Dear Readers, Pints is very lucky in that I have been able to meet and become friends with some amazing artists (especially writers, because, well, I go towards what I love, what can I say?). And, so I like to share the bounty of my good luck with you dear Readers and introduce you to some of these incredibly talented people and so I bring you another EBCP interview!
M. Brett Gaffney writes in a way that hovers between the beautiful and strange, the haunting and real. Her characters are often at the edges of things or states of being. As a writer, Gaffney brings empathy to all that she portrays. I’m lucky to have an interview with her for this latest installment of EBCP (Extremely Brilliant Creative People)!
1.) When did you begin writing? And why?
I started writing sometime in middle school. My first love was drawing and it wasn’t until I started drawing Pokémon that I wanted to make stories for them. So really, my first explorations were in fan-fiction (a practice I still advocate to writers today). This led to poetry when I tried to understand my victimization from bullying and subsequent depression through writing. Pretty dark soul broken heart type stuff, but it opened doors so a belated thanks to Pokémon and bullies.
2.) Describe how you approach an idea for something to write.
I either get an image in my head (out of the ether or influenced by art), in which case I chase the imagery of it before the story. Or, I have a concept, an idea, or story first. Like my poem, “Zombie Girl,” started out as an idea, a want to write about body image and eating disorders through the lens of a zombie. Lately I’ve been very driven by music. I tackled a poem the other day about my time as a haunted house actor, but it mostly came about because I was listening to some fierce female vocals from rock band In This Moment.
3.) One of the things I’ve been very drawn to in your writing is that you have a great grasp of the line that can be toed between the eerie and beautiful. What draws you to this? And, how do you accomplish this tone?
First, thank you! That’s exactly what I strive for in my poetry. I write along that line because it’s honestly how I see the world. Most of my favorite artists’ work (music, film, writing, sculpture, etc.) is fairly disturbing in content but that’s what makes it beautiful. I’m bored by fields of flowers, but add a dark figure lurking by the tree in that field and then you have something that holds me there. The hidden menace. Underlying fear. And I believe fear is so inherently tied to love as emotions go, so really the eerie and beautiful combo makes sense. The ghost is both terrifying and beautiful because we fear death, and we fear death, because we love life (I had a sort of epiphany about this while re-watching Poltergeist at an airport in New Orleans).
Also I just find a lot of gross stuff interesting. And I want my readers to like it too. If they do, win, if they don’t, still win, because I probably freaked them out and then hopefully they’ll ask themselves why. I think I accomplish this tone largely through word choice, mixing up an ugly image with a lovely simile so that it’s this whole new thing.
4.) You’ve worked on a series of poems about Waverly Hills Sanitarium. What at first made you go towards this subject? Can you tell me about the writing process of these poems?
I first learned about Waverly Hills on a double feature Sy-Fy channel program, Ghost Hunters and Spooked, the Ghosts of Waverly Hills Sanatorium. I love these paranormal shows but that night something about the history of Waverly really pulled me in. Initially terrified me. Tales of a tunnel used to cart dead bodies to waiting hearses, painful treatments to cure tuberculosis, which at that time was still a mysterious disease, and of course the idea that spirits may still haunt the old hospital. Though the history is tragic, it’s not simple, and that more than anything is what made me start writing. In Kentucky, Waverly was a beacon of hope for so many TB sufferers and when the doors closed in 1961, many patients were reluctant to leave, as they had spent much of their life here, formed a family with other patients and staff (who mostly lived on the grounds). Programs like Spooked painted Waverly as a hopeless and terrifying place, and while I do believe it was for many (the body count well into the thousands), I also know that the stories of the people there are more rich and complicated than a cheap horror tale. And I want to give them a voice.
Writing the poems has been and continues to be a challenge. There are so many aspects of Waverly that I want to address and yet I don’t want to just regurgitate history. I’ve relied heavily on C.C. Thomas’ book With Their Last Dying Breath as a guide to the actual events of the Sanatorium, and from there fill in the blanks with images and memories. My grandmother suffered illness for many years and so I pull from those experiences as well to try and understand what it must have been like, not only to be a patient at Waverly, but to visit loved ones there, tend as a nurse, etc. Half of the poems are rooted in history while the other half involve the ghosts (literal and metaphorical) and hauntings of the building. I’ve been to three different tours on location and I intend to visit Louisville many more times while writing these poems. It’s a project I’m still working on and I would very much like to turn it into a full-length collection.
5.) Could you describe what you consider your overall style?
Still trying to figure this one out. But I try to write what I know I like to read. Narrative. Imagistic. Weird.
6.) I know that you’re a fellow horror fan. In what ways has horror influenced your writing style (if it has)? What are some of your favorite works of horror?
I used to be terrified of horror. I remember Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller gave me nightmares for weeks. My grandmother had books on unexplained mysteries (in the bathroom of all places) and reading about phenomena like the Bermuda triangle really freaked me out. And yet I kept going back to these things, even though they scared me, because they were also fascinating. Until I watched Poltergeist in seventh grade (at a Catholic school Halloween party mind you). That movie scarred me for years. I avoided everything horror until late in high school when I picked up the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Then I was back in the game, and asking myself why Carol Anne and her abduction frightened me so much. In college I started binging all the horror movies I’d missed out on growing up. And now I’m pretty much obsessed.
Horror (film and literature) has taught me a great deal about how to use fear to get at the heart of certain subjects, how to use monsters as metaphor, among many other invaluable lessons. When I watch horror movies with friends that are not fans of the genre, I like to ask them why they react the way they do. Why does this or that scene gross you out? What about the monster made you leave your light on that night? I think fear is one of our most powerful emotions and goes a long way to characterize each of us.
Some (emphasis on ‘some’) of my favorite horror authors are: Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Emily Carroll, Anne Rice, Rick Yancey, Toby Barlow, Charlaine Harris, Joe R. Lansdale, and Henry James (because Turn of the Screw still gives me chills).
Some (again with the emphasis) of my favorite horror films are: Poltergeist, The Shining, REC, Grave Encounters, Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, Let the Right One In, Evil Dead franchise, Absentia, The Exorcist, The Exorcist III, High Tension, Rosemary’s Baby, Hellraiser franchise, Yellowbrickroad, The Devil’s Backbone, The Innocents (again, damn you Henry James), The Haunting in Connecticut, Shutter (2004), The Wicker Man (1973), Paranormal Activity franchise, The Descent, Last House on the Left (1972 version which I can’t watch again), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Phantasm franchise, It Follows, The Blair Witch Project, American Horror Story (Season 1), The People Under the Stairs, Black Swan, Exorcism of Emily Rose, Them (Ils), Martyrs, and I suppose I have to stop somewhere.
7.) What is one thing you think every writer should know?
Write what YOU want to write. Be open to criticism and growth, but don’t change for others. The publishing market will always evolve, popular styles and subjects will come and go, but you are the only you. Write you.
8.) Writer or writers you’d most like to meet
Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, Stewart O’Nan, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Toby Barlow, Suzanne Collins, Kouta Hirano, and so many more.
9.) Thing you are most proud of in your writing?
I love freaking people out. Recently I read some poems at a literary reading and out of all the people I talked to afterwards, a writer friend told me she would have a hard time sleeping that night because my stuff bothered her (in a good way I think). I’m pretty proud when my work frightens people because that means I’ve hit a nerve somewhere, made a connection.
Also, another friend told me she would write fan-fiction about my characters. That might be the most flattering comment I’ve ever received.
10.) You also act as an editor at Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. What do you most love about doing that kind of work? In what ways does editing, shape your own writing?
Being a part of Gingerbread House has been, and continues to be, the most rewarding experience. Somewhere around the third issue or so, I also fell into the role of Art Director as well as Editor, soliciting artists for work to match up with our poems and short stories. I love finding the right image for our publications, and it’s such a great feeling when it all fits.
I love seeing it come together the week before the release of a new issue. Our staff is made up of some truly remarkable and talented people, and we’re all very proud of our publication, our contributors, writers and artists both.
Reading through submissions, proofing the issues, I’m continually reminded of why I myself write, why I submit to journals. As an editor, I’m so excited to show others what we publish, for them to share in what we think is the essence of magic and story. It’s a daily inspiration to work on this magazine.
11.) The most difficult thing you find about writing in ten words or less.
12.) What is up next in the world of M. Brett Gaffney?
Pizza. My boyfriend (and fellow writer), Dan Paul, just ordered us some Mio’s, so I’m pretty excited about that.
M. Brett Gaffney, born in Houston, Texas, holds a BA in English from Stephen F. Austin University and an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She is an associate editor / art director of Gingerbread House literary magazine, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Slipstream, Wind, Penduline, Cactus Heart, Exit 7, REAL, Still: the Journal, Licking River Review, Permafrost, Scapegoat Review, Zone 3, and Rogue Agent among others.