The 7Q Interview: Christa Carmen
Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in myriad anthologies, ezines, and podcasts, including Unnerving Magazine, Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2, Outpost 28 Issues 2 & 3, Tales to Terrify, Lycan Valley Press Publications' Dark Voices, Third Flatiron’s Strange Beasties, and Alban Lake's Only the Lonely. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available August 2018 from Unnerving.
Christa lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle, Maya. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master's degree from Boston College in counseling psychology. On Halloween 2016, Christa was married at the historic and haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. When she's not writing, she is volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.
#1. Looking back, what’s one fiction book that you feel truly made an impact on your writing? Do you still gravitate towards that author?
#1. There are so many works of fiction that have impacted my writing significantly, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. If I can mention a few, I would have to give credit to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, for instilling in me a curiosity of the horrors that can befall a small New England town, The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, for rekindling my love of Gothic literature first sparked by classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Monk, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, andThe Turn of the Screw, and more recently, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, for challenging me to elevate my own short fiction to be as quirky and effective as possible.
There’s also King’s nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftthat motivated me to start writing seriously again after a challenging period in my life, and short stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which inspired me to write my first piece of short fiction.
I absolutely still gravitate towards Stephen King, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson, often rereading works of King’s when the mood strikes, and continuing to chip away at my goal of reading the entirety of all three of these authors’ respective literary canons.
That being said, there is probably one piece of fiction that’s impacted my writing more than any other, and that is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Published in 1982, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is regarded as an essential early work of American feminist literature, and what Gilman accomplishes with her depiction of the attitudes towards women’s mental health in the 19thcentury is akin to the objectives I’ve set for myself across many of the short stories I have written.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” takes the issue of postpartum depression, examines how one woman is struggling with this issue, and inserts an additional layer of intrigue by melding the protagonist’s struggles with elements of the macabre and/or the supernatural. The line, “It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight,” is perhaps one of the most chilling in all of literature, made all the more so by its ambiguity.
Is this creeping woman real (and if so, I’ve always pictured her as similar to either the crawling wraith in The Ring, or to spider-walking Regan in The Exorcist... there’s actually an article on serialkillershop.com, entitled “A Short, Creepy History of the Horror Movie Spider Walk,” and I’m thoroughly convinced that Gilman’s protagonist’s creeping doppelgänger is the basis for most, if not all, of these contortionist-worthy iterations) or is the creeping woman a manifestation of the protagonist’s frazzled, fractured mind?
It’s anyone’s guess as to which, and that element of, ‘is she, or isn’t she?’... of ‘is it real, or is it all in her head?’ represents a type of story that I have gotten much pleasure and a substantial amount of payoff from experimenting with. If “The Yellow Wallpaper” had been a story about a woman locked away in a claustrophobia-inducing room by her punitive husband, eliminating her backstory of having just given birth, or if “The Yellow Wallpaper” had been stripped of its speculative element, and had just been the story of one woman’s experience with postpartum depression, it would not have gotten under generations of readers’ skin and festered there.
And this is why Gilman’s story has had such an impact on my own fiction; I have aimed for my work to incorporate that same successful mixture of elements that will make its subject matter—whether substance abuse, mental health issues, violence against women, or some other social issue I’ve wanted to explore—fester. Hopefully there have been stories with which I’ve succeeded; elements like wall coverings in maddening patterns and of a blinding, putrescent color are optional, or at least open for deliberation.
[The Wisehouse Classics edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” includes a foreword by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explaining why she wrote the story. After suffering from a ‘severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending toward melancholia,’ a noted specialist in nervous diseases instructed Gilman to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as she lived.
She obeyed these instructions until mental ruin seemed imminent, cast the specialist’s advice to the winds, and went to work again, penning “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a response to her experience, and sending a copy to the physician who so nearly drove her mad. He never acknowledged it, but years later, Gilman heard that the ‘wise man’ had admitted altering his treatment since reading her piece, prompting Gilman to comment that “The Yellow Wallpaper” “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.” I can’t imagine a more satisfying response to having written a story such as this.]
#2. How do you feel about the use of sub-genres in the industry? How do you describe your work overall?
#2. Separating horror into a wider variety of categories is great, necessary even, and I believe that pushing oneself to read across those sub-genres (and across completely different genres as well) will make you a more well-rounded writer. I suppose it would make sense that the horror fiction I write encompasses a whole slew of sub-genres, because the horror fiction and film I consume encompasses that same variability.
Of the horror films and television series I watched in the last year, I enjoyed the slapstick comedy of Ash vs. Evil Deadand the Gothic ghosts-and-haunted-house narrative of I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the Housein relatively equal measure. I love blood and guts, but cry at YouTube videos of people being introduced to their new puppies, so it should really come as no surprise that a double feature in my living room on a Saturday night could consist of twisted French revenge horror film Martyrsfollowed by the family-friendly Goosebumps, or that the TBR pile next to my bed includes Best Horror of the Year Volumes 1-10, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 1-3, as well as literary works such as Julie Buntin’s Marlena (one of my favorite books I’ve read this year) and Hanya Yanagihara’sA Little Life(one of my favorite books I’ve read of all time, a book I pull in close at night, in the dark, on my Kindle, the way another might clutch a security blanket).
As for my own work, the stories in Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soakedare pretty well-balanced. For the no-nonsense horror lover, we have ghosts, apocalypse-inciting rains, witches, depraved serial killers, more ghosts, evil shadow creatures, zombies, haunted houses, long-preserved corpses, newly-opened mausoleums, sinister trains, and out-of-place staircases. If that’s not a smorgasbord of sub-genres, I don’t know what is.
But those tried-and-true tropes are also stand-ins for themes that run deeper. Without giving too much away, the babysitter in “Souls, Dark and Deep” might possess powers in the same vein as those of a witch, but she uses her powers not for evil, but to level the playing field against evil and injustice. The depraved serial killers in “Red Room” function less to scare à la Michael Myers, and more to warn of the perils men face when they disbelieve women. The ghost of Aunt Louise in the eponymous flash fiction piece is a hardcore, Gloria Steinem-quoting, take-no-nonsense-and-even-less-prisoners bad-bitch feminist. And the shadow wolf in “Flowers from Amaryllis” represents many, many things: the fear of eventually losing a companion animal, the fear of losing a parent, the fear of being alone, the fear of going mad, the fear of not being able to be true to who you are.
I stay slightly removed from writing the traditional horror villain stories—vampires, werewolves, etc.—but I hope that in addition to representing an eclectic assortment of horror sub-genres, my collection, and my work on the whole, incorporates themes and characters that readers can relate to.
#3. What about your writing process do you think is unique or quirky? What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
#3. Unique or quirky? Probably not much.Persnickety? Most definitely. I only write with one of two different brands and types of pens—a black or blue Bic Cristal 1.6 mm or a medium point Paper Mate Flair of pretty much any color—and though they each provide a completely different writing experience, I’m equally indiscriminate and happy with either.
I definitely outline for longer works, as the three novels I’ve written thus far each hinge on twists, turns, mistaken identities, and the like, so I would get hopelessly lost if I didn’t utilize an outline for that type of narrative, but for short stories, I pretty much just go with the flow. I do third draft edits on the computer, but all first drafts and second draft rewrites have to be done by hand, or the words don’t flowadequately. I can, however, sit down with the concept of a short story mapped out in my head, and get most of it onto the page in a single sitting. And I’m not sure if this would be considered quirky or not, but I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime, although the ideal time and place would be early morning in my home office, or curled up somewhere comfortable in my house.
The worst writing advice I’ve ever received would probably have to be the opposite of the part of my writing process I just explained. Stephen King has said that he sits, “in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places…The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
For a time, I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to achieve that state of mind where ‘dreaming’ could occur unless I was sitting at the writing desk in my office with the door closed and the lighting perfect, in order to bang out my allotted number of pages for the day. I quickly realized that, not having the luxury of being a full-time writer, I’d never get as much done as I wanted to in a given day if I didn’t take advantage of every opportunity to write over the course of my sixteen—on average—waking hours.
So yes, ideally, I’d write early morning in my home office, but realistically, I write for thirty minutes on my lunch break at work, in doctors’ office waiting rooms, at my parents’ house while they get ready to go out with me and my husband for dinner, at airports, on trains, in cabs, while on vacation, and in whatever other location I can whip out a notebook and a pen.
#4. How does music and media factor into your writing? Do you feel it plays as much an inspirational role as literature?
#4. I know there are a lot of authors for whom this is not the case, but while music plays a role in my writing—I’ve been inspired by a song, or series of songs, to pursue an idea or write a certain story (see, “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge,” published in Issue #2 of Outpost 28) and to include a lyrical epitaph at the opening of a novel—I don’t think it plays a huge role. NECON (Northeastern Writers’ Conference) 38 programming included a panel entitled, “When Your Book Has a Soundtrack: The Influence of Music on Your Writing,” during which Matt Bechtel, Doungjai Gam Bepko, Martina Cole, Rachel Autumn Deering, Gary Frank, and Bracken MacLeod discussed music that inspires, influences, or informs their art, and I thought, I’d be in way over my head if I ever got placed on a panel like that.
I do find horror film soundtracks to be good background music while writing, if I’m in the right mood for it. And I really do have to be in the right mood, since I have a strange relationship with background noise. If I’m in a crowded coffee shop, I have no problem tuning everything else out but the voices in my head that are instructing my writing. However, if I have something streaming directly into my ears via headphones or even computer speakers, I sometimes find myself getting too distracted. I find that when I’m home writing in my office or on my sun porch, the sound of my fish tank filter humming or the birds outside chirping is background noise enough.
Film, on the other hand, plays more of a role than I had initially realized. A lot of my short stories are influenced by horror films, or by a specific producer or director—for example, Alfred Hitchcock—and I’ve found it can be quite rewarding to ride that influence to the point of a story’s resolution, and see what I end up with. I think the best example of this out of my published short fiction would have to be “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell.” For this piece, I took the question of how would I react if my house was broken into, and answered it with a Bruce Campbell/Evil Dead-inspired fantasy sequence that ultimately became no fantasy at all, but the basis for a gleeful, bloody spoof of the more outrageous moments in the Evil Deadfranchise.
I don’t feel that film plays anywhere near the role that literature does in my writing, but there have been a great many references and/or homages to horror films included in my work, and I will likely continue to pull from film for inspiration and ideas.
#5. As an author, how much do you engage in social media? Do you feel it is more for your own entertainment, or for marketing and networking?
#5. I engage in social media a fair amount. The university I attended for my undergraduate degree was one of the first few schools to be added to Facebook back in 2004, so I’ve had Facebook for quite a while now, and have grown to feel pretty comfortable with posting there several times a week. Twitter is a newer phenomenon for me, and I’ve only recently figured out the best ways to use it as a tool for marketing and networking for my writing endeavors (basically, ‘like, retweet, rinse, repeat’). I use Instagram mostly as a platform for imparting upon the world photos of my dog, but I’ve been expanding the types of posts I construct there, especially since a few of the publishers I work with use it more frequently, sharing artwork and sneak-peeks of book covers for upcoming anthologies and other projects in the works.
Beyond those three sites, a YouTube channel with a few videos of readings I’ve done at cons or bookstores, and my Goodreads and Amazon author profiles, I’m not really one for the more obscure social media applications. My attitude is more in line with Iliza Shlesinger’s, as portrayed during her Elder MillennialNetflix comedy special: “Yes, gather 'round the Snapchat, children. I'll tell you the tale… of the landline.”
#6. Where do you see the future of horror fiction heading? In turn, what changes would you love to see, either socially or technologically?
#6. The horror that is being written heading into the third decade of the twenty-first century is a different kind of horror than the vampires or ghosts that inducted many of us into the genre. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy these types of stories; I love a great creature-horror or supernatural-horror novel, short story, or film as much as the next horror fan. But the terrifying parts of life cannot always be gleaned by staring them in the face, or by watching them on the evening news, and if you give a reader a window into something that truly frightens them—addiction, mental illness, marriage, childbirth, the future, dead-end jobs, not being good enough, being forgotten...war, death, the fear of loved ones getting into an accident, of being kidnapped, plummeting college acceptance rates, fake news, politics, and nuclear weapons —that window will likely become a mirror.
There’s a quote I love from an article written by Emily Asher-Perrin and published on April 13, 2017 at Tor.com, “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror and the Intuition of Women,” and it states that, “Horror exists as a genre primarily to reflect the ugly and the despicable parts of our world back at us through a funhouse lens that makes the trauma digestible.”
Classic novels like Frankenstein andThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydeare less about monsters than they are the terrifying possibilities we might afflict upon ourselves when science and technology extend beyond our control. Both Get Out—a horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele—andThe Shape of Water—a dark fantasy written and directed by genre master Guillermo del Toro—were nominees for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture. Get Outdepicted how, however unintentionally, the racism of ignorant, complacent white liberals can be every bit as menacing as its more vitriolic counterpart. The Shape of Water, which won the Best Picture Oscar, along with three other Academy Awards, deftly explored how society treats the other in its midst, whether it be a humanoid amphibian creature reminiscent of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the ordinary people we see right next door.
Horror as a genre is built around the certainty that the world is full of horrific things. But I think that as time passes, horror writers are becoming even more skilled at expanding on this theme. The future of horror fiction, if we get it right, will tell us how to live with being afraid. It will have to. It will help us distinguish true evil from a night without stars. It will tell us how to fight back. That’s what I would like to see from my fellow horror writers, and from myself; not so much changes within the field, socially or technologically speaking, but changes within our perceived abilities to survive our fears, and changes in how we tell those stories of survival after the dust settles, the vampires are relegated back to their coffins, and we look forward to whatever new monster will assail us down the road.
#7. What can you tell us about any forthcoming projects? What titles would you like to promote now?
#7. As for forthcoming projects, I’ve realized just recently that I’m only a few short stories away (short stories that are already in the works) from having enough material to put together a second collection. The tone of this one would be a bit different from Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, but some of the same themes would abide.
Still, I won’t pursue another collection until I’ve finished the novel I’m working on. I was surprised by how much additional work came with the release of Something Borrowed..., and so I’ve been beating myself up regarding the last few things I wanted to tinker with on this new book, Coming Down Fast. Now that the collection has been released, I’m going to use that relentless self-flogging for actual good, and finish the damn thing.
BesidesComing Down Fastand the new collection, there’s another novel I have in the works, about a thirty-something year old woman who writes a blog about the pharmaceutical industry and ends up pursuing acupuncture as a personal infertility treatment, with monstrous results, titled 13 Sessions.
As for projects I’d like to promote now, in addition to my debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, of course, available now from Unnerving, my short story “The Rest Will Be in Pieces,” was just published in Issue #3 of Outpost 28, a Lovecraft-inspired dark fiction magazine to which author and artist Dean Kuhta has invited me to be a regulator contributor (50% of all proceeds of Outpost 28go to helping the homeless in Richmond, VA, which is a very rewarding thing to be a part of). “The Rest Will Be in Pieces” is a dark fairy tale in which a woman makes a deal with the Witch of Coywolf Woods, and her life is forever affected by that bargain, but not for the reasons one might think.
Staying extraordinarily busy sustains my passion for this crazy thing I love to do. Jodi Picoult said it wonderfully when she remarked that, “You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.” So no matter how I’m feeling, or what’s going on in my life at present, I sit my butt in the chair, and get writing.
Amazon Author Page:https://www.amazon.com/author/christacarmen
Books for Sale:
Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked:https://www.amazon.com/Something-Borrowed-Blood-Soaked-Christa-Carmen-ebook/dp/B07DK2YJV3/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531331264&sr=8-1&keywords=something+borrowed+something+blood-soaked
Outpost 28 Issues 2 & 3:http://www.deankuhta.com/outpost28.php