Thursday, February 18, 2010

Interview with Author Sarah Langan

Sarah Langan’s first novel The Keeper (2006) was a New York Times Editor’s Pick. Her second novel The Missing (2007), won the Bram Stoker Award for outstanding novel, was a Publisher’s Weekly favorite book of the year, and an IHG outstanding novel nominee. Her third and novel, Audrey’s Door, was just released. She’s published about a dozen short stories, one of which won the 2008 Bram Stoker Award.

She’s currently at work on her fourth novel, Empty Houses, a young adult series called Kids, and her Master’s in Environmental Toxicology from New York University. Langan lives in a quasi-haunted house in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, screenwriter/director/children’s book author JT Petty, their daughter Clementine, and a rabbit named Lorraine.

Fatally Yours: What does horror mean to you?

Sarah Langan: For me, it’s a feeling of unease about things society ordinarily considers innocuous. Good horror informs its readers, and lets them know what they ought to fear, as well as what’s not so scary, after all. To me, Brazil is horror. Catch 22 is horror. Fahrenheit 451 is horror. They reflect back to us the world in which we inhabit, only from a different and more terrifying perspective.

Fatally Yours: How did you fall in love with the horror genre? 

Sarah Langan: I’ve always liked hyperbole and I’m a drama queen. Why moan about something, when you could scream? Also, as a kid, I always loved the possibility of magic that you get from kids’ books, and the only place that magic persists is in horror.

Fatally Yours: How and when did you start writing about horror?

Sarah Langan: I’ve always written what I wanted, and let other people put labels like horror or supernatural thriller or chick lit or literary on it. To believe your own label is to trap yourself into a box, and stop learning.

Fatally Yours: Why do you choose to write about horror as opposed to other genres? Would you ever write in another literary genre? 

Sarah Langan: I didn’t choose horror so much as I’m drawn to dark subjects and I deal with them in a realistic way. For some, that means I write horror. I’m currently working on a dark fantasy series, and I’ve written what’s considered straight literary stuff, too. What they’ve all got in common is a fascination with the macabre.

Fatally Yours: What sub-genres in horror (vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc.) are you sick of? What sub-genres do you want to see more of?

Sarah Langan: I think if the story is good and well-told, the vehicle (vampire, zombies, werewolves) doesn’t matter. Audiences like it, and it’s fun to play with the old myths, so I’ve got no problem with any of them. I do wish people would stop mistaking me for an author of stories about sexy vampires and the sexy lady detectives/waitresses/school girls who love them, though. They’re fun stories, but not at all what I do. All that said, werewolves could use some reinvention.

Fatally Yours: Why do you think the horror genre has been primarily male-dominated?

Sarah Langan: Lots of women have made names for themselves in horror. It became male-dominated in the 70s and 80s, probably because horror got defined as King, Straub, and Barker (all deserving of every good thing said about them), and the offshoot authors from that wave often depicted ultra violence, particularly against women. So, women kept writing fiction, but their books got packaged differently so that their potential audiences didn’t mistake what they wrote for ultra violence or rape porn.  Now that’s changing, and paranormal romance is a big part of the horror genre. There’s a middle ground between romance and ultra-violence that a lot of readers don’t know about, and I think that’s where the most interesting work is and has always been happening: I’d read Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best anthologies to get a taste of that, and from the favorite stories a reader finds there, go out and buy the novels and collections written by those same authors.

Fatally Yours: What elements can female authors bring to the horror genre that are lacking in males’ perspectives?

Sarah Langan: Good writing is gender and genre blind.

Fatally Yours: Do you feel women authors in horror get the proper recognition when compared to their male counterparts?

Sarah Langan: Well, I know that booksellers can’t ever figure out where to stock my fiction because I’m a woman, and it’s not romance, but the cover isn’t bloody either, so my work often gets stocked nowhere, which kind of sucks. But that happens to a lot of writers for lots of reasons, and isn’t gender-specific. I’ve also benefited from my gender because less women write straight horror, so I got more attention (both positive and negative) when my first novel The Keeper was released.

The genre pool is very small, and many of us know each other. I mostly wish women would support each other more, the way men do. There’s something called the narcissism of nearness, in which you hold the familiar in contempt, and I think it applies to horror writers. From the outside, we all seem the same, and should for logical reasons, get along and help each other out. But from the inside, we create tiny distinctions that to us, seem huge.

Fatally Yours: As a woman who writes about horror, have you found it harder to be taken seriously in a genre that seems to be dominated by males? 

Sarah Langan: No. I don’t take bullshit.

Also, the fact that most other horror writers are men doesn’t mean much. The editors (and marketing people) at publishing houses have the power, and they’re mostly women. Also, more women buy books than men.

The perception within horror that men have the power is wrong, and perpetuated by people who are misinformed. When a male editor from a small press tells me I’m cute, or acts inappropriately toward me at a convention, I don’t get upset, and think that everybody in the industry is sexist. I remember his name, and make a mental note never to work with him.

Fatally Yours: Since you’ve been involved with the horror genre, have you noticed an increase in women becoming involved with the genre, whether they be fans or writers?

Sarah Langan: Yeah, horror in general has gotten bigger, and I think that’s great. My only worry is that editors and marketing people will publish anything about a vampire or zombie because they’re unfamiliar with the genre, and assume blood is the formula for success. That won’t win long-term fans who will endure past the fad. I don’t want quality dark fiction to get overlooked by the boom.

Fatally Yours: Do you feel that other people view women as being “soft” and not able to endure horror as well as men? How do you fight this stereotypical view?

Sarah Langan: We push ten-pound babies out of our bodies; we can handle a little blood and guts.

Fatally Yours: What women in horror do you admire?

Sarah Langan: Ellen Datlow, Elizabeth Massie, Liz Hand, Tannith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Sarah Pinborough, Alexandra Sokoloff, Rhodi Hawk, Deborah LeBlanc, Cherie Priest, Kelly Link, Gemma Files—and lots, lots more!

Fatally Yours: What inspires, influences and motivates you to keep writing about the macabre?

Sarah Langan: I honestly just sit down, think about character, and go from there. The newspaper inspires me—the world is pretty screwed up. Also fun for ideas are science magazines. Neurology is pretty awesome.

Fatally Yours: What advice would you give women who want to become involved in the horror genre?

Sarah Langan: The same I’d give men: a writer writes. Don’t get drunk at conventions, no matter who tells you it’s cool. It’s dumb. If some schmuck treats you like a cocktail waitress, walk away. Believe in yourself enough to know you don’t need him.

Fatally Yours: What has been your best experience while working in the horror community? What’s the worst?

Sarah Langan: I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through the horror community and am grateful to it. They’re my people, and where I feel most at home. We like the same movies, we have the same sense of humor. I feel at home, and understood, when I’m around fellow horror writers.

The worst I can say is that I wish the community as a whole aimed a little higher. When somebody wants to publish your story but not pay you for it, that’s bad news. When they want to publish your novel, and you’re supposed to pay them, that’s really bad news. Why not hold out for something better? It’s hard work and takes a dog’s age, but every door that closes has to open eventually, if you try hard and long enough. Maybe you’ll even become a better writer along the way.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with trying to scare the crap out of somebody, and trying to write something that will be remembered for decades or more, too. I’m not saying I do both, but I try. And that’s important.

Fatally Yours: Who are your favorite horror authors and what are your favorite horror novels?

Sarah Langan: I’ve been bad this year, and haven’t read a lot of genre. But last year:

The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

This isn’t horror, but it’s fantastic, and I’m a little jealous: The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Fatally Yours: What was the last good book in the horror genre that you read?

Sarah Langan: Well, this is more dystopian, but I loved Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Best book I’ve read in years.

Fatally Yours: What are your goals for yourself within the horror genre?

Sarah Langan: I’d like to keep writing, and getting better, and getting published. I don’t care what the label of what I produce is, so long as it finds its audience, and is honest.

Find more info on Sarah Langan at:

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