Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Accepting and Dealing with Burnout

I’ve been a workaholic my entire life, and a big part of why that is deals with the fact that I struggle intensely with chronic depression, anxiety, stagnant migraines, and emotional trauma. When I work and throw myself into creative and academic ventures, I don’t think about all that ugliness, and as a result, it helps me cope and survive and do work that helps people all while giving me something to be proud of.

For 30 years, that lifestyle worked and helped me keep the monsters at bay. People were thrilled to see me at every event, at every reading. They were excited when I would travel to conventions and conferences, when I would organize workshops and events throughout the city. 

What they didn't like, however, was about two years ago when all that started to stop, when I started to say I was tired, that I didn't have the energy to keep working at that pace. I stopped going to a lot of events. I took a break from doing readings, from going to every conference, and people had no problem telling me I was selfish, that I was throwing away opportunities, that I was being a bad friend--and because I didn't want to be perceived as weak or rude, I told myself I could handle it and I kept pushing through.

And then I got sick. 
And then I got sicker.

And as they tend to do, things only got worse.

Let me talk about my average workday:
  • I wake up around 6:30 a.m., shower, get ready for work, wrestle an adorable pit bull out of bed so I can take him outside, feed him, smother him in kisses, and start my day.
  • I usually listen to an audio book during all of this (because I have to squeeze in time to read when I can), or I put on my tape recorder and talk through story ideas.
  • I have a full-time position that I'm responsible for, but I also teach an undergraduate literature class, too, and then I’m currently teaching two graduate courses online that I also have to prep for, teach, and then grade. Note: Sometimes there are more than three classes in total, but this semester, I only took on that amount.
  • A lot of my work includes me starting at a computer screen or reading non-stop, which puts  strain on my eyes, which often times triggers a migraine, and for the better part of this year (until recently because I dragged myself kicking and screaming to the doctor) I was getting migraines about 15 times a month.
  • When I clock out for the day, I try to cook dinner---not because I have to for Dennis, but rather because I love to cook and it helps me manage my stress and do something I love at the same time—and then I take a break for about 60-90 minutes.

Next, I have a list of tasks that on any given evening, I have to work through:
  • I have to prep for and grade papers for my undergraduate and graduate classes.
  • I edit for a small-press so I have manuscripts to work on, read through, and/or market.
  • I mentor/edit for another small-press so I have clients who I need to work with and lessons that needs to be prepped there as well.
  • I review books on my website, so once a month, I try to write a book review. (Please note that I do this for free because I love books and supporting authors).
  • I host author interviews on my website, so I juggle that in when I can, too. (Please note, that I do this for free because I love books and supporting authors).
  • I edit the HWA Poetry Showcase every year so from April-August, I’m usually working on that; I also juror for the Stoker Awards from time to time.
  • I have to maintain scholarly research and publications in my field so a lot of research goes into my job, not to mention to course proposals, etc.
  • Oh, and then I write. 

Please note that none of the above includes any—and I mean any—typical day-to-day stuff like: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, walking our dog, meal prepping, scheduling doctor appointments, picking up medication, going to the gym, doing lawn work, etc.---all of which still gets done throughout the week when I can muster up the energy to do it.

This was all easier to maintain when for years—and I do mean years—I suffered from insomnia. I hardly slept, and when I did, I slept on the couch or on the floor of my living room because the comfort and intimacy of my bedroom terrified me. When I reconnected with Dennis a few years ago, he—my forever guardian angel--helped me through this, and now I can usually sleep in our bed (with Apollo, my other little blessing) to be asleep around 10:30-11:00 p.m.---something that I’m trying to be very strict about (mostly for my migraines).

I’m bringing all of this up because I know that I’m not the only one whose life is structured like this, and mind you, I don’t have children so I have it a lot easier than most. Even still, I can’t leave my house without my planner or my cell phone because all of my obligations, meetings , and deadlines are pre-programmed into them and without that type of organization, things simply wouldn’t get finished when they needed to, and with the field that I’m in, everything depends and functions based on deadlines. Nevertheless, I write this—mostly because I need to read it and see it on the page—because I have zero time for myself, for fun, for relaxation, for general enjoyment. I’ve become so engrossed in trying to survive, and pay my bills, and keep ahead of the game, and publish, that I forgot how to live. I feel immense guilt (and shame) if I’m not working constantly, and with the amount of people who depend on me (and who think it’s okay to use me because they know I’m a teacher and an editor), my life is often suffocating.

Honestly, I find myself crying a lot these days.

Now I talk a lot about mental health every day in my day job, and let’s not lie, it’s everywhere in my creative work, too, and something that I consistently ignore--despite the fact that I tell everyone else this--is that you’re not any good to others unless you’re good to yourself first. I mean, that’s why they tell you to put on your gas mask first before helping others in the event that something happens on the plane during your flight.

Why? Because Self-care is important. 
It’s necessary.
And I’ve been giving it the middle finger for 30 years.

A few years ago, I put myself back in therapy. I’ve watched myself go through a lot of pain in my life and a lot of time it’s hard to get up and look in the mirror, to look at my scars (both real and invisible), not to mention visit family on holidays, go the cemetery to pay my respects, or pick up the phone to tell someone that I love them. It’s hard for me to pretend everything is okay, when it’s not, and hasn’t been okay for a very long time.

Some of that is my fault.
Some of that isn’t.

So here I am, writing this letter to myself and to you, because I’m tired: mentally, emotionally, and physically. I need a break. I need to teach myself how to be happy again, and I need to remind myself that I have wonderful, beautiful, inspiring people in my life who love me and care about me, and then I’m going to let myself spend more time with those people because that should be a priority, that should be on my to-do list.

I’m going to let myself sleep when I’m tired. I’m going to drink water (instead of coffee or tea). I’m going to go to the gym and nourish my body with food I spent time preparing and blessing in my kitchen. I’m not going to set a reading goal next year and I’m only going to read books I want to read regardless of whether or not they’re timely or recently published or something I’ve been shamed about not reading because I have gaps in my knowledge and reading history (just like literally everyone else does on this planet). I’m going to finish my next book when I finish it, not because I have to meet some imaginary deadline in my head (one that I put there), but because I want to enjoy writing it. I need to slow down, to learn to say no instead of always saying yes, and I need to be okay with putting myself first.


Because I told myself that when/if it stopped being fun, I wouldn’t do it anymore.

And lately, it’s stopped being fun.

So it’s time to breathe some life back into myself and my art. It’s time to realize that some things and people are never going to change, but that I’m not one of those things; I can change and I can choose to remove myself from situations that make me feel uncomfortable or bad, or from people who don’t cherish or appreciate my time, my mind, and my heart.

Does this mean I'm going to quit doing everything? No. Of course not. At the end of the day, I really love what I do, but I need to learn how to structure and manage it better.  All of this just means that I'm going to be pickier about how I spend my time, who I spend it with, what projects I take on, etc. It means that I still want to be included and brainstormed with and invited out and to things, but that I might have to say no from time to time.

I need to rebuild myself, to put my best self forward, and I’m looking forward to meeting a new version of myself, and to seeing a lighter, happier, healthier version of her, too, because burnout is real and the pressure in this industry and in this field and in this life is intense. So while I hope that you all continue to be kind to each other, I hope you’ll also remember to be kind to yourselves, too.

Because I know it’s something that I really need to work on.

And for once, I intend to put in the work.

With love and gratitude,

Thursday, September 26, 2019


Hi Everyone--

Today is the publication day for my sixth book of poetry, an apocalyptic SF/Horror collection titled The Apocalyptic Mannequin. This book is published through Raw Dog Screaming Press and the cover art is done by Steven Archer.

I wrote about my experience and influences writing these poems in an article via Speculative Chic (you can read the full article here), but I wanted to include a small snippet in this post to give some more background on how this project came to be: "A few years ago, I wrote a sci-fi/horror poem titled “The Apocalyptic Mannequin.” It’s a post-apocalyptic robotic soliloquy that challenges the definition of body and how it became reinterpreted when the world collapsed. See, after experimenting with memoir and genre in my collection Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, I wanted to do something completely different and really challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone, so I grabbed my crossbow and axe and headed into my own version of a science-fiction horror story while I contemplated the cause and effects of the apocalypse and then mined the wreckage for scraps of poetry."

Please consider adding the book to your TBR pile on Goodreads, picking up a copy via AmazonRaw Dog Screaming Press, or Barnes and Noble, and/or reviewing how my mannequin army treated you on your favorite review site.

About the book:

Doomsday is here and the earth is suffering with each breath she takes. Whether it’s from the nuclear meltdown, the wrath of the Four Horsemen, a war with technology, or a consequence of our relationship with the planet, humanity is left buried and hiding, our bones exposed, our hearts beating somewhere in our freshly slit throats.

This is a collection that strips away civilization and throws readers into the lives of its survivors. The poems inside are undelivered letters, tear-soaked whispers, and unanswered prayers. They are every worry you’ve had when your electricity went out, and every pit that grew in your stomach watching the news at night. They are tragedy and trauma, but they are also grief and fear, fear of who—or what—lives inside us once everything is taken away.

These pages hold the teeth of monsters against the faded photographs of family and friends, and here, Wytovich is both plague doctor and midwife, both judge and jury, forever searching through severed limbs and exposed wires as she straddles the line evaluating what’s moral versus what’s necessary to survive.

What’s clear though, is that the world is burning and we don’t remember who we are.

So tell me: who will you become when it’s over?

What They're Saying:

“Like a doomsday clock fast-forwarding to its final self-destruction, Wytovich’s poetry will give you whiplash as you flip through page after page. The writing here is ugly yet beautiful. It reads like a disease greedily eating up vital organs. The apocalypse has arrived and it couldn’t be more intoxicating!”—Max Booth III, author of Carnivorous Lunar Activities

“In this hauntingly sensuous new collection of poetry, you’ll long to savor every apocalyptic nightmare you have ever feared. Blooming in the beauty of destruction and the terror of delight, Stephanie M Wytovich’s poems remind us that we feel the world better, love the world better, when we recognize the ephemeral nature of everything achingly alive beyond our mannequin minds. Here, we are captive to our deepest velvet snarls, zombie songs, and radioactive wishes, at the mercy of a neon reaping. Reading this collection is like dancing through Doomsday, intoxicated by the destructive, decadent truth of desire in our very mortality. In these poems, you will find revelry in the ruins of everything you once held dear — and you will love it to the last as you watch the world unravel around you.”—Saba Syed Razvi, author of Heliophobia and In the Crocodile Gardens

“Beautifully bleak, Stephanie M. Wytovich’s latest collection posits scenarios of the apocalypse and the horrors to come thereafter with language like fragrant hooks in your skin. Vivid, each word a weight on your tongue, these poems taste of metal and ash with a hint of spice, smoke. She reminds us the lucky ones die first, and those who remain must face the horrors of a world painted in blisters and fear. Leave it to Wytovich to show us there’s beauty in the end, just beneath all that peeling, irradiated skin.”—Todd Keisling, author of Ugly Little Things and Devil’s Creek

“Set in a post-apocalyptic world that at times seems all too near, Wytovich’s poems conjure up frighteningly beautiful and uncomfortably prescient imagery. Populated by a cast of unsettling, compelling characters, this collection is one that stuck with me.”—Claire C. Holland, author of I Am Not Your Final Girl

“A surreal journey through an apocalyptic wasteland, a world that is terrifyingly reminiscent of our own even as the blare of evacuation alarms drowns out the sizzle of acid rain, smiling mannequins bear witness to a hundred thousand deaths, and “the forest floor grows femurs in the light of a skeletal moon.” Stephanie M. Wytovich’s The Apocalyptic Mannequin is as unsettling as it is lovely, as grotesque as it is exquisite.”—Christa Carmen, author of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked

"Wytovich is a witch goddess who weaves together shadows, cobwebs, skulls, and pain. She is more than an author–she is a force of nature overflowing with incredible power."- A.E. Siraki

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Good morning, friends and fiends--

Today in the MADHOUSE, we're sitting down with Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti  to chat about their collaborative poetry collection, The Place of Broken Things published via Crystal Lake PublishingThis wonderfully dark, surreal book is filled with music and nightmares as it explores the darkness surrounding the words "Broken," "Things," and "Place." When reading it, I was immediately struck by the way the two of them complimented one another, their words each breathing into the other's like soft prayers and suffocations. 

I hope you'll add this book to your TBR list soon, but in the meantime, we're going to talk about the construction of a collaborative work, the narrative flow of poetry, and how rhythm and repetition influence the musicality of the form. So grab some coffee or tea and snuggle up because we're about to fall into the most hauntingly beautiful dream.

With broken teacups and honey,
Stephanie M. Wytovich 

SMW: Tell us about your collection. What gave you the idea to create in this world, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?

Linda: Alessandro came up with the idea of us writing together and found a publisher, Linda suggested the title. There weren’t any hard rules (any theme distant or close to either Place or Broken or Thing…). We didn’t have a defined plan, the collection created its own unique music and we examined the inner and outer world through the lens of Broken, Things, Place.

SMW: What was your favorite part of the collection to create and explore, and then to play devil’s advocate, what was the hardest for you?

Alessandro: I really enjoyed working with Linda on the collab poems, it was absolutely the best part of the project. It was like exploring many places together, seeing all the things with four eyes. The hardest part was to write my solo poems, since my ‘instruments’ was so wonderfully tuned with Linda’s, and I needed to hear her voice near me.
Linda: I’m in total agreement with Alessandro; it was exciting to write the collab poems because the music of his words & images varied from mine and inspired a different response than my solo poems, but even those were influenced by being in a shared mindset.

SMW: How was your experience collaborating with each other? Can you speak to your process a little?

Linda: The first poem we wrote was the collaborative poem with the same title as the book—after that we knew we could dance gloriously together. We were inspired to write by each other’s individual poems & others poetry, music, art, movies, friends, forms (haiku, concrete, etc.), real & imagined places; basically everything and anything.

SMW: The collection itself reads like a surreal nightmare, something that’s both present and rooted in reality, yet cloudy, almost as if it’s a past dream, familiar yet foreign. How do you personally define surrealism, and how did it influence/inspire you as you worked on the poetry for this book?

Alessandro: All my works are inspired by surrealism, I love its atemporal dimension, beyond time, and its dreaming way to tell something, which allows me to describe something not only on the surface, but diving into it. From the inside, things seem to change their form, showing themselves without skin and compromise.

SMW: There are a lot of nods to religious iconography and themes in the text. Can you speak to how notions of recovery, forgiveness, and redemption are used throughout the collection?

Linda: The word Broken is very strong; there’s so many ways for humans to break, for society to break. We both opened our imagination completely and let it flow, without limits.

SMW: Something that I particularly loved here was the way voyeurism was applied in the book. It was almost like you both were asking: why do we look? Why does the macabre interest us? So I’m curious, what is it about horror that makes you continue to look?

Alessandro: It all comes down to our controversial approach to the unknown and death. On one side we fear to open a mysterious door leading to another dimension, where we have no control over it but, on the other hand, we're fascinated to peek behind it. Horror plays the role of the keyhole of that door.

SMW: I also enjoyed the many nods to minimalist music/form. What is it about minimalism that you think works so well in the horror genre, and how does that sound translate to poetry?

Linda: We’re both exhilarated by our senses; what we hear, see, feel emotionally in the world. It doesn’t have to take a lot of words to invoke emotions of loss, regret, fear through poetry.

SMW: What’s in store next for your readers?

Linda: We both have poems in the upcoming issue of Weird Tales Magazine, which is great because Jonathan Maberry is the new editorial director, who will make sure mistakes from the past will not be repeated. Alessandro wrote his poem first and sent it to me to read; I used it to add some flavoring to the poem I created.  I have a story coming out in 2020 New Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark anthology, edited by Jonathan Maberry.

Alessandro: I have two new books of fiction upcoming this year: the dark thriller/Sci-Fi novella The Keeper of Chernobyl, to be released by Omnium Gatherum, and the hardcore-horror/weird story collection The Radioactive Bride, coming from Necro Publications. Also, I have a story coming out this year in Basphemous Rumors anthology, edited by David G. Barnett and Regina Garza Mitchell.

SMW: What advice do you have for writers working in poetry and/or considering working on a collaborative project?

Linda: It’s very important when doing a collaborative project with another creative person that each person enjoy and respect each other’s work and each other, as well as the ability to take feedback, without ego.Writing poetry should include reading poetry, all types, all genres, and all forms. When creating work, it’s fine to break the rules, but you have to know the rules first. It doesn’t hurt to try some different forms, you never know when some shape/rhythm will appeal/influence your work in a good way. As in any kind of writing:
1-write a piece as well as you can (include getting separate edit/reader feedback, if you can)
2-find an appropriate market & submit
3-write another piece; start at (1) again…

Back of the book summary:

Bram Stoker Award® winners Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti use their unique voices to create a dark, surrealistic poetry collection exploring the many ways shattered bodies, minds, and souls endure. They created poems of visionary imagery encompassing death, gods, goddesses and shadowy, Kafkaesque futures by inspiring each other, along with inspiration from others (Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Phillis Wheatley, etc.).

Construction of The Place started with the first bitten apple dropped in the Garden. The foundation defined by the crushed, forgotten, and rejected. Filled with timeless space, its walls weep with the blood of brutality, the tears of the innocent, and predatory desire. Enter and let it whisper dark secrets to you.


“Addison and Manzetti … collaborations are seamless. Powerful stuff, indeed. You will find yourself re-visiting the pieces in this book, each time discovering something new.”
—Thomas Monteleone, author of FEARFUL SYMMETRIES and recipient of the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award.

“There is no book of poetry quite like THE PLACE OF BROKEN THINGS! Linda Addison and Alessandro Manzetti spin dark magic! Highly recommended!” 
—Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of V-WARS and GLIMPSE

“This book is totally alive. Addison and Manzetti have written a volume in which literally every line is worthy of being that book’s title.”
—Josh Malerman, bestselling author of BIRD BOX

The Place of Broken Things is a dark delight of a collection. Each piece embraces flavorful language that sticks on your tongue as you read along and digest the poems. Highly recommend this collection to all fans of darkness and the macabre!”
—Sarah Tantlinger, Bram Stoker Award-winng author of The Devil’s Dreamland

Authors Bio:

Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of four collections, including How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend, and recipient of the 2018 HWA Lifetime Achievement Award. Her site: www.lindaaddisonpoet.com.

Alessandro Manzetti, award-winning author of five poetry collections, including Eden Undeground and No Mercy and works of fiction, among which the novels Naraka and Shanti. His site: www.battiago.com

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


 Hello and Good Morning, Everyone:

Today in the Madhouse, I have the pleasure of hosting one of my very best and dearest friends, Michelle Renee Lane. Michelle's book, Invisible Chains, debuted last month and has already found a strong following and readership across genres, and once you dig into the book, it's not hard to understand why. This novel is a powerhouse.

A bit about the bookJacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him, and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Now I was lucky enough to be an advanced reader for this book, both in its early stages at Seton Hill and prior to its publication date this year, and let me tell you that seeing this book hit the shelves was a truly beautiful thing. You see, Invisible Chains is so much more than a book that will just scare you...even though yes, it will 100% scare you. But this book will also make you think, think about life, think about death, think about the relationships we build, how we treat one another (and why). It's both timely and necessary, and I hope you'll pick up a copy and read it soon.

In the meantime however, below is an interview about the book. Here we talk magic, history, blood, and monsters, so I encourage you all to sit down with a glass of AB + and meditate on what vampires have come to represent in contemporary society, and how horror is both a reflection on past and current states of the world. 

With blood blisters and bite marks,
Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: First and foremost, congratulations on your debut novel! It seems like it was just yesterday we were hanging out at SHU in the WPF program, so being able to hold this book in my hands is a wonderful feeling. To start us off, tell us a bit about your novel. What does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights to you?

MRL: Thank you, Stephanie. I can remember one of the first critique sessions I had in the MFA program for this novel. You sat almost directly across the room from me. I was a little intimidated, because it was the first time anyone had read an early draft of the novel and we didn’t really know each other at that point. As soon as I heard your feedback on the scene I had submitted, a scene that got cut from the final draft, I hoped we’d have lots more to talk about. And, shortly after that, we hung out in New Orleans together, talked about the horrors of being single, the pros and cons of falling in love with vampires (werewolves, and demons), and we’ve been friends ever since.

What does this novel represent to me? That’s a great a question. I think it took me a long time to really figure that out, because each time I sat down to write a scene I realized that although I was writing about the nineteenth century, the injustices and violence my protagonist experiences at the hands of slave owners and the vampire, are really a reflection of some of the issues women of color are facing in the twenty-first century. So, while women of color aren’t experiencing physical slavery (yet) by the accepted definition, our minds are often preoccupied with the additional tasks of being on guard to recognize minefields of racism and sexism in the smallest gestures and microaggressions. These extra tasks keep us busy throughout the day and often prevent us from accomplishing all the goals we set for ourselves – educations, higher paying jobs, the freedom to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. So, I suppose this book literally represents a goal I fought hard to accomplish. It is a product of my creative mind that allowed me to explore some of the more difficult aspects of my own life and the lives of other women of color – past, present, and future.

SMW: What was your favorite scene to work on in the book, and then to play devil’s advocate, which one gave you the hardest time and/or was the most difficult emotionally to spend time with?

MRL: Some of my favorite scenes to write were the scenes in which the vampire is not only seducing the protagonist, but when he realizes that he’s being seduced in return. I love villains, and vampires are some of my favorite monsters, so constructing dialog and interactions between Carlos and Jacqueline provided me with challenges I looked forward to tackling. The more his true face is revealed, the stronger she becomes. Since I loved writing about their relationship, as unhealthy as it is, the scene I struggled with the most was when Jacqueline must confront the vampire and make a choice between her life and his. Full disclosure, it took me roughly three months to write that scene, and a poem written by my writing mentor, Lucy A. Snyder convincing me to kill the vampire.

SMW: Our friendship started at SHU, but blossomed in New Orleans, and I know that city means a lot to both of us for similar and different reasons. As it’s one of the primary settings in your book, can you tell us a little bit about your connection with the Crescent City?

MRL: You know, although New Orleans isn’t my hometown, I think of it as my adopted home. It has always treated me right and made me feel welcome. The first time I visited the city, I was nineteen. I met a woman at a college keg party, and after talking to her for over two hours about what we were reading, our favorite books, and what was on our TBR piles, we realized that a lot of the books we had been discussing were set in New Orleans, including Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.  So, we talked about going there together. Like most conversations you have while drunk at a party, I didn’t take it very seriously, but the following week she asked me when I wanted to go. We drove down to Louisiana a few weeks later at the beginning of Christmas break. I can still remember the way the air clung to my skin as we pulled into the city. So, books, films and music tempted me to New Orleans for as long as I can remember, but a flamboyant feminist hippie named Heather convinced me to follow my dreams and visit the city.

I’m also fascinated by the history of the gens de couleur libres, and the history of race relations in New Orleans. It was (and often still is) very complicated during and after slavery, but very different than other parts of the United States. Obviously, racism was still an issue, but the class structure in New Orleans allowed for mixed-race people to occupy professions and privileged statuses that simply were not available to other people of color in the United States. Depending on how wealthy a landowner was, the children conceived under the institution of plaçage, a recognized extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies that permitted European men to enter into civil unions with women of African, Native American and mixed-race descent, would sometimes be sent to France to be educated. These unions allowed the women, or placées, and their children to own property and in some cases provided freedom if they were enslaved.

And, New Orleans has some of the darkest history in the United States – pirates, voodoo, ghosts, and vampires – making it a beautifully haunted city waiting to share its secrets with you.

SMW: Jacqueline is such a fantastically strong, intelligent, and emotionally versatile character, and when we’ve talked about vampires over the past couple of years, our discussion usually moves toward the topic of how women in supernatural stories are drawn to the monster, even though they know that eventually, their love is a death wish (or bite, in this case). How did you navigate the path of violence against women in this book, and what commentary do you think you left readers with in regard to falling in love/lust with monsters?

MRL: I love a good vampire romance. The bloodier and more erotic, the better. Let’s not kid ourselves, vampires are sexy. And, in modern vampire romances, they have become the ideal partners even though they are still extremely territorial and controlling when it comes to the bodies and minds of their sexual partners. The threat of violence and the promise of death are ever present, especially during sex.

Initially, I fully intended to write a novel in that vein (pun intended), and I wanted Jacqueline to become a vampire. This novel began its life as a short story and when I first wrote it, I believed that for her to gain freedom and claim the power she deserved, she needed Carlos to rescue her and make her like him. At the time I wrote the short story, more than fifteen years ago, I was completely conscious of the connection between slavery and vampirism, which is why I think I began writing it. I was younger. A different person. Some of the challenges that were ahead of me weren’t even on my radar. I honestly believe that Jacqueline developed as a stronger character because of the challenges I overcame in my own life. My personal circumstances and complicated romantic relationships made me realize that first and foremost, no one was coming to rescue me, but secondly, I realized I didn’t need to be rescued.

Monsters can be very attractive, especially if you don’t view yourself as being “enough” for mainstream culture. If you look different, think differently, and have the audacity to share your opinions as a woman of color on subjects reserved for discussions between white males only (horror films, classic literature, comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, or anything else cool, interesting and nerdy basically), people may recognize your contributions, or they will politely (or not so politely) tell you to shut up.
Monsters occupy very interesting spaces within the margins of texts. At least, they did for a very long time. Monsters represented the racialized other, rampant female sexuality, something to fear, a cautionary tale about succumbing to your darker desires. And now, they take boring teenaged girls to prom and marry them.

This relatively new trend (or trope) in fiction made me stop and think about the message(s) being sent to women (young and old) about what is acceptable behavior in a romantic partner. When female characters had sex or were fed upon by vampires in the past, the automatic assumption was that this was an unwanted sexual experience, a violent act, rape. Then, when female characters who lived on the fringes started having sex with vampires, it was viewed as a kink that opened the floodgates to variety of alternative lifestyles. But now, when the girl next door (even if she is the chose one), decides to fall in love with a vampire or other dangerous monster, we have a vey different kind of narrative. A narrative that tells women that being stalked, hunted, possessed and consumed is the way to feel loved and desired, is a very dangerous message in my opinion.

The fact that vampires are depicted as potential husbands and boyfriends made me realize that I needed Carlos to be a true monster. He needed to be a cautionary tale, not a prize to be won. Happily-ever-after with a vampire usually means death for the object of desire. Last I checked, murder isn’t sexy no matter how handsome your prom date happens to be.

SMW: Carlos Diego Velasquez. The man we love to hate. Now I don’t know if it’s his character in general, the fact that he’s a glutton for violence, or the fact that I met him in my early 30s during the era of the Me Too Movement, but this bloodsucker really, really left a bad taste in my mouth (in a good way, of course). He’s charming, attractive, wealthy, and a smooth talker…but he’s also controlling, manipulative, and he attempts to bind Jacqueline metaphorically and trap her in a different type of slavery. This, of course, speaks to a lot of different notions: relationships, exchange of powers between races and genders, and of course, what privilege allows us to do. Can you speak to your vision with this character? In terms of a big picture, what did you want his arc to do?

MRL: I’m glad that you disliked Carlos. Vampires, regardless of what they have come to represent in popular paranormal romances, are monsters. They are reanimated corpses with impressive bank accounts and expensive wardrobes, and they feed on human blood to maintain their unnatural existences. They stalk/hunt their prey and use them to satisfy their hungers, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t want him to be Jacqueline’s savior. He isn’t supposed to be the hero of anyone’s story but his own.

He most definitely loves violence, but he’s also good at hiding the fact that he wants to ravage everyone with a pulse within a five-mile radius. To be an excellent predator, you have to convince your prey that it is safe to be near you. Convince them that there’s nowhere else they’d rather be than by your side. And then, once you’ve lulled them into a state of trust, they’re ready for you to take advantage of them. One of my favorite lines in book is an observation Jacqueline makes about vampires.

“Vampires are terrifying creatures, driven by an insatiable cannibalistic hunger and murderous urges. I was glad to have one at my side when I left the safety of the Lynches’ house.”

 Safety is an illusion for slaves that depends solely on the whims of their owners. Despite her feelings of attraction, she’s completely aware that Carlos is a monster. Almost every man in her life is a monster. She doesn’t exactly trust him, but at this point in the story, he hasn’t touched her. He’s made his desire for her clear and flirted with her, but he hasn’t threatened her physically which isn’t true of Lynch and Jimmy. A vampire makes better company than a slave owner in Jacqueline’s world.

I wanted Carlos and the other monsters in the novel to be less horrific than the slave owners. As Tananarive Due states so succinctly in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), “Black history is black horror.” I wanted to be perfectly clear that slavery and the people who benefitted from it are the villains. I wanted to avoid the accepted trope of vampires being romantic heroes. I wanted my vampire to be monstrous and I think I accomplished that.

Jacqueline needed to rescue herself. For that to happen, she can accept help from the monsters, but none of them are allowed to save her. Carlos Diego Velasquez isn’t a romantic hero that promises a happily-ever-after. He’s the first man you fall in love with who ends up betraying you by sleeping with your best friend. Except his idea of an apology is to try to rape and murder you, because you don’t love him enough to overlook his shortcomings.

SMW: In regard to genre, this book can be found in a bunch of homes: horror, dark fantasy, supernatural romance, a slave narrative, historical horror etc. What is the benefit of writing a book that speaks on so many levels? And what kind of research did you have to do to write it?

MRL: I suppose cross-genre fiction appeals to a wider audience of readers. Some people were hesitant to read the book because they assumed it was straight horror. In their minds, they have a very limited view of the horror genre and can’t get past the idea of being scared or freaking out about gore or violence or whatever puts them off about horror. So, when I explained that the horror in the novel really comes from historical accounts of slavery and the narcissism of the vampire, that seemed to put them at ease. People who NEVER read anything horror related keep contacting me to tell me how much they’re enjoying the book.

I did a lot of research for this novel in order to make sure my representation of slavery was authentic in all its horror. Some of the scenes of violence come directly from first-hand accounts of slaves. There are a lot of images of lynching out there if you want to give yourself nightmares, and plenty of print media from the time depicting the historical representation of blacks that made them seem inhuman. Some of the torture devices used to punish slaves were similar to ones used on witches, and I couldn’t help seeing a connection between the abuse and genocide experienced by these two very different groups of people.

Yes, there’s a lot of horror in this novel, but it is the horror of a history we should be ashamed of and never stop telling. Many of the terrible things that happen to Jacqueline and the over slaves in the novel happened to real people living in the antebellum South.

One of my reviewers mentioned that the scenes of supernatural horror felt like a respite after reading about the horrors of slavery. That statement alone made me realize I had accomplished my goal.

SMW: There are themes of dream work, folk magic, and masks woven throughout the text, and your descriptions of herbs, flowers, food, and drink are palpable, not to mention beautiful moments of imagery. What is your own relationship with magic, and how did it influence your writing?

MRL: Your questions are really making me think, and I appreciate that. But this question is really making me think about magic in terms of my own origin story. I mean, I don’t there’s a wrong answer, but I want to speak about magic in a way that doesn’t disrespect other people’s beliefs. And, that was something I thought about A LOT while writing the book.

Like a lot of kids, I was encouraged to believe in magic – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy – and for as long as I can remember, folk tales and fairy tales were part of the background noise in my household. My grandmother, Dora, read a lot and her favorite stories were ghost stories, but she read a lot of horror and collected Stephen King’s novels. She enjoyed telling stories as much as she liked reading them and she delighted in being able to scare the shit out of you.

I don’t know a lot about my family history, but my understanding is that part of my family comes from the Black Forest region in Germany where apparently a lot of fairy tales originated. I loved fairy tales as a kid and remember the Disney versions being very different from the ones I was told. There weren’t a lot of happy endings in the versions I knew from childhood. My curiosity about the differences in the way stories were told led me to do some research and I wrote some of my academic work about fairy tales in college. And, I read as many fairytales as I could get my hands on. I’m particularly fond of Russian folktales and the more X-rated versions of Little Red Riding Hood.

For the most part, the people in my family believe in the supernatural and many of us have had encounters with ghosts. The ghost of the man who used to live in my grandparents’ house is part of our story as a family. Their house was haunted, and people outside of our family have witnessed the hauntings in that house. My mom told me a story about an aunt of hers who healed a burn on her hand just by touching it and saying a few words. My mom swears the burn just disappeared. The women in my family are smart, creative, skilled and strong. I’m certain some of us would have been burned at the stake as witches back in the day, because we all have some very strong opinions and don’t mind sharing them.

When I was a kid and first saw representations of voodoo and other magic systems that came from African traditions, I saw them as a form of empowerment rather than something to fear. Magic has just always been part of my life in one way or another, and it was presented to me as something normal.

Did anyone in my family practice magic when I was growing up? Probably not. At least, not in my mother’s family. I never met my biological father, but apparently his mother practiced voodoo and was the person people asked for magical advice in her community. My mom said that my biological father was really into tarot cards, talismans, and “all kinds of weird shit.” So, when I started reading tarot cards, playing with a Ouija board, and put black curtains over my windows in high school, she wondered if those interests came from him.

I don’t know. Do you gain an interest and understanding of magic through nature or nurture? I’m still fascinated by magic and how people continue to incorporate it into their everyday lives. Ritual is important. Tradition is important. I think stories about magic connect us to the past and help us gain a better understanding of our origins. All stories have a little magic in them if you know where to look.

SMW: As a fellow movie buff who gets most of her movie recommendations from you (side note: we need another Buffy marathon, soon!) what are some vampire films that you think are underrated that people need to know about?

MRL: I’ll watch Buffy anytime you like. I would also suggest checking out a vampire film a lot of people don’t know about, Ganja & Hess (1973). This vampire film has an almost all black cast, with a black screenwriter and director, Bill Gunn. Duane Jones, the actor who played Ben in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, plays Dr. Hess Green who becomes a vampire after being stabbed by an ancient dagger. I’ve only ever seen the film once, because for a very long time it was impossible to find and then you could only see a terribly butchered studio print that connected it with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. In fact, I think the only existing print of the original film was in a museum until Kino Lorber released it on DVD in the late 1990s. It’s probably one of the most creative interpretations of the vampire myth and it is a beautiful art film that vampire film buffs should see. Like most vampire fiction, vampirism is a delivery system for groundbreaking commentary on sex, religion, and African American identity. Check it out.

Also, if you haven’t seen The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998), I highly recommend it. Jude Law is a vampire, but you don’t realize that’s what he is until we get further into the narrative. It has a wonderful serial killer vibe, and maybe you didn’t hear me, but JUDE LAW IS A VAMPIRE.

I have a lot of favorites when it comes to vampire films, but one of my favorite recent vampire films is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s smart and funny and has an amazing cast. And, it depicts vampires in a way that made perfect sense – they would be boring. Tom Hiddleston’s character is obsessed with vinyl and music, and Tilda Swinton shows up with a suitcase full of books. They’re like middle-aged Goths or Punks who never shut up about the things that interest them the most. I loved it. And, who doesn’t want to watch Tom Hiddleston suck on a blood popsicle?

 SMW: Who are you currently reading and what are you presently working on?

MRL: Honestly, I haven’t been reading much. I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks, but I’ve been relistening to some of my favorites and plowing through paranormal romance series, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series, Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy.... Are you seeing a pattern here? I’ve been consuming vampire fiction at an alarming rate, but I’m considering this consumption research. I’ve been writing about vampires a lot more lately, and I’m working on my own paranormal romance series. In order to write within a particular genre, you should spend a lot of time getting to know and understand it. So, at the moment, it’s all vampires all the time. I’m sure some people think that’s all I read and write about, but that just isn’t true. I read and write about werewolves, demons, and witches, too.

Author Bio:

Michelle R. Lane writes dark speculative fiction about women of color who battle their inner demons while falling in love with monsters. Her work includes elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and occasionally erotica. In January 2015, Michelle graduated with an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Her short fiction appears in the anthologies Dark Holidays, and Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos. Her debut novel, Invisible Chains, is available from Haverhill House Publishing and Amazon. She lives in South Central Pennsylvania with her son.