Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Lisa Tuttle
Lisa Tuttle, a Texan by birth, Scottish by inclination and residence, is the author of 13 novels and seven short story collections. Windhaven, written in collaboration with George R.R. Martin, was her first novel and his second and has been almost continuously in print since 1981. She’s also written non-fiction and books for children and worked as a journalist and library assistant. The Curious Affair of the Missing Mummies, the third in a series of 1890s-set, supernaturally tinged mysteries, is forthcoming from Jo Fletcher Books, as well as a new collection, Riding the Nightmare, is out from Valancourt this summer.
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
When I started writing as a teenager in the late 1960s I wouldn’t have called myself a horror writer, although that’s mostly what I wrote. At that time there was no clear market for “horror” (or weird or ghost stories, which is closer to how I thought of what I was doing) – it was before the big fantasy boom, when science fiction ruled, and all other types of fantasy, speculation and supernatural were subdivisions of the SF genre. From the start, I was drawn towards the darker side of fantasy, to supernatural horror, weird tales, and the gothic. My first professional sale, in 1971, was a story about the monster under the bed. Throughout the ‘70s I frequently had stories rejected because “it’s not science” ‘70s – thanks mainly to Stephen King. I was still basically a short story writer, and when Kirby McCauley invited me to contribute to his massive & ground-breaking anthology, Dark Forces, that was a huge boost to my ego and probably to my visibility as one of the new “horror writers.” Apart from Richard Christian Matheson (included in collaboration with his dad), I was the youngest writer in the book, and one of only two women – the other being my literary idol, Joyce Carol Oates.
Who influenced you as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
Major influences then were Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison (a mentor), Joyce Carol Oates (her short stories specifically), and Shirley Jackson. Oh, what I would have given to have written “The Lottery”!! The Haunting of Hill House was my idea of the sort of novel I wanted to write. Oh, and Robert Aickman. I still recall the powerful effect his story “The School Friend” had on me when I read it during my first year at university. It was the first story of his I read, and I immediately felt it was the kind of story I wanted to write. More recently (shall we say, the last couple of decades?), although I don’t know how much they really influence me (might no longer be possible), I have been excited and inspired by the writings of Mariana Enriquez, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Carmen Maria Machado, M. John Harrison, and the Hungarian writer Attila Veres.
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
That’s hard to say. Have they? It’s not possible for me to distinguish “horror publishing” from publishing in general, anyway. And I have spent the last 30 years living in a remote Scottish forest, and have not been closely in touch with trends or personalities in publishing. I am hugely grateful for the existence of Valancourt Books and their enthusiasm for bringing two of my earliest books back into print, and subsequently publishing two new collections by me. I get the impression that there’s a lot going on in the horror field now, it is much livelier and more varied than it was twenty years ago, or even ten.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
Not in the publishing world, at least. It’s just weird suddenly (as it seems) to have become an Old Writer, after so long as one of the New Writers, if only in my own mind. “All of a sudden, she was old.” (There’s a bit of flash horror fiction for you.)
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
I doubt there are things that, had I known them, would have been of much use in the longer term. Horror as a field did not exist when I first began to get published. Then there was a boom – for certain types of horror, anyway; but it wasn’t what I wanted to write, and of course, it did not last. I don’t think that this particular field is much different from any other type of fiction. Sometimes there’s a benefit to be gained from genre identification, and sometimes it is the exact opposite (“Oh, we don’t publish horror / horror no longer sells” etc). I never thought having a career as a writer would be easy or financially secure, and that hasn’t changed.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
Oh, they probably wouldn’t take it! And my experience is out of date now in so many respects – I know nothing about self-publishing or BookTok, or what publishers are looking for now, or how to make a good living as a writer – much of that seems to be down to luck as well as hard work and determination. My only practical advice would be: try to manage your expectations. Be realistic. Writers gotta write, but the world does not owe us a living, publication, or readership. And none of those things depend on talent, or being a good person, so try not to take it too personally. And even if you are getting published, and have some success, there are no guarantees for the future.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
That’s a sweeping question. All horror fiction? All older characters? The same could be asked about any identifiable group (ethnic, religious, gender, age-based). And there’s the distinction between minor characters vs viewpoint characters, not to mention the ability of the author to represent anyone as a fully-developed, believable human being, if only to the satisfaction of the general reader.
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
I left this question to come back to later; it is later, and I’ve tried and failed to think of the sort of thing you might want – a combination of having an increasingly porous memory for the books I’ve read, and not reading a huge amount of contemporary horror fiction. But one of my all-time favourite horror short stories is “The Foghorn” by Gertrude Atherton (1933) and it is the story of an older woman. Frightening when I read it a long time ago, and still absolutely chilling when I remember it now.