Today I’ve got a real treat: none other than the indomitable S. L. Edwards. Sam is an author, reviewer, and a very active member of the horror and weird fiction community (if you haven’t been parodied in one of his memes, don’t worry; he’ll probably get to you soon). He’s also someone I’m happy to call a friend.
Recently, Sam and I discussed his debut collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, as well as his inspiration as an author.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I honestly can’t remember if I ever said, “I’m going to do this.” I remember dictating stories to the staff at the day care center I went to. I must have been three or four. Then through Middle School and High School I was writing for fun and for friends. I used to write a lot of them into my stories, tell them at parties. That kind of thing.
The more impactful story for me, I think, is when I was going to give up writing. I decided I wasn’t cut out for it, and the decision really broke my heart. I think I’m like a lot of people who are happier when they’re writing, or at least when they have ideas, so the idea of just ending what I had come to think of as a part of me was devastating. And that lasted for about two years. I’d like to think I was happy enough, but not nearly as happy as I could be.
Years later, on a bored whim I sent stories out to Benjamin Holesapple and Travis Neisler, who were opening up Turn to Ash and Ravenwood Quarterly respectively. I sent a story called “I’ve Been Here A Very Long Time” to Ben and one called “Movie Magic” to Travis.
They both said they enjoyed my work, and I didn’t believe them. Then they said that my stories were going to be accepted and I was still skeptical. Finally, I had the printed products in my hands, and I was in disbelief. I had a way back in to this world I wanted to be a part of, and I’ve treasured every bit of it since!
I’d saved a bottle of rum for when I sold my first short story, back when I was confident that such a thing was possible. I invited all of my friends over and shared it, kept what was left in case I sold anymore stories. The rum is long since gone.
In my adult life I went through a Russian Literature phase. I worked out in New Mexico at a ranch and really got on my co-worker’s nerves talking about my reading habits. Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate have really influenced me and my writing. Zhivago tends to get written off as a love story, but to me it was really a demonstration of what horror is. Yuri, as good of a man as he thinks he is, is swallowed up by his times. As much as he tries to stay above politics and violence, it finds him. There’s a sequence towards the end of the book, when Yuri has been captured, forced to work for the Forest Army Brotherhood, who are fighting the Whites. And there’s very slow build up, through all of the picturesque descriptions the reader knows this can’t last forever. I won’t get into the details of what finally happens when it becomes clear that the Whites are going to surround the Forest Brotherhood, but it was one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve read in literature. A real master class in what terror is.
Of course, there’s Tolstoy’s War and Peace too, which I read and reread. Those three works really inform my characters and my terrors. They really showed me how to make the macro, political world the more micro and intimate one. For all of the turmoil in those three works, there are still characters trying to live everyday lives. I think there’s something really profound in that.
But that’s really where my “realistic” reading habits drop off. Bolgokov’s Master and Margerita is a wonderful, subversive fantasy story. As is really anything by Gabriel García Marquez. From there, Neil Gaiman is at the top of my “I would die if I actually got to meet them” list. I love his writing. To my mind, Neil Gaiman can do no wrong.
In terms of our weird little world, I’ve made quite a few friends who are some of my favorite writers. S.P. Miskowski, John Linwood Grant, Matthew M. Bartlett, Jordan Kurella, Jon Padgett, Gwendolyn Kiste (hi), Betty Rocksteady, Orrin Grey, Christopher Ropes, Sean M. Thompson, Duane Pesice, Ashley Dioses, KA Opperman, Mer Whinery and Jonathan Raab. Thomas Ligotti is another writer, albeit one who I’ve never met or engaged with, who had a really profound impact on me. Jon’s done a really good job of highlighting how important Ligotti’s influence on the field is through editing and publishing Vastarien. I’m very jealous of what Kurt Fawver and Christopher Slatsky do, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad story by Autumn Christian, Brooke Warra or A.C. Wise. My two favorites right now, above all others, are Nadia Bulkin and John Langan. There’s no one else doing what they do right now. It’s incredible and awe-inspiring to watch.
Then there are a few writers who are working on the ground floor of our community, people who are climbing up high and fast. Rob F. Martin has a novella out called “The Doll Keeper,” that’s criminally under-read. Russell Smeaton is someone who walks humor and horror in a way I haven’t really encountered since Robert Bloch. John Paul Fitch writes like he’s fighting for his life, every word is just another bleeding cut. Then whenever I see a table of contents with William Tea, Sarah Walker, Can Wiggins, or Premee Mohammed I pay attention.
I just mentioned Robert Bloch, I think is one of my favorites. The guy leaves such a huge shadow! Yeah, he wrote Psycho, but he also had a touch on all of the anthology-style television shows that came out of the 1950s really all the way up through the 1980s. He had a way of balancing heartbreaking horror and absurd irony that made you laugh and cry at the same time. Matheson was good for that too, but in my opinion not like Bloch. And if I’m going to talk about Bloch, I need to give due deference to Lovecraft, who was one of Bloch’s mentors. For all the flaws I can find in his writing, to this day no one can invoke dread in me like Lovecraft, just like I go back to Clark Ashton Smith if I want to be in awe of what the English language can do.
And then there is Poe. I am a collector of all things Poe. Poe coffee mug, Poe action figure, Poe lunchbox. All Poe all the time.
Congrats on your debut collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts! How did you choose the stories to include in the table of contents, and what was the overall process like in putting together your first collection?
Thank you! I’m very excited to share it with people. I had a lot, lot of support over the years. In a lot of ways, Whiskey is a dedication to a lot of friends and a big, supportive family. I know the stories are a bit dark, particularly when it comes to relationships. But honestly, that’s what scares me. In so many ways I have been very, very fortunate in my life. My characters, not so much. So, I hope that these people who held me up every step of the way recognize the collection for what it is. I hope my fellow authors enjoy it, and I hope readers are willing to give me a chance.
Regarding putting the collection together: my favorite stories are ghost stories, or they’re about deeply troubled people. I like ambiguity in my characters, an uncertainty if you’re supposed to be rooting for them or not. I particularly like to see that in antagonists. So, some of the stories in Whiskey have that element to them; certainly stories like “Cabras” and “Volver Al Monte.”
But in Whiskey I wanted to give folks as cohesive and comprehensive a sample of what I like to write and to do so in a way that was thematically connected. If I did my job right, the stories in this collection should be ones where you can remove the supernatural element and still be left with a horror story. Not in the sense of “oh the narrator is insane,” but in the sense that the supernatural is only a catalyst for things that are already there. Depression, self-isolation, addiction, cyclical violence. These are things that scare me quite a bit more than monsters.
And with that, hopefully there’s a sense of humor to some of the stories. I have one about animal hoarding, a puppet show, and movie theatre. There are funny things in our lives that can scare us just as much as the more irregular violence.
What is it about speculative fiction that attracts you as a storyteller?
Oh, the fluidity! It’s constantly changing and that makes it exciting! You have this laundry list of great writers and they’re all doing these phenomenally different things! Some are more sci-fi, some are more horror or fantasy. And increasingly I’m seeing speculative fiction adopting more magical realist elements. It’s really a good time to be a writer, because you’ve got so many peers constantly rewriting the rules.
In terms of my own writing, I’ve always enjoyed horror as a reader. You’ve got an opportunity to tell a really, raw emotional story and to do so in fantastic ways. It gives you a bit of elasticity, because you don’t have to stay in just one sandbox. You can bring in a ghost and give it as little or as much attention as you want. There are no rules.
I think that allows a writer an opportunity to pay as much or as little attention to themes like plot and theme as they want. Now this isn’t always the case, and I don’t want to talk like I’m an authority on the subject, but when I think about fantasy and science-fiction, there are lots of rules. You need to build up a whole world in order to tell a story that could take place over a few hours. Granted, there is a very loud movement in both of those fields to do new and exciting things, but as a writer fantasy and sci-fi seem too intimidating to me.
I like to play fast and loose, to focus on theme and character and not worry too much about the details of the world around them.
In addition to your fiction, you’ve also done reviewing and written nonfiction. How does your approach differ between your fiction writing and your nonfiction work?
Oh wow. When I started writing reviews, it was because I could get paid to read books, which was insane. But I decided pretty early on that I wanted to avoid two types of reviewing: summarizing and commenting. So many reviewers just list the stories and their plots, they don’t really offer an insight beyond “I liked or did not like this.” Then some get into a habit of only commenting “I understand this” or “I don’t understand this.” And they leave it there. That really frustrates me.
So when I was reviewing, I wanted to comment on what I liked about a work, other than just summarizing it or simply stating that I thought it was good. I tried to identify a unifying theme, discuss it and compare it to a few other works. It didn’t hurt to use vivid language in reviews either, it shows a certain amount of enthusiasm for the reader and a certain amount of understanding for the author. I think at the end of the day, authors want to be understood.
When I write nonfiction about literature, it’s a little different. There the purpose is purely commentary. It’s connecting with the theme of what you are analysing and putting it into dialog with something else. To my mind, when I write about someone else’s work, I want to bring something else in. To say something meaningful by bringing my own knowledge and experience to someone else’s body of work.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process: outlining ideas, crafting a first draft, or polishing up a nearly completed work?
It’s gotta be drafting. I’m a big fan of vomiting on the page, just writing at a breakneck speed and coming back later. I always have outlines, but I tend to deviate from them when I get into the actual writing. And there’s something about it. I’m a runner, and I’d compare writing like that to a runner’s high.
I also edit as I write, so usually by the time a “first draft” is finished, it’s polished in terms of plot, character and style. But I am notoriously bad at typos, so I always have to give things a second look-over.
Out of your published stories, do you have a personal favorite?
Oh, that’s hard. There’s a set of stories that did not make it into Whiskey that I quite like. The Bartred family is one of occult detectives, and Joe Bartred is the main protagonist in those stories. Joe is an interesting character to me, very young and deeply sceptical of himself. Those stories can be found in Occult Detective Quarterly, and ideally once I have enough of them, I can put together a whole Bartred collection!
For individual stories, it’s tied between “Cabras” and “Volver Al Monte.” Without spoiling the fun for those who haven’t read them, I consider “Cabras” to be the more “horror” of the two. It was also the story that I think was the most influenced by my love for Dr. Zhivago. “Volver Al Monte,” feels a bit more like fantasy or science fiction. The terror is muted for tragedy, particularly when it becomes clear that the main character is not a hero.
What’s next for you?
Ideally, I keep writing short stories. A few folks keep telling me that writing a novel is the way to go, and I’ve got an idea, but not the time or discipline.
I’ve got two collections already completed but want to find the right publishers to work with for them. One will be pulp/fantasy, things that I enjoyed but did not fit with Whiskey and the other will be more weird-horror, with a focus on conspiracies. Mind you, not “conspiracies” in the “conspiracy theory,” sense, but conspiracies as in secrets, lies. Perfectly normal and yet horrifying things that happen in the everyday world.
Where can we find you online?
You can find me on Facebook, my blog and Amazon. I’m always posting memes on Facebook, partly because I like to laugh and partly because I like to laugh at myself. So, don’t be scared away with the memes.
Big thanks to Sam L. Edwards for being part of this week’s author interview series!