As promised, I finally have some content coming for women in horror month! I have several interviews, which will start today with Michelle Lane, a couple guest articles, and some reviews. Women writing horror is not new, but it’s a phenomenon that’s hitting like a wave. There is so much to share and learn. I know each year I’ve met someone I hadn’t heard of before. The reviews that don’t get snuck in will appear during the roll over to March. I have no problem featuring women all year.
Without further commentary from me, let’s begin. I wanted to invite Michelle here today so I could learn more about her myself, and hopefully, let you learn along with me. I’ve been interested in her work since the release of her book last year, Invisible Chains from Haverhill, and I’m always about supporting other women and diversity. I really would love to talk to more women of color about their experiences and how it influences their writing. I hope you enjoy learning more about her with me because she gave some wicked interesting answers. Invisible Chains just today became a Bram Stoker Award nominee, and with its historical horror elements (and New Orleans vibe and vampires and strong female protagonist…I could go on), I’m anxious to read it.
Hi Michelle, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m so glad you could join me for Women in Horror Month. I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you. I have some coffee or tea? Let me know your pleasure and how you take it, please. Or a cocktail if you prefer!
Michelle: Hello Erin, thanks for having me. I drink a lot of coffee and I enjoy tea, but it’s been a rough couple of weeks. So if you’re making cocktails, I’d love a Bourbon and ginger. And, you should probably make it a double.
Erin: Excellent – a lady after my own heart with the Bourbon! We’ll just bring this in and sit down so we can chat. Let’s get started.
I first was introduced to you via my friend and client Stephanie Wytovich when she interviewed you a year or two ago. I was excited to hear of your book Invisible Chains at the time it came out and now that it’s been listed on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards. For those readers that don’t know of the book, would you mind telling us about it?
Michelle: Sure. Invisible Chains is a supernatural slave narrative. When I say that, a lot of people ask what that means. So, like a traditional slave narrative, it’s told in first person POV in the voice of a young female slave, Jacqueline. What makes it supernatural are the elements of magic, monsters, and travel between worlds, or at the very least dimensions. However, the true horror found in the novel comes from the historical violence experienced by slaves under institutionalized slavery in America. I tried to place this institution under a microscope and focus in how the system of slavery negatively affected men and women, both Black and White. Jacqueline lives in a world where violence is always on the table – sexual violence, physical torture, psychologically damaging and dehumanizing verbal abuse, and the ever-present threat of death.
Erin: Where did your inspiration for your book come from?
Michelle: I thought I wanted to write a book about vampires. I have been obsessed with vampires since I was very young and my gateway drug to vampire fiction was a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire I received as a Christmas gift when I was eleven. I read everything Anne Rice wrote after that, including the books she wrote under her nom de plumes, Belinda and the first three books in The Sleeping Beauty Quartet. I fell in love with her vampires and wanted to write books like hers. That is until I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Vampires are great, but I wasn’t seeing myself in vampire fiction, and for the most part, I didn’t like the depictions of people of color in horror novels and films. When I read Morrison, Gomez and Butler, among other women of color writers like Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde and Tananarive Due, I saw myself and connected with their words and their characters who were women of color. I still wanted to write about vampires, but from a different perspective. I wanted to tell the story of a young woman who survives what seem to be insurmountable challenges while dealing with grief, abuse, and extreme poverty as she creates a place for herself in the world on her own terms using her intellect and power.
Erin: How did you choose the setting of New Orleans and how much research into it and the time period did you do, and how?
Michelle: When I was nineteen, I met a girl at a party, and we started talking about what we were currently reading and our favorite books. At some point in the conversation we both realized that most of the books we were talking about were set in New Orleans. Neither of us had ever been there and she suggested a road trip. Like most conversations I had while partying, I assumed that while her enthusiasm for the trip was real, I didn’t think she meant that we would really go. But, the following week, she contacted me about getting youth hostel passes and picking dates. During Winter break that year, she drove us from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. It was my first trip to the city, and it was amazing. I’ve visited the city several times since and made a point of getting to know as much as I can about the food, cultures, history, and my favorite part, the ghost stories and haunted history. I haven’t been to New Orleans in several years, but it is one of my favorite places on Earth and one day, I hope to make it my home.
A lot of research went into this book, including reading about slavery in general, slavery in New Orleans specifically, what people ate, what they wore, what things cost, etc. The house that Jacqueline works and lives in is a house I’ve toured twice, the Gallier House, located at 1132 Royal Street. I read actual slave narratives to get a sense of how they were told/written. I read as much as I possibly could about Voudon, Hoodoo, and the West African pantheon of gods. I tried to incorporate the Creole French spoken by slaves. I studied maps of plantations from the 1850s. I re-watched a lot of vampire movies and TV shows to capture the appearance, demeanor, and personality of my antagonist. While his name comes from a person I knew in real life, he’s a compilation of characteristics from Aidan Turner’s John Mitchell on Being Human (UK), Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Dracula on NBC’s adaptation of Dracula.
Erin: That’s ALL amazing, from wanting to live in New Orleans, to the research, to creating your characters.
Let’s talk now about the formulation of your characters. Which one was your favorite to write? Which one was most challenging? How did you decide to form them and did that also include research into history, culture, dialogue, etc.?
Michelle: My favorite character to develop and write was my antagonist, Carlos Velazquez, a Spanish vampire whose backstory I’ve only begun to tap into. I have a lot more to say about him and hope to start working on either a short story or novella told from his POV, and then I’d like to work on the sequel to Invisible Chains. He uses Spanish words occasionally in his dialog, and while he appears to be White and wealthy, he is quite aware of the injustices suffered by people of color under slavery.
Jacqueline was the most difficult, because I wanted to get her voice just right. I wanted her to sound intelligent and authentic to her time period and station in life. Some reviewers have pointed out anachronisms in her use of language, but I made every effort to avoid that. What made that especially difficult is the fact that while this story is set in Antebellum New Orleans, there are a lot of parallels between Jacqueline’s time and this time. Racism, sexism, poverty, sexual abuse, violence, controlling women’s bodies, policing brown bodies – these are all things that are still very much current events. My voice and emotions would sometimes get tangled up with hers.
She lives a dual life and must wear masks to keep herself safe. She can’t appear to be too intelligent around Whites, because if they find out she can read and write, she will be punished severely. Incorporating Creole French into her dialog was necessary in my opinion to give her voice authenticity. She must balance her speech between self confidence and being subservient, which is a tightrope walk many people of color have had to navigate.
Erin: Your plot also includes a mystery. How difficult was it to write that type of plot and tie up all the points in a debut novel? Did you outline?
Michelle: You know, I didn’t realize I was writing a mystery until I was more than halfway through the book. So, when that finally occurred to me, I went back through the book to make sure that things made sense and that there weren’t any missing pieces. Honestly, I’m still not 100% sure I accomplished that. I rarely use outlines while I’m writing, but because there are so many plot points, themes, and characters, I would sometimes outline what should happen next in the story. Scenes or snippets of dialog usually come to me first, so I had to figure out how to connect all those pieces. I began to think of the book as a quilt that I needed to stitch together. Scenes and dialog have started to present themselves for the second book, but I think outlining will be a must to maintain continuity with the first book and keep things on track for where I believe the story is headed.
Erin: I’m a pantser too so I totally get it! But I can see why with a mystery or a series an outline would be advantageous.
Your lead is a creole slave, and primarily, I believe, readers are following her journey. You’re a strong woman yourself who’s been through a lot and is a single mom. How much of yourself or other strong women did you write into Jacqueline? What kind of traits are you proud of giving her?
Michelle: That is an excellent question, Erin. I really appreciate you asking it. I think for a lot of women, being strong isn’t optional. Depending on who you are and your economic status, women deal with sexism, racism and classism on a daily basis. Microaggressions pile up faster than you might think and add an extra dimension to the stresses associated with work and parenting. Throw sexual relationships into the mix and that’s another level of stress even if you’re enjoying yourself.
There is a lot of me in Jacqueline, and while I was writing Invisible Chains, there were times I needed her to be stronger than me to face the challenges I created for her. Writing this novel was an extremely cathartic process for me and I cried during and after writing certain scenes. The extremely dysfunctional relationships Jacqueline has with certain characters are reflections of relationships I have had and needed to find the strength to avoid in the future. I’m proud of her because she doesn’t give up no matter how bad things get, she faces and slays her demons, and learns to believe in her own strength and power. And, slowly, she allows herself to trust others, which is no small task when you have been abused your entire life.
Erin: I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I want to address these points so that people can grasp diversity a bit better. As it’s Black History Month as well as Women in Horror month, your book ties in perfectly to those awareness campaigns. How important is it that voices not only for women in horror but for women of color in horror are heard? Why do you feel your protagonist as a person of color is important to the genre?
Michelle: I recently wrote a Women in Horror Month guest post for The Horror Tree that was featured on their website February 17, titled “Redefining the Horror Genre.” In the article, I began by examining the famous Lovecraft quote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I argue that for people of color, women, and anyone who lives on the margins of society, there are plenty of things to fear in the real world. Fearing the unknown seems like something reserved for people privileged enough to not have to feel like they’re in danger every day. There are plenty of things to fear, past and present—racism, sexism, slavery, the Holocaust, the systematic rape of women in extremist cultures, child abuse, gay bashing, the murder of transgendered people, or the genocide of native cultures world-wide—that make fearing the Elder Gods seem a bit ridiculous.
By including more diverse writers and characters in the horror genre, fear becomes more personal, more tangible, and in the words of second-wave feminist Carol Hanish, “The personal is the political.” Gender and race politics are important aspects of daily life for many of us, so for horror to be relevant and horrific, I think it needs to meet people where they live.
Our ever-changing sociopolitical climate is having, in my opinion, a positive effect on horror fiction. As more diverse voices emerge within the genre, I think that we will have more stories that redefine horror on a very personal level. Stories that look at identity politics as well as horrific experiences that can only be told from the POV of people who have experienced them.
Erin: Speaking of all of that: How about the inclusion of slavery into your work? How important do you feel that it is in history and culture today to include these events not only in the historical genre but in other genres, reaching other readers?
Michelle: Slavery happened. It is part of our history. It was terrifying and violent. A lot of people would like to believe that slavery wasn’t so bad for the people who suffered under it. Bullshit. People were tortured and killed. There’s nothing idyllic or romantic about this gruesome chapter in human history.
Here’s an idea for a story: The ghosts of slaves haunt a plantation house that has been renovated and rebranded as a place for destination weddings and terrorize the bridal parties. Honestly, I don’t care how many coats of paint you use or how many rose garlands you hang, there is something very dark about using a place where human beings were sold and treated like animals as the spot to celebrate what is meant to be one of the happiest days of your life.
So, yes, I think it’s still important to talk about slavery in its historical context as well as how it has shaped our current economy, political system, and social interactions in the United States.
Erin: In your bio and on your site, you talk about writing about women of color who battle their inner demons while falling in love with monsters. What do you mean by that and how do you feel you do that in your writing?
Michelle: You know, I’ve been thinking about my bio a lot lately. I do write stories about women of color who are dealing with issues of identity, past trauma, and often the reality of every day, plain old racism that is just part of living while Black and female in America. We all have our demons — trauma, addictions, obsessions, failed relationships, greed, lust, and any of the other five deadly sins. Confronting our demons is never easy, but when we take the time and make space for that process, healing can begin. I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to heal the wound that slavery and racism have carved into the American consciousness, but talking about it and reading stories written by diverse writers can help open new doors to understanding and allow for people to build community around healing from these issues.
That bit about falling in love with monsters relates to the fact that I enjoy love stories, but if you write horror and dark fantasy, those romances don’t always have happy endings. Vampires, werewolves, and demons can be quite attractive in their own ways and they make more interesting sexual partners than the nice guy who bags groceries at Trader Joe’s, at least in fiction.
I read a lot of paranormal romance and there are common themes in that fiction, especially vampire romance, in which vampires are depicted as being ideal mates. But when you examine these relationships more closely, vampires are really narcissistic, controlling and often abusive partners. I’ve been writing a blog series about that very subject over at Speculative Chic, “With This Ring, You’ll Be Dead: Violence Against Female Protagonists in Romantic Vampire Fiction.” And still, I find monsters very attractive and write about some of my favorite monsters on my own blog, Girl Meets Monster. And, they will continue to show up in my fiction, because I love writing about monsters. Because they often occupy the role of outsider, I believe they make good companions for my female characters who are often just as damaged.
Erin: I read your recent article on Medium “I was a Teenage Tragic Mulatto.” It was a brave piece, and as a fellow woman, and woman of abuse, I’m really proud of your strength in sharing your story. How do you feel more of these stories could be heard and understood better? How do you feel you fit as a woman of horror AND as woman of color in the horror genre?
Michelle: Again, I think that having a more inclusive genre that allows space for diverse voices with new perspectives on what horror means, will enable people to tell their stories. Not everyone is comfortable sharing the details of their own traumatic experiences. Thank you for referring to that piece as being brave. I struggled with whether or not to share it. It was a piece I had been thinking about writing for months and I finally sat down and wrote it. I shared it with two of my friends who I trust to be honest with me, and they both thought it was good and gave some feedback that made the piece stronger. That story could have easily been a piece of fiction, but honestly, that story makes its way into my fiction one way or another, because it is part of me and my female characters are a reflection of me.
For a long time I struggled, like most creatives, with the idea of imposter syndrome. I questioned whether or not I was really a horror writer, because people kept telling me that my story wasn’t a horror story. They wanted it to be historical fiction, which it is. They wanted it to be dark fantasy, which it is. They wanted it to be women’s fiction, whatever the hell that is. But now that other people have read it, reviewed it, and expressed how uncomfortable and emotional and terrifying the story was for them, I have no doubt that I wrote a horror novel. I am a horror writer.
Erin: Yes!!! I’m tired of people trying to define horror for others!
What can other women of horror do to support women of color in the horror genre (or in general)?
Michelle: Read and review our books. Invite us to participate in opportunities like this that showcase our work. Befriend them at conferences and have real conversations over cocktails. Invite them to submit to your next anthology, even if it isn’t strictly about race or gender identity. Ask questions and share your stories.
Erin: I love your blog.
Michelle: Thank you. I love writing for it and giving other writers the opportunity to talk about their work and what their writing process looks like. It’s fun and I get to learn new things and meet new writers.
Erin: What other writing have you done, or do you plan to do? What’s next for you?
Michelle: What’s next? Well, I have a short story in the charity anthology, The Dystopian States of America that will be released on March 3, 2020. There are two more parts to the series I’ve been writing for Speculative Chic, and I expect to be writing other things for them, including a review of Grady Hendrix’s soon to be released novel, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which I’ve been dying to talk about for months. I’m hoping to write more articles for Medium, and I’ll be submitting more short stories over the next few months.
People keep asking me if I’m working on the sequel to Invisible Chains. Technically, I am. I even have a working title, Blood Work. I’ve started doing research, I’ve drafted a few chapters, and I’ve introduced some new characters, but I haven’t set aside dedicated time to work on the manuscript. Not yet, at least. But I’m hoping to start working on the book in April, if not sooner.
Erin: Thank you for joining me here on my site and know you’re welcome anytime! Best of luck both to you and to Invisible Chains. And thank you for supporting other women and writers on Girl Meets Monster. Can you let people know where they can find you there and elsewhere?
Michelle: Thank you for having me, Erin. You asked a lot of thought-provoking questions and I really appreciate your interest in supporting other women writers. Yeah, so people can find my blog, Girl Meets Monster here: https://michellerlane.com/. You can check out my author archive at Speculative Chic here: https://speculativechic.com/author/chellane72/. And, you can always drop by and say hello to me on social media. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Michelle Renee Lane, Biography –
Michelle Renee Lane writes dark speculative fiction about women of color battling their inner demons while falling in love with monsters. Her work includes elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and occasionally erotica.
Her short fiction appears in the anthologies Dark Holidays, Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos, and The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women. Her debut novel, Invisible Chains (2019), is available from Haverhill House Publishing.
Invisible Chains, Synopsis –
Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans. An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.
Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks. She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.Women in Horror
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“This assured first novel delivers emotional and visceral beats to delight and disturb in equal measure.” – Frazer Lee, Bram Stoker Award finalist
Watch for more upcoming Women in Horror pieces and/or go to view schedule of pieces from previous years HERE. If you would like to feature a woman in horror ANYTIME of the year on my site by doing an interview with them or an article, please contact me.