Tuesday, May 8, 2018

POISON APPLES, BIRD FEATHERS, AND SISTERHOOD: AN AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH GWENDOLYN KISTE


Good Morning, Everyone:

Today in the Madhouse, I'm featuring author Gwendolyn Kiste where we'll talk reversed fairy tales, female empowerment, and chat about her short story collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe. I have to say that I absolutely loved and was taken with this collection, and I found myself connecting with the stories inside it on a very real, emotional level. For those of you who know me, you know that I have a soft spot for the beautiful grotesque and that I think horror is one of the best genres in writing for learning coping methods and survival skills. Kiste's work incorporates all of that, but with the softness of a first kiss and the subtlety of a sharpened dagger. 


I'm beyond excited to have her here with me today, but for those of you who are new to her work, let me give you a proper introduction.Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, her debut fiction collection available now from JournalStone, as well as the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing's Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology, among others. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts.  

So stay away from the spinning wheel, try not to the eat the apple, and get ready to dive into a world of birds, towers, and women who like to break the rules.

With seashells and owl feathers,
Stephanie M. Wytovich 


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

To be honest, I was inspired to put together the collection when my now-editor, Jess Landry, at JournalStone reached out to me and asked me to submit a book to her. I knew I had more than enough stories for a collection, but I’d wanted to wait until the right opportunity came along. I already admired Jess and all the work she’d done as an author, and I was so thrilled to be able to get on board with her as an editor, so I was sure that this was exactly the opportunity I’d hoped for. So I went through my work and really pored over which pieces went together. Once I’d winnowed everything down to nine previously published stories, I finished up a handful of new tales for the table of contents that were along a similar vein, and suddenly I realized I had a book! It felt a little like magic when it all came together.

To me, the collection is all about outsiders. It explores stories of people who have been pushed out of life, and bullied or entirely ostracized because of societal expectations. The horror mainly comes from that everyday dread of figuring out how to live in a world that’s so often hostile to anyone who’s different. In particular, it was important to me to have a collection that focused a lot on female characters and the relationships between them. Growing up, I always yearned for more female-centric stories, and once I had the chance, I knew that’s what I wanted to write.    

There were so many beautiful stories in this collection that it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. However, I was particularly taken with the first story, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” The imagery of birds juxtaposed with femininity and birth is written with such care and fragility, that I’m curious, what inspired it?

The simple answer for this one is that I just really love birds. Owls, crows, vultures, even pigeons—I’m a pretty big fan of all of them. Somehow, I also manage to spend a lot of time with birds too. I’ve held baby owls, been followed by murders of crows across town, and observed (from a safe distance) as mother and father birds taught their babies to fly.

Part of what draws me to birds, beyond how beautiful and fascinating they are, is that they’re tied to this idea of freedom. Flight can be such a metaphor for independence, and for letting go of the past and moving into the future or even the unknown. That mystery of birds definitely gives them a tinge of horror too, a certain kind of uncertainty or strangeness.

On the other hand, childbirth is one of the most terrifying things in the world to me. It’s so violent and yet treated so casually in society, like women should just be able to “bounce back” within minutes, despite how many changes, physically and emotionally, it puts new mothers through. As I was doing some free association in a drafting process, I imagined a connection between the freedom and mystery of birds and the terror of childbirth, especially in circumstances where the new mother is disregarded by those who should care most about her. It was certainly a painful story to write at points, but I like to think the ending is ultimately an optimistic, if not a little bit creepy, one.

“The Tower Princesses” reads like a reverse fairy tale, much like “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray.” I love that you’re empowering women through your retellings of these stories and tropes that we’re all familiar with, most of us even, from childhood. What effect are you hoping these stories have on how women are portrayed in the horror industry, both the writers and their characters?

I very much hope that these stories expand upon women’s roles, especially in horror, and give us a chance to reclaim our own narratives and make us into something more than victims. To be fair, horror has always included more strong female characters than many other genres, but in particular when looking at fairy tales, women are too often relegated to waiting for the prince to come and save them. With both “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” and “The Tower Princesses,” I wanted to subvert that trope and allow the female characters to fight for and discover their own paths. It can be so easy to internalize the stories we’re told from childhood, and for me, as a writer, I like to take the tales that might have quietly built up one narrative for readers and look at that same story from a different and hopefully more challenging perspective. We can still love the things we grew up with, while at the same time realizing that some of the “lessons” we learned were dated and even at times damaging.      

“The Clawfoot Requiem” was another favorite of mine, and to me, it’s a perfect example of the beautiful grotesque. For readers who are unfamiliar with the terminology, how would you describe the beautiful grotesque, and to add on to that, how do you like to tackle it in your writing?

For me, the beautiful grotesque is all about finding the lyrical and the elegant in images and themes that are commonly seen as unnerving or even outright disgusting. In my writing, I might take an image—the bathtub of blood in “The Clawfoot Requiem” or the gory childbirth in “Something Borrowed, Something Blue”—and depict it in a way that isn’t there solely to “gross-out.” Instead, the focus is on what’s quietly lovely and hopefully emotionally resonant in the creepy moment.

One of my favorite things about the beautiful grotesque is that it can be a strange kind of coping mechanism. Horror in general helps readers (and writers) to deal with the more terrifying aspects of life. By taking that one step further and not just dealing with the things that terrify us but also making those things beautiful, it can simultaneously enhance the horror while also adding an odd level of comfort. Because if something’s beautiful, it can’t just be horrifying, right? There’s certainly cognitive dissonance in the beautiful grotesque, and personally, I think that makes it even more appealing to me, how the juxtaposition challenges expectations.

To me, the collection read like a whimsical, haunted fairy tale, so I have to ask. What’s your favorite fairy tale and why?

It’s obviously so hard to pick, but I’ll have to go with Baba Yaga. She’s such a fascinating and still underappreciated character. I love her capricious nature, how she’s as likely to assist the protagonist as she is to antagonize them. Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a house with chicken legs, and ride around in a mortar and pestle every night? She’s definitely quite the gal!

However, in terms of my favorite fairy tale retelling, that would be “The Company of Wolves.” It was the first Angela Carter story I ever read, and it was a complete revelation for me. Ever since discovering it in an undergrad literature class, I can very honestly say I haven’t been the same.

What takeaway do you hope your readers leave your collection with?

It’s interesting, because I don’t necessarily have a specific takeaway for the collection. I’m happy with whatever the readers discover for themselves while reading these stories. That being said, if I had to choose, I hope that those who feel like the outsider or the Other come away feeling at least a little less alone in the world. And for anyone who doesn’t necessarily feel like the outsider, then maybe they’ll have more understanding and compassion for those who don’t belong. I can be a bit too optimistic about the future, but I still like to believe that one day, we’ll have a world where we don’t deliberately lock people out of opportunity and out of life and happiness. I think literature can provide one way for us to move toward a more inclusive society, and I would very much like for my work to be part of that.

How did you come to writing and who are some of your influences?

Like so many of us, I’ve been writing pretty much since I could pick up a pencil. I put together my first little books of stories when I was around six years old, complete with really terrible illustrations. (I’m definitely not a visual artist!) I’ve always loved horror and the darker side of fairy tales, so as a voracious reader as a child, it seemed like the most wonderful possibility for me that eventually, I could be a writer too.

My biggest influences are definitely Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter. Their fiction never ceases to surprise me, no matter how many times I read and reread their stories. As for authors writing today, Brooke Warra, Farah Rose Smith, Eden Royce, Christa Carmen, Calvin Demmer, and Christina Sng are just a few who consistently inspire me with their work. It’s a wonderful time to be a horror and dark fantasy writer, for sure.     

Can you give us an insight into your writing process? Any habits or rituals when you sit down to write?

I’ve found over the past year or so that I actually write best when I don’t have a typical pattern but instead switch up where I write and when. I have a dedicated writing desk at home, but I love to get out of the house when I can. To coffee shops, diners, any place that has Wi-Fi and sometimes even places that don’t. My biggest challenge is to make sure nothing about the process of writing feels too rote. I can’t get into that creative headspace if that happens.

I will say, though, that a cup of coffee is always a great motivator. It’s the one ritual that never fails for me!  

What books are sitting in your TBR pile?

Too many to count, honestly! In the next month or so, I’m looking very forward to reading Larissa Glasser’s F4, Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth from Martian Migraine Press, Craig Laurance Gidney’s The Nectar of Nightmares, and an advance copy of Christa Carmen’s debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked. I’ll probably also reread a couple books in there too, including Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws as well as Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia and illustrated by Katy Horan. So many incredible books, and so little time!

What is next in store for your readers?

My debut novel, The Rust Maidens, is coming very soon! Based primarily in the year 1980, it’s about a group of girls in a Cleveland neighborhood who are slowly turning into the rust and rot that surrounds them. It includes some of my favorite themes such as body horror and coming of age, and it also has some elements of a very weird, gothic fairy tale too. That will be released through Trepidatio Publishing, an imprint of JournalStone, and should be coming out in September.

While the novel is my big project for the year, I also have a number of short stories that will be making their way into the world soon as well. In particular, my horror story, “An Elegy for Childhood Monsters,” will appear in Suspended in Dusk 2 from Grey Matter Press, and my cosmic horror tale, “A Lost Student’s Guide to Surviving the Abyss,” will be part of the Welcome to Miskatonic University anthology from Broken Eye Books.  I have a couple other pieces that I can’t announce yet, but hopefully, there will be several more things to come in 2018.   

What advice do you have for writers working in the horror genre?

It might seem obvious, but write what scares you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the usual things that are deemed “frightening.” In fact, sometimes, the most unusual fears create the best and more distinctive stories. If it unnerves you, then it’s worth exploring. Especially when writing horror, it’s often easier and less painful to take the easy way out, to look away from the things that truly bother us, but when you dig deep into the recesses of who you are and what truly terrifies you, that’s when I think a writer is going to find that vein of truth in their work. And that’s what’s more likely to resonate with readers.


Book Description & Blurbs

A murdered movie star reaches out to an unlikely fan. An orchard is bewitched with poison apples and would-be princesses. A pair of outcasts fail a questionnaire that measures who in their neighborhood will vanish next. Two sisters keep a grotesque secret hidden in a Victorian bathtub. A dearly departed best friend carries a grudge from beyond the grave.

In her debut collection, Gwendolyn Kiste delves into the gathering darkness where beauty embraces the monstrous, and where even the most tranquil worlds are not to be trusted. From fairy tale kingdoms and desolate carnivals, to wedding ceremonies and summer camps that aren't as joyful as they seem, these fourteen tales of horror and dark fantasy explore death, rebirth, and illusion all through the eyes of those on the outside---the forgotten, the forsaken, the Other, none of whom will stay in the dark any longer.

"Ravishingly beautiful and profoundly haunting." -- Maria Haskins, author of Dark Flash

"These stories come from the shadows under the merry-go-round, and they're eager to drag you back there with them." -- Sarah Read, author and editor at Pantheon Magazine
"A lyrical journey of blood, loss, and secrets, Kiste's debut collection takes you from a cursed orchard to a world that looks all too familiar. Dark and beautiful, And Her Smile is not to be missed." -- Jacob Haddon, editor of LampLight


Promotional Links
http://www.gwendolynkiste.com
http://facebook.com/gwendolynkiste