Ginger Nuts of Horror
On a recommendation from Gingernuts proprietor, Jim Mcleod, I picked up ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ by Damien Angelica Walters late last summer. I was, simply put, blown away. It was therefore an enormous honor to interview Walters about this collection, and some of the inspirations and processes behind the formation of the stories. Here is the result - a seriously in-depth interview, covering this extraordinary collection. Expect mild spoilers throughout. Enjoy.
Gingernuts Of Horror: Firstly, thanks for agreeing to talk to us about ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ - it’s a brilliant collection and we were eager to find out more about how you came to write it.
In the 2014 introduction, you mention your love of the short form. Does that love persist in 2017? And could you talk a bit more about what you find so attractive in the short story format?
Damien Angelica Walters: Thank you very much for asking me, and I'm so glad you enjoyed Sing Me Your Scars.
Yes, I still love writing short fiction. What's wonderful about the format is that you can break rules, you can experiment with structure and point of view and voice, you can flip-flop between genres. Sometimes what works in the short form wouldn't in a longer length, and it's often easier to provoke a strong emotion that would feel like manipulation if it went on too long.
GNoH: There are twenty stories in this collection. What’s the span of time between the oldest and newest story? And how many were written specifically for the collection?
DAW: The collection spans work from 2011 through 2014, and two were written specifically for the collection. The rest are either selected reprints or unpublished stories I'd been working on when Apex approached me about doing a collection. I sat with a spreadsheet, decided which stories to include, and broke them down by theme, tense, format, etc. Then I moved them around, paying close attention to the emotional arc, until I had what felt like a cohesive whole.
GNoH: The story ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ takes elements of the Frankenstein mythology in an incredible direction, to strong effect. Can you recall now what led you to the central conceit of the body parts retaining the personalities of their source?
DAW: There were several body-shaming memes floating around social media that said a real woman looks like this, not that. Every time I saw one, I grew angrier and angrier at the concept of a real woman having to appear a certain way, as though we get to pick and choose our parts to make a more pleasing whole. And from that anger, the Frankenstein-creation of many sentient parts was born.
GNoH: This tale also deals with some themes that recur throughout the book - male subjugation of women, violence - and the story pulls off that incredible trick of both being a stunning metaphor and a gripping story on it’s own terms. What I mean to say is, the metaphor is also a ‘real’ thing in the context of the story, and works utterly on that level. Were you thinking about the metaphorical implications of the subject as you wrote, or did they emerge from the central idea organically?
DAW: Any metaphors that appear in my work do so organically. But I make my way through this world as a woman and don't have the luxury of not thinking about violence against women in all its various forms, so my fiction reflects that, both overtly and not.
GNoH: ‘Paskutinis Illuzia (The Last Illusion)’ is an incredibly powerful story. Can you recall where the initial inspiration of this came from?
DAW: My husband is of Lithuanian descent so I've heard plenty of accounts of the Soviet occupation. After one such conversation, I had a thought that if magic existed, even if it couldn't be used to conjure armies or weapons, the Soviets definitely would've removed those who'd practiced it.
GNoH: For me, reading it, you combined my fear of totalitarian repression (the strong relationship between magic and story exacerbated this) with the horror of an ill child to stunning effect…
DAW: Thank you. It's definitely one of the stories I'm proudest of.
GNoH: One of the many things I love about this story is the Lithuanian setting. How much research did you put into this story, and were the stories told therein real Lithuanian legends?
DAW: Yes, the story of Jūratė, Kastytis, and Perkūnas is a real legend, and I read as many versions of it that I could find to make sure I stayed as true to the legend as possible, while making it fit within the framework of my story. If there are any errors or inconsistencies, they are mine alone.
GNoH: ‘Sugar, Sin, and Nonsuch Henry’ is my favourite kind of sci-fi, in that it uses the settings and tropes to explore what it means to be human. What do you enjoy about working in this genre, and what do you find challenging?
DAW: While a story might be set on a space station or feature an AI, I never approach it as science fiction. It's simply a story with elements of sci-fi. Challenging would be scientific accuracy, which is never what my interest or focus is.
GNoH: I especially love Henry! Why did you pick him as the historical figure?
DAW: In spite of appearing to be a fairly awful person, or perhaps because of it, Henry VIII has become this larger than life figure. There are countless books, movies, and TV shows about him, with some offering a more romantic portrait, and others a more monstrous. I thought it would be fun to make him an AI and render him kinder than I suspect he was in real life, while also retaining some of the larger than life characteristics.
GNoH: I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of an historical character with the sci-fi setting…
DAW: I'm usually very serious when writing, but I'll admit to giggling more than once with this one.
GNoH: I really enjoyed the atmosphere of ‘Running Empty in a Land of Decay’ - how do you set about delivering that in a flash setting, where word count is so limited?
DAW: In truth, I cut my short story teeth on flash fiction. I took part in the flash fiction challenges on the Shock Totem Forum for some time—this story was written for one such challenge—so I learned how to tell a story in as few words as possible. Given this story's theme of isolation, straightforward plot, and its single-character cast, it was fairly easy to keep within the confines of a thousand words.
Curiously enough, I rarely write flash fiction now. I'm not certain if that means I'm writing more complex stories or I've become verbose.
GNoH: What do you consider as a writer when taking on a setting as well trodden as the world of ‘Running Empty…’? Are you conscious of trying to attempt something new, or are you more concerned with finding the story you want to tell?
DAW: I think there's something to be said for trying to breathe new life into well-worn tropes. It might not always work, but there's no law that says everything you write must be publish-perfect. I'm a firm believer in that nothing you write is a waste of time, even if it ends up in the proverbial trunk.
With this one, I didn’t consciously say I'm going to write a zombie story without zombies in it, but once the idea struck, it wouldn't let go. I thought it the perfect foil for a study in isolation.
GNoH: ‘Scarred’ was another story that resonated with me very strongly. Often, people who self harm talk about it as an empowering experience - exercising control over pain, externalising it, and so forth. Was that in your mind when you wrote this story?
DAW: Absolutely. Although the supernatural element turns the story from control into revenge as catharsis, I tried to ground Violet's behavior in reality based as much as I could.
GNoH: But it turned out to be a false catharsis, in some ways, didn’t it? Did you know ahead of time how this story was going to play out? I found the ending really strong - surprising and yet plausible…
DAW: I did not. An early draft of this story had a completely different ending, one that wasn't nearly as horror-tinged, but my beta reader urged me to go darker. It took a bit for me to find the proper darkness, but once I did, it all fell into place.
GNoH: Do you ever worry about writing about subjects like self harm? What do you consider to be your responsibilities as a writer when dealing with such material?
DAW: I think a writer's responsibility is to handle whatever they're writing about with care, especially so if delving into potentially disturbing subjects. Intent matters; there's a huge difference between exploring a difficult topic and glorifying it.
With that being said, you can't control how a reader responds, no matter how diligent you are, so you have to be willing to take the risk that you might upset someone.
GNoH: Moving on to ‘Dystopia in D Minor’, I just adored the central conceit of this story. Can you recall now any of the genesis of this idea?
DAW: Unfortunately, I don't. I just remember thinking that using your voice to build or destroy physical structures was an interesting concept, and that it was the perfect foil for a story about a changing relationship.
GNoH: The central relationship is incredibly well drawn in this story. What is your approach to drawing a relationship in the limited word count of a short story? Did your flash background help with this?
DAW: I think my flash background definitely helped, but I don't really have a specific approach. I start with a character and take it from there. How their relationship develops depends on that character and the concept for the story as a whole. It's all an organic process. Even when I brainstorm story ideas, once I get to the writing, they often veer in unexpected directions.
GNoH: ‘Melancholia in Bloom’ features another structural device you seem to enjoy using - that of the dual narrative. What appeals about this approach, and what are the dangers of using this technique?
DAW: When I started to get serious about writing for publication, not just writing for me, I read you should never have more than one point of view in a short story. I took that advice well, don't you think? Seriously, though, I love dual narratives. What appeals to me the most is the ability to tell two sides of a story and have them meet to create a bigger story, especially when it's one the readers can see but the characters can't.
GNoH: I like that answer! Can you think of any other bad writing advice you’ve learned to ignore over the years? :)
DAW: There's always bad advice! Some out of genuine ignorance, some out of bright-eyed naiveté. The latter is usually because you haven't learned enough yet to break the rules, so you cling to what you have been taught as though it's a life preserver and the blank page is a sea. I think the worst of the bad advice I received (and, unfortunately, believed for a time) was that with short fiction, you had to work your way up to the bigger magazines. What rubbish advice that is!
GNoH: Also, on the dual narrative of ‘Melancholia…’; in the final piece, the two stories are beautifully balanced - can you recall if that happened on the page, or as a result of editing? And what is your typical editing process for short stories (assuming there is such a thing as ‘typical’)?
DAW: For "Melancholia…" I knew the shape of the story when I started writing it. I had the gist of everything in the early draft, but the deeper emotional resonance came with edits.
I'm not the sort of writer who edits as I go so when I finish a story draft, I have plenty of work left to do. In truth, though, there's no one way it happens. Sometimes there's too much of the story still in my head and not on paper, sometimes there's a piece missing that I know I'll find if I let the story breathe, sometimes I don't realize it's missing until a beta reader tells me. And every once in a while, I get everything right and the story only needs minor line edits.
GNoH: In ‘They Make Of You A Monster’, there’s scenes of torture both explicit and implied. How do you choose when the violence of a story should be graphically depicted or implied? What informs that decision?
DAW: I don't write about violence for the sake of titillation. There's plenty of that—too much of that—in fiction already, and violence often has more impact when it's inferred. This story reaches into fairly dark depths, but I hope that even in the more explicit scenes, the horror is slightly veiled as opposed to reading like a set of instructions.
GNoH: There’s a really oppressive atmosphere to this story. Beyond the subject matter, what choices are you making, at a word or sentence level, to invoke that feeling in the reader? Or do you find that flows organically from the telling of the story?
DAW: For a story like this, I default to a more clipped tone. I use a lot of sentence fragments and a simpler sentence structure, sort of the equivalent of poking a reader with a stick as opposed to wrapping them in eloquent prose. I don't want them comfortable. I want them unsettled. Again, though, this is something that happens organically, a pattern I see after the fact and then amplify when I edit.
GNoH: ‘Grey in the Gauge of His Storm’ - the central conceit of this story just floored me. Can you recall now where the idea of cloth and stitching came from?
DAW: One of the most insidious things about domestic violence is the invisible scars it leaves behind. They fade, but never disappear, rather like the stitches used to repair cloth. With that being said, though, this is one of those stories where I didn't consciously know what it was about when I wrote the opening paragraph. The words struck out of nowhere, I wrote them down, and they lingered in my head for a time. Later, the rest of the story poured out.
GNoH: This one left me emotionally wrung out. Do you ever find yourself struggling with the subject matter you’re drawn to? Do you ever freak yourself out?
DAW: Yes, sometimes I struggle with writing certain stories. I never freak myself out, per se, but I frequently write stories that leave me emotionally drained. This was one such piece.
GNoH: Do you enjoy reading short fiction as well as writing it? What are some of your favourite stories and/or collections?
DAW: Most definitely. I have more favorites than I could reasonably list here, and I'm always adding stories, but here are some I highly recommend: "The Changeling" by Sarah Langan, "Omphalos" by Livia Llewellyn, "Armless Maidens of the American West" by Genevieve Valentine, "Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma, "The Bread We Eat in Dreams" by Catherynne M. Valente, "Black Box" by Joyce Carol Oates, "In the Year of Omens" by Helen Marshall, "So Sharp That Blood Must Flow" by Sunny Moraine, “The Sound That Grief Makes” by Kristi DeMeester, and "The Summer People" by Shirley Jackson.
Collections I recommend: Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors and Furnace, both by Livia Llewellyn, Hair Side, Flesh Side and Gifts For The One Who Comes After, both by Helen Marshall, The Moon Will Look Strange by Lynda E. Rucker, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates, Singing With All My Skin and Bone by Sunny Moraine, and Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie.
GNoH: Finally, what can we expect from you in 2017?
DAW: I'm very excited that my second short fiction collection, Cry Your Way Home, is scheduled for a September release from Apex Publications. I'm still finalizing the Table of Contents, but it will contain my Bram Stoker Award-nominated story "The Floating Girls: A Documentary" as well as other selected reprints.
I'll also have other stories appearing in several anthologies and magazines, my agent will be submitting my new novel to editors, and I'm working on an outline for another.
Many thanks to Damien Angelica Walters for agreeing to take such a deep dive into her collection.
In her first collection of short fiction, Damien Angelica Walters weaves her lyrical voice through suffering and sorrow, teasing out the truth and discovering hope.
Sometimes a thread pulled through the flesh is all that holds you together. Sometimes the blade of a knife or the point of a nail is the only way you know you're real. When pain becomes art and a quarter is buried deep within you, all you want is to be seen, to have value, to be loved. But love can be fragile, folded into an origami elephant while you disappear, carried on the musical notes that build a bridge, or woven into an illusion so real, so perfect that you can fool yourself for a little while. Paper crumples, bridges fall, and illusions come to an end. Then you must pick up the pieces, stitch yourself back together, and shed your fear, because that is when you find out what you are truly made of and lift your voice, that is when you Sing Me Your Scars.
"Sing Me Your Scars revolves in the mind's eye in a kaleidoscope of darkness and wonder."
--Laird Barron, author of The Croning and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
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