I recently read the noir-inspired novella Maggie of my Heart by the very talented Alyson Faye. I enjoyed the book so much, I thought it would be great to learn more about Alyson and her writing.
LL: Hi Alyson, thanks for joining me on Word Shamble. I wanted to start with a question about your choice of genre. Your fiction often takes dark themes. Have you always been fascinated with these kinds of stories and where do you think this comes from?
AF: I was a bookworm as a child/teen and read across all genres, but I did particularly enjoy time slip stories (I remember borrowing Beryl Netherclift’s The Snowstorm about five times because I loved it so much), Penelope Lively’s stories like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Susan Cooper’s magic fantasy, Dark battling the Light quintet, The Dark is Rising. But I also devoured Enid Blyton, Angela Brazil, John Wyndham, and Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery anthologies. My current interest in dark stories with dark themes is relatively recent.
LL: What was the first book you fell in love with? Or the first that truly scared you?
AF: I remember being passionate about Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce and tip toeing down at night to stare mournfully out at our semi’s boring patch of rectangular turf lined with leylandii and wishing I had Tom’s garden to play in.
Cujo and Salem’s Lot both by Stephen King, which I read aged about 13, scared me, especially as we had a pet dog and the vampire kids in Lot were so frightening.
LL: Have you always written?
Not always, but it’s been a big part of my life from writing stories as a kid for fun, writing poetry in my twenties to help get over a major illness, to writing for publication (the last 4 years or so). Language and how we use it to create stories (truths/falsehoods) is of interest to me; numbers fry my brain – so I am definitely wired for words.
LL: Maggie of my Heart – published by Demain Publishing – has a truly noirish feel to it. Are you a fan of noir movies and crime thrillers?
AF: Yes – a huge fan. I grew up watching MGM musicals with my Mum on the television, John Wayne westerns with my Dad, and I started going to movie memorabilia fairs in Birmingham when I was a teen and borrowing all the film biographies I could from my local library. BBC would often run mini seasons of films with a particular actor or genre, so I watched my first noir movies then; later buying them on VHS and DVD. The more I read the more I understood about the mood and reason for noir movies arriving post World War 2 in the UK and USA and the influence of German Expressionism on them.
Favourite noir heroines: Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame and Lizabeth Scott. Noir anti heroes:- Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell (who played Phillip Marlowe too).
LL: Both Johnny and Maggie are believable, rounded characters. Both are flawed, both are capable of doing bad things and yet both (even Johnny, your villain) draw sympathy from the reader. Could you tell me where your inspiration for the characters came from?
AF: Maggie, my heroine, the escort girl, is very much inspired, certainly looks wise, by actress Joan Bennett, a gorgeous brunette, and her performances in two Fritz Lang noirs in 1944 and 1945, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. Especially the latter where Bennett plays an woman of easy morals, with an abusive boyfriend who blackmails for a sideline.
I find the British post war period very interesting, when rationing was still around as was the black market, and the men were returning from the fighting but to a very different social culture and the women had taken on new independent jobs during the war years which changed how they saw themselves. But in reality marriage and a family was still very much what it was all about for most women- the mask of respectability.
LL: The post war setting of low rent nightclubs, grubby back streets and seedy bedsits feels very real. Did you have to do much research especially for the story or is this an era you’re already familiar with?
AF: Thank you, I wanted the reader to feel and smell the locales which Maggie and Johnny hang out in. Much of the idea for those came from those very many black and white movies I’ve consumed, the social history books I’ve read and stories my Mum told me about living in low rent flats in the 1940’s and 1950’s growing up in Liverpool and going dancing in the dance halls.
LL: Do you have any other plans to write more with these characters or in this period?
AF: In this period of the 1940’s- yes, I think I will revisit along with the 1920’s it’s one of my favourite periods, as is late Victorian and I’ve written stories set in them all. (For my 1920’s story, Mr Dandy, set in Brum, see Deadcades ed, Stephanie Ellis and David Shakes.)
LL: February is Women in Horror Month. As a female horror writer, do you think women offer different angles on the genre? Are there new subjects or slants on traditional themes that women will tackle that their male counterparts have avoided?
AF: I think women writers are writing more empowered female characters as well as questioning the old tropes of the ‘female in danger’ and ‘the scream queen’ who can only be rescued by a man. I think there are more bi and gay female characters gracing the pages of female authored horror too. The SSS series which published my e book Night of the Rider, also published work like Hailey Piper’s An Invitation to Darkness with a lesbian heroine (dressing as a male sea captain) and a lesbian romance.
I also enlisted the opinions of my horror writing friend Stephanie Ellis on this topic- she mentions that apart from King writing in ‘Carrie’ very few horror writers talk about women and their bodily functions e.g. menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, and how in post apocalyptic scenarios (Alyson: Z Nation comes to my mind with the strong feisty Roberta Warren played by Kellita Smith) you don’t see women dealing with these problems. Also Steph mentioned the menopause which ‘doesn’t stop at the end of the world.’
LL: Who are your favourite female horror writers? Any recommendations for those new to the genre?
AF: Writing horror is a fairly recent writing direction for me- it grew from writing dark flash fiction- so I’m still discovering female horror writers. Last year two of the best horror novels I read were Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens and Sarah Read’s The Bone Weaver’s Orchard- highly recommend them. I don’t tend to enjoy/read extreme horror with lots of gore- I prefer more supernatural and weird horror. I’ve read a lot of Shirley Jackson and though her Haunting of Hill House is now mega famous, partly due to the recent TV adaptation (I preferred the 1963 creepy black and white version) I actually prefer Jackson’s strange off kilter short stories. The most famous being The Lottery, which is very ahead of its time and so disturbing.
Another new author (to me) is Mira Grant, (Into the Drowning Deep), and I’ve read everything Sarah Rayne has written, pretty much all of Jennifer McMahon’s (The Winter People) and of course Susan Hill’s ghost stories. I first discovered Alison Littlewood years ago with her short stories in magazines, like Black Static and I’ve read all her novels since. Her latest is the time slip Victorian ghost tale, Mistletoe, which I’ve reviewed over at The Horror Tree. I was lucky enough to interview Alison in person at the Derby UK Ghost story festival too and online.
Laura Purcell writes wonderfully historically layered and cleverly plotted supernatural thrillers (Bone China/The Silent Companions). Two female horror writers I’ve come to know through on line interviews/chats whose fiction I really enjoy are the Australian writer, Deborah Sheldon and the co-editor at the Horror Tree, Stephanie Ellis, whose recent and very original horror novella, Bottled is just out.
LL: Aside from several big name writers, horror is a genre that’s been sidelined, at least by the bigger publishers. And yet, it seems to me to be enjoying a renaissance, especially with smaller presses. Why do you think that is?
AF: I think bigger publishers want sure fire commercial hits that as many readers will buy as possible. They are in the business of making money from their books. Crime is a huge seller, for men/women, we all have read a crime novel at one time or the other from fun cozy crime like Simon Brett to the rougher tougher end of the market.
Horror is a much more niche market, but with loyal, passionate readers who often will turn out to conventions (as I’ve discovered when I’ve attended) to support their fave authors (sci fi/fantasy fans are similar). Small presses can specialise and are often set up and run by folk who are passionate about horror (Corona Press run by Lewis Williams is one such I’ve come across and interviewed)- they grew up reading horror stories and now they want to share that passion with the reading world. Smaller indie presses will take risks too with their material (a female authored anthology I’ve a story in, Strange Girls ed. Azzurra Nox , published a range of stories, some of which have provoked heated debate online on the Goodreads site) and they will take on new authors.
It’s very tough to break into the horror world but then it’s tough generally to get your first novel published in any genre.
There is also a renaissance for horror going on at the cinema and on the streaming services, like Netflix, where horror films (Us, Get Out, the Annabelle movies, It, Doctor Sleep ) have succeeded critically and/or commercially at the box office and shows like Z Nation and Van Helsing tap into our fascination with zombies and vampires. There is a vast viewing audience for this sort of material and it’s constantly being updated and rebooted.
LL: What’s your writing routine? Do you have a study or a spot on the kitchen table? Pen and paper or laptop? Set writing times or whenever you can find five minutes?
AF: I do have a tiny study, with a desk and p.c. though I still write my poetry by hand in notebooks. I blog/review etc. most days- but actual writing – well, that tends to come in fits and starts depending on what’s going in my life and any ideas I have for stories. If I’m really into a story I will write for hours into the small hours though and then leave it a few days before I come back to do rewrites/edits.
LL: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but where do your ideas come from?
AF: I am very influenced by films and books. But sometimes it’s conversations I overhear which spark off a story, a cemetery I’ve visited, a scene I’ve noticed, or just walking on the moor with our dog, I get thinking about what if… The ideas are just the start point though, much happens to them thereafter, they are cut, mutated, and turned upside down.
LL: You always seem to have publication news to share on your blog (alysonfayewordpress). What advice can you give to aspiring authors wishing to copy your success?
AF: Thank you Lynn for that lovely comment. I write flash fiction (under 1000 words) and horror drabbles, and submit to various online sites or e zines in flurries. The turn around time for shorter pieces, either acceptance or rejection, is much faster than for a short story or a novel. I do have short stories out there, but I can wait up to 9 months to hear back. I also post interviews with authors, book reviews, shares of other authors’ news and my open mic gigs on my blog – so the material is varied. It’s about my writing life really – a whole picture.
Tips – well keep writing, then rewrite (a lot), network with like minded folk online, ask them where they submit their work to, keep submitting, don’t stop or get put off by rejections, but take any feedback and constructive criticism and work with it, aim to improve, surf for indie publishers in your genre, go to sites like the Horror Tree which offer a one stop info hub of mags and publishers who are looking for work.
LL: What can we look forward from you in the coming months?
AF: Good question Lynn. The fictional pantry is nearly bare- I’ve used a lot of material up in the last few months- which is great in one way as it means I’ve had a few publishing acceptances but now I have to write something new.
I have plans for a horror novella which I’ve started which ties in to my love of film. I also have a few flash pieces on the go. I like to have a mix.
LL: Thanks very much, Alyson.
AF: Thank you Lynn for inviting me onto your blog.
She Twitters here.