What first piqued your interest in horror, and why do you enjoy writing in the genre?
I published my first piece, a magazine article, way back in 1986 during university. After years of writing mostly non-fiction, I turned to fiction in 2007 and wrote short stories with a downbeat or melancholy feel. In retrospect, I can see now that I flirted with horror elements from the very beginning. Themes such as death, random violence, tragedy, loss, and estrangement ran through all of my fiction, including my crime-oriented stories. My noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita, have strong body-horror scenes.
In 2014 I decided to explore writing pure horror. It was the most fun I’ve ever had.
Authors, no matter what their genre, are trying to write truths about the human condition. I think horror is the most successful of all genres at capturing glimpses of the existential crisis we struggle with throughout our lives. Writing horror is also cathartic: it allows you to channel intense emotions, nightmares, fears, bad memories, and phobias. And horror writing is a challenge. Creeping out your reader is a difficult thing to do. You have to keep striving to improve every paragraph, every sentence, and every word.
Who are a few of your favourite horror writers, books, or stories?
Stephen King, naturally: although his stories are usually hit-or-miss for me. The Shining is brilliant and I reread it every few years. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is another five-star novel. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of anthologies – Australian, American, South African – and the quality of the present-day talent is staggering.
Locally, I’ve enjoyed work by Andrew McKiernan, M.R. Cosby, Martin Livings, and Kaaron Warren, among many others.
The Speculative Fiction genre is known for being a bit of a boy’s club. What’s your experience of it been, from the point of a female writer who spends most of her time with the darker genre side?
I’ve been a professional for 30 years, writing everything from feature articles to patient education pamphlets to TV scripts. Most writing fields are competitive. Plenty of writers seem to believe there are only so many seats at the table. Jealousy and envy are common.
Midnight Echo magazine published my story, ‘Perfect Little Stitches’, in April 2015, and I’ve been writing and publishing horror, in its various subgenres, ever since. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve found the horror writing community to be supportive, friendly, and inclusive. The general feeling seems to be, we’re all in this together, and I love that attitude. How refreshing in our dog-eat-dog world!
But yes, I’ve experienced sexism over the decades, more times than I could count. (And many backhanded compliments too. My favourite: ‘Wow, Deb, you write like a man!’) However, I’ve never experienced sexism from editors or publishers within the horror industry. I’m sure this is because those at the coalface know from experience that whether the writer has ovaries or testes doesn’t matter a damn as long as the story is good.
What advice do you have for women just starting out on the writing road (or who have been writing a while and are getting frustrated)?
Firstly, develop a thick(er) skin. Your work will get judged all the time – by workshop members, editors, agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, and bloggers – and you have to be prepared for criticism. The marketplace is tough. Rejections are par for the course. I remember an interview with Isaac Asimov where he mentioned that he still got rejections after decades of international success. My advice is simple but perhaps hard to implement: toughen up, learn to tell the difference between constructive criticism and hostile criticism, and keep finding ways to improve your craft.
How do you feel about how women are portrayed in horror films?
Once, female characters in horror films were tokens; there to look beautiful, make dumb decisions, and get slashed. Those days appear to be gone. TV series such as ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’ feature strong female characters, while films like ‘The Babadook’ and ‘The Witch’ have female leads.
I find that crime and / or action films are lagging behind the times. The ratio of male to female characters is, I don’t know, maybe 50 to 1? Even so, the beautiful female character is only there to show her boobs or bed the macho man. As a lover of crime and / or action films, when are we ever going to see more female characters shooting guns and kicking arse?
Do you have any thoughts on female eroticism used as a horror device in books and film? Do you like or dislike female erotica?
Noir often uses the femme fatale device, and I love it. The female characters are generally strong-willed, action-oriented, and sexy as all hell, no matter what their age.
The original Cat People (1942) is one of my favourite old-time horror films. It’s about a woman too afraid to get physical with hubby for fear that sexual arousal will change her into a panther. Forgoing blood and gore for suspense, the film is moody, atmospheric and eerie. (Perhaps the effect is heightened in my case because I’m scared of cats.)
With regards to female erotica in horror, I have a neutral opinion. I neither avoid it nor seek it out.
What were the challenges breaking into the industry? If you haven’t experienced challenges, share your thoughts on your success!
It was surprisingly easy to break into horror writing. I got published right away. That said, I’d already been writing professionally for decades and knew what I was doing. These days, I don’t tend to get as many rejections. A couple of years ago, a member of my writers’ group told me, ‘Deb, you’ve found your niche. You’re a horror writer.’ I agree with her. Horror engages me in a way that no other kind of writing ever has.
What would you say is the most difficult aspect of being a female horror writer?
We’re in the minority. If you Google ‘best horror novels of all time’, you’re lucky if female authors make up 10 per cent of any list you care to browse. This disparity gives the wrong impression; that men must be better horror writers than women. (Conversely, the same could be said of romance writing, where women writers outnumber men.)
On a lighter note, people are always interested to know that I’m a writer, but surprised or taken aback when they find out I write horror. ‘But you don’t look like a horror writer!’ is the typical refrain. Ha ha! Sorry folks, I’m your average middle-aged mum, not a Goth.
Are there any tropes you tend to avoid in your writing because you are a woman?
I hate the cliché of attacks happening while a couple is either having or about to have sex. Of course, the woman’s norgs are always out. You know the scene. It’s along these lines:
*antagonist growls / breaks a window / steps on a twig*
BABE: Wait a minute, Billy! What was that noise?
BILLY: Huh? Nothing. Just the wind. Come on, babe…
BABE: Oh well, okay then…
*more smooching, tit fondling, heavy breathing*
*antagonist launches attack, grisly deaths ensue*
Believe it or not, on a couple of occasions I’ve been advised to use variations on this trope. No. Just no.
Do you think female authors are taken less seriously than male authors? Do you think it’s difficult for female writers to gain attention (for the right reasons!)?
The fact that we need things like the ‘The Stella Awards’ and ‘Women in Horror Month’ suggests that female writers are under-represented. I’m not sure where the problem lies. I suspect it’s a vicious circle that dates back a long time. Publishers favour male authors, readers get used to reading male authors, publishers look at sales figures and assume that readers prefer male authors, and around and around we go. Medium and small presses are, I think, less prone to this ingrained gender bias simply because they are more likely to be driven by editorial decisions.
Why do you think it’s important to honour women in contemporary horror fiction?
Since women horror writers are a minority, they are more easily overlooked. A slice of the spotlight might help readers find their new favourite authors.
Do you think anything needs to change to celebrate and promote female horror writers for them to gain more recognition?
Book promotion is expensive. I’m old enough to remember when publishers spent their funds from best-selling nonfiction titles, like cook books, on nurturing the careers of emerging novelists. For anything to change, publishers need to give more power to their editors and less to their accountants. I’ve received so many rejections that begin, ‘We loved your work but we’re not in a position to launch a new author’, that I’ve wanted to rip out my hair. However, publishing is a business with longstanding protocols, so I don’t foresee major changes coming any time soon.
Do you ever feel the need to censure yourself or fear your opinions may not be well received because you are a woman?
There’s a PC trend at the moment about ‘appropriation’. I don’t buy into the uproar. By and large, I rarely write about non-English speaking cultures simply because I’d get it wrong. What do I know about Lithuania, Peru, or Benin? That said, I’ve written stories, novellas and novels from the male perspective because I’m a human being and I don’t consider men to be aliens. I also write characters all the way up and down the socio-economic scale. Writers should never censure themselves. Say what you want to say.
Have you ever used or considered using a male pseudonym because you thought your writing would be misconstrued or not taken seriously because it came from a female perspective?
Other writers have suggested that I use the name ‘D.J. Sheldon’ instead of ‘Deborah Sheldon’ so that readers would assume I was male, and therefore, might be more willing to buy my books. I’ll never choose that option. As the saying goes, ‘It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness’. Well, I’m lighting my goddamned candle.
Who are your inspirations (male or female), and why?
I’m a huge fan of the short story. I also feel particularly inspired by twentieth-century American literature. In no particular order, some of my favourite authors include Annie Proulx, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Daphne du Maurier. They write so vividly in their own unique way.
On a more personal note, my husband is one of my biggest inspirations. When we first met, he disliked reading fiction. It took some years, but I gradually changed his mind. He’s my imaginary ‘over the shoulder’ reader whenever I write fiction. How do I keep him turning the pages? Striving to write the kind of stories my (reluctant reader) husband would find interesting drives me to try harder.
Alternatively, our son is a voracious reader. He inspires me to write fresh, write new, take risks. Otherwise, I hazard the deflating assessment, ‘Yeah Mum, it was okay.’
What are you working on at the moment?
A noir / horror novel with the working title, Contrition. My monster horror novel, Devil Dragon (Severed Press), came out in November, and IFWG Publishing Australia relaunched my crime-noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita, in December, so I’m busy writing guest blog posts or author interviews for these titles. My horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories, is due for publication in July, so I expect to start doing pre-publicity for that title soon. Taking into account all the stops and starts, I hope to finish Contrition sometime mid-year, fingers crossed.
What direction do you see the genre taking in the future?
As a reader, I’ve noticed horror fiction moving away from standard gore tropes and more into literary fields. At its core, horror has always been about fear. I think horror fiction will continue to explore this theme but in more complex and sophisticated ways.
Finally, what advice would you give other women in the horror industry? (Including writers, artists, filmmakers, etc.)
Don’t listen to the naysayers. Keep trying. Find your own voice. You have what it takes to tap into the collective human consciousness. Go for it.
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Aurealis, SQ Mag, and Midnight Echo, and also in various anthologies published in Australia and overseas. Her latest releases include the horror novel, Devil Dragon (Severed Press), and the crime-noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita (IFWG Publishing Australia). Later this year, IFWG will publish her horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories. The title story, ‘Perfect Little Stitches’, was nominated for an Australian Shadows Award, and included in Dead of Night: the best of Midnight Echo, and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2015. Deb is one of the judges of this year’s Australian Horror Writers Association short story competition. Her other writing credits include television scripts such as Neighbours, stage plays, magazine articles, non-fiction books (Reed Books and Random House), and award-winning medical writing.
• Author website – http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com
• Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Deborah-Sheldon-936388749723500/http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com
• Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3312459.Deborah_Sheldon
• Devil Dragon – https://www.amazon.com/Devil-Dragon-Deborah-Sheldon-ebook/dp/B01N0F32TI/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479446634&sr=1-1&tag=risinetsciefi-20
• Dark Waters & Ronnie and Rita – https://ifwgaustralia.com/shop-item-dark-waters-ronnie-and-rita/
• Perfect Little Stitches and other stories – https://ifwgaustralia.com/2016/04/16/news-acquisition-of-perfect-little-stitches-and-other-stories-by-deborah-sheldon/