AN INTERVIEW WITH LIVIA LLEWELLYN!
Me, I pretty much only read short stories and novellas when it comes to horror, dark fantasy, etc. Novels don’t usually do it for me mostly because they tend to feel so watered down compared to shorter work (obviously, there are lots of exceptions–We Have Always Lived In The Castle, etc.). I’ve been a voracious horror story reader for over 30 years now and can tell you that authors with the level of talent and insane originality that Livia Llewellyn possesses do NOT come by very often. Her fiction is industrial strength, over-the-top, uniquely horrifying and painfully humane. If you are a connoisseur of challenging, chewy, surreal, horror fiction, ENGINES OF DESIRE: TALES OF LOVE & OTHER HORRORS will totally be your jam.
There are a whole bunch of classics-in-the-making collected here, including the title story, “At the Edge of Ellensburg”, “Omphalos”, and “Her Deepness”. Llewellyn’s fiction is so dense with ideas and emotion that it usually takes me a few readings just to get my bearings. Even then, it is really hard to describe her stuff. “Omphalos” is one of the most brain-meltingly creepy stories I’ve ever read, dealing with incest, the internalization of abuse, and ultimately how the internal eventually comes back to scorch the earth. Ha! What a terrible description. In any case, it’s amazing and the ending is so jaw-dropping. Oy!
“Ellensburg” is a more ‘normal’ novella-length piece, a crime and sex story told with fever dream intensity. It’s also probably the most overtly sexual thing I’ve ever read, coming close to erotica in its frankness. In fact, the ending is a call back to an earlier sex scene and is so utterly PERFECT that it almost feels like you just dreamed the whole thing yourself. Amazing.
Here’s a great quote from an interview Llewellyn did at Weird Fiction Review: “I love writing to that point of no return and then forcing it a few steps beyond, to see not just what lies there in that rubicon of an emotional moment, but to see how it evolves (or devolves) the character.”
As a reader and huge fan, I have to say YES!!! She totally does exactly that. And not just once, either. She takes almost every story out into that place of extreme discomfort, but refuses to stop there just for the sake of nihilistic titillation, as many so-called ‘edgy’ writers would.
This is a brilliant collection…
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how you are a very active dreamer and that many of your stories sprang into being from images in your dreams. Could you give an example of a story where that happened, and perhaps the inciting dream imagery?
I’ve kind of gone back and forth about answering this question, because I wonder if maybe it does a disservice to the reader by saying “this part of the story was a dream”. Other than writing the story, I don’t want to insert myself into the story any further; and I think that if the reader comes to a piece with extra bits of information in their head – “that first paragraph was based on something that happened to her in 3rd grade,” “this is the part she based on a dream she blogged about” – then it becomes a story about me, and not about whatever it is the reader wants it to be. Anecdotal information about the author and their process can often push the reader out of the story (it certainly has for me – it’s absolutely ruined a couple of stories, to be blunt), and so I want to get as far out of the way as possible so that the reader can make their own decisions as to what the story might be about, including the decision that the story is really about them, and has nothing to do with me. So, the short answer: no, I won’t give you an example! I’ll only say that my dreams have influenced almost all of my stories to some degree.
So, you are one of the more intense writers out there, willing to push things much farther than most authors, both thematically and imagery-wise. Have you always written like this, or is it something that slowly developed? Along those lines, do you find writing to be cathartic?
I’d say it was something that was always there, except that I worked in theatre for twenty-odd years prior to writing, and I was always pushing the envelope with my stage work. So, writing in that manner wasn’t something I consciously had to do – it comes to me naturally because that’s how I’ve always operated as an artist. However, I can’t say that it’s been cathartic for a number of years now, primarily because my day job situation has undergone a series of upheavals, and now I find myself working 60-70 hour weeks instead of 35. Without uninterrupted, stress-free evenings and weekends in which to work, my writing (in my opinion) has suffered greatly. I feel like the majority of the fiction I’ve written over the past two years has only skimmed the surface, so to speak. There’s no catharsis for me, either in writing it or reading it, because I no longer have the luxury of time to sit with the emotions and let them do whatever terrible things they need to do in order for me to get them on the page. It’s been a real struggle to accept that this is my new reality, that I have less time in my life to write and therefore need to find a new way to approach writing and get it done and handed to editors on time. I still haven’t found my balance yet.
You are sometimes referred to as ‘Ligottian’, as in influenced by or of a similar vein as Thomas Ligotti. I’ve always found this a little odd, because for me your work embodies a LOT more emotion and humanism–even when things get really, really nasty–whereas Ligotti is a lot more removed, and is famously an “antinatalist”. What do you think of the comparison, either way?
You’re the first person I know of who’s called me “Ligottian” – I didn’t know that was happening! I don’t think of myself as Ligottian at all – most of my stories end with extremely bleak and horrifying things happening to my protagonists, but a very large number of my protagonists tend to 1) accept those changes, 2) embrace those changes, 3) vow to change themselves and come back even more terrifying and powerful than whatever is currently destroying them. You know, kind of like the sea turtle that fights to keep from being swallowed by the shark, and realizes it’s going down and is all, “ok fine, asshole, swallow me” – and then once inside, starts chewing its way out, because fuck that shark. That doesn’t seem very Ligottian to me! I have been somewhat influenced by Ligotti’s settings – I love his descriptions of strange northern towns and insidious factory districts – but his characters have very different reactions to those surroundings than mine do. My protagonists love to be alive, even if their encounter with the monstrous and the cosmic changes the definition of “alive” into something they still can’t quite understand. Also, despite sometimes severe bouts of depression (mainly connected with living in a fucking shithole apartment on a salary that doesn’t cover even my basic bills), I very much love being alive, and have no intentions of going gently into that good night.
Many of your stories are challenging reads, in the sense that they can veer in so many directions, don’t necessarily adhere to waking logic, and are just chock full of memorable images and horrifying implications. I’m not sure I always “get” everything you are laying down. Do you have any thoughts on how a reader should approach your work?
Well, I remember Kelly Link first introducing me (and my classmates at Clarion) to the concept of “night time logic”, which is similar to dream logic, where things may make sense while you’re in the thick of it, but seem nonsensical when you’re awake. I don’t “get” a lot of what I dream, but when I’m in the dream I’m not thinking about meaning or subtext, I’m just enjoying flying or exploring strange environments or having conversations and adventures with various beings. I’ve written a few stories where I still don’t know quite what I wrote or why I wrote it – for example, “It Feels Better Biting Down.” In that case, I committed myself to taking the story to wherever it was that it wanted to go, knowing that even if I had no idea why the protagonists were doing what they were doing, that there was a night time logic at work that would allow readers access and understanding in some way or other. I think that’s how most art (and a lot of travel, additionally) should be approached, including any type of fiction – it’s an experience that you can’t and perhaps don’t need to control or understand the meaning of. No preparation is really necessary, other than perhaps a commitment to let whatever happens happen – that’s the approach I think readers should take.
You are a master of the horrific, fearless in mixing sex and violence in your work, and also not afraid to go to very bleak places. In “real life” you are also uproariously funny. I suppose “Take Your Daughter to Work” is a little satirical, for awhile at least, but I’m surprised you don’t bring more humor into your work. Is that a conscious choice?
I’ve tried to mix humor with horror, but those stories tend to be far more difficult to write – at least for me. I’ve found it works best in small amounts, and when I’m not consciously doing it, such as when my protagonist makes some off-the-cuff, self-deprecatory comment as the futility and absurdity of her situation really starts to take hold. That seems to be as much as I can do, humor-wise. My writing style is nothing like Shirley Jackson’s, but I think I’m most like her in that my dark writing tends to be very separate from my humor writing, and that the humor is best served in my non-fiction and biographical pieces.
Can you tell us what you are currently working on, and/or what you have coming out next?
I have a writing project at Patreon, so I’m working on that continually – every month I post (for subscribers) a short, extremely dark/fantastical erotic story. When I have 13 stories finished, they’ll become a collection called Tales of the Dark Century (no publisher yet, though). I’ve also got a few invite pieces I’m finishing up – everything has to be done by the end of December (including all of my Patreon stories for the next eight months) because I’m taking a short fiction sabbatical after that, and will only be working on the novel in 2016. As far as what’s publishing: I have a 26k word novella, “The One That Comes Before”, publishing in Brian Keene’s very limited edition anthology The Daughters of Inanna, for Thunderstorm Books (pre-orders are only through 11/3, and then it’s gone forever). And I have my second collection, Furnace, coming out from Word Horde Press next February.
Lastly, would you please make a list of 5-10 horror stories/books/authors/movies/pieces of art that you think more people should know about? I’m looking for deep cuts here…
I’m going to do something a bit unexpected, and list ten works of visual art that have influenced me greatly in my lifetime. I’m not going to give any explanation as to why they’re an influence, although I think if you put all the images together, you can perhaps see patterns (or not!) and form your own conclusions about how weird (or not!) I am.
- “Puget Sound of the Pacific Coast”, painting by Albert Bierstadt, 1870
- “Akhenaten”, colossal statue by unknown, approx. 1351-1336 BC
- “Clipper Ship Red Jacket”, drawn by C. Parsons for N. Currier, 1855
- “Isle of the Dead”, painting by Arnold Böcklin, 1880-1886
- “Cotopaxi”, panting by Frederic Edwin Church, 1862
- “Maman”, sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, 1999
- “How doth the little Crocodile”, sculpture by Leonora Carrington, 1988
- “Manhattan Bridge Loop”, painting by Edward Hopper, 1928
- “Autumn Landscape”, glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1923-1924
- “The Hunters Enter the Woods”, tapestry, 1495-1505
Thank you, Livia!
Tune in tomorrow for the big finale of this year’s 31-day cycle…