On Becoming a Published Novelist, Horror and Paper Tigers, a Conversation with Damien Angelica Walters
Ladies Month is winding down and I have kept the very best for last! I had a chat with the very talented Damien Angelica Walters, one of the most intriguing new talents in genre fiction. Her short story collection Sing Me Your Scars won This is Horror's Short Story Collection of the Year in 2015 and she's already been nominated for Stoker Awards twice and if you ask me it's a question of time before she starts winning those.
Josie and I both read (and were terrified by) her debut novel Paper Tigers (which I will review tomorrow, brace yourselves), so I kind of contacted her out of the blue because I was curious about the author behind such a brilliantly tormented work of art. She was kind and generous enough to give me some of her time and answer my strange question. Without further ado, my conversation with Damien Angelica Walters!
Ben: So, we don't know each other very well. You were brought to my attention when I was gathering suggestions for Ladies Month and everyone was so complimentary of your work, it made me curious. Your name came back the most often and by far. Here's a question I ask every conversationalist (because every conversationalists are mysteriously all writers!): what was your inception moment? At what moment did you understand it was your calling to write stories?
Damien: I can't point to a defining moment, but, like most writers, books always held a place in my life. From the time I was very small, my father took me to the library every weekend and I emerged with a stack of books that I would devour within a day or two and reread them while waiting for the next trip. I wrote and illustrated books about ghosts and such when I was young and tons of poetry as a teenager. I later wrote several terrible novels and many vignettes and then moved onto proper short stories and novels that weren't quite as terrible. For a long time, though, I didn't write with a goal of publication. I just wrote for me.
Ben: How did you first get published then? I mean, don't get me wrong, I believe writing for oneself is how it should always be. I've heard from prior guest in the editing game though (link here) that women were often gun shy about submitting their own work for publication, so given the success you've had I'm curious about the path that lead you where you are today.
Damien: We'll have to return to poetry, which I continued to write even after my teenage years, for that. When I was about thirty, I had several friends I shared my work with, and they urged me to try and get it published. So I did a bit of research and now and again, I'd send a piece out and eventually I sold a few.
After I started working on short fiction, I joined Absolute Write, an online forum for writers. Fueled by the encouragement of other members, I sent out my work, collected rejections, and kept writing. Then I started selling stories and, after a time, began receiving anthology invites from editors.
The truth is, if I hadn't received outside encouragement along the way, I doubt I would have ever pursued publication.
Ben: Why is that so? Was it because the process seemed intimidating or because you didn't see an interest to writing beyond your own satisfaction of getting the stories on paper? Maybe a little bit of both? I'm doing Ladies Month because I have very little female authors submitting to the blog for review and I'm trying to understand where this problem is coming from. Why do you think there are so many female writers who simply don't submit their work?
Damien: No, the process wasn't intimidating at all. I've a thick skin and while occasionally a rejection will sting, for the most part I see them as a part of the process. For me, it was a lack of faith in my own abilities and my stories. I didn't think I was writing anything anyone else would want to read.
As far as the larger issue, I suspect many women don't submit their work because we've been conditioned to believe that our voices don't have as much merit. It's been proven statistically that male writers get more reviews, more press, etc. On any given day, there will be a Facebook post or a blog entry of "books you need to read" or "best books of the year/genre" and most of the entries will be work written by men. This is especially true when it comes to darker fiction. Often, those lists will include Shirley Jackson and maybe Anne Rice, but their inclusion seems to be a token gesture.
Ben: It's kind of a vicious circle really. Women are underrepresented in literature, so unpublished female writers don't bother submitting their work (especially in darker genres) and so they keep being underrepresented, but for different reasons. I like to think I'm helping by doing Ladies Month, but in an ideal world I'd be able to find female writing that I want to read every other week or so. Tell me, when you started having success, did it change the way you approached your creative process? Did writing for an audience other than just you alter in any way your fiction? It's something that got to iconic artists like David Foster Wallace and Kurt Cobain, but some are able to completely tune it out. What about you?
Damien: I think the creative process is always changing, but I think it's a natural progression for a writer regardless of success. I do a lot of brainstorming now before I write whereas before I started with a blank page and went from there. Brainstorming beforehand typically means my first drafts are stronger with fewer holes to plug, but even that's not an absolute. Sometimes stories have to be written before they give up all their secrets.
Ben: I understand what you mean by that. It's something you can truly understand if you've tried to write fiction before. Sometimes you control the story, but sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes you take backseat to the muse and let the story control your writing. It's a very empowering thing, I find. But what I'm wondering is: has demand (or even criticism) ever paralyzed your creativity?
Damien: Demand, yes; criticism, no. I've had deadlines breathing down my neck while the story fights me tooth and nail. The more I think about the deadline, the harder the story fights. Usually, my frustration bubbles up and over and then I'm able to finish the work, but a few weeks ago, I had to let an editor know I wouldn't be submitting anything to his anthology because the creative engine was utterly stalled. I felt horrible, but it wasn't a matter of not writing a good enough story, it was that I could not write a story at all. Due to an ill family member and some other outside stresses, the word machine in my head just would not run.
I've written plenty of stories—and novels—I think are good but not good enough. They're all sitting in a folder on my hard drive which is where they'll stay unless I decide to revisit and rewrite them or cannibalize bits and pieces for other stories.
Ben: Another thing I wanted to pick your brain about is horror. The nature of the beast, to be more precise. What is horror according to you? What scares people? I have a pretty elaborate response to this question myself, but I'm interested in your point of view as a creator. And as an audience as well. I mean, I'm sure you watch/read a lot of horror as well.
Damien: To me, horror is fiction that unsettles. It can be supernatural or psychological; it can have a happy ending or a horrifying one; it can be set in the real world or somewhere in space. And different things scare different people. A fear of clowns is pretty common, but they don't bother me at all. However, a spider, no matter how small, will send me screaming.
Be that as it may, though, what's truly terrifying to me is people. I think a healthy love of horror, both fiction and movies, helps us cope with the real horror of the cruelty in the world.
Ben: Ah, that's well put. Would you say there's something horrific to Paper Tigers' protagonist Alison's relationship to her scars? The ghost that haunts her is plenty scary by itself and only strikes when she's by herself, which I think it key to horror. Being in the dark and looking for answers in what you know to something that lies beyond. Does it make sense? That's what I believe made Alison fascinating because she was scared and not. That's what made her terrifying too because she was almost a ghost herself.
Damien: Alison's relationship with her scars is definitely horrific, and she has far more in common with the ghosts than the living. She's trapped inasmuch as they are and desperate for a way out because it hurts too much to move on. She can't see beyond her self-pity and anger; can't see—refuses to see—a life with her scars. In her mind, the only life worth living is one in which she's whole, so she's willing to take any risks, fear be damned, for it. She's haunted by her inability to see that being whole is separate from her scars.
Ben: I believe this is where Paper Tigers was so effective: it painted both realities on an equal ground for Alison. Reality itself kept shifting back and forth. I was also impressed by how seemlessly you've blent different genres of horror: there were some VERY EFFECTIVE Cronenbergesque moments (Cronenberg inspired stuff often comes up as clownish in literature) , some very elegant old school ghost stories, psychological horror, etc. How did Paper Tigers came into existence? What works did you draw inspiration from?
Damien: Thank you very much. As with a lot of my work, I started with an image in my head: a woman with a limp walking alone at night. I knew she was scarred, and it didn't take long for the photo album to click into place. I knew straightaway it was haunted and where it led, but the occurrences on the inside changed drastically between the first and second draft. I drew inspiration from many different works, everything from The Shining to IT to The Haunting of Hill House to Alice in Wonderland.
Ben: The Shining meets Alice in Wonderland is a great way to describe the novel! Why did you choose a ghost for antagonist? It seems like it happened organically. To me, they're by far the only interesting "monster" per se outside human beings. Vampires, werewolves, zombies are pretty straightforward creatures. You know what to expect out of them. Ghosts are reflections of the unknown, so anything can happen when they're around. Do you agree with that? Feel free to call me out of my lack of horror culture. Are iconic ghost stories you would recommend to our readers?
Damien: From the onset of the story, it made logical sense for Alison to be haunted both inside and out, to have to fight against the web they both weave around her, and to learn that they key to defeating the one is to defeat the other. A skilled author can alter the accepted mythos with other creatures—read Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels for a brilliant take on werewolves—but you do have a great deal of freedom when writing about ghosts.
With respect to iconic ghost stories, I'd recommend the aforementioned The Shining by Stephen King and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and I'd also add Ghost Story by Peter Straub, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
Ben: Paper Tigers was very well received by critics and readers alike. Did life change after the release of the novel? If so, how?
Damien: No, life hasn't changed at all. I'm still working hard, still writing, still pushing to be a better writer with each project
Ben: You've recently been published in Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing's horror anthology Lost Signals, which I had the chance to read and be terrified by. You've got a great story in there. What else can we expect from you in the following month? Novels like Paper Tigers are bound to create demand!
Damien: I'm glad you enjoyed my Lost Signals story. It was a fun one to write. I'm not sure exactly of the release dates, but I've short stories forthcoming in several anthologies, including The Madness of Dr. Caligari, Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, and Eternal Frankenstein. Right now, I'm querying literary agents with my next novel, which isn't horror but psychological suspense.
Ben: Thanks for doing this! If you have anybody to thanks, salute or anything to plug, this is your chance!
Damien: Thank you so much for interviewing me. Thank you too, to the readers. I hope I keep writing stories you want to read.