An Interview with Horror Fiction Writer Carrie Laben.
Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz
Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review,Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place”. In 2015 she was selected for the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writer’s Residency and in 2018 she was a MacDowell Fellow. I spoke with Laben in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis about art, writing, and influence.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
No, it crept up on me. There was a moment when a high school boyfriend told me that being a writer was an impractical dream and I should plan to do something else, and every so often I chuckle and think 'screw him'. Can you talk about the appearance of close sister relationships and unideal mothers in your work? Oh boy, can I! As you allude to below, I come from a large family (I'm the oldest of seven children) and as a socially anxious loner by inclination, that was the center of my world during my formative years. My mom, in particular, loomed large because my dad had a very demanding job with long hours, so she was the adult I spent the most time with. She's nothing like the moms in my stories, of course (Hi Mom!) but with a horror writer's mind it was easy to extrapolate how the huge power she had in my child-life could be turned to dark ends... Mother-daughter and sibling relationships are also useful for the kinds of stories I like to write because, to be honest, my reaction to conflict in a lot of stories that center romantic relationships is "just break up already! Let it go!" Of course you can estrange from family too but there's a lifetime of inertia and early training there, and I think it makes for better conflict. What's the cliche? No one knows how to push your buttons like the people who installed them? And too, so many earlier horror works that we now call classics are about protecting the nuclear family from outside incursions by monsters, it feels like a logical next step to say "what if the monsters are already in here with you?" Can you discuss how you came to write stories about rural, working class characters? Particularly girls? Here again, rural girl is my background, and our class situation was not so much upwardly mobile, so I feel like I can write it authentically and well... also, horror has this intensely conflicted attitude towards class. Hillbillies and aristocrats are both scary monsters. In writing more broadly, of course, there's this stereotype that Real Literature is about professional-class people, and the occasional Dorothy Allison or Carolyn Chute is a kind of stunt pony. It's never been entirely true but it's true enough to annoy me and when I'm annoyed I get contrary. And again, the heart of a good story is conflict and a lot of conflicts become more intense when you can't solve them by throwing money at them, when you have all these external constraints, when you don't have power and people in power are predisposed to not listen to you. Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm? Oh do I ever! I have a soft spot for nature writing, loosely defined - I'm actually working on a book of essays about urban birding myself - but I love all kinds of nonfiction. Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire, about the Hartford circus fire of 1944, is my favorite of his works and I like Ursula LeGuin's nonfiction better than her fiction in general. I also read quite a bit of fiction that isn't horror. Emotionally crime fiction and especially noir are horror-adjacent anyway, so that's a natural progression. And on the other side dark fantasy shades into fantasy and science fiction. And even though some genre writers have a chip on their shoulder about literary fiction and vice-versa, I think that's really unnecessary. Less by Andrew Greer, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2018, that was hilarious. Kazuo Ishiguro is always astonishing, even when he stumbles. I just got hold of The Mirror and the Light before PAUSE started and I can't wait to get into it. That's just the first three I saw looking at my shelves. I'm a little weak on poetry but some of the best people I know are poets, so I'm working on it! How would you define a good story in a few sentences? I already touched on the centrality of conflict. You generally need some kind of core of emotional truth, but that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Three to ten pictures-worth of worth? Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing? I'm a music-listener when I write, which is not uncommon, but I particularly key in on folk songs. A Hawk In the Woods is titled after a line from one version of the murder ballad The Cruel Mother, which is also referenced directly in the text (besides their deep roots in the fears and desires of our culture, folk songs are nice because you don't worry about having to buy the rights when you quote them). There's a few different versions I listened to while I was writing the novel - the rendition by Emily Smith I particularly like, and there's one by Fiona Hunter that has a great animated video with it. Can you describe how your memories and the culture of the places you have lived and studied (New York, Montana) impact your work? Landscape plays a huge role in my work, as does the characters' relationship with landscape. And close observation is the only way to really get a handle on landscape. So more than the culture, it's the natural history of these places that really informs my writing. What does folk horror mean or include as a genre to you? Why is it suited well to blend with cosmic horror? Well, as I said, landscape, natural history, these are things that matter tremendously to me, and so much of the tradition that gives us folk horror is the tradition of people trying to live in (or with) landscapes and control things like the weather and the harvest by any means necessary - think of The Wicker Man for instance. And why are they turning to extreme measures like human sacrifice? Because the landscape itself doesn't necessarily take human life or comfort into account, it's bigger than us and it is indifferent, sometimes seems hostile. And that's the roots of cosmic horror right there, when despite all your human sacrifice and everything it still doesn't work. So the tension between folk and cosmic horror is in some ways the tension of does it work, does it not, what does 'working' even look like, and which is scarier? Can you tell us about how you came to be a birder? My mom had bird feeders hung up around the house since before I can remember, and I flowed into it quite naturally from there. I wanted to know everything about the natural world as a kid (still do) and birds were accessible, and field guides and organizations existed to help. I went to Cornell largely because of the reputation of the Lab of Ornithology there, and just kept on keeping on.
What are your favorite birds? That changes often, but I'm especially partial to water birds. My first-ever tattoo was a red-necked phalarope, a species related to the sandpipers. They nest in the Arctic tundra and often winter on the open ocean; the females are larger and more brightly colored than the males and are often polyandrous, with the males doing all of the nest and chick care. They look tiny and fragile but they're really quite tough. Does having many siblings impact your work as a writer, or in becoming one? I already talked a little about how it influenced my writing - in terms of becoming a writer, books were definitely a coping mechanism for me as a kid, a place to find peace and quiet and privacy. That probably set me up to want to be a writer specifically as opposed to say, a musician or a visual artist. What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings? Obviously I see things I would have done differently - I'd be worried if I didn't! But sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, too, or see patterns and connections with other work that I didn't necessarily recognize at the time. I didn't realize exactly how often I wrote about sisters until I sat down and made a chart of the central relationships in all my stories, for instance. And recently, while working on my new novel, I realized that I've been writing characters without an explicitly marked gender since almost the beginning... characters who might call themselves nonbinary or genderfluid or agender if they were living right now but in their settings they aren't necessarily named such. For some reason those stories have overwhelmingly not been published, but I don't know if that's a market thing or that I haven't come at the stories in a successful way - yet. Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
I've never thought I would or should stop writing. I've definitely wondered if anyone else would ever care what I'm writing! But ultimately I write because I enjoy it so I suppose if I didn't enjoy it I would stop, although I can't imagine what I'd do instead. Does that even count as a vocation?
Can you please describe your writing space?
I write primarily at what I guess is the kitchen table although the apartment I'm in doesn't really have a kitchen as such. I face the balcony door so I can keep an eye on the weather, and on the starlings and pigeons and whatnot. Usually have some books stacked up whether I'm actually going to use them or not. My dog Dublin - a black-and-brown chow/husky/cattle dog mix - supervises. He's very encouraging.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
I dunno, should water flow downhill? It just does. My own views are all over my work - not because I sit down and think 'I am going to write a story with A Message' but because I write things that seem true and meaningful to me and that's where my political, religious, etc. views come from as well. I don't think I could separate those things if I wanted to.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
Ooh, that's tough. Abby, from A Hawk In the Woods, is the one I'm proudest of as a writer - readers have very mixed reactions to her, which is what I wanted, and even the ones who hate her don't seem to hate her in a way that makes them not finish the book. The character I'd most like to hang out with as a person is Faith, the main character from my short story "And Neither Have I Wings To Fly" (Bewere the Night) - she's got principles but she's practical, and she knows how to drive a boat. All of the female characters in "Wild Dogs" (Nox Pariedoila) are loosely based on friends of mine - and the dogs are all based on their dogs - so you could definitely say there's a fondness there!
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
I see small things I could write differently in damn near everything, as I mentioned, but as for not writing it - not that I can think of.
If any of your novels could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
I only have the one, and I don't know but that it's too interior and convoluted to make a good film, although I could definitely see Eva Green as Abby and Martha - she's got the looks and the chops. I've thought about which of my short stories might look good on film though and I'd love to see "Augerino" (Mantid) on the new Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt, with Cory Finley doing the honors because he handled sound so cleverly in Thoroughbreds.
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
This basically goes with my answer to the "should writing be used to influence" question. My ideas are in my writing, and I think my ideas are good, because if I didn't, I'd think different ideas, of course. Then again my audience, and thus my influence, isn't very big and may never be. So it might not contribute anything to society other than some temporary enjoyment for individual readers. That's ok too. But then on the third hand writing a cult novel may be a surer road to influence than writing a best-seller, in the long run. Hardly anyone remembers most of the best-sellers from fifty years ago.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
My mom read to me a lot as a child, and I think the earliest one I remember was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish - although it may be Hop On Pop. Around the same age, my grandfather would tell me stories about how he and my father built the barn where our milking cows spent the winter, and those are the first stories I remember hearing.
Can you talk about the presence of family conflict and complex family histories in your fiction?
Absolutely! In addition to what I described above, there's a line in my story Bad Penny (Shades of Blue and Gray/ Reprinted in Apex Magazine- "... the whole damn country is haunted." And the way that haunting manifests in the lives of individuals, very often, is through family history. People who are privileged by race and class often don't recognize how much the advantages and challenges their grandparents had changes their own biography, but if you look at who owns land and capital, who struggles with inter-generational trauma, who has parents who tell them to go to a police officer if they need help, who gets taught early on that they can afford to go to a doctor and can afford to trust a doctor... the history of the world we live in and the history of the individual are linked by family history.
The other reason that family conflict crops up again and again is that people who have dealt with conflict or secrecy or shame in their families often develop a keen eye for the difference between what someone is saying and what that same person is doing, between how a situation appears and how a situation actually is. And that makes for a very useful viewpoint character when you're telling a story that involves deceit or hypocrisy, as stories often do.
So, the short answer is that people with complex, conflicted families are uniquely well-suited to be characters in the kinds of stories I want to tell.
What are your favorite horror stories?
I'm particularly partial to the short novel as a horror format - so both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In the Castle, The Great God Pan, The Ballad of Black Tom, all rank very high for me. The work of M. R. James is hugely influential on me as well - I think he achieves a near-perfect balance of explanation and atmosphere in his best work. Edith Wharton has written some profoundly overlooked ghost stories - I especially recommend "The Eyes".
As for more recent work, for the past few years I've been doing a ghost-story Advent calendar of a sorts between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I've turned up some real gems like "Bridge of Sighs" by Kaaron Warren and "Late Night at the Low Road Diner" by Frances Rowat. It's posted to all of my social media.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I do think I see the world differently than most people but writers/non-writers isn't the dividing line, I don't think. The sort of curiosity and attention to detail that I'm all about can be found in a lot of my favorite writers but also in other sorts of artists, and in a lot of scientists as well, and in hunters and sailors and farmers when they're working at their best... in birdwatchers, of course, and some other hobbyists too. A friend of mine has described it as being magpie-minded, which I think is very apt.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
I would consider them inseparable, more than equal. I'm not an outliner (although I HATE the term 'pantser') and the only way my plots and characters can reach an end state that's any good is through my own idiosyncratic process, which I barely understand myself.
In what ways are your writings a means of reflection?
My essays are probably more obviously reflective, in keeping with tradition. But all of my writing has a tendency to form like a pearl around some notion that bothers me. Like, when I wrote Postcards From Natalie, it started with a long and seemingly unproductive night when I read all of Wikipedia's entries about John and Jane Does in the United States. This got me reading about people who try to solve these cases, both the police and amateur investigators; from there I got to pondering the discourse around 'closure' for families of these lost people, whether they're the victims of crime or just misfortune, and what exactly this really means. Many people consider assigning an identity to the unknown dead a great victory, but in so many cases it just allows us to assign a narrative ("oh, another runaway/sex worker/drug addict") and let the person, and the problem, sink from view. Writing a story where it's the mystery and sense of injustice that keeps the lost person alive was my way of exploring what could be different.
By the way, there's a really weird case that didn't make it into the story, in which two kids in Los Angeles were playing with dynamite, blew themselves up, and were never identified or claimed. The record-keeping around the case was so poor that it's only dated to sometime between 1921 and 1951. That still bothers me and it might make it into a different story someday.
Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
I guess I sort of just answered that, oops.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
I don't set out to be self-consciously 'unique', but at the same time I can't imagine anything more boring than trying to write like someone else, however much I might admire that person's writing. I'm just incredibly self-indulgent and do whatever I want and for some reason it seems to work for me.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I started when I was like five, so yeah, my vocabulary is bigger and my grasp of complex sentence structures is a good deal more confident.
More seriously, I definitely remember realizing, while working on Hawk, that all those things my high school English teachers said about writers actually consciously considering their individual words were true, which had seen quite implausible at the time. And that I had started doing it without realizing.
Can you tell us about the process and circumstances around your writing A Hawk in the Woods? The origins of the idea and the process of writing?
Certainly! The title, and a big part of the inspiration, came from the folk song The Cruel Mother and my ongoing fascination with infanticide... wow, that sounds wrong... rather, my ongoing fascination with how a crime that seems so counter-intuitive from both an evolutionary and a sociological perspective nevertheless continues to crop up again and again and again in mythology and in fact. That grew into a larger narrative about parents who try to dominate and draw strength from their children, and how children try to escape and/or get revenge, and that linked into the cosmic horror element by way of Lovecraft's "The Thing On the Doorstep".
Even once all that was in place the writing was a very long, occasionally frustrating process that I like to compare to putting an octopus in a laundry basket. Every time I thought I had it under control new issues were popping out everywhere. And at the same time I was starting to publish short fiction seriously, and then taking three years to get my MFA in creative nonfiction, so my efforts weren't exactly concentrated. But all of those other adventures helped contribute to my overall growth as a writer and Hawk was better for it.
My earliest complete draft was, to be honest, pretty unfocused. I got an agent and then lost her because she thought it needed a happier ending; then I was fortunate enough to end up with Stephen Barbara of Inkwell and he gave me some incredibly useful advice and I got it to almost the published version. Even then, getting to actual publication was a journey and I ended up adding an entire additional subplot at the behest of an editor who was ultimately blocked by his marketing department from acquiring the book, but the subplot improved the story, so it was still a win.
Do you have publications in the works?
Allowing for the natural uncertainty of a world in which everyone's out of work and nothing runs the way it used to, I should have a charitable chapbook coming out from Nightscape Press sometime in late 2020 or maybe early 2021. It's called "The Water Is Wide" and it's a haunted house story/weird western hybrid set in a Wyoming guest lodge that's seen some mighty strange shit go down. I'm very proud of it. The charitable component is that a portion of the proceeds go to the Climate Justice Alliance.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
I'm concerned that the horror boom times will be over for a while... not only is publishing as a whole taking a hit, even I'm finding it hard to read anything too emotionally grueling and I'm not exactly a shrinking violet. I've switched almost entirely to reading nonfiction, mostly nature writing. I feel bad because there are a lot of amazing books recently out in the genre but I just can't, you know?
That said, horror never goes away permanently, and the weird is its own thing with its own crew of devotees. And it's almost always a fool's errand to try to predict the future. What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year? In February I belatedly read The Wasp Factory, and although I wasn't surprised that I loved it, I was surprised by what I loved about it. The big gender issue is handled in a way that's kind of dated, but the underlying emotional structure of the family is what I really tuned into. I guess that's not unexpected, being me.
Some more recent stuff I've found interesting includes Brian Hauser's Memento Mori, Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, and Death To the Bullshit Artists of South Texas by Fernando Flores. On the nonfiction front, Occult Features Of Anarchism by Erica Lagalisse and I'm currently enjoying Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
“A Hawk in the Woods is wonderfully dark and spellbinding, mixing the road novel, family drama, time travel, cosmic horror, and maybe even a little Heathers. Carrie Laben is an original, compelling new voice. Consider me a fan for life.” –Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts
Laben's debut novel, A Hawk in the Woods, was released in Spring 2020 from Word Horde. Order your copy here.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in April of 2020.