Hi Sonora, and welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m so glad you’ve joined me, and I look forward to talking to you today. I know we are both “foodies” and so if you brought some Duck Donuts or some Georgetown Cupcakes from D.C., I’ll make the enchiladas for lunch. It’s freezing here so let’s whip out the coffee with something a bit stronger, like rum or Kahlua, or I bet you even know something better because you are always giving me tips about the good stuff…?
Sonora: Thanks for having me over! I did indeed bring some donuts, but – not to be that local – I thought you might enjoy these cupcakes from Baked and Wired a little bit more. I also brought pupusas, and yes, load me up on some rum and coffee (though I take no responsibility for what I start saying after a couple drinks).
Erin: I had Georgetown Cupcakes a month ago when I was in D.C.(yummy!), but my son actually recommended we go to Baked and Wired next time – which sounds divine!!A girl after my own heart with the rum and coffee. And pupusas! We’re in trouble.
Pupusas for lunch – we are doing this in person next time! For now, we’ll imagine. Thanks for the photo Sonora! Pupusas with tamale, rice, beans, and spicy slaw from El Rinconcito in D.C. Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Let’s settle in at the table and watch the snow pile up around us while we warm our bellies with food and spirits and our mind with conversation. Let’s get started! I recently had the pleasure of reading your first horror novel (though I know you’ve written shorter horror works) called Without Condition, which features a young, female serial killer as the lead. Can you tell the readers about it in your own words?
Sonora: Absolutely. The elevator pitch version is that Without Condition is about a serial killer navigating through her first relationship. In a bit more detail, it’s about a young woman named Cara Vineyard who lives with her mother on a former pumpkin farm in rural North Carolina. She works at a brewery during the day and drives her truck at night. Sometimes on those drives, she’ll pick men up – which usually means those men will die. Her life gets complicated, though, when she meets and falls for a man named Jackson. As they grow closer, Cara isn’t sure he’ll feel the same way about her if he discovers all of her secrets.
Erin: Readers can read my review of Without Condition HERE. Your story deals with a lot of themes, one of them being children who come of age into adults holding onto the feelings they had from being ignored, bullied, or isolated in their formative years from fellow students or sometimes family. Why did you decide to use this topic as your propellant for revenge?
Sonora: It was a motivation for Cara that made sense to me, and something that I think many of us deal with in varying capacities. I think we sometimes take for granted the sticking power of bad experiences in childhood, especially things like bullying, name-calling, or being dismissed by teachers. It’s often ignored unless it gets physical, or else not taken care of until it’s too late and already well-settled in. In Cara’s case, it’s so settled in that, when she doesn’t have those external sources of bullying or anger, she still feels their effects and hears them as if they’re still happening.
I wanted Cara’s back story to both be realistic and not rooted in what we usually see with fictional women who kill. Two of the most tired tropes I see for women doing bad things are either revenge for being raped or assaulted (is it still considered fridging if it applies to motivating the woman?), or else vengeance on behalf of a child or partner. I won’t lie, when I was doing research on female serial killers for the book, I was actually a bit disappointed to see that one of the most common motivations was assisting their boyfriends or husbands. Don’t know what that says about me!
But in all seriousness, I felt like the bullying and Cara’s inability to let go were realistic motivators that readers would recognize; and while I don’t think it’s an excuse for Cara’s killing, it’s an explanation that, for some readers, may be scarily close to home.
Erin: Another theme presents about parenting in broken homes, children who don’t know their fathers, and abandonment issues that young people sometimes deal with – how did you form your character’s personality to identify with these themes and why? Do you feel your protagonist’s lack of father turned her against men?
Sonora: I looked at it mostly as how Cara grew up being used to loneliness, worrying that the people she cares about may disappear, and the quiet urge for something a little bit more than what she knows – all of which play some part in how she turned out, both for better and for worse. The male family figures in her life were both like fathers and yet they disappeared early on. She doesn’t remember her great uncle, but she still gets the sense that he’s missing. She remembers her great uncle’s friend Terry a lot more because he played the role of a father figure and friend, then disappeared.
Men in Cara’s life seem to provide her with calmer, more stable relationships; but their ends are more of a disruption to her than what she encounters with women. Her friends in school are mostly boys, and it’s when boys start gossiping about her that she becomes both angry and hurt; while girls picking on her was more of a constant prickle (much like her relationship with her mother).
I think Cara’s actions against men are based more on feeling betrayed by the men she’s known and loved than from her lack of father. Cara wants to know who her father is, but because she’s never known him and Delores never talks about him, he’s not really a missing figure to her the way Terry is. I also can’t say Cara would’ve turned out differently if her father were around. Even if in some alternate universe where her father was in her life – be it in the same house or just with frequent visitation – he would’ve floated in and out of her life and not been as close to her as Cara is with her mother. Neither Cara’s desire to wander nor her love of driving come from Delores.
Illustration for Without Condition. Artwork by Doug Puller.
Erin: From your protagonist’s mother to her boyfriend, themes of unconditional love abound in this story, even sometimes when to a reader it shouldn’t. What ideas were you hoping to bring to the table about love as your implemented this into your book?
Sonora: I wanted to explore the idea of what it means to love someone unconditionally even when they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing, namely with parental love and romantic love. Whenever I hear about a serial killer, there’s almost always someone that still loves them even when their crimes are laid out. Mothers defend their children who are on trial, women write letters or stand by their men when accused, etc. I’m both appalled and fascinated by this, and while Without Condition isn’t a direct response to that, it was certainly influenced by that.
I also thought it’d be interesting to explore that from the perspective of the person receiving that love, and what unconditional love means to them. Cara is not entirely devoid of feelings, and though she’s put up a shield to keep herself from feeling vulnerable, she still wants things like friendship (granted on her terms), approval, and love. What I found interesting about her as I wrote, though, is that she doesn’t really crave or strive for those things with friends and family, but she does with Jackson. This in turn scares her not just because of what she has to hide, but because she’s not used to feeling this way around another person. Falling in love is a unique experience from other relationships, and in a dark way, I found it kind of fun to examine that fear so many of us have when falling in love, but through the eyes of someone who actually has something terrible to hide.
Erin: In part of my review back to you I said that the book was like if King’s Carrie had gone on to become a serial killer and lived a backwoods country life. That initially went back to the being bullied in high school theme, but talk about revenge and why you decided to make your novel revolve around it?
Sonora: In certain lights, revenge can be seen as the result of not being able to let go. The book explores Cara’s inability – both voluntary and involuntary – to let go of the grievances she’s accumulated over the years. It gets to the point where her anger is so much a part of her that, when the sources of her anger disappear or leave her alone, she feels lost. Her response, then, is to almost relish it when she’s provoked or angry again. It’s both sad and dangerous, especially for the people she chooses to take that anger out on. She sees her victims as a means to an end, and it’s an ending that doesn’t ever seem to really come – much like the mental torment she feels from her experiences in school.
From Sonora: A collection of beer I picked up on my last trip to Asheville. Papa’s Secret Brewing – the company Without Condition protagonist Cara works for – is fictional, but North Carolina’s beer scene is thriving. Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: Speaking of backwoods country life, your novel takes place in a small, rural town of North Carolina. How do you describe what it’s like there both visually and within the personalities of the people? Why do you feel your protagonist didn’t fit in?
Sonora: Leslie, a fictional town in North Carolina, is on the outskirts of the outskirts of Raleigh. It’s not entirely farmland – there are small strip malls and a few restaurants that one would consider the downtown area – but the places of business tend to be off the side of the main road and surrounded by trees; and while everyone doesn’t know everyone else, most everyone knows of most everyone else. As such, while Cara and her mother aren’t incredibly active members of the community, Cara was known when she showed up for the first day of school – and unfortunately, she was known mostly by vicious rumors about her mother that were the result of Delores coming to live in Leslie when she was single, seventeen, and pregnant.
Because Cara spent most of her formative years on Vineyard Farm with her mother and Terry, she doesn’t really know how to respond to new people saying mean things to her right away. And because she’s used to being alone, it’s easier for her to retreat and give up on trying to make friends than to try and win over people. I think that, combined with her being blunt and acerbic, all make it harder for her to fit in. Her default is distrust, and in such a small and quiet town, it’s hard to escape what the few people there think of you – especially when what they think has taken permanent residence in your mind.
Cox Mountain trail, which is outside of Chapel Hill and Durham in North Carolina (and about 90 minutes from my protagonist Cara’s hometown of Leslie). Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: Your protagonist’s mother was also an interesting supporting character. How did you create her personality and what would her back story be like? Have you thought of writing a prequel using the mother’s life?
Sonora: I haven’t thought of a writing a prequel, but that would be interesting! Delores was often a tough nut to crack because, as you’ll see in the book, she doesn’t like to talk about herself or her past. It was actually pretty challenging to write her scenes with Cara because she’d usually either clam up or go on offense. I can see where Cara got her tendency to give up on people rather than dealing with their shit. As damaging as that is for both Cara and Delores, I do feel sorry for Delores. As she alludes to in the book, she didn’t feel loved in her family home. She lived with both her parents and three brothers, and the nicest thing she got from any of them was indifference. Her uncle Leo was the only relative who treated her like family, so she saw Vineyard Farm as a sanctuary from everything she hated about her home. I think Delores assumed that Cara would feel the same way about Vineyard Farm, and thus, would never want to leave the farm or her. But Cara isn’t Delores.
Mountaintop view of Chimney Rock, North Carolina; which is outside of Asheville (and about an hour or so from Without Condition character Jackson’s hometown of Pinesboro). Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: The femme fatale in literature is almost supernatural, though your character is only into murder and doesn’t have powers. How fun was it to spin the serial killer motif into a modern-day femme fatale that no one would expect? What were your challenges in creating her? What did you feel your successes were while writing it?
Sonora: It was challenging to write a serial killer anti-heroine that felt so little remorse for what she does. Usually when you see a killer protagonist, they’re conflicted about what they do. They see killing as something they’re forced to do, something that’s just a job, something they do to pay a debt, etc. This does not apply to Cara. To her, killing is as natural a way to blow off steam as driving her truck, smoking, or taking a few deep breaths. I kept her this way because honestly, I found the absurdity of this, of her kills taking the same spot in her mind as making a mental note to buy cigarettes, to be darkly funny. But, I also found this made for a scarier narrative. She doesn’t care that she’s killing people beyond basic things like hoping the cops don’t find the bodies. She doesn’t even begin to care until she meets Jackson, and even then, it’s in the context of worrying she’ll lose him, not because of any sudden moral awakening.
This also presented a challenge, though, in asking both myself and readers to care about Cara for the duration of the narrative despite this lack of remorse. I wanted to do this, but without creating so much sympathy that it seemed what she’s doing is okay, or romanticizing serial killers or anything like that. I wanted understanding for what motivates her to kill, and I wanted her to be interesting in the context of her actions being scary, being unsettling, and being the result of failings around her as well as her own shortcomings. I think I was successful in that, but ultimately, it’s all in how readers read it – and every reader is different!
Truck outside of dairy farm in Orange County, N.C., much like Cara drives, even though she lives on a pumpkin farm. Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: I have to say I didn’t really “like” Cara at all, but understood her and felt she was in complete development at the same time.
It seems Valentine’s week was the perfect week to release this book. Did you plan that? Haha! Should men buy this for their girlfriends? I’m just kidding. Did you do fun plans for promotion? I think that you should give away a free knife with each order by a woman. 😉
Sonora: I did plan that! I admit I was feeling a little mischievous by planning to promote it as “perfect for Valentine’s Day,” though really, Cara and Jackson’s relationship is pretty romantic. Plus, the book has some pretty hot sex in it, if I say so myself. There’s one scene in there that was so steamy, I started singing “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” to myself, ha ha. I also consider it to be both horror and romance (with coming-of-age for good measure), since romantic love is the driving force for a lot of the things both Cara and Jackson go through.
Men should totally buy this for their girlfriends, or boyfriends. Women should buy it for their boyfriends or girlfriends. Everyone should buy it for everyone. Buy my book! (Okay Erin, you may want to cut me off from the rum-and-coffees).
I think a free knife would be too expensive – er, I mean, too dangerous to give out. But maybe I’ll send some paperback copies in a shoebox. Maybe as a Mother’s Day promotion. Heh heh.
Erin: As a mom, I am not sure how I feel about that promotion!! haha!
I know you also had a short story in the anthology from 2018 called Quoth the Raven, which was stories in homage to Edgar Allan Poe. What is the name of it and what’s it about? Did it model any Poe story? I was excited to see this anthology make the preliminary ballot for the Stoker Award!
Sonora: My story is called “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’” It’s about an Instagram influencer who thrives on being seen online, but must reconcile that with having to hide the fact that she’s murdered her boyfriend. It’s a modern version of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I like that story because all of the horror is inside the narrator’s paranoid mind, and most of that paranoia comes from the fear of being seen. Social media has created almost a new form of paranoia, a willing placement of ourselves into Foucault’s panopticon where we feel we must perform our lives in the context of having it be presentable to whoever’s watching us online. I thought that was a perfect state of mind to explore for a modern retelling of a Poe classic.
Quoth the Raven was actually my first acceptance ever. I was so thrilled, not just for the acceptance, but because I adore Poe and was really happy to be included in such a fun and unique tribute to him.
I too was excited to see Quoth the Raven on the preliminary ballot, and not just because I’m in the anthology. It’s a wonderful collection – I was so impressed with all of the stories. Strictly as a reader, I highly recommend it!
Erin: I love “Tell-Tale Heart!” One of the stories in my own collection had inspiration slightly from it. Of course I love Poe. Your story sounds amazing – and that’s so true, about the online world.
What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe short story of all time and why?
Sonora: “Hop Frog,” because it’s the only Poe story that scared me so much that I almost couldn’t sleep after I read it. It’s actually very hard for a book to scare me. Audio and visuals are more effective, and even then, it doesn’t really linger unless it’s a combination of immediate scares and chilling moods. So, when text manages to scare me, it holds a special place in my heart. The ending of “Hop Frog,” (*spoiler alert*) where the protagonist commits a murder right in front of everyone and they have no idea … hoo, I got the willies just remembering it, and I haven’t read the story in almost 20 years.
Erin: What were some of your favorite books you read in 2018 overall (can be any genre!) and what are some by women in horror?
Sonora: My favorite book I read in 2018 was Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. It’s about two sisters, one of whom is bipolar. The story is told from many points of view: the sister with bipolar disorder, the sister who is also her caregiver, and two of the afflicted sister’s boyfriends. It did a really good job showing the toll of mental illness on the person afflicted, the caregiver, and the people who love them; but without malice or lack of dignity. I highly recommend it.
I also loved Educated by Tara Westover. We read it for my office’s book club. At first, we were all kind of reluctant (we go by PBS’s book club recommendations so we always have an objective third party choosing the book), but most of us ended up being floored by the book. Westover has an amazing talent for writing about the horrors of her upbringing without writing them as horror. She doesn’t tell you how to feel or, really, how she feels beyond what she felt in that moment.
I also enjoyed Whiskey and Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith. It elegantly weaves points-of-view and time periods to tell a story about new love and lost love, all with beautiful prose.
I did read some women in horror too! I read Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado early in the year. I liked the collection a lot, and find her writing and ideas to be fascinating. My favorite story in the collection was “Inventories.” I also enjoyed My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite; and The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
Erin: Just coming in recently to the horror genre, how do you feel in regard to the treatment or level of support of women in horror, both from women and men both, since it’s women in horror month? What is positive and what can everyone do better?
Sonora: I feel like it’s getting better for sure, but there is still a sense of “Oh yeah, her too” when it comes to thinking about women in horror. A lot of times when people are asked about favorite and/or great horror writers, people will automatically list men – King, Barker, etc. – and then pause and think before adding women (I admit I’ve been guilty of this too). It’s unfortunately the product of a culture that promotes white, straight, cisgendered men as the default or universal; with all others as their own genre. My gender isn’t a genre. What I write is a genre (and many genres at that).
But on a positive note, it’s definitely better; especially online and in the independent scene. I’ve loved being introduced to so many talented women horror authors online that I never would’ve found on my own: Christa Carmen, Loren Rhoads, Tiffany Michelle Brown, Larissa Glasser, and you, Erin; just to name a few! I also see both women and men promoting each other online, which is nice.
One thing I think everyone can do better is reading more women and people of color. I feel really disheartened when I scroll through Goodreads and I see friends reading man after man, or white man after white man, or white man after white woman … you get the gist. Expand! There are so many voices out there in every genre, and with the access that the Internet, independent publishing, and self-publishing have all provided to reading so many more voices, we have a great opportunity to do so.
Erin: Happy to have met you too, thank you! I look forward to checking out some of your past short story collections. What writing plans do you have for 2019? What are your goals to make that happen?
Sonora: I’m planning to release another short story collection, a longer one than my last two. I’ve written some longer pieces and I’ve also written a lot of flash over the past year. Right now, the collection is called Little Paranoias: Stories. I have three works-in-progress left for the collection, and I want to finish them by May so I have time to read over everything one more time before sending them all to my editor in June.
Once that’s out for edits, I’ll either work on some more short fiction or, hopefully, get cracking on my next novel. I have some ideas that are percolating, but I’m not going to start it until my short stories are done.
The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: I know you like to travel, see sites, and have fun in the world from going to NYC and Hershey Park this year to a past trip to Prince Edward Island. What is your top choice to travel to that was/is the home and/or museum of a famous author? Why?
Sonora: I had to rack my brain about this a bit because I don’t usually pick travel destinations based on writers! But in thinking about it … I’d actually love to visit Omaha, Nebraska; home of Rainbow Rowell. I like reading her descriptions of the downtown area. I also want to visit because one of my favorite chefs, Isa Chandra Moscowitz, has a restaurant there called Modern Love.
If you don’t mind me sharing a quick aside – this past summer, my husband and I went to Dublin. We visited the Writer’s Museum, and they have a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with notes and other books by him. I completely fangirled in the museum (quietly, of course). James Joyce who? I’m here for Dracula!
From Sonora: The first edition of Dracula by Bram Stoker. I might’ve squealed a little bit when I saw it – it’s one of my favorite books! Photo by Sonora Taylor
Bram Stoker Display at the Writer’s Museum in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Sonora Taylor.
Erin: That’s amazing! I’m looking forward to visiting the Poe Museum in Baltimore!
What favorite foods and/or drinks make you write, and which makes you go into a coma? Haha!
Sonora: I don’t eat when I write, which my stomach hates, ha ha. I wrote a good portion of Without Condition before work in the morning, so I always had breakfast after writing – and I specifically craved whole wheat toast with Earth Balance and Trader Joe’s pink grapefruit marmalade on writing days. Just thinking about that breakfast makes me think I should be writing the book!
I usually just drink water when I write. I don’t follow the Hemingway rule of “write drunk, edit sober,” mostly because I’m getting old and being drunk means falling asleep. I have found that re-reading my work while buzzed makes me less of a harsh critic, so maybe that should be reversed?
Baked macaroni and cheese puts me into a coma, but a delicious, melty, bread crumb-topped coma; so it’s worth it. I make a delicious pumpkin macaroni and cheese in the fall.
Erin: Ugh! First of all, there is no Trader Joe’s near me, but next time there is I’m getting that marmalade. Also, mac and cheese for the high five! I had that last night haha! But adding pumpkin…mmm…I’ll have to try that this Fall.
Tell us where everyone can connect with you at below. I enjoyed first getting to know you doing the monthly Ladies in Horror Photo Prompt Challenge. I think so many more ladies should do that – it keeps the writing flow going! If you want to share any of your links from that, feel free to do so below too.
Sonora: I love the prompt challenge too! It’s great for creativity, as getting a picture prompt each month challenges me and gets me out of my comfort zone. It’s also a great way to discover new authors every month. You can find my collected stories so far right here.
I’m also all over the place online, though I’m most active on Twitter and Instagram. Give me a follow, especially if, in addition to writing and books, you like hockey, beer, and/or jokes.
Erin: I think you forgot food and travel, which are things that drew me to you outside of our writing interests!
Sonora looking out over the water at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Photo provided by Sonora Taylor.
Thank you SO much for coming over and hanging out with me. I think this lunch is in the coma category, not the energy for writing one. Let’s sit back and hang out with another cup of coffee. I look forward to seeing where your writing takes you in the future!
Sonora: Thank you for having me! This was all delicious, both the food and the conversation. I’ll definitely take another cup of coffee, though maybe I’ll skip the rum on this one.
Erin: Never enough rum, Sonora!
About Without Condition
Cara Vineyard lives a quiet life in rural North Carolina. She works for an emerging brewery, drives her truck late at night, and lives with her mother on a former pumpkin farm. Her mother is proud of her and keeps a wall displaying all of Cara’s accomplishments.
Cara isn’t so much proud as she is bored. She’s revitalized when she meets Jackson Price, a pharmacist in Raleigh. Every day they spend together, she falls for him a little more — which in turn makes her life more complicated. When Cara goes on her late-night drives, she often picks up men. Those men tend to die. And when Cara comes back to the farm, she brings a memento for her mother to add to her wall of accomplishments.
Cara’s mother loves her no matter what. But she doesn’t know if Jackson will feel the same — and she doesn’t want to find out.
Purchase Without Condition on Amazon
Read the first chapter, “Dead End,” in Issue 42 of The Sirens Call
Shelve Without Condition on Goodreads
Sonora Taylor, Biography –
Sonora Taylor I the author of The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Her short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’,” was published in Camden Park Press’s Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems that put a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Her work has also been published in The Sirens Call, a bi-monthly horror eZine; and Mercurial Stories, a weekly flash fiction literary journal. Her second novel, Without Condition, release February 12, 2019. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.
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