Reviews / Women in Horror

A Conversation With Lucy Taylor

lucytaylor

Horror author Lucy Taylor is a relatively new discovery for me. I first read her work in the phenomenal Grey Matter Press anthology, Peel Back the Skin, in the form of her story, “Moth Frenzy.” That story, one of the best in a book full of brilliance, impressed me so much I went seeking out more of her stuff and, while I’ve yet to read any of her longer work, I have had the opportunity to read several of her short stories and I recommend you read her soon. “Moth Frenzy” is no fluke. Lucy’s work is consistently exceptional, emotional, visceral, and terrifying. Her prose is beautiful and her stories have real staying power. I can still remember the content and the outcome of every story I’ve read by her, which is something I’m rarely able to do. If you haven’t read her work yet, I suggest you check out her stories “Things of Which We Do Not Speak” and  “Blessed be the Bound,” both in Nightmare Magazine. I’m confident you’ll find yourself looking for more of her work shortly after you finish those. But before you go, take the time to check out this interview we did together. Lucy is a wonderfully candid individual and it’s always a delight to interact with her. I hope you enjoy this as much as I have.


SDK: First off, please tell us a little bit about yourself.

LT: Well, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, a former Confederate capital with meticulous standards of gentility, decorum, and female subservience—in short, a hotbed of seething repression and nutty relatives shackled in the attic, metaphorically or otherwise.  I was taught the two highest virtues are punctuality and impeccable grammar. Other stuff, not so much. My household of origin was full of material possessions, but lacking entirely in everything important: pleasure, love, humor, kindness, generosity, creativity, spirituality. Suffice it to say, ’More is never enough’ became my motto early on.

Since Richmond, I’ve lived in  in Florida, Japan, (English-teaching in Tokyo), West Virginia, Colorado, and California, then three years ago settled down in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I’d like to think is the last stop on the tour.   I love New Mexico; it’s the physical expression of what I’d like to imagine my inner landscape to be—stark, spacious, exuberantly primal and wild. I feel like I’ve been looking for this place all my life. Kind of wish I’d found it sooner, in fact, but I wouldn’t have been content without that stop in California, because I wanted to live near the ocean.

What fills my life and nurtures my creativity are my animal companions (five Zen master cats), my lover Richard, and my activities as a longtime member of a 12-Step community that is particularly rich and close-knit here in Santa Fe. For all the wonderful people, places, and things in my world, I’d say what I find most gratifying about living here is the emptiness, the space.  The sheer vastness of the skiy. I live on two acres, drink my coffee watching the birds in my yard and the resident gopher growing fat on my sunflower seeds because, as they say, ‘winter is coming’. I never foresaw this kind of life, but couldn’t ask for a better one.

SDK: When did you decide that you wanted to write fiction professionally?

LT:  Actually by the age of five or six, before I learned how to write, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I worried a lot about death and apparently, the potential for creativity in the afterlife, and once asked my mother if there were “typewriters in heaven”? This, apparently, was a theological question that actually concerned me.

My maternal grandfather, who worked for the C&O Railroad, was a frustrated writer. He wrote short stories with an erotic bent that would be considered prim by today’s standards but were unacceptable in that era.   So I was familiar with the concept of someone shut away in their room with a typewriter, making up stories. Then later, when I was ten or eleven, I started writing “books” on a typewriter I persuaded my mother to buy me. These books always featured animal protagonists and many of the human characters met ghastly ends, which pretty much summed up my priorities then and now.

I wish I could have kept those early efforts, but when I was fifteen, after some terrible things took place in my life, I didn’t think it was safe to have my fiction available where my mother could read it and perhaps use it as evidence of instability on my part, and I destroyed them all.

SDK: What made you choose horror as the main outlet for your creativity?

LT: I’m not sure I ‘chose’ horror. It’s what has always resonated with me, what calls to me and enchants me. For one thing, because of my early life, I constantly questioned my reality and the natures and true intentions of the people around me. I knew this could not be ‘all there was’.  I knew what it felt like to be trapped with people who did not have your best interest at heart,, and I spent many years in a state of anxiety and fear, feeling like I had landed on an alien planet. So I knew a lot about demons and about fine-tuning the ability to present an acceptable self to others while guarding one’s true self from the world—or at least from those one knows are untrustworthy.

And horror writing is, after all, so very satisfying.  As the writer, I’m in control, I get to decide who lives and who dies, who has a .357 hidden at the bottom of her handbag and what lies in the creepy casita out on Old Agua Fria. Writing (and reading) horror lets me explore my worst fears in a controlled atmosphere, to make a game of the things that might otherwise terrify me.

SDK: Is horror the only genre you write in?

LT:  With a few exceptions, it is. In the early 2000’s, I wrote three mystery-suspense novels (NAILED, SAVING SOULS, and LEFT TO DIE) for Penguin-Putnam. The novels did all right and I don’t regret the experience, but what I learned was that above all, I’m a horror writer. That’s what I love, what I’m attracted to. Mystery-suspense was an interesting dalliance, but horror is the one I come home to.

SDK: Name some creative influences/inspirations.

LT:  Well, of course, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, Margaret Atwood, all of whom I admire tremendously, and there are so many others. Among them but by no means inclusive: Laird Barron, John Langan,  Margo Lanagan, Gemma Files, Ray Garton, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn, Pat Cadigan, Angela Slatter…there are so many amazing horror and dark fantasy writers out there!

And, of course, there are those people who may not be writers, but who influence me simply by their presence in my life– they incarnate some aspect of a character I’m working with or a particular viewpoint on life, they embody some element of a story.  Strangers, too, inspire: I’ve been given a theme or an opening line by a comment overheard on a train or a snippet of conversation in an elevator.

SDK: What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?

LT: Honestly, if I’ve ever been given truly bad writing advice, perhaps I forgot it, because nothing comes to mind, but there is a ton of good writing advice that I wish I’d been given along the way. When I look back at work I did starting out, some of it still pleases me, but other things, it’s like, wow, this could have been so much better, or why didn’t somebody point such and such out to me before this ever saw print. And who knows? Maybe somebody did, and I didn’t listen.

SDK: If you could give one piece of advice to a fledgling author, what would it be?

LT: I’d say be clear on what it is you’re trying to do. What is your endgame? Are you writing this just for yourself or are you aiming to publish it and, if so, in what market?  For what audience? I’ve run into people who have real writing talent, but very little idea or interest in the audience they’re trying to reach. They’re just shooting arrows sort of blindly, thinking they’ll hit something eventually, but that’s not usually how it works.

So I would say, know what your goal is, then read everything you can and try to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t and why. Don’t be afraid of rejection. That’s part of the deal. And when you do get published, treasure—I mean truly treasure –the very best editors, the ones who will call you on every clumsy phrase, every not-quite-right word, every tiny incongruity of character or plotline. They are rare and they are invaluable.

SDK: You just returned from France recently and it’s obvious from your bio on your website that you have a passion for travel. Does that generate story ideas for you?

LT: It does, but perhaps less so in the details of a specific place than the way characters might adapt (or not) to a radically unfamiliar environment. Wandering and wanderlust intrigue me, as does that peculiar frisson of horror, awe, and excitement that comes from realizing you’re totally out of your element, surrounded by strangers, listening to languages that mean something to everyone else but are only so much birdsong to you. In alien surroundings, people take chances, become reckless, face or run away from challenges. It lays bare parts of the personality that might otherwise remain concealed, which makes for a lot of possibilities in fiction.

And just parenthetically, I was fortunate to have stories in each volume of the EXOTIC GOTHIC anthology series, edited by Danel Olson, where writers combined various aspects of the Gothic motif with exotic locales. The stories I did for EG, along with several previously unpublished stories, became the collection FATAL JOUNEYS.

SDK: In PEEL BACK THE SKIN from Grey Matter Press, your story ‘Moth Frenzy’ (which I would file in the “brilliant category) was set in New Mexico where you currently reside. Is New Mexico the setting for a lot of your stories?

LT: First of all, thanks so much for the kind words about “Moth Frenzy”. And yes, I do write about New Mexico quite a lot. It’s a wonderful setting for horror: stark, macabre, a seductive place with mysterious people.   A friend who’s lived here twenty years told me he decided to move to New Mexico because “it’s the closest you can get to living in a foreign country while still being in the States.”

In addition to the stunning landscape, there are so many fascinating people here, ‘characters’ in themselves—Anglo transplants seeking to reinvent themselves,  Native Americans with their rich culture and art, and gripping, often tragic, histories,  the Hispanic community, some of whom trace their ancestry all the way back to Spain when their families received land grants to settle here.

In short, I would say New Mexico is a place where the outlandish is celebrated, the eccentric is embraced, and the lovers of extremes often find what they came for.

SDK: Is there a particular work of yours that you would recommend to new readers?

LT: Well, I’d love them to pick up a copy of PEEL BACK THE SKIN and read “Moth Frenzy” as well as all the other wonderful stories in that anthology. And I’d recommend my collection FATAL JOURNEYS, horror stories in exotic settings, from Kyoto to the Bahamas to Papua New Guinea.  I might add that, since one of your questions was do I ever write outside the horror genre, the novelette “How Real Men Die” from FATAL JOURNEYS is pure erotica/suspense: three aging Detroit buddies off to have a last hoorah in Bangkok before one of them croaks.

SDK: I’ve only read short work by you up till now, you’ve written several novels as well, including a Bram Stoker winner. Talk some about your longer works.

LT: My best known novel is THE SAFETY OF UNKNOWN CITIES, which won a Bram Stoker for Best First Novel. It’s a hardcore erotic fantasy, a graphic journey into a metaphorical land of sex addiction. The protagonist Val makes a harrowing journey into The City, a kind of hellscape where the most depraved individuals indulge their darkest appetites.  The title speaks to the odd kind of solace I’ve always found in places completely alien and unfamiliar.

My other novels include DANCING WITH DEMONS and SPREE, both of which are heavy on the sex and violence. ETERNAL HEARTS is a vampire novel I did for White Wolf Publishing that includes lush, graphic illustrations by artist John Bolton, and as mentioned earlier, NAILED, SAVING SOULS, and LEFT TO DIE are mystery/suspense novels.

SDK: Do you prefer short form or long form fiction when it comes to writing?

LT:  I think both forms have their advantages. I tend to have a lot of ideas spinning around at once, so often I find myself working on a new short story even when I’ve got a novel in the works.  The longer forms, of course, allow for a more expansive storyline and multiple viewpoints, so the writer can develop a much deeper, richer fictional world. There’s a greater opportunity for complexity and experimentation.

A short story, not unlike a summer fling, offers instant gratification as well as characters that, unless brought back in some later work, pass quickly through one’s fictional universe.

SDK: This is like asking someone to name their favorite child but I’ll ask anyway. Do you have a personal favorite among your works?

LT: Sure, I think all writers do. At the  moment, I’d say two of my favorites would be “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers” (Tor.com, July 2015), and the story you mentioned earlier, “Moth Frenzy” from PEEL BACK THE SKIN.

“In the Cave of the Delicate Singers” required a lot of research because the story takes place almost entirely inside a cave system, and starting out, I knew very little about caves. The nicest comments I got were from a couple of people who were actual cavers. Both said they had to stop and take a break when they got to one particularly harrowing scene where the protagonist is trapped in a most unpleasant fashion; both guessed I must be a caver myself (no way!).

As far as “Moth Frenzy”, I discovered the term in a book on Navajo superstitions when I was researching another project. The term was used to explain an epileptic seizure; since epilepsy was not understood at the time, the frantic gyrations were thought to be the result of some type of sexual abuse, possibly incest.  The story deals with sexual obsession, one of my favorite themes, since it seems to me lust is never more all-consuming than when its object is that which will kill us. (Which probably explains why I never wrote romanceJ).

SDK: Are there any exciting projects or works in progress that you’d like to talk about?

LT: Well, I’m thrilled that Ellen Datlow recently accepted my science fiction novelette “Sweetlings” for Tor.com.

I can’t say much about “Sweetlings” because it won’t be out until May 3 of next year, but it’s a post-apocalyptic novelette set on the east coast during a period when life on earth is heading down a new and potentially terrible evolutionary path. I did a lot of research for “Sweetlings”, everything from various forms of extinct sea life to the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

My story “He Who Whispers the Dead Back to Life” will appear in David Barnett’s INTO THE HEART OF PAINFREAK anthology, edited by Gerard Houarnier and due out this fall.

And I’m delighted that The Overlook Connection Press will be reprinting THE SAFETY OF UNKNOWN CITIES with illustrations by renowned horror artist Glenn Chadbourne.  There’s a signed limited edition available as well as a great offer for those interested in buying the novel along with a copy of FATAL JOURNEYS.

As far as WIP, I’ve got a novel set in New Mexico in the works and a short story about a strange old man who walks the roads near Santa Fe and the wealthy builder whose “Turquoise House” has caught the walker’s eye.

SDK: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap this up?

LT:   I’d like to mention that anyone interested in learning more about my work can do so at www.lucytaylor.us.

Other than that, it’s been a pleasure, Shane. Thanks for the interview.

SDK: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Lucy. I look forward to reading more of your work soon.

Buy Lucy Taylor’s Bram Stoker award winning novel, The Safety of Unknown Cities
Buy Peel Back the Skin 
from Grey Matter Press

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