Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Nancy Kilpatrick
Nancy Kilpatrick is an Award-winning author and editor. She has published 23 novels, 3 novellas, over 250 short stories, 6 collections, and has edited 15 anthologies. She wrote the non-fiction book The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined. Much of her work has been translated into 9 languages. Her most recent project is the six-book novel series Thrones of Blood, the final volume #6 coming soon in print and ebook. The series has been optioned for film and TV.
Occasional Blog: http://nancykilpatrickwriter.blogspot.ca/
Amazon author Page: amazon.com/author/www.nancykilpatrick.com
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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?
I began writing as a seven-year-old because I loved to read and my grandfather gave me a little, portable typewriter. I wrote poems, little stories, and ‘opinion pieces’! Later, essays. No one encouraged or discouraged that activity.
As I grew up and discarded a number of career choices, I began to envision myself as a literary writer. Why? Who knows? I was a voracious reader of anything and everything and preferred novels and short stories, especially those leaning toward the darker side. I managed to get a couple of small lit pieces published when I was young, and one collab. I’d always loved dark material and even then, those initial bits and pieces heavily leaned that way.
Eventually, I wrote a literary novel and miraculously acquired my first agent, the renowned Henry Morrison. While the manuscript had wonderful comments from editors, unfortunately, it didn’t sell. Henry wanted another lit novel, the same but different. He didn’t rep horror, no serious money in it then or now. By then I’d moved away from literary to what I really felt was my ‘calling’, if that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic. I wrote a vampire novel which took only about 20+ years to publish and ultimately became book #4 in my Power of the Blood series which began with a Pocket Books publication in 1994. (Back then, I didn’t know I was writing a series!)
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
I think every author I’ve read has influenced me in some way. There is always something that can be gleaned from the work of another writer. Every piece of fiction and non-fiction of any genre has taught me something about the craft of writing and I’m frequently in awe of writers who have done what hadn’t occurred to me, or I hadn’t seen in that light, even books I normally wouldn’t read. This is a little taste of favorites off the top of my head, in no particular order (and I rarely mention living writers with only a few exceptions): Edgar Allan Poe; H.P. Lovecraft; Franz Kafka; Fyodor Dostoyevsky (and a slew of classic Russian writers); J.D. Salinger; Shirley Jackson; Patrick Susskind; George Orwell; Angela Carter; early Stephen King and Anne Rice; Camus, Gide, Sartre, and de Beauvoir and other existentialist writers; John McDonald, Donald Westlake, Walter Mosely, Georges Simenon, Anne Perry, Rex Stout, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, early Patricia Cornwell, all in the mystery genre; Carl Jung, Marian Woodman, and other Jungians; and many many more, by which I mean tons!
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
Like most writers of all ages, I’m bewildered. How does one get their book purchased and read when publishing has changed from roughly 25-50 new horror novels a month to hundreds a month in a few short decades? When there is almost no one who can intelligently evaluate what is a good book from what is a mediocre or poor book, and who risks a backlash by social media mobs? When everyone is a writer and now a publisher too? When the people with the most money who can pay for all the aspects of publishing and promotion are the writers who get noticed, regardless of merit? This sounds cynical, and yet it’s a truth writers talk about all the time, though usually not in a public forum. What publishers used to do, now the vast majority of authors do themselves. This is an era where the word critique* which implied positive and negative feedback, has become a slur. *Critique (original meaning) exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation. Critical thinking.
It feels to me that for many people writing is a hobby, not a career, and certainly not a vocation. It’s more self-expression and perhaps a kind of self-therapy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People have always done that, they just didn’t have the option to publish it themselves for the world to view. For writers whose life work is writing, this flood of published books with little or no evaluation is dismaying.
I’m not a snob. I’ve read a lot of self-published books. There are some good writers that can’t find a publisher, I get that. It’s always been a tough business but for a rarified few. But most of what I’ve read is a rehash of what has been done before, or a spin-off of what is currently in the movies or on TV, which of course was created years ago. There seems to be a lack of interest among too many new writers who don’t want to bother reading (or viewing) what has come before. I find that inconceivable. This conscious or unconscious replication seems to be psychic plagiarism of ideas. Of course, as one of the many–likely academics–who analyze such things has determined, there are only thirty-six plots extant in literature, this based on analyzing Shakespeare’s plays. Writers are never inventing plots, just telling a story’s plot in their own way. But from what I’ve read, I think there really is a lot of regurgitation on the go under the guise of ‘in their own way’. I’m curious to read the first AI novel based on…
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
Only when I’m offered a seat on a bus, which I always gracefully accept!
I don’t think ageism is overt in publishing, more that publishers have always looked for writers with a future, a career. Older writers might have or have had a following, but unless they are mega sellers, they won’t have a career much longer because they will be dead in the foreseeable future!
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
How crappy things can be in publishing. I’ve had some terrible experiences that have been utterly disheartening—wrinkles don’t come from nowhere! How many writers have had: books tied up in a lawsuit and not distributed but pulped because the publisher had a beef with the printer and was an idiot; boxes of books flying out the back of a distributor’s truck to be run over, delaying publication; a decent mid-size press that went out of business the day a collection came out and was never distributed; two editors from different houses leaving their jobs at the moment two novels were released; an agent that stole money (well, some have); other authors working against them in various ways? (OK, that’s common!); acquiring the hottest young agent of the day in NY who sells everything, who, as he is about to send out your manuscript, dies? (Well, I know one other author in that boat). I could go on and on.
Publishing is a learning experience. I have had to learn how to be a business person. It’s easy to have many writer friends but there is competition which leads to jealousy among writers, and no end to sarcasm and cynicism. I think that’s everywhere in this world when many people are in competition for a slice of a limited number of pieces of a pie. You can’t curry the favor of every editor, agent, and publishing house and you can’t often be too personal with an agent, editor, or publisher. You might hit it off, but there’s just as good a chance you might piss someone off inadvertently. To believe that personalities and agendas have nothing to do with publishing is naïve. I’ve had to learn to keep cards close to my chest and yet be open.
Having snarled all of that, I have to say a huge number of people in this industry have helped me considerably and believed in me and my work. I wouldn’t have moved along if I hadn’t had those people in my life. That sustains me, of course, but even more sustaining are readers who bother to review a book and even go the distance and connect with me telling me why they value my work. I’ve had some touching responses, including from a young man who told me he had never read a book in his life and got through school on those synopses booklets many students use. He happened to see one of my early books in a box of books on a sidewalk when someone moved and these tomes were left behind. The cover spoke to him. He picked it up, read the book, and contacted me to let me know that not only did he love the story but since then he has read several books of mine and books by other authors and now really enjoys reading. This is priceless and what writing and putting it out there is all about.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
If you have a contract with a small or micro publisher, get someone in the know to review that and keep doing that until you’re savvy enough to do it for yourself, or advanced enough to garner the attention of a good agent who will do that.
Self-publishing should be a last resort (and I have self-published two novellas as eBooks). If you’re serious about doing it, hire an editor. Self-pub is good for works that have no obvious niche in the book market yet you feel compelled to get the story out there anyway despite the fact that most self-published books make hardly any money, purchases mainly by family and friends.
I know it’s flattering to see your work in print or eBook and I can see giving away short stories at the very beginning when you have few or no publishing creds. I did it. We all did it (except maybe Harlan Ellison!) But the more people who give their writing away, the lower the standards become for everyone who writes and especially those who rely on income from writing because it is their career, not their hobby. Don’t lower the bar. Payment says: Your work is valuable, it’s not nothing. You don’t always have to be paid fabulous sums—rare and exciting events–but even modest payment acknowledges that you worked at this and you deserve to be paid for your work. Everyone along the chain of publishing is paid because they won’t do the work without being paid, but writers (who often feel desperate to get their work out) are expected to not need or want or insist on financial payment but be content with the ‘glory’, such as it is.
If writing is in your blood, fight to be valued. That is especially difficult for women in the horror genre because it’s been an old boy’s realm for a long long time. Look at those hideous lists of best-selling/best loved/top 10-or-100 horror authors or books: rarely does a woman appear. There are still males who think women can’t write horror, especially in the extreme subgenres. It’s hard for women and some men to be demanding but the easiest way is to ask for what you want in a clear manner without being sniveling or overly emotional. This is business, give and take. There are many good men in the field who have helped women without sleeping with them (though that happens too). And there are women who help women (maybe they sleep with them, who knows?) I find being business-like works for me. Some writers are jollier than I am and rely on the kindness of strangers whereas I rely on the humanity of strangers, not their desire to rescue me as if I’m some sort of pathetic author-victim. I like to feel good about myself and about this business as much as I can and I suggest that’s a good attitude to strive for.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
Only by writers who are older! There is such a variation but I think in most horror writing you don’t see older characters as anything more than fodder. Weak, unable to resist dark forces, a tad stupid or irritating, the characters become the necessary kill-offs. I’d love to see one of those three-couples-go-into-a-cabin-in-the-woods-for-the-weekend, or twelve-people-investigate-a-haunted-house, but all the characters are older adults with brains. Sure, let one be an annoying a-hole but most would be clear and logical and if the supernatural bumps them off, it wouldn’t be because they are feeble idiots who say “Let’s split up and investigate!” Anyone reading, feel free to take this idea and run with it!
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
Mainly, in my own books. I have in my current novel series a female vampire who is very old and wise and not afraid to speak her mind—what in our real world is known as a crone. She can be nurturing but is also tough and logical. I have three characters in a previous series who are smart, wise, and willing to pass on their knowledge. These characters are mysterious, of course, as anyone who has lived a very long time would be. A twenty-year-old has no idea what a hundred-year-old is thinking, knows nothing of their history and how they envision that history over such a long life of experiences. A hundred-year-old knows what the twenty-year-old is about because they lived it.
North American culture portrays older people, as in parents and grandparents, as stupid compared to children, teenagers, and young adults. This is often the way families are portrayed and I’ve always found that kind of revolting. I turn off such TV and movies pretty fast, and never read those books if I can help it. Sadly, these are meant to appeal to the young. By stepping on the heads of adults and older people, these young people are setting themselves up to be stepped on themselves. People don’t realize that even before you hit forty you are old in the eyes of the young. When you hit sixty you are old in the eyes of a forty-year-old. When someone hits eighty (which is not me yet but I have friends who are), you are considered ancient by sixty-five-year-olds. It’s a ‘thank god I’m not there yet’ scenario. Respect is no longer shown to older people because they are considered dumb, behind the times, don’t know how to use computers or even cellphones, even though in reality most issues can be directly related to the use of tech-lingo, which very few non-techies understand and which changes minute to minute and from company to company.
In the horror field I don’t see many older characters I like or relate to. In other genres, for instance, mysteries, older people still have their marbles. They investigate intelligently, solve cases, hunt down murderers. That’s been the case for a long time. Look at the gold standard of females in mysteries, Miss Marple. She’s doddering, dithering, slow, presents as feeble—the last person anyone would consult with on a crime. And yet she solves the cases either directly or by offering the official cop/detective her knowledge. Miss Marple pays attention and relates crimes and criminals to what she understands about humans from living her ‘small’ life to figure out who-done-it. Horror doesn’t present older women or men like that.
Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
I may sound cynical and bitter and to some extent I embrace these emotions. But, I’m also very hopeful, still in love with writing after all these years, hold onto the belief that I can write, and that I still have stories in me waiting to emerge. I have to say I’ve had tremendous help from a number of people along the way and I’m always surprised when someone likes my work, be it a publisher, editor, agent, or reader. It’s astounding to me that my interior world could be of interest and value to anyone else. I write for myself, to see myself, but of course the craft of writing involves structuring so that others can make sense of the story and hopefully relate to it. Writing is magical. The process, and even the blocks we sometimes hit because we get past them through peculiar sparks of ideas after days and weeks of not having a solution, of not knowing where to go, of being fearful it just won’t go anywhere. But it does. And those epiphanies are magical and transformative and I think in nowhere but the arts are we able on a regular basis to experience Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” where symbolically the divine elevates the art and vice versa, even in a genre like horror where the average person on the street would not envision the elevated electricity of creativity.
In 2002, the number of books published in the US was 25,102. In 2012, when self-publishing began, the number of books published was 49,853. (Info from statista.com). The Internet declares that twice as many books are now self-published as are traditionally published and there is a guesstimate of four million world-wide for 2023.
Bottom line, amidst the massive number of horror novels published now, only a count-on-one-hand number of writers living and publishing today will be remembered in one hundred years. That should take the pressure off. That and winning a lottery is more likely than you winning a Nobel Prize in Literature, or being one of Oprah’s Book Club Recommendations. Writing should be fun and enriching personally. After all, it’s a lot of time and work, joy and grief, and helps you grow as a person. You can write until you can’t, which is a good thing that becomes more poignant as you age. But then, of course, should you be lucky to live so long, you’ll be one of the older writers this interview series is talking to and you’ll have something new to contend with and no doubt lots to say.