AN INTERVIEW WITH GWENDOLYN KISTE
AND HER SMILE WILL UNTETHER THE UNIVERSE is the debut short fiction collection of Gwendolyn Kiste, which came out this past spring. It is one of the best collections of the past ten years and is packed with so much creepiness, creativity, and heart that my mind was in constant dazzle mode the first time I read through it.
She excels at bending genre tropes and effects to her will, using them to illuminate the many social and emotional issues she tackles throughout, and all without ever breaking the spell of her stories. Each one is a little gem, and each one leaves you spooked and moved. Pretty astonishing, actually, and all the more so when she does it over and over, story by story.
I love every piece in the book, but if I had to name a few special favorites I’d have to go with weird epistolary tale “The Man in the Ambry”, the scary sci fi of “The Five-Day Summer Camp”, and “Audrey At Night”, one of the most haunting and perfect ghostly revenge stories of all time (in my opinion). NONE of her stories go where you think they might, but they all feel inevitable by the time you hit the last line. In other words, Ms. Kiste is an author in control of her craft, and she’s not afraid to use it.
BONUS: Gwendolyn Kiste was kind enough to answer some interview questions! Yahoooo!!!
How long have you been writing seriously? What was the first piece you had published?
GK: While I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life—in elementary school, I used to pen little horror and fantasy stories with terrible illustrations and bind them up to sell to my parents for a quarter—I didn’t fully commit myself to writing until five years ago. I had just quit an unfulfilling job and finally decided that I wanted not only to get back to writing, but also to really invest myself in it as a profession. Even then, however, there was a lot of stumbling in the dark for the first couple years as I did my best to learn more about the industry and all those basics that seem so second-nature now (e.g. cover letters, standard manuscript format, etc.). So while it was five years ago when I said “Yes, I do want to be a professional writer,” it wasn’t until about three years ago that I started submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies.
My first published story was a humorous fantasy tale called “Bedroom Bureau.” It appeared in 2014 in Mystery and Horror, LLC’s Strangely Funny 2 anthology. My style has evolved a lot since then, but I’m still so proud of that piece and so grateful to editors Gwen Mayo and Sarah Glenn for accepting it. Being part of that beautiful anthology really gave me the confidence to move forward with my writing in a way that was more meaningful to me than ever before.
Part of what makes your first collection so special, to me, is that not only do you have a knack for character and plot, but you also deal with very meaty themes and emotions. Do you have any kind of “mission statement” when it comes to your short fiction?
It’s interesting, because I’ve been asked a variation of this question once before, and I sort of trailed off that time without a definitive answer. So now that I’ve been asked again, I feel like this is really a point where I should solidify my response a bit more. I would say that if I do have a “mission statement,” it would be to tell the stories that are so often forgotten. The tales about people who live in the shadows or live outside the norm somehow. I think what’s most important to me is that my work reaches the people who need it most. If my writing can make someone somewhere feel a little less alone in this incredibly difficult world, then that makes everything I do, all the good and all the bad of rejections and writer’s blocks and other disappointments, completely worth it. So I would say my mission statement, in that case, is fiction for those left behind or left on the outside. Growing up, I always imagined a place for people who didn’t easily fit in with others, and while I’m still so disappointed that as an adult, I never found that place, maybe I’m doing my best to create that safe haven in my work. Hopefully, I’ve been at least marginally successful at that so far.
Did you always know you wanted to work in the darker genres? What was the first horror book/story that connected with you?
I’ve always loved horror, and I’ve absolutely wanted to work in the genre since I was a child. Nothing ever got me as excited growing up as horror, whether it was in books and movies or television and music and art. If it was horror-related, I was into it as a kid, even though it made me “the strange girl” who liked “those weird things.”
As for the first horror story I loved, that would probably be “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. My dad would often recite the poem to me from memory when I was growing up, and his dad had read it to him when he was growing up, so both Poe and horror in general are truly things that have been passed down through the generations of my family like priceless heirlooms. In this way, horror is practically my birthright.
You have the skills to work in any literary space you could want, in my opinion. What is it about the horror genre that appeals to you most as a writer? Does it allow you to do things that you couldn’t in other genres?
For me, horror is more visceral and honest than any other genre. As a writer, you can cut down to the marrow of what it means to be human. I, of course, love many books and films in other genres, but so often, it feels like the experiences are watered down somehow, that the characters frequently have easy outs even in serious circumstances. But horror isn’t about easy outs. It allows you to peel back the layers of our emotional experiences and really show those feelings in raw, unvarnished ways. Everything feels like it’s in clearer focus when the stakes are not only life and death, but perhaps even dealing with something beyond life and death, issues that go past conventional mortality into what’s waiting for us afterward. As a horror writer, I think there are so many deep and weighty themes to explore about issues of mortality and of what it means to be human, and horror affords such a clear and exhilarating path to really unpack those ideas.
Do you plan to write in novel length? If so, what are your thoughts about short story vs. novel, from a writer’s standpoint?
Over the last year, I have made the jump to writing in novel length. In fact, my debut novel, The Rust Maidens, is scheduled for release next year through Trepidatio Publishing, an imprint of JournalStone.
At this point, I have vastly more experience with short fiction than I do with novels, so perhaps I’ll be better equipped to answer this question in a few years. However, at the moment, I would say so much of the difference between the two formats for me is how much time you want or need to spend with a concept. A short story can be something very winnowed down and specific whereas a novel has to be a grander vision by its nature.
Personally, I do love the immediate gratification of a short story, both as a writer and as a reader. I can take something from concept to finished piece in just a week or two, whereas a novel obviously has to evolve over a longer timeline. That being said, getting to really sink down into a novel and explore the world are unique joys all their own. In that way, there are certainly positives and negatives to both. I find that even when I’m working on a longer project, it’s helpful for me to alternate a short story in there for a week or two. It gives me a break from the extended marathon of novel writing and also helps me feel like I’ve gotten something completed unto itself, thus reenergizing me for the long haul of a novel.
What is “Pretty Marys All in a Row”?
Pretty Marys All in a Row is my debut novella, due out later this year from Broken Eye Books. The story revolves around the Marys of folklore: Bloody Mary, Resurrection Mary, Mary Mack, Mari Lwyd, and Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary. I’ve always been fascinated with folklore and urban legends, in particular how these stories are told and retold in so many different places and over such long periods of time. With Pretty Marys, I wanted to meet these infamous characters and explore their origins, as well as what happens to them if people start to forget the tales. The story is a blend of horror, dark fantasy, and fairy tale, and I think it dovetails well with my short fiction so far while also expanding upon many of the themes I frequently explore in my writing.
This is my first longer fiction project to be released, which is both very exciting and a little nerve-wracking. It’s always such a huge moment to make those jumps to longer or different formats in your writing career. I’m looking so forward to hearing what readers think about it.
Your blog is awesome! What kind of stuff goes on there, for those who may not know?
Thank you! I started my author blog about four years ago when I was still really trying to get my footing in understanding the publishing industry, and I’m glad that the blog seems to have grown a bit in that time and reached more people. On it, I feature interviews with a variety of authors and artists, a monthly post that highlights open submission calls for writers, and general tips on writing, often drawn from my own experiences/mistakes. And of course, there are also updates about my own writing projects, too. Still, I like to maintain a mix of posts, so that the blog’s not always just about my work. I’ve always admired authors who can keep their focus as much on other creators’ projects as on their own. The arts in general can at times be such a ferocious and cutthroat industry, so I think it’s important to do our best to support one another in our journeys through these crazy writing careers.
Do you have three (or more) suggestions for great horror novels/stories/movies that you could share with us? The more obscure, the better, but anything you think is really great.
One recent work that immediately jumps to mind is the chapbook, FEEDING THE DEAD by M. Brett Gaffney. It came out earlier this year through Porkbelly Press, and includes a variety of poetry that blends horror and dark fantasy while exploring themes of gender and belonging. Much of the imagery has remained with me months after my initial reading, so I can absolutely recommend this one wholeheartedly.
As for a somewhat obscure literary recommendation from an author who is herself not so obscure these days, I would say that everyone should read “Louisa, Please Come Home” by Shirley Jackson. It’s such a weird and wonderful little tale, and I think it’s a shame that more people don’t talk about it.
Finally, among my favorite films, The Sentinel is one that not a huge number of people seemed to have seen. It’s not completely unknown, but I would definitely love for even more horror fans to check it out. It has a stellar supporting cast of classic Hollywood actors (Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, and Burgess Meredith) as well as those who would become even bigger later on (young Christopher Walken is too ridiculous and perfect in it). Plus, there’s a birthday party scene for a cat named Jezebel. And the cat wears a hat. It’s a truly fantastic film and highly recommended for anyone who likes their horror offbeat.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d be willing to talk about?
As I mentioned, my debut novel, The Rust Maidens, is due out next year from Trepidatio. It’s based in my home state of Ohio back in the year 1980 and deals with themes of coming-of-age, body horror, and the subtle and not-so-subtle horrors of growing up in the Rust Belt. I’ve been describing it as a little bit like The Virgin Suicides meets David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
In the short fiction department, I will be part of the Hardened Hearts anthology, slated for release this December by editor Eddie Generous of Unnerving Magazine. That anthology centers on difficult and scary love stories, and my contribution, “40 Ways to Leave Your Monster Lover,” blends elements of fairy tales, dark fantasy, and body horror into a story about a young woman who takes a much older (and married) lover, with monstrous results.
Also, my horror story, “An Elegy for Childhood Monsters,” will be coming out very soon in the Suspended in Dusk 2 anthology. That lineup is truly out of this world, and I feel so honored and thrilled to be part of that table of contents.
Finally, I have a flash fiction piece called “In the Belly of the Wolf” that should be making its debut sometime next year. That one plays on the Big Bad Wolf character of Little Red Riding Hood and inverts the gender dynamic in a way that was both profoundly painful and cathartic to write.
As for what’s coming down the pipeline, I’m working on the skeleton outlines for my next novel and novella as well as drafting some ideas for new short stories. There are always so many concepts floating around my mind and so little time to get them all down on paper. Sometimes, writing feels a lot like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but hey, I guess the thrill of that chase is one of the many reasons why we writers do it in the first place!
Thank you, Gwendolyn!