Erinn Kemper is a Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She is also the recipient of the HWA’s first Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship for women horror writers. Her work runs the gamut from horror to science fiction and fantasy and is always thought-provoking, with delightful hints of mystery and quiet terror.
JG: So, let’s start things off with a little background. Tells us about yourself and your writing.
EK: I’m from the west (wet) coast of Canada but live in Costa Rica these days. The main distraction from writing being sloth-watching. For some strange reason, despite the books by Barker, Rice, Bradbury, Jackson, and King that lined my bookshelf, and a bunch of teenaged forays into scary story writing, I went through a phase where I thought I wanted to write ‘literature’.
There was one short story in particular, called “Uncle Jesus and the Yard Sale”—a semi-autobiographical literary tale, that I was editing…the dang thing made me sleepy every time I looked at it. Then that devilish bulb went off in my head. Why not kill them all! My poor family. But man was it fun watching them die one by one, and a much better story, too.
So I pulled down all those well-loved books and read them again and again. And then I tried my hand at it for real. When I sold to Cemetery Dance magazine, I knew I was doing what I loved and getting away with it. I remember you sold to them at the same time and we celebrated (virtually) together.
I like how you describe my writing above. I have a few stories where people run around and fight with swords or get eaten by giant monsters, but the majority are about more personal, intimate horrors.
JG: Women in Horror Month celebrates the contributions of women to the world of dark fiction. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer, and, as part two of that, when did you know you wanted to write in the dark fiction arena?
EK: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about 5. I have a bunch of poems (I even illustrated them) that I would send to my gramma. They are hilarious. I rhymed ‘be’ with ‘bee’…
“If I had a horse, I’d want it to be black and yellow like the stripes on a bee.” That horse had wings, but no stinger.
Then when I was about seven or so I read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I thought it was a children’s book and I recall it inspiring some complex emotions…the way that story lives in my memory is a series of hyper-idealized images, warm and super bright, like they’ve been over-exposed or radiated. I remember understanding that the language did that. That the words made me feel something different. I was too young to grasp nostalgia, I’m guessing, but holy crap did that book whirl me in a confusion of feelings.
Then I read Carrie. I was eleven. I remember the night. First time my parents left my sister and me alone. I snuck upstairs and nabbed it. I had been told I was too young for that one, so of course I had to read. My parents came home late and my mom looked in on me because my light was still on. I had just a few pages to go. I’m sure my eyes were wide and my mouth hanging open…I was horrified and hooked. My mom sighed and shook her head and said “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I’d say those two books really did it for me. Made me want to go deep and go dark.
JG: Where does your inspiration for stories come from? Your own fears? World events? Conversations?
EK: Definitely a bunch of things. Places that intrigue me, particular emotions, jobs I’ve done, bits of history, styles of architecture, I love bridges and trains and road-side motels (strangely they haven’t been in any of my stories yet, but I’m sure they will), situations that I’ve found myself in, stories that people tell, memories (mine and other peoples), dreams (mine and other peoples—my dad is not a horror fan, but he has the weirdest dreams). The seeds for stories come from all those things, and then combining them…and definitely adding a healthy dose of my own fears. I’d say world events rarely play into it…but I could be wrong! Maybe they creep in without my knowing?
JG: People might be surprised to find out that even horror writers have fears. What scares you?
EK: This one is easy…I made a list for my blog. It also includes things that gross me out. It’s probably not all of them, but it’s a lot of them.
Big Brother, group think, cultish behaviour of any kind, parasites, paralysis, pile worms (come on, they puke out their guts and suck ’em back in instead of wriggling), shit-crazy hillbillies, censorship, genocide, killing someone by accident, being swarmed by rabbits, being stuck deep underground, did I say hillbillies?, kids with soft creepy voices, people all dressed the same and acting the same, pod people, oompa loompa’s, living out the rest of my days trapped in boredom, living without love, raw meat, killing someone on purpose, not being able to breath, pregnant women (sorry … only sometimes. One day I saw six or seven in a row, and I got a little creeped out), rampage killers, guns, dictators, mob mentality, being massively burned, being taken over and knowing it and watching the ‘new me’ live my life … especially if they do a better job than me or go psychotic, hurting someone I love and not being able to make it better, the word phlegm (but only when type it, not when I say it), that when I am old I will look back and regret my entire life, when someone’s eyes turn totally black, things coming in too close to my eyes (especially sharp things), when my finger gets stuck in a wee teacup handle (will it ever come out? will I break the teacup trying to get it to let go?).
Looking at that I see a lot of them are a fear of sameness. I’ve used a fair number of these already in stories.
JG: If someone wanted to get introduced to your work for the first time, what 3 stories would you pick (tell us where to find them, too!) that you feel best represent you as a writer, and why?
EK: Oh boy. Let’s see. I’ll do them in chronological order.
I’d say “The Claim” in Jason V Brock’s A Darke Phantastique. It got a mention in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror. That story is an example of how research changes and deepens fiction. When I went in I thought I was writing a vampire-type story and I had a very clear image in my mind of the jump-scare ending it was going to have. It went a totally different way. I loved writing it, researching it, editing it. The language is pretty. The atmosphere is creepy. I bawled my eyes out as I wrote a particular part, unable to believe what was happening to my poor hero.
Then I’d pick “Gramma Tells a Story” in Black Static #49. More pretty words. Fears from the above list. I’ve been getting letters from readers about that one, which is super cool.
And “Gummi-Bear” coming in Michael Bailey’s You, Human anthology. The language there is a little more stark. Probably some pretty in there, but not as much. In that one I didn’t flinch. It is upsetting and not at all ‘nice’. I am really pleased with how it turned out.
Some day I hope to sell “In Amelia’s Wake.” That is my favorite story. It’s long, historical, personal, and the characters are lovely and heart-breaking.
JG: In other interviews, you’ve stated that you enjoy writing ‘weird’ stories, the weirder the better. Do you consider yourself part of the “weird fiction” movement that’s becoming popular these days, or do you not prefer to label yourself?
EK: Haha…this is an example of my lack of education in the world of genre vocabulary. Maybe some of my stories are ‘weird’ in the sense of belonging to the field of ‘weird fiction’, but not intentionally so. I do love ‘weird fiction’ a lot, but when selecting stories of mine to define as ‘weird’ I have to ask my buddy Usman “Is this one weird?” He knows his stuff and says ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.
When I said that I think I meant ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ or ‘unique’ or ‘bizarre’ (not bizzaro…though I do like bizzaro). Really a combination of all those adjectives. Like Joe Hill’s “Pop Art,” some of the unflinchingly off-the-wall stuff that Bentley Little writes in his short stories, that Clive Barker story “In the Hills the Cities.” Stories that go all-out, that take a truly bizarre scenario or character and sell it…make you see it, wish it was real. I want to push my fiction in that direction. Go big or go home, to be totally cliché. Hit people in the hurt spots.
JG: You primarily live in Costa Rica now, with only short jaunts to Canada and the US. How has a move to a warm climate, where the pace of life is slower, affected your writing process?
EK: That’s an interesting question. This place is so lush and beautiful, yet I think my stories are getting tighter and less wordy. It is certainly giving me a lot more time to write, which means my flow is better, if that makes sense. The stories are less disjointed in the first few drafts, easier to clean up.
JG: Because this relates to Women in Horror Month, there has long been an ongoing debate that men and women write differently. Do find that there’s a difference?
EK: Probably. Or not.
One guy who read a couple of my stories—a neighbor, not a writer—said he was worried that he wouldn’t like my stories and that he’d feel awkward telling me what he thought of them. He said he was relieved to find that I didn’t write like a woman, that I wrote more like a man.
I told him that I do, obviously, write like a woman, because I am a woman. Each person writes like themselves.
I’m guessing what he meant was that I didn’t dwell on romance and feelings and billowing curtains and yearning and vague language and how rose petals feel against my skin, or something like that. I am sure there are some women who write like that, and some dudes.
I would prefer that if there is a difference, the difference didn’t matter.
I do think we as readers/writers/editors should expose ourselves to things that are different. Writers from other countries/backgrounds, etc. Maybe we won’t like or relate to those stories at first try. I didn’t like scotch the first time I drank it, but boy howdy do I love it now. And acquired tastes can become something we love more than anything, crave even (mmm scotch).
JG: As a woman writer, and particularly as a woman writing genre fiction, have you faced any particular obstacles or issues? What were they?
EK: I am not aware of any issues that have affected my journey as a writer up to now as far as discrimination. (Your question below deals with the one issue I have confronted myself). My family has been supportive (though my partner and my dad aren’t keen on my choice of genre…softies, both of them). I’ve made tons of good writer friends who I love and who treat me as an equal.
So far I’ve just sent stories in and they get accepted or rejected and a lot of the time I don’t know why the story was rejected, except that it didn’t work for the editor, or didn’t fit with the other stories.
As far as I see it, editors want to sell their books and want to publish stories that excite them. Gender isn’t a consideration. The story itself is what matters. I focus on that.
Women-only anthologies pop up from time to time. I have only submitted to one of those. I’m conflicted about them as I prefer my stories to be held up against all my peers, and get selected because of the awesome…But for those readers who say “what, there are women other than Anne Rice who write horror?” These anthos say heck yes, look at them all! And they are amazing!
When you look at the table of contents of anthologies that are coming out, some of them are weighted toward straight, white males…and certainly it looks like there are more straight, white males in the industry. The best I can do in the face of any potential discrimination, is to write the best dang stories so an editor who might favor of a male writer just can’t say no because the story is so rockin’-ass good!
JG: What words of advice you say to young girls or women who want to become genre fiction writers but haven’t gotten up the nerve to try their hand at it, or submit what they’ve written?
EK: Yeah, this I could have done a little earlier in life. Though I likely wouldn’t have had so much early-on success if I’d jumped in sooner. Certainly focusing on the writing gig in my late 30s and (cough cough) early 40s has been good for me. When I was younger I had a lot less patience (still struggle with this) and was a lot more fragile (now I’m tough as alligator skin).
Years ago I worked with a guy who was an upper middle class white dude. Super nice guy. He wrote poetry. He heard I harbored aspirations as a writer (songs, poems, some odd ‘literary’ stuff that kept turning dark and bloody), so he asked me to read his poems. It is always nerve-wracking when someone asks you to read their stuff. Especially someone you’re going to be seeing every day after the fact. The poems were mediocre at best. I gave him some editing notes and, wow, he didn’t want my editing notes. He’d already submitted them to top literary journals. I was stunned to discover that people did that. And now I know that if buddy took a step back, which I think he did, and got a shit-ton more feedback before submitting, he might actually get something published. His confidence would work for him.
I do think men are more inclined to submit their work, or to even jump in and give this writing gig a go. I’m not saying I think it’s easier for all men. Nor is it hard for all women. Now that I’m older and wiser, I don’t hesitate to send my stuff out when I think it’s ready.
So, advice. Write from your gut, don’t hold back. Once a story is done to the best of your ability, find someone to read it and give you an honest response. Then send it out. If it comes back, send it out again. Keep writing, better, more beautiful, bolder stories. And read. It’s not new or in any way unique advice. Every writer knows it…and if you are a writer, you do it.
JG: Lastly, tell us about some of the things you’ve got coming out in the near future, and what you’re working on beyond that.
EK: Some day in the near future that Cemetery Dance story is coming. It is called “Seed.” Really looking forward to it. I have a story coming in Michael Bailey’s You, Human, in Alessandro Manzetti’s The Beauty of Death and a story coming in [Nameless] Digest. I have a couple of anthologies that I’ve been asked to write stories for. Fingers crossed on those.
I am working on the 5th draft of my first novel, The Patrons, and super happy with it. I’ve vowed that with this draft I’m going to read the entire thing out loud. A challenge with this cold, but I’m working my way through.
Then onward to the next!
Erinn L. Kemper grew up in an isolated mill town in coastal British Columbia, Canada. From there she moved to the city to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. Over the years she’s worked as an eye glasses repair person, a fish farmer, a cabinet maker, a parks department laborer, a book store clerk, a home nurse, a teacher—and lived in a camper, in Japan and on a forty foot wooden sailboat. She now lives in a small town in Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea where she plans to write her first novel from her hammock. She has sold stories to Cemetery Dance Magazine, Dark Discoveries, Black Static, and [Nameless] Digest, and appears in various anthologies, including A Darke Phantastique, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, Library of the Dead, and the upcoming You, Human. Visit her website at www.erinnkemper.com for updates and sloth sightings.