Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Self-Reflection: 2016’s Shit Show

Remember how last week I was all like “I’m gonna blog every day in December and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit…”? Well, it is December 9 and I haven’t written a new post since last week. To be honest, I feel a bit hung-over. Not only do I feel like a zombie as I slog through my day job, maintain my household as a single parent, recover from NaNoWriMo, and gear up for the holidays, but 2016 has been a confusing and soul-sucking year so far. Over the past few years, I have had some monumentally shitty things happen to me, but in the grand scale, I feel like I’m on par with most people. Shitty things happen to people all the time. I don’t think I’m any worse off than others, and I certainly don’t view myself as a special snowflake that deserves extra attention or sympathy. At the end of 2014 and 2015, I invited both years to fuck off to make way for the coming year. I feel like I owe 2014 and 2015 a heart-felt apology, because despite all the improvements I experienced in my personal life – better health habits, better self-care, more creative projects completed, and better friendships cultivated – 2016 was a colossal shit show. Or, the year that was a dumpster fire.

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At the beginning of 2016, I was doing really well. I felt better about myself and the world in general. I was feeling stronger. More confident. I decided to take better care of myself and took action to lay the groundwork to do so. I was beginning to appreciate my own company after months of grieving, perhaps ironically, the loss of a toxic relationship. And then, 2016 said, “I think you’re feeling too good about yourself. What can I do to fuck that up royally, and maintain a consistent flow of complete fuckery to keep things interesting?”

What makes 2016 a shit show? Here’s my Calendar of 2016’s Dick Moves that kept me emotionally unbalanced from beginning to end.

January – November 2016

January 10: David Bowie Dies

January 14: Severus Snape Dies

April 21: Prince Dies

June 24: Britain Votes to Leave EU

July 7: Huffington Post Reports 194 Black People Killed by Police

August 28: Willy Wonka Dies

November 7: Leonard Cohen Dies

November 8: Donald Trump Wins the 2016 US Election

November 18: Sharon Jones Dies

And here we are, almost two weeks from Christmas Eve. The holidays are quickly approaching and it’s time for some self-reflection before 2017 shows up. I’m not going to get into New Year’s resolutions just yet, but I do want to take a closer look at some of the things that did go right this year that don’t require additional grieving. Happiness is totally still a thing and within your reach.

Self-love became a priority.

After several years of feeling like I had almost no control over where my life was headed, and feeling like a prisoner in my own mind and body, I made a decision to take my life back. I had been making strides in the right direction since 2012 and 2013, but then I got sidetracked by things that weren’t good for me. Namely, a 15-month toxic relationship that made my self-esteem drop to an all-time low. After 3 months of therapy, I found the courage to walk away from that relationship in June of 2015. It took several months of slowly weaning myself away from that emotionally destructive situation, but after 21 months of therapy and a lot of personal growth, I feel like a new person. Not quite my old self, but perhaps a better version of her.

Through therapy and LOTS of self-reflection, I made some decisions to change my life for the better. One of the first things I did was disable my OKCupid and FetLife accounts. There was too much noise coming from both of those accounts, and because of the nature of the relationship I was in, I was attracting a lot of people I didn’t really want to meet. And, even if I wanted to meet them, I wasn’t in any emotionally safe state to put myself out there and open myself up to new wounds. Second, I started spending a lot of time by myself. On purpose. And then I listened to my inner voice until it started saying nice things about me. Third, I rejoined Weight Watchers for like, I don’t know, the millionth time in my life. The difference this time was that I was only doing it for me. I didn’t have a special occasion or person that I was working toward. I wanted to lost weight and become healthier to impress myself. Crazy idea, right? So, in April I joined Weight Watchers, made a commitment to attend meetings, or at least weigh-in every week, which I have, and I’ve lost 30 lbs. In the process of making better choices and evaluating my habits, I started getting up at 5:00 AM and going for walks at least 3 times a week. A few weeks back, I decided to ramp up my walking and began using the Couch to 5K program to increase my activity and try running. I’m not pushing myself or condemning myself when I can’t keep up with the program. I simply tell myself, “Hey, maybe you can’t run as far as you’d like right now, but you’re making progress and you’re out here in the dark and the cold making an effort to improve your life.” Positive self-talk actually works. Who knew?

So, aside from feeling better and losing 30 lbs., I also made a decision that I would start trusting people again. When people I didn’t know very well showed an interest in getting to know me better, rather than building a wall around myself, I opened myself up and let them in. Was it scary? Fuck yeah! Is it still scary? A lot of the time, yes. But allowing those people into my life has taught me some things or reminded me of some things I forgot about myself. Good things. And now, I have a few more really cool friends who care about what happens to me and look forward to spending time with me. Without imposing any weird or destructive expectations. They’re genuinely good people. Genuinely good people I love.

I cleaned my bedroom and clothes closet.

This may not seem like a big deal, but my bedroom had become a constant source of stress for me, because it was a dumping ground for everything that I didn’t feel like getting rid of or putting away. Between donating clothing and throwing away items that were no longer of use to me, I purged 13 garbage bags worth of burden out of my life. And, since I was steadily losing weight, I got rid of a lot of my plus-sized clothing. Last year at this time I was wearing a women’s 2XL winter coat. This year I’m wearing a women’s large. It’s not a plus-sized coat. It buttons without being tight. I’m calling that a win. I found boxes of smaller-sized clothing that I hadn’t worn since the last time I lost a lot of weight. I’m glad I kept them, because I have great taste in clothing. Jeans, sweaters, dresses, shirts, and of course, coats.

Writing became a priority (again).

This year I have written more than 250 haiku poems. Three of which were selected from publication in a new feminist literary magazine. Hopefully, I’ll have more concrete details soon. I wrote nearly 42,000 words during NaNoWriMo last month and have gotten close to completing my second full-length novel. And, I’m working on a short story for an anthology set in a RPG world. So, I’ve been keeping busy with creative projects. But, as always, I feel like I should be doing more.

My child made me a prouder parent.

My son has a full plate this year with Kung Fu, basketball, STEM club at school, and he’s learning to play the viola. His grades are great, he’s reading above his grade level, and he’s becoming an interesting individual with quirky personality traits that I love and hate simultaneously. We don’t always get along, but it’s just the two of us. As a single parent, I understand that sometimes I have to carry the burden of misplaced animosity and negative feelings that might not actually have anything to do with me. It’s just one of the many services I provide as a responsible adult.

I’m sure there are other things I could talk about, like how much fun I’ve been having lately visiting with friends and trying new things, but maybe I’ll save that for another post…that may or may not get written this month.

Okay, so maybe 2016 hasn’t been a complete shit show, but hey, it ain’t over yet.

While you’re thinking about your own year in review and planning your New Year’s resolutions while getting ready for the holidays, you can make this lovely dumpster fire ornament for your Christmas tree or Hanukah bush.

5 Things I Learned Writing a Novel During NaNoWriMo 2016

Today is the last day of November 2016. It is day 30 of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This year I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo with the intent of “winning” – writing 50,000 words within 30 days. SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t accomplish my writing goal. I was 8,905 words short of reaching that goal. But, I did manage to write 41,095 words in one month.

This wasn’t the first time I attempted to participate in the annual writing challenge, but this was the first time I nearly reached my goal. During the 30-day writing extravaganza, I learned a few things about myself, my writing process, and how I work under a strict deadline. I don’t know if what I learned will help you, but the lessons I gained this year will help me “win” NaNoWriMo 2017.

  1. You Have to Write Every Day. It doesn’t matter how many words you write each day, but you need to put words on the page so that you can update your word count daily. Whether you write 50 words, 1,667 words (the recommended number of words prescribed by NaNoWriMo to achieve the 50,000-word goal), or 6,000 words, you need to update your word count EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. How do I know this? Because I didn’t write every day, and I believe that is one of the main reasons why I didn’t reach my 50,000-word goal.
  2. Perfection Cannot Be Your Goal. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. In order to do so, you have to be willing to turn off your inner editor. Just get words on paper. It doesn’t matter how shitty those words are, because once you’re done writing them at the end of November, you’ll need to go back and edit those words. In the immortal words of Chuck Wendig, “Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words less shitty.” I’m not going to lie, I wrote my share of shitty words. In January I plan to edit and revise and write the missing pieces and edit some more.
  3. Connect with a Writing Community. Belonging to a community of writers can not only provide the support and encouragement you need to keep writing, but it can also make you a better writer. If you belong to a writing community and are lucky enough to have other writer friends participating in NaNoWriMo, you can support each other and cheer each other’s successes each day of the process. And, if you want to get competitive, you can give each other writing challenges in order to reach your daily, weekly, and eventually monthly goal. Writing is typically a solitary pursuit, but that doesn’t mean you have quarantine yourself during the month of November in order to reach your goal. Join a NaNoWriMo writing group and get the support and encouragement you need to keep going.
  4. Make Time to Write. If you don’t already have a time of day scheduled for writing, you should figure out when you are most productive and make an effort to write at the same time every day. Life can be busy. I’m a single mom who works full-time, and I also make an effort to have a satisfying social life. I’m no June Cleaver when it comes to housework, but I try to make my house clean enough to avoid a visit from Children and Youth Services. I often struggle to find time to write. My days start early and end late, and as you can imagine, there’s a lot that has to get done between 5:00 AM when my alarm goes off and 10:00 PM (if I’m lucky) when I turn off the lights and travel to Dream Land. If I am not selfish about making time for myself to write, guess what? I don’t write. And, unfortunately that happens a lot in my life. Take my advice. Be a dick if you have to, and make time for your writing.
  5. Be Kind to Yourself. Sometimes when we set big goals for ourselves, we fail. Failing after trying to reach a goal is still better than never trying in the first place. Am I disappointed that I didn’t reach my 50,000-word goal? Well, sure. But I wrote 41,095 words in a month. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and now I know that I can write more than 40,000 words in a month. In fact, now that I know why I didn’t reach my goal, I’m pretty sure I can also reach 50,000 words in a month, which I plan to do next year when I participate in NaNoWriMo 2017.

Wait, can I add this blog post to my final word count?