Welcome back! Today I’m super excited to spotlight author Stephanie M. Wytovich. Stephanie is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of numerous poetry collections, including Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare and Brothel. Her debut novel, The Eighth, was released in 2016 from Dark Regions Press, and her fiction has appeared in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Shadows Over Main Street, and The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, among other publications.
Recently, Stephanie and I discussed her evolution as a poet and fiction writer along with how witchcraft impacts her writing and what she has in store for the future.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t associate myself with writing, but I think the first time I declared it to the world was in third grade during career day. Some of my favorite writers are: Caroline Kepnes, Josh Malerman, Paul Tremblay, Sylvia Plath, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Seanan McGuire, and Grady Hendrix, to name a few.
Your most recent poetry collection, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, came out last year through Raw Dog Screaming Press. As you look back over the last five years, in which you’ve been published widely and become an award-winning author, do you feel like your style or your process has changed since publishing your first book, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness?
Oh, yes…drastically. While I still tend to use body horror, sex, and violence in my work, my voice has matured over the years and my structure, especially with poetry, has focused more on line and syntax rather than emotion and shock value as it did early on. I’ve also started to put more and more of myself in my work over the years, which was a goal of mine when I first decided that I wanted to pursue writing professionally.
I write poetry a lot faster than prose because in some ways, it feels more natural to me. Because of that, when I sit down to write short fiction, or a novel, I actually write each scene as a poem first to 1) keep me motivated and 2) to act as a sort of outline for the chapter. This keeps me organized and it also helps ground me in the story because if I think of it as this big, 300 + page story, I get overwhelmed and then start doubting my ability to finish the project. Poetry is usually my solution to most problems in life.
You recently had a short story appear in the Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath themed anthology, Tragedy Queens. How have Lana’s music and/or Sylvia’s poetry affected your own work?
It hasn’t been until recently (within the past three years or so) that I got into Lana Del Rey’s music, but Sylvia Plath and I go way, way back. I started reading her poetry in high school, and then I read The Bell Jar in undergrad, and now every so often, I’ll flip through some of her journals. What I love about both of these women is that they aren’t afraid of their darkness, and rather than run from it, they embrace it, channel it, and use it to their advantage. Plath showed me how to use myself as the subject for my work, how to look inside my memories and my pain and write poems about the human condition. Lana Del Rey’s music, on the other hand, helps me get in touch with the more animalistic sides of my personality, the parts that yearn and ache for something or someone to bear witness to the burning, the rebirth.
When I wrote my story for Tragedy Queens, “Because of Their Different Deaths,” I used themes of sisterhood, the occult, rebirth, and pain, all of which Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath write/wrote about.
I’ve always viewed writing as prayer, even before I recognized or acknowledged that I did. For instance, I’ve been building altars since middle school, but they weren’t the stock photo image that probably comes to mind when you hear the word “altar.” For me, it was always my writing space. I would build it up to my mood and what was inspiring me, add rocks and crystals, leaves, pictures, and charms, and then when I felt that I needed to be recharged, I’d switch it up.
As I got older, I started to realize that my writing space (which now, is an entire room), is where I go to meditate, pray, create, and relax. I’m surrounded by flowers and candles, crystals and all my favorite stories, and this helps me get to a state where I feel comfortable and honest in my vulnerability. For me, getting in this mindset helps my writing to become raw and visceral while simultaneously allowing me to purge mental negativity and darkness. It’s a win-win for me and my fiction.
As though you’re not busy enough, you’re also a college professor. Can you share with us a few of your favorite stories you’ve assigned for your classes this semester? How has your reading list for students evolved over time?
This semester, I’m particularly excited to teach the gothic works of Bram Stoker (“Dracula’s Guest), John Polidori (“The Vampyre”) and Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla). Over the years, I’ve made it a personal goal to teach classic literature along with speculative fiction, so students can help to bridge the gap that seems to be ever-wedged between the two. For example, last week I taught D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” and had students compare and contrast it to “The Oval Lady” by Leonora Carrington. It was fun to watch them map out how two seemingly different stories essentially sent the same message in the end.
It’s actually really hard for me to pick a favorite, because like most writers, I’m sure, each book was its own catharsis, its own journey. Hysteria was a stand out because I spent months writing in abandoned asylums and prisons, chasing down the trauma and pain that still lined its walls. Brothel was the book I always wanted to write, and the fact that it won the Stoker makes it even more special to me, but when it comes down to it, Sheet Music and The Eighth were both steps outside of my comfort zone, and the challenges they posed to me as a writer elevates them to my favorites. I’d never written a novel before, so finishing that project and then presenting it as my master’s thesis was a feeling unlike no other, and half of Sheet Music is a memoir, a confessional dirge from my time on the road, and I don’t think I’ve ever written anything more painfully charged than the pieces on those pages.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on three separate projects at the moment and am hoping to have them all finished by the end of the year (fingers crossed!). The first is the audiobook for Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and the second is a weird horror novelette titled The Dangers of Surviving a Slit Throat. Lastly, I’m finishing up an apocalyptic science fiction poetry collection titled The Apocalyptic Mannequin. It’s been a fun year trying new approaches with my writing and I’m excited to see what my readers think!