Nancy Kilpatrick, Canada’s reigning queen of Goth and vampire lore, proves a fount of knowledge about being an author in these shifting sands. She’s accomplished a prolific trifecta as author, editor, and teacher, and has won numerous awards as both writer and editor, from the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery to Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year. From zombies to vampires, short-story markets, nonfiction, and the state of traditional dark fiction publishing, her thoughts as a Canadian female artist of dark design who’s had an online presence since the dawn of the internet are unmatched. She and Lydia Peever spoke just before Women in Horror Month, 2014.
LP: What have you been working on lately, and where can we go to read your latest words?
NK: At the moment, I’m finishing up a short story about zombies. Then I’ll be finishing my novel-in-progress, also about zombies, which my agent has a publisher for. I’ve got another novel out through the same agent, a kind of multi-genre first in a series. I have another short story to finish soon for a dark fiction anthology, and I’m also co-editing an anthology with a friend, which won’t be out until 2015–we’re just starting on that. My most recent short stories are “Ecto, Endo, Meso” in Dark Discoveries Magazine, issue #25 (December 2013). Another is “Gurrl UnDeleted” in Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Dwell from November, 2013. And “Trick or Treat” in Halloween: Magic, Mystery and the Macabre from October 2013. I’ve also edited Expiration Date for Edge SF&F Publishing, which is now scheduled for fall 2014. It is an anthology with 25 stories [by other writers].
LP: I read your Facebook posts about weather woes. Do you enjoy Canadian weather in the winter, and how does it affect your writing if at all?
NK: I live in Montreal and I’m kind of used to cold winters, but I don’t like them and tend to hover at home a lot. I escape south for at least a week in the winter, this year for two weeks, different timeframes. One year I could afford to leave for four weeks. It was so pleasant to work in a temperate climate. My apartment at home can get only so warm because of where it’s situated. When the temperature plummets to -28C as it did here for a couple of days, or even under -15C, I just can’t get warm. I find my hands are cold a lot and even though I type quickly, my fingers never get warm. Are there gloves for people who type? This is not to say that I can’t write at home–of course I can. And likely the cold keeps me from sitting too long because I end up having to have lots of warm drinks, which means trips to the kitchen. I doubt the gloom inspires my dark writing. I think the darkness is within me and I could write anywhere, and have. When I was younger, I used to go to bars alone and write in a notebook by hand. Being young and cute back then, I was always interrupted, but I managed to return to my writing book easily. Now I’ll take my netbook to a cafe and do the same and, of course, no one interrupts anyone in a cafe on a computer, young or otherwise!
LP: Many readers know you for vampire tales, but I’d like to hear what you think of the zombie popularity after reading your article in Dark Discoveries.
NK: The zombie is like the old vampire guild; the resuscitated corpse. I think we all know that. I wanted to play with that in the column. I’ve written about four or five zombie stories. One was called “The Age of Sorrows” and was originally published by PF Publishing in Issue 10 of a book they do regularly. John Joseph Adams, who does Nightmare Magazine, also used that story in “The Living Dead,” which is a big thick book of reprint zombie stories. That book has done very well since zombies are so hot; it’s gone into several reprints. I’ve gotten great royalties from that one story alone! Normally you don’t get royalties for short fiction, just what you get up front and that’s it. I have one that was originally bought by John Skipp. He was able to do the book eventually through Cemetery Dance and it’s called “Mondo Zombie.” I’ve done a couple for books of short shorts, so maybe five altogether. I just finished one for another publication that was just sent out the other day. I like zombies, I just haven’t done as much on them as I have done on vampires.
LP: I know you are a very busy writer, but then I remember you teach as well.
NK: I teach online writing courses for two places. One in Toronto, George Brown College, and Ontario Learn, which is like an umbrella organization for a lot of courses from all kinds of colleges. A place where different schools put on a course or two. Anybody can take an Ontario Learn course, they are all distance education. I used to teach at George Brown in the evening when I lived in Toronto for likely as long as I’ve taught online since moving to Montreal fifteen years ago. Mine was one of the two first online courses they offered. I teach Short Story Writing I and II, Novel Writing, Mystery Writing, and a course called Expressive Writing, which they asked me to pick up.
LP: You have seen the industry from writing, editing, and publishing perspectives. Have you ventured into eBooks yourself?
NK: The problem is time. There are people who have a lot more energy than me though I seem like a higher energy person! Being by myself, I don’t have the time and energy I’d like for everything and so much of writing is promotion. I can only do so much of it. People who self-publish, they do a lot of self-promotion for their work and I don’t know if I’d have the energy, time or inclination to do that. Not that mainstream publishers do much promotion. I don’t want to learn how to do an eBook. How to put it together, how to format, to get the artwork, promote it, get it onto all of the sites. I’d rather just go to Crossroad Press Publishing which is run by David Wilson, an old friend. He set up a publishing company for eBooks. He was taking backlists from people and contacted me about a backlist so he’s done a lot of my stuff. The four Powers of Blood books, The Vampire Stories of Nancy Kilpatrick, some of the [pen-name] Aramantha Knight books. He sets it up, has it proofread, does the cover, gets it on all the right sites. That’s a lot of work! I don’t want to do all this! I just can’t do all that because I’m working as a writer, I’m working as an editor, I’m working as a teacher. All this to do and the day-to-day. It’s not for me.
LP: I agree, it is a lot considering how much you have on your plate and in production. There is a huge time commitment learning a new process.
NK: It’s different being a woman and living alone. I did a lot of writing when I was married to my second husband. Then I had a boyfriend here for a while but we didn’t live together. It’s a very different circumstance when you live alone. You’ve got to do everything. Everything. The laundry, the shopping, the food, any repairs have to be done by you—plus, your work. I know there are women who work all day and have to still do all of that, but not as much anymore. Usually the guy does the dishes or they have their thing like, he does laundry and she does something else, you know? Two incomes, this makes a big difference.
LP: The landscape of publishing and writing is evolving. How does having an agent fit into the future of fiction?
NK: For short fiction, people approached me to write or edit; that’s a person-to-person thing. For anthologies it is usually me getting an idea and approaching someone to see if they’d be interested. As I said, in the past, it was a whole lot easier to get in touch with the major houses than it is now. You go to conventions and might meet someone here who is in a major house or an acquisitions editor and you can talk to them about it. There is no money for them in short fiction, there is not a lot of money in anthologies. It’s more novels and I’m on my ninth agent. I have to say that of all of these agents, only one sold anything. There were two very poor deals in my opinion and one who stole from me. It was a very galling experience. Having to contact a person ten, twelve, fifteen times to get your royalty cheques or back royalties? Yeah. This is not how I want to be. The other agents just didn’t sell anything and I have had top agents in the field. I mean top agents in the world. Anyone can hang out a shingle and say they are an agent and just because an agent can sell does not mean they can sell you. I was a couple of years without agents and I wanted to talk to the one I am working with now. I thought I’d give her a chance but now the onus is on me. I have to finish this book. In the past, you used to be able to produce a synopsis and first chapter and secure a deal based on that–now, it’s not that way. Everyone is like a first-time writer, even the major writers. You have to write the book first now. It’s pretty distressing, because that’s a hell of a lot of work to put in. To write an entire novel and not be able to sell it? A novel can take a while. I wrote one novel in two months. That was exceptional. Most of the time it’s six months or a year. Sometimes even more if you don’t feel it’s quite ready or not working. You just put it aside and come back to it so it can take more than a year and you don’t want to put all that effort in for nothing. Does anyone want to work at a job and not get paid for a year and hear, “Well, we don’t have any money and we’re not interested in paying you”? This is work you don’t want to do without some sort of contract or commitment. The world is different now in terms of publishing. Very different. No one really knows what’s happening. That’s the bottom line. People talk about this constantly on Facebook and forums, no one knows what’s going on.
My very first agent, maybe in 1984, was Henry Morrison, a top agent for every type of publishing. He represents big names. I went to him with a contemporary literary book, and he loved it. He sent it out to eight people, one at a time, and he said, “I got really good responses but they didn’t want to buy it. I sent it to people who I thought would buy it since I don’t send it to people just because they exist. So send me something else.” By then I just wanted to write horror. He told me at the time that, in his view, the way the industry was going was that at some point there would be no mid-list writers. This is so prophetic. That there would only be the top writers who were getting all this money and promotion, then these people at the bottom of the pile who would work for almost nothing. They would get one book done by a publisher and that’s it because they are all disposable, right? No one is nurturing careers anymore. It’s not like that. That was the mid-list. Where you sold but you didn’t sell a bestseller, you sold enough that they thought you had a career and you could write well enough and they would nurture you and give you another book and each book would get some promotion and you were building to a better career. Not anymore. It doesn’t exist. And [Henry] was right about that. He also said that he eventually foresaw that there would be, in bookstores, these machines that would be able to produce a book. This is happening [now] in university libraries and campus bookstores. The one that I know of is called the Espresso Book Machine. Basically it’s a machine that produces a book in about five minutes. It’s like a super sophisticated photocopier. It does the book, prints the cover, a strip of glue is put in then the cover is cut to fit and it takes really five minutes. I saw it with my own eyes! The person I know who was involved, he edited an anthology called Campus Chills, a print book. He also did it as an Espresso Book Machine book because he was involved with it and he wanted to investigate it. I have compared the print book with the Espresso book. You can take all kinds of paper and any quality of paper. You can do whatever you want on the cover. What he had between the print book and the Espresso book: the colouring was slightly different between the two. But if you didn’t see one, you wouldn’t know. They were very close in colour. The browns were brown and the reds were red; only if you held them close one was a little bit darker than the other. I watched it myself. Five minutes. So, Henry Morrison foresaw there would be a machine like this and in the bookstore there would be one copy of a book on the shelf. You would look at it and say, “I want to buy this book,” and you’d pay your money and they’d print the book for you. They had one at McGill I think, so they have them here and there, not printing novels but textbooks that are out of print or hard to get. This is all part of the changes. Of course e-publishing is an incredible thing that has just altered everything, and everyone is a writer apparently.
LP: I have seen you speak on panels but never do a reading. Do you do live readings of your work?
NK: I used to do bookstores. When I first moved to Montreal I’d go to Chapters and do readings there, and Chapters in Toronto. I don’t like to read publicly and I don’t feel I can read the way the story is in my mind. I’d rather not. I’ll have people read it. I’ll go and talk about the story or the book but I don’t want to read it. I have some on Audible.com. Crossroads got me a deal with Audible and it is very interesting hearing someone read my story and the way they put emphasis on different things.
LP: Do you go to readings or listen to audiobooks?
NK: I don’t listen to audio books and used to go to a lot of readings but there are not many here in Montreal. There’s not much of a cohesive writers’ community. When I first moved here there was a small group that was both French and English that met, but it didn’t last very long. I just drifted from the idea of it. I was in a writers’ workshop in Toronto for a good ten years. In truth, while some of my audience is in Canada, the larger audience is in the U.S. That is where there are more readers and you really want to get there because you will sell more books. We have a small population, like a tenth of the US.
LP: Do you find you have a different audience with e-publishing and the resurgence of Goth culture among the youth and horror fandom?
NK: It’s hard for me to assess that. I know that with things like Facebook I have more contact with readers directly and my books have been published in several countries so I have contact with readers worldwide. Italy, Germany, Mexico and places like that, so I have fan groups and pages from a lot of interested people who I wouldn’t have had contact with without Facebook. Yes, I’ve had email for dozens of years, since the 80s, but really people don’t hunt down your email, it’s very rare. On Facebook they can friend you and read your stuff. Or hopefully read your stuff! It’s hard to know. I see it more with foreign sales. They’ve read the books and set up groups. For the North American and British readers, people say they read books but I’m not sure if there is activity leading to sales. It’s hard to tell because I don’t see a blip. In the past, I would get reports from publishers when there was a big promotion, if it were on TV or sometimes the radio, and there is a blip afterward and the publisher would say sales went up for the next week or ten days because of that. I don’t know if it works that way with Facebook and I don’t have a way of assessing it.
LP: Aside from research and reading for editing, what are you reading for pleasure right now?
NK: I have a load of books on the e-reader due to Stoker recommendations. I have a pile of books to write blurbs for, and I do read books all the way through to blurb. So there are about three books that I’m looking to read but not for any purpose. I had to put away the latest Walking Dead book, “Fall of the Governor.” I have been reading bits and pieces of a book called Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, which is great. I’ve read three of her books and do love nonfiction. She’s fantastic. A lot of stuff about space and astronauts. Everything is in there, from eating to sex and you name it. She is such a great researcher. I love her research and love her tone. Very funny. I read Spook last and the cadaver one before that. It’s a break when all you do is read fiction and work in fiction. By the time I am through these, “The Fall of the Governor 2” will be out. The stories are better than the show because you can do more with a story that’s written. [Television] is so tight, the framework of writing week to week. That’s why characters do stupid things because you have to move to plot forward. You can do more in a book since you have more space to flesh out the circumstance and have explanations that make sense. The books are really good, and I highly recommend them as a really fun read.
LP: Horror, as a genre, is being somehow assimilated into dark fantasy or urban fantasy if not just plain fiction. How do you think this translates to the general reading public?
NK: There is still this prejudice against horror and dark fantasy, even science fiction, dark fiction and fantasy. All of those are considered low-brow. Mystery has elevated itself a bit more because of these international writers and it’s such a popular genre. Horror and dark fantasy have a very small percentage of the reading market. There isn’t much you can do about that. Anyone who has done horror or dark fiction and has done a signing in a store, or anywhere like Word on the Street, someone will come by, you start talking about your book and they ask, “Oh, what kind of book is it?” “Oh, it’s dark fantasy,” “Well what is that?” and you explain it to them and they go, “Oh, that’s a horror book. I can’t read that.” It’s very common. But if you think about it, Dracula, Frankenstein, these are classic books that are horror too. Even Wuthering Heights, to me, is horror with Heathcliff the demon lover for sure. But they don’t see that. What they see are movies or previews of someone getting slashed to death and that to them is horror. It’s not. It’s one part. One element of many elements and types of horror, but you can’t get that across to some people.
LP: Is there an epidemic of horror authors trying to scare the straights? A secret-club mentality maybe?
NK: Horror authors are probably angry, but so are literary authors. The more of an outsider you are, the more qualities you have from being outside the collective, but at the same time you don’t reap the benefits of being in the collective. And that’s maddening. You can put out a lot of work, you can put a lot of effort into your work, you can get critical acclaim, you can even get some sales, but you don’t get the rewards of someone smack dab in the middle of the collective. There are people who write in odd ways, like James Patterson. I read a long article on him and have read his Alex Cross series… a really well-done series. What he mostly does is hire people to write for him. Some are more like cookie-cutter books. Some authors who can’t get published took an offer to be published alongside James Patterson. The article said he noticed young adult fantasy is hot right now so he is going to write some of that and I thought “Wow.” If I could just write to what was hot I would, but I have to write what I am interested in. I guess he is the kind who can get interested in anything like a lot of business people, salespeople. I’m not like that. I need certain aspects that engage me or I can’t do it. I tried writing a romance novel once. I got the Harlequin guidelines. Romance has 80% of the world market. So I started reading this romance novel and I couldn’t get through it. I mean, I threw it across the room and I’ve never done that to a book before. So I tried to read a second one to get a feel for it. I couldn’t do it. I got in a few chapters and thought, “I can’t do this.” This is a belief system. You believe the world is this way, that relationships are this way, you believe men and women are this way. This is reality for you. Not for me, so I can’t write it. There are people for whom it’s not their reality but can write it because they are able to put on a different mask and pretend. I can’t do that. Everybody has a different path and fate you have to live with.
Lydia Peever is an author, photographer, designer, and journalist living in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 4.