alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


Leave a comment

The Devil and Micol Ostow: An Interview

24836226

Micol Ostow writes novels about haunted houses, urban legends, and serial killers. But she’s actually a very nice person!  I had the good fortune to learn from her at a writing workshop last fall. And the even better fortune to bring her here for an interview.

I was so interested to learn that your most recent book, The Devil and Winnie Flynn, is about the Jersey Devil. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and all the kids who visited New Jersey beaches over the summer always returned with stories about the Jersey Devil. In my mind, it’s like a cross between Bloody Mary and Bigfoot. What’s your Jersey Devil like and why did you choose to write about it now?

My Jersey Devil was based on anything and everything I could find online, which mainly came down to various shadowy winged creatures of varying degrees of fearsomeness. One description I read suggest3d that the devil was a sort of winged dinosaur, which–I mean, if you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you know that’s no good, but it still didn’t inspire much fear, in my opinion. My brother and I were committed to writing a mystery, and since the genre itself was so new to us, we decided the best way to connect to our story was to write about something we *did* know, AKA: New Jersey. Once we focused on Jersey as a location, we sort of backed into the Devil, since it’s one of the most pervasive myths of the state. But since the legend itself was so goofy it informed the tack we took with our mystery–it’s the story of Winnie Flynn, a horror movie fan but real-life skeptical who’s swept up with a reality tv “ghost-hunting” investigation that is, by nature, extremely campy. And it’s only when (spoiler alert) she begins to discover that some of the spirits she encounters may not be rigged for the camera, that the story turns into something a little darker, more sinister.

Another curious aspect of Winnie Flynn is that it’s told in the form of letters from Winnie to her best friend. Why did you choose the epistolary format? Does it enhance the suspense factor? Or is it a way to make the book more accessible and down-to-earth in the face of supernatural events? 

I wish I had a clear, thought-out answer as to why the story is told as a running letter! In general I tend to write lots of different genres and age levels and *lots* of different voices: from squeaky-clean aspirational tween to young chapter books, to racy romantic YA “bitch lit.” It’s only in the past 5 years or so that I’ve made a mini-brand of writing dark, edgier young adult fiction. But even with that niche, I’m always coming at the work in a new way, waiting to see how my characters are going to talk to me. In this case, Winnie was clearly talking directly TO someone. Her voice simply sprung, fully-formed, that way. But she was a blast to write, which is why I’m always encouraging my students to take risks and try different voices and points of view. You never know who’s going to emerge on the page!

Let’s talk process: How do you know when you’ve found an idea or concept for a scary novel, that it’s something you want to explore? Do you know right away what age group the concept is suitable for or do you have to work with it a while before deciding?

Well, as I say above, because my writing is so diverse, my process evolves a lot, too. not to mention now that I’m the mother of two small children, I often have to sacrifice the preciousness of a very deliberate process for the sake of just getting words down when I can!

I will say that normally, once a concept grabs me, the general age level is fairly clear–AMITY, for instance, which was a retelling of The Amityville Horror in the form of a Stephen King/Shirley Jackson mashup–was always going to be older YA. Same with WINNIE. Whereas with my chapter book, LOUISE TRAPEZE, I fiddled with voice and age level quite a bit (five very distinct drafts!) because I was so new to the chapter book genre. I had to write that whole story and then step back and determine what age range it was trying to be, and then I had to revise (and revise and revise!) accordingly.

I know from the workshop that you’re a fan of scary movies as well as scary stories. What’s the best horror movie or novel you’ve read recently? Or that you’re looking forward to in the near future?

I’m dying to read Grady Hendrix’s MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM. And while it’s not horror, I LOVE dark thrillers and just read Robin Wasserman’s GIRLS ON FIRE. I also just started the last in Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES trilogy, END OF WATCH.

You’re settling down for a midnight movie marathon. What’s the perfect snack?

Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Cheap rose wine. Red Vines. (NEVER Twizzlers.)

What are you working on next?

I’m all over the place! My younger daughter is 7 months old and I promised I would try to take it easy her first year. That has sort of worked. I have the third book in the LOUISE TRAPEZE series releasing in September, and in my “spare” time I’ve been alternating between a picture book, a new chapter book series, and–you guessed it–a YA thriller. Not horror, but dark and twisty. So we’ll see where it all goes.

micol

Micol Ostow is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, half student, half writer, half chocolate, half peanut butter. When she is under deadline, she is often half asleep. She believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts except in the case of Chubby Hubby ice cream. She lives in New York City where she reads, runs, and drinks way too much coffee.

 

 

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Killer Washing Machines: An Interview with Anna Breslaw

 

I met Anna last fall at a workshop about writing horror fiction for teens. Anna & I had brilliant conversations under the Pennsylvania stars about ghosts, celebrities, serial killers and writing for women. Trust me when I say that Anna has a strange and sparkling mind. We caught up again this week with a few questions about writing and things that go bump in the night.

anna

Your debut novel Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is hyper-realistic contemporary YA fiction. But when we met last year you were working on something much darker for your next book. What’s the status of that project?

It’s driving me crazy! Haha. Yay honesty! I’ve actually turned it into an adult book (the protagonist is 29 now, my age) and am nearly done with the first half but keep going back and making changes, obsessing, et cetera. I might take a break and start a new YA project as a palate cleanser—I am thinking more of a love story this time, and maybe supernatural in some way—but definitely hope to finish it this year.

What personally scares you more—real-life things (serial killers, earthquakes, car accidents) or supernatural things (ghosts, monsters, zombies)?

Real-life things, unless Stephen King is somehow involved, in which case, literally any damn thing (cars, washing machines…).

Process time: Where and how do you work? Home office/kitchen table/on the train? Is writing novels different than writing for magazines?

I have a little desk in the corner of my living room that I work at—sort of an open home office, if you will—that faces my backyard. I’m pretty bad at keeping my writing schedule regular, or hitting a certain word count every day, but I know a lot of people swear by that. Although when a joke or a character idea or whatever comes to me when I’m outside the house (which happens often) I’ll jot it down in my iPhone. My Notes look crazy.

Magazine pieces are generally a lot more structured/formulaic than novels are, at least in the drafting phase. The arc is pretty clear, there needs to be a clear “takeaway,” and there’s a tight word limit so it’s hard to play around. Every word counts. It’s almost more like tweeting than it is like writing-writing. Whereas with novels, you can really go nuts and write long and then tighten it afterwards.

What do you wish you were reading but aren’t (because it doesn’t exist)?

So many things: Fran Leibowitz’s memoir, a YA novel by Junot Diaz, Mary Roach’s nonfiction take on the world of women’s magazines, fiction about this or this, an adult novel with a premise/spirit that’s similar to a Joss Whedon show

 Right now, who is the person/celebrity/fictional character you would most like to subject to a horror movie fate? 

 James Franco. He’s too chill. I don’t trust it.

scarlett

Anna Breslaw is a New York-based freelance writer and author who mostly writes funny things, or things about women, or both at once. Previously, she was a staff writer at Cosmo and a sex & relationships editor at Cosmopolitan.com. She’s also been a contributing writer for Jezebel and Glamour.com. Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is her first book. You should follow her on Twitter.

If you too would like to drink wine and meet writers like Anna–though I can’t guarantee the talk about serial killers–and you’re writing for children or teens, I suggest you check out amazing catalog of workshops offered by the Highlights Foundation.


Leave a comment

The Monster Within: An Interview with Kim White

Kim White Retouched 178Kim White is another wonderful author I met at the excellent Books with Bite workshop, led by Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, at the Highlights Foundation this past September. I had such a good time that, basically, I don’t want to let go. Hence this series of interviews with my fellow writers. 

Hi, Kim. I had a really transformative experience at Books with Bite, in terms of re-evaluating what I want to write and why. What was the workshop like for you?

There was nothing not to like about the workshop. The focus on horror themes, the setting in the woods of Pennsylvania, and the stellar workshop leaders made Books with Bite a great experience. But far and away the best thing about the workshop was the other writers—talented women who were generous with feedback and willing to open up and share their own experiences. Everyone was working at a professional level, which made me feel challenged and inspired. I would definitely recommend it.

What’s the appeal in writing about dark and scary things?

I like a particular kind of dark and scary. I’m interested in stories about the monster within. The horror of being the monster is scarier to me than being in the path of the monster.

My first book, Scratching for Something, was a collection of flash fiction that explored this theme. In each piece, a character undergoes a transformation, and their body takes on a physical manifestation of their psychological state. To give a few examples: a man turns into a tree but his human heart remains beating inside the trunk; a woman’s breasts become actual fruit that she has to eat to survive; a man finds he can remove his head and walked around with it tucked under his arm; a woman coughs up her soul and keeps it in a jar, watching it shrink to the size of a raisin. The transformations are monstrous and horrifying but also infused with an inwardness and self-discovery. I’m fascinated by what we make of the dark parts of ourselves.

You also have a novelette about grief that you wrote in response to the 9/11 attacks. 

Diurnal-iBooksYes, in Diurnal, Susan’s past experiences and premonitions of the future indicate that her dream of having a child will go horribly wrong, but she goes ahead anyway. When the boy she gives birth to dies, she raises her daughter as the son she lost. The second part of the story is from the point of view of Gabriel, Susan’s daughter. We see how Gabriel maintains her own sanity with a different kind of magical thinking. Gabriel believes she was the child sending dreams and premonitions to her mother before birth, and that her mother mistook them as coming from her brother. Gabriel believes she has found proof in her mother’s diaries that she was the child her mother was (literally) dreaming about.

Can you tell us about a time when you were really scared?

This is tough to answer because I can’t tell you about a time I was really scared in a few paragraphs. When really scary things happen, like being in NYC during the 9/11 attacks, or seeing someone get shot on 42nd street, or being in a subway car when someone is being stabbed, I have to write stories because the emotions these experiences provoke are so complex. It’s fear mixed with anger, sadness, hope—it often takes years and many thousands of words for me to sort it out.

What’s your favorite scary story?

I like noir films, psychological thrillers, and dystopian science fiction. Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, The Matrix, Enders Game are some of my favorites, but I also spend a lot of time with literary fiction that delves into what really scares me—death and oblivion. One of my favorite terrifying passages is from Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. He opens with this stunning first sentence: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The image of life as a fragile crack of light, or as a baby dangled over a dark void, is nightmarish because it feels so true and inescapable. We can’t do anything to escape the oblivion to come—that’s terrifying to me.

bookcover_150Kim White holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from Hunter College. She is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize at Hunter College, The Catalina Paez and Seumas MacManus Award, the Shuster Award for an outstanding Master’s degree thesis, a Bingham Writing Fellowship from Columbia University, and a Forbes Foundation Grant.

You can check out more of her work here and here.


Leave a comment

Creepy-crawlies and Peanut Butter Pumpkins: An Interview with Jennifer Maschari

Last month, I traveled to the beautiful Highlights Foundation campus in the Poconos mountains of Pennsylvania to take the excellent Books with Bite Workshop: Writing Horror and Haunted Novels, led by Micol Ostow and Nova Ren Suma. While there, I had the first two chapters of my new YA novel critiqued, listened to ghost stories told around a crackling fire, and met some wonderful authors. I also met some bears, but we’ll save that for another post.

23511272My fellow authors were so amazing that I thought you should get to know them too. First up is Jen Maschari, author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. In honor of the haunted theme of the workshop and the spooktacular month of October, we talk about the really important things: Halloween candy.

What is your favorite scary story?

I love Doll Bones by Holly Black. Not only does she capture childhood and the magic of story so wonderfully, but it’s pretty spooky, too! For a movie, I’ve always loved Goonies. It balances scary with adventure so well.

What really scared the pants off you when you were younger?

Pretty much anything creepy-crawly: spiders, centipedes, crickets (especially when they jump at you!) I’d have to say that these things still scare me to this day!

Why do people like to be scared?

I think people like being scared, especially in stories, because there’s a thrill in it—of being spooked or surprised. But also, you know that you’re experiencing being frightened in a safe way through the pages of a book. Novels and stories are great for that.

Your first book (Charlie Price) is fantasy but not dark fantasy (there are *balloons* on the cover.) What is urging you to go dark with the next book?

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price does have some frightening moments. But I also like to think there’s a lot of hope in it as well: light to balance out the darkness. I think a lot of great middle grade explores dark or difficult topics, whether they are real life or fantastical.

Scary excerpt you can share from your current work?

I am actually pretty superstitious about my writing. It’s a little too early in the process for me to share online.

Favorite Halloween candy?

Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins (the peanut butter to chocolate ratio is just perfect!)

Jennifer Maschari photoJennifer Maschari lives in Ohio with her husband and her stinky (but noble) English bulldogs, Oliver and Hank.


Leave a comment

Zombies vs. Unicorns (Review)

"Unicorn Drops," ca. 1853. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Let me state for the record, that I am solidly Team Unicorn. From the ages five to, oh, eighteen, I had unicorn stuffed animals, unicorn T-shirts, unicorn notebooks, unicorn puffy glitter stickers and unicorn daydreams. Possibly also a unicorn Trapper Keeper and a purple rainbow unicorn pencil with a scented eraser. Since I was still in the throes of this fascination well into the 1990’s, albeit somewhat ironically by then, I should probably count myself lucky that I didn’t end up with a unicorn tattoo. (It was this close. Truly.)

I am such a unicorn girl that when I moved to a new school in the 2nd grade and the music teacher (a lopsided troll of a man with a penchant for green suits paired with coordinating green ties) bade us cease tooting our plastic recorders and join him for a rousing sing-along of “The Unicorn Song” — I actually cried. Have you heard this song? It’s so appalling, and so Christianity trumps magic-pagans-and-all-things-fun that it should give the Potter-is-AntiChrist sect divine ecstasies. I’ll leave you to look up the full lyrics for yourself, but try this verse on for size:

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day

THE UNICORNS CRIED! Because they’re GOING TO DIE. Not only that, they’re going to DIE FOREVER, all of them, GO EXTINCT. Yeah, great song for 2nd graders. Especially sensitive horse-lovers who live a little too strongly in their imaginary world. And my new classmates? They LOVED this song. It was, like, their favorite song ever, right up there with “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo,”(which, oddly enough, didn’t bother me at all. Look, I never said I was consistent.) We sang this song at least once a week for the next 6 years. I managed to get the snivel response under control, but the zeal with which my fellow students happily belted out the celebration of the extinction of an entire species may well have been the seeding of my continuing DISTRUST OF THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE.

Later on in high school, I had a summer job at a Miniature Horse Farm – which is sort of like a circus crossed with a riding stable  – where I was paid minimum wage to braid colorful ribbons into pony hair, lift sniveling kids on and off the mechanical pony ride, be abused by illiterate shift supervisors, scoop (miniature) poop, and walk in the performance show three times a day, leading the unicorn (whose foam horn I attached with an elasticized shoelace backstage, right after I painted her hooves with silver glitter glue). Fascinating Gender Note: Though there were male and female employees, only girls were allowed to lead the unicorn. No such bias applied to leading the bad-tempered quick-spitting llama, thankfully.

So you can see, my unicorn credentials are SOLID.

That said, the stories I enjoyed most were the (cringe) zombie stories:

  • “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan
  • “Cold Hands,” by Cassandra Clare

Best unicorn story?

  • “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan

Honorable Mentions go to:

  • “Prom Night,” by Libba Bray for use of Zoroastrian funeral rituals
  • “Princess Prettypants,” by Meg Cabot for the cameo by my most-favorite-ever summertime ice cream shack of social equalization, “The Chocolate Moose.”
  • The cover and endpaper art!

So, I did it. I read an entire 415-page anthology of short stories and it didn’t kill me. I even liked some of the stories. But if it had been 415 pages of novel, I would have had a much better time.

Maybe next time, I can try reading by the light of a unicorn’s horn. If all else fails, I can still get that tattoo.


9 Comments

NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books

Hand-colored lithograph, Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 / A. Robida.

Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 / A. Robida. c. 1882

Inspired by Apogee Dwell’s confession that he has only read 31 titles from NPR’s reader-nominated list of the Top 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy books, I decided to post on the same topic. Because who doesn’t like quantifying their entertainment choices, intellectual credibility, and ultimate worth?

Disregarding the fact that some of the “books” on the list are entire series (R.A. Salvatore, I’m looking at you), I’ve read 45 out of 100. A careless survey suggests that I’ve covered most of the classics (Wells, Verne, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Miller), most of the stuff that’s considered literature (Orwell, Atwood, Huxley, Burgess, Bradbury, Vonnegut), and highlights from the 90s to the present (Gibson, Stephenson, Gaiman, Moore).

So what am I missing? Basically the bulk of popular science fiction from the 1960s right up until about the mid-90s. During the formative fanboy years (i.e. age 12) I was busy reading about gothic castles, brooding noblemen on horseback, and plucky governesses (*blush*), not spaceships and monsters at the end of the world. No wonder there were so many times this summer when I felt like I wasn’t sci-fi enough to be at Clarion West.

But that’s my problem. Let’s take a little look now a more important problem with the list -and one that is not unique to SFF publishing:

Women writers on the list? 13 out of 100 (Ursula LeGuin is the only woman with 2 books on the list: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.)

Writers of color on the list? 0 out of 100 (At least, as far as I know. Please correct me in the comments if I’ve overlooked someone.)

Seems that old trope about white men in Hawaiian shirts might just have some truth in it. Does this mean that the books on the current list aren’t any good? Not necessarily. What it might mean is that readers (and publishers) might want to try to actively broaden the canon. After all, the SFF experience is about people and places that are unfamiliar and, as a consequence, the genre should be doing better than mainstream publishing when it comes to diversity, not worse.

Off the top of my head, here are a few books I would have liked to see on the list:

  • The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
  • The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  • The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
  • Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress
  • Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
  • The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
  • The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
  • Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Sadly, classic science fiction doesn’t have a lot to offer by writers of color, so I’m going to suggest checking out some potential future classics by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Hiromi Goto, Helen Oyeyemi, Minister Faust, Ted ChiangColson Whitehead, or Mat Johnson.

Let’s remember, folks – the future is for everyone.


Leave a comment

Supernatural Noir, edited by Ellen Datlow

Can’t wait to get my hands on this new anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow. A great line-up, with new stories by Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Bear, Lucius Shepherd, etc and etc.

The TOC and a chance to win a copy are posted on Underwords. Who wouldn’t want to read a story titled, “The Maltese Unicorn” (by Caitlín R. Kiernan)?