Welcome back to another author interview! This week I’m pleased to spotlight Andrea Janes! I first discovered Andrea when I was writing at Wanderlust and Lipstick and I spotlighted her New York-based tour company, Boroughs of the Dead. Since then, she and I have crossed paths again as horror writers, and I figured it was about time to highlight all the great work she’s doing!
Recently, Andrea and I discussed her role in macabre tourism as well as her burgeoning fiction writing career.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I don’t think it was my decision to make! I learned to read when I was three — my big sister taught me — and wanted to be a writer by the time I was six. We grew up total bibliophiles, and I think we just always knew that literature would be a huge part of our lives. My sister’s now a professor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. That being said, I haven’t been writing steadily for the past thirty years. I took a few breaks here and there like my half-decade studying and working in film, and the two years I took to start and build my tour company, Boroughs of the Dead. I’ve spent as much time trying to figure out how to make a viable living as I have working on the actual craft of writing.
As a reader, I’m not really a completist so I tend not to think of my favorites in terms of authors but usually more in terms of individual books or stories — except for Poe, M.R. James and Shirley Jackson, whose fiction I think I may have read in their entirety. But some other authors and books I’ve loved, latched onto, and become obsessive about include: W.G. Sebald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elena Ferrante (the Neapolitan Trilogy), Lawrence Block, and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark (the Parker books); Stoner, The Woman in White, Moby Dick… oh man, this could be a really long list. What all these have in common was that my first encounter with them was revelatory, either for the way these authors wield language — whether stripped down hardboiled genius or overflowing lyrical gorgeousness — or for their works’ sheer hugeness of theme, story, emotion. (In the case of The Woman in White, the character of Marian Halcombe had a lot to do with it!) And humor, I really appreciate a sense of humor, which is actually what I think I love best about Edgar Allan Poe.
As mentioned in the intro, I first discovered you when I was writing at Wanderlust and Lipstick and spotlighted your macabre tour group, Boroughs of the Dead. How, if at all, has your work in tourism affected your writing, or vice versa?
You know what’s funny? We don’t really get as many tourists as we do locals on our tours! So I never really think of what I do as tourism, which is weird, I guess, because it is, really. Anyway, to answer your question: editing! Pacing! Winnowing down a story to its essence, cutting extraneous details. Nothing like a live audience’s eyes glazing over to tell you when you’ve gone into too much backstory! The instantaneous feedback is invaluable.
You are one of the many amazing authors slated to appear in the forthcoming Shadows at the Door anthology. What can you reveal about your story?
I can reveal that it’s based on one of my more memorable trips to the post office! Actually, there’s a lot of very personal stuff in that story, like observations about my own neighborhood, and the fact that the main character is a film archivist (I do love silent film, and I was watching Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, which is an homage to lost silent films, while I was writing it). There’s a lot of stuff in there where I try to connect the dissolution of a psyche under the strain of living in New York City and the fragments of silent film the protagonist tries to put together. There’s a lot of stuff about the many layers of life and death in this city, the way we all pile on top of each other, inhabiting each other’s old, used spaces — as well as some commentary on how a lot of these layers can go completely unnoticed if you’re not looking for it. Finally, I tried to show how miniature cities exist within New York, subcultures within subcultures, worlds within worlds, and how you can live within them and still be an outsider. The supernatural element to the story is deliberately vague. I wanted the ghost in this story to be both literal and an amorphous entity that isn’t quite nameable — just one of many strange encounters that a person can have in this city where the dead and the living live side by side.
Do you have any rituals as a writer, or any specific tips for how you work through writer’s block and/or creative slumps?
Not really; I try various things. Right now I’m trying to get as much writing done as I can before I give birth to my first baby, who is due on May 18th. So I’m doing this thing where I set my cell phone timer for twenty minutes and write in these small increments, which helps me get started. Once I get on a roll, hours can pass and I won’t notice — but it takes a lot of warm-up to achieve that semi-liminal state of consciousness where the words start to flow. The 20-minute timer thing helps me relax into it without putting crippling pressure on myself.
But normally I don’t really force myself to work through major bouts of writer’s block. When I have a creative dry spell, I just go and do something else for a while. I’m sure if I was on deadline it’d be different and I’d have to think up a solution right quick, but I don’t have that pressure so I don’t overthink it. As long as I get a certain amount of stuff done within a reasonable amount of time, like one short story a year, I don’t worry too much.
Where would you like to see your writing career in five years?
I’d like to really buckle down and hone my craft a little more than I have so far. A lot of the time I feel like I’m not where I should be yet, technically, as a writer. I’m still in the middle of writing my first novel-length ghost story and it’s been a huge challenge for me. Just the sheer unbroken momentum it takes to finish a novel is such a luxury of time and energy, and it’s so hard not to get sidetracked in this life of many and varied pressures and distractions. I’d like to finish the novel and be proud of it. I’d like to just keep getting stronger and more assured, and read my own work and not cringe. At this point in my life I’m a lot more interested in the work itself than anything else. If the career stuff comes, it comes, and that’s great. If it never comes, but I find at the end of my life that I’ve done right by my inner six-year-old and written something worth reading, I’ll be happy.
Out of your published work, do you have a personal favorite?
I really like “Morbus,” which is in the collection Boroughs of the Dead. It’s a humorous story in which a thief agonizingly dies of cholera in a mansion loosely based on J.P. Morgan’s, and features a sassy demon. And “Newtown Creek” in the same anthology, because it grew out of a childhood nightmare of mine and is kind of close to my heart. I probably worked the hardest on my one and only Weird Western, “The Last Wagon in the Train,” which was published in the Tenth Black Book of Horror and got an honorable mention in one of the Year’s Best Horror anthologies.
Big thanks to Andrea Janes for being part of this week’s author interview series! Find her at her author website as well as at Boroughs of the Dead, the place to go for New York City’s best ghost tours!