Women in Horror: Interview with Kathryn Ptacek
Kathryn Ptacek has published numerous short stories, novels, and articles in many genres. She edited the landmark anthologies, Women of Darkness I and Women of Darkness II, which came out at a time when few anthologies had women contributors. She edits the HWA Newsletter, the monthly publication for the international organization. Interesting teapots and Gila monster stuff make up some of her many collections, and she likes to garden in her always-messy yard (she loves black flowers); she has four cats. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her Facebook page.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I don’t really know … Maybe it’s the darkness. I grew up in a sunny climate (New Mexico), and the darkness just seemed somehow appealing. In my twenties, I sent a story to a Christmas contest run by a local radio station. Mine had this creature—the spirit of Christmas—crouched up on a rooftop, ready to ooze down the chimney. Not surprisingly, this story did not win, and later on, I thought … Wow … I don’t think I see things the way other people do, and I was just fine with that. My first published novels were historical romances, and some of my friends said that even those had some darkness in them. From there I went on to horror.
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 most of my short stories have women protagonists. It just comes with the territory for me. My stories seem more psychological than the books … maybe more personal in that respect. I rarely think of a subject or theme that I want to address when I sit down to write (there are exceptions, of course); the words just come, and the characters show up, and things happen. Later on, I can reread the story and see that I actually had a little something to say. I am not known for getting on soap boxes; that comes in my emails as friends will attest. I think that’s because I had journalism training: I like to observe people and situations and report what I see.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
I realize that horror writers are really different. I will say things around my local, non-horror friends, and those looks they give me … I’m not saying I’m pessimistic about stuff—just that I tend to view things with horror’s dark gimlet eye. It’s pretty funny, and I know my friends get a kick out of it … after they recover.
The world is a scary place with few happy endings. It just seems to get scarier and sadder in so many ways, and I think my writing has withdrawn somewhat from the outside world … Of course, there are enough demons in our everyday lives to fill pages.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Well, more and more women have entered the field since I first started (at one convention, long ago, I was the only woman pro writer, and there was one woman artist, and one woman editor; the con expanded over the years, luckily), and what they write is no longer deemed “women subjects” … whatever that is. Women have always been capable of writing action, male characters, gore, you name it, but I think for a while there was a perception that they would write about the horrors of laundry and maybe dirty breakfast dishes. I think all subjects are fit for women writers. I think women horror writers always knew that; the reading public just needed time to catch up.
One of the reasons I edited Women of Darkness I and Women of Darkness II long ago was that I KNEW there were women horror writers out there; we just weren’t seeing them in the anthologies of the time. I wanted a real showcase for women writers; for some, this was their first sale, and that made me very happy to have been able to encourage them at the start of their careers.
I think the field is wide open now and will continue that way. It goes through stages—explicit horror, quiet horror, and more—and I think that will continue as long as writers keep pushing boundaries. In the old days, other genres (especially romance) were often slammed by some horror folks, and I never understood that. Shouldn’t we be celebrating whatever people read because at least they are reading! And people who start out writing in one genre don’t always stay in that field. I wrote in a number of different genres, and I always enjoyed it because my interests are varied, and I had a lot to say in romance and fantasy and suspense as well. It is interesting and encouraging to note that many of my readers also bought the non-horror books.
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?
I think the days of women characters standing around and wringing their hands and waiting to be rescued are long gone. I have always liked take-charge women characters, and I think we are in for more. Of course, I don’t think all characters should be like that. We need a mix, as with everything. Too much of one thing gets kind of dull.
Characters will continue to grow as women writers expand horizons. There are a lot more dark places left to explore.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in horror?
Well, my characters are my favorites, of course. Heh. Well, I love Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (book and movie). I like characters in series; I like to know they make it through to the next book or two or three, and I like to see the growth of the character.
Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?
I have a number of favorites, but am always afraid I will neglect to mention someone. So what I would like to do is recommend that readers check out the pages of the monthly HWA Newsletter—the current issue and the archives. Readers will find dozens of women horror writers there … They pen columns, contribute articles, receive mentions in the various columns (the Seers Table, Fiendish Endeavors, all the chapter updates, etc.). Many of these women are just starting out in their writing careers, and I think it would be wonderful if more people read them and gave them support. Many of the women writers have been around for a long time, and I hope that more readers will discover their works.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Write, write, write. It’s something I need to start doing more of … I don’t think you have to write every day, but it sure can’t hurt. And write about anything … there is horror in so much of the mundane.
And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Talk to other writers, not just women writers. Talk to the old geezers and the new geezers. There’s a lot of good stuff to be passed along. And write, write, write … write about everything and everyone, and never let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. You can.
FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY: Kathryn will send a FREE hardcover copy of Women of Darkness I or Women of Darkness II (depending on what she still has left) to the tenth woman who emails her at email@example.com with “free book offer” in the subject line.