Sarah Read is a force in the horror genre and has a long-standing history of publications in numerous top tier journals. She’s the author of a new collection, Out of Water (published by Trepidatio Publishing), and one I’ve been anticipating with excitement for months now. Sarah chatted with me over email communication over a week to talk about how she started writing horror, who her influences are, and her thoughts on women writers and their role in the publishing industry. We discussed the history of women and their portrayal as both evil as well as powerful throughout the ages and how this plays a role in her writing, as well as her advice to new writers.
Sarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in Gamut, Black Static, and other places, and in various anthologies, including Exigencies, Suspended in Dusk, BEHOLD! Oddities Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 10. Her novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is now out from Trepidatio Publishing, and her debut collection Out of Water was just released. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pantheon Magazine and their associated anthologies, including Gorgon: Stories of Emergence. She is an active member of the Horror Writers’ Association. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits.
Hillary Leftwich: What do you think your grandmother (who I’ve read was a huge influence on your writing and reading horror) found intriguing about mysteries and dark fiction, enough to put it into your hands? What influences growing up other than family led you to the path of writing horror?
Sarah Read: My grandmother has always been the biggest bookworm I know. She’s been fighting Alzheimer’s for the past ten years, and though she doesn’t know me anymore, she still reads all day. She reads the same books over and over, underlining every sentence to try and remember it better. It’s every bit as tragic as the Gothic novels she used to give me. The first one was The Secret Garden, which is probably the most formative book of my life. So much of who I am and what I like sprouted from those seeds. Her favorite book was Jane Eyre, and we used to get each other every pretty, new edition of the book we could find. The best years were when we would exchange the exact same edition. As I got older, she’d let me read her mysteries and true crime books, curled up on an old cushion in her attic library. My favorite was the Anne Rule book about Jack the Ripper. I was astonished, at that moment, that a writer could solve an age-old crime (of course, she didn’t, but I wouldn’t learn that till much later). I’m sure it inspired me down that road. I don’t know what drew her to darker books. She read other things, too—history and romance and books about Hollywood. She didn’t care much for dark or gruesome movies. But she always loved a good Gothic tale, and we shared that up till the moment she forgot me. She stopped reading dark books after my grandfather died. That was also when her decline began. She takes comfort in cozy romance novels now.
I honestly don’t know what truly set me on the horror-writing path. I’ve loved as far back as I have memory. Even as a wee tot in daycare, I used to pretend that my family had died, and I was being dropped off at an orphanage, not a Kindercare. My mom still tells me how much that upset her! I guess I was born this way.
HL: On the same note of matriarchs and influence, it’s hard not to notice how much the horror genre is dominated by men. Yes, we have Anne Rice, Octavia Butler, Gemma Files, Kelly Link, Tananarive Due, and you (to name a few, of course). How does being a woman horror writer in a genre that’s male dominated impact you in both your writing as well as what you see in the publishing world?
SR: We have so many amazing women horror writers, and we always have. We began it, we embody it, and we’re carrying it today. I feel like small press and independent writers and artists have fully embraced and support women in horror. But I also see women working ten times as hard as men for that support. I’ve seen my male peers shoot to revered stardom on the back of a few good stories, while my female peer’s release book after book of solid gold, only to be patted on the head and referred to as “emerging writers,” despite their decades of success. And there’s far too little representation in mainstream horror of anything but straight white men. When women in horror go mainstream, the business funnels them into YA, thrillers, or mysteries, or even paranormal romance. It’s so aggravating! I love seeing all the love for horror on screen lately—so many great movies and streaming shows being produced from books and stories, but so few are from women authors (or queer authors, or authors of color, or authors with disabilities, etc). And it’s not that these movies and shows aren’t good—because a lot of them are! It’s just that they’re not the only good thing out there; they’re just the only ones getting made. I want an Angela Slatter horror anthology TV show, goddammit. I want the White Is For Witching movie.
I’m not sure any of this has impacted my writing, necessarily, though I’m sure it’s impacted my career—probably in ways I can’t even see. I’ve received plenty of rejection letters with the “this isn’t what we’re looking for” line, where the book that editor then produced was all men. My new collection, Out of Water, revels in female horror and feminine power. So many good books do! The trick is making them seen in ways that make a difference in the cultural context.
HL: I know the frustration of the publishing industry and how aggravating it must be for you when finding homes for your books when not only your genre but the industry itself is male dominated. I love what you said about “female horror” and “feminine power” when describing your book. So many women throughout time in positions of power have been portrayed as evil or demonic in nature. A good example of this is Lilith. Do you utilize this same context when writing your novels? Can you elaborate on your statement: “The trick is making them seen in ways that make a difference to the cultural context,” and how this might apply to the women in your books?
SR: The short stories in my collection Out of Water focus a lot on this, though I didn’t plan that ahead of time! There are only two of the eighteen stories without prominent female characters, and several with no men at all. Humans have certainly demonized powerful women for centuries. And maybe there’s something natural about our collectively unconscious fear of those with the power to create life. After all, womb-bearing women are the doorways to life, and doors open both ways. A lot of mythologies pair creation and destruction. What we’ve lost, I think, is our reverence for destruction. I do have a few dangerously powerful women in the book and some that abuse that power. And there are stories that address the grief of not being able to fulfill that power, or of having it forced on us rather than chosen. Lilith definitely makes an appearance as an archetype in several of the stories.
In The Bone Weaver’s Orchard, we see the aftermath of Victorian oppression of women. The theme takes place largely in the background, but the prequel I’m writing right now is going to tell that part of the story and really blow that theme up in a way that I hope brings it more to the forefront in Bone Weaver as well. I won’t say more than that for fear of giving too much away. But a few people have asked—considering that my short fiction is often centered on feminine power, why there are so few women in Bone Weaver. But I think Bone Weaver addresses that theme, too—particularly once the mystery is solved. The answer itself lies in that dynamic—the failed experiment of a society and school run by powerful men.
HL: Doors certainly do open both ways. I love that insight. Final question: What advice would you give other female writers who are just starting to write?
SR: Have persistence and tenacity. Believe in yourself and support each other. Keep intersectionality in mind. It’s hard being a woman in horror, but even harder for trans women, LGBTQIA+, and women of color. There’s room for all our voices and stories, so promote each other’s work, read and review. Horror has a wonderfully welcoming community among writers, reviewers, and fans, and it’s important we keep it that way by always lifting our voices for love, respect, and inclusiveness. We’re a creepy bunch, but hate isn’t welcome here.
Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in October 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com.