An Interview with Horror Fiction Writer Livia Llewellyn.
Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series, Years Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica. Her first collection, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors (2011, Lethe Press), received two Shirley Jackson Award nominations, for Best Collection, and for Best Novelette (for "Omphalos"). Her story "Furnace" received a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Short Story. Her second collection, Furnace (2016, Word Horde Press), received a Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Collection and won the 2016 This is Horror Award for Best Collection.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
No, there never was. I started writing “scary” short stories when I was in third grade—I’d write them out by hand and pass them around to my friends during recess. I kept writing all through high school, but even though I took a number of creative writing classes, I wasn’t really encouraged by my teachers (or friends) to take it seriously, so theatre and acting became my main artistic focus for the next twenty-odd years. But I still wrote short fiction in college and after, and experimented with hypertext fiction when I got my first computer. I think moving to New York City in the nineties was when I started taking writing more seriously—I was still acting, but I knew by then that I wasn’t going to “make it” as an actor, as in make a living at it. I wrote maybe forty-odd short stories during that time—I was taking it seriously enough to constantly be working on something. By 2002 I was done with theatre completely: that was the year I began writing with the intention of becoming published. Again, though, there was never an “aha!” moment of deciding to be a writer. I’ve always been a writer—I love creating art through language, whether it’s through someone else’s words or my own. To be honest, I’ve also always been an actor for the same reasons. It’s just that now my stage is confined to whatever story I’m working on. Which is better, actually—no one ever quits one of my stories and leaves everyone scrambling because they booked a fucking commercial.
Can you talk about the appearance of rot and blighted areas in your work?
I grew up in Tacoma in the seventies and early eighties, when some of the larger local factories shut down, followed by many of the white collar and retail businesses fleeing the downtown area, leaving the usual peripheral economy behind—bars, pawn shops, flop houses—along with empty warehouses and other large buildings that were left to fall apart. The suburbs were relatively nice, and for the most part, people had jobs, but there was a definite sense of stagnation, and that permeated all parts of the city. I vaguely remember when Tacoma was a much more vibrant place, but I didn’t know anything about the economics behind what was happening; and so I spent much of my childhood with this sense of dread and unease, because I couldn’t understand why department stores and shops I remember my parents taking me to only last year were suddenly gone, why the buildings were empty, the windows boarded up or broken. It unnerved me to be walking down the corridors of the Tacoma Mall and discover that an entire row of shops was suddenly just gone—or to walk to the local shopping area close to my house, to find the parking lot empty, the lights turned off. It distressed me profoundly to discover neighborhoods where houses and apartment complexes, sometimes entire construction lots, had been abandoned—I wanted to know why, but there was no one left to provide answers. I guess writing about it has been a way to answer those questions I had and continue to have—I now live in an area surrounded by empty and rotting brick warehouses and factories, and I’m as fascinated and disturbed by them as I was by the decaying buildings of my childhood town.
Can you discuss how you came to write stories about lonely girls in particular?
They say write what you know, and I’ve spent most of my life by myself, outside the peripheries of what the dominant culture in the country would call “normal” life. Being alone, however, has given me some freedom to do things that most people, most women, can’t do. I write about those same kind of women and young women and girls in my stories because this is a state of being that I can speak to and write about with absolute authority. But I wouldn’t say they’re all lonely—alone, but not necessarily lonely. I think my protagonists all yearn for something other than what they have, and in the worlds I’ve placed them in, they’re able to give into (or resist) this longing in ways that I can’t, through magic or sex or metamorphosis or cosmic chance, or some combination of all of these things.
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm?
Absolutely. I used to read more science fiction and fantasy, especially when I was working at Tor (I was one of Tom Doherty’s admin assistants for a short time), but in recent years I’ve been reading more non-fiction—not just esoteric and strange subjects for research, but biographies, memoirs, micro-histories, any subject that piques my interest. I’ve always read literary fiction, both contemporary and classics—for the past couple of years I’ve bought a very large number of books in the NYRB Classics series, and have discovered some amazing mid-century and late 19th and early 20th century authors. I love the Beats—poetry, non-fiction, fiction, all of it. I’ll occasionally read YA, it’s not a genre I love as much as other adult readers do, but I’ll always read anything super dark, and especially anything by Holly Black. And I love cookbooks—I have far too many cookbooks to every reasonably use, but I can’t stop buying them. I have a million meals planned in my future, so I hope I live a long time.
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
I think that the stories that hook me, that I consider good, are the ones that don’t explain everything, that have some mystery at their ending as well as their beginning. And I’m always drawn to a strong sense of style—the language can be baroque and lush, or cold and sparse, it doesn’t matter as long as there’s a commitment to a way of telling the story, a way of using the language that’s different than how we typically speak in real life. Beyond those qualities, though, what I can define as good really varies from story to story.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
I’m sure most readers are assuming I’m going to list a work by H.R. Giger or something equally disturbing, but one of my favorite works of art is an oil painting by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole, titled The Past (1838).
It’s a seemingly romantic and picturesque painting of medieval knights jousting in a tournament held for a king and queen outside of a massive castle. What fascinates me about the painting is how the landscape, the forests and mountains and distant horizon, all seem to overpower the very tiny humans and horses on the small patch of “civilized” land. From my viewpoint, this isn’t an image of a celebration or moment of joy. I’m looking at a single second in the lives of insignificant beings who are already long dead and forgotten, tiny black blips of consciousness briefly surfacing from a vast, uncaring, unstoppable river of time before slipping back under and disappearing forever as the wilderness around them rumbles into the future without pause. The painting speaks to me on a very profound level, it horrifies and enchants me; and those duel qualities are what I seek when I view it, and what I then try to imbue in my writing.
Can you describe how your memories and the culture of Tacoma impact your work?
I don’t know if I can—not that I don’t want to, but I don’t think I need to clarify or expand on how growing up in Tacoma impacts my fiction, because it’s right there in my fiction. I don’t know what more I could say beyond what’s already in the words. Besides, while I had a relatively good childhood, clearly something was off because I’m writing some pretty fucked up fiction about it—and I don’t know why, and while I’ll try to find some semblance of an answer through writing about it, I probably won’t ever know why. And I think that’s how it should remain. If the mystery is gone, if everything is out in the open and clear, then there won’t be any need for me to write. And I don’t want that that to happen just quite yet.
What does “suburban horror” mean or include as a genre to you?
The nature, the very purpose of suburban housing is to be isolated from other people, and in America there is also class, racial, and cultural separation built into the design and development (and in some instances actual gate keeping) of suburban neighborhoods. Separation and isolation are prime conditions of horror, regardless of the setting, but suburbia has always been a natural incubator of horror due to its artificial physical structure and the very strict rules it imposes on people to behave and live at the behest of neighbors they rarely, if ever, see. And I think horror often occurs when artificiality has replaced much of the natural world that humans surround themselves with. Horror—like nature—refuses to recognize those structures because they’re not organic in formation, they’re weak and easily invaded and destroyed or transformed because they refuse to respect the original formations and “flow” of the land they occupy (suburbia is also colonization). Suburban horror is about false safety and false legitimacy, it is about those streets and houses being exposed for what they are—lies—and I think in the best fiction about suburbia, it’s about how the protagonists don’t just fight the “evil” but realize that their existence in such places is of itself unnatural and not “good” or “right.” Suburban horror works best when it’s about two forms of unnaturalness confronting and recognizing each other, with no clear winners or restoration of balance, because there can be no balance in a place where human artificiality willfully ignores the primal, natural world.
How does your twenty years of experience in the theatre impact your work as a writer?
I feel like all those years of working around and on the stage has given me a very good handle on the structure and flow of a compelling story. I know what makes a good plot, a good beginning and ending, characters with real motivation, and how to create dramatic arcs within the overall larger arc of the piece. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t fuck it up—I still write stories that have terrible endings or have characters who are too passive. Everyone does this, you get caught up in the telling of the story and you drop threads and make a mess, it happens. But when I go back and read with an eye to edit (or, when an editor gives me notes), I feel like I have a better handle on how to fix those mistakes. When you spend three or four months on a single play, going over in stupendous detail all the character backstory and motivation, when you spend hundreds of hours with other people bringing that single story to life, and when you do this not once but several times a year for over twenty years, you begin to understand what makes a great play—and that understanding is immediately and instantly transferable to creating a novel or story. The biggest difference is that those outside opinions and directions (from the director, other actors, stage crew) don’t occur in the creative process until after I’ve finished the story—until I turn it over to an editor, I basically have to act as my own director, dramaturge, set designer, etc. I also have to say that so many years of being “edited” by directors has made being edited by editors a far less painful process than if I’d never had that prior experience. It’s always a shock when someone comments on your work and then says, “you must change it,” but I’m used to it. Theatre taught me that even art created in solitude can be part of an amazing collective process.
What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings?
I haven’t written that much over the years, so I feel like my writing from 15 years ago isn’t that different from what I’m writing now. Most of my stories have been reprinted, so when I’ve prepped them for their second (or sometimes third) publication, I find I’m largely pleased with the original style, plot, characters, etc. If I make changes, they’re always minimal, usually turns of phrases that I probably thought sounded cool or clever when I wrote them but are a bit strained and pretentious now. There’s only one story I made a major revision to, and that was because the plot had numerous holes in it—other than that one, I’ve been largely pleased with my past work. I feel it’s held up.
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
All the time. All. The. Fucking. Time! It brings me so much happiness when I’m writing a story and it’s really flowing, when all the parts are coming together; and it’s an amazing feeling when I finish it. Even more amazing when that story finds a home—fifteen years after my first sale, and it’s still just as exciting to get an acceptance as the first time. But I started out with specific goals in mind, and every year I’ve had to downgrade those goals. I’m not going to make a living at writing. I’m not going to get a Big 5 book deal. I’m not going to be a participant in any “golden age” of horror, present or future. There are other goals that I’ve had to cross a line through—it doesn’t mean I can’t write, but I do have to go through a period of adjustment every time, to get over the disappointment so I can move on with some level of enthusiasm. I think everyone who’s an artist does this. There are those of us who achieve wild levels of artistic and financial success, and then there are the rest of us just muddling along, trying to temper our expectations while remaining hopeful that what we do still matters.
Can you please describe your writing space?
Well, right now it’s a mess! It’s a very small room—supposedly a “second bedroom” but really more of a true office-sized space—with a desk and hutch, a large Ikea bookcase, and an old leather chair piled with books. I had it set up perfectly for years, and then the pandemic came along and overnight it became my day job workspace as well. Hence the mess. Before March, I had lots of horror paraphernalia and decor: posters, Alien xenomorph and Lovecraftian statues, not-safe-for-work research books, far more skulls and occult items than I’m pretty sure the normal home office has… I had to remove a lot of that when I started tele-conferencing with my work colleagues. I mean, I could have joked about it, but we live in an age of severe uncertainty in all parts of life, and I want to be as professional in my work conferences at home as I am at work—I’m not about to lose my job because of a fucking plastic skull. And then I had to clear out half of the bookcase to make room for hundreds of documents that are continually being mailed to me, that I have to scan and file into a database before mailing to one of our storage facilities. (And then I had to find room for all of this stuff in my already cramped apartment, but that’s another story.) So basically, the ambience of my writing space is currently less “awesome horror artifacts, cool books, and creepy writing inspiration” and more “printer/mailing station, office supply closet, and sad work cubicle.” I’m thrilled to still have my job, though, so I’m not complaining at all. I’m just trying to handle the sudden throes of transition, as we all are.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
If an author wants their fiction to influence people about certain viewpoints, then they should absolutely create that type of fiction—that kind of passion and conviction can make for amazing and transformative art. But it’s not something I ever specifically set out to do. I’m sure my own political and religious opinions are in my writing, but I don’t write specifically to express those views—it’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m working on a story. When I’m writing, I’m concentrating on whether the plot makes sense or not, if the character is well-rounded and believable, if the world building is solid, and on all the little details in between. I think if any of my personal viewpoints are visibly on display in my writing, they’re the ones concerning sex, gender, and power—and I’m never consciously trying to imbue my stories with those things, they’re automatically there because those are the things I deal with in my life every day.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
I’m being very truthful when I say I don’t have a favorite character. Looking back, I have to say I love all of the characters I’ve written to varying degrees. Some more than others, but there really isn’t one that stands out as a favorite. However, I’m always more in love with the characters I have yet to write or am in the middle of writing about. I’m also a little more in love with the characters I’ve written about in projects that end up trunked or abandoned—I feel I owe it to those girls and women to revisit them at some later point and get them into stories and novels that actually sell. Maybe someday I’ll write the character that makes me say “okay, she’s it, she is the queen of all Livia Llewellyn protagonists,” but I haven’t done it yet.
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
Yes, there is! I wrote the novella “The One That Comes Before” back in 2014 for an anthology edited by Brian Keene for his Maelstrom imprint at Thunderstorm Books.
I deliberately wrote it as a very pulpy, campy gore-fest with lots of crazy plot threads and what-the-fuck moments that defied even the skewed logic of the world. It was meant to be a fun read and nothing more—and I certainly had a lot of fun writing it. It did get one or two positive reviews, but it largely went unread, even when it was reprinted as a stand-alone book. I reread it a few years ago with a very critical eye, and noticed two things: one, I hated the naked superficiality of how I approached the story, and two, I felt there was a more serious and deeper story buried inside of it—one that was more contemplative and meaningful even in the midst of all the gonzo world building. At the time I was writing it, I thought I was making the right stylistic decisions for the type of reader I thought would buy the anthology, but six years on I see that it wasn’t the best decision for the work. That’s the only time I’ve ever let my assumptions of the reading audience influence how I wrote something, and it’s not a decision I’ll make again. It wasn’t a mistake, but I did learn from it. And maybe someday I’ll rectify it and rewrite the novella into the work it deserves to be.
If any of your novels could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
When the subject of movie or TV adaptation comes up, people always seem to want to see a film version of the novelette “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer.” I agree, and I’d personally love to see a limited series made out of it, maybe a four or six-episode thing on Netflix or Hulu. But that’s not going to happen! I’ve also wanted for many years to see a movie adaptation of “Her Deepness,” directed by Guillermo del Toro. I think he understands more than any other director the grand beauty of horror, and the grand beauty of sorrow, loss, and monstrous transformation in a dark and monstrous world. I think he’d turn the novella into something operatic and wondrous on screen. But again, not going to happen. I mean, it’s been just sitting online at Subterranean for a decade now, and it’s never been given a proper review or been requested for an anthology—it hasn’t been read. No one has talked about it, ever. So, it’s never going to end up as a Hollywood project. The time for that has long gone.
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
No, I don’t think it does. Not to denigrate myself, but I don’t think enough people have read my fiction for it to have any kind of significant cultural impact on or contribution to society as a whole—I doubt I’ll ever get a wide enough readership or a high enough level of critical praise and attention for that to happen. Which is fine. I think rather than worry about an achievement that is largely out of my control, I’d rather try to contribute in other ways, by funding scholarships and new publications and markets for writers and small publishers who need the financial support, by donating money and books to diverse and charitable groups so that more people have access to free reading material, by promoting new works by authors at the beginning of their careers—that’s the kind of contribution and impact that I can actually achieve.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
I don’t have a specific memory of reading my first story, or having it read to me. My mother read me a story every night for many, many years, and she started long before I have a solid memory of it. Same with my own reading—my parents were both grade school teachers, and my sister and I grew up surrounded by hundreds of books. So, I can’t recall a specific moment when reading (and being read to) began in my life. It was always in my life, from the start.
Can you describe in what ways your relocating to NYC/NJ from the Pacific Northwest have influenced your work, in process and in content?
I didn’t write on what could be called a regular basis until I moved to the East Coast. Before then, I’d write only occasionally and when I felt like it, rather than tracking daily word counts and creating lists of markets and stories to send them too—that kind of business-y stuff that becomes part of the process when you’re trying to become published. Moving to New York made it possible for me to go as far as I could with acting and thus shift over to writing, but that would have happened anyway if I’d stayed in the PNW. Moving to New York City made it possible for me to see my life prior to that in a different life, which made it possible for me to use it in fiction in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been able to if I’d remained in Tacoma. Same for moving to New Jersey when Manhattan rents became unaffordable on my salary—now that I don’t live there, I can mythologize it and use it without it being affected by the reality (and financial trauma) of living there. I suspect the same cycle will happen when I leave the New Jersey area and return to the West Coast—I don’t write much about where I live now, but probably in about a decade I’ll be priced out of here once again, and will have to move on.
Can you talk about the themes of gender, sexual fluidity, and interspecies relationships in your fiction?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because I’ve never thought much about themes in my work, especially sexual and gender related. I really just write what interests me. I feel like this is one of those questions that might be better answered by a teacher or an academic, but I’m fairly certain I’m not an author whose work is being studied, and I don’t recall any reviews of my fiction that focus on the sexual content (except when to say there’s a lot of it or too much of it). And I’m not sure what themes readers take from my stories, and what those themes mean to them—again, I tend to see only general comments (and more than a number of jokes) that I write a lot of sex, but no commentary or in-depth critical analysis—so I don’t know what I could say that might be of interest. It’s actually something I’ve started trying to talk about less online, because I’ve found that when the subject of sex comes up, it tends to overshadow everything else I’ve tried to achieve in my writing.
What are your favorite horror stories?
Interesting and timely question, because for the past few months I’ve been slowly creating a list of my favorite short fiction (from all genres and all decades of my life) and then writing about each one in detail to try to figure out what it is about each of those stories, novelettes, and novellas that I love so much, and how they’ve influenced me in my own writing. It’s been quite a process, because some stories I remember everything about, and others I only have vague memories of what the titles and authors were or if I read them in an anthology or collection or online—some I read decades ago, so it’s been a bit maddening trying to track them down when all I can recall is a sentence or vague character description. But I can give you a very tiny selection from what I’ve gathered so far: “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey, “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, “The Forest” and “The Imago Sequence” by Laird Barron, “Dradin, In Love” by Jeff VanderMeer, “Virgin” by Holly Black, “Mechanisms” by Christopher Golden with Mike Mignola, “A Hero For the Dark Towns” by Jay Lake, and “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. For any author reading this who might feel a bit offended that something of theirs hasn’t been mentioned, do not despair! As I said, this is an absolutely miniscule selection from a very long and ever-growing list.
You’ve said that your characters “love to be alive, even if their encounter with the monstrous and the cosmic changes the definition of alive into something they can’t quite understand.” This is in sharp contrast to many horror works, (Lovecraftian works in particular), where dark epiphanies and the subsequent descent into madness washes characters clean of their thirst for life. Why is it important for a character to still love life in a horror story?
Well, I think that it’s implied in horror genre as a whole that the protagonists are fighting so hard against the evil or monster or unnamed threat because they want to go back to the same ordinary, “normal” lives they had before, even if those lives before didn’t make them particularly happy. The threat of loss of that life is what compels many, if not most, protagonists to fight back and not succumb. But I think a lot of horror writing is concerned with the fight against change, against becoming something that is more similar to the monster or unnamed evil than with remaining what we’ve defined as human. And in horror we approach that change as a form of death, completely subsumed into a non-human existence in which we as individuals no longer exist. But change is often inevitable, and in those instances in which my protagonists don’t have the power or tools to fight whatever supernatural entity they’ve come up against, I want them to maybe consider a different end to their journey: not absolute death or absolute unchanged life but something between both. And I want them to embrace that change, and approach it as an opportunity to continue living and being alive. I of course write about this quite a bit because I know I am not like this at all, and would probably not go gracefully into a supernatural ending—my heroic, strong, monstrous life-loving characters are wish fulfillment to compensate for me being in all likelihood a monster-avoiding chicken shit.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I would say yes. Writers are creative artists, and as a creative artist I definitely see the world differently from non-creative people. Maybe it’s a defect or a physiological difference, maybe it’s a complex series of circumstances and events—I don’t know what it is that creates an artist, but artists see the world differently because they are themselves not the same as other people, they can’t interpret or move through the world in the same way. Creating art, whether it’s writing or music or theatre or visual, is a response to and a way of coping with that difference.
You’ve said that “Sex is a major component in my stories because it’s a major component of life.” Has your approach to writing sexual content changed at all over the years with the shifting and opening paradigms of sexual identity and life in American culture?
My approach to erotica and my more sexual writing has pretty much stayed the same throughout my entire life. My writing tends to be fantastical in nature, even when not supernatural, and while sexual culture in America has vastly changed since my junior high school days, the basic emotions and reasons for having sex have not. Although, I’ll admit that if I had to write contemporary, literary fiction about a young woman having sex, I would probably have a somewhat difficult time getting it right. It’s easy for me to write sex scenes that don’t read as dated when I set the stories in somewhat nebulous and out-of-time places, but I’m not a Millennial or Zoomer, so I’m just not fluent in the technology and language that they’ve been versed in since birth, which seems like a hundred light years beyond from when I was a teenager. I certainly take inspiration from all the incredible shifts and evolutions in sexual culture and identity that have occurred over the decades, but when I write, I tend to set my stories in a kind of Schrodinger’s decade that is both every decade and no decade all at once, so that I can write into it whatever I need to make the story and sexual content ring true.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
Well, the end result is important because it’s whatever place your fiction needs to be when you’ve finished it, so you can sell and publish it. Process is so unique, however, and so personal to each writer, that I think it needs to be thought of as equally important. You don’t need to be utterly joyful when you’re writing, but I think it’s important to approach the creation of art in a way, in a frame of mind, that’s different from how you work and move through the rest of your life. How that state of being is to you as an artist is entirely up to you, but knowing what it is and how to use is will get you to that end result probably more quickly and with better results than, well, half-assing and guessing and sort of fucking off toward a finished project. Of course, that’s what some people do and they’re geniuses at it anyway, so of course this is all just my opinion—it’s what I tell myself in order to get anything done!
In what ways are your writings a means of reflection? ~ and ~ Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
I know these are two separate questions, but I thought they tied in with each other and so figured I could answer them as one. When I get the idea for a story, it’s usually the image of a specific event that sticks in my head, and I approach it in my mind as: why does this image/event attract me? What does it mean to me? What would it mean to a character to encounter and/or live through this event? So it’s reflection, of a real life memory or an imagined one based on a real life image, but then it needs to become something more. Yes, I do write to understand what it is I’m writing about, but as I approach the end, it diverges into one of two paths—either I’ve learned something about myself and this event/image, and the ending reflects and hopefully imparts that knowledge; or, I’ve only learned that this is some greater mystery about this event that I won’t understand (or perhaps realize is more evocative by not being understood), and so the ending reflects that lack of knowledge and the awe and horror of that mystery. A few times, I’ve revisited a story years later to realize I came to the wrong ending and conclusion, but I generally don’t rewrite or revise. I like my stories to stand as a testament to where I was creatively at that moment in time.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
It’s very rare, in my opinion, to be both a wholly unique writer and also a popular writer. I think that’s what it means to be original, to be that degree of original. There are so many incredibly talented authors working in horror right now, and many of them are spectacularly original, almost visionary in their imagery and style and ideas. Not all of them are successful. Being unique often means having a small audience, especially if you’re writing fiction that touches on sex, violence, gender, and other difficult and often taboo subjects that aren’t generally, honestly discussed in popular culture. I’m not saying that it can’t happen—H.R. Giger is a good example of a artist who created very disturbing and wildly original art, but who in all likelihood probably wouldn’t have world-wide popularity and recognition if it weren’t for a series of movies. But he’s an anomaly. To be original, to be unique, especially in genre fiction, is to accept that it is mostly likely that you will never be financially or critically successful beyond a very small group of like-minded people. And if that’s all you want, that’s fine. And if you want more than that, that’s also fine.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I don’t know! That’s a difficult question to answer—I think my style has changed somewhat from the first few years of being published, but I don’t necessarily believe I’m a better writer. Just a slightly different writer. But that’s just for short fiction—I know that I haven’t made any approvements with writing novels. I can’t seem to crack the novel—I always start off good, and then halfway in I always end up losing the narrative to too many plot threads and superfluous, overly-dramatic genre elements. But that doesn’t means I’m a worse writer for not succeeding—more like I’m treading water in that one particular area.
Can you tell us about the process and circumstances around your writing Panopticon?
“Panopticon” started off as a number of separate dreams I’d had over many, many years. I don’t usually write down dreams, I don’t have a dream journal, but these were all ones that had made a specific impression on me, enough to want to record and remember.
I have a folder of snippets of ideas, sentences, paragraphs, and images that I occasionally look through to see if something I saved is now sparking a story idea. I remember reading through everything, and I don’t know, I guess I had dreamed the right “combination” of images finally—when I printed out all the dreams, I put them in order and realized that there was some kind of story there, something I could tie in with images from and references to my fictional Lovecraftian megalopolis of Obsidia. As I began writing, however, I decided that it was less of a true story and more of an introduction or prelude to something bigger—as in a collection. I did feel it stood on its own well enough to submit it to Bizarro magazine, which was the perfect market for it, but it really works best as a sort of portal to the rest of the stories which became the collection Furnace.
Do you have publications in the works?
Yes, but publication is a ways off, and I suppose it’s all going to be very dependent on how the pandemic continues to break and reshape pretty much every aspect of society and the economy. I have a novella for the Nightscape Press Charitable Chapbook line that I’m working on, that will publish late 2020, and I’m finishing up some stories for a mini collection that has yet to be announced by the publisher. After that, I’ll be working on some stories and short novellas for various markets and a few yet-to-be-announced anthologies.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
Oh, I can’t even begin to imagine what it will be like. I think it will absolutely be more diverse—that much I’m certain of. Beyond that, I’m not sure what new subjects and trends and styles will become divergent while others become obsolete and/or dated. I feel that horror very much a response to the world around it, so I think the next couple of years will see a shift in subjects (maybe zombies will finally fade away?) as writers respond to living through a global pandemic, collapsing economies, massive cultural upheaval, and the effects of global warming. It’s going to be such a completely different world ten years from now, so much so that I can’t predict how horror and weird fiction will change—only that it will continue to be around as a response to and a way of coping with all the changes we’ll be going through.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
This is going to be a terrible thing to admit, but I haven’t read a lot of books in quite some time. Last November a major project I’d been working on fell apart, and then… I sort of fell apart as well. I spent most of the winter Netflixing and being depressed, and only started reading (somewhat sporadically) a few months into the pandemic. Short stories and non-fiction like The Book of Wonders and similar art books, though, no novel-length work. In a way, I feel like an athlete who had a terrible accident (or a terrible case of burnout) and now has to recover both physically and mentally, and train themselves back into shape again. I haven’t been enthusiastic about writing and reading in a long time, and I have to work my way back into the joy I felt before. I know that sounds preposterous, but last year was just one massive humiliating setback after another, and I was utterly beat up by the end of it. I needed a break. So, I guess I can answer this question in a year, when I’m back to reading as much as I did before.
You have said that “Horror is a crucible that brings about transformation not just in the physical world, but also in those who experience it.” What, in your view, has been your most effective and impactful story about transformation through darkness and trauma?
Probably “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer.” Over the years it’s received a higher amount of commentary and discussion than any other of my stories, I think because the level of trauma that the protagonist Hailie endures isn’t something I pulled the curtain over—I described it in detail because I felt the reader needed to experience what she went through so they would understand how completely invincible she feels at the end, and hopefully they’d feel that same cathartic invincibility as well. She endures an absolutely monstrous assault in the midst of discovering that everything (and every person) in her world has been created and controlled to allow that assault to happen, but instead of breaking her, it’s evolved her into a weapon that will someday burn that world to the ground. It’s a moment of pure unyielding triumph, a moment that could only be achieved through the crucible that is horror.
“Llewellyn’s mastery of psychosexual horror puts her in the conversation with Ballard and Tiptree, Jr. when it comes to fearless, ferocious, and important literature.” –Laird Barron, author of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
Llewellyn's Glorious, a charitable chapbook from Nightscape Press, will be released in late 2020.
During the hot, quiet middle days of summer, four junior high school girlfriends looking for a secret place to smoke and drink stumble upon a monstrous, priapic statue of a demon inside the remains of a half-built house within an abandoned suburban construction site. Repelled at first, at the youngest girl’s suggestion they begin constructing a fantastic story around the statue, creating silly yet complex rituals to see which of them will be worthy enough to be declared the statue’s “queen.” But the rituals turn violent as the girls begin turning on each other, all of them insisting that the demon is real, visiting them in terrifying, wondrous sexual encounters that each girl wishes to make hers alone. By the summer’s end, only one of the four will be left standing to complete the rituals, capture the crown, and make the demon lover her own.
Pre-Order your copy here.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in July of 2020.