An Interview with Horror Writer Lucy A. Snyder.
Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of 14 books and over 100 published short stories. Her most recent books are the collection HalloweenSeason and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
It was reading Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time as a kid that simultaneously hooked me as a lifelong science fiction/fantasy reader and fixed me on the idea of writing fantasy and SF instead of mainstream work. I remember that the book spoke to me in a way that nothing I’d read until then really had, and I had that shivery sense of wonder you get with really good speculative fiction. And I thought to myself that if I could write something that made another person feel the way I was feeling, then that would have to be the best job in the world.
Can you talk about the appearance of classical horror characters - witches, ghosts, zombies, and monsters, in your short horror work?
I love working with classic horror tropes — and classic horror characters are part of that. I enjoy working with the themes that are often packed into those tropes and seeing if I can use them in new and different ways.
A related aspect of this is that I’m frequently invited to write for themed anthologies, and classic monsters are often involved in those themes. For instance, if I’m invited to write for a Lovecraftian anthology, the editor is going to expect to see stories featuring shoggoths, night-gaunts, mi-go, etc. If I can approach a monster or classic character from a fresh, interesting angle, my stories stand a much better chance of being accepted.
Can you discuss how you came to write stories about young girls in particular?
Horror is in many ways the literature of fear. And when I think back to the time when I was most consistently afraid, it’s when I was a kid. Modern Americans as a group tend to idealize childhood as a time when a person is carefree: you don’t have to worry about money, or holding down a job, or dealing with taxes, or any of the rest of the unpleasantries that adults are saddled with.
But the reality is that childhood is a profoundly scary time for a lot of kids, especially girls, because as a child you have no real control over anything in your life. You might be bullied at school, or worse, abused at home. The chances are very high that the other people around you, people who are supposed to love you and care for you, will try to excuse away or normalize the abuse. Even if the situation doesn’t involve a child being assaulted, a lot of kids have parents who are addicts or mentally ill, and realizing that a parent might abandon you, or might do something that results in your having to leave everything you know in the middle of the night to go live with strangers, is frightening.
My own situation is that I was raised in a fear-based household, which is something I’ve found that I have in common with other horror authors. My father, often as an effort to control my behavior but sometimes to amuse himself, routinely tried to scare me. Some of that was his seldom-used but always-there threat of violence if I misbehaved. Some of that was stories about how terrible and dangerous the world is. Since I had no firsthand experience with anything beyond the confines of my school and our house, I believed the hyperbolic doom-and-gloom he told me.
I’ve had the opportunity to unpack and examine much of that stuff, and now I have plenty of life experiences to counteract those terrible tales. These days, relatively little truly scares me. But I still find all those things that used to frighten me fascinating, and if I try, I can tap into those fears for narrative purposes.
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm?
Absolutely! I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy as well as mainstream novels and nonfiction and poetry. I probably read more nonfiction than anything else, most often in the form of articles and essays.
Can you talk about how growing up during the horror boom of the 80s impacted your perception of horror?
Gary A. Braunbeck was my main introduction to the horror genre. Before I met Gary in my late 20s, I had graduated from the Clarion workshop, and consequently I was mostly oriented toward science fiction and fantasy. I had been reading and enjoying horror fiction before that, but most of it had been marketed as gothic literature or dark fantasy or something other than out-and-out horror. For instance, there’s a lot of dark, disturbing stuff in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but reading it in college I never thought, “Hey, this is horror.” And more to the point, I’d been writing supernatural and futuristic horror, but I saw myself as writing fantasy and SF.
My genre disconnect was largely due to marketing. When I was a teenager in the 80s during the horror boom, all I saw were the gory, garish covers publishers put on horror novels. I found those really off-putting. The blood and evil clowns and keytar-brandishing skeletons struck me as incredibly stupid-looking, and I assumed that the contents of the books would be just as dumb. I’d seen a few slasher movies and thought, “Wow, that was not for me” afterward, so that also discouraged me from trying books that were overtly marketed as horror. While I blissfully missed out on a lot of crap, I also missed out on excellent novels by writers such as JN Williamson.
My early experiences as an online editor didn’t improve my opinion of horror much. Most of the really badly-written, poorly-plotted submissions I got were about psycho killers etc. Sure, I got terrible SF submissions, too, but they were forgettably bad. As an editor you will never forget your first batch of unsolicited necrophiliac poetry, no matter how hard you try.
Conversely, the dark fiction I received that was good always seemed like it was something else: fantasy, usually, or SF. If a story has a lot going on — and good stories always do — chances are the reader will manage to see it in light of their favorite genre.
Anyhow, enter author Gary A. Braunbeck. Early on in our friendship, he gave me a copy of his collection Things Left Behind, and it blew me away. It was emotional, and beautifully-written, and most of all, it was smart.
And then Gary started introducing me to other horror movies and novels I’d missed over the years. He’s shown me the good stuff I’d missed the first time around because it had been marketed the same as the stupid bad stuff.
Your academic background is in science. How does that knowledge factor into your creation of stories?
I have a BS in biology, and I did some graduate study in environmental science, and I do use both in my work. When I’m writing fantasy, science fiction or supernatural horror that requires heavy world-building, I particularly pay attention to making sure that the environment/ecology of the place I’m creating makes sense. My studies in biology have been helpful in creating monsters and in working with apocalyptic viruses and things like that. My Stoker-winning poetry collection Chimeric Machines has a strong science thread running throughout. And I’ve written many dark stories that are either science fiction or have themes of biological horror, such as my stories “Magdala Amygdala” and “Antumbra”.
You’ve spoken before about having horrific nightmares. How do they impact your writing?
I’ve had nightmares for as long as I can remember, and at times they’ve caused serious insomnia. But the major silver lining is that I have gotten many, many story ideas from my dreams, since my nightmares tend to be memorable and plot-worthy. My first novel, Spellbent, germinated from a particularly terrible nightmare I had, but ironically my editor decided those parts of the book were too horrific and I had to rewrite them.
Can you please describe your writing space?
I’m fortunate to have a very pleasant writing space. I have my own office, a dual-monitor setup, and a window that looks out on trees and flowers. I’ve got my bookshelves to the left and right. The office is gradually being taken over by plants, particularly an aggressive philodendron and a Peace Lily of Unusual Size, so if I ever go missing, feel free to imagine that a Little Shop of Horrors situation has developed over here.
Can you describe in what way H.P. Lovecraft has influenced your fiction?
I have complicated thoughts about Lovecraft. Reading Lovecraft at his worst makes me imagine a kid who was the earnest valedictorian of his racist little town's high school and now he's in college and completely freaked out because he's terrified by the unknowable mysteries of calculus class and has to sit by people from other countries... and the fish sticks in the dorm cafeteria are really gross. At his best? His work is breathtakingly memorable cosmic horror.
I’ve written a fair bit of Lovecraftian fiction, largely because I was (and continue to be) invited to write for Lovecraftian anthologies. Racism and xenophobia are unfortunately baked into Lovecraft’s work. But he encouraged others to take his work and run with it. Those of us expanding upon his mythos today have the choice of conveniently ignoring all that and focusing on the cool tentacular monsters and eldritch gods... or we tackle it head-on. I always try to write thoughtful fiction, so I think it’s important to address Lovecraft’s biases in my own work, often by presenting a protagonist that Lovecraft himself never would have considered.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I’m sure I do! The big thing is that if something terrible happens to me, part of me is busy noting the details so I can write about it later. I look for connections, and pay attention to odd coincidences. Every aspect of my life is fair game for my fiction and poetry, though any given story of mine will be a mix of the deeply personal and the completely fabricated.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
The end result is most important to publishers, readers, award juries, etc. The process is most important to me in terms of fulfilling my own need for creative expression. And learning about my process occasionally matters to aspiring writers looking for insights into how to improve their own processes.
So obviously both are important in their own ways. But not equally important. Once you factor in the part where I’m a professional writer, and I’m pursuing writing not as a pure creative outlet but as a career... it’s the end result that matters.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
I see younger writers, often science fiction writers, who are convinced that they have some ground-breaking new idea to share, something that nobody has thought of before, something that they have to guard jealously lest someone steal it... and more often than not, what they think of as a brand new idea isn’t actually new, and the writer in question needs to read more widely/recently in their chosen genre.
I think true originality in fiction comes not from having a cool new conceit, nor from designing some new type of narrative structure or plot twist. I think it most often comes from bringing your own individual perspective to your work. Every writer has lived a unique life. Sure, we all go through the same kinds of joys and heartbreaks, experience the same kinds of life and cultural events... but everyone’s experience of all that is just a little different. Bring those little details to the page. Take the reader someplace new. And while you’re at it, sure, try to find a big new idea, try on some experimental storytelling technique, and see how that goes. But try telling the kinds of stories that only you could really tell, because only you really know how.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I think so. I’m always trying to learn more about the craft and increase my skill set. I really don’t understand the notion that a person wouldn’t improve as a writer after writing fifty new short stories or several new novels. Practice makes perfect, right? Or at least helps you incrementally approach your own idea of perfection.
Family dynamics are a recurring theme in your fiction. What is it about the family structure that lends itself to a good horror tale?
I’m the only child of only children, and my mother was 41 when she had me, so I grew up without most of the family that other folks take for granted. I didn’t have siblings, or close cousins, or aunts and uncles. I did have some great-aunts and great-uncles who were already quite elderly when I was born, but they were geographically, generationally and emotionally distant. Visits back east to visit my parents’ relatives was always tedious and awkward.
When I was young, I envied kids who had brothers and sisters and cousins to play with, kids who had parents and aunts and uncles who were young and vital and who liked to go places and do fun things. I envied people who had the kinds of families that hosted family reunions, because I wanted that kind of connection and sense of belonging.
But at the same time, I was well aware of how families often go wrong. I knew kids who were abused, kids who fought bitterly with their siblings, kids who were lost amongst a loud rabble of other children at home, kids who had to share everything and never got a single bit of privacy.
After hearing classmates’ horror stories, I recognized that I was lucky in many ways, even though my loneliness never felt like a privilege.
But because family is something I don’t have, at least not in a traditional way, families and family interactions have continued to fascinate me. Dysfunctional families aren’t much fun to deal with in real life, but they make for great stories in fiction.
Do you have other publications in the works?
Yes. My Lovecraftian southern gothic novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul will be out from Chaosium next year, and Broken Eye Books is in the process of publishing my Lovecraftian space opera Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars as a serial on Patreon. It’ll be published as a trade paperback once it’s completed. My science fiction story “Navigational Error” will be published in the autumn issue of Fireside Quarterly, my story “Ruby Soul, Bone Moon” will be in New Maps of Dream from PS Publishing, and my queer Lovecraftian story “Everything After We Kissed” will be in Borderlands 7. I also have a couple of new stories appearing in forthcoming anthologies from Plaid Dragon Press: “Munchies” will be in It Came From the 80s and “Rainbow” will appear in the third volume of Tales of the Lost.
“Snyder, a master at crafting visceral stories that deeply probe Lovecraftian horror and dark fantasy, is back with a Halloween-themed collection, perfectly packaged for libraries. With a stunning cover sure to lure readers in during the haunting season, Snyder’s collection is the perfect complement to Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and a solid suggestion for readers of her cosmic-horror peers such as John Langan and Caitlín R. Kiernan.”— Booklist
Snyder's next collection, Halloween Season, will be released in Autumn 2020 from Raw Dog Screaming Press. Pre-Order your copy here.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in September of 2020.