Indigenous Heritage in Horror Month: Interview with Erika Wurth
Erika T. Wurth’s novel White Horse is a New York Times editors pick, a Good Morning America buzz pick, and an Indie Next, Target book of the Month, and BOTM Pick. She is both a Kenyon and Sewanee fellow, has been published in The Kenyon Review, Buzzfeed, and The Writer’s Chronicle, and is a narrative artist for the Meow Wolf Denver installation. She is an urban Native of Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee descent. She lives in Denver with her partner, step-kids and two incredibly fluffy dogs.
What inspired you to start writing?
You know, I’m not really sure! I know that one of the first things I wanted to do on my own was read, and what I wanted to read was anything that involved spaceships, ghosts, or elves. But eventually, I became very interested in the ghosts.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and on some level I think I’m just really geeky. I love anything that is now being deemed speculative. But I think what drives me to writing horror specifically has to do with the fact that it’s able to approach some of the darker themes that I’ve always employed in my fiction, but it allows me all of the geeky stuff I’ve loved since I was a child: portals, magic mirrors, the paranormal.
Do you make a conscious effort to include indigenous characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I’m not sure if it’s conscious, but I know that it evolved over time into something that was more and more representative, in an imaginative and poetic way, to what I grew up with and the world I know as an adult. Like most folks my age, I didn’t grow up with any Indigenous representation in fiction, although occasionally there was a very two-dimensional Indigenous side character in something that I read. When I started reading Indigenous literature in college and graduate school, it was all literary realism, and it was work that was set on a reservation, and it certainly didn’t include Mexican Indigenous or Black Indigenous people. So, I had to really work to look creatively and honestly at the urban Indian world that I grew up around that is so rarely acknowledged, and then find my own weird vision within that. White Horse is, I think, a really good amalgam of what I’m trying to get across as to the urban Native world, and what I love about horror—the dark, the mysterious, the frightening, the intriguing.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Hm. I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll have a better answer in a few years. What I can say is that I’ve thought about why I’ve always compulsively read and watched horror—mainly the paranormal, when I haven’t really experienced anything supernatural, unlike the rest of my family. Maybe it’s that imagining something dark gives me an adult portal back into those fantasy worlds I first fell for as a kid.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I think so. I think that Silvia Moreno Garcia and Grady Hendrix can speak more completely about this, but it’s clear that the genre is opening up. There’s postmodern horror, all kinds of indie horror, and the horror that both indie and big five are publishing now is far more queer and ethnically diverse than when I was a kid. And I think that’s healthy.
How do you feel the indigenous community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Native academia, Native intellectual life, and Native creative life is undergoing simultaneously a very dark time and one of the most brilliant times in its history. On the one hand, Stephen Graham Jones is a NYT bestseller. We had, at least for a minute there, two Indigenous shows on mainstream TV. But with success, as I well know, come the trolls—and the reason that the mainstream gives them any room is because of that success. If we’re to expand our ideas of who is Native and what is Native life to the actual, diverse, lived reality of Native life—it means acknowledging that genocide happened, and cultural (and physical) genocide is still happening.
Part of why I left writing realism was because so much Indigenous fiction was treated as cultural lessons for white people. That ISN’T to say there aren’t wonderful writers like Brandon Hobson for example, writing imaginative “straight” literary fiction. But I think spec lit in general gives writers of color a little more room to breathe. My hope is that Native horror writers break out of the box of “cultural lesson”—and write for one another, for non-Natives, but mainly write with all of our core issues in mind, but also for fun. For art. We’re allowed joy.
Who are some indigenous horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
There aren’t many of us! But I can say like most folks in horror, I respect the hell out of Stephen Graham Jones. He’s been a friend of mine for over a decade now. In his quiet way, he has suffered zero fools, stood up for what he believes in, and written what he genuinely loves. I wish I could say that for everyone.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Read widely. Read realism. Read science-fiction. Read crime! Read outside your demographic. Don’t be a snob about your aesthetic—commercial or literary. Don’t be a snob about where you publish—indie or big five, both publish duds and both publish greats. Don’t make snobby pronouncements on social media about your genre or how people should write or publish or identify—or for goodness sake, how they should sign. Support your peers. I love King too, but it is your peers that will lift you up.
And to the indigenous writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Don’t be an enrollment hound. Don’t let your art be a cultural lesson. Be inclusive of Latinx, Black, and/or undocumented Natives. Your job isn’t to tell all white people about all Indians, and to be the most authentic Indian of all. That’s an empty sad thing. Enjoy reading. Think about your craft, structure, characterization, language as much as you think about your identity. Don’t push other Indigenous writers under the bus hoping to curry favor from trolls or those in power—it’ll only work temporarily, and folks will find out. Allow yourself joy.