Women in Horror: Interview with Jo Kaplan
Jo Kaplan is the author of It Will Just Be Us and When the Night Bells Ring. Her short stories have appeared in Fireside Quarterly, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, Miscreations edited by Doug Murano and Michael Bailey, and elsewhere (sometimes as Joanna Parypinski). Currently, she is the co-chair of the HWA LA chapter and teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College. Find more at Jo-Kaplan.com.
What inspired you to start writing?
When I was a child of the ‘90s, I was obsessed with the Goosebumps books—and before I even really knew how to write, I wanted to make my own stories emulating them. So, at about six years old, I would create my own versions of Goosebumps by coming up with a title for a story, drawing a cover, and then scribbling over a bunch of paper in imitation of writing. Then I would staple it all together into a book and “read” it to people—but since it was just scribbles, I would make up the story anew each time. I guess this was my proto-writing phase, because the itch to tell stories has never left me.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Not only was I obsessed with Goosebumps as a kid, but I was also an avid watcher of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Any kiddie horror, and I was in! I’ve just always been drawn to scary stories, to the delicious thrill of them. Later, I got into Stephen King. By then I was hooked and never looked back.
Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I think it comes naturally to me to portray female characters, but that wasn’t always the case. Despite all the ‘90s girl power I grew up with, I had some serious internalized misogyny for a long time. I disdained anything stereotypically “girly,” and I related more to male characters. But as I grew older and more aware of myself, I started gravitating toward female characters. Now most of what I write explores the lives of flawed, complex women who refuse to conform to feminine stereotypes. The themes that arise from their lives often emerge organically at first, until I figure out what it is I really want to explore. For instance, my novel It Will Just Be Us follows three women and the toxic dynamics of their relationships: two adult sisters who grew up in a haunted house with their alcoholic mother. And my most recent novel, When the Night Bells Ring, follows a frontierswoman navigating life in an Old West boomtown, exploring environmental and feminist themes about how the world, like women’s bodies, gets plundered to destruction by greedy men.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Horror shows us the worst of the world—and this, oddly, reminds us of the other end of the spectrum. When we look into the darkest places of our minds, I think we paradoxically also find a sense of hope. I guess that’s what horror has taught me: that for as dark as the world can be, nothing is ever completely without hope.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
In recent years, I’ve seen a distinct move toward more diverse horror, which is very exciting. Reading stories from the wide array of human experience and perspective allows readers to expand their horizons, explore new avenues of thought, and transcend their own lives. I think this movement will only continue in the future, as more and more people share their stories.
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?
Well, if we look back a few decades I think we’ll find a lot more misogyny in horror than we see today, which tells me we are moving in the right direction. Today, I feel like women are finding their way to the forefront of horror. Some of the most exciting and innovating horror I see today is by women and nonbinary folks, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in horror?
A long-time favorite of mine is Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She is so delightfully twisted, and I just love her voice. More recently, I sort of fell in love with Mary from Mary by Nat Cassidy. She’s not exactly an easy character to love, but I was just so immediately invested in her story. She’s screwed up and figuring out who she is, and honestly, aren’t we all? Basically, I love female characters who are complex, flawed, and weird.
Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?
A short list of recommended writers that come immediately to mind: Laura Purcell, Christi Nogle, S.P. Miskowski, Catriona Ward, Christa Carmen, Emma J. Gibbon, Gwendolyn Kiste, Tananarive Due, Mercedes M. Yardley, Sara Tantlinger, Hailey Piper, Sarah Read, Carmen Maria Machado, Zoje Stage … There are so many I’m leaving out, but I think that’s a good start for anyone looking for great women horror writers to check out.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
I always try to remind new writers of the importance of perseverance in this industry, regardless of what they write. As for horror specifically, my only advice is to read as much as possible. There is so much incredible horror being published every year, and I find nothing more inspiring than discovering exciting new voices emerging in the genre.
And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
I would say to find your own voice, find what you really want to write about, and don’t feel like you need to emulate famous male writers or try to be Stephen King. Write YOUR horror.