Nancy Kilpatrick is the author of 18 novels, more than 200 short stories, and 5 story collections. She has also edited 12 anthologies. Although Nancy is best known for her vampire-themed books and stories, she’s also written in the genres of dark fantasy, mystery, erotic horror, and more. Fangoria called her “Canada’s answer to Anne Rice.” She’s also been published under her pseudonyms Amarantha Knight and Desiree Knight. Her hobbies include visiting cemeteries, colleting macabre artwork, and traveling the world in search of things dark and mysterious to fuel her writing.
What has proved most outstanding to me during my seemingly unnatural life in general, and my protracted career in particular, has been luck. "Luck," the Roman philosopher Seneca said, "is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." I would add to that statement three more elements I consider crucial, especially for women writers: bravery, flexibility, intuition.
Back in the late 1980s when I was a young writer, I was a member of a writers' workshop. It was a diverse group, 4 of us the core who stayed together for 10 years while others came and went. At our max we numbered 30, but usually about 8 to 10 writers-in-the-making came to the monthly meetings.
I'd been writing horror for a while, getting a bit published here and there, and before that had a flirtation with lit fic, which I also had some success with, but didn't like how plotless literary fiction had become--I adore plot and the horror genre excels at plotting.
For no particular reason, I wrote a mystery story. Well, there was a reason. Back then, I was taking part-time jobs in order to eat and give myself time to write. I did the usual types of unskilled work and in the mid-1980s was employed as a part-time security guard at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for a five month gig, guarding the special exhibition Georgian Canada-Conflict and Culture 1745-1820. That period covers the reigns of the British Kings George II and George III.
It was a job I loathed. Four hours a day of eagle-eyeing people and repeating, "The washrooms are at the end of the exhibit" and "Please don't touch the paintings/furniture/objets d'art..."
When the exhibit closed, I was invited to stay on as a security guard with the permanent exhibits. I should have said no, but if I had, this blog entry would be about something else.
Only someone who has worked in such a capacity in a museum can grasp the extent of the boredom. Like any somewhat-intelligent person, I had envisioned working in a museum as a wonderful opportunity. I'd get to view and study exhibits every day! What could be more inspiring?
What could be more mundane? Try spending five days a week standing in the same room on aching feet, staring at the same items hour after hour each day, reading and re-reading the accompanying info, until finally, after what feels like a century and the cerebral cortex is near death, seemingly mercifully you are re-assigned and shuffle zombie-like to a different gallery, only to repeat.
After the re-employment, one of my new jobs was responding to security alarms. The museum had a unique security system so if someone tried to grab an antiquity and scoot out through a Do Not Enter door, an alarm would go off and they would find themselves trapped, unable to get back into the museum, unable to get outside. That was the theory, anyway.
(A few years later, when I was still writing for magazines, I interviewed the head of security--my former employer--and it turns out there were thefts despite this security system! But I digress.)
Out of this wretched work experience came my first mystery story, which began with an alarm that led the protagonist to investigate the tunnel trap called a 'mantrap', where a fictional body was found.
My then husband was an avid mystery reader. I was not. I'd read a few mysteries and enjoyed them but didn't think they went far enough--horror was my thing. But I was curious to see if I could write a mystery, so I did. I showed the short story to my husband. He hated it. He could barely express how much was wrong with the story. I took it to my writers' workshop. Everyone there hated it too, including the people who read and wrote mysteries. A tad shell-shocked--I'd thought it was a pretty decent story--, I stuck the MS in a drawer and forgot about it...
...until a contest appeared out of nowhere. An anthology, with a $10 entrance fee, that wanted mystery stories. I yanked my who-done-it from purgatory, revised it a tad, showed it to hubby, who still hated it, and the workshop members, who still hated it too. I've always possessed a kind-of 'Sod Off!' undercurrent to my attitude, so I sent it to the contest anyway.
Lo and behold, the editor Michael Crawley phoned me and said he loved my story and it was to be one of the 10 winners. I'd be paid! I'd be published in the anthology Murder, Mystery & Mayhem! Wow!
Soon after the publication, I attended Bouchercon, which happened to be in my city that year. I'd never been to a mystery convention and while I had only one mystery story to my name with no intention at that time of writing another, I decided to go and see if, as I'd heard, mystery writers really did roll up the proverbial sidewalks at 9 pm (they do!) While there, I found an intriguing panel: a forensics coroner was speaking about dead bodies--who could resist? I wandered over to find not just a seriously packed room but SRO far out into the hallway.
I checked the program book and glumly thought, okay, I'll go to the short story editors' panel instead. I sat down and listened. One of the panelist was Ed Hoch. I had no idea who he was. He did say if anyone had a story published in the previous year to send it to him for his best-of antho--he reads everything. After the panel I went up to him and explained what a small anthology my story was in but he gave me his card and said send it anyway. I did.
Ed Hoch turned out to be the long-time editor of The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense anthology series. I was not one of those selected for inclusion in his next year's-best, but he did give me an honorable mention.
Meanwhile, Ed, unknown to me, submitted my story to the *Arthur Ellis Mystery Awards, in the short fiction category. I was not a member of the CWC and had no idea my story was submitted until I received a call from David Skene-Melvin, then secretary-treasurer of the organization, who informed me that my sole mystery effort "Mantrap" was a finalist and because of that he invited me to the *Arthur Ellis Awards dinner. I made some excuse for not going. Although I felt thrilled and vindicated that my grisly little tale which my now-sheepish husband and fellow workshop members had disparaged had reached such heights, I was under no illusion that I would win. I didn't write mysteries. The other finalists were well-known; no one knew me. Obviously a real mystery writer deserved the award, someone published in Ellery Queen Magazine, or in a major anthology... Yadda Yadda Yadda.
David phoned me three times, the magic number. Finally, arm twisted, I dragged my husband with me to a classic restaurant downtown. Surrounded by a walnut decor and somewhat impressed by real linen napkins, we consumed our prime rib seated by ourselves at a somewhat isolated table for two because we knew no one. After dinner, speeches were made and then winners announced. I recall feeling antsy, constantly checking the Victorian-style wristwatch I relied on in those days, glancing at my husband's bored face, at my empty wine glass, around a room full of strangers with names I had not heard before that night, wondering when this would be over so I could escape.
My name was called. I was the winner in the short story category. I sat stunned while people clapped and finally my husband nudged me and said 'You have to go say something'. Like a deer caught in the headlights, I stood at the podium and have no clue what I mumbled. Of course I hadn't prepared anything like a speech, or even a few words, and I'm sure I didn't remember names or thank anyone. But I came home with a hanging man, the *Arthur Ellis Award for the best short story of the year.
Does any of the above have to do with being female, or with being a female horror writer? I have no idea. I am female and I love reading, viewing and writing/editing, and my preferred arena is horror, so that's my perspective on my life and my career and pretty much defines me.
I may, though, have stumbled upon a few ideas over my female horror-writer lifetime that could be useful to either gender but especially for women. So,...saith I:
- I strongly believe that anything can happen to anybody, good or bad, because life is fragile, chaotic and unpredictable and not for the faint-of-heart. Don't take things personally.
- You need to have faith in yourself because there will be times when no one else does.
- Respecting intuition is the key to what life and writing are about. Following intuition means something will happen. It might not lead to the desired goal, but the process along the way is what gives life and writing value and will surely take you somewhere.
- I trust what the I CHING (Chinese Book of Changes) says, 'Perseverance Furthers', because giving up is its own reward.
- It's important to be bold, even when fearful, even when that results in looking stupid and your work is deemed worthless. Even when friends and loved ones are angry with you for stepping outside what they had expect of you.
- I recommend developing a rhino skin because publishing, like life, is often unfair and there is little justice. Writing is fun, fulfilling, enlivening, expanding. Publishing can be that but often seems to be a rather nasty business full of pettiness, and more failures than successes, painful rejections and occasionally vile treatment that will make you, at times, vacillate between wanting to tear the head off the next living thing that crosses your path, and hiding under the duvet and sobbing your heart out. Anger has a purpose--it's a good fuel as long as the driver using it is conscious of that old adage: harm no one, including yourself. And every tear strengthens as long as it's just the skin that hardens and not the soul--killing the soul kills creativity.
Finally, I offer this further unsolicited advice:
- It's your life, so live it; if you don't live it you're wasting it.
- Trust yourself and don't be afraid to take risks.
- It's important to step outside the horror box now and again into the larger world of literature, in what you read and what you write. Explore new genres, just for the hell of it; you never know where anything will lead.
*Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym for Arthur Bartholomew English, the last hangman in Canada. His career and the practice of hanging the convicted ceased abruptly in 1935 when the wrong weight was given for Thomasina Sarao--a woman who murdered her husband for the insurance money. Instead of death by hanging, she was accidentally beheaded.
Multiple award-winning writer and editor Nancy Kilpatrick has published 18 novels, over 220 short stories, 7 collections of her stories, 1 non-fiction book, and has edited 15 anthologies, including the latest, nEvermore! Tales of Murder, Mystery & the Macabre. Her graphic novel Nancy Kilpatrick's Vampyre Theater will be out soon from PreForce Publishing. Her work has been translated into and published in 6 languages. Recent short fiction can be found in: Innsmouth Nightmares; Blood Sisters:Vampire Stories by Women; The Madness of Cthulhu 2; Kolchak: The Night Stalker Passages of the Macabre, and in the upcoming Let Us In; Morbid Metamorphosis:Terrifying Tales of Transformation; Black Wings 5; Dreams From the Witch House; Gothic Lovecraft; Nightmare's Realm. Since writing "Mantrap", Nancy has gone on to publish 8 mystery stories.
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Website (in need of updating): nancykilpatrick.com