As an author, professional writer, and self-proclaimed word smith I find it difficult to read fiction without sliding into thoughts on how I would “improve” it or considering the plot points I might change. This tendency is not from some sense that I am a literary master or that I possess some greater talent than the author…it’s just words are what I do…it’s a natural response. But every so often, as with today’s guest, I find myself taking an opposite position…a feeling you might even call envy. I read the author’s words, her lines, the story and I think…damn, I wish I could write like this.
Which brings me to our guest—Gwendolyn Kiste. Her writing resume is diverse and impressive, but we’ll leave such things for the closing, for now, I am far more anxious to get inside this speculative, sci-fi’ish, horror writer’s head and unveil some of the workings hinted at in her short-stories.
WIDW: Welcome Gwendolyn, thanks for joining us today. I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this interview. As I did my “who is Gwendolyn” research I kept running into “wow, me too,” moments and I thought, if this conversation happened in a bar, instead of a sober interview, all those “me too’s” might sound like I was trying to pick you up. So just to clear up any potential awkwardness lets just list out some of them and move on to a question—we both were introduced to horror at an early age by our parents, we share a similar list of favorite authors (Matheson, Jackson, Bradbury, etc), we grew up on Twilight Zone, we both appeared in Sanitarium Magazine, both majored in psychology, and you live in Romero’s first setting of the Living Dead and I live in his third movie setting. So, do you come here often?
Okay kidding, that is not the first question.
It does seem that in the background, your parent’s love of horror sparked your own life-love of the genre. I was five when my mother took me to see the Omega Man (a retelling of Matheson’s I Am Legend) at the drive in—today she’d probably receive a visit from Child Services for the lack of good judgment. Tell us a little bit about your early experiences and your parent’s influence on your love for things that go bump in the night?
GK: It’s funny because I can’t remember my earliest experience with horror. It’s just always been there, in a poster of an old horror movie on the wall or on the television screen on Saturday mornings when Hammer films were in constant rotation. When I was still too young to walk, my dad introduced me to Poe by reciting “The Raven,” and my mom introduced me to Bradbury with “Homecoming.” Consequently, I’ve always loved everything about horror—films, television shows, literature. Heck, even when it came to music, my dad was always playing songs like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Jethro Tull’s “Old Ghosts” on the turntable, so there was even horror in our music. Plus, my parents were married on Halloween, so I’ve often said that all things weird are practically my birthright.
WIDW: We’ll get to the psychology degree in a moment, but obviously you didn’t major in English and yet, your prose carries a very rich tone that demonstrates a mastery of writing. Here’s one example from your story One Wish for the Wishing Well:
They drove home from the hospital as a family, watercolor shapes of empty kiddie pools and abandoned lemonade stands bleeding past the car windows. Summer was almost over, fading like a blurry reflection in a mud puddle.
Now I know for a fact they didn’t teach us that in psychology, so how did you hone your writing skills sans academic training?
GK: It’s such a frequent piece of advice, but the most important thing for me was reading a lot and figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t like about other authors’ writing. When you’re young and reading for class, it’s almost as if you’re expected to like everything, in particular the literary stalwarts assigned in high school. However, I never had a problem saying that I didn’t enjoy something, no matter how beloved it was. From there, I honed in on the styles I preferred and then dissected what it was I liked about the prose, which usually came down to clarity and wordplay as well as a streamlined plot and interesting characters. I’m not a fan of stories that spend too much time on descriptions, especially descriptions that don’t move the story along, so I try to keep my fiction as fast-paced as possible.
Also, to be fair, I do have a bit of academic training in there—during college, between degree requirements, I always snuck in a few literature and writing classes where I could. That’s where I learned how to incorporate symbolism into my fiction, something I do almost to a fault now.
WIDW: Well you certainly get an “A” for being able to use Stalwarts in a sentence. While I look it up…Horror is often misunderstood by those who don’t read it. They most often equate such writings with the things of movies—monsters, blood, gore— but in your stories, such as Audrey at Night, although the reader can sense the terror, the narrative ultimately reveals a much different kind of monster. What do you see as the true essence of Horror?
GK: For me, horror is about a sense of the unknown. That can evoke a myriad of responses—curiosity, dread, and even hope. Horror can be all of those things, provided the characters can plow through whatever’s haunting them and survive to tell the tale. Although I wrote it over a year ago, “Audrey at Night” remains one of my personal favorite pieces because it explores so many elements of the unknown. It would have been easy to end that story on a dark, nihilistic note, but from the start, I knew I wanted to do something different and even unexpected, something that cut through the flesh to explore who these characters really were. That’s what horror is to me—taking the unknown elements of ourselves and shining a light on them.
WIDW: My vocabulary is improving just doing this interview…Much of your writing could be called Speculative Fiction, a term that is, in many ways, more general and casts an even larger net of possibilities than horror. One of my favorites is your story, Ships and Stars and Childhood Things—it’s a contemplation of time, immortality, and life’s true meaning. A huge concept you successfully deliver in an impossibly short number of words. Do you find, more often, that you contemplate an idea and then build a story or write a story and discover the greater contemplation within?
GK: I’ve certainly approached stories from both angles, but more often than not, it starts as an idea, usually something about human nature, and grows from there. With “Ships and Stars and Childhood Things,” I was thinking about how hard it would be if you’re the individual left behind when all these people depart for great things. It originated not with spaceships, but with seaports and how in a time before widespread transportation, those who lived on the ocean would meet many adventurers but would rarely go on adventures themselves. At the same time, I’ve long wanted to explore time dilation and have a story where one person ages while another doesn’t, so I decided to put the concepts together and really play with the
intersection of time and space.
Other times, my stories start with an image. With “Audrey at Night,” the image I saw was a female ghost crawling along the floor and creeping ever closer to a bed. From there, I developed the reasons why a specter would want to haunt someone like this. In my story, “The Clawfoot Requiem,” which came out earlier this year in LampLight, I started with the stark image of a Victorian bathtub filled with blood. Again, like “Audrey at Night,” I worked from this image to develop a story about loss and rebirth, both of which are themes that keep recurring in my work. So, as these things often go, it seems to depend on the story and which directions a particular tale leads me.
WIDW: Many Horror/Speculative Fiction writers found early inspiration in The Twilight Zone series. The individual episodes, however, included a range of story-types, and in a way spoke to different future genre writers. For me, episodes like Night Call, Living Doll (aka Talking Tina), and Nick of Time were more inspirational to the types of stories I wanted to write. What is it about the series that still captures our imagination? What about the show drove your own passion and, if there are in fact “types” which episode(s) were most inspirational to you?
GK: I don’t know if this is a certain “type” necessarily, but I’ve always loved the episodes in which the main character must undergo some painful self-discovery. Richard Matheson’s “Spur of the Moment” definitely plays with the idea of how one choice can irrevocably affect the rest of your life. The character of Anne learns this too late, but watching her wrestle with the mistake of her youth is a fascinating way to approach horror. It doesn’t follow the usual jump scare approach to which I think modern audiences have become too accustomed, but instead, the horror comes from regret, something that can stick with you much longer than a monster jumping out of a shadow.
WIDW: The first story of yours I read (well listened to) Audrey at Night, I expected one thing and got another. What I mean is, I quickly understood there was a great depth in the work…a mystery almost to figure out, but not a whodunit type of mystery, a greater meaning to the words. One Wish for the Wishing Well confirmed that Gwendolyn is taking us to the dark gardens of human psychology and perhaps the soul. So am I giving you too much credit here or are you purposefully taking readers into dark places of the human mind?
GK: I definitely aim to lead readers into those depths of the human mind. With my horror fiction, the goal is to take a scenario—one that seems simple and commonplace—and twist it into something surprising and dark. There are so many aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to face, and I feel that a great strength of horror is the ability to take those difficult themes and explore them in a way that doesn’t flinch or skirt over the truth. Fear is such a baseline emotion that once a reader says that he or she is willing to go into that darkness, then you as a writer can’t disappoint them by doing some too obvious or facile. So as a storyteller, I try to explore ideas that push the comfortable limits and find those edges of what it means to be human.
WIDW: The brain wiring for dark fiction writers is interesting—most people see flowers and they think of things like “love”—the horror writer so often sees a funeral. And speaking of brain wiring, you majored in Psychology. Many of us Psych Majors find ourselves applying those learnings in settings far from clinical or research settings. In Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering, he writes that authentic characters are critical to well-told stories and that writers would be well-served to have a degree in psychology. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but how has your education helped your writing and more importantly in what ways did one love drive the other?
GK: From the time I embarked on the psychology degree, I knew I would use it in my writing. That was always the plan. But I like that you ask about the ways that one love affected the other, because writing has certainly made me love psychology more. I can always spot a writer who doesn’t have much understanding of the human mind because the characters act in ways that make little to no sense. I don’t necessarily think a writer needs a psychology degree, but a writer should have an understanding of human behavior. As a result, the knowledge I gained through my formal education has been invaluable to me. When I was in graduate school, I had a couple professors who didn’t think I took the training seriously enough because I was always working on so many different projects outside of the psychology program (independent films, etc.). There are times now that I want to send them an email with a link to “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions” or another story I’ve written that clearly uses the psychology degree, and tell them that even though I had interests outside of psychology, the education still mattered tremendously to me. I can guarantee there are things that I remember from my training that other students who stayed in the field have completely forgotten. There’s more than one way to use education.
WIDW: An author can write a love-story or science fiction and the content seldom ganders the looks one gets when writing darker tales. That look of silent accusation or perhaps contemplation of “what the hell is going on in your head, freak?” It’s often hard to explain that “yes I think about these things…but I’m not these things.” Your stories, Late Night Drive and One Wish for the Wishing Well, certainly fit nicely into the consideration of “what sort of Meds is G on?” and “I hope she keeps taking them…for her husband’s sake.” Not to belabor the point, but one of my favorite modern horror writers, Richard Laymon, surprised the hell out of family and friends with his work—such a nice, quite man writing about such “sick” things. That’s a very long way to get to the question—how much of the work is self-contemplation and how much is simply an exploration of dark themes as an observer?
GK: I love this question, because you’re absolutely right: it can be hard for some people, in particular those who aren’t fans of horror, to understand why someone would write about such dark themes. However, my response would be that we need to recognize these things because there is inherent darkness in everyone. It’s nothing to feel shame about, so long as you explore it in a constructive way. When I’m writing horror, my inspiration usually comes from a combination of self-contemplation and observing. If I’m creating a character that feels like an outsider, then I can certainly draw on my own experiences growing up in a small town where people weren’t so eager to accept a girl who likes horror. But in a story like “One Wish for the Wishing Well,” that inspiration came more from observing. I don’t have children myself, but after a lifetime of seeing how much pressure society puts on parents, in particular mothers, I wanted to create a story that dealt with women who could simply no longer deal with that pressure. It was a horrifying thought but at the same time, I sort of saw the idea as a warning: don’t be so cruel and judgmental that you push people to a breaking point, because you don’t know how ugly that breaking point might be.
WIDW: I’ve probably said it enough, but…One Wish is an amazing emotional story because the horror isn’t the events…it’s the truth beneath…so you write articles, short stories, and screen plays. In terms of word count, these are venues that require concise and efficient story-telling. In the very short story, Calling Hours, the reader can clearly see how much larger and longer the tale could be if you so choose. Do you have any apprehensions about writing a novel length work and what if anything would change in how you approach the story narrative?
GK: It’s interesting to me the differences and the similarities between short stories and novels. Both should be economical with words, and either one can craft a story that spans years or no more than a single day. However, for me, I feel like in order to be marketable, most novels need clear plot points. You brought up Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, and he’s from the school of thought that novels must have certain defined moments in order to succeed—first plot point, midpoint, second plot point with pinch points in between. So keeping with this advice, when I think of writing a novel—and that’s a project that is coming down the pipeline sometime soon—I expect that I’ll plot more along the lines of what he suggests. In terms of shorter fiction, what I love about that medium is that as a writer, you can try much more experimental approaches and the reader is more likely to go along, because the work will be short enough that the format won’t necessarily become tiresome. For example, “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions,” integrates a psychological questionnaire throughout. A number of readers responded positively to this, because it helped to make the story interactive and it also was essential to understand the plot. However, if I had wanted to write that story over a longer arc, I’m not sure I would have approached it in the same way, since after a certain number of words, the questionnaire could have seemed too much like a gimmick to readers. That, to me, was a story that needed to be told in 5,000 words or less. It could have only worked within those parameters. It’s an often overlooked skill for a writer to understand exactly how long a story should be. Sometimes, my own estimates when I embark on a project are completely wrong; something I thought would be a flash piece ends up 4,000 words or vice versa. So I’m always working to hone my skill in determining the right length for a particular story, and hopefully once I get the right idea that needs a longer arc, I’ll start at last on the novel.
WIDW: I wrote dozens of short stories before I ever contemplated a novel. But I know writers who haven’t written short tales and did just fine with 300 pages. How do you think short stories have better prepared you for novel-writing?
GK: If nothing else, short stories—and in particular flash fiction—have forced me to value every single word. That seems obvious, but I think when many writers are starting out, it’s easy to want to get to a certain number of words, almost like it’s a contest with yourself. However, as I’ve learned more about editing, it’s become an enjoyable process to go back to a first draft and see how many words I can cut. Anytime I edit other authors’ work, I do the same thing, which can be a little jarring for some, but ultimately, a story is stronger for it. Redundancy and pointless asides are nobody’s friend.
WIDW: Recently, I was stalking your Face Book page and you announced your first public reading. I speak publicly, and I have no fear of speaking to groups, but that is on professional topics. Fiction is much more personal, intimate really, and I’m not sure how I would feel about reading the work aloud—Mostly because we write things we wouldn’t necessarily talk about to others. So what was the most nerve-racking part of a public reading and which of all of your stories would you deem too cringe-worthy to actually read aloud in public?
GK: Like you, I have a lot of public speaking experience, so in general, speaking in front of a group doesn’t bother me. But you’re right: we as authors tend to write about topics that are quite personal, so it can be strange to put those things out there publicly.
In terms of choosing a story to read, it depends on the audience. If I was in front of a group that I knew enjoyed horror, such as at a convention, then I think I would feel comfortable reading any of my stories, at least my horror and dark fantasy tales. However, when you’re reading to a group that’s a mix of genre and non-genre fans, then I definitely couldn’t see myself reading something extremely dark like “One Wish for the Wishing Well.” A story about infanticide might not be the best introduction to horror for the uninitiated.
WIDW: So to wrap up, tell us about your writing plans for the future?
GK: More short stories, more flash fiction, more anthologies as an editor, and probably a novel at some point in the next year. But other than a couple projects that are forthcoming, I rarely have concrete plans, since I find that can stifle the creative process. It’s such an exciting time to be a horror writer, so when it comes down to it, I’ll go wherever my writing takes me. I like to think that’s worked out pretty well so far.
WIDW: Here are all the places you can find Gwendolyn. Her writing is excellent, her stories leave you with much to contemplate and I strongly suggest if you are a fan of reading or a writer, you check out her work as it offers something for both.
Author Site: gwendolynkiste.com
Twitter Handle: @gwendolynkiste
Visit Gwendolyn’s Amazon Author Page and check out the latest Anthology
Gwendolyn Kiste is a horror and fantasy writer based in Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared widely in publications such as LampLight, Electric Spec, Danse Macabre, and Typehouse Literary Magazine among others. As a regular contributor, she writes for multiple travel and entertainment sites including Horror-Movies.ca, Wanderlust and Lipstick, and her own 60 Days of Halloween, a collection of humorous essays chronicling her autumnal misadventures. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts.