kansas, all the while maintaining their heritage through stories, songs, and food. My grandpa had a heavy German accent despite being born in Kansas. Some day I want to write about one of the Herrman children who was born in Russia back in the 1800’s and kidnapped by Cossacks only to be returned unharmed. I think there’s some hidden werewolf action that needs to be explored.
My mom’s side of the family consists of Kansas farmers and artists, and her parents’ love story also deserves its own book. My grandmother grew up motherless and basically had to take care of her siblings. She is a poet and author in her own right and one of the smartest women I know. When I was a kid, I’d sit on the porch-swing out back of their farm, and she would tell me stories about homesteading there, like how my great, great-grandfather would run forty-five miles each weekend to work in a butcher shop and then run forty-five miles back to farm. My grandpa grew up on this homestead and farmed full-time but also played stand-up bass with a touring jazz band. This mixture, from both sides, of honoring story and art along with the importance of home and land very much shapes me and my writing.
Q. What draws you to horror generally, and was there a defining moment where something made you think “Fuck it, I’m writing a horror story!”?
My fiction has always contained dark elements, and I think that’s because I was so influenced by classic children’s literature, which is often incredibly dark. I still remember a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale about a girl who buries her lover’s head in a flowerpot. But what draws me to horror is, in fact, its hopefulness. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I like that horror grants us the ability to explore serious issues of society in a fresh way (think Romero’s zombies for consumerism, for example) while also letting us experience the role of the Everywoman as she moves through the gray area that is the messy reality of good and bad. Good horror—good art—grants us a small revelation of what it means to be human. And that, I think, is well worth reading for.
Q. What is your favourite horror story and what about it specifically rustled your jimmies?
That sounds really naughty. I like it. My jimmies were very rustled when I read Leonora Carrington’s short story “The Debutante” for the first time, which features a girl eating a bunch of people. I first read it in a fabulous collection called What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Salmonson’s introductory essay to the collection is phenomenal, and really encouraged me to assume a new perspective concerning women in horror. Salmonson points out that while we often think of men as the “fathers” of the genre, in fact, during the late part of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth women were actually producing the majority of supernatural fiction, inspired largely in part by the inequality they experienced in everyday society. Supernatural fiction allowed these women authors to explode that reality and explore the problems and possibilities within it. Sadly, much of their work has been lost or forgotten, and so when we talk about horror we forget to give them credit as genre pioneers.
Q. What have you written? And what is your personal favourite of your own work?
I’ve written several short stories as well as a couple of novel-length works while I was getting my MFA in writing. I published a few of the stories but never the longer manuscripts, and after leaving grad school I began exploring the dark waters of horror with Consumption, my debut novel, published in May by Hydra/Random House. My other published stories—such as one about an ex-con who has just been released after pleading no contest to a count of child molestation and is greeted by a visit from his brother and his brother’s underage children—found homes in more traditionally straight literary/academic journals, but I think they could just as easily have landed in some of the horror markets. In terms of my favorite of my own work, it’s probably a short story called “Monsoon” that I published in The South Carolina Review several years ago. The story won me a scholarship to the Prague Writer’s Program to study with Holocaust survivor and author Arnost Lustig, which was life-changing. “Monsoon” is a magical realism love story, and I was still a young enough as an author and individual to just let it breathe without crushing the life out of it with experience and technique.
I’m also very attached to Consumption—I pumped several years into writing and editing that book—and was thrilled and honored to see it recently listed on the Preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards.
Q. Do you have a favourite form or media for story telling? E.g Short story, Novel, Audio drama or podcast, audiobook
I love the long novel. My first draft of Consumption was over six hundred pages and had to be whittled down extensively. But as a reader I like to get lost in a world for a long time and not come up for air, so that’s the kind of experience I want to grant my readers. That said, I am also very fond of novellas.
Q. What are you working on at the minute?
I’ve got a few novellas in various stages of completion simmering on the back-burners, but my major focus is a new novel, ’Til Death. It features a struggling couple at a marriage retreat who has a run-in with a serial killer. I’m having a lot of fun with this one. The tone is a little Gone Girl, a little old-school Clue, with some Silence of the Lambs thrown in for seasoning.
Q. Who is your favourite woman writer?
My favorite writer, woman or not, is Katherine Anne Porter. Her novellas blow me away every time I read them. Noon Wine is incredible. I’d follow her closely by Leonora Carrington, Alice Monroe, and Muriel Spark (you want a truly thrilling murder book, read The Driver’s Seat). In terms of current authors, I love all of Kelly Link and Sarah Langan’s work, Sara Gran is fabulous, and Helen Oyeyemi is a genius. Alyssa Wong is newer, but I’m excited by everything of hers I’ve read.
Q. Are there any projects involving other women that you’re looking forward to or would like to get on board with?
I’m always up for collaboration. In this business, I think that you have to be. Writing is a lonely job, and if you stay locked away in your own little room you are going to go nuts (which may be good for writing horror but probably not for your soul). I recently collaborated with my agent, Superwoman Barbara Poelle, in teaching a class at the Loft Literary Center, which was a hell of a lot of fun. Everyone from that class really bonded. There’s a follow-up writing group from the class, which is pretty cool. I also have a dear friend in Omaha, Emily Borgmann, who shares similar interests with me in bringing literacy to at-risk populations, and she recently started a reading series I read at called Introducing, featuring an established author alongside an at-risk youth from Omaha’s Youth Emergency Services. Very cool stuff, and I’d like to get back to doing a lot more of that in collaboration with other authors. I’ve got designs on starting my own nonprofit some day marrying literacy advocacy, creative writing, and land stewardship, but that’s probably a few years in the future. In the meantime, graphic novels? I’m loving some of the stuff women are putting out these days (Bitch Planet springs to mind), and I’d be thrilled to collaborate on something like that.
Q. What book/s are you reading at present and what is in your TBR pile?
My TBR pile is bigger than godzilla, so I’m not gonna put you through all of that. Right now I’m reading a lot of stuff for the Stoker Awards because voting is coming up soon. Some standouts have been Ellen Datlow’s The Doll Collection Anthology, Kate Jonez’s short story “All the Day You’ll Have Good Luck,” and Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. I also just finished Slade House by David Mitchell, which was, like all his work, phenomenal. I’m looking forward to Peter Straub and Helen Oyeymi’s upcoming collections of stories as well as anticipating the release of new Annie Proulx, Joe Hill, Jim Harrison, and Louise Erdrich books.
Q. What challenges have you encountered that are unique to being a woman in the horror genre, or can you describe some of the challenges have you faced that are complicated by your gender?
I think much of the challenges don’t come from the readership as much as the publishing industry. There have been several studies suggesting that men don’t read female authors, and it’s harder to get a publisher to take a chance on a woman horror author than a man because a large chunk of the horror readership is, at least in the publishing world’s minds, male. But, you know, every member of the horror community I’ve spoken to has been incredibly welcoming of authors of both genders and eager to read their works. I think there is a general consensus that we’d all like to see better, smarter work getting a chance at larger audiences, but that can be a challenge when you’ve got got horror pigeon-holed as “genre,” and then you get further bogged down with the label of being a woman-genre writer beyond that. I like an interview Ursula Le Guin did when she talked about the problem with arbitrary divisions concerning genre, which is basically that the worst common denominator gets produced and sold then regurgitated over and over again by Hollywood, and so that’s what the genre (she was speaking of sci-fi, but I think the same holds true for horror) gets judged by. That is certainly changing, but I think the culture still exists, and in horror that surface-level status-quo tends to be a masculine one. The really exciting stuff is being done in the seams between genres (literary/horror, extreme/straight, paranormal/epic poem, etc.) by both men and women, but it’s not necessarily always the stuff getting the most recognition by larger publishing houses.
The recent novel Mr. Suicide by Nicole Cushing comes to mind. She’s on the preliminary ballot with me for the Stokers, and I just finished reading her book. Cushing pushes the boundaries of extreme horror to its limit, and she does it in this really smart, well-written way that reminds me of the post-modernist absurdist literature, something like Ionesco, maybe, where the author gives us the extremes to collapse our reality. We are forced so far out of our comfort zones that we have to question the scale of everything happening not just on the page but in our own world—morality, brushing our teeth, having anal sex with a pinhead. Cushing just goes for it, and I love that about her writing.
Q. Why is Women in Horror month important/important to you?
Well, look, there are two trains of thought on this: either you think separating women out into their own category devalues their work, or you believe spotlighting them as a group writing great fiction but up against systematic prejudice is important. It’s a complicated subject, but coming down on one side, I’m of the latter group. Any chance to celebrate and expand the audience of, and network for, authors is important to me. I think breaking through the conventionally accepted truths like “men don’t read women” or “what women are writing isn’t really horror” is important not for just the horror community—I think many members already know and accept this—but for the larger fiction industry and readership. Exploding boundaries and inviting in new participation by readers and authors to whom mainstream horror hasn’t traditionally been marketed to or written by, will make the genre stronger. We’ve got a long way to go in achieving the inclusiveness necessary to grant horror the level of storytelling it could reach if more races and genders were encouraged and rewarded for telling their stories. Women in Horror month is a great step toward achieving this.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read your ass off and keep sending stuff out. Let somebody else decide if your work is crap. If you never put it out there, you have a zero percent success rate, guaranteed. Also, for women in particular, especially mothers, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. You deserve it. For some reason, several amazing women writers whom I’ve talked to seem to feel ashamed of the fact that they can’t juggle everything all at once—real-world job, motherhood, writing, taking care of everybody else, etc., etc.. And hey, guess what? You can’t. We’ve moved away from a culture with built-in support systems for mothers and women to one of disconnect and distance. Rebuilding those communities and getting support from other women and other authors is absolutely critical. We are only as strong as our networks. Oh, and claim that title of author. Don’t be scared to say it, even if you haven’t published anything, even if you still feel unsure. You will always feel unsure, and that’s okay. That is where the magic happens. But you are a writer. Own it.
Heather Herrman Links of Doom
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Heather-Herrman/e/B011A5R0ME/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Penguin/Random House Listing: