I’ve interviewed L.S. Johnson before, but that was before I got a chance to read her brilliant story collection called Vacui Magia. (My Goodreads review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2954975503. TLDR: Angela Carter+Clive Barker+Neil Gaiman.) She’s also got a story in the Tales for the Camp Fire anthology that I edited earlier this year.
L.S. Johnson is the author of the queer gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan, described by one reader as “Lovecraft meets Austen.” She’s also published over 30 horror and dark fantasy stories. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, won the North Street Book Prize and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her new collection, Rare Birds, came out last week.
Her description of it:
The eight short stories in this collection look at the ties that bind and the transformations they provoke. Whether bound by love, blood, or violent circumstance, the characters in these tales are fundamentally altered by those closest to them…and not always for the better.
Two mothers become entwined in revenge against a violent man, with unexpected consequences. A roving gang of sirens finds themselves challenged from without and within. In a last, desperate act of love, a young surgeon goes under the knife. And in a distant territory, a mother and daughter struggle to survive—but the aid they summon is far more dangerous.
Did real-world events inspire the stories in Rare Birds?
I’m always drawing from life, and lived experience, when I write. But certainly all my work of the past several years has been fuelled in large part by watching misogyny and hate become increasingly visible and virulent in American society. It’s always been there, but as the Internet has developed, it feels like all this poison is coming to the surface. Rare Birds is primarily a book about relationships, but it’s also about how the larger social context, so often violent and misogynistic, twists and distorts relationships. How the terms that social context sets can pit us against each other, or force us down angry, violent paths, when in another context those same relationships could be healthy, supportive, and caring.
What is your favorite scene in the book?
Ugh, I’m not one to compare stories to children but this does feel like being asked to pick a favorite kid. I have several scenes that I’m proud of, several lines that still make me choke up or laugh aloud. But if nothing else, I will be forever proud that I put this out into the world:
“I understood, then, that this was what was meant by grace, how in the midst of so much wrong there could be something that was beautiful and right.”
As writers, we not only reflect reality, we can in a sense shape it: we affect how readers see the world around them, how they interpret events and each other. I write horror, I write of people doing terrible things to each other, but my hope is that by doing so, readers will be better able to recognize the lights in the darkness.
What was your writing process like as you wrote these stories?
You know, this book and my previous collection, Vacui Magia, together represent a huge pivot in my life. I had quit writing for years, quit it utterly; I avoided writing so much as a blog post, because I felt so burned after my MFA. And then I started developing insomnia. I was working a stressful publishing job at the time, the kind of job where you’re checking emails in bed and proofreading on vacation … and I found myself waking up at 3 am, writing scenes in my head. Witches and vampires and monsters, crazy settings, just all these words, and none of it the polished realism I had aspired to in grad school. My doctor finally pushed me to apply for a sabbatical. I got three months off, and I just wrote. All day, every day, I was having 6k, 10k days on a regular basis. And there are pieces of that time in these stories, along with so many other moments: quitting that job and the subsequent years of financial difficulty, my mother being diagnosed with cancer, my own struggle with infertility, pets dying, family dying, the crushing blow of the 2016 election…it’s all in there. And through it all, I kept writing, often in the cracks of my day. It had gone from being a punishing, unachievable art form to something that kept me sane.
Looking back at it all now? These two collections feel like embarking.
What is the best thing that’s happened during your promotion of the book?
Well, I’m still in pre-release as I write this. [Editor’s note: the book came out last week, after LS submitted the interview and before I could publish it.] Once again, life is crazy, so I’m not talking up the book as much as I should. But I had my sabbatical in 2012, and now, seven years later, I have readers who are eager for something I wrote—they’re emailing me, they’re pre-ordering, they’re asking about signed copies. Writing generally feels like trying to navigate an unknown forest, but every now and then you get a moment where you can see how far you’ve come. This has been one of those times, and I am feeling all sorts of gratitude right now.
What do you have planned next?
I am knee-deep in the revision mines for two projects: my third gothic novella, The Painter’s Widow, and my first novel, Prima Materia. Both are thankfully set in the 18th century, so there’s a bit of overlap…but it’s also typical of me to go from writing first-person novellas to a 130k multi-POV behemoth. Tempered expectations is something I’m still struggling to incorporate into my process. 😉
You can see all of LS’s books at Amazon: https://amzn.to/2O7mtMb.
Or order a copy of Rare Birds directly: https://amzn.to/2NowbKL. I got my own copy just a couple of days ago.