Glenn Rolfe: Hi, Heather! Thanks for doing this interview with Share the Horror! Congratulations on your excellent first novel, Consumption, and an extra hell yeah! for making the preliminary Bram Stoker Award ballot for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. That’s a whole lotta awesome.
Heather Herrman: Thanks, Glenn! I’m really excited about it and very honored to be considered.
GR: Let’s talk about the book. How long did it take from first draft to final manuscript?
HH: The first draft was completed in about seven months. I was very disciplined about writing 2,000 words a day because, frankly, it was the only thing keeping me sane. My husband and I had just moved across country from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, MN, in the middle of the recession, and despite (or maybe because of) my multiple, incredibly useful humanities degrees, I couldn’t find a job to save myself. I finally found an amazing VISTA position with the Minnesota Literacy Council, with whom I then worked for another four years, but my job didn’t start until noon, so I had the morning free to finish the novel. After that, I got an agent in about a month by sending out about sixty or so queries. And then… nothing. Nada. This was 2009, before the Walking Dead, before the zombie craze, and at that point my book was about 145,000 words long. A tome. And there weren’t any publishers willing to take a chance on that for a first novel. Fast-forward four years to my agent sending it out again, Hydra picking it up, and me completely revising the novel to cut about 50,000 words. I still mourn my earlier version, but I think what it is now is what it needed to be to get published as a first novel, and I’m really proud of it.
GR: I always wonder what it would be like to sneak a peek at the original versions of certain novels. I bet Consumption would be great. Wonder what else you did to this town?Why did you bring this evil to poor little Cavus?
HH: Dude, Cavus was asking for it. JK. But seriously, I am very intrigued by the transformations small middle-America towns have experienced in the last few decades. I grew up in farm country, spending a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm in the small town of Bennington, Kansas. And even from when I was a kid to now, I’ve seen so much change, specifically in the way farming happens. For example, I just did a harvest ride along with my uncle, who still farms and is now, in fact, one of the bigger farmers in the state. He said that whereas before his dad—my grandfather—used to work from dawn ’til dusk during harvest, now they worked all night sometimes, because technology provided lights and automated steering to make this possible. This meant that for farmers, there was no longer any natural “end of the work day;” the natural cycle had been shifted. He and I talked about how this was a really hard thing for a farmer and a farmer’s family. But technology had to happen, and it is, in a lot of ways, a good thing—farms can produce much higher yields than they did before. However, at what cost? Because now we’re talking about mono-crops with giant yields and what struck me is that even though I grew up in the middle of farm country, when I come back home I can’t eat any of the food that the farmers are growing. All of the food in restaurants is flown or trucked in. This—along with small farms disappearing and with them their lifestyle—seemed to beg the question, if we aren’t consuming what we grow, what are consuming? And obviously I mean that on more than a literal level. What is filling what the disappearing farming lifestyle left behind? And thus Cavus was born. I didn’t set it in Kansas because I needed the mental distance to write about it honestly. Cavus is actually based on a small town in Montana that I drove through on the move to Minnesota. I can’t for the life of me remember which one, just that it had this incredibly creepy energy.
GR: One of the aspects I really enjoyed was the bizarre creatures your Feeders become when they slip their human disguise and take form. That, among other things, reminded me of Bentley Little. More than just horror or monsters, The Feeders (or you) put these really macabre images in my head. And it’s always alongside something ordinary or something that appears ordinary. I think there’s a scene when John is walking back to Bunny’s and there’s this little girl, and thanks to all of the previous freaky imagery, we’re sort of on the edge of our seats to see if it’s really a little girl or something else. I loved that. I’m assuming Little is an influence for you?
HH: Man, it’s so interesting you say that because a few people have made that comparison. I’m completely flattered, but I don’t think he is an influence that I realized until hearing people say so. I read several Little books in the past years, and going back to think about those books, I think they really did creep into my sub-conscious, especially some of those gorgeously disturbing images he creates (I’m thinking of the dead in The Walking). Anyway, if asked I’d put King or Katherine Anne Porter as immediate influences, but I wonder if the more powerful influences are sometimes the ones buried in the deepest depths, the true raw stuff that just kind of oozes out when you write.
GR: I love Little, so it is definitely a compliment. Of those Little books that you have read, any stick out to you?
HH: As I said before, I loved The Walking. The Summoning is also great. In both of these books you get monsters that go beyond the traditional, which I really appreciate. A vampire isn’t just a vampire, and a zombie isn’t just a zombie. Anyway, thanks to you, I’m going to go back now and try to read all Bentley’s work at a stretch, which is something one of my old professors did with any author he really liked. He’d take a summer and work his way through an author’s entire publishing catalogue, no matter how deep it was. He said this was the best way to get to know an author as well as learn from them as a writer. I’ve only done this a few times, but I think Bentley and I are about to spend the summer together. I hope he likes tequila.
GR: I thought the factory bit, these mother fuckers getting ready to unleash this to the rest of the world was scary as hell. I know King brings religion and God into a lot of his works. You used the communion wafer in here as that potential weapon to take down the world. Is there a religious stance going on here? Or is that just where the story demanded to go?
HH: Did my mom put you up to this? Seriously, she just gave me a talking to about those poor church-goers and their communion wafers a few nights ago. For whatever reason she and her nursing friends have decided to read Consumption for their book club (god love them), and my mom wants to be prepared with an answer about why her daughter is going to hell.
Truthfully, I find much to loathe and admire about organized religion, and I think the communion wafers were just my way of exploring that. Any organized institution begs corruption of power, and religion has had some splendid examples of this. At the same time, you most often find your Everyman there, trying to do good, trying to find something to believe in. For me, those communion wafers harkened back to the consumption theme. As in, what are we consuming beyond the physical food we’re eating? Communion wafers are symbolic, and they’re meant to represent something holy and good, and yet what if even this isn’t safe from globalized capitalism in its greediest form? In what ways do we already infuse religion with politics and use it to sway the opinions of believers from all walks of life? Which is not to say that I am not a believer, or that I don’t think religion is important or doesn’t produce some very good things like charity and a structured belief system that can be a strong foundation for families and communities. But. And. To believe in such a system is to question it. And if you can question it and still find belief, if you can step outside of your glass bubble where everyone thinks the same thing as you and believes the same things you do, and still find a way to bring that belief to life, then, I think, you have something truly worthwhile.
GR: How are things going with Hydra? How is their marketing team and your overall experience with the publisher been?
HH: Hydra is incredible. Truly. Sarah Peed and Ashleigh Heaton in particular have worked really hard on getting the book out there and making sure it was all it could be. I certainly have had to do a lot of my own publicizing (as do all authors these days)—for instance, I came up with the idea of a blog video to go with Consumption’s release—but any time I had something like that I wanted to do and asked for their help they were completely on board. I also did a Mary Shelley b-day party on Facebook with two other Hydra authors whom I really admire—Michael M. Hughes and Adam Cesare. That was a lot of fun. What I really appreciate about Hydra is the level of talent that they bring in. I think the books that they have out there and are currently curating are top-notch.
GR: Growing up in Kansas, are there any scary incidents from your youth that may have led you down this path?
HH: The usual childhood stuff, I guess. As do all kids, I experienced some rough patches growing up, and I remember one of my earliest horror books was King’s It. I was in sixth or seventh grade and borrowed it from my aunt’s house (she didn’t know), and it scared the shit out of me. But more than that, it comforted me. It took me out of any bad stuff happening in the real world and let me not just escape, but believe in the importance of small actions and small people. Which I think really good horror does. By which I don’t mean handing us a neat good and evil dichotomy on a platter, but forcing us to find the grayness and walk within it. As for any particular scary events happening, I think its more landscape for me. As I said before, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm, and at night I would go outside and listen to the coyotes, and there was such beauty and wildness there, that I just knew there was so much more than what we were seeing. I still find a magic when I go back there. And also my friend’s basement was completely haunted, so there’s that.
GR: I know that February is Women in Horror month. With all of this blow up over the Oscars and whether or not African-Americans are getting hosed or not, I was wondering your feelings on Woman in Horror vs. Men in Horror. I saw actress Stacy Dash, who happens to be black, on Fox News talking about how having channels like BET and the BET Awards where you can only be nominated if you’re black is a double standard and that they need to do away with those if African Americans are going to try and play this card. I know this isn’t as deep rooted an issue as race, but some do bring discrimination into it. Personally, I think ladies can be twice as vicious as guys, but WiHM did make me look at how many male authors I was reading vs. how many woman authors. It was predominantly male for me. It did convince me to purchase books by Shirley Jackson, Rena Mason, and Mercedes Yardley. Does WiHM mean anything to you? Do you see it as something that’s necessary or not? Is there a problem in our industry?
HH: First let me say I think it’s really badass of you to actively take a look at your reading list and think proactively about what that meant and how you could change it. Kudos.
Actually, inequality of race and gender are old bedfellows, going all the way back to suffragettes and abolitionists. So I think talking about them in tandem is gonna happen regardless—though obviously each also contains its own, complex issues. But to your specific question, I’ve said a lot of things lately about women in horror, and posted a video about the lack of women on the Stoker ballot. That video kept me up a few nights—I posted it right when the ballot came out, and we were on vacation, and I kept second-guessing myself and thinking that I should have polished it more, or said things in a clearer way so that men didn’t feel like I was specifically attacking them, but at the end of the day I just needed to say something and get it out there without overly-censoring myself which, I think, is a real danger for women. And honestly, almost everyone in the horror community—especially HWA members, have been incredibly supportive. They were and are already talking about the issue and recognizing a need for change. I admire a lot of what they’ve done with, for example, recruiting more women for specific chapters and creating a Diversity Committee, but I think we’re all on the same page in saying there’s still a lot of work to be done. When you’ve got the Stokers preliminary awards ballot with over 70 percent men on it, there’s a problem. Let’s not sugar-coat it.
By and large I think horror readers and writers are one of the smartest groups out there—people who haven’t maybe always fit in elsewhere but find a home in horror. Horror can either reinforce the status quo or explode it, and obviously, at least for me, it’s the latter possibility that’s the most interesting. Which would, in my mind, dictate a need for inclusiveness in storytelling. You’re going to see the exciting stuff happening in genre first— we already are—and that’s why I think horror and specifically the HWA is an important place to honor this.
But, you know, I’m new to this game. I should just make sure that’s out there. Plenty of other women horror authors have already taken up the cause of getting great work by women published and noticed. HWA president Lisa Morton comes to mind. So I don’t want to have the audacity to come in an presume to speak for all women. It’s a complicated topic, and we’re all just figuring it out, but we’ve got to figure it out together. And to answer your specific question, yeah, I’m all for Women in Horror month. Do I wish we didn’t need it? Sure. Is there a danger that it boxes women into a little, safe corner where they can just eat crumpets and drink their tea? Absolutely. But anything that brings more women’s fiction to the public is fine by me.
In regards to Stacey Dash and her comments—when she said what she said, I think you also have to look at the context in which she said it. Which means thinking about who her audience was, and what the benefit vs. the risk of saying what she said might be. She is absolutely entitled to her own opinion, and discrimination of race or gender, while tied in many ways, are also their own very complicated issues. I would never presume to know what a person of color, for example, might be experiencing. But I will say that in terms of gender and writing, we’ve got a problem that is deeply systematic. I would never say let’s just throw more women’s names on the Stoker Ballot, for example, because that’s not going to solve anything. We all want work based on merit—there’s never a question of that. But we need to think about the deeper issues—like how do we even get women’s work and voices to the table in the first place and, in my mind, perhaps more importantly, deeper into the publishing and literary world so that more of the behind the scenes decisions such as what books are being published and reviewed are in the hands of a much more diverse membership. This of course goes for race and gender both.
There are so many stories that need to be told, and giving voice to them will only make horror, and all genres better. What we absolutely don’t need to do, however, is to demonize one group of people—let’s say white men—because that gets us absolutely nowhere. And some of the biggest advocates for increasing women’s recognition in horror come from men. But what we do need to do is have a dialogue that goes beyond the usual finger-pointing or victim vs. man in power that we’re so used to having. This is a nuanced issue and everyone, including men, should feel that their story is valid. We may, however, need to do more thinking about what that actual story is and the inherent privilege (of which I also as a white, cisgender, hetero woman enjoy) that entails. But this doesn’t have to mean a winner/ loser situation. It’s like thinking, as an author, that for me to do well, somebody else has to fail. When in truth, we both do better if we both succeed. The more books out there being valued, the wider the audiences reached and the stronger the market.
GR: I do my Share the Horror page partly because I love to bring things to people’s attention, partly as a way to pay it forward, and basically share any knowledge that I have or that of my interviewees. You’ve done some great YouTube videos offering up advice to writers. Is that kind of the same deal? Is it something you enjoy doing? (You guys can check her YouTube Page HERE )
HH: I love the concept of Share the Horror. A sincere thank you because you are truly bringing a much needed resource to the genre. And yeah, that is, I guess, what I like to do with my videos and blog in regard to writing in general. Not that I have it all figured out, far from it, but I have taught it a lot and had some great teachers myself, and so when I start thinking about a topic in my own writing, I’m interested in putting it out there just to enter the ever-evolving dialogue of what it means to be a writer
GR: What’s next from Heather Herrman?
HH: Currently I’m about 3/4 of the way through a new manuscript with the tentative title ’Til Death. It features a failing couple at a marriage retreat that also happens to harbor a serial killer. This book has been a lot of fun for me, and whereas Consumption tackled a lot of big ideas, this one has allowed me to cut loose a little and just enjoy the blood.
GR: Okay, it’s time for some rapid fire!Give me three of your favorite scary movies:
HH: The Descent, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and High Tension.
GR: Name a book you got so caught up in that it made you yell out loud:
HH: Not yell but just kind of put it down with a sigh and think motherfucker, I will never be able to write like this, how did you do it and why didn’t I think of it first? That was Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. Oh! And also the short-story “The Debutante” by Leonora Carrington. Go read it right now. The BEST, gorgeously insane horror story ever. Now, if you’re talking about throwing a book in anger, pretty much any book every written for a child under two. It’s called iambic pentameter, people. Learn it. And dear god can someone please write something that I can read 500 times and not vomit? I think a children’s book line penned exclusively by horror writers is definitely needed. Maybe featuring titles like, Even Zombies Potty. I’ll keep working on it.
GR: An album that you own that you don’t want anyone to know you own?
HH: Hey, I’ll claim them all. No shame here. Shakespeare Sisters, maybe? I busted out “Stay” at a New Year’s party we were hosting last year and had to by dragged off the living room table with boos for my rendition. I like a lot of classical music as well because I used to play cello, so there’s some pretty over-the-top tear your coattails and bleed your suffering stuff like Rachmaninoff in my collection.
GR: You have a day completely to yourself. You’re not allowed to write. What are you going to do instead?
HH: First I’m going to get outdoors some how some way, maybe a quick game of basketball, and then I’m going to hit up a brewery. I am a big fan of small-batch local beer, and there’s such exciting stuff happening with it right now. Surly, though not so small anymore, will always hold a special place in my heart. Since this is fantasy, I would also like a giant truffle (fungus, not chocolate) to eat like an apple while this is happening. And of course capping all that off with a scary movie while eating popcorn with milk-duds (and you gotta put the milk duds in the popcorn) couldn’t hurt. I realize I haven’t mentioned my kid once here, poor little dude, but I’m gonna assume he is with a babysitter who is exponentially more fun than I could ever be. Oh, and there’s definitely some reading going on in there somewhere. Maybe during the Surly-drinking/truffle-eating phase? Okay, wait. Can we pretend my liver and stamina are still 21? Because then I’d throw a live show of some sort in there. Maybe catch a band at the Slowdown or something and stare creepily at the lead singer while dreaming about what it would be like if I could actually sing. But if I do that I’m going to also need some late night pizza from Gumby’s, and they don’t deliver to Omaha, so…. Also, this is sounding like a lot of work. Let me just revise and say Read. Beer. Truffle. Movie. Perfect day. Done.
GR: Thanks for doing this, Heather. Good luck with Consumption and the Stokers.
HH: Thanks, Glenn!
Find Heather at her official site: Heather Herrman
And go buy CONSUMPTION!