Welcome to the six hundred and sixty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with horror and ‘bizarro’ writer Violet LeVoit – had to be for the 666th, didn’t it! 🙂 A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Please note that because of the genre that Ms LeVoit writes, this interview may not be suitable for more sensitive writers… so close your eyes at the appropriate moments. 🙂
Morgen: Hello, Voilet. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Violet: So the thing I tell people right from the start when they want to know “How did you become a horror writer?” is that I was in labor for ninety hours. It happened because I was trying for a homebirth and my baby was stuck and I ended up in the hospital after being in labor for three days. And then after that experience I had PTSD, which I’ve found out since is actually not uncommon among women who’ve had traumatic birth experiences, and I had a nervous breakdown and a near suicide attempt and my marriage fell apart. (My kid is fine, though.)
I’d been working as a journalist for a while, both in television as a producer for the PBS affiliate in Baltimore, and in print at the Baltimore City Paper, and I’d been writing fan fiction as a hobby, but after that horrendous experience something changed in my writing. I couldn’t stop returning to the same themes of the body turning against itself – which, I knew as a film critic, is what the director David Cronenberg maintains is the basic theme of all horror – especially the specific ways having a female body makes women more vulnerable and at the mercy of their own biology. So I wrote stories about bulimic lesbian werewolves, pregnant robots, and disenchanted mothers skinning their infants and turning them into handbags. I also wrote stories about men trying to top Genghis Khan by donating to every sperm bank in the world, and other men contracting protozoa that swim up their urethra and make them menstruate.
Most people ask authors “How do you get your ideas?” People ask me “Why do you get your ideas?”
The other thing about me is that, while I’m currently living very happily in Philadelphia, I’m originally from Baltimore, which means I have a tolerance for a certain kind of gallows-humor insanity that people from other cities don’t have. It’s hard to describe this insanity, but imagine Southern eccentricity mixed with a morbid Appalachian murder ballad doom, and throw in a hit of PCP. There is really no way to sugarcoat it: if you are from Baltimore, you are either very insane, or slightly insane. “Not insane” is not an option. So it did not occur to me that perhaps editors did not want to read stories about menstruating men and bulimic werewolves. It wasn’t until I started submitting stories to bizarro publications that I found my audience.
Morgen: You have to write what you enjoy writing about. I do tend to write ‘dark’ although it’s nowhere near as dark. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Violet: I started out writing romance, believe it or not. I can hardly believe it, either, because I don’t read romance. But I got my start writing “slash fiction”, which is a sexually explicit subset of fan fiction, usually about two male characters coupling. I wrote plenty of X-Men and Star Wars slash, and shared it on message boards, and made friends with other slash writers.
When my friend Katrina Strauss started making the switch over from slash to professional erotic romance writer, I thought “heck, how hard can it be?” Quite a bit harder, as my first novel Hotel Butterfly took three years to complete and my second romance is now in publishing limbo.
I see now that romance was never my genre (the happy ending requirement always tripped me up), but it was a great place to start testing out some of the explicit themes I was too timid to put in fiction yet. Writing explicit sex scenes again and again made me a fearless writer. Making the switch to writing horror and bizarro was easy, because I didn’t know I was doing it. It took writers like John Skipp (who, incidentally, has been my tireless benefactor / cheerleader, to whom I’m eternally grateful) to point out “You know those stories that are too yeccch to sell to all the places you’ve been trying to sell them? It’s because they’re bizarro stories. Send them over to me!” I did, and now I still write about sex and the body, except now I make people say “Ewww!” instead of “Ooooh!”
Incidentally, I know some writers (like Anne Rice) have famously forbidden fanfic to be written about their characters, but I’m so grateful for my start in fanfic communities that I’ve vowed to pay the favor forward and allow other new writers to write what they like about my characters, as long as no money’s changing hands. (I’m also curious to see what my characters get up to when I’m not watching!)
Morgen: I’d love to know that about mine. 🙂 What have you had published to-date?
Violet: I’ve published an aforementioned erotic romance (Hotel Butterfly, Loose Id) and a book of short stories entitled I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). I’ve also had short stories included in several horror anthologies like Psychos, Shapeshifters, and Demons published by Black Dog and Leventhal. I also have another writing life as a film critic and cultural commentator. I still write reviews and features for the Baltimore City Paper (where I also have a column about the intersection of feminism and pop culture entitled “Pop Smear”), and I also write about film for Turner Classic Movies and this great media blog called Press Play. (An article I wrote there about Spider-Man’s Jewish roots got retweeted by Roger Ebert. That totally made my year.)
Morgen: Isn’t Twitter great. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Violet: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by the covers of my books. I’ve worked with some very talented illustrators and designers and I prefer to surrender to their good judgement. My background is in fine arts and I’m very attuned to the way things look, right down to the font on the page. Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you certainly can judge how much regard the publisher has for that book.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day?
Violet: I do not have the stamina of a Nora Roberts who can treat writing as a 9-to-5, put-your-butt-in-the-chair-and-finish-a-book vocation. I’m much more like how I heard Joni Mitchell describe why she alternates albums with paintings: “Crop rotation”. I would like to write every day, but I would also like to exercise, play the accordion draw, take long walks, and read. I’ve come to realize that stepping away from the laptop and absorbing myself in other tasks is an equally valuable part of my process. It’s only at those times that my intuition can percolate up the revelations I need to find where to go next in my story.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Violet: Most of my stories start with an opening line. When I’m lucky, these lines just come to me, and very rarely do they appear in the final draft any different than the way I first imagined them. Whenever one strikes me, I quickly scribble it down and then, when I’ve got a chance to sit down, I write a rough draft and start to uncover what happens next. I would like to be able to confidently plot a novel from beginning to end right from the beginning, but I also think that would ruin the fun for me.
The other way I’ve been very lucky as a writer is that sometimes I’ll dream entire stories from beginning to end. It feels like cheating when I wake up and scribble it down and boom, I’ve got another story. I’m a very prolific dreamer. I usually have about four vivid, multi-act dreams a night, and sometimes I have lucid dreams. (I’ve even done a quadruple Inception, where I had a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream.) It makes sense that my work has a surreal quality, because Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel also revered their dreams.
Morgen: You mentioned your characters earlier, do you have a method for creating them, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Violet: The one resource I use all the time for making characters is the Social Security Administration’s public database for most popular baby names for any year. (http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames) I use it all the time to make sure I’m naming my characters correctly for their age. (There are few octogenarians named “Kaylee.”)
Beyond that, making characters is an extremely instinctual process. I don’t feel like I make them, really. My characters come to me fully formed when they’re ready to be written about. I don’t have any strategies for inventing them, like writing out a chart of what their favorite foods are or anything. If I’m really stuck for what they’d do or say I’ll walk around my office talking like them, moving like them, pretending to be them. But that rarely happens.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Violet: I edit as I go. I tried writing it all out in a “vomit draft”, where you get everything on the paper and sort it out later, but that’s too imprecise for me. I compare writing a story to building a house of cards. You’ve got to have each layer steady and balanced before you build on top of it. I don’t want to be building on a messy foundation. I make sure each paragraph is exactly the way I want it before moving on to the next one. The difference between my first and second draft is usually less than 20%.
Morgen: Wow. That’s good going, although you put the hard work in at the beginning. Do you have to do much research?
Violet: I can’t help myself from doing research. I have to tear myself away, very often, because I can just research for fun all day long. That’s my weakness as a fiction writer. At some point you have to say “Enough, you know how long cheetahs gestate, how many shots a .44 Magnum holds, and how many white power groups there are in the Pacific Northwest. Now just write the damn story.”
Morgen: <laughs> What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Violet: I find it much easier to write in the third person when I’m writing female characters, because something about the first person is too raw, too autobiographical. I much prefer leaving the first person to male characters, especially completely reprehensible male characters, because something about their otherness allows me to write the most outrageous pathological things and give voice to the darkest corners of my psyche through them, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. However, lately I’ve been writing female characters in the first person, and it feels like I’m entering interesting new territory.
Morgen: Do you write any poetry?
Violet: I have written poetry as a teenager and in my early 20s, but I think my mind has changed too much to write poetry anymore. Poetry requires a certain fearless nimbleness that I’ve lost in the process of developing the more plodding skills of a novelist. It’s like being an athlete: you train for strength, or flexibility, but one will lose out over the other.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Violet: They’ll only never see light of day because they’re incomplete. I’m pretty fearless subject-matter wise, but I do have a handful of not-quite-there novels. Those are heart-breaking. Going so far with a book, loving the characters, loving the language, and then realizing you can’t find a way to solve its contradictions is like going through a breakup with someone you love but can’t live with.
Having said that, I try to make a habit of completing what I’ve started. That’s more important than writing every day. If I start a book in earnest, I am going to wrestle it to the ground one way or another.
Morgen: I can guess the answer to this but have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Violet: I have had PLENTY of rejections. At least a decade’s worth, and probably more. I used to deal with them by feeling angry and sorry for myself. I didn’t realize I wasn’t a good enough writer yet. Then, once I became a good enough writer, I got rejections because of my subject matter, or because I was writing between genres, or outside of genre. Now I don’t get rejections as often because I know the market I’m submitting to better, and I make sure I put my work places where it will be appreciated. When I still get rejections, I take a deep breath and think of that Smiths song where they say “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.” Then I go send it out again.
Morgen: The best thing to do. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Violet: The hardest part for me of being a writer is all the inactivity. I’m an intensely active, physical person and the amount of immobility required to sit in a chair and type drives me crazy. So I make sure to get lots of physical activity when I’m not writing.
Other than that, the life of a writer really suits me. It’s all the pleasure of being a film director without having to deal with actors, locations, budgets, and studios.
What’s surprised me the most about being a writer is that there was no transformative moment where I became a writer. I thought there would be some grand “At last, I have made it” coronation moment – maybe when I got my first book published, or when I first saw my name in print. And those moments were exciting, sure, but the next day it’s just you and the words on paper, again. Becoming a “writer” is not like becoming promoted – it’s more like committing yourself to a daily practice, and a certain set of priorities for yourself. The bad thing about that is that it never quite feels like you’ve arrived. But the good thing about that is that you don’t have to wait for someone else’s benchmark to become a writer. You can be one right now if you decide to be.
Morgen: You can, absolutely. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Violet: The first advice I would give them is to stop calling themselves “aspiring” writers. Writers are people who write. If you write, you’re a writer – even if it’s not good, even if you’re “just” a student, even if you haven’t been paid or published yet. If you stop calling yourself “aspiring” it stops being a hobby and starts being a calling. And when it becomes a calling, you give it the prominence in your life it deserves. Beyond that, I like what William Gibson said on the subject: “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”
Morgen: I watch very little TV (ITV3 has come cracking late night crime dramas) but have a Freeview box linked to my computer screen so I can multi-task. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Violet: I would cook. That’s my great pleasure in life, cooking for an appreciative audience. I would invite three deceased Baltimore icons: Edgar Allan Poe, Divine, and Johnny Eck. We would eat steamed crabs and drink Natty Boh, of course, and then I would buy each of them a lemon stick for dessert. (A lemon stick is a Baltimore street fair treat where you stick this special kind of chalky peppermint stick into a halved lemon and suck the juice up through the stick like a straw.)
Morgen: Nice! Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Violet: I live by Mark Twain’s maxim “ I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. ”
Morgen: <laughs> What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Violet: That’s a difficult question because we’re moving out of a small golden blip of an era for creative people where their work was protected. It’s never been easy to make a living from your art, but these days with the dissemination of digital media it’s possible to never pay for music, for movies, and now for books. I’m of two minds about this. Naturally I want to be paid for my work (and the flip side of that is I want to pay other creative people for their work.) But I think about how 100 years ago practically every home owned a piano, and someone in that house could play it. Music was something everyone did, not something you bought. Maybe art is something that’s better to be free, because then it’s taken out of the hands of famous “experts” and returned to everybody. I don’t really have an answer for this contradiction.
Morgen: It’s well known that writers are expected to write for free which in a way is a shame because it’s our time just as much as it’s a plumber’s when he fixes a leak but sometimes we have to do that to build up our CV. Great chatting with you today. Thank you, Violet, for joining me.
I then invited Violet to include an extract of her writing and this from “Warm, In Your Coat” published in Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within (Black Dog and Leventhal)…
The furs hung in clear plastic like sides of beef, a snaking monorail of corpses. Otter and fox, rabbit and beaver, plush pelts sealed like supermarket meat. She ground her jaw, some secret reflex slavering for the kill as she tore frantic hands through easy pickings. Faun, sienna, warm black like coffee. Then white fur flashed in the moonlight and she gasped. She tore off the plastic like a lover’s shirt. The fur’s guard hairs were sharp and wild and scratched her face as she buried her nose in its rich nap. She breathed in as if drowning. It smelled like ice and deep woods. It smelled like spotlights and face powder. It smelled like crème fraiche and rosewater, and the secret within.
Hello, the coat said. Put me on. Become me.
She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press).
Violet lives in Philadelphia.
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