Ginger Nuts of Horror
Following the release of her Dark Minds novella, Naming The Bones, we catch up with Laura Mauro to talk writing process, influences, mental health, and much more. Enjoy!
Gingernuts of Horror: Let’s start with 2017 - how was it for you?
Laura Mauro: It was a decent year, all things considered! Probably not my highest output, story-wise, but I was pleased with the things I was able to publish - returning to Shadows and Tall Trees was a particular highlight, as was getting a story published in Interzone. The most exciting thing for me was getting my debut novella out there, though that was also quite daunting - you have nothing to hide behind, no other stories to cushion the blow if yours is a total stinker! So as exciting as it was, and still is, there was also a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that everything was about to go completely pear-shaped and I’d be ‘found out’. (Imposter syndrome, friend to all writers!) The launch at Edge-Lit was fantastic - the Dark Minds team did a brilliant job. I got to share the spotlight with Mark West and helped him launch his collection “Things We Leave Behind”, which was a real pleasure. And of course, Fantasycon was tons of fun. I also started my Masters’ degree in late 2017, so it’s been fairly busy all round.
GNoH: Talk to us about the Interzone sale! Is that your first foray into science fiction? What do you think are the specific challenges associated with short science fiction writing?
LM: I’ve always had a deep fear of writing science fiction whilst simultaneously desperately wanting to write it. I think a large part of that fear stems from the possibility of getting things wrong. With horror, unless you’re referencing real-life events you’ve generally got very broad scope to make things up- the ‘science’ part of science fiction sort of precludes that a little bit (though you could make the parallel argument that the ‘fiction’ part is its own invitation…) With the Interzone story, it was really more a case of having a particular story I badly wanted to tell, which by virtue of its subject matter (Laika, the Soviet space dog) was always going to fall somewhere under the science fiction umbrella. So even though I did initially bog myself down in research, once I started writing I realised that the speculative elements were really the skeleton of the story I wanted to tell; the actual flesh of the story was about the characters. (Though of course, one cannot exist without the other.) I don’t suppose the same will be true of all science fiction stories, but it helped me overcome my fear of getting my facts wrong! (I did find a really cool/morbid website which simulates the aftermath of a nuclear explosion in any given location, which crossed over from ‘fascinating’ to ‘horrifying’ when the possibility of actual nuclear war began to raise its head in real life…)
GNoH: Getting on to Naming The Bones, can you recall now where the origins of the idea came from? I assumed when reading it that the opening was at least partly a response to 7/7...
LM: I think there were a lot of ideas swirling around at the time I started writing it. I’d wanted to write something about the London Underground for a long time. My dad & I had been talking about ghosts on the Underground, and all the weird stories you hear about strange happenings in the tunnels and stations. There’s so much mythology surrounding the Underground that you can’t help but be inspired by it. And from there it was a bit like sewing a patchwork quilt, except instead of fabric scraps I had bits of ideas, and instead of a quilt I shoved together a basic first draft. You’re right about 7/7 coming into play - as someone who has lived in London my entire life it’s endlessly fascinating, in a horrific kind of way, to consider just how much horror permeates every part of the city - from the Black Death to the Blitz, Jack the Ripper to the 7/7 bombings, from the momentous to the mundane. And the more I thought about that, the more sense it made to me (in fictional terms!) that trauma and horror might be retained somehow. Almost like scar tissue, or perhaps more appropriately, like the emotional and mental scars these events leave on us as individuals. So it started off as a very big idea, which I had to whittle down in order to make narrative sense of it.
GNoH: Is that line of thinking what led to the decision to include PTSD in the story? What kind of research did you undertake to help with writing about that subject?
LM: I think it was a natural extension to the idea of retained trauma in a geographical sense. When you’re talking about the possibility that inanimate objects might absorb trauma, then it feels strange not to at least mention the way the same thing happens to people. Over the course of writing the story it became an integral part of Alessa’s character - I wanted it to be a part of who she is, but also not all that she is, and I hope I’ve been at least somewhat successful in that. It’s not necessarily about Alessa defeating her demons, but about coming to terms with them - which to my mind is the major difference between Alessa and Casey. As someone with mental health issues which will probably never be ‘cured’, it was important to me to show that you can be ‘broken’ in some way and be no less ‘whole’ a human being. Partly, this involved looking back over my own past experiences of trauma and how this affects me and my experiences today. I read and listened to a lot of interviews with survivors of various incidents, including the 7/7 bombings. I was also fortunate enough that a friend was willing to talk me through some of the scenarios and compare Alessa’s experiences to their own. I learned in the course of doing this that everyone experiences trauma and PTSD in different ways - there is no one definitive experience.
GNoH: Naming The Bones is very a grounded story, I felt, that evoked working life in London very well. What techniques do you employ, when writing or drafting, to create that sense of place?
LM: I’m really glad the sense of place worked well for you. I like to travel a lot and experience new places, so I try to use that sense of exploring a place in describing and depicting place when I write. I think small details are important, but I also try to be sparing with them; I try to remember what it’s like to notice those things in the moment, so to speak. With London, and Elephant and Castle in particular, it’s slightly different because I know it all so well. The things you love and loathe about a place are the things which make it ‘real’ - so the grubby tiles of the Underground, the abundance of chicken shops in and around the Elephant, the colour of the Thames at night - they’re not important in the grand scheme of things, but they’re the things you notice when you spend time there. If something strikes me about a place, even if it’s a weird or seemingly inconsequential detail, I try to remember it.
GNoH: To what degree was Naming The Bones planed out in advance, and how much of it was discovered in the writing?
LM: I had a very rough map of the major plot points in my head before I began, but I am generally resistant to planning things in advance - not that there’s anything wrong with it as a technique! I like to know as little as possible about the story except for the bare skeleton, and then piece it together as I go along. So with Naming the Bones, there were the fragments of concepts I mentioned before, and not an awful lot else to start with. I knew it would begin with a bomb, and I knew there would be a monster, and I knew the protagonist would have to find a way to vanquish the monster. Actually, in its earliest stages, the monster was a giant anglerfish type creature which lived in the dark depths of the tunnel and lured people onto the tracks - I was partly inspired by a video by the band Fightstar (which I can’t seem to find anywhere so I wonder if I dreamed it!) in which a strange, monstrous child lures a man onto tube tracks into the path of a train. The anglerfish monster popped up in the final chapter of the story until it was pointed out to me, by some very helpful writer friends, that it basically ripped off the Alien Queen. So, goodbye anglerfish monster, perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.
The original draft of Naming the Bones clocked in at around 60k words! It was a very different story at that point in time, with a bigger cast of characters and subplots and all kinds of things. Paring it down to fit the novella length made it a much better story, in my opinion. I tried to fit too many ideas in, when really the story I was trying to tell under all of that was much simpler, much more introspective.
GNoH: Could you talk a bit more about that whittling process? That sounds to me like you lost somewhere between 40 - 50% of the word count between D1 and the published story…
LM: Yeah, I ended up dumping quite a lot, which was heartbreaking at first! I’m actually glad I was forced to do that as it meant I had to jettison a lot of unnecessary padding. There was another character in the first draft who, in hindsight, was a distraction to the dynamic between Alessa and Casey. In the end, it was a matter of asking myself what story I was trying to tell, what the important waypoints were in that story, and what didn’t fit within that framework. Kind of reverse planning, if you like! I lost a fair bit of backstory for Alessa’s parents, which would have worked fine if I’d been writing something longer, but as it stood, bogged down the story with narrative diversions that just didn’t need to be there. Alessa’s parents weren’t the key to the story, but Alessa was. They got dropped down the same hatch as the anglerfish monster.
GNoH: I’d also like to ask about Strange As Angels from Great British Horror Vol. 1, if I may. I found this to be an incredibly effective short story, with a lot packed in, in terms of both incident and emotional content. Give your preference for not planning, how do you approach writing a short story as opposed to a longer piece? Do you have a good idea of length before you start, or do you let the process of discovery drive you?
LM: Thank you, I’m pleased you enjoyed it! That story sat around for about six months as just an opening scene before I knew what I wanted to do with it. I generally have no idea how long or short a piece is going to be unless I’m working to brief (and in those cases you do have to be slightly more disciplined about planning the story, because it can very easily get away from you and develop a life of its own if you’re not strict.) I originally thought of Strange as Angels as being maybe 2-3k words until the subplot with Jimmy emerged, and that grew quite organically out of my own dislike for him, given his behaviour and demeanour in the opening scene. I think the best way to describe it is that the moment I realise what story I’m trying to tell is the moment when everything else falls into place. For Strange as Angels, that was the realisation that Frankie finding strength through experiencing genuine (albeit unorthodox) love was at the centre of the story, and that everything else would feed directly from that point. I think a short story requires a degree of focus - not necessarily a tight plot, but something recognisably central to the narrative. You can meander with a novel, or even a novella, but the short story form doesn’t usually allow for much in the way of deviation. (That’s not to say it can’t be done. All rules are there to be broken!)
GNoH: Talking of Jimmy, one of the things I think the story does very effectively (and this resonates even more in the current #metoo environment) is deliver a warts-and-all portrayal of a toxic relationship with a ‘nice guy’...
LM: I’d been thinking about this for a while as it’s been a recurring theme among my female friends, who all seem to have experience of this in some way or another. And I’ve had similar experiences, so when people finally started talking about the inherent toxicity of the ‘nice guy’ attitude it was almost a relief to realise that this was a real thing, and that we weren’t being hideous human beings for feeling wary of men who behaved like this (and, I know, not all men, but…) And in thinking about the kind of person Jimmy was, especially in relation to Frankie’s vulnerability and dependency, I drew on those experiences - someone whose help and care has strings attached. And that’s a thing which scares me too - the notion of ‘owing’ someone ostensibly because they treated you like a human being. You see this presumption borne out in so many scenarios, from the notion that immigrants must contribute something special in order to be worthy of a place here, to the behaviour patterns of abusive people.
GNoH: Another theme in Strange As Angels is the claustrophobia of poverty. Is that a subject you feel strongly about, and do you think it’s a theme you’ll return to?
LM: I think it’s probably a theme that already recurs throughout my writing! I do feel strongly about it, not least because I grew up poor, and I grew up in a part of London in which poverty was pretty ordinary. Anyone who knows me will know I’m a bit of a lefty, and that I tend to wear my politics on my sleeve. But also, I write what I know, and that’s probably why I do tend to write a lot about working class people and places, or as Tom Johnstone once put it, ‘people on the fringes of society’. I don’t think enough people are telling stories about working class people, especially working class people who don’t quite fit, so it feels important to me that I try to write stories from that perspective, or at least considering that perspective.
GNoH: Finally, can you let us know what 2018 holds for Laura Mauro? What's coming out, and what are you working on?
LM: I don’t have an awful lot upcoming to be honest, which is largely due to university. I do have a short story coming out in an anthology which I am thrilled to be a part of - I can’t say anything until the ToC has officially been announced, but I am appearing alongside fellow GNoH alumni Kit Power which is really exciting. My short story ‘Sun Dogs’, originally printed in Shadows & Tall Trees 7, has been selected by Johnny Mains for Best British Horror 2018, which is a huge privilege. And as to the rest, well, I should probably get my backside into gear and start writing - hopefully there’ll be more to come yet!