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Interview: Gwendolyn Kiste and I discuss The Rust Maidens, Cleveland, the ’80s, Body Horror, and Fairy Tales. #LOHF

Today I welcome Bram Stoker nominated Gwendolyn Kiste to talk about her new novel The Rust Maidens and our connection of place, Cleveland! Hi Gwendolyn, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m so glad you’ve finally arrived (and back in your original home of Ohio!) and could take a few minutes to chat with me. Obviously, it’s winter now, so let’s step in to my home and library and I’ll pour us some coffee, do you like cream and sugar like me, or how shall you take yours?

Let me know while I go and take the homemade mint chocolate brownies from the oven. It’s a recipe passed around especially for writers, of course!

Gwendolyn: Thank you so much for having me, Erin! Homemade brownies sound like a perfect way to start an interview! As for coffee, I always take mine plain, thank you!

coffee and brownies

Erin: Black it is! Let’s snuggle into my big comfy chairs, relax, and talk about your newest book, your first novel, which released recently from Trepidatio Publishing, called The Rust Maidens! Congratulations on becoming a novelist! For those not in the know, I’m going to post the synopsis quick right here!

The Rust Maidens Cover Final

The Rust Maidens –

Something’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

I’m intrigued by you and your fabulous writing in any regard, but I was at first drawn in to wanting to read and discuss The Rust Maidens since it takes place near where I live, Cleveland, in 1980. I believe you are originally from Northern Ohio as well, so tell us about the novel and what about this location inspired your novel?

Gwendolyn: I love Ohio. Though I live in Pennsylvania now, I always say that I’m an Ohio girl at heart. It’s such a misunderstood state in some ways. There are people who think of it only as a Rust Belt state, others who consider it all cornfields, and some who think that it’s just boring, wide open spaces. It’s funny, because to varying degrees, all of those things are indeed true, but there’s more to Ohio than just those descriptions. In its own way, Ohio is a kind of misfit, and as a perennial misfit myself, I feel like it’s a place where I’ll always belong.  

Erin: How much of the Cleveland landscape is involved in it, or is it just a place and time?

Gwendolyn: The city of Cleveland is absolutely crucial to this particular story. It’s a character of its own, in a way. There’s such a rich and strange history of the city. Everything from Eliot Ness and Bessie, the Lake Monster, to the river catching on fire and the Rust Belt decay are in the DNA of Cleveland, lurking somewhere in there. As for the landscape itself, the book includes the steel mills, the lake, and several other landmarks that people from the area will recognize.

cleveland river

Photo by Erin Al-Mehairi, summer 2018. View of Cuyahoga River from the park at Settler’s Landing. The river flows out into Lake Erie.

Erin: Why the year 1980? Does it have any significance? How much of this time period in the area did you have to research to make a period piece authentic?

Gwendolyn: Something I’ve often observed is that the first year in a new decade is always something of a liminal time. The decade hasn’t had a chance to really develop yet, which means that first year tends to look and feel a lot like the years that came immediately before. I initially noticed this while watching the show, Mad Men. The series starts in 1960, which at that point still feels very much like the 1950s. It’s not until the series moves forward several years that the events and trends we normally associate with the 1960s start coming into play. In this way, the first year in a decade seems to have a kind of identity crisis, and since identity as well as being stuck in between are so integral to the novel, that seemed like an ideal time to base the novel.

I had also just come off researching Cleveland in the late 1970s and early 1980s for my story, “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends.” I originally wanted to set that story in the late 1970s, but I also wanted to incorporate Pink Floyd’s “Mother” into the story because it reflected so much of what the main character was going through. That song, however, didn’t come out until late 1979, and since my story didn’t start until January, the earliest it could be set was in 1980. Hence, another reason for that year.

After doing all the research for that story, I didn’t want to let go of Cleveland in that era yet. That was when I decided to combine that time and place with another idea I’d long had for a novel about girls in some kind of strange metamorphosis. Once I hit on the idea of setting it in Cleveland, the concept came together very quickly, and I pitched it to Jess Landry at Trepidatio. Then we were off from there!  

Erin: What was the most significant piece of history you found about the Cleveland-area while researching? What about the most shocking? Without spoilers, did either of them make it into your novel?

Gwendolyn: One fascinating piece of history I found was that there was a series of storms that occurred the summer of 1980 when the novel takes place, including something that was called the More Trees Down Derecho. The name was coined because people said if the storms continued that there would be no more trees left to come down. And yes, perhaps that storm does indeed make it into the novel at one point.

Erin: Of course, you and I know we live(d) in the rust belt, and why. But can you give readers a better understand of it and how it affected your novel? How do you feel the rust belt has changed, and changed people, from 1980 to now?

Gwendolyn: It’s interesting, because I think in some ways, it’s changed, and in some ways, it’s exactly the same. I would still say that the city has never entirely recovered economically. But no matter what, somehow, Cleveland endures. It’s that journey through those past struggles into today that really define Cleveland as I see it and also the version of the city that appears in the novel. It’s still struggling but always fighting. That’s a story unto itself, and one that informed how it plays a part in The Rust Maidens.

Erin: Were any of your characters personalities affected by their environment(s)? Without spoilers, why and how?

 

Gwendolyn: The environment probably affects the characters in this novel more than anything else I’ve ever written. I always try to interweave the setting as much as possible in my work, but with The Rust Maidens, 1980s Cleveland is as much a character as the girls themselves. The decay and hopelessness that have permeated many areas of Ohio impact all the characters in the book, and that effect is ultimately reflected in the metamorphosis that serves as the centerpiece of the story.

Erin: I’m sure you chose the title, as per the summary for the book, since the main characters are trying to figure out why other girls they know are transforming into actual metal and glass. Why does body horror interest you? What was the compelling factor or theme that you might be trying to convey in this novel (you have a degree in psychology, so I am assuming you’ve planted this someone in the book!) in relation to that transformation?

Gwendolyn: Body horror works so well with themes of identity and belonging, which are topics I constantly explore in my fiction. In particular, when you’re young, you’re still trying to figure out who you are, and to have your own body turn against you at that point as happens in The Rust Maidens would only make that exploration of identity that much more horrifying. In this way, body horror becomes the physical manifestation of the changes we all go through at some point, only magnified through the horror genre’s lens.

The Rust Maidens Cover Final

Erin: I read somewhere you said that when approached about Daniele Serra doing your cover art for your book you agreed because you felt he could most capture the industrial feel your book included while also staying true to your whimsical side. In my opinion, he was pretty much spot on. You’ve had covers as very bright, black and white, and now muted. Do you feel that your writing style has changed as well? How has fairytale, folklore, and horror of Pretty Marys, and the emotional, heart-wrenching stories in And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, blended together or impacted The Rust Maidens?

Gwendolyn: When Jess Landry suggested Daniele Serra for the cover art, I was already familiar with his work, but of course, I looked again at his portfolio, and yes, I very much felt that his style has this incredible balance between the ephemeral and the whimsical along with a very strong edge that seemed like a perfect blend for the industrial landscape of Cleveland. The final cover is just so beautiful. I love it so much, and couldn’t imagine anything else on the cover of my first novel.  

As for my writing style, I do feel like each of the covers matches the tone of the book. There is the stark black and white of the collection, which mirrors its emotional arcs that are extreme at times. Pretty Marys has the lightest, most humorous tone, and the bright cover matches that, while also hinting at the darkness of the book too. Finally, the melancholy feel of The Rust Maidens is absolutely reflected in the muted colors of Daniele’s cover. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but I feel like one very fortunate author to have book covers that so perfectly encapsulate my work. It’s wonderful to be able to say that.

Erin: How does the content of The Rust Maidens differ from your debut collection and your novella? What makes it unique? For return readers, what does it offer that identifies it as another Kiste masterpiece?

Gwendolyn: Wow, Kiste masterpiece is putting a lot of pressure on it! Hopefully, that’s how at least a few readers will describe it, but we shall see!

So much of my work deals with coming of age as well as outsiders fighting to find a place in the world. Those elements are absolutely present in The Rust Maidens, so in that way, returning readers will be able to see the connection to my previous work. As for what makes it unique, I feel like I’ve put my own past and my blue collar and Ohio roots at the forefront in this story more than before. It’s truly so personal to me, and it’s even a little more on the melancholy side than much of my other work. So while it draws from my previous fiction, it’s certainly treading some new ground at the same time.  

Erin: Do you cross and flow between genres and sub-genres fairly easily? Do you like to describe yourself as a horror, fantasy, or literary author or just write what you feel and that works for the story? Maybe you don’t like labels at all?

Gwendolyn: I would call myself primarily a horror and dark fantasy author. Not all of my work falls strictly within the confines of horror, but almost all of my work, especially recently, could fall under the horror and dark fantasy labels, broadly defined. Those are the genres that feel most like home to me. That being said, I would love to see genre labels become something of the past, or at least that fiction isn’t so strictly relegated to one category or another. Many of my favorite stories as a reader don’t fall easily into any one genre, so I think there’s a lot to be said for stories being allowed to develop organically and not being shoehorned into something they’re not.

Erin: I first met you online when we shared a Table of Contents in the anthology Hardened Hearts from Unnerving. You created one of the most interesting pieces in the book, about someone who falls in love with a creature. I did a Rumpelstiltskin-esque piece murder mystery that took place in an orchard. Upon reading more of your work outside of Hardened Hearts though, I realized you must live and breathe fairy tales and legends as much as I do! How has your love of them worked into your other stories—whether in your novella, your short story collection, or any published standalone stories?

Gwendolyn: Fairy tales are interwoven throughout so much of my work. I’ve done a Snow White retelling with “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray.” My novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, is all about the Marys of folklore: Resurrection Mary, Bloody Mary, Mari Lwyd, Mary Mack, and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary. Elsewhere in my fiction, I’ve played with the stories of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, and Baba Yaga as well. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve met too many fairy tales that don’t inspire me in some way! Because they’re so familiar from the get-go, you can use the reader’s preexisting knowledge of the tale and jump right into the heart of your story. Exposition can be the bane of writers, and in this way, crafting fairy tale retellings helps to bypass some of those problems. Plus, many of the stories we’ve grown up with were told in such ways as to emphasize a dubious moral. Reworking those ideas can feel at once familiar as well as very liberating.     

Pretty-Marys-All-in-a-Row

Erin: Are there fairytales you’ve thought of writing as a re-telling in the future?

Gwendolyn: I would absolutely love to do something with the story of Bluebeard. I’ve been kicking around an idea for over a year of reworking that one, but I haven’t quite been able to click all the pieces into place yet. Hopefully something on that front will happen in the coming months, because it seems like it could be rife with possibilities.

Erin: I know you’ve listed some of my own writing inspirations such as Shirley Jackson, Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, and Ray Bradbury. How and why do you feel drawn to these authors (or any others you can list below if you wish) and how have they helped define your work or make you a better writer?

Gwendolyn: All of those authors you mentioned are so unafraid to put themselves and their raw emotions about life out there for the world to see. What’s also so captivating is how they each do it in radically different ways. Shirley Jackson explores the dark underbelly of a seemingly proper world, and she never flinches away from that. Kate Chopin pushed back against the boundaries of a very rigid society to interrogate what it means to be a woman and an outcast in a world that tells you that you don’t belong. Sylvia Plath was an emotional tour-de-force, but one that no matter how urgent and intense her writing became, she always seemed entirely in control of her razor-sharp prose and poetry. Ray Bradbury was never afraid to talk about what it’s like to be a kid and what it’s like to be afraid. He also never seemed to worry about becoming too sentimental or nostalgic; he allowed his own memories and love of childhood, carnivals, space, and coming-of-age to completely shine through in his work.

So I suppose with all that in mind, these authors inspire me to be braver in my work and to take chances by putting myself completely on the page every time I write. They show me that you can’t hold back, not if you want to create something that really affects people. Perhaps it will even be too much for some readers. That’s okay. It’s better to go all in than to write something that maybe doesn’t even make you feel something. When it comes to art, don’t play it safe. That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from the writers I love.

Kiste (1).jpeg

Erin: One of my other main interests is also the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as you’ve also mentioned, as well as loving the Roaring Twenties. Have I told you how much I like you yet today? 😊 Are you considering writing a period piece in this vein and era? A collection of stories? And the most important question, would you every consider a collaboration? *wink*

Gwendolyn: I would absolutely love to write a story set in the 1920s; that would be too fabulous (or should I say, that would be the bee’s knees!). I love historical fiction that’s set in the twentieth century, in part because it feels modern enough to be accessible but old enough that it truly is part of our history at this point. I’ve already written a turn-of-the-century collaborative novella with Emily B. Cataneo called “In Her Flightless Wings, a Fire” (editor’s note: In Chiral Mad 4 anthology), and I also wrote a Dust Bowl vampire story way back in 2014 that appeared in History and Horror, Oh My! That one was a lot of fun to research and write, though I haven’t reread that story in years now. It was only my third published story, but it was one I was very proud of having pulled off. As for collaboration, I’ve already done one as mentioned above, so I certainly think lightening could strike twice with that! A definite possibility! 😊


Erin: Last year you published your novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, AND your collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, which went on to garner a Bram Stoker nomination in Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection. First of all, how much did that help to validate your writing for you? Secondly, how hard was it to wait after that exhilaration for your novel, The Rust Maidens, to come out since it was almost a year later? Did you feel excited or added pressure?

Gwendolyn: I do have to say that 2017 was a very exciting year for my writing. To have two books come out in the same year and to have those be my very first books really was an amazing experience. The Stoker nomination just blew me away. It still feels like a dream that it even happened. I definitely had a great time with the releases of both And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe and Pretty Marys All in a Row.

And Her Smile

That being said, it was nice to have almost a full year before the release of The Rust Maidens. It gave me some room to keep promoting the first two books and also to take a bit of a breather from the constant promotion cycle. I always worry that if an author releases too many titles too quickly, readers will just burn out. Even one book a year could be a lot. Releasing three books in about a year and a half is certainly intense. Still, it has been so exciting to see The Rust Maidens make its way into the world. A first novel is a truly wonderful and unique experience for an author. It’s great to be experiencing that right now. I’m trying to savor it, because I know it will all be over so fast.

Erin: What have you felt about the overall positive early response to The Rust Maidens (besides of course feeling wonderful). For instance, are they hitting the notes of what you wanted to convey via The Rust Maidens? Why and how do you feel your writing is impacting others besides your beautiful prose? Any themes people are particularly drawn to in this novel and/or in your other work?

Gwendolyn: I feel so very fortunate that the early response has been so positive. No matter how much you toil over a story, you never know what’s going to happen when you set it loose on the world.

Though it’s probably not super surprising for a writer to say this, The Rust Maidens is a very personal book for me, and I’d been so close to it for so long that by the end of the process, I was afraid that it had become too personal. That maybe I would be the only one that would be able to understand what I was trying to accomplish with the story. It’s been a very good feeling to see that readers have really connected to the novel.

A theme that I often come back to is coming of age as well as body horror. This novel combines both as we follow these girls who are undergoing this profound metamorphosis. Also, while it’s not there quite as much as in my other work, there is something of a fairy tale element in the novel. It’s more of a Gothic kind of fairy tale, but there is this rather mythic quality that I worked to interweave throughout the book, so I feel like that will be familiar to those who have read my other stories.

Erin: The Rust Maidens is also essentially a coming of age story, as you noted. Growing into a young adult in the 1980s is certainly different than now. What lessons do you think people in the 80s learned that those of us coming into our twenties in the 90s or 2000s haven’t and then what did we learn that those now aren’t?

Gwendolyn: One thing that always strikes me as a huge generational gap is technology. While obviously every generation can say that to some extent, with the internet, it’s become a very big shift. Those growing up in the 1980s wouldn’t have had the access to immediate knowledge and virtual connection with one another like we have now. That being said, today, we’re more likely to take that instant gratification for granted. We also often have more trouble today connecting in real-life with one another because we’ve become so accustomed to an online world, which can offer the illusion of social support but sometimes doesn’t always pan out the way we hope.  

postcard cleveland

’80s Postcard!

Erin: Do you like to read coming of age novels yourself? Any favorites? Any of them inspire you to try your hand at writing yours?

Gwendolyn: It’s been over twenty years now, but when I was much younger, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Body after seeing Stand by Me, the film adaptation of the story. I loved both versions so much, and there was something so haunting about them that it made me feel like adolescence might be somewhat ghostly and strange unto itself. That’s probably the first coming-of-age book I recall reading, but it’s certainly not the last. I also adore Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury can make coming of age look so haunted and enchanting as well.  

something wicked

Erin: So back to discovering how Cleveland fit in your novel…it feels different than any other city, at least to me. What are some only Cleveland-scene things you put into your novel?

Gwendolyn: I feel like the main thing about Cleveland that appears in the novel is the landscape. The lake, the river, the skyline with the former steel flame. I wanted the book to have a feel of a working class Ohio neighborhood, so some of the details are more general to any factory town in the Rust Belt. Of course, though, Lake Erie is definitely front and center. My own alma mater, Case Western Reserve, also gets a shout-out in the novel. There are certainly little details here and there that firmly place it in Cleveland, but at the same time, I hope that it’s accessible to those who have never been to the Midwest.  

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Photo by Erin Al-Mehairi, summer 2018 / Cleveland Skyline Against Lake Erie near Edgewater Beach

Erin: You live near Pittsburgh now, on an abandoned horse farm, which sounds like a story within itself, but what do you miss about home? What are some of your own personal favorite things about Cleveland and the surrounding areas?

Gwendolyn: Honestly, I just love Ohio in general. I adore the city skylines, the abandoned landscapes, the lakes, the rivers. Heck, I don’t even mind the endless cornfields. It’s certainly a place I will always consider home. Cleveland is wonderful specifically for how haunted it feels. The Flats are strange and fabulous, and in my teens and twenties, I saw so many great bands there. There’s Tower City downtown, which always seemed so nostalgic to me, just like the shopping spots you’d see in retro Christmas cards and ads. And since I went to Case Western, that holds a special place in my heart too.

tower city aug 2018

Photo by Erin Al-Mehairi. View of Tower City, lit up in Red, White, and Blue for Cleveland Indians that night. I was there for Shakespeare Festival!

 

Erin: The question everyone asks, but I really want to know. WHAT’S NEXT? What are you working on now or are looking forward to working on?

Gwendolyn: I’m finishing up some short fiction right now, and then I’ll be working for a bit on a new novelette. After that, I’ll be looking once again to outlining and drafting a new novel. I don’t want to discuss too many specifics, since I’m so superstitious about talking about a project before it’s fully formed, but I’m super excited about the new story ideas I’m working on. So stay tuned, I guess!

Erin: I really should close this interview before night falls. Thanks very much for patiently answering all my questions and congratulations on all your success! We have more to talk about another time, so I hope you’ll come back to the site. Also, I can’t wait to finally get to meet up for real coffee with you in the coming year!  😊

Gwendolyn: Thank you so much for having me, Erin! This has been so much fun talking with you!

Gwendolyn Kiste, Biography –

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, and her debut horror novel, The Rust Maidens. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, and LampLight, among other publications. A native of Ohio, she resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com.

Find Her on Social Media –

facebook.com/gwendolynkiste

twitter.com/gwendolynkiste

The Rust Maidens, Synopsis –

The Rust Maidens Cover FinalSomething’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

Find it –

GoodReads
Amazon
Barnes and Noble 

Or ask your local independent bookstore to order it for you!

*BE SURE TO STOP BY THE HORROR TREE site for a follow-up interview I had with Gwendolyn, but this time focus more on the craft of writing since The Horror Tree is an author’s resource website!*

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