Lisa Mannetti’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award, and she was nominated in 2010 both for her novella “Dissolution” and a short story, “1925: A Fall River Halloween.” She has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; Deathwatch, a compilation of novellas—including the story “Dissolution”; a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover; two nonfiction books; and numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Her story “Everybody Wins” was produced as a short film by director Paul Leyden, starring Malin Ackerman and released under the title “Bye-Bye Sally”.
As an editor, I’ve worked with Lisa several times over the past year or so. She kindly agreed to the following interview.
Weldon Burge (WB): Your debut novel, The Gentling Box, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in 2008. That’s like strapping on a jetpack and blasting off into a writing career. How has the award helped your career?
Lisa Mannetti (LM): Winning was the single most gratifying event of my life. Years earlier, when I began writing horror, I placed second in a contest at one of the World Horror conventions and when the publisher mentioned my story would probably “garner a lot of interest for a Stoker recommendation,” I practically passed out in front of the mailbox onto my front lawn. So winning such a prestigious award was beyond my wildest dreams. I always try to write my best, but I thought of the Stoker as a true pinnacle that might be always beyond my reach—so it wasn’t on my mind at all during the writing. My goal was getting the book published. Winning for The Gentling Box actually meant even more because two major agents could not sell it to any of the houses in New York. When it received acclaim, it signaled to me that my belief in the novel wasn’t misplaced after all. That’s really huge.
In terms of my day-to-day career, it’s helped smooth the way for subsequent books and projects, a new agent, and the publication of my work in general. In the old days, I’d write a story and sit down with lists of places that seemed like a “fit” with the piece, then start making the manuscript rounds. Now I’m asked to contribute to magazines and anthologies, so my stories are essentially sold before I write them. I’ve never felt like the prescribed theme was any kind of creative impediment--most editors have given me tons of latitude. Those invitations to contribute have been terrific. One of my stories, “1925: A Fall River Halloween” which features Lizzie Borden as a character, was nominated for the Stoker in 2010.
It’s also helped in subtler, but no less important ways, and a few examples come to mind. I’m now an active member of the Horror Writers Association (a long-term goal I finally met) and a new edition of the book will be coming out from Nightscape Press (I couldn’t be more delighted!). Most of all, it makes me very conscious when I sit down to write that it’s critical—imperative—to set high standards and (whether the result can be deemed successful or not) to strive to produce the very best work I can—or die trying.
WB: Much of your work might be considered historical horror. Do you enjoy doing the research required for these books?
LM: Oh my God, don’t get me started! Oh well, too late. I have a background in 18th and 19th century English literature, but even as a kid I was fascinated for what we now call research. Back then, I just thought of it as “looking things up.” As a result, I was always hunting through my mother’s medical textbooks (the more gruesome the picture, the better) and fascinated with anything odd or bizarre or frightening. Even in grammar school, I’d turn in projects describing things like leprosy or foot-binding. Anyhow, I love to research. I find that what I learn is a huge help—not just with creating atmosphere, but understanding my characters, developing plot, and just having a hell of a good time. Research creates a real spark in me and, aside from the excitement I feel, it often results in strange and wonderful combinations of ideas.
I’m working on a Houdini project now. I’ve been crazy about him since I was in third grade, happened to see a rerun of that old Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh movie and then went to the library and got a biography about his life. I have now acquired a huge assortment of books about him, about magic in general, and almost everything he’s written. I have 24 pages of single-spaced notes, but I’m only planning on writing a short story and turning that work into the bare bones of a film treatment.
Aside from having a mania for learning new information (a crucial aspect of being a writer), I consider research and ancillary reading as part of my daily work routine. I think the more you steep yourself in whatever world you’re creating, the better the outcome. Eventually, when you write, you let go of the research and begin to create—but by then the “world” you’re creating on the page is as familiar to you as the “world” of grocery shopping, your hometown, your friends, and family. With the Houdini piece, I even browsed his books about rope-tying tricks and paper magic. I won’t use any of that as far as I know—but, in addition to being a lot of fun to read, I know that it gives me insight to who he was as a person. Even if I’m not consciously thinking of certain information, it informs the background of my characters, the setting, the plot, and the story itself.
Even when I write contemporary stories I still research. With every book, novella, or story, I often find that, even as I write, I might dump something in and then check it out on the fly.
I think the first job of any writer is reading. If more writers read widely in all areas (not just in their own genres), writing as a whole would be tremendously improved. For starters, they’d know what’s been done before and a lot more of them would (hopefully) stop creating products that are essentially retellings. (I hear you groan—anything can be boiled down to its essence and, of course it will sound like the same story—but don’t use that as an excuse for laziness. Watching “Summer and Smoke” doesn’t feel the same as watching “Romeo and Juliet”). Reading more—and making it as important to your writing routine as writing itself—also results in knowing more acutely not just what’s been done, but what works and what doesn’t. It sharpens your critical skills and helps you understand what’s good or weak in your own writing. It also helps develop the bones of your work: structure, facility with words, pacing, dialogue, setting. Do you just want to tell a story, or do you want to tell it well and rivet your audience? Put another way, personally, I’d rather watch a film like “Dracula” than “The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes”.
WB: Do you write from an outline, or do you pretty much improvise?
LM: I don’t write from an outline because I like to discover what’s going to happen as I’m working. I’ve written stories that started as a single sentence in my head, a vague, disturbing concept or a dream image, so I guess my process is closer to improvisation, even though--especially with novels—at some point (usually quite a while before the halfway mark) I know the end.
Outlines, for me, tend to straitjacket my creativity and leave me less likely to explore different avenues. I like being surprised or shocked and will pretty much try to let the characters run the show early on. For me, the time to streamline is after the first draft is written when I have a clearer understanding of a story’s logic, its stronger or weaker elements. I’ve always found that letting myself go down the garden path has led to really fascinating denouements. Outlines tend to revolve around plot development. I find, when I write and read, that I’m only interested in plot as it relates to character—and a really great character is not going to spring fully formed from a formula.
I know people “create characters” to serve the storyline, but I think when characters are subservient to the organic burgeoning of a story it diminishes the writing. It can be done—God knows there are enough movie thrillers featuring psychiatrists with violent amnesiac patients—but nobody who appreciates a really great story that’s superbly crafted is going to confuse a potboiler with The Haunting of Hill House.
WB: The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is a slight departure from your usual work, more fantasy than horror. It clearly reflects your love for Mark Twain and for cats (Tom and Huck are cats in the book). How did that novel jump into your head?
LM: Tom and Huck were my actual cats and of all the cats I’ve owned through the years, they were the most spirited and lively—not just as kittens, but for years. I do mean years. Because they were twins, they interacted more than most cats do—right down to hunting mice in tandem. I swear they conducted campaigns that were so involved; one could only glean such master plans by reading about Hannibal or the lives of the Roman emperors. Tom cornered the wee beasts down by the washing machine, Hucky was in charge of flanking maneuvers, and they were pros. One day I actually did hear a mouse scream. It was so loud I heard it while writing in my office—one whole floor above their killing field. I did try to rescue it, but they frightened it to death when it ran under the dryer.
Tom was just about the smartest cat I’ve ever known—in addition to being hopelessly addicted to grabbing attention and generally showing off on all occasions. He had personality to spare and Huck was no slouch, either. [‘Their constant hijinks led to little “playlets” I created for my outgoing answering machine in Tom’s voice wherein he described recent mayhem, or gave blackmail instructions to those who were foolish enough to call and disturb his and Huck’s naptime by leaving a message. These dramas were so popular, that not only did total strangers and salespeople make comments, but if I didn’t change them every few weeks, my friends complained. “Hey, change the message, it’s been a month!” Much as I loved imitating a southern drawl and pretending to be Tom, it was damn hard to keep writing all those 60-second scenarios. The next thing I knew, he—I mean they—I mean I was writing a book.
WB: Where’s your favorite place to write?
LM: Anywhere the writing is going well. Seriously, in the summer (evenings) I write on my front porch. In the winter, I write in my office, which was the bedroom I had as a child. Some days, I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. Not because the decor hasn’t changed (there are no Teddy bears cluttering up the joint), but because, by some weird principle of acoustics, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, much less explain, it’s the noisiest room in the house. Here’s one example, from my current bedroom I cannot hear the front door bell (directly beneath that room) but it’s clear as day in the office, which is actually in the back of the house. Does that make sense? No, I didn’t think so.
WB: What is your writing schedule, and how do you maintain it?
LM: That’s been one of my biggest difficulties this past year, because my Dad became seriously ill and I had a series of annoying health problems, too. If that weren’t enough, I wound up with a broken toe and crutches as the souvenir prize. Essentially you just have to keep plugging. So, my preferred schedule is actually from when I get up ‘til when the day’s writing is done. Because of the noise here, though, I sometimes do stay up and work at night. It screws up everything else, but sometimes it’s the only opportunity I get to work—and when I’m not writing, I’m miserable.
WB: What is your biggest challenge when writing a novel?
LM: I have a tendency to be too critical of my own work and there are times I write and rewrite at the same time. Occasionally that stops the flow; if I hit an impasse that I can’t surmount, frustration ensues and I resort to gallows humor.
WB: If you could start your writing career over, what would you do differently?
LM: That’s a hard question to answer, partly because technology has transformed the industry almost completely. When I first started writing, self-publishing and vanity presses were anathema—you just didn’t give in even when 95% of the rejections you received contained the scurrilous (and dreaded) phrase: “You write well and, were it not for the current market conditions with a decided downturn in horror, this book ...” Writers can now “create” the market and get their work read, seen, noticed, and sold. I guess I would have had more faith in my ability, but that’s something that never really leaves a serious writer, anyhow. We always think the latest effort could have been done better and falls short of our intentions.
When I was younger, my fallback position at cocktail parties was to discuss my short stories and novels as if they were works in progress and belay my own embarrassment by mentioning the nonfiction books I’d had published. Nowadays, of course, almost no one asks if you’ve been published, since everyone can be published. Snoopy types do tend to inquire whether the work in question has appeared under the rubric of an actual company or whether you’ve whomped the whole thing together by yourself. But, hey, if they don’t know you well enough, they’ll never guess that Austin Dread Crypt Ltd. combines the names of your street and your tarantula, with an appropriately spooky word tossed in for good measure.
WB: If you could collaborate with another author, living or dead, who would it be and what would you write?
LM: Only one? Boy, this is hard. Well, I can’t pick one and I’m allowing myself two on the basis that I write both satire and horror. So, from the humor perspective, I’d definitely want to collaborate with J.P. Donleavy and write something wickedly fun and entertaining. For a collaborator on the dark side, I’d choose Peter Straub—because I’d learn so much. I’d follow his lead and write whatever worked for the project—hopefully something twisty, complex, and rich with meaning.
WB: What are you reading now?
LM: I’m reading Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Somehow, I managed to get through all those years of school without reading much of his work and a few weeks ago (while recuperating from really ugly but relatively simple surgery) I happened to see the movie starring Bette Davis (circa 1933) and loved it. So I did what all reading doobies do these days and promptly downloaded it from Amazon. One of the really interesting things about the movie is that it completely eliminates the first third of the book—instead of seeing Phillip growing up, going to school, caroming around Paris, it begins with his failure there as an artist and goes on. I’m not aware of any other film utilizing the same technique, but the film definitely worked. I loved the book, too—so am on something of a Maugham kick and plan to read The Magician next.
WB: You wrote a short story for the Smart Rhino anthology Zippered Flesh 2: Tales of Body Enhancements Gone Bad titled “The Hunger Artist.” The story is something of a precursor of the novel of the same title that you’re currently writing. Can you tell us a little more about this project?
LM: Before I delve into the intricacies of the novel, first I want to say thanks, Weldon, for giving me the opportunity to write a short story version for Zippered Flesh 2. The historical background of “The Hunger Artist” centers on a harrowing case that occurred shortly after the turn of the century in the state of Washington. Two wealthy sisters from England who (depending on your point of view) were faddists, health nuts, or light years ahead of their time, wound up being scammed and—much worse—starved by osteopath and “fasting specialist” Linda Hazzard. (Obviously, no fiction writer would dare make up that name.) The younger of the two sisters died. I first read of the case in a fascinating book called Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen. Naturally, he’s already done a superb job with the nonfiction account, so I see my novel as something more closely akin to what Jack Ketchum did with The Girl Next Door, based on the Indiana Torture slaying, and Joyce Maynard accomplished in To Die For regarding the Pamela Smart case. I’ve read additional materials, of course, and it’s exciting to take the facts and the sheer pathos of the tale and venture into new territory—literally with the setting, New Hampshire—and figuratively by adding traditional elements of horror: chilling atmosphere and supernatural events.
WB: One last question, just for fun. You’re planning an outdoor barbecue on July 4th, and you can invite four special guests—authors or fictional characters, contemporary or from the past. Who do you invite and what conversation would you expect?
LM: I’d definitely invite Mark Twain—and I wouldn’t care what he talked about—from all accounts he was always as entertaining as hell—or Sheol, as he’d have said.
Secondly, I’d ask Theodore Dreiser because his book, An American Tragedy, like my novel in progress, was based on a true crime. He also wrote what has always been, for me, a terrifying novel: Sister Carrie, which, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, deals with a character’s downward spiral into disaster. The concept scares the hell out of me.
I’ve been doing some research for another little project recently, so I’d also invite Harry Houdini (a published author for those who don’t know his literary reputation) and Arthur Conan Doyle. Since their friendship tanked, then dissolved, it would be fascinating to watch them provide the fireworks. Even though you’ve only allowed me four authors, I’m including one other of my favorite contemporary writers, Robert Dunbar—not only one of the wittiest men on the planet, but also someone who could scout around the perimeters of the party and provide hilarious running commentary on social climbers, pontificators, and those generally spewing floccinaucinihilipilification. By the way, that’s a word I came across accidentally yesterday, and now you have to look it up, too—be grateful in these tech-tacular times you don’t have to haul out the OED.
WB: Thanks, Lisa, for a fun and informative interview!
Visit Lisa’s author Web site at www.lisamannetti.com, as well as her virtual haunted house at www.thechanceryhouse.com.
(A version of this review was also published in the May 2013 issue of Suspense Magazine.)