Wendy: Why did you choose to write horror/supernatural genre fiction?
Nancy: I don’t think of it as a choice, really, more a calling. It’s the genre that has attracted me the most, although I’ve also written mysteries, fantasy, erotica, and one SF story.
I’ve been fascinated by horror since childhood. On a class trip to the public library to see how it worked, the first book I selected for myself was The Little Witch, by Anna Elizabeth Bennett. I think I was about 7 or 8 years old. Recently I found a copy of that book and did some research and was astonished to discover the universal popularity of this book and that the novel had been in print for 40 years!
Wendy: How did your family and friends feel about you writing horror/supernatural fiction?
Nancy: My immediate family has passed on. I’d been out of touch with my extended family until about 5 years ago. They all adore the fact that I write horror. Well, all but the one born-again cousin who handed me back the book I gave him as a gift saying he doesn’t read books ‘like that’. “Because it’s horror?” I asked. “Because I only read Christian books,” he said.
As to my friends, well, they wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t care about me and accept what I do. My friends, every last one of them, are avid readers, intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful people. Some of them are writers, a few of whom write horror fiction.
Wendy: Have their attitudes changed at all from their initial reactions?
Wendy: Why do you think the horror/supernatural genre fiction is so popular?
Nancy: Horror plugs into the metaphoric realm very directly. It also plunges right into archetypal energy. In other words, readers feel on a deep level automatically because of the nature of this genre. After all, horror is a feeling.
We all have fears, the biggie being personal demise and the deaths of loved ones. Also alienation. Zombies are good for that: everybody is a zombie but you! Horror finds the fear and brings it to the surface in a ‘safe’ way. You can read about zombies and be terrified but when you’re done, you close the book, or the film is finished, and, but for a nightmare or two, you go on your merry way.
I think a lot of people are like me. I cannot read certain news items. I find them too horrifying. I can’t stand stories and photos of child abuse, animal abuse, torture, etc. But I can hack those things in the land of metaphor where I don’t have to gaze at them directly. It’s a ‘story’. Fiction. Unfortunately, the news is fact and real suffering by a real being has transpired.
Wendy: The HWA site states that "the New York Times bestseller list has included one or more horror or dark fiction novels nearly every week since the mid 1970's". Does this surprise you? Why or why not?
Nancy: Well, a lot of that involves the same half dozen people, Stephen King being the top of the list. Anne Rice in her heyday when she was still writing vampires. Dean Koontz. Novels like Perfume and Silence of the Lambs are considered horror because they are horrific.
If you’re asking me if it surprises me that people read horror, no. They have always read and loved horror since the printing press paved the way to publishing for the masses. Life has a lot of horrific elements to it and reader’s read, among other reasons, to understand life. They also read to be entertained, and horror is entertaining.
Wendy: The HWA site states that "horror is one of the most pervasive literary types" and that "elements of horror can be found in almost every genre". What are your thoughts on this?
Nancy: As I said, horror fiction has been popular in the English language since the 1700s when people began reading for pleasure. Well, began reading period! Before that, it was just the religious types and one handful of the royals and aristocracy. But back then, there was no such thing as ‘horror’, just literature. Writers wrote whatever they wrote without categorization and some of what they wrote now fits into the horror genre.
As to elements of horror in every genre, yes, if you think of horror in the broadest sense which includes whatever makes people afraid, be it murder, insanity, death.
Wendy: Do you have any role models in the horror/supernatural fiction genre? Any specifically Canadian and/or female?
Nancy: I don’t really have role models, although I think one of the nicest men who wrote horror was Robert Bloch. I met him at a tiny Canadian convention in a small town, one of my first conventions, and he and I were on a panel together. The other panelists hadn’t shown up. He was gracious, literate, well-read in all areas; kind and inviting to me, treating me like a peer. Even when the questions were directed towards him, which almost all of them were, he would ask for my response. He definitely was one of the giants in the field. Bloch wrote, among many other pieces, Psycho, the story on which the movie was based. He sold it for a song and received no royalties or further payments on this, one of the most-watched horror films of all time. A classic.
Wendy: In the past, the horror/supernatural fiction genre has been dominated by male writers. Do you see this pattern changing?
Nancy: There are still more male writers in horror who publish novels and have stories in major anthologies. I’m not sure there are more male writers, though. People have done assessments of the field and determined that, as with a lot of professions, women don’t seem to rise very high in this field. In the 1980s, Kathy Ptacek did two anthologies called Women of Darkness because she felt that women rarely made it into major anthologies, so she edited two with women writers. As to whether or not that has changed, or changed much, I don’t know. There have been some female editors at major houses that have taken on female writers, like Jeanne Cavellos when she was at Dell. That’s how Poppy Z. Brite got published as a novelist, with her first novel Lost Souls, though Poppy doesn’t write horror anymore. The editor who bought my first horror novel was female, Rebecca Todd, at Pocket Books.
Overall, though, I’d say that more males are published than females. Right now, Leisure Books is the only major house in the US with a horror line. Not that other publishers won’t do a horror novel, but they have no line for the genre. The vast majority of writers Leisure publishes, including new writers, are male. The editor is male. I don’t know if that correlates or not. I suppose you’d have to ask him.
Wendy: Do you feel the presence of Canadian horror/supernatural writers is increasing in comparison to American and International writers? What about specifically relating to female Canadian writers?
Nancy: There are definitely more Canadian female horror writers. Back when I was getting going there was me and Nancy Baker. That was it. A few others who wrote in other genres, like Tanya Huff, ended up writing horror novels, in her case a series, but that wasn’t her main genre. Since then there have been quite a few, like Kelley Armstrong, Sephera Giron, Gemma Files, Stephanie Bedwell-Grime—there are others but this is a shortlist—who have published books and stories.
Wendy: What would you estimate the male to female ratio or horror/supernatural writers to be in total? In Canada specifically?
Nancy: I couldn’t guess that. You might ask HWA the ration of male to female members. Ditto with Canada.
(Note from Wendy: I did indeed ask the HWA, and those statistics will be revealed in the final report.)
Wendy: Do you believe that gender provides any advantage or disadvantage to a person's ability to tell a good, scary story?
Nancy: Absolutely not.
Wendy: Do you believe there is a strong support system for horror/supernatural genre writers in Canada?
Nancy: Absolutely not, at least in terms of government grants and publishing houses. I can tell you that over the years, from when I started and had nothing published to now where I have 18 novels, 9 anthologies I’ve edited, around 200 short stories I’ve published, 5 collections of stories, etc. etc., I have yet to get a Canada Council grant for writing, and I’ve applied 13 times! At first I thought it was because I was unknown. I came to understand that it is the genre I write in. I’ve been advised by people who write horror who have gotten grants that you need to frame the work as something other than what it is—call it experimental, call it speculative fiction. I don’t play those games well. I tend to call a spade a shovel.
Now, when it comes to ‘readers’, that’s another story. I’ve found bookstores and readers extremely supportive over the years. A LOT of Canadians read horror, which is wonderful.
Wendy: Do you ever feel the pressure to become more "Americanized" to be successful?
Nancy: Of course. The US market is more than 10 times the size of the Canadian market, and most of the publishers of novels and short stories are there. Canada has little in the way of horror publishing to offer. Sometimes you get an intrepid like Don Hutchison who persuaded Mosaic Press, a mid-size Canadian publishing house, to take on a series. He did Northern Frights, horror anthologies. The series lasted through 5 books plus a Best-of. That’s exceptional. And sometimes a Canadian publisher like Penguin will take on an author, which is how Nancy Baker’s novels came into being. That, too, is exceptional.
If you write horror fiction and want to get it published, you must go to the US markets. And there are a few UK markets. That’s in English. If you are writing in French, there’s a great French language house in Quebec, Editions Alire (which has translated my Power of the Blood series). They have several horror writers they publish.
Wendy: Do you feel you are better known by Canadian or American readers?
Nancy: In my case I’d say it’s pretty equal.
Wendy: Was your first publisher Canadian?
Nancy: No. I had two US publishers about the same time. Near Death was published by Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) and The Darker Passions: Dracula was published by Masquerade Books, both in NYC. Those are my first two novels; the pub dates pretty much overlapping.
Wendy: Is your current publisher (if you have one) based in or outside of Canada?
Nancy: Currently my Power of the Blood books are being reprinted by Mosaic Press, which is in Oakville, Ontario. Also, I’m co-editing with David Morrell (who is Canadian but lives in the US—he wrote the book on which the movie Rambo is based) Tesseracts 13, an all horror/dark fantasy anthology for Edge Publishing in Calgary.
Go to Edge Publishing Canada website and you’ll see the guidelines. The anthology closes to subs October 31, 2008 and will be out for the huge international SF/F/H convention Worldcon, to be held in Montreal in 2009.
Wendy: Is your literary agent (if you have one) based in or outside of Canada?
Nancy: I’m on agent #5. Being with an agent is like a marriage, in a way: you marry, it doesn’t work out, and you divorce. My current agent is in the UK but sells internationally. The first four are based in the US. #1 took on a literary novel. He was one of the top ten agents in the US but couldn’t sell the book, although it had great responses. My next novel was horror and he didn’t want to represent horror. Number two was a thief who stole royalties from me. HWA tried to help me get the money but the woman disappeared. Number three was a short relationship. He was going through a divorce and blew hot and cold and that didn’t work for me. My last agent was someone who came to me to ask me to write The Goth Bible, which I did. She got me one other book deal which was a terrible deal for the book Mercedez: Day of the Dead. She is the only one who sold anything for me. I’ve sold all of my books myself but for the two I’ve mentioned. Which is sad. Whatever agent I had at the time negotiated the contracts for my books, unless I was between agents, then I did my own negotiations. I know the lingo and what to push for so I prefer doing my own negotiations where I don’t need to hand over 15% of my money. Frankly, I’ve had 2 agents who, when they have vetted contracts, have missed important clauses which I’ve had to point out to them. Anyone can hang out a shingle with ‘agent’ written on it. Unfortunately, editors prefer dealing with agents, who have no emotional stake in books, unlike authors. Also, agents are presumed to know what particular editors want to buy and what will work for them. Maybe…
Wendy: I was recently told by a US publisher that the interest in the horror market was declining. Do you agree with this statement?
Nancy: Horror has been at a low ebb for a while now, but that changes. I think horror books are commonly marketed in the general fiction section now and few stores have a horror section anymore. There are still books being published but for at least a dozen years the thought has been to market the books as general fiction.
I’ve been writing long enough that I’ve seen ebbs and flows so all this can turn around in a second. And likely will.
Wendy: How do you feel the horror/supernatural market differs in Canada, if at all?
Nancy: Canada has a preference for literary writers. The grants and reviews and bookstore space go first to literary. It’s almost as if Canadians feel that without this support, such as it is, the quality of fiction will diminish. I recall seeing a TV news segment on YA horror once, just a short thing appended to a regular newscast, wherein a librarian actually said that she would prefer young readers to read nothing at all rather than YA horror fiction. That says a lot about the snobbery in this country concerning anything that is not lit fic, or ‘quality’ fiction as some people perceive it. Those same people should look again at the classics where they will find Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray etc. etc. etc. No one calls those horror novels and stories ‘horror’. They call them ‘literature’. I’m always amazed at the strange ways people think, and this is one of them.
You don’t get this in the US or the UK. Horror fiction is writing. It gets reviewed. It gets space in stores. Nobody would have the guts to tell a reader they are reading trash if they are reading a horror novel. Well, maybe the religious fanatics. That’s one of the funny things about doing signings in the US particularly: you can always count on some religious nut coming up to your table and accusing you of writing the devil’s words, and trying to save your soul. At least in Canada and the UK that’s not been my experience.
Wendy: Are you a member of the HWA? Why or why not?
Nancy: I am. I’ve been a member since the mid-80s, just after the original name HOWL was changed to Horror Writers of America. It’s now Horror Writers Association. The organization came into existence because there was only SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and those who wrote horror felt their needs weren’t being addressed there and that horror was treated as a kind of poor cousin.
I dropped out of HWA for a few years, and then rejoined a few years ago. I loved HWA in the beginning. It offered an amazing opportunity to hang out with well-known writers and to receive help and guidance from people who knew about the industry. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon were still listed in the HWA Directory back then! Major anthologies were open to HWA members and novel publishers solicited from the membership, these markets announced in the newsletter. That doesn’t happen anymore because the market has changed, and because HWA changed.
I recall the first World Horror Convention I attended, which was in Connecticut, watching Peter Straub and John Skipp chatting and heading off to lunch together. It brought me to tears. This is a profession where the straight and regular hang with the weird and punky, the older with the younger, the best-sellers with the just-getting-started writers. No one who writes horror has been snobbish, in my experience. We are all in this small boat together with a love of darkness in written form. No one can speak to you about writing the way a horror writer can. The writers adore their field, and for the most part are knowledgeable and thoughtful and incredibly insightful about works of horror fiction, past and present. It’s absolutely mind-blowing. HWA at the onset was like that.
Unfortunately, HWA underwent a coup several years back. It was ugly. People took over the organization and it became a kind of ‘of the people’ place, which meant it was soon run by writers without a track record in publishing and the standards lowered to suit them, including the requirements to be an active voting member. I left because of that as did a number of the famous writers. The organization is changing again, and I’ve returned. HWA has done some amazing things for writers in the past and it is attempting to do more amazing things now. The problem is that since the 1980s the horror market (for print) has shrunk. Hell, the print market is giving way to e-publishing fast! And the economy isn’t in good shape. Combined, this means that HWA has little power in the publishing world. The Stoker Awards have been a joke for years, a kind of who-is-friends-with-whom, or a let’s-vote-for-Stephen-King-because-we’ve-all-read-his-latest! The awards are disparaged in the publishing industry. That, hopefully, can change, but frankly, I’m not hopeful. And to tie this in to a previous question, few women have won Stokers. Even the major writers, like Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, etc.
I rejoined HWA because it’s lonely out here being away from people who love what I love and can talk about what we both read. I live in Montreal and there are no English language horror writers here, although some people do write some horror. There are a couple of French horror writers, although they call it fantastic fiction in French. I travel to Toronto four or five times a year, always for the Word on the Street book fair where I sit at the HWA table, and when I’m in town I attend the horror writer’s gathering at the Madison Pub. It’s really refreshing for me to be around horror writers. Consequently I try to attend the annual World Horror Convention wherever it is being held, and have been a guest of honor at two, once as a Writer (Toronto), once as an Editorial Instructor (Phoenix, Arizona). And there’s a possibility I might be a guest at the Winnipeg WHC. I also try to attend the World Fantasy Convention because a number of horror writers go to it as well. I’ve been a guest of honor at Horrorfind Weekend in Baltimore, Twilight Terrors in Chicago, and also a guest at Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear in Toronto. I love all these events. I’d say that HWA is a kind of base for me from which I go out to these and other venues, and that has a lot of value for me.I want to thank Nancy for her time and passion regarding this issue. Her interview was very intriguing and informative. I look forward to reviewing the remaining interviews in this series.