We're continuing our Writing theme with another author interview! Last week, we chatted with Amanda Cecelia Lang about her contribution to the upcoming The Dark Side of Purity anthology, in addition to her other works.
Today, we’re pleased to welcome gothic & horror author Kristin Cleaveland to the blog! Her work has been published by Quill and Crow Publishing House, Ghost Orchid Press, Black Telephone Magazine, and more. You can spook her website or follow her on Twitter @KristinCleaves.
Jordan: Hi, Kristin! Thanks for joining us; we’re excited to have you on Coffee, Book, & Candle. Can you start off by telling us a bit about yourself and your works?
Kristin: Thank you so much for having me! I write short fiction, much of it focusing on the dark side of the female experience. My first publication was “Lilith, My Daughter” in the Winter 2021 issue of Black Telephone Magazine. Since then, I’ve published sixteen (I think!) pieces: short stories, flash, microfiction, one poem, and I wrote some horror satire for the website HauntedMTL as well, which was really fun. My most recent publication was “Return to Office” in the latest issue of Vastarien, which came out this month from Grimscribe Press. That’s one of my dream publications, and I was thrilled to be included.
Jordan: I’m honored to have a small part in Dark Side of Purity with so many talented authors and artists, yourself included. I already admired your work with Quill & Crow, which we’ll talk about in a moment, but right now tell us about your story in Dark Side. What inspired it and why is it important to you?
Kristin: My story is called “In Sorrow and In Silk,” and was inspired by my own life experiences, particularly my upbringing in the evangelical church and also a very toxic and difficult marriage that ended in 2021. Through a speculative horror lens, I wanted to examine the influences that had led me to make certain choices in life. I realize now that even at points in my life where I thought I was making up my own mind, I was still operating within a patriarchal religious framework. I’ve completely rejected that way of life now, but getting there was a long and painful process. This story was difficult to write, but I was satisfied with the way it turned out. I’ve always been inspired by themes of metamorphosis and rebirth, which you will see reflected in this story. I wanted to make sure there was still hope there within the darkness.
Jordan: This project carries an imperative message and brings a lot of unique voices to the table. What impact do you hope your particular story has on readers?
Kristin: My very deepest hope would be that it would inspire a reader to realize that it’s never too late to change her life for the better, whatever that may look like to her. I want women—and girls, especially—to know you don’t have to settle for what you’ve always been told to want. It’s OK to change your mind, to trust your gut. There’s no guilt or shame in choosing a different path. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or a bad mother. Some people won’t understand, but don’t let that stop you. Listen to your true voice, even if you’ve been taught for years or decades to ignore it. That’s the message I want readers to come away with. And, of course, I hope they find it entertaining!
Jordan: Probably my favorite story of yours that I’ve read so far is "Daughter of Salt and Sea" in the Quill & Crow publication Ravens & Roses. I first read it while editing the anthology, and I was blown away. What inspired that story and can you tell the readers what it’s about?
Kristin: Oh, thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it. “Daughter of Salt and Sea” is about a young woman who moves from the United States to England to marry a man she barely knows. She soon begins to suffer mysterious nightmares and her husband calls in a sinister physician to treat her “condition,” but fortunately the housekeeper and maid have befriended her and help her navigate the unexpected events that occur! I was partially inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, particularly “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and also drew on the historical treatment of women’s (real or perceived) mental illnesses in the Victorian era. The water bath “treatment” used in the story was an actual practice! This is another one of my stories that features themes of both motherhood and transformation/metamorphosis, which I find myself coming back to again and again.
Jordan: Now on to some general writing questions from both of us! Let’s start with a fun one: do you listen to music while writing (if so, what?), or do you prefer white noise or silence?
Kristin: I’m all over the place on this one! Sometimes I listen to music; I actually have a playlist called “Melodramatic Writing Songs” on Spotify with Annie Lennox, Arcade Fire, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, etc. Occasionally, I’ll listen to one of those YouTube ambiance videos with crackling fire or a thunderstorm. And sometimes white noise. I very rarely write in complete silence (especially when my kids are around)!
Kori: What first inspired your love of the macabre and what authors, if any, do you feel influenced your writing?
Kristin: I had a pretty strict religious upbringing, so for a long time anything “horror” or “macabre” wasn’t accessible to me. I do have a memory of my uncle reading “The Cask of Amontillado” to me when I was little, and that definitely made an impression. When I got older (and braver!) I read Poe, Stoker, Mary Shelley, etc. I also read a lot of Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Roald Dahl (probably when I was way too young), and they influenced me as well. My biggest influence—to the point of obsession—is definitely Shirley Jackson. If we’re talking about contemporary authors, though, my favorite is Kelly Link. When I read her for the first time, it was like discovering the short story form all over again.
Kori: What are some of your favorite gothic elements to use in writing?
Kristin: Definitely the theme of mental illness or “madness.” This shows up in almost all of my stories in one form or another. I’m not shy about admitting I have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and also suffered from severe postpartum depression/anxiety. These themes are always present in my work, but they are part of the Gothic tradition as well, particularly when you are talking about inherited madness and/or family secrets. This is a big trope in Gothic literature, and I used it in “Daughter of Salt and Sea” and also in “Thicker Than Water,” which appeared in Blood & Bone: An Anthology of Body Horror by Women and Non-Binary Writers from Ghost Orchid Press.
Kori: Do you like to use certain symbolism or themes in your writing? If so, what?
Kristin: I’ve mentioned before that transformation and metamorphosis are important to me, and I show these a lot in my work. There is a lot of horror particular to the female body as well—periods, pregnancy, childbirth, etc.—so I think this works well with themes of body transformation and change. I love to explore things that are both beautiful and monstrous at the same time. My kids make fun of me because so many of my stories have monster women, monster babies, or both. But I think it’s such a great way to depict all the messy reality of motherhood and/or the female experience. It rings true to me.
Kori: What has been the easiest piece to write and why?
Kristin: I think probably “Thicker Than Water.” I literally woke up one day with the first sentence in my head: “Allie’s mama had the blood rain, and everybody knew it.” It came very quickly when I sat down to write it. That one also deals with depression, both postpartum and lifelong, and it felt very natural to me. It has some of my best imagery and my favorite ending I’ve written so far. Also it’s fairly short, which is always a little easier for me.
Kori: What has been the hardest piece to write and why?
Kristin: For the hardest emotionally, I would say “In Sorrow and In Silk,” which as we mentioned before is in the upcoming The Dark Side of Purity. This one was really tough because, even though it is speculative horror fiction, I took so much inspiration from my own life, and I had to go through some very raw, very deep emotions to create it. But I was happy with the result, and I’m glad I did it. From a technical standpoint, I think “Daughter of Salt and Sea” was the most difficult, because it’s one of the longest ones I’ve written, and I did a lot of research to make sure the setting and details were accurate.
Kori: What is your favorite type of monster to write about?
Kristin: I have a special place in my heart for sirens and sea monsters. I think the sea is the perfect setting for horror; it’s cold, dark, bitter, and full of unknown creatures. I also like the idea of something beautiful yet terrifying and deadly, so that works well with the siren motif. But I’ve written a couple of flying monsters, too. I really like monsters!
Jordan: Do your dreams/nightmares play a role in your writing? How do you use them if so?
Kristin: My first published story, “Lilith, My Daughter,” was born from a nightmare. I saw the image of Lilith sitting on a throne of bones, her wrists chained to the throne with her own hair, and a voice saying, “She is the bride; I will eat her, and we will be as one.” I was absolutely terrified, and I also knew it was the best thing I had ever come up with, so I wrote it into a story. I revised it and submitted it over several years until it was finally accepted by Black Telephone Magazine, and it was such a great fit. I’m so grateful they gave it a chance. “Thicker Than Water” also came from a dream I had of blood dripping off walls. My best writing advice is to write your dreams down immediately!
Kori: What has surprised you most in your work?
Kristin: My biggest surprise is always when an ending turns out happy! When the ending to “Daughter of Salt and Sea” came to me (in the shower!) I thought, “Really? That’s what we’re doing?” but I think it definitely worked. Once in a while, my characters catch a break. “Thirteen” was another one like that, about a little witch up to some mischief who ends up making a friend. It was published in The Crow’s Quill, and I wrote it in honor of my daughter’s thirteenth birthday.
Jordan: What has been your favorite fact or detail uncovered in your story research?
Kristin: I read a lot about Victorian flower meanings for "Daughter of Salt and Sea"! Yellow roses and ivy mean friendship, and I used that in the story.
Kori: Are there any elements you feel are overly cliché, tiresome, etc.?
Kristin: I think the trope of “is there paranormal activity, or is this character losing their mind?” can be overdone, but it can also be effective if done well. I feel the same way about ambiguous endings. Sometimes they can feel like a cop-out, but other times they’re great. I use them sometimes if I feel like I can make it work. I enjoy leaving the reader with something to think about.
Jordan: Do you have any favorite writing snacks/drinks?
Kristin: Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I am never without my iced coffee, even better if it’s Dunkin’ cold brew! I usually have some dark chocolate on hand, too, unless my son steals it out of my desk.
Kori: Where do you fall on the planner/pantser scale?
Kristin: I’m in the middle! I’ll usually outline a story, but more often than not the outline will contain sections like “crazy stuff goes down here” or “figure this part out” or other stream-of-consciousness rambling. But I usually have a decent idea of where the ending is going. I feel like my conclusions are typically the strongest; I struggle more with beginnings.
Kori: How do you approach writer’s block?
Kristin: I’m not proud of this, but the best way I’ve found to overcome writer’s block is “have a looming deadline.” Sometimes this is literally the only thing that kicks my brain into creative mode. Listening to music, reading, etc. can also help. I’ve also gotten some good ideas in the tub or shower. Sometimes you have to let your brain run in the background and see what it comes up with.
Kori: What are your perfect writing conditions/atmosphere?
Kristin: I would like to say I write in a gloomy Gothic castle shrouded in mist, but I’m usually just at my desk wearing my headphones! As long as my kids give me a little peace and quiet, I’m good.
Kori: If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?
Kristin: These came to me right away: “Mothers, Monsters, and Madness.” If I ever put out a short story collection, maybe that will be the title.
Hey, book witches. It would mean a lot to us if you helped back this beautifully written and illustrated anthology, The Dark Side of Purity. Not only can you spy our resident witch Jordan and our featured author Kristin Cleaveland's works in there, but the novels support an important cause with an important message. Check out the Kickstarter link below for more information.