Women in Horror Month – Interview with Nancy Etchemendy
February is Women in Horror Month! The HWA is celebrating by posting interviews with award-winning authors. Following is an interview with Nancy Etchemendy, who won the Bram Stoker Award for her short fiction, “Nimitseahpah,” in 2004; Young Readers novel, The Power of Un, in 2000; and Young Readers short story, “Bigger Than Death,” in 1998.
Tell us a little about your Bram Stoker Award-winning work(s). Inspirations? Influences? Anecdotes about the writing or critical reaction?
NE: Two of my Stoker-award-winning works, “Bigger than Death” (1998) and “The Power of Un” (2000), won in the “Work for Young Readers” category, which was very broadly defined. “Bigger than Death” is a short story, and “The Power of Un” is a novel. The rules surrounding works for young readers have changed since then. The category no longer exists. I also won the award in the short fiction category in 2004 for “Nimitseahpah.”
People seem particularly curious about where horror writers get their ideas. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked about my sources of inspiration. I do have nightmares, and have had them all my life. They are certainly one source. But my stories more often revolve around the mysterious or inexplicable in everyday life. In “Bigger than Death,” a ghostly mother dog leads two children to her nest of puppies, still very much alive. “The Power of Un” examines questions about how a boy would change his past if he had that power. I wrote “Nimitseahpah” for an anthology about gargoyles. It didn’t make the cut, I think because I strayed pretty far from the usual definition of gargoyle. On the surface, it’s about a supernatural stone figure who guards an abandoned mine where a large number of miners lost their lives. Deeper down, it’s about a human boy who has an uncanny connection with the four traditional elements — air, earth, fire, and water. That story and several others which share the same setting were inspired by the weird desert landscape of Nevada, where I grew up.
All three of these works were fun to write and flowed smoothly from my keyboard. For me, that easy flow, almost as if the writing is doing itself, is usually a sign that the work is good and will be well received. All three have been reprinted, and in some cases, though the stories are old now, they are still being reprinted. “Nimitseahpah” appeared in “Nightmare Magazine” two or three years ago. “The Power of Un” is still available through the Scholastic book club, and will soon be re-issued for the general public as part of Curtis Brown’s new CB Unlimited POD line. It’s still selling briskly in translation in hard and soft cover editions in various Asian countries. There was some controversy when it was first nominated for the Stoker Award over the question of whether it’s really horror or not. We do have to ask ourselves that question when we consider works for the Stokers. But, in my opinion, narrow definitions of the genre should not keep good dark works from being considered.
Talk about winning the award – how surprised were you? Did winning pay off in any interesting ways?
NE: I’ve always been surprised when I’ve won awards. Sometimes I’ve won awards I didn’t know I was up for, and that’s always a wonderful stunner. With my Stokers, in each case I knew I was a nominee. But I also knew there were other very strong nominees on the ballot. And not all of my nominated works have won awards. So there was always a little interlude of breath-holding. Winning is a pleasure and a boost in this difficult profession. But there is always work that remains to be done, and whether you go home with a nifty little scary house in your luggage or not, your next piece of work what you have to keep your eye on.
Winning Stoker awards certainly doesn’t hurt a writer’s career. And in some cases, especially with novels and anthologies, I think it can significantly increase sales and lengthen the book’s shelf life. For me, winning Stoker awards has mainly been good for my confidence. They signify that I am a worthy writer in the eyes of my peers. Fiction is a difficult business — one that can take a toll on the self-image of even the most successful authors. Even now, after 40 years of professional writing, there are days when the sight of my scary houses on the shelf keeps me going.
Do you think women in horror face more difficulties than their male peers?
NE: I have not experienced anything that strikes me as anti-female gender bias in horror. After all, the very first horror writer, Mary Shelley, was a woman, and she published under her own name. There doesn’t seem to be any dearth of women working in horror. I’ve seen lots of anthologies where submissions are limited to women. At the same time, I don’t recall seeing any limited to men. So, based on my admittedly quirky observations, women appear to have a slight advantage.
What advice would you give to new female authors looking to break into horror?
NE: I’d offer the same basic advice to anyone trying to break into horror, male or female. Read voraciously — and don’t limit your reading to horror. Some of my most successful pieces of horror grew out of reading in subjects as wide-ranging as Dadaist art and fungal growths. When it’s time to sit down and write, be brave, because bravery is what it takes to be honest, and honesty is what it takes to write anything well. It’s especially necessary when writing horror. Look inside yourself and find your deepest, most terrible fears. They are your most fertile subject matter. In the words of Edgar Leslie, by way of Wallace Stegner and Tom Waits, “Take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”
The fears of women will naturally be different from the fears of men. Don’t shy away from them because they seem specific to women. Don’t try to write like a man. You can only succeed if you find your own voice — which, if you are a woman, will be the voice of a woman. It all loops back to being brave enough to be honest…and being honest enough to dance around in your female bones.
What new works from you can we look forward to in the future?
NE: Since 2000, I’ve been on a sort of writing hiatus while my husband served as provost of Stanford University. For both him and me, the job has involved leading a public life with a lot of social obligations, many of which take place in the provost’s very large house, where we live. Our house is a semi-public place. There’s very little quiet time in this type of life. For the first few years, I continued to write, though with difficulty. Most of what I produced proved unpublishable. The last piece of fiction I placed was “Honey in the Wound,” which came out in the 2007 anthology “The Restless Dead.” Since then, I have worked periodically on a piece of nonfiction tentatively entitled “The Horror of Money,” some thoughts about finances intended for young adults. I think it’s about half finished. I’ve also written quite a bit of poetry, thanks in part to a sort of game I’ve played for decades with my long-time friend Nina Kiriki Hoffman. (We met at the Clarion Workshop in 1982.) Each week, one of us picks a word. It could be anything. Our last one was “Experience.” Before that it was “Stand.” We take turns picking. The goal is to produce a poem that has some connection with, or contains, the word of the week. Poems are due on Sundays, which means I spend most Sunday mornings locked away with my laptop, come hell or high water. The result is a significant body of poetry, some of it quite decent.
This month, my husband will finally step down from this very consuming job and become a mild-mannered philosophy professor again. We will move out of the mansion and into a house of a more normal size, with no staff, no caterers, and no bi-weekly dinners for eminent guests. I will miss the ghost and the cat, but mainly I’m looking forward to having more control over my time, and to using some of that time to return to writing. I’d like to put some of my Sunday poems into a collection of some kind, either on my own or with Nina. I hope to finish “The Horror of Money.” After that, I’d like to write some short stories to get my horror muscles back in tone. Then on to a dark middle-grade novel about a shape-changer. Those are my plans, anyway. But as we all know, a plan is the most reliable way to make God laugh.