An Interview with Horror Fiction Writer S. P. Miskowski.
S.P. Miskowski has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. Her second novel, I Wish I Was Like You, was named This Is Horror Novel of the Year for 2017 and received a Charles Dexter Award from Strange Aeons. Her books have received three Shirley Jackson Award nominations and two Bram Stoker Award nominations, and are available from Omnium Gatherum and JournalStone/ Trepidatio. Her short fiction received a Swarthout Award and her stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, The Madness of Dr. Caligari and Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
Making up stories, observing the world around me and devising narrative structure, is something I’ve done from an early age. As soon as I could read and write, I would create a story with illustrations, make a cover, and bind the edges of paper. By age seven or eight I was reading these out loud to my parents, who found them hilarious, even when they were about children who cooked their families in a fireplace.
I won an essay competition when I was nine. I won a fiction prize in college. My first literary magazine publication happened when I was twenty-two, and after that I kept getting stories published in small press literary magazines.
I’ve known people who were very shy about calling themselves writers. They didn’t feel they had earned the title until they reached a certain milestone. It isn’t a matter of choice, for me. By nature I’ve always been a writer.
How did your academic studies in Anthropology and Psychology impact your writing, if at all?
Professional jargon and accompanying assumptions applied to mental illness can sometimes take us in the wrong direction. I try to avoid them and consider the whole story, when I write a character. Instead of approaching a character from a distance I attempt to understand how this person justifies himself.
Anthropology taught me respect for the vast range of our minute differences. At school I stopped thinking of a literary insight as something universal. I also observed the paradox that a very specific story, well told, connects with more people, while an attempt at universality almost always fails. Readers bring empathy. They’re reading because they want that connection. If your voice is true, readers will recognize it, even if their specific experience is quite different from yours.
Do you feel that your 15 years writing plays moulded your approach to speculative fiction in any way? How did those years in theatre shape you as a writer?
Those years made me hungry to get back to short stories. I don’t think my plays were very good. Some of them were awful. They succeeded, when they did succeed, because of the extraordinary commitment of talented actors and directors and designers who had a love and understanding of performance I don’t share. Almost all of my plays were produced but I didn’t like many of them. I liked the artists who worked on them.
If anything, writing drama improved my ability to write action, and to manage that action across an ensemble of characters. Before my detour into theater I thought mainly in terms of what a story was about and what the imagery might be. Now I also think about what happens next, and what happens after that, and how the action embodies the themes and ideas of the story.
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm?
Yes, I’ve always been an eclectic reader. My list of favorite books would feature work by Emmanuel Carrère, Sara Gran, Vladimir Nabokov, Patricia Highsmith, Janet Malcolm, Ryū Murakami, Koji Suzuki, Raymond Chandler…
Could you share some specific short stories that impacted you as a writer?
“In the Red Room” by Paul Bowles, “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, “Brownies” by ZZ Packer, “The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor, “Raw Material” by A.S. Byatt, “Peep” by Ramsey Campbell, “The Twins” by Muriel Spark, “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein and “The Witch” by Shirley Jackson all capture some of the mysteriousness of human existence and our inability to break it down into something we can easily understand.
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
A good story resonates after I’ve read it, and becomes part of my consciousness. From the time I read it, the story informs my navigation system. I refer back to it and it helps me to see where I am in the world at large.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
I’m frequently moved and surprised by the art of Stefan Koidl, the music of Billie Eilish, the choreography of Pina Bausch, the comedy of Hannah Gadsby, the films of Bong Joon-ho and Jordan Peele…
You have described your stories as “fiction of unease, growing suspense and distress.” What do you think it is about this particular type of horror that appeals to you as a writer, as opposed to what others may call different “subcategories?”
As you might guess from the list of artists whose work I like and find inspiring, the emphasis is on what it means to be human in a mysterious and indifferent world. We are all we have. How do we express what we feel? Can we help one another? How do we define ourselves? Central to it all is our anxiety, individually and collectively. No matter what you fear—creatures from another dimension, environmental destruction, a natural disaster, or your next-door neighbor—unease is the definable response we can all recognize. I look at how we react to a terrible event, and I’m less interested in the nature of the event itself, especially if it can’t be affected by our actions.
Your stories A.G.A. and This Many from your 2017 collection Strange is the Night are unique in that you expertly weave dread and menace in settings that are realistically suburban, with viscerally frightening endings. Can you talk about the backdrop of the suburbs, how it lends itself as a canvas to horror, and how you develop the standout conclusions to your stories?
Thank you for that. Suburbs have always seemed weird to me. I get country living, the need for space and the natural elements. I get urban living, the quick pace and the unexpectedness of the encounters. But it strikes me as weird to live fifty feet away from another family and yet demand privacy. This is supposed to be the ideal in America, owning a house and raising a family in it, having absolute sovereignty over that itty-bitty kingdom. “Here I am, in plain sight, but don’t tell me what to do and don’t come over here.” So many suburban streets are as quiet as cemeteries. What the fuck are people doing in those houses? It’s all so cozy and alienating at the same time. The self-contradiction is deeply weird.
Regarding the conclusions to my stories, I like ambiguity but I also enjoy fiction with a twist at the end. There should be an element left open to speculation or interpretation even when there’s a twist. This makes some readers happy and enrages others who want things explained.
At the end of The Worst Is Yet to Come a monstrous mechanism has been set in motion. If you’ve observed it closely throughout the book, you can probably guess what will happen next. But I only hint at it. I amuse myself by having the worst thing occur after the story ends. The title is literally true. Guaranteed to make one reader laugh with joy and another hurl the book across the room.
With The Best of Both Worlds I wanted to visit the flipside of events in The Worst Is Yet to Come. While these things are happening in the life of an affluent and very insular family, a different kind of story is taking place among longtime residents of Skillute. Two adult siblings carry out occult experiments at home, responding to the inexplicable undercurrents of the place but in a different way. At the end of their story there’s a twist, but whether they’ve accomplished what they set out to do or simply tapped into scary things beyond their control—and whether the conclusion is a good or bad outcome—is for each reader to decide.
What does horror mean or include as a genre to you?
If someone is unafraid of what lies outside of our understanding, they command an extraordinary suspension of disbelief, or have no imagination. I’m one of those people who can imagine a thousand terrible reasons why a loved one hasn’t texted to say everything is okay, everyone arrived safely. A sense of horror is built into my nature. Whenever someone tells me, “I just can’t read horror fiction or watch horror films,” I know I’m hearing from someone who is fully aware of how frightening life can be. They’ve chosen distraction and reassurance over confrontation but they’re reacting to the same monster waiting in the shadows.
Horror includes all things triggering fear, apprehension or terror, but the kind of horror that triggers these reactions is different for everyone. Dario Argento’s films work for some, while others like Ari Aster’s films. Whose writing is more disturbing—Shirley Jackson’s, Jack Ketchum’s or Clive Barker’s? I feel strongly that it’s an inclusive genre.
Your 2020 novella The Best of Both Worlds, Pigeon and Roland Dempsey are siblings who engage in supernatural ritual through heinous means. There are other instances in your fiction of family members who are dealing with the remnants of traumatic bonds. Why is the construct of family, in fiction and in reality, a breeding ground for the horrific?
Family bonds are complicated, developing and/or degenerating over a lifetime. Sorting them out is nearly impossible. How do you separate sustenance from torture if both come at the hands of the same individual? We might learn to comprehend pain inflicted by family members and yet never achieve enough distance to escape its influence. For this reason I think family relationships are potentially the most insidious.
To me, there are few things worse than gaslighting. It’s maddening, compounded by the targeted person’s fear that they’re wrong. It only works when the perpetrator is loved and trusted by the person they gaslight. The key to it, the element that makes it possible, is love. You’ve come to believe in someone, maybe you’ve known them all of your life, and they tell you they care about you, they want only the best for you, while their actions make you feel terrible. No matter how much concern they express, you feel rotten. You feel sick and disempowered. Yet you can’t openly accuse the person who makes you feel this way. As I said, this method of weakening and tormenting someone is only effective if you’re close, and who is closer than a family member? This kind of relationship occurs quite often within a family, and it can take years to break it open and reveal the manipulation—if you ever do.
I read a fascinating little book years ago, called Hypochondria: Woeful Imaginings, essentially about the ways in which people make themselves and one another sick. Included were case studies of people whose lives were constructed around imaginary illness. There were families in which two people took turns being sick. There were legendary individuals who spent most of their lives in their sickbed. No matter when they were expressed, most of these patterns took their initial shape in the family, in childhood. A family can be a source of strength and camaraderie, or it can be the laboratory in which our worst habits and fears are formed.
What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings?
I wish I had never taken a detour into playwriting. It took a lot of time and damaged my self-confidence. I wish I had signed with the agent who wanted to sell a novel and a story collection for me when I was twenty-seven. I’d like to know what happens in that parallel timeline. Maybe I just went to New York and failed, like most writers. Maybe things would be easier, or more difficult. But I’d like to know.
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
Not really. I’ve had moments of questioning whether I can sell the more idiosyncratic of my writing. I’ve doubted my ability to maintain the stamina necessary to keep doing this. But I know what I am. I’ve had a range of day jobs—from dishwasher to babysitter to editor-in-chief at a weekly newspaper. Through it all I wrote fiction, not because I believed I would be Stephen King someday but because this is who I am.
Can you please describe your writing space?
I write at a small desk, really an optician’s desk from the 1930s with tiny drawers. No room for clutter. We’ve traveled from a windowless studio in Seattle, to a one-bedroom hellhole in Southern California with a view of the freeway and a Target parking lot, to a townhome with a lovely garden view, to an apartment in the city with a window at my side so I can watch a vast murder of crows gather at dusk. This wooden desk is my little world.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
Years ago there was a BBC series and accompanying book called The Day the Universe Changed. One of my favorite episodes/chapters was devoted to the scientific theories of Darwin and how they influenced 20th century thinking. The same concepts were adapted and used to justify the economic, social and political tenets of Communism, Fascism and Capitalism.
We can strive to be what we want, and to affect the world in a certain way, but the ways in which our views and our words are interpreted will vary according to the perceptions and intentions of anyone reading our work. We can try to avoid doing harm, but we can’t make other people perceive what we say in exactly the way it’s intended. Human communication, even when limited to two individuals sharing a common language, is tricky at best. We can’t control how all of our messages are received.
I don’t think my political views play out in my fiction in an easily discernible or simplistic way. A few readers disliked one passage in The Worst Is Yet to Come describing the political landscape. But the point was: the ‘good’ liberals turned out to have committed an unforgivable act. That passage was about how they saw themselves, how they compared themselves to what they saw as ignorant locals, and how they justified terrible actions with good intentions.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
Probably Martha Parker, the protagonist of Muscadines. She’s a monster with a conscience. She wrestles with her nature. More than any other character I’ve written, Martha tries to conquer the effects of her upbringing. I find her uneducated self-awareness and her mighty struggle to define herself and not be defined by experience quite impressive.
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
Well, without explicit spoilers, I’d like to continue the story of Briar Kenny from The Worst Is Yet to Come. I want to know who she is as an adult. She’s hard and scrappy, as many kids have to be to survive when their parents are lousy. I know a young woman like that, and it’s fascinating to see her kick life’s idiots to the curb when necessary. I root for her. I want her to succeed.
If any of your fiction could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
I want to see the film version of I Wish I Was Like You with its twenty-something protagonist, Greta, who totally dominates her corner of the spirit world in Seattle, WA, beginning in the early 1990s. She rages on, even now. Mary Harron. Karen Lam. Jordan Peele.
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
No, and no. We don’t know who we are or what effect we have. Pretending that we can make a difference by purposely writing meaningful prose seems self-indulgent. In fiction, I say whatever I want. In real life, I try to be kind and honest and support the causes I believe in.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
I distinctly remember, as a very young child, hearing my mother talk with a friend of hers about the first time one of them had seen Psycho, years earlier. My mother had read a magazine article about Ed Gein and she described to her friend how the police had gone to Gein’s house and found lampshades and furniture made from human skin. This is the first story I can remember hearing.
Can you talk a bit about how the worldbuilding of Skillute occurred? Did you set out with an intention of a mythos, or did the correlations come about naturally?
Skillute emerged of its own accord during a bout of insomnia. I gave up trying to sleep and started making notes for a story. The next morning I was still writing. It kept unfolding in these interconnected tales and overlapping lives. I never intended to write a novel, let alone create this place where strange undercurrents affect the residents and travelers in so many weird ways. I wrote the character and story notes and Skillute gradually revealed itself.
The women in your stories are complex and imperfect. Can you talk about how contemporary social conflict and the pursuit of representation of women in fiction is essential to the growth of the horror genre?
Once upon a time I was invited to submit a play to a festival, celebrating women with positive and empowering role models. Everything in my soul revolted against the idea. Several years ago I wrote an H-Word column for Nightmare Magazine, in which I asserted that women will only be taken seriously, accorded the same respect as men, and expected to make their own decisions regarding their bodies and their lives, when we stop pretending that women are nicer, better people than men. I stand by this assertion. As long as we indulge in the fantasy that motherhood and vagina ownership somehow make us essentially good, we will be coddled and complimented and set aside. A lot of women buy into the concept of good women out of fear. They’ve absorbed the ubiquitous notion that being a good girl will buy them protection against violence. This is a lie whose false promise deprives women of their power.
Individuals have the right to define themselves. Women are as dangerous as men. Transgender women are women. Life is complicated. There is no perfect nation, no perfect gender, no perfectly safe place, and nowhere to run. If we admit this we will see more interesting fiction, and more people will be able to live their lives without lying all the time.
S.P. Miskowski, as interpreted by Lena Griffin.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I think I see the world differently than almost everyone I know, writers and non-writers. Going against the grain is not something I choose, it’s unavoidable. My vision is skewed. I’m aware of this every time I venture onto social media.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
The end result is what determines whether or not a story gets published, and where. The process is what keeps me from becoming a serial killer. So I would say they’re equal but other people would probably say the process.
Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
By the time I think I’ve learned something, it’s changed. The world has changed. I’ve changed. Other people have changed. I create in order to exist, basically, and I hope what I create will be of interest to others by the time it’s ready to be shared.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
I don’t want to over-emphasize this but I’m inclined to say the originality and uniqueness of the writer’s perception is everything. All tropes are known. All stories have been told. What we add to fiction, to storytelling, is the filter of our experiences and our perception. There are no ‘new’ or ‘original’ stories. Only the way of expressing what is already known.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I don’t know. Certainly, I think I have more skill as a writer. But I wonder if I’ve traded that for a degree of self-confidence (maybe delusional) that allowed me to let her rip and just crank out a story about William Burroughs providing a ballistic component to an incomprehensible mathematics exam, or a gigantic white woman gliding through the land of her dead relatives in the south.
Do you have new publications in the works?
The novel I’m writing began as a one-act script. Last year I expanded the story and wrote it as a series of first person interviews. This year I’m revising the whole thing—a 70,000-word book—in third person. An editor who liked my novel, I Wish I Was Like You, has expressed an interest in reading it. But as you know, this stuff is both objective and subjective. There’s no way of knowing who’s going to like what. I can only say that I’ve spent the time to let this story grow and change shape in my imagination because it’s something I need to write. Once I accepted this, all of the anxiety began to fade away. There’s nothing now except this story and me.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
I hope it’s adventurous, diverse, unafraid and on the edge. This is what society needs. Our tendency to slide right back into the status quo is truly terrifying.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
Come Tomorrow by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Bleedthrough and Other Small Horrors by Scarlett R. Algee, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Next in my reading queue is The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in July of 2020.