I’m a huge fan of Sumiko Saulson. You know those “two fans” she always talks about? Well, one of them would be me. I think she’s an amazing writer and an awesome person, and I love how candid she was in this interview. Read on, and you might see just what makes her one of my favourite writers just from this interview! You can also find her on Facebook by clicking HERE.
(Be Warned! Possible spoiler alert for I…Stammer…in Disbelief from her book “Things That Go Bump In My Head.” Excellent, EXCELLENT read, by the way!)
1.) I think the literary world would be lacking without your voice. Your style is different because it’s matter-of-fact and to the point, and seeing that in fictional horror adds this air of reality to the story. It contributes to the overall chill-factor. That’s what I get as the reader, but how would you describe your “voice” as the writer?
Thanks! I’m glad you think so. I’ve never given the question much thought, always figuring that was the kind of question the reader will be better equipped to answer than the writer. When I write, I try not to censor myself too much in the first draft, because that tends to lead to writer’s block. Rather, I allow whatever seems natural to happen occur in the story in the order it occurs to me. Usually, I construct a character first, and decide how he or she thinks… from that point, once the character is established, there is a way that the character would to me, naturally interact with the environment. One way of looking at it is as if the characters in the stories are like characters in a role playing game, only as the author I’ve taken ownership of all of these roles and have to mentally act in my mind at least, how their environment affects them. Since I come up with a realistic character first, later, when the character is introduced into a surreal environment or situation, I am able to deduce how the character will react based upon who he or she is. Once a guy I know from San Francisco picked up “Solitude”, started reading it in the middle, and said it was a really great autobiography. I had to explain that it wasn’t autobiographical and that none of the people in it were real. When I wrote that story, my goal was to write a group of typical San Franciscans. San Francisco happens to be diverse so they would up being a diverse group. Most people who read my writing say they find the characters easy to relate to, or they find affinity with one or more characters. That’s the goal, really, because if the reader doesn’t care about the character, then the reader won’t care what happens to the character. Even when you have a character like the Harold Stammer in “I, Stammer (in disbelief)” who is completely unlikable, the reader has to kind of hate his guts enough to be rapt in attention, waiting to see if something really bad happens to him. So I would say that’s the construction… I try to make character’s points of view sound like someone the reader might be able to envision knowing or conversing with. I try to keep the tone casual. That way the reader is in a relaxed state when something shocking happens.
2.) When you receive feedback from a reader, is it usually spot on with what you were trying to convey in your writing, or does it sometimes make you re-analyse bits and pieces of your own work?
I don’t write fiction that is particularly complicated for the reader to understand. One difference between James Joyce and James Michener is that you can generally understand what Michener is talking about if you read at a high school graduate level. You don’t need to take special language courses or look for fifty layers of meaning in every sentence. My writing is intentionally unpretentious, and I write it so that my intended audience can receive it. There may be layers of meaning – for example, Solitude has certain underlying ecological themes, and The Moon Cried Blood has underlying feminist ones, that not everyone will pick up on, but the books can be understood without them. I’m always stunned when I receive reader feedback. I’m really pleased that anyone reads my writing at all. I try to respond to it whenever I get it.
3.) Why horror, and do you get funny looks from people when they find out you’re a horror writer?
I grew up reading and watching horror, and my life has had a sufficient amount of actual trauma to make me well qualified for the task of horror writing. Sometimes they do… I get a lot of “do you mean speculative fiction?” or “do you mean science fiction?” and… to be honest, it’s basically associated with the idea that a horror writer doesn’t look like me. A lot of people don’t seem to think that women, or black people, or especially black women are sitting around writing horror. The worse bad reactions come from the types of women who think that it’s just not appropriate or genteel. They say “I don’t read horror” with a look on their faces like I just passed gas, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a man say that to me. Ever. So it seems that some people think of horror as a bad girl kind of thing that one needs to publicly disassociate from. I find that amusing.
4.) The great thing about the internet, and Facebook particularly (and yes, myspace then and now, though it doesn’t seem to have the same networking opportunities, unless I just need to learn it all over again), is that you can seek out people who are in the same line of work or have the same interests. I feel that I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to “know” you, even though it may be “only” online. How do you feel about forging relationships with other writers and your fans from all over the world that you’ve never met?
I would have quickly given up on writing after my first novel if I didn’t have other writers to talk to. People who are writers – who have already finished something and put it out there, and been brave enough to see what other people think of it – can understand what it means to make that leap. And it really is a leap, when you decide that you’re ready to put your writing out there where other people can see it and not just hide it safely under your bed and talk about it mysteriously as the novel you’re going to someday write. There are stages and pains that you just don’t want to have to go through alone. They can shut you down. I’m really grateful for my online writer friends, and for the ladies in the two face-to-face writer’s groups I’m involved with. They keep me focused and motivated, and most importantly, help me to maintain a sense of humor about the long haul.
5.) I say that I use Facebook for marketing. The problem is that sometimes I actually use it more for personal and conversational purposes. Do you feel that Facebook is helpful as a writer, or more of a hindrance?
It is helpful as a writer, but if you didn’t use it more for personal and conversational purposes, it wouldn’t be very useful for you as a marketing tool unless you straight up paid Facebook. People are going to hide you from their stream if all you ever do is try to sell them something or ask them for money. Sure – we need money. I know I do. But your friends and acquaintances don’t want to feel like you’ve turned into a sales robot.
6.) I loved how you merged Women in Horror Month with Black History Month (both of which fall in February), and with such enthusiasm! Being that both demographics are underrepresented in horror, this is big! You worked hard to become an official ambassador for Women in Horror Month, so what was it like to have this amazing opportunity?
It was really exciting for me! It was also a LOT of work, but work I felt was important because we are both underserved and underrepresented communities. If I didn’t feel it was, and if I didn’t get emails from people like Linda Addison and Jemiah Jefferson expressing how important the work was, I might have just given up because it’s hard to keep doing something that you’re not getting paid for and that is taking up extra time in the middle of your current school and work schedule, and not to get burned out. But I also thought it gave me something to feel happy about and keep me busy in the wake of my father’s death in January. I was still really reeling in February, just sort of coming to terms with it after spending most of January handling things like funeral arrangements and raising money for the funeral and out of town relatives. Also, the amount of assistance I received from others with the funeral – not just me, but my family – people who cared about my dad being a veteran – really touched me and made me feel like I should do something to give back.
7.) After I read, “I, Stammer…(In Disbelief)”, the title made complete sense! I feel like I have a secret to hold over those who haven’t read it yet. But I gotta ask, what does it feel like to give a main character who happens to be a jerk a little dose of karma?
That’s a story that I read aloud on several occasions, and the audiences really just loved to hate Harold Stammer. I liked role-playing out his voice, and I really cracked up doing it. The thing is, when I write a story I’m pretty much putting myself in the headspace of the character, so even though Harold was a self-centered misogynistic douche, I wasn’t exactly thinking or even feeling “yea, I hope he gets it, he’s a low life” when I wrote it. No, I was having fun pretending to be a self-absorbed idiot. It was cathartic, really. I’d just finished writing a bunch of serious stuff like “Dead Horse Summer” and I needed a break.
(((Sidenote from Joslyn: If you want to hear Sumiko’s impression of Harold Stammer, check it out HERE!)))
8.) Being on the indie scene can be a bit difficult when it comes to getting your work out there. What advice could you give to someone who is trying to promote his or her work?
Keep writing. You really want to accumulate writing if you can, because if you start to get a lot of attention at some point you might find as I do that it interferes with your ability to write easily. It’s easier to write when you don’t feel under any pressure because you don’t think anyone gives a crap about what you’re writing. Trying to write the sequel to “Solitude” is just, so much harder because I know there are people anticipating its release. In order to write on it, I have to mentally convince myself that no one is waiting and there’s no pressure. Weird, right?
9.) What, for you, is the most rewarding part of being a writer?
I always wrote. I started to write stories at an age when many people can’t even read. When I am writing, I feel like I am being myself and doing what comes naturally to me, rather than trying to find something more economically feasible to spend my time on.
10.) After reading several of your stories, I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything! Is there anything that truly scares you?
Of course I am. I couldn’t write anything very scary if I was a fearless person. Writing is a way for me to process and cope with my personal fears and anxieties, which are myriad. I often write frightening parts of stories in the middle of the night – if it doesn’t give me the creeps, I figure it’s just not that scary. Sometimes I integrate my own fears into stories from memories – like that scene with the maggots in “The Moon Cried Blood” – something like that really happened to me, and I was afraid of maggots forever. In fact, they still creep me out .
11.) What do you want your readers to take away with them after reading one of your books, and what is your main goal as a writer?
My main goal as a writer is to entertain people. My secondary goal as a writer is to integrate horror. When I was a teenager and I read horror stories, it always bothered me that there either were no black people, or if there were, they were usually being martyred in Stephen King. And at least Stephen King actually HAD black people. When I read “Queen of the Damned” by Anne Rice, boy was I excited. There were vampires from any number of cultures all over the globe, multiple races, and these just fantastic descriptions of how vampirism was affecting the melanin in their skin and eyes. When I was older, I read “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and saw how psychological horror was really a part of the plot of the novel. But it wasn’t until I read L.A. Banks that I was actually holding in my hands a book by a black woman with multicultural characters about vampires and vampire slayers. It was that last that made me feel like it was OK for me to write horror – L.A. Banks. She died a couple of years back and I think that there is a feeling a lot of us have that now is the time, we have to keep the idea that horror is something black people can read and write out there.
12.) What story, or book, that you have written, are you most proud of?
The first one, “Solitude,” because it was so much harder because I’d never finished a novel before. Finishing it gave me this tremendous sense of accomplishment. And also, “Warmth,” for another reason, because it was the first book that my dad read and talked to me about, I mean the villain pissed him off so much he just called me one day saying he hoped he would get to the part where I killed her off already. That’s a strong reaction, someone just loathing a character so much that he or she can’t stop reading until the question of whether or not this bad guy is gonna get it in the end gets resolved.
13.) Could you give us a little taste of what we can look forward to from you?
I’m working on a sequel to “Solitude” called “Disillusionment” which I hope to have completed by October. It is a response to reader feedback about the novel, and addresses elements of the story that the readers asked me about, or matters they felt were not entirely resolved, so I don’t want to give too much away but yes, that’s what’s next.
And a VERY big thanks so Miss Sumiko Saulson for taking the time to answer my questions. You can purchase “Things That Go Bump In My Head” RIGHT HERE, and don’t forget to check out “Solitude” and “Warmth” as well. You’ll be glad you did!