Women in Horror: Interview for Jennifer McMahon
Jennifer McMahon is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels, including Promise Not to Tell and The Winter People. Her latest, The Children on the Hill, will be out in April. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.
What inspired you to start writing?
I wrote my first short story in third grade, “The Haunted Meatball.” I still remember that rush I got when I realized I could sit down and create a world on paper where anything could happen – even a little boy being chased through the woods by a glowing meatball. I was hooked. I have been keeping a notebook and writing ever since. I studied poetry in college, then for a year in an MFA program before turning to fiction.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I was an anxious and fearful kid (who grew into an anxious and fearful adult!) and I think a big part of what drew me to horror movies and fiction then was the control. I could close the book or turn off the TV – I could turn on all the lights if I needed to. Facing my fears on the page or on the screen made me feel brave in a way I didn’t feel in real life. It allowed me to face danger and terror in a safe way. There are so many terrifying things we are powerless to stop in real life, but in horror fiction, we get to conquer them, to triumph, and walk away from it stronger and braver.
Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
My stories are always centered around women and girls — it’s just what I’ve always been drawn to write about. I find I have to make a conscious effort to include more male characters and make them believable! In my books, I want to introduce readers to ordinary women and girls who are facing extraordinary circumstances. Women who, like all of us, come with baggage and issues and secrets and weaknesses, but ultimately need to rely on their own strength, wits, skills, and bravery to get themselves through whatever terrible and terrifying things I throw at them.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
When you study writing, you hear, Write what you know again and again. My own motto is Write what scares you – in fact, the message feels so important to me that I had in tattooed on my wrist. I think that my writing is the most powerful and authentic when I have the courage to look at my own fears; to drag them out and poke at them and try to understand them on the page. I think that by exploring our darkest fears, we’re taking a deep look at our truest selves. And by sharing them with others, we realize how much we all have in common; how our fears connect us.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
When I was younger and first falling in love with horror, it was of course all books by straight, white men, typically telling stories that centered around straight, white men. I love seeing more horror written by women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, telling stories that reflect their experiences and perspectives.
How do you feel women have been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Certainly in the past few decades, there’s been an evolution of women characters in the genre from passive, two-dimensional victims who serve more as plot devices than characters, to active, fully-fleshed-out protagonists or villains with complex inner lives and motivations. More recently we’re seeing more representation of people of color and LGBTQ folks, again portrayed as real, multi-faceted humans, not shallow stereotypes. It’s very exciting, and I’m confident we’re going to keep up that trend.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in horror?
Rynn Jacobs from The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (the movie with a young Jodie Foster shaped me in a huge way when I was a kid)
Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (yeah, I know, two Shirley Jackson characters, but they’re both huge favorites!)
Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Sethe from Beloved by Toni Morrison (some people may not consider this a horror novel, but I definitely do)
Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?
Sara Gran (Come Closer is my favorite demon possession book ever!)
I’m also a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ darker stuff
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
I think our best writing comes from when we take a deep look at our own fears. If you’re not scaring yourself when you’re writing, you’re not looking hard enough.
And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Write the story that you most want to read, the story that you alone can write. Put in the work, and always be true to your own voice. If you find yourself going down a dark and twisty path that seems like it’s “too much” – keep going.