First of all, tell us the source of your inspiration for House and Garden.
Hi Cornell, and thank you for hosting me. I know you’re busy with the release of your own novel, Lost in the Bayou, so thank you especially for this!
My inspiration came from a country house (really a shack that aspired to be a cottage) that my old boyfriend Hal and I purchased on a tiny neglected peninsula on Long Island. Just after we bought it he got a new job, which required his working in the city (Manhattan) and meant I would be spending the first weekends alone at the house. I looked forward to this – I was planning on gardening for the first time – making the garden pretty with lots of flowers and a little stone path – perhaps foxglove, irises, Montauk daisies. I had big plans. But first I had to deal with the overgrowth of a backyard that had not been touched in years. There were vines strangling the trees, choking the rose bushes, weaving through the lawn. It was just as I describe in the story: the lawn was like walking on a field of pencils strewn about.
As I confidently started out with my clippers my first mission was to take care of these old vines. But I soon learned that they were too strong for my clippers: I practically took off my thumb holding them and attempting to cut them off the trees. They were simply too strong for my hand strength on the clippers, and the clipper blade kept slipping, always aiming for my fingers. Bugs came out of nowhere to attack me and climb into my shirtsleeves; everything that had jaws or pinchers bit me and stung me. I pushed a wad of weeds into a trash barrel to compact it and the thorns punched through and punctured my hands. As evening came, and the mosquitoes started on my ankles and worked their way up to my face, I was really beginning to feel like the garden did not like me there, trying to gentrify it.
I thought: this is something Stephen King would write about. Maybe I should try to write it myself?
That’s very interesting and a bit spooky, for sure. Let’s switch gears here for a moment and talk a little about how you create your characters. Are they based on people you know, or do they each have a little of Deb Victoroff inside them?
Well, I can only speak to this short story regarding character creation. Although I’ve written short plays, those characters were created out of whole cloth. In this short story, the lead character Elise Lambert is absolutely based on me – but I am only the most skeletal of templates. Elise is not intended to be an adorable chipper, good-natured young woman. She’s a bit of a loner, not good at personal relationships, somewhat judgmental with a superiority complex that comes from assuming that others are going about life the wrong way, and that’s why they don’t “get” her. These traits lead directly to her assumptions about how easy it will be to shape her garden to how she feels it SHOULD look, changing things to suit her. She likes to be in control for sure. She’s a film editor by trade, and the cutting and shaping of stories has given her an unrealistic sense of how life can be modified to one’s tastes.
So I am by trade a film/video editor and although I have no illusions about the real world vs. the filmed world, I thought someone for whom those worlds blurred together would make for an interesting character. Also, I am different from Elise in that I like people and enjoy their company, although I enjoy blocks of time alone for sure. I hope I am slightly less of a social misfit than Elise.
I’m paraphrasing R.L. Stine, the creator of the Goosebumps series, but he said something like “There’s nothing more enjoyable than scaring children.” Perhaps he’ll leave a comment and correct me. My question for you is, do you enjoy scaring your readers?
I would be honored and flattered to scare my readers! I would dread hearing that the story is ok, but not scary, or not scary enough. I don’t know how people will respond to it… talk about scary: writing something and asking the public to read it is absolutely terrifying! I am in awe of writers who can do this well. I remember reading “The Shining” by Stephen King. I started out in my own room reading and by the middle of the story I could not read it if I was alone. I had to be in a room with another person. Same with “Dracula”. That’s a talent I would love to have! For any writer, making the “audience” respond, in whatever way you intend, be it tears, laughter, or horror, that’s the name of the game. A story is ultimately just typewritten symbols, shaped into words, put on paper in a certain order. If you can make another person react emotionally to those words that you as the writer put in an order that you chose, isn’t that something? I typically write humor and to have someone tell me they laughed at something of mine they read is worth about 30 minutes of “glow” for me.
Give us a couple of names. Who are your favorite authors?
Well, the Big Kahuna for horror writers is of course Stephen King. (I know you’re a fan as well!) There’s that perpetual argument about whether his books are “worthy” – most people consider his stuff as pulp or like they do pop music. It causes a reaction but that reaction is elicited by cheap tricks. I can’t join this argument. I have read horror that’s considered “literature”: “Dracula”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “The Monkey’s Paw”, “The Telltale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe, and many others, and I can say that they all frightened me. What is really difficult I think is to keep horror and suspense up for the length of a novel. That’s why there are so many great short horror stories and not so many great horror novels.
“Playboy Magazine” which I actually used to read (I had 4 brothers so believe me there were plenty around the house) used to have great short stories – good horror in particular. One of the best I ever read was by the cartoonist Gahan Wilson. Titled “The Manuscript of Dr. Arness”, I think it’s an example of a perfect short horror story. It’s brilliant. I also like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Peter Straub. Charles Dickens is my favorite all-around writer and I would count “A Christmas Carol” as a wonderful paranormal story!
Of course I also like chick lit (Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher), and spy novels (Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Ken Follet), everything really. I must say a book that I read as young kid and which I will never forget is Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”. That story had everything. I was frightened in the middle, and sad and sentimental at the end. I wonder if kids still read that?
Let’s talk a little about your publisher, Musa. I’ve been reading about them on Absolute Write and some other blogs. I understand they’re concentrating their publishing efforts entirely in the digital format realm at the present time. Personally, I think that’s a great idea because the eBook market is exploding and should continue to do well in the future. Did you have any reservations about being solely digital when you signed with them?
At first I approached the idea of digital publication with trepidation. I was one of those who thought I would never, ever give up three-dimensional paper books. But then I downloaded one (“And Here’s the Kicker” – great by the way) and I was hooked. Now I see that it is a perfectly legitimate way to purchase and read books and stories. In fact, I think the digital form may save short stories. There are so few places to publish and read them. And I am very pleased that Musa and I found each other. They are a tremendously hard-working group – a small operation with four cornerstones and several freelancers. I like the choices they are making and also the fact that they represent so many different genres, but not scattershot. They show great respect to the authors and all their books.
Tell us a little about the chronology. What steps led up to the contract?
Musa has a good system. You send them a synopsis and if they like it, they ask to see the first 15 pages. Nail biting ensues. If they like the first 15 pages, then they ask for the manuscript (digitally). More nail biting. If they like the book/story, they send you a contract. Jumping up and down follows.
I’m looking at your cover and wondering if you had to furnish that or did Musa create it for you?
Musa has as one of their cornerstones the artist Kelly Shorten who designs the cover against a template of the Musa logo. She did my cover; I’m not sure if Musa has other artists as well. She read my story to get a feel for what my piece was about and came up with the most perfect image; I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I gave her a photo of the wetlands behind my old house. It had exactly the elements of mystery and bayside growth I imagined. We tried adding an insect to the picture (I have some angry insects in the story) – it didn’t work. Too obvious. We got rid of it. The only issue I had with the image was that it seemed as if it was daytime – Kelly darkened the photo and added shadows under the boardwalk. Then it was perfect.
Okay, let’s stay with House and Garden for a little longer. Give us a teaser and quote your favorite passage from it. Make it something scary if you’d like, but not a spoiler.
Here’s a bit from the beginning.
"We’re home, Solo," Elise smiled, as Solo lifted a leg and peed on a bush, then trotted around the side of the house and disappeared.
Elise unpacked the car and walked up the porch stairs to the front of the house. As she put her key into the door, she felt a wispy touch on her cheek. She reflexively stroked at it, and saw tangled in her sweater cuff, an enormous black spider. She screamed and backed against the screen shaking her hand as if it were on fire.
“Get off, get off, get off!” she cried.
Her heart raced, she twisted and jumped back. She looked again at her sleeve, her eyes wide with fear. Nothing. It must’ve fallen off. She looked down at her feet but saw nothing. Sighing, she said aloud, “My God, what a baby I am.” Her heart slowed a little as she reached for the doorknob.
She looked at her screen. She’d put an elbow clean through it; it looked like a mesh blossom blooming on one side of the door. Her elbow was bleeding.
Well she was a homeowner now, she thought, and this would be the first of many small injuries and home repairs. She blamed it on the spider. Spiders had always frightened Elise; the multiple legs, those horrific faces, and the way they appeared out of nowhere…
“Get used to it, kiddo,” she said to herself, “you’re on their turf now.” Solo came around the corner, inquisitive, and Elise let him sweep by her into the house. “Good boy,” she said. “Let’s get inside.” She followed Solo into the house, turning once more to scan the porch, and closed the door.
Tell our readers one unusual thing about you that we would never suspect.
I love banjo music. I love Bluegrass and banjo specifically. I was the music editor on the HBO show “Sex and the City” for one season (and the assistant for 4). I do not find Brad Pitt attractive at all. That insurance commercial where everyone is “paying it forward” makes me tear up every time. Ridiculous.
Speaking of banjo music, I’m guessing you liked the movie, Deliverance. But we won’t go there this time. Instead, tell us where we can get a copy of House and Garden. Also, will it work for Kindle and Nook and all of those other eReaders out there?
As of Friday December 30th it will be available for download on musapublishing.com. 24 hours later (I think) it will be up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s websites. And yes, there are several formats available so it shouldn’t be too hard to download onto your smart phone, or iPad, or computer, or Kindle/Nook. (sounds like Brundle/Fly)
Well, I’m certain I speak for all of our readers when I say thank you for taking the time for the interview. I know everyone wishes you the best for House and Garden and all your future works.