Tuesday, March 7, 2017

INSIDE THE WORLD OF BEAUTIFUL HORROR: AN INTERVIEW WITH LISA MANNETTI

Dearest Readers:

Today in the MADHOUSE, I'm happy to sit down with one of my dear friends and fellow madwomen, Lisa Mannetti. Lisa and I had a nice talk at Necon this past summer about all things mad and revolting--and naturally we had these delightful little chats over a Bellini (or two, or three)!--and as such, I wanted to invite her into the asylum to sit down and chat with me about her Bram Stoker award-nominated story, "“Arbeit Macht Frei,” which was published in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories through Crystal Lake Publishing.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Mannetti's work, her debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award and she has since been nominated five times for the prominent award in both the short and long fiction categories: Her story, “Everybody Wins,” was made into a short film and her novella, “Dissolution,” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden. Recent short stories include “Esmeralda’s Stocking” in Never Fear: Christmas Terrors; “Resurgam” in Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran; “The Hermit” in Never Fear: The Tarot; and “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. Her work, including The Gentling Box, “1925: A Fall River Halloween,” and The Box Jumper, has been translated into Italian.

Purchase Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories here!
Her most recently published longer work, The Box Jumper, a novella about Houdini, was not only been nominated for a 2015 Bram Stoker Award and the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award, it won the “Novella of the Year” award from This is Horror in the UK

She has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two companion novellas in her collection, Deathwatch, a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover, as well as non-fiction books, and numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Forthcoming works include, “Apocalypse Then” in Never Fear: The Apocalypse, several other short stories, and a dark novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era, Radium Girl.

Lisa lives in New York in the 100 year old house she originally grew up in with two wily (mostly black) twin cats named Harry and Theo Houdini.
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WYTOVICH: Tell us about the story. What inspired you to write it?

MANNETTI: I’ve always had a deep, abiding interest in the Holocaust including the events that led up to it, its duration and aftermath. As a matter of fact, the very first dream I can ever recall from my own life was of Nazi boots coming up a flight of stairs to take me away—forever—from my family.  Eligia’s dream in the short story was actually my own, except that I was three when I had the dream and the location was my favorite aunt’s house.

I’m also acquainted with a Holocaust survivor—although she was a hidden child—like Anne Frank in the Netherlands. Additionally, I grew up living next door to a man who (aside from being a Polish count) was a member of the resistance. Luckily he, like my survivor-friend, Ilse Loeb, escaped death several times.

It’s been my intention for many years to write about the subject. I’ve read many, many books in and out of my coursework—as well as watching numerous films. In the late 90s, I even taught a section on the Holocaust when I was an adjunct instructor at SUNY New Paltz.

The story itself (which I researched an additional six weeks before I ever began writing it) takes its cue from a line in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, about how some people were heroes, others not only less than heroic, but driven out of desperation. I’m paraphrasing here, but she says something like, “You couldn’t really blame people if they weren’t noble or even good, because the Nazis turned them into animals.” My character, a teen-aged girl, is swayed by a girl she admires and haunted by her parents’ bad marriage and makes the wrong choices. At the end of the story she strives for some type of atonement, something that may alleviate the guilt she feels over what she’s thoughtlessly done to her mother. Or, she recognizes, may not. She certainly believes—at a very deep level—she needs to punish herself for what has transpired.

WYTOVICH: This particular piece is in the Crystal Lake anthology, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. What does “beautiful horror” mean to you?

MANNETTI:  Well William Blake limns this concept:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” 

And he certainly expresses it better than I could, when he also asks:

“And what shoulder, and what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?”

I think there is both symmetry and beauty inside most good horror and certainly in tragedy. In my character’s case, she’s lured by a combination of the anger and despair she felt when her parents divorced, by her current sense of desperation, by the fantasy of beauty she feels she’s missed out and, having suffered, feels (at least temporarily) entitled to.

WYTOVICH: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? What do you find is the hardest and easiest part of the craft?

MANNETTI: Easiest is doing research for me. First of all I really love it. Secondly, I found over time, it really helps spark the work. Character development, situation and plot have a way of becoming clearer as you research a subject.

Hardest for me is ferreting out the plot points (I usually know the ending before I reach the half-way point) because I tend to write organically, letting characters grow and develop. It means extra time involved, but usually the results (for me, at least) are worth it.

WYTOVICH: As a writer, what is your preferred form to tell a story? Why?

MANNETTI: Each story dictates the form in my opinion. Through trial and error I’ve discovered that some short stories (no matter how you try and condense) are actually novellas or novels, and some novels would be served better if you used just the spine (or through story) and wrapped the whole thing up in 5,000 words.

Structurally, I tend to like opening with a hint of the ending and move backward through flashback to bring the reader up to date with events, then have the ending written as the “now” of the story. I think it can add tension to the work and I really like frame stories.

I tend to write first person p.o.v. when the story is set in the past or has something so quirky it will be easier for the reader to enter into the piece if subconsciously he or she can readily identify with the character. I also find first person tends to pack a bigger wallop emotionally.

WYTOVICH: Who are some of your influences in the genre?

MANNETTI: I like things dark and complicated; so, in no particular order here’s a group of writers I reread frequently: Coleridge,  Jonathan Swift, Defoe, Theodore Dreiser, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters,  Mauriac,  Mark Twain (I also like satire),  Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, J.P. Donleavy, Kingsley Amis,  Peter Straub, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Douglas Clegg, Jack Ketchum, Elizabeth Massie, John Irving, William Styron--and a whole bunch more I can’t think of at the moment.

I also love to read: true crime books, fairy tales, children’s books, biographies and non-fiction in general.

WYTOVICH: What is your origin story? What drew you to horror in the first place?

MANNETTI: Basically I am a scaredy-cat. I’ve always had dark dreams (last night’s, for example) was a real beaut: I dreamt I was told I had a brain-tumor and the operation to save me involved cutting off my head. The really interesting part was seeing my reflection recuperating post-up in a plate-glass window, walking by head intact, smoking and talking. My mother was a public health director so she talked a lot about diseases (not to mention all the books she had lying around) and my older brother watched a lot of scary movies and TV, so my family sort of sucked me in—maybe they thought it would help with the night terrors I suffered for years. And maybe not, since I slept with the lights on till I was about thirty. At any rate, even the first story I ever wrote was about vampires. My mother liked it, but I think she was being generous since I was only eight.

WYTOVICH: What’s sitting in your TBR pile these days?

MANNETTI: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough; Law and Disorder by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker; The Magician by Somerset Maugham; The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon; The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow; The People of the Abyss by Jack London; What Maisie Knew by Henry James; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Novrell by Susanna Clarke; The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard; Scott of the Antarctic: A Biography by David Crane; Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving; plus a bunch more for researching stories and books.         

WYTOVICH: What can your readers look forward to on the horizon?

MANNETTI: I have a bunch of stories both in the works and scheduled to come out in various anthologies.

At present I’m working on a novel called RADIUM GIRL which is set in the post WWI era and has a protagonist who worked at a New Jersey dial-painting factory (where all the girls ingested radium unwittingly). As the story opens she can no longer walk, she’s been hideously disfigured by a tumor on her jaw and, to help her family with expenses she resorts to displaying her body in a circus freak show. I do like historical horror and, of course, bizarre circumstances.

WYTOVICH: If you could give one piece of advice to writers, what would it be and why?

MANNETTI: Read every day. Read everything that you can get your hands on. It’s as much a part of the job as the writing itself. If you familiarize yourself with what’s already been written in the genre, it will help you struggle to write something that’s fresh and original. If you read outside the genre, it can spark a lot of ideas and help with character development and plot. Rearrange, reschedule, carve out that private niche; beg, borrow or steal time for reading—and make sure you read every single day.

Visit her author website: www.lismannetti.com
Visit her virtual haunted house: www.thechanceryhouse.com