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World of Horror: Interview with Kyla Lee Ward


Kyla Lee Ward is a Sydney-based creative whose work has garnered Australian Shadows and Aurealis awards. She has placed in the Rhyslings and received multiple Stoker and Ditmar nominations. Reviewers have accused her of being “gothic and esoteric,” “weird and exhilarating” and of “giving me a nightmare.” This Attraction Now Late (2022) was her first collection of short fiction, after two poetry collections and the co-written novel, Prismatic. Those That Pursue Us Yet, a dark fantasy novella set in Paris and . . . other places, is due for release in 2023. Delve deeper at http://www.kylaward.com/ or come chat at https://www.facebook.com/kyla.ward.33/

World of Horror: Interview with Kyla Ward

Photo taken by Zak Campbell. Used by permission.

What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?

“Some fears belong to childhood, phantasms we forget,
But nothing can be stronger than
Those that pursue us yet.”
The Feast of Mistrust, 2011.

Is there a horror tradition in your country, in your culture? A taste for horror, a market? Not necessarily literature; perhaps oral tradition too.

In my opinion, Australia has two horror traditions in the sense of layers of warped history and cautionary tales developing into literature. One stems from a brutal invasion, the other from the mingled trauma of isolation and abandonment. I may not have access to the former except as an onlooker—and I do recommend Master of the Ghost Dreaming by Mudrooroo (1991) and The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (2013) to anyone who’s game—but the latter is wide enough for multitudes! It is the legacy of literally bewildered prisoners and their guards, marooned by a harsh regime in an unknown country where absolutely everything was poisonous. Later, it becomes that of shell-shocked immigrants fleeing Europe and Asia, only to be engulfed by the “soft” war of assimilation already waged against the indigenous population.

The earliest tales of this tradition oscillate around the trinity of starvation, cannibalism and madness—arguably our first Gothic novel, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1870) contains a healthy dose. Then there are the hideous fates suffered by the protagonists of Barbara Baynton’s “The Chosen Vessel” (1896) and rather later, but still recognisable, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961). For the sake of your own sanity, stay away from our classic children’s books!

But none of this translated into a local market for horror fiction by local authors until recently, and some would argue it is still not really a market. The development, in the first half of the twentieth century, of a “national consciousness” twinned with the championing of Realism in literature, producing endless gritty tales of hardy folk getting by and making do, evolving into what certain people at my university termed the Glebe/Cappuccino/Fuck school of urban introspection. The Dark Gods help you if you took a vampire story along to one of those classes. Although fan conventions had been running for decades, the first speculative fiction event at the NSW Writers’ Centre only took place in 2003 (known as Magic Casements and for being staged in an old lunatic asylum).

Who are some of your favorite characters in horror, internationally and/or in your own culture?

Miriam Blaylock, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Hannibal Lecter, Jirel of Joiry, Lestat de Lioncourt . . . hmmm, that’s a lot of villains, or at least characters willing to cross boundaries in pursuit of their desires. Which may include living forever. I’m also strangely fond of Mrs. Danvers.

Do you make a conscious effort to include characters and settings from your country in your writing, and if so, what do you want to portray?

When I have ideas with Australian settings and characters, I write them. When I have ideas for settings and characters in other places I have visited, I write them. Even in the country where I was born, I consider myself engaged in what I have elsewhere defined as “gothic tourism.” As a mere third/fourth generation British Australian, I can scarcely do anything else.

I consciously reject the “ocker” stereotype and its language—horrible and artificial things, developed by advertising agencies and used as an excuse! Which certainly in earlier decades was posited as an Australian identity. Believe me, I’ve paid the price of being “up myself” and a “smart arse,” as well as, paradoxically, the price of pursuing my interest in genre fiction. So, if asked to define what makes a story “Australian,” I fear I can do little more than wave in the direction of setting and the traditions mentioned earlier. My short story “Should Fire Remember the Fuel?”—a Stoker finalist in 2020—is based on both a country town where I lived for a brief period as a child and the horrific bushfires of the summer of 2019. It was written for an anthology of Australian bushfire tales released by an American publisher (for reasons). By the time the book was released, the editor herself had had to pack up and flee the wildfires of the Pacific Northwest. But even with the same approximate plot, she would have written a vastly different story.

What I want to portray is, I think, the potential of people, places and situations. Almost anyone or anything can be more than appears at first glance, or even the hundredth glance if people just don’t look. Ignorance, of history especially, is a kind of plague in Australia. And my explorations always seem to come out as horror, possibly for the reasons expanded on below.

If you are not a native English speaker, but write in English, do you first think of horror in your native language or English? How do you draft them in your mind, in English or your mother tongue?

I am a native English speaker, but which English? The critique of one of my very early attempts at a novel was that my characters spoke half in British, half in American idioms. And that was exactly what I grew up doing. Even today, I tend to use a mid-Atlantic accent in day-to-day speech, partly because of this but mainly because I worship Vincent Price.

What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?

It is a truism of all literature that fiction has to make sense, whereas “real life” does not. And yet, stories are how we navigate that life. I don’t mean this in any wispy, hand-wavy manner, I mean that, in the process of growing up, everyone acquires a set of narratives by which they order their lives—sometimes consciously but more often, un. This is that intransigent idea of “normal” we have all come up against—“when are you going to have children?,” “why don’t you get a proper job?” I don’t claim to be immune—I’ve spent decades shaking off some of the nonsense I absorbed in the seventies, and residual guilt is still a problem. But anyway, here’s my theory: once you come to an awareness that some of the deepest assumptions of your life are exactly that, assumptions, a vast space opens up around you. Even if this releases you, the vertigo can be terrifying and feel deeply lonely—perhaps as lonely as a convict on the edge of a continent. Writing horror allows me to navigate this process consciously. Alongside acting, it has taught me I can pick and choose, as well as a great deal about the menu.

How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve, both in the US and in your country?

Now, all that stuff about navigating the liminal sounds very fine, but those narrative expectations are powerful. And among their subtler effects, they influence what you can write and expect other people to enjoy reading. I see change taking place in our ideas of the normal and the monstrous, what actions can be justified, but slowly. Have you ever felt the story fighting against your characters?

My novelette, “The Oldest Coffee House in Prague,” features two quasi-immortals (a vampire and an alchemist) who have survived into the new millennium through adaptation. For many years now, the alchemist has served really, really good coffee at her establishment, while the vampire runs ghost tours for the tourists. Now, a new political and social milieu is closing in on them, armed with new tech. What constitutes a satisfying ending to such a story? What transgressions can be forgiven, what kind of normality restored? Horror may demand open or at least suggestive endings, but it still uses that framework to achieve them.

I think this can be seen in the ridiculous fumbling that goes on around powerful female characters. Women can be depicted as strong—it’s almost de rigueur these days—but powerful is a different matter. In film and television, especially, you’ll see female characters take a stand, fight their way into positions of power and then suddenly become “evil” and/or mad so they must be killed and we’re supposed to forgive the guy who does it. Think Vanessa Ives in the third season of Penny Dreadful—what the (actual Queen of) hell was up with that? I wanted to see her and Lily going at each other for mastery of London! And if you think I’ll abandon Daenerys because the art department suddenly starts using fascist imagery, you have another thing coming.

How do you feel the International horror writing community has been represented thus far in the market, and what hopes do you have for representation going forward?

Having watched it happen, I am pleased with the greater access provided by the internet and the various digital options for self-publishing, promotion and distribution, especially to writers whose background placed them at a disadvantage vis traditional publishing—Lady knows, this used to mean anyone who didn’t live in Britain or the U.S. Does anyone else remember IRCs?

But my feeling is, we are all of us being swamped. For me, coming up in the nineties, there was a path that started with competitions, sharing my work in writing groups and classes, publishing initially in fanzines and newsletters, moving up to showcases and semi-pro magazines, then came the first pro sale. I am aware that path was simply not available in some countries or to all people in mine, but its advantage to those who could access it was the training. I benefited tremendously. The same kind of path is now available much more widely, and this is wonderful. However, instead of going through all that, you can release your first novel on A Platform without having any kind of track record, editor or even ability to write—which is not to say this is always the case, but it certainly does happen. I understand, the temptation must be incredible. But the problem becomes sorting through the sheer volume of books to figure out what is worth reading. Especially now the word “review” has been hijacked by a poorly constructed sentence attached to random icons.

In the midst of all this, I can only consider our public libraries and librarians, and organisations such as the Horror Writers Association and the Australian Horror Writers Association, to be of more importance than ever.

Who are some international horror authors you would recommend?

I very much enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister (2021) and the short stories of Usman T. Malik. Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (2020) is well on its way to becoming a modern classic, and Paulo di Orazio’s Dark Mary (2018) is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. I adore The Path of Ra sequence, a collaboration by New Zealand authors Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts that begins with Hounds of the Underworld (2017).

Of Australian authors, you can do no better than Alan Baxter and Kaaron Warren—Baxter’s The Gulp sequence (2021) is perhaps the most successful fusion of cosmic horror with local flavour I’ve ever encountered, equalled only by what Warren discovers in small towns (Tide of Stone, 2018, or any of her collections). Mind you, if you can get hold of Terry Dowling’s Blackwater Days (2000), or Lucy Sussex’s The Scarlet Rider (1996, reprinted in 2015), you will not regret it.

What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?

Signal, not noise.

And to the writers from your country out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?

I know it’s hard to do this in Australia, of all places! But try and get out and about. Attend conventions and launches, meet other horror writers, discover the community, get involved. We are by and large friendly, professional and keep our poison glands to ourselves.

4 comments on “World of Horror: Interview with Kyla Lee Ward

  1. This is an incredible project you are doing! I love hearing from authors! I enjoy hearing about them. Can I recommend an author for a future interview?

  2. Kyla dear, do you know those deserts you enjoy so much that you don’t want to finish, and you even lick the dish? That’s what I felt about your interview! You are terrifying and awesome, I must get your novelette this instant! When you were talking about women in power and then killed, YES!, I thought of intriguing Miss Vanessa Yves too, such an underrated character. What were the scriptwriters thinking? Sending you enchanting signals and talismanic love from Madrid, Spain.

    • Re-enchanting the world is our duty, dear lady! I humbly thank you. And, if this appears twice, do forgive me: I’m hopeless at these blog thngs.

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