WRITERS TELL ALL
Silvia Moreno-Garcia on gothic romances, STATION ELEVEN, horror writing, and what people need to understand about Latin American Writers (She's so brilliant!)
Matthew Turbeville: Silvia, I am so excited to interview you, especially about your new book Mexican Gothic. Can you tell me about what attracted you to gothic novels like these (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyrefor examples for our readers) and how you conceived this brilliant idea for a modern modernized gothic novel with its own twist?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Poe was the first horror writer I ever read. Afterwards, I made my way through many classic horror novels, like The Phantom of the Opera. I never much liked the other type of Gothic novels, the non-supernatural ones, such as Wuthering Heightsor Jane Eyrebecause they were too romantic for me. But I ended up really enjoying Rebecca and My Cousin Rachelpartially because there’s something perverse in them. I now understand Wuthering Heightsbetter than I did as a teenager, when I loathed it, but I’m still more of a du Maurier fan.
I used to collect what are called New Gothic Romances, which were the Gothic novels that were published from the 1950s to the 1970s in paperback form. I collected them for the covers, to be frank, because they had an interesting aesthetic: that pervasive image of a woman running from a house at night. And again, there’s an element of perversity in these books. The image on the cover, after all, is a woman in danger.
MT: The novel’s brilliant, and deals with a lot of heavy hitting issues our world’s looking at (I would say “dealing with” or “learning about” today, but I feel like both those phrases are untrue) in today’s world. One of these concepts is eugenics—I remember talking with my ex, a first generation Mexican American, about how he was mostly Native American, which is brought up early on in the novel. Not to mention, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the issue, and I have to ask if you went into this novel knowing you’d talk about these issues, or if they just came to the surface as you were writing them.
SM-G: My Master’s degree is in Science and Technology Studies and my thesis focused on eugenics and literature. I know about the topic and it seemed to fit the concept well because eugenics was a popular scientific pursuit in the 19thcentury and way into the 20thcentury. Most people think of it as something Nazis invented, but it was a widespread practice that was taken up all over the globe. Of course, the way it was applied varied by the location. Eugenics did not always deal with race – disabilities, alcoholism, prostitution and other topics might also be a topic of eugenics studies – but white elites in the USA and England were very concerned about race and also about miscegenation. Eugenics also lasted much longer than most people think and certain ideas did not die off, they simply morphed a little or were not called eugenics any more. Up until the 1970s, in the USA, people were being sterilized using laws passed during the heyday of eugenics.
MT: What do you think, with horror, suspense, thrillers, is the secret to maintaining interest in the audience, to keep the reader flipping through the pages, and powering towards the end of the novel and seeking out answers to pressing questions? How do you keep momentum going when you write? What is your writing process like?
SM-G: Horror, suspense and thrillers are not the same thing though they can sometimes bleed over. Thrillers in general deal with high stakes and are more action packed. I’m not sure what allreaders like, but looking at some of the classic Gothic horror novels you can’t rush the narrative and it’s not a high stakes game, it’s very personal, it’s one person facing against something and often someone who is isolated. The Turn of the Screwis not a spooky book because a ghost pops up every two pages. It’s a slow novel that rewards the reader who takes their time with it. Same with psychological suspense works such as She Who Was No More, which was famously adapted as Les Diaboliques. Not everyone has the patience for that but then not everyone should be reading these types of books. If you want pulse-pounding action, there’s other kinds of media that do that. You’ve got to be there for the journey, basically.
MT: This novel is so much more terrifying than so many great gothic novels, and more recent entries to the genre, like with books like the film Crimson Peak. What do you think are the scariest things to read about, and what were you most scared by growing up and, in all honesty, what are the things that scare you most today?
SM-G: The things that scare me are very mundane. Not paying my bills, getting sick, that kind of stuff. The particular fears of a writer are often dull.
MT: You work inside a lot of different genres. With the book referencing this family that doesn’t seem to be moving forward at all, and with characters who are stuck in the past and unable to really move forward, what do you think of the different genres you work with today? Are the genres moving forward, stylistically and in a diverse way, or does writing inside these genres ever feel stagnant or like nothing is progressing? I hear a lot of input on the issue from multiple writers, and would love to hear your thoughts.
SM-G: There’s a trend in publishing towards what is called upmarket fiction. It’s the holy grail. It’s a book with a literary feel but that incorporates genre elements. This is leading to a lot more blending of categories. Is Station Elevena literary book or a horror novel? In the 1980s, it would have been placed in bookshops next to The Stand. Audiences are much more permissive of this crosspollination and writers are also more interested in it because they have grown in a world in which their influences are varied. They’re taking their cues from comic books, video games, movies, TV shows, even memes. Otherwise, genres are also dividing and changing and sometimes dying (Westerns don’t have their own shelf anymore). If you’ve ever picked up a romance novel from 1977, one from 1997 and one from this year you can see they’re not the same. Evolution is never fast and furious, but books are not caught in an eternal stasis. Neither are readers.
MT: What was your favorite thing to write in Mexican Gothic? The setting(s), the character(s), any scenes in particular?
SM-G: I was trying to hit may Gothic elements and I had a list next to me, so every time I hit something it was quite fun. I don’t think I had quite enough swooning. In The Mysteries of UdolphoEmily swoons more than half a dozen times and Agnes takes at least two swoons in The Monk. But as much as I had fun using a baker’s dozen of Gothic literature, the thing I enjoyed the most was twisting things slightly askew.
MT: What were your favorite gothic novels to study for this book? Did you review them at all? And what is research, planning, and later editing like for you? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening writer? What do you think is the hardest part of writing a novel?
SM-G: I write at nights, after I get back from work and finish with whatever chores I have around the house. I work on the bus, I plan dialogue in the shower, I think through plot points while I’m cooking. Writing, when you have a dayjob, is learning to use the wasted time I have available effectively.
MT: Who are your favorite novelists, past and present, the ones living today you feel are underrated, the ones you feel need more recognition, and the authors who shaped you during your formative years and made you into the writer you are today? Were there any other sorts of media which helped create you into the author you are today?
SM-G: Hard to say. I read a lot and I was a huge film buff as a kid. I watch less movies these days, but I still have a subscription to the Criterion Channel. I always liked to fish for obscure stuff, more so in the pre-Internet days because it was a great challenge. Obscure bands, obscure films, books that were impossible to find. That’s what I liked. Now, everything can be found, probably with a few clicks of the mouse. But I still enjoy kicking and digging and finding things that are a bit odd. Sometimes I become obsessed with them for a while. That happens often with old books and with music. I’ll play the same album over and over again when I’m writing. If I’m not wearing headphones, it can be quite annoying for my family. For most people, “Eye in the Sky” loses its charm after the 20thtime. But you need to be obsessed about something to write. It’s the fuel for any good writer.
MT: What do you hope Americans, readers in general take away from this novel and from your novels as a whole?
SM-G: Latin American writers are normally allowed to produce two kinds of narratives: the suffering immigrant or the quaint magic realist tale. There’s more to the world than that.
MT: What are you working on now? Can you give your fans any hint at what’s to come next? Your work is so incredibly diverse and complex, and we can’t wait to see the next book you come out with.
SM-G: I wrote a noir that came out this year, Untamed Shore, set in 1970s Baja California and I have a different noir that my agent is trying to shop around. And I just delivered a sword and sorcery novella to a publisher.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Silvia. It was so great to be able to pick your brain and learn a little bit about your writing process, your novel, and the books you love in general. Please feel free to leave us with any pressing thoughts, feelings, or ideas, and thank you so much. We love you, Silvia!