Joe Sullivan: What is it about dark, speculative fiction that interests you as a writer? What compelled you to submit your first stories?
Donyae Coles: I’ve always been drawn to these sorts of stories. I think it’s because with this sort of work you can talk about things as they are. There’s no pressure to romanticize things. They can just be. The story doesn’t have to be about overcoming anything, it can just show things for what they are, in all their own horrible beauty.
I always knew I wanted to do this writing thing, in fact I WAS writing for a part of my living by then so I knew if I wanted people to read me, I had to submit. I saw a call for stories and I had a spark of an idea, I wrote it in an afternoon and submitted it. They did end up accepting it but then the publisher went under before it was released. My next stories were these weird, violent little monsters and I didn’t know where to send them but I wanted people to read my work so I just kept trying. They were both picked up after a handful of rejections. One was “Breaking the Waters”.
A common theme in your stories, such as “Breaking the Waters” (PseudoPod/Nightlight) and “Dawn Colored Night” (Speculative City), seems to be that of a woman facing imminent spiritual invasion. What is it about this theme that keeps you coming back as a storyteller?
I love “Dawn Colored Night”. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written so I’m stoked to hear you mention it! I think what I’m really talking about with these stories (and many of my stories) is the concept of “inheritance” which is through blood but also, sometimes, through circumstance. When we think about inheritance it’s usually wealth but we come into a lot of things. The way we look, the way we talk, the broken step in the house you just rented.
A lot of my work deals with how much we are able to do with the things we inherit. How much they harm us or help us. What we can leave behind and what we can’t. Or shouldn’t even if we can.
“Best House” from Campfire Macabre is an excellent example of how well quiet horror can work in a limited space such as flash. Most writers responded to the call by building toward one shocking moment, while you chose to accumulate unsettling moments that when taken together are absolutely dreadful. Are there any techniques you can share for those of us looking to work in horror’s more subtle spaces?
I try to write with that misquoted Poe idea in mind, that a story must have a single mood. The way I think of it is kind of like I think of painting. I paint in layers. No single layer makes the painting and by themselves they’re unimpressive. But if you take one out, the work doesn’t look right in the end. The trick is to build things bit by bit. Glaze by glaze. Everything in the piece should build upon the last to create a fuller picture.
Also I think there’s an urge to make all the creepy things obviously creepy. If you want to write something that is subtle you’ve got to draw out the horror that just lives in all things. Everyday horror. Hold that story right at the edge of supernatural so that reader is in doubt. There’s nothing scarier than doubt. Doubt is the little sister of the unknown and she is viscous. Make your readers doubt, make them second guess what they think they know about the world. And then, when you show them that other side of things they won’t be able to tell what’s real or not. So, if we’re still going with my painting metaphor, don’t over paint, you’ll lose the magic.
Are you currently working toward a collection, novella, or novel? If so, what themes do you hope to explore with it?
I am working on a Gothic novel about a Black woman that marries into an old family in 1840s England. On the surface it seems like I’m dealing with race but really it’s about family trauma. I mean, it is a Gothic novel after all.
My other project is a novella that tackles the diet industry through murder.
What are some of your writing goals for the 2020s?
My main goal in the coming decade is to get that book money. I really want to get longer works out. I also want to lean more into the weird in my writing so you all have that look forward to. I want to do some more anthologies. I also want to combine my writing and art more through comics and other projects.
Donyae Coles is a writer of weird fiction. She’s been published on Pseudopod and Vastarien. You can find more of her work on her website, www.donyaecoles.com or follow her on Twitter @okokno.