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Interview with Margaret L. Carter, horror author

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Do you recall how your interest in writing began?

After reading Dracula at the age of twelve, I was fascinated by horror and fantasy. When I couldn’t find enough of the kinds of stories I liked at the public library, I started writing my own. I wanted to read fiction from the viewpoint of the "monster," and I was also attracted to anything dealing with relationships between human and nonhuman beings. Those types of fiction were much less common in the 1960s than they are now. My first complete story, written when I was thirteen, was a romance between a man and a ghost.

As a child, were you interested in scary things?

I was an extremely timid child, and hysterically afraid of the dark. I’ve always been somewhat afraid of unsupported heights (i.e., of falling) and it got worse rather than better as I grew up. In childhood, I played on slides, which I became too frightened to do as a teenager. I wouldn’t even consider climbing on one now. So I wasn’t interested in things that *really* scared me; I wanted to stay far away from them! But I can remember always having been drawn to stories of *imaginary* scary things, monsters such as ghosts and vampires, though I didn’t start reading that kind of fiction until about age twelve. Maybe that was a way of compensating for real-life fears.

Do you remember a book or movie from your childhood that scared you?

I was terrified of the whale in Pinocchio (the Disney cartoon feature). In elementary school, one of my teachers read us a 19th-century poem, written in dialect, "Little Orphant Annie," by New England poet James Whitcomb Riley. It’s a warning to naughty children that "the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out," and there is a line about "big Black Things" swooping down to grab one of the wicked children and snatch her away through the ceiling. That one kept me awake crying.

What do you see as the influences on your writing?

The classic horror authors such as Poe, Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, and the early Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon were the influences that inspired me to start writing in the first place. I consider myself lucky, in a weird way, that I saw very few horror movies while growing up and never saw a vampire film until my early twenties. I had a solid grounding in the classics before being exposed to more recent stuff.

As a professional writer, I consider Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jacqueline Lichtenberg to be my mentors. Bradley accepted and published my first piece of professional fiction, a story in her anthology Free Amazons of Darkover, and several more thereafter. She was a very demanding editor, in a good way; if you sold a story to her, you knew you’d accomplished something. Jacqueline Lichtenberg taught a weekend writing workshop I attended many years ago, and she has given me a lot of generous advice and encouragement since. The sources that have influenced the development of my vampire species include:

The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
Shattered Glass and its sequels by Elaine Bergstrom
Those Of My Blood by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series that began with Hotel Transylvania
The Dracula Tape and its sequels by Fred Saberhagen.

I discuss the "vampire as another species" motif in detail in my nonfiction book Different Blood: The Vampire As Alien, covering many of my favorite books on that theme. I love Stephen King but wouldn’t exactly call him an influence, since my writing isn’t much like his.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

My current work in progress is a contemporary romance about a wizard who gets cursed into the form of a St. Bernard and falls in love with an ordinary woman who rescues the "stray dog" that collides with her car. This plot premise is a lot of fun for me because we have a St. Bernard (named Frodo). I’m also working on a short story for an anthology being assembled by a writers’ group I belong to. The tale is set on Halloween and plays with a twist on a familiar urban legend, the Vanishing Hitchhiker. I wondered how bereaved family members would react if they kept receiving nocturnal visitors year after year, claiming they’ve given a ride to the family’s dead child.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

In general, the first draft process. I’m a torturously slow writer (by my standards), and I’d like to become faster and more fluent. In particular, the dreaded "sagging middle." I usually have a fairly definite idea from the first how a novel or story is going to begin and end. Concocting a plausible plot with plenty of complications on the way to the end is more difficult.

Do you only write horror?

I also write paranormal romance (from Silhouette, Ellora’s Cave, and Amber Quill), which I consider a natural extension of my love for horror and fantasy, and I’ve written some straight fantasy, such as two books in collaboration with my husband, Wild Sorceress and Besieged Adept.

In December, Amber Quill is going to publish Besieged Adept, a fantasy novel my husband and I wrote in collaboration. Actually, the initial idea and most of the raw work were his. He’s starting the third book in that series now. My most recent publications, other than "Foxfire" (mentioned below), were a vampire romance, Embracing Darkness (Silhouette, March 2005), and a reformed demon romance novelette in Ellora’s Cavemen: Legendary Tails II (Ellora’s Cave, June 2005). I have an elf-human romance under consideration with a publisher now.

I’ve had a lot of nonfiction published about the supernatural in literature, especially vampires, most recently Different Blood: The Vampire As Alien (Amber Quill). My books that are closer to “pure” horror include two vampire novels, Dark Changeling and Child Of Twilight (its sequel), from Hard Shell Word Factory and From The Dark Places (somewhat Lovecraftian) and Shadow Of The Beast (a werewolf novel) from Amber Quill.

Can you tell us a little about your collaboration process with your husband?

We once sold a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley in which he suggested the plot premise, and I elaborated it and wrote the text with his input. For the "Wild Sorceress" series, however, the plot premise and characters completely originated with him. We discuss the plotlines together and brainstorm about potential problems or disagreements. He does all the first-draft writing, which I like because writing in that "raw" stage is hard for me. Then I edit each scene as it is produced, often several times before the whole book comes together. The byline includes both of our names. He has a science fiction vampire story, "Vanishing Breed," written in 1970 and still in print in one anthology, that helped to inspire my vampire series. Information on his biography and work can be found on my website under the link "Co-Author Leslie Roy Carter."

Do you ever get scared while you write your stories?

No, partly because, after all, the characters and situations are my own creations, and in large part because I’ve been reading and writing about "monsters" for so long that I find them cozy and friendly more than scary. The last book that gave me a genuine scare was Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which I still consider one of his best.

Do your scary characters ever invade your dreams or scare you in some other way?

No, I have very dull dreams most of the time, pervaded with anxiety but with no excitingly frightening elements.

Do you wish you led the life of one of your characters?

No. Most of them have too many hazardous, potentially lethal experiences. I agree with Bilbo Baggins: "Adventures are nasty uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner." A good writer makes his/her characters suffer; why would we want to be in their places? However, I wouldn’t mind leading a life like that of Eloise, wife of Claude Darvell, one of my vampires (found in Child Of Twilight from Amber Quill Press and "Tall, Dark, and Deadly" in the anthology Things That Go Bump In The Night 2 from Ellora’s Cave). Eloise is an idealized version of myself. She has a nicer figure, more confidence, and a far more successful writing career, as well as a ravishingly seductive vampire mate.

Why do you think we like the experience of being scared?

There are several theories, all of which make sense to me to some extent. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of vicariously experiencing dangerous situations while fully aware that we’re safe in reality. One theory is that frightening stories and movies perform the same physiological function as a roller coaster (which I would never, ever ride on; that’s too much like real-life fear for me). Being scared in the absence of real danger, according to this theory, provokes the compensatory release of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates. In other words, scaring oneself on purpose is a way of getting high. Many people (strange as it seems to me) thrive on thrilling experiences that are actually dangerous, such as white-water rafting, skydiving, etc. Scary stories give a similar thrill in complete safety.

H. P. Lovecraft, in his book on supernatural fiction, famously says, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest of fears is that of the unknown" (probably not a completely exact quote). He connects this fear to the awe felt at the contemplation of the vastness of an indifferent, potentially lethal universe. Personally, I think an important function of horror fiction is as a form of spiritual experience. At least this is the answer I give to the occasional fellow Christian who wonders how I reconcile faith with enjoying horror. This is an odd question, since traditional horror fiction often emphasizes the spiritual struggle between good and evil — all those crosses waved at vampires, for instance. Especially in our secular culture, tales of the supernatural provide a welcome hint that something beyond the purely material realm exists. They help to fill a void left by the modern phenomenon that belief in a Higher Power is no longer nearly universal, the way it was in previous eras (or assumed to be universal — those who didn’t believe mostly kept quiet). Pet Sematary is a good example, exploring the different ways people react to death, and what might happen if we could transgress the boundaries of nature to bring back the dead.

Do you do anything special for Halloween? Do you use it as an opportunity to market your books?

After all these decades of having to stay home and give out candy or take my own kids trick-or-treating, I have never got into the habit of doing anything special for Halloween in terms of parties. I wear Halloween accessories to work that week and sometimes while answering the door on the big night, although not a full costume. For book promotion, I don’t do anything intensive but do take advantage of October promotional opportunities that arise. This is a good month for publishers to release horror and supernatural-themed works. Erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave has just published a shapeshifter anthology, Transformations, containing a kitsune novella by me, "Foxfire." A kitsune is a fox spirit in Japanese mythology. They are noted for their sensual natures and have many intriguing powers in addition to changing shape between human and fox.

Margaret’s website can be found at www.margaretlcarter.com
Email her at MLCVamp@aol.com
To subscribe to the Carter’s Crypt newsletter: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/margaretlcartersnewsfromthecrypt

Publishers:
Harlequin/Silhouette
Hard Shell Word Factory
Ellora’s Cave
Amber Quill Press

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About Parker Owens

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/cmpwrite/ Connie Phillips

    Parker,

    Thank you for this interview. I enjoyed reading it very much. I’m always interested to know what is going on in an author’s head when he or she writes, especially in this genre.

    Connie

  • http://www.margaretlcarter.com Margaret

    Correction: I’m embarrassed to report that I was wrong about Riley’s being a New England poet. He was actually from Indiana. Glad you enjoyed the interview!