A few years back I happened upon a novel called The Keeper by Sarah Langan. I was intrigued for several reasons. 1) this was a new horror author, and as a devoted lover of all things horror, I just had to check it out, and 2) Peter Straub, according to the blurb on the cover, really seemed to dig this new author. How could it go wrong?
The good news is, it didn’t go wrong. Sarah Langan turned out to be every bit as good as Peter Straub said she was, and went on to become one of my favorite authors of all time, so I was quite giddy when she agreed to do an interview for me. I love learning from people like Sarah. For more about her and her books, visit her at:
Q: What were some of your favorite books and movies growing up?
A: Oh, that’s a fun one. As a kid I loved the Dorrie The Little Witch series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Coombs), about a little girl in a coven, whose socks never match. Like Peanuts, she only ever sees her mom’s legs.
As I got older I stopped reading as much – except for Lloyd Alexander (The Foundling, The Book of Three, etc.). I couldn’t find much that appealed to my sensibilities until a friend in sixth grade handed me a copy of John Saul’s The God Project. From there, I read all of Saul, then King. Oates was a later discovery. Atwood, too. Straub I didn’t get to until college. McGrath was introduced to me by Michael Cunningham in graduate school. I still read most of those same authors, which makes me wonder if the genre needs some shaking up. Then again, maybe they’re just that good.
Movies? Night of the Living Dead!
Q: I read The Keeper a few years ago and loved it! What inspired that book?
A: I was in my twenties and half-crazy with angst, which is pretty palpable in the book. They were very bad times for me. A few good times, too.
The idea of exponential consumption as a practical economic model has always seemed absurd to me, and a lot of the book is about the people who get hurt by the American dream – a dream I still think is real, but which has a very dark side. Kind of like me!
Q: How many completed novels have you written?
A: I’ve published three, finished three. Got partials/drafts of two more. I stopped working as much when I had my first daughter three years ago, and am taking this year off from novel work with the birth of my second.
I love novel writing – it’s the thing I do best and care about most (except for my family). But it also takes up a lot of brain space—the same space that tends to get co-opted by baby hormones. I’m about 90% as smart, with 50% my normal energy. The way I write books (intensely, chewing, chewing until I get them right), that just doesn’t fly.
With the birth of my second (and last), I decided I wouldn’t find it. I’m getting back to writing slowly, with stories and scripts, which makes a lot more sense. Hopefully, for more reasons than just a few books, I don’t get hit by a car any time soon.
Q: What is it about horror that interests you most?
A: I think horror is honest in ways other fiction is not. It gets to the feelings inside people – their humanity. The plots themselves are ridiculous, but they’re not the point. The point is the people. The human condition. The point is figuring out what we care about, and how best to protect those things for the future.
Q: You are a three-time Bram Stoker Award winner. What does that feel like?
A: Pretty fucking good!
Q: For you personally, what is the most stressful part about writing?
A: I’m a perfectionist, and I tend to overwork things to the point where they’re crap. Then it stops being fun, which is lame, because I worked very hard to get here. I keep reminding myself of that, every time the neurotic bug creeps up. Sometimes it helps. The kids especially help, because I have to remember I’m not the center of the universe.
Q: Do you write outlines for your novels before you begin them?
A: I don’t, but ought to. I just finished a screenplay that started as an outline, and I found it a lot easier to write as a result. I guess it depends on how soon I need to turn it in to an editor – outlines make the work flow a lot faster, but they do tend to sand away nuance.
Q: Who is/are your hero/heroes?
A: Tess Gerristen and Liz Hand both carry themselves like they can handle anything thrown at them. They’re also nice people. Classy, I’d have to say. I tend to lash out when under stress, which is less classy.
Jack Ketchum has been a long-time friend and mentor. Both Peter Straub and his wife are a delight.
Q: What makes you laugh out loud?
A: Rodney Dangerfield, Louie CK, my kids, my husband, Homestar Runner.
Q: Of your novels, which one are you the most proud of?
A: All of them. They all mark moments in my life, and are all my best effort. I’d change nothing about them. Then again, I never read anything I’ve written, once it’s published. I walk away, and hope only that I keep getting to write books, and keep getting better, no matter how the trajectory looks from the outside.
Q: What do you think is your greatest strength as a writer?
A: When I’m feeling good and in a groove, I write things people can’t put down.
Q: What do you struggle with the most?
A: My own perfectionism. Self doubt. The gnawing someplace, that it’s all a dream.
Q: How many rejections did you get before someone signed you, and how did you handle being rejected?
A: I queried every agent in NYC twice over a period of five years, all with partials from The Keeper. So, about 100. Plus another 100-200 short story rejections. Which seriously adds up, back in the era of stamps.
The guy from Weird Tales sent me a hand-written two page rejection letter that practically foamed with rage, and which I left out on my parents kitchen table by accident. My mom read it and cried, that anyone would talk to me that way. Which tells you two important things: (1) my parents supported me, and without that, I’d never have gotten as far as my first short story. (2) people in the position to reject often suck.
I was signed by a film agent, Sarah Self, whom I met at an HWA chapter meeting. She hooked me up with an agent (several initially turned her down, even though she was highly esteemed – at the time, no one wanted horror). Jointly, they got my book sold.
Q: Would you like to see any of your novels become a movie?
A: Yes! For the money, please!
Q: Was there ever a moment when you felt you’d “arrived” as an author?
A: No. I’ll let you know.
Q: How did people respond when you first started writing horror?
A: They told me to stop writing it, and do something literary. Half decided to help anyway, once they saw I couldn’t be swayed. The other half threw up their hands and walked away, figuring I was a waste of time.
Q: Have you received a lot of criticism for being a horror writer, or do you feel that most people are pretty cool about it?
A: Who’s talking behind my back???
Q: What are some of the necessary qualities a writer must have, in your opinion, to be good?
A: A room with a door. The nerve.