It's been a while since I conducted a in depth interview, not sure why I fell of the horse, however it's been good getting back into the swing of things. So it gives me great pleasure to have Rena Mason over a chat. Rena Mason graduated from college with a SUNY nursing license, started her career in oncology, did some home healthcare work for Visiting Nurses, and then went on to work in the operating room for over twelve years in Denver, Colorado.
A longtime fan of horror, sci-fi, science, history, historical fiction, mysteries, and thrillers, she began writing to mash up those genres.
She is a member of the Horror Writer's Association, Pacific Northwest Writer's Association, and International Thriller Writers. She writes a column for the HWA Monthly Newsletter, "Recently Born of Horrific Minds" and writes occasional articles. She is also a volunteer for the Bram Stoker Awards® awards committee.
An avid SCUBA diver since 1988, she has traveled the world and enjoys incorporating the experiences into her stories.
Hi Rena, how are things with you?
Hi Jim, things are good with me. I’ve been busy getting everything ready for Stoker/WHC Weekend in New Orleans, but it’s been an exciting, fun kind of busy, though, which is the best kind.
Could you please give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
My dad was in the military, and I’ve grown up and lived in many states including Hawai’i, California, Upstate New York, Colorado, Washington, and Nevada. I attended college in Upstate New York and graduated with a nursing degree. I worked a year in oncology, did some visiting nurses, and then ended up an operating room nurse.
I see you that you enjoy scuba diving, why on earth would you want to that? Have you never seen Jaws?
Ha! Jaws is exactly why I learned how to scuba dive. I wanted to know what was swimming around my legs below the dark surface of the water. I guess I had a slight fear of dark water, which was cured by the scuba diving. I did the same thing for my fear of heights. I started bungee jumping. I’m still afraid of heights but learned a trick on how to minimalize it—don’t look straight down.
Why horror, what is it about the genre that holds your appeal?
Well, I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and now that I think of it, horror was probably what started it all. As a kid, seeing the movies and reading the books gave me the thrills I apparently was craving.
And what does Horror mean to you?
Horror to me is something that will instil a kind of fear or dread. It might make me turn on a light when I normally wouldn’t, check my closets, pull the covers up, turn around while I’m reading, get chills, or feel “ew” or “icky.” It might make me tell a character to “run” or “don’t open that door.” It might even make me cry.
You are also a fan of Science Fiction, what does Science Fiction bring to the table that horror doesn’t?
Anything unknown can be scary to me. Science/Science Fiction is an endless open door with so many possibilities. In many cases it’s the future, and if it were to end up like Make Room! Make Room!, The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, or The Road, it would be awful and terrifying.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Stephen King, Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Lisa Morton, Lisa Mannetti, and so many others it would take me all day to think of them. I have a horrible memory when it comes to author names and book titles. I tend to feel silly in conversations where people can recall exact quotes, publication dates, titles, and all the details. I’m usually the one saying, “You know…the story where that guy goes into that house with these three other people and they do like a ‘paranormal investigation’ type of deal.” Yeah, that’s exactly what I’d say to describe Matheson’s Hell House if I didn’t have to look it up a while back and re-read it for something else.
And what is it about the genre that you dislike?
I’m not big into reading over-the-top gore. I’ve seen a lot of it firsthand as a nurse, so it takes a lot to gross me out, and reading works that are just trying to gross me out and don’t scare me are boring. I’ve noticed this trend with some newer authors. Although, there are a few that are really good at it. Those, I like. I guess what I’m saying is that it has to be done/written well, and there are few that can pull it off. Yet, I also enjoy certain movies that are considered “torture porn” like the SAW series. Not necessarily for the graphic violence or gore but for their realistic qualities. I’m the person that will go and see a movie just for the special fx. I love them. And those SAW movies special fx are very realistic, from the sounds to the anatomy. It’s just amazing to me how “real” movies are these days. The revenge storyline works for me as well when it comes to movies like this.
All writers no matter what genre they write in have a great number of influences. Who and what have been the biggest influences on your writing?
The what, life. All of my experiences from childhood and up. We all have our personal horror stories to tell. I just started writing mine down. I’ll admit there is a lot of me, along with my personal experiences in everything that I’ve written. The who would have to be my parents. They really sparked my love for horror when they started having horror video weekends in the early eighties. It was when you could rent a VHS/BETA video machine. They’d rent it for the whole weekend, along with a bunch of horror movies, so it was always like a horrorfest on the weekends at our house. Truly good times I’ll never forget.
You worked as both an Oncology Nurse and an Operating Theatre Nurse. You must have seen some pretty horrible things during this time, have you ever drawn upon these experiences in your writing?
Absolutely. I use a lot of these experiences in my writing. From the anatomy, the surgical instrumentation, to the smells, wound descriptions, emotions, etc. I know what it feels like to cut through bone, flesh, the cauterization odors of different parts, etc. It’s all important to me when I read something as well. Any medical professional will tell you, there’s nothing worse than reading a book where the person has not done their medical research.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
I was first motivated to write after spending a summer of reading some popular modern works that I thought were some of the most singular books ever written. It made me wonder why weren’t some of these authors mixing it up a little and adding some excitement to these everyday circumstances they were writing about. Since then, I don’t feel my motivation has changed much. I still want to write books that take everyday lives and turn them upside down in one way or another.
And how would you describe your writing style?
That, I honestly can’t answer. It’s really hard for me to say since what I read is all over the place. I imagine my writing style is like that somewhat, too. I do wish I could be more poetic and have tried, but it just seems to mess up what I’m trying to say, so I’m better off just sticking to telling the story.
And what aspects of your writing do you think are the strongest and what do you think are the weakest aspects of your writing?
I would have to say that my original idea for a story is its strongest point. It’s what made me want to write the story in the first place, so I’m always sure to get that original point across, even if I wander off a bit on the rest of it. My weakest point is probably the occasional wandering off and the wishing I could be more poetic.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I get an idea. I think about it for a while. Research it if I have to. Then if I feel it’s worth writing, I’ll start jotting down some notes. An outline for me, sometimes consists of a single sentence to represent an entire chapter. I don’t always outline, though. Only if I start getting lost. Nothing’s ever set in stone. I let the stories go with the flow a little bit, but just as long the original idea never gets too far out of reach.
A lot of writers hate research, how do you go about tackling this subject?
I’m a research junkie anyway. I think of it like I’m doing it for a report I have to write. I love history as well as science so it’s something I enjoy. I researched East End Girls, (a novella that I have coming out with JournalStone’s Double Down series in June,) for three years. I have over six books on Jack the Ripper, including case files, you name it. I’ve also read a lot of historical fiction of which I’m a fan, and watched several “documentaries” and movies on the different theories. The key is to use just enough of it to make it “real” but always leave room for your own interpretation.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
Both. I don’t edit so much anymore as I’m writing, but still do it. It’s one of those things I just can’t help doing.
How long did it take you to be published once you decided to take writing seriously?
How did you keep yourself motivated during this period?
I kept writing. Once I started, it seemed that it was a neverending process. More ideas popped into my head. I researched how to submit stories to agents and publishers. Learned how to correctly format an MS, how to write a query letter, synopses, and everything I could about the industry. I learned how to edit and then edit again and again. I also decided that I should probably get some help and hired an editor. It helped a lot because I was told by someone other than family members that my story was good, my writing was good, and that I was headed in the right direction. I really needed that outside support and encouragement. The four years flew by.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during this period?
Don’t take rejection or comments/criticism about your work personally
Your story The Eyes Have It, appeared in The Anthology Horror For Good, you must have been stoked to be published alongside some of the great names of the genre? How did you become involved with this anthology?
The Eyes Have It is actually the first story of mine that was ever published. (And I’m still stoked about it.) I’m not a short story writer, but I’d written this story which had gone through at least if not more than twenty revisions. I saw the submission call for Horror for Good but didn’t think my story would be good enough with the authors they were already racking up, so I was going to submit it elsewhere. With some encouragement from friends, I submitted it to Horror for Good and heard back after a day or two from two of the editors that it was a “Yes. It’s a badass story!” That of course, sent me over the moon and I had to keep pinching myself when I saw my name in the table of contents.
Could you tell us about The Haunted Mansion Project?
It’s an anthology put together from members of a four-day writer’s retreat in the picturesque area of the San Francisco foothills. It’s one of the coolest ways to get writers together. I got a lot of work done on a future project and still got to hang out and talk with some of the bigger names in the business, artists, and just some really good people. I learned a little bit about paranormal investigation and even changed my mind a little bit about ghosts.
In what way did it change your mind?
It was the voice recordings that did it. They were downloading and amplifying some of the recordings they’d made next to me and the “ghostly” voices I heard were very distinct, loud, and made the hairs all over the back of my neck and arms stand up. Then there was an incident that happened where things were “stirred up” a bit in the house and I needed to go upstairs and at the bottom of the stairwell I could “feel” a difference. Even with all the lights on in the house, it felt like something was up there and as much as I tried to convince myself mentally that nothing was wrong, my body did not want to go up there. And I’ve never been one of those people who believe in ghosts explicitly, but when you experience things like those it does tend to make you wonder. I’ll put it this way, I believe more in the possibility of ghosts more now than I did before I stayed at the mansion.
You launched your debut novel The Evolutionist in April of this year. With a book launch in Las Vegas, was this as an extravagant affair as I imagined it would be?
Well, the party was held in a VIP Presidential suite of a local hotel thanks to one of my friends in the business. It was also catered with cold appetizers and wine, so yeah, in my opinion it was quite nice.
How did the event go?
It went very well. I got to see a lot of friends I hadn’t seen in a while, meet some new ones, and even sold some books. I learned how important it is to have a comfortable pen to sign with. My hand and fingers were actually sore for two days afterward. But they were happy kinds of aches I don’t think I’d mind getting used to.
Based on what I know about Vegas from the TV, there must have been at least one murder?
I’m sure there was, but fortunately not at my book launch party.
One thing I have always wanted to know is do your CSI’s really all carry guns and actually arrest people?
That I don’t know. The ones I see on the local news that are actually collecting forensic evidence or investigating a traffic accident don’t carry guns that I can see, but it’s possible they have them concealed.
Could you tell the readers what the book is about?
The Evolutionist is about a woman plagued by cryptic nightmares she must decipher before the cataclysmic horrors become reality.
The narrative is told from a First Person Present tense, I have always wondered why horror writers choose this style as in my opinion it makes it difficult to add any sense of danger to the protagonist. Why did you choose this style? And how did you overcome the limitations of the style?
I used first person present tense so the reader could only see through her eyes and know just what was in her mind. Because it’s possible that this woman could simply just be going insane, I wanted the reader to feel it happening as if it were happening to them as well. It was limiting, but at the same time, it was what I felt the story needed.
Is there a message in the book?
Life’s too short and might not be quite what you think it is, so make the most of it.
In the story the protagonist is a woman who dreams about dismembering people. Did you write this book as some sort of primal scream therapy?
Ha! Not exactly. The nightmare sequences were actually a dream that I had, woke up, and written down. I broke them up into segments for the novel and added some of the later scenes. It’s common for me to have dreams about the dead/nightmares. My mom says it’s from being a nurse but that they’re also good luck.
Good luck, where does that belief come from?
My mom is half Thai and half Chinese so who knows, really. She’s always been wicked superstitious and says that dreams where you’re happy or are laughing are bad luck. I’m almost certain I’ve read that somewhere else, too, so it just can’t be a belief in Asian culture.
If you could dismember anyone in the world past or present, who would it be? (I have a list longer than both my arms.)
Hmm…interesting question. It’s a lot of work to dismember a body, even with the right tools. I’m not sure anyone I’ve ever disliked past or present is worth it, (unless of course it’s someone that I’ve murdered and needed to dispose of.)
It has been getting some great reviews from a lot of well respected authors, how important is peer review compared to reader review to you?
All reviews are important to me. As much as I love and respect my peers I’m not sure I feel that one review is more important than another.
I am very interested in your paired novel East End Girls, it’s a paired novel with Gord Rollo’s Only the Thunder Knows. Firstly, how did you come to be paired with Gord? Were the two of you paired up before you wrote the book?
Gord and I had met before at different conventions. So we did know each other. He’s best friends with Gene O’Neill and Gene was the brainstorm behind bringing back the idea of the old “Ace Doubles” to JournalStone Publishing. Gene is working on a story with a friend of mine and he asked her what she thought about my work. She said she thought it was good, so he read “The Eyes Have It” and thought that my style was similar to Gord’s. Then at last year’s KillerCon convention in Las Vegas I had dinner with the two and we discussed our ideas. The only idea I’d had for a novella was East End Girls, (which I had originally pitched as a short story to my editor, R.J. Cavender, who told me that I should definitely make it longer. Gord liked my idea of a historical piece because he had been pondering an idea of writing something similar, and the rest was history as they say. And that’s something I should probably add to this interview. It is very important to get out and meet people at conventions and gatherings. I honestly feel that I don’t think I’d be as far along as I am if I didn’t.
And secondly what drew you to the subject matter of the book?
I came up with the idea over three years ago, while I was editing The Evolutionist, actually. I remember writing it down on an index card, which I still keep with all of my research data. The idea just popped into my head. I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it before then, but I’ve always been kind of a history buff. It’s strange sometimes how story ideas come to us. We weren’t given any kind of a prompt or subject matter from the publisher that we had to use. When I decided to use the story for JournalStone’s “Double Down,” it was essentially Gord and I talking over dinner and seeing what ideas we had ideas for “like” stories, which is one of the publisher’s requirements, that the stories be similar in some way.
Would you consider doing this sort of thing again?
I most definitely would. It’s not a collaborative work, which I’m not sure I’d want to do, but an individual project paired with someone else. It was a lot of fun.
You have a story in the upcoming anthology Fear The Reaper, can you tell us anything about this story?
“Death Squared” is a short story about how the good or bad treatment of people might not only affect others but yourself and the ones you love as well. Sooner or later, there are always repercussions for your actions. I wrote it for my youngest son, who sometimes has jaded opinions without any reasoning.
As well as writing you also have an active role in the writing community Head Compiler for the HWA Awards Committee, and as an active member of The International Thriller Writers. Do you think it is important for a writer to be active with associations in their field?
I think it is if you want to meet people who have the same interests as you and want to continue learning about all the different facets of writing and the community. Like with most everything else, I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning or ever want to.
What exactly does a Head Compiler do? And what made you take up this position?
My assistants and I keep up with the database where all the recommendations for the Bram Stoker Award® are stored. The public/private reading list is one of the end results. We are essentially data entry personnel and “backup” counters. I remember seeing an email that went out for the assistant compiler position and wanting to volunteer for something, so I applied and didn’t get the position at first. A few months later, I did end up getting the position and the former head compiler retired last year leaving me the “head” position.
Can you tell us about any future projects?
I’m currently working on a horror/paranormal/erotica series and then will be changing gears a little and reworking a YA/horror/dark fantasy series that I started a while back.
Thanks for popping over for a chat, do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks for having me. This was a fun interview. Read on! Keep an open mind and read things you wouldn’t normally read.