Welcome back! Today’s interview is with the incredible S.P. Miskowski. S.P. is a three-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee. Her fiction has appeared widely in such outlets as Black Static, Supernatural Tales, and anthologies including Looming Low, Autumn Cthulhu, and The Madness of Dr. Caligari, among many others. Earlier this year, her novel, I Wish I Was Like You, and her collection, Strange Is the Night, debuted from Trepidatio Publishing.
Recently, S.P. and I discussed her inspiration as an author as well as her future projects.
Writing was never a career decision. I’ve been writing all of my life, keeping journals, constructing little books of my stories with cover art when I was in grade school. Some of my poetry was published in the school newspaper. In college I majored in Psychology and then changed the focus after a year, studying English Literature and Anthropology. Even then I was writing stories, attending an off-campus fiction workshop for the merciless critiques, and occasionally getting published in small press magazines.
After graduation I put together a collection of stories that was lucky enough to be selected for a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. I had an agent lined up in New York. At his suggestion I wrote a novel to back up the collection. The novel was about elderly siblings who had known F.W. Murnau and were reduced to making porn films in the Valley of the Sun in the 1980s. It’s still sitting in a drawer somewhere because I tossed away all of those plans, moved to Seattle, and went for a graduate degree in theatre.
For about 15 years I wrote plays and supported myself editing, teaching, mentoring, and doing temp work. In 2010 I decided to quit theatre altogether, and I recommitted to writing stories. Long story short, writing isn’t a choice. The choice is about how and where and in what medium.
I’ve gone through many phases, jumping into the work of an author, reading several books back-to-back and moving on—from Raymond Chandler to Vladimir Nabokov to Hermann Hesse to Kurt Vonnegut. Some of the authors I return to time and again are Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Daphne du Maurier, Ruth Rendell (her stories and novellas rather than her detective novels) and more recently I’ve become a fan of Megan Abbott. She has a sharp eye and a keen sense for the hypocrisy we embrace as part of our survival kit. When it comes to dissecting female characters and their motives, she’s superb. She pays women the respect of absolute honesty.
Congratulations on the release of your novel, I Wish I Was Like You. What was the process behind the book? How long did it take you to complete, and were there any unexpected developments along the way? Also, what inspired you to use 1990s Seattle as a setting?
Thank you. The process began with notes while fulfilling other commitments. I had a long series of deadlines for stories I was invited to submit to anthologies. While writing those stories I sketched out ideas, images, themes for I Wish I Was Like You. By the time I was ready to make the novel my daily priority I had quite a lot of material and the challenge was to decide what the point of view would be.
I’m not sure when it occurred to me that the narrator would be dead from the first page, looking back over the city as it morphed between 1990 and 2016. But as soon as I had the idea I knew it was wrong, at least according to every writing class and manual out there. “Never open with a corpse.” I could imagine seeing that tip on a Facebook post. I could also hear it in the voice of grumpy teachers I’d known. The more I thought about it, the more it became one voice, a character named Lee Todd Butcher, a washed up crime fiction author teaching at a community college. Once I had both of these characters—the angry, dead narrator and the disheveled teacher spouting the rules of crime fiction, the book sort of took off. From first notes to final draft, it was completed in less than two years.
My choice of setting was fueled by the nostalgia of friends. No one ever believes middle age is going to be a reality. We squander youth arrogantly thinking we’re different from the last generation and always will be. Then you begin to see your friends getting married, having babies, seeking more permanent homes—and bemoaning the ways in which the places they love are changing. At one point I could scroll through the newsfeed on Facebook and read half a dozen “oh no, they’re killing the city” posts in one day.
Of course the big, central element to this disappointment isn’t the city itself but the loss of youth. The city represents what you were when you were just starting out and you were convinced that you would get everything you wanted.
I tried to capture that, to sort of honor it without being sentimental. I tried to describe the Seattle of 1990 for the benefit of those friends who knew it well and for younger readers who will never know that incarnation of the city. I’m less nostalgic than some of my friends but I tried to catch that sense of a place representing one’s early days.
Your collection, Strange Is the Night, also made its debut this year, so congratulations on this as well! How did you choose which stories to include in the table of contents? Were there any you were planning to include that ended up being cut, or any last-minute additions?
The stories in this collection portray ordinary life interrupted by something extraordinarily disturbing. Most of them have an urban or suburban setting. I left out anything I’d written with a more folk horror background or a sense of rural isolation to it. Maybe I’ll collect those stories in another book sometime.
There were no cuts, but my editor wanted me to add two original stories so that the final balance was ten reprints and three new pieces. The new ones are “Animal House,” “A Condition for Marriage,” and “Ms. X Regrets Everything.”
I’ve loved your past contributions to Nightmare Magazine‘s The H Word column. How does your approach to writing nonfiction differ from fiction writing? Do you have any plans for forthcoming nonfiction in other venues?
Storytelling is my natural field. Nonfiction is something I approach with great anxiety. I mentioned some of my favorite authors—Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm—and one of my favorite books is The Orchid Thief. So the standard is quite high. Also, I’ve worked with enough real journalists to have enormous respect for what they do. I could never be a journalist. Earlier on, in college, I learned a healthy respect for the essay form. Although an essay may be mostly personal observation, I feel the need to present information that’s been fact-checked and challenged before it’s let loose in the wild.
I never plan to write nonfiction. I’m content to scribble a blog post now and then. These opportunities sort of came along, and I decided to take a stab at it. The Nightmare Magazine nonfiction editor, Wendy Wagner, was brilliant at making suggestions and gently nudging me in the most interesting direction.
In your work, you craft such nuanced female characters, many of whom are far more complicated and sometimes even less traditionally “likeable” than the average women in literature. You included a fantastic list of your favorite horrible female characters in one of your H Word articles; do you have any more recent additions specifically from speculative fiction that you would add to that list? On a similar note, do you feel that there are more nuanced female characters in fiction today than ever before (even if we do still have a long way to go)?
I think there have always been some hellish female characters in fiction. For the more nuanced ones I look to recent books. One character I still marvel at is the narrator in Zoë Heller’s novel What Was She Thinking? (a.k.a. Notes on a Scandal). I think the really dark edges and the complexities of the character were sheared away for the film. She ended up being a doddering old schoolteacher with an adolescent crush on younger women. In the book there was a real sense that she wanted to possess and devour and destroy the object of her desire. In the film it seemed she would have been happy to make her tea every day. It’s a good demonstration of how complex female characters are perceived, misinterpreted, and manipulated to underscore traditional values.
I mentioned Megan Abbott’s books. The girls in The End of Everything are among the very few instances in modern fiction where an author got female adolescence absolutely right, and really nailed the confusion and strangeness of that age. In You Will Know Me, Abbott applies the same clear-eyed approach to the American family, in particular the pressures of motherhood during this era when expectations are insanely high. I loved the women in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, and Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott. These authors kick ass when it comes to creating indelible female characters that ring true in every way.
Out of your published work, do you have a personal favorite?
I love the first story in my collection, “A.G.A.” It was originally published in Supernatural Tales edited by David Longhorn. On the surface it’s just two guys talking in a bar. The menace is in the details and in the tales told by one of the guys. These tales open it out and provide an ever-darkening backdrop. It’s one of my simplest stories in terms of the presentation but it’s pretty disturbing in its implications.
What projects are you currently working on?
Over the next six months I’ll be writing five stories to submit to anthologies, and completing a novel that’s underway. JournalStone plans to publish a novel and novella from me in 2018. Fingers crossed. This is the kind of work schedule I love.
Where can we find you online?
You can find my web site if you Google my name, and you can find me on Facebook and Twitter, although I’m posting a bit less these days. Send a friend request. If you don’t look like a bot or a fake identity for a Russian troll, I’ll accept your invitation.
Tremendous thanks to S.P. Miskowski for being this week’s featured author!