• Gaby Triana

Getting to Know CHRISTA CARMEN

On today's Witch Haunt, I sit down with fabulous, intriguing, and hardworking horror author and the winner of the Indie Horror Award for Best Debut Collection, CHRISTA CARMEN!

WH: Hi, Christa! Thank you so much for being here tonight. Please give us a brief introduction of your fabulous self:

Hello, and thanks so much for having me on The Witch Haunt! To shake things up a bit, let me give you some information that is not readily available in my author bio, is (hopefully) interesting, and will help you and your readers get to know me a little better…

First, I’m kind of a neat freak; I don’t leave the house for work in the morning until everything is in its proper place, from throw pillows on the couch to dishes in the cupboard. It’s one of those maddening habits that, even as I’m doing it, I wish I could stop, but one I engage in daily nonetheless.

I am entirely dependent on my morning tea routine and have what I like to refer to as the greatest invention of all time: the alarm clock teapot. Why is it the greatest invention of all time, you ask? Because if I ignore the clamorous, insistent beeping of said alarm clock teapot, not only will I berate myself later for forfeiting prime writing time in exchange for a few measly hours of sleep, but I will also be faced with the disappointing reality that I have allowed my English Breakfast tea to over-steep.

I paused the last writing session I was engaged in to create a reminder on my phone to pick up ingredients for my dog’s birthday cake. She’s turning eleven this month and is the absolute best familiar a witch could desire.

In addition to my morning writing time, I also like to write before bed; subsequently, I’m forced to wash my sheets far more often than the non-bed-writing-individual, due to falling asleep with a pen in my hand and getting ink stains on the sheets.

I was traumatized by the first horror films I ever saw, a double feature of Leprechaun and Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors at a friend’s birthday sleepover in the THIRD grade (I realize after rereading that sentence that I should probably put the word “friend” in quotation marks)! My next rendezvous with horror was five years later, watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, and I found that I loved every second of the adrenaline rush and fear I experienced; from that moment on, I was a fan of the genre.

After reviewing the above information, it occurs to me that this introduction makes me sound far more neurotic and strange than fabulous, but hey, I did promise that it wouldn’t be the same old stuff from my author bio!

WH: That you did, indeed! What other career would you have if not writing/publishing?

I actually have another career, or careers, to be precise, in that I work in clinical trial research as a packaging coordinator ( I design the packaging strategies and labels for drug products utilized around the world in clinical trials) and as a mental health counselor on an inpatient psychiatric unit at a local hospital (prior to psych, I worked in substance abuse facilities like methadone and suboxone clinics and detox centers).

If I didn’t work as a packaging coordinator, mental health counselor, or a writer, I would definitely work with animals, maybe as an elephant protector, beagle collector, bird gawker, or Tasmanian Tiger existence-prover (some of these jobs might be made-up, but it’s my fictional alternate life, so whatever).

WH: I'm thinking these should all be characters in your next writing endeavors, especially the made-up ones. :) What is your writing process like?

My writing process has changed over the last year, having taken on new projects, commitments, and opportunities. I used to write four pages a day, no matter what, then switched to writing for a minimum of two hours, first thing in the morning. Now I tend to have so many different things I want to get to—blogs, reviews, guest posts (of course these won’t last forever, but while there is still interest on the heels of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, I’m thrilled to continue participating), work on a new novel, (which luckily coincides with the work I’m doing for my MFA program), short story edits, etc.—that I write for two hours in the morning, then for another 1-2 hours in the evening.

If I’m on the computer past eight p.m., the backlit screen messes with my brain (yet another neurosis to add to the list), and I’ll have a really hard time falling asleep, so I try to write new work in the evening (I write first drafts of everything, fiction or non-fiction, by hand), then type and do second draft edits the following morning. It works, but there are some mornings, if I’ve been up late writing the night before, when not even the horror of an over-steeped tea can get me out of bed, and I must resort to projecting how mad at myself I’ll be later if I sleep in.

WH: Interesting. Thanks for sharing. In 2018, your collection, “Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked” won the Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Congrats! Which of your stories from that collection are you most proud?

Thank you so much! The Indie Horror Book Award was very unexpected, and very exciting. The story I’m most proud of from the collection is “Flowers from Amaryllis.” It’s a story for which the idea was first formulated years ago, and that I couldn’t get right, no matter how I tried to change it. It went through as many as four complete rewrites, and I don’t mean rewrites as in edits and tweaks and changing a few characters or paragraphs, I mean complete overhauls where I stripped the story of everything but its most basic premise—a woman whose dog gives her reason to live despite the monsters that hound her—and started from scratch.

I never entertained thoughts of giving up on it entirely, but I’m still glad I saw it through in time to include in SBSB because it fits nicely with the rest of the stories thematically, and is a good way to have closed out the book.

WH: Just today, reviewer Frank Michaels Errington called "Flowers from Amaryllis" "...a wonderful tale to wrap up this collection from a terrific new voice in genre fiction. Filled with beautiful prose."

Christa, if you could interview any horror author, gone or alive, who would it be?

If I could interview any horror author, gone or alive, I’d have to choose Shirley Jackson. I’m such a huge fan of her work, and “The Lottery” was one of those stories that really changed me as a writer, that made me sit up upon finishing it and think, holy shit, you can do that with a piece of fiction?

Both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are not just two of my favorite horror novels, but two of my favorite novels of all time, and I’d love to inquire into her writing process for each of them, how they compared with one another, how her feelings of being an outsider in Vermont contributed to her creation of Merricat and Constance Blackwood, if what Eleanor Vance believes is real, and actually manifests at Hill House, or if the ghosts and supernatural activity are the products of her own fractured mind. I’d also want to ask her about her nonfiction work, particularly Life Among the Savages. I don’t have children, but I’m acutely aware of how female writers, female artists of any kind, are often put into boxes with but a single label placed upon them: ‘mother’...’artist’…as opposed to being given the space to call themselves ‘artist with children’ or ‘mother who writes.’

Shirley Jackson was a wife and mother of four children as well as a hugely successful author of literary horror and suspense and humor and nonfiction, whose work has inspired innumerable authors instrumental to the furthering of the horror genre. That she passed at only forty-eight was an unspeakable tragedy and a huge loss to the literary world at large.

I recently read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, and her painstaking work as Jackson’s biographer revealed the answers to many of the questions I posed above. However, I still would relish the ability to be able to ask her these questions myself, to hear firsthand a bit of the magic and eloquence that defined her, and maybe, just maybe, get her to do a tarot card reading for me.

WH: She is one of my favorites as well. I remembering mentioning her in literary groups in the late 80s, and few people even knew who I was talking about. I thought, How is this possible??

How have you changed as a person from your early life until now?

In a lot of ways, I haven’t changed at all. When I was two, I used to line up every book I owned across the room, then get mad if someone so much as looked at them sideways, let alone moved one half an inch, a precursor to how I can’t leave the house in the morning until the throw pillows are lined up satisfactorily (or my ongoing obsession with books).

I have a photo of me at about ten, sitting on a deck chair, an afghan draped across my lap, one hand reaching down to pet the family golden retriever, the other holding Misty of Chincoteague. A photo taken of me more recently—reading House of Leaves, sharing a lounge chair and a fleece blanket with my beagle—drives home the point that I’m the same book-reading, dog-loving Cancer I’ve always been.

The biggest way I’ve changed as a person is not between my early life and now, but between my twenties and my thirties, the reason being that I’m in long-term recovery. This change allowed me to be the person I was supposed to be, not the one that drugs and alcohol turned me into, and I was lucky enough that this identity included ‘writer.’

WH: So proud of you! Good to know you're becoming the person you were always meant to be. Breaking an addiction is one of the hardest things to do in life.

I like to ask people about their food habits. I find it says a lot about personality. So, how do you like your coffee? What’s your favorite dessert?

No coffee, but I think we’ve already established that I’m quite particular about my tea. After my morning cup of English Breakfast with unsweetened almond milk and honey, I’ll have green or any other kind of tea in the afternoon. Occasionally English Afternoon tea in the afternoon, but never English Breakfast in the afternoon or English Afternoon in the morning. In an early short story of mine, a young woman insists on ordering English Afternoon tea in the morning and, well, the story’s called “Fucking Up the Universe,” so you can imagine how well I imagined going against the rules of tea etiquette like that would turn out. My favorite dessert is Funfetti birthday cake with vanilla buttercream frosting.

WH: Okay, after that tea description, I was expecting a fancy dessert but got Funfetti cake. You still have a childish side in you. :) What’s your favorite Halloween tradition (besides the fact it’s your anniversary :))? What was it like getting married at the Stanley Hotel?

My favorite Halloween tradition is less a single practice and more to immerse myself as much as possible in the spirit of the holiday. This can occur in any number of ways, from going out to dinner (because you’re right, it is my anniversary!) and to see a new horror movie in the theater (or at home on Netflix, because I’m a Cancer in my thirties, so home is the very best place to be!) to going to the main drag of my hometown to see the trick-or-treaters, attending a costume party or exploring some sort of haunted attraction.

I have traditions that are a bit more set in stone for the month of October, starting with ‘October Planning’ in Riverbend Cemetery, when a few of my friends and I grab coffee and tea, go to the local cemetery, and plan out all the activities we’re going to participate in over the next thirty-one days. Past October Planning events have included a Gothic Tea Party, a Mausoleum-themed Escape Room, the Factory of Terror in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular.

As for getting married at the Stanley, my wedding was the culmination of a week spent in Estes Park, and the entire trip was amazing. We played haunted mini golf, saw a horror movie in Denver, stalked the Estes Park elk herd, ventured into Rocky Mountain National Park, took the Stanley’s ghost tour as well as their historical one, and saw a theatrical séance put on by Aidan Sinclair called Illusions of the Past. It was an absolute blast. We’ll make our way back to the Stanley at some point in the near future, maybe for our fifth anniversary, and hopefully next time, I’ll be the one to experience a ghostly presence at the one-hundred-and-ten-year-old hotel (my husband swears he felt a hand on his shoulder at our wedding, but when he turned around, expecting a family member to be standing over him, there was no one there)!

WH: That is pretty fucking cool, excuse my French. What is the witchiest thing about you (we’re all a little witchy)?

I’ve always felt a strong connection with animals and nature, to the point where I believe that everyone else in the world’s mood depends on whether they’ve seen any wildlife between waking up and having to walk into the decidedly unnatural habitat of corporate conference rooms and Lilliputian cubicles. I love birds and have numerous feeders in my yard year-round, with hummingbird feeders added in the spring and summer, and I get way too excited when the fat and happy bluebirds frequent a crooked, vine-choked tree just outside the window of my home office.

I had birds as a child, four parakeets and an African Grey parrot, and I’d love to have birds again, but they’d have to come from a rescue site or sanctuary. In an oft-repeated fantasy I have, I’m walking my dog, Maya, and we come across a poor little bird that’s fallen from its nest—a crow or raven, perhaps, or maybe an owl—and it mistakes me (or Maya, either will work in this scenario) as its mother. I’ve then no choice but to go about my life with this bird, now acting as my co-familiar along with Maya, on my shoulder, who chirps in my ear while I write and whom I carry through the world like the feathered queen that she is.

WH: I love that association between mood and proximity to nature. Who would be your favorite Addams Family character?

My favorite Addams Family character is Wednesday. A quick compilation of her best lines:

“Nobody gets out of the Bermuda Triangle, not even for a vacation. Everyone knows that.”

“This is my costume. I'm a homicidal maniac, they look just like everyone else.”

‘Gomez: “Children, why do you hate the baby?”

Pugsley: “We don't hate him. We just wanna play with him.”

Wednesday: “Especially his head.” ’

After many years of waitressing in my teens and twenties, I’ve mastered the art of saying one thing while thinking a different, much more honest thing. There may be a smile on my face, and the words that are coming out are cheerful and benign, but the internal monologue is 100% Wednesday Addams.

WH: Love it! How difficult do you feel the horror industry is for women to succeed in and stand out? Do you have any advice for aspiring female writers looking to enter the genre?

I’ve had nothing but great experiences within the horror industry thus far, from the awesome individuals I’ve met at workshops, cons, and in the indie publishing industry, to the support I’ve gotten from readers, reviewers, and other writers with the release of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked.

The best way to summarize my experience within the industry is as follows: a lot of my work deals with issues women face (or have faced in the past), including sexism, misogyny, fertility, struggles with motherhood, substance abuse and other mental health issues, fitting in/societal expectations, and marital strife, and despite writing about these issues (such as in “Red Room,” a story inspired by the particularly irritating phenomenon that woman are far more likely to be disbelieved by their doctors, partners, and even by relative strangers than men are), I’ve never been subjected to anything within the industry worth writing about.

As for standing out as a woman in horror, again, the response to SBSB has been wonderful. Readers, reviewers, and other authors have been incredible in their support, sharing reviews, excerpts, quotes, and highlights of the collection, and I’m endlessly grateful for it.

My advice for female writers looking to enter the genre is to go for it, and to be faithful to whatever it is you like to write. If you write horror romance with LGBTQ characters or vampire retellings of famous figures in history, fabulous! You do you, and there will always be someone interested in reading it, and always someone within the horror industry willing to support it.

WH: Good advice. What do you feel makes a horror story scary?

A horror story is scary any time characters readers are made to care for are put into situations that are, if not unique, then at least slight spins on old tropes. I found Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation scary, because I could relate to the biologist, and because the Southern Reach is the stuff of nightmares. NOS4A2 is scary because Vic McQueen was someone I could see myself being friends with, and I dreaded the thought of her ending up in that creepy amusement-park-on-acid known as Christmasland.

With my own stories, I try to focus equally on characterization and plot. Ray Bradbury said that “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Plot will come about if you focus on the characters acting in believable, interesting ways, but it doesn’t hurt to go back and make that snow your characters are running through beautiful and brilliant and pristine... to mold that snow into a terrifying ice beast or to stretch it out indefinitely, like the frozen tundra Mary Shelley introduces readers to Victor Frankenstein on. If I can accomplish this even a tiny portion as successfully as writers like Bradbury and Shelley, if I can have characters readers care for reacting to horrific, realistic situations, then I’ve written a short story or novel that I can be proud of.

WH: What is the most awesome thing happening in your life right now that you’d like to share with us?

The most awesome thing happening in my life right now is that I’ve recently embarked upon the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Before Stonecoast, I’d been enrolled in a different creative writing master’s degree program, an online Master’s in Liberal Arts as opposed to a low-residency Master’s in Fine Arts, one that didn’t place nearly as much emphasis on workshopping, and placed no emphasis at all on community, or even a reasonable facsimile of community (yes, it was online, but there were still mandatory on-campus visits and most classes were held via Zoom Video Conferencing, and so forging relationships through virtual office hours, online chat forums, email correspondences, and social media was not out of the question).

Stonecoast, on the other hand, as I’ve experienced it thus far, places a great deal more of an emphasis on workshopping, and on networking with individuals who are passionate about the craft of writing. My initial impression of Stonecoast was that it is an institution for which the whole is—somehow—greater than the sum of its parts, despite those ‘parts’ consisting of the most amazing writers and people. I’m really excited to be, at present, up to my ears in my first semester, and am greatly looking forward to the three semesters after that!

WH: That sounds amazing! Good luck with the next semesters! What’s next for you? We can’t wait to see what you have coming up!

I have a fair amount of forthcoming fiction and nonfiction this year, including a reprint of my story, “The Rest Will Be in Pieces” on Tales to Terrify, a new story that I cowrite with a great friend of mine and a wonderful writer, David Emery, called “The Devil’s Leash,” airing on Season Two of the new Horror Tales Podcast. I’ll have a new story out in Issue 4 of Outpost 28, planned for March of this year, and another reprint of a story called “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” on The Wicked Library. There have been a few delays in publication, but I have two stories coming out with Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, "Shark Minute” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, the first as part of a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tribute anthology, the second on The Simply Scary Podcast Network. And finally, I have two other stories coming out in unannounced anthologies, later in the year, and a nonfiction essay, “A Ghost is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” in a scholarly anthology of articles on Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill Houseseries.

After that, I hope to release either the novel I’ve been working on for the past two years, Coming Down Fast, or the new novel I’ve planned for my thesis at Stonecoast, which is a historical horror novel, the details about which I won’t say too much more.

WH: Yes, we are co-contributors for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. :) Can't wait for its release! Well, this is a lot of amazing content coming up, Christa. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, and for anyone wishing to follow Christa Carmen on her literary journey, her social media is below. Have a great Thursday!

* Website: www.christacarmen.com

* Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.com/Christa-Carmen/e/B01LNXO35A?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060

* Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15179583.Christa_Carmen

* Latest release: http://a.co/d/07MitUP

* Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christaqua

* Twitter: https://twitter.com/christaqua

* Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/christaqua/

Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in myriad anthologies, ezines, and podcasts, including Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, Third Flatiron’s Strange Beasties, and Tales to Terrify. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available now from Unnerving, and won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. You can find her online at www.christacarmen.com

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