Dark Blood and Poetry: Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Welcome back for this week’s author interview! Today, I’m excited to be talking with author Emma J. Gibbon! Emma’s debut collection, Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is set for release later this month from Trepidatio Publishing.

Recently, Emma and I discussed the inspiration behind her new collection as well as what draws her to the horror genre.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

It didn’t come all at once for me, I sort of realized in stages. I’ve always been a reader. As soon as I knew how I just read whatever I got my hands on. I started writing poetry at first, in my teens, and then went on to short stories mainly. I think confidence was part of it, and also not really knowing where I fit in, in all of it so getting very close to publishing but not quite. Weirdly, something clicked when I turned forty—just being a lot less afraid of failure and really not caring what people thought. I began making connections in the horror community and getting my work out there and it worked! I started getting publishing credits and such very quickly. I feel like one of those actors who get called an overnight success when actually they’ve been working at their craft for years!

My favorite authors! I know I’m going to forget someone but off the top of my head: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, George Saunders, Kelly Link, M. Rickert, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Donna Tartt, Stephen Graham Jones, Sarah Monette, Mervyn Peake, V. C. Andrews. I do read a lot of horror, but I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to books. I read all kinds of things.

Congratulations on the forthcoming release of your debut collection, Dark Blood Comes from the Feet! What can you share about this book? How did you choose the stories to include, and is there a particular theme or themes in the collection?

Thank you so much! Dark Blood Comes from the Feet is a collection of seventeen stories. Some of them have been previously published, but most are original to the collection. I would say that they come from the last decade of my work. They’re mostly horror, but they do dip into other genres too. “Sermon from New London” is post-apocalyptic, for example. As a reader, I like to see a range of different stories in a collection so as this is my first, I really wanted to show people what I could do. I went for the most variety of styles and moods and settings. I know that one of my strengths is my versatility and I heavily favor first person narrative so I wanted to show that. That said, there are themes and motifs that do reoccur because my own preoccupations find their way into my work. You will find a lot of references to illness and in particular, tuberculosis, you will find women characters who have deviated from “normal” lives, there are geographical places I return to and I often make people who are not usually in the limelight the protagonist. I have a huge chip on my shoulder about being a woman from a working class background so that comes through. In my stories, the monsters usually win and are not necessarily the ones you should fear anyway.

What draws you to the horror genre? Do you remember your first horror film or horror book?

I think it’s just in my DNA, honestly. I come from an ex-mining town in Yorkshire in the UK. There’s a saying “It’s grim up North” and it’s not just the weather! I say this with a lot of love but my people are a morbid, darkly comic bunch. I tell stories to my husband (who’s American) about my childhood and it just sounds…Dickensian. I intend to write a short nonfiction piece about it all. I just need to find a publisher interested in Yorkshire Gothic!

At a very young age, I used to beg my mother to let me stay up to watch Hammer Horror films and Tales of the Unexpected (based on Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults.) I was too young to remember actually watching them now, except for Tales of the Unexpected’s intro, which I highly recommend on YouTube, it’s mesmerizing. When video stores became popular, my brother and I used to go and look at all the covers in the horror department. Our favorite covers were The Lost Boys and Fright Night, but I think the first one we could convince someone to rent was Love at First Bite. When we finally got our hands on Lost Boys, we watched it every day. I still know all the words.

The first horror book I remember was the first book I ever bought for myself at a Scholastic book fair in middle school! It was called something like Ghosts, Spirits and Spectres and was an anthology of classic and contemporary ghost stories. It had a picture of a cursed doll on the front. I read that thing so many times it fell to pieces. My favorite in there was Laura by Saki. I really have been myself for a very long time.

What is it about the short story format that appeals to you as a writer?

It’s definitely the format that I feel most confident in. I love writing poetry, but it has a lightning from the sky element to it that I can’t quite understand, whereas as I reader I have always favored short stories—I’ve always been a big reader of anthologies and collections. I’ve read a lot of them. It’s a place I feel comfortable in. As a reader, I like the way I can fully immerse myself in a space/time in one short sitting. I like the focus of them. I like open endings where I can imagine a life for the characters after.

When I was a teenager, in the golden MTV years of the nineties (in my opinion), I really wanted to be a music video director. I think what I really wanted to do, and what appeals to me about writing short stories, is to convey a very condensed, intense experience where theme and language and imagery can combine in a compact space. You have to get your characters and setting and mood established fairly quickly, and I like the challenge of those constraints.

You write both fiction and poetry. How does your approach to each form differ, and how is it similar?

They’re similar as in they tend to come out of my brain ooze in an almost unconscious way. I mull things over, worry at them, have obsessions that I read and well, obsess about, and it all turns up in my work, no matter the format, and in such a way that I rarely realize until later. I can identify what time in my life I wrote something without looking at dates because I recognize what my concerns were at the time but it’s retrospective. I have no idea when I’m actually writing it.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this interview, poetry often comes to me in a flash. That first draft comes out whole, then I leave it for a while and go back to edit when it doesn’t feel like it’s from me. Short stories are a much longer process. I am getting quicker, but some of the stories in the book took up to ten years to find their “final form.” Ray Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing (which I loved) compared ideas to trying to befriend cats. You have to act casual at first, like you’re not that interested. George Saunders said something similar and I can’t find where I read it for the life of me but he talked about seeing it in the corner of your eye, letting the ideas sidle up to you. This is how I write stories. Elements of them come to me and start connecting together, then eventually a piece’ll connect where I am ready to start writing. Then I have to Jedi mind trick myself into believing I’m not really writing a story, no, I’m just noodling around, no pressure…until I have something. As you can probably guess, I’m not much of a planner.

Out of your published work, do you have a personal favorite?

Dark Blood Comes from the Feet is my first book so I’m going to say this! It’s been a dream of mine to have my own collection for a long time and now it actually exists! As far as individual stories go, it’s like choosing between children but the two that stand out to me the most as I write this are “Cellar Door” and “This is Not the Glutton Club.” “Cellar Door” is a story that I really wanted to write for a long time. It has some of my favorite things in it—an unreliable narrator, a haunted house, spatial weirdness, which is something that genuinely terrifies me, and the house is based on my actual home. I wanted to write it so badly that I was scared I couldn’t do it justice. In the end, I nanowrimo-ed it so I wouldn’t get in my own way.

“This is Not the Glutton Club” is memorable because I wrote it while bedridden with double pneumonia! It’s my version of a nested story about a group of Victorian gentlemen who catch illnesses on purpose. I couldn’t sit at my desk, so I handwrote the first draft for the first time in years. I realized how much I missed the experience of writing like that, and I’ve been using that method ever since. I also crowdsourced the research I needed for that story using my phone and Facebook because I was so sick—I have very clever and generous friends.

As for my poetry, I would say “Fune-RL” which is up for the Rhysling this year! Not only did it get in Strange Horizons, which is a dream market, but it was one of those rare times when I knew I had something. I wrote it early one morning (which is unheard for, for me. I am emphatically not a morning person) and it just…came out, pretty much as it was published. It was only looking back at it that I could see all of the things that I had been thinking about and worried about all woven into one poem. It felt close to magic.

What projects are you currently working on?

Oof, that’s the question. I’m in a bit of limbo at the moment, partially pandemic related but not entirely. I think it’s about time I wrote a novel and I did write some notes before Covid hit but I’ve got quarantine brain right now and concentrating on anything is hard. I think I’ve got enough material for a poetry collection so that’s a possibility and I have some short stories that I want to write and edit. For now, I’m in input rather than output mode. I’m reading in short spurts (quarantine brain, again), catching up on shows that I missed, re-watching favorite movies. I know that my brain is churning away in the background and I’m hoping it’ll let me know what project I should do next.

Tremendous thanks to Emma J. Gibbon for being part of this week’s author interview series! Find her online at her website and on Twitter!

Happy reading!