Joe Sullivan: Your latest bio (and each I’ve seen) begins “Jessica Ann York is a horror writer”. When did you first imagine yourself a horror writer as a statement of fact?
Jessica Ann York: I’ve always wanted to belong to the horror genre, even before I was public about my dream to be a writer. Everything I’ve ever written, read, or watched just naturally fell into that category in some way. I grew up in the rolling hills of rural Tennessee, and my parents couldn’t keep me away from the creepy crawly things that hide inside the caves and swam in creeks near our house. If you asked my family to describe me, I think some of the first images that would pop into their head would be of 10-year-old me telling ghost stories at sleepovers, reading Stephen King aloud to my cousins at the beach, or watching Nightmare on Elm Street during the Holidays. So when my Creative Writing professors asked me to draft an author bio for the first time in school, I just opened with “I’m a horror writer,” and I’ve stuck with it since.
The path for most writers seems to involve some degree of collegiate training, then a period where we forget about writing while we live life for 5-10 years, until we once again pick up the pen with an eye for publication. Anyone catching up on your bio might think that your path has been just about seamless. From a creative writing program to a series of professional sales, some of which came out of your MFA portfolio! Did you have a plan for your writing after you were done with school?
It makes me happy to hear that my path looks smooth from the outside looking in. The reality is, I completely gave up on publicly sharing my writing with anyone when I was in high school after I had a trusted friend tell me, “Some people just aren’t meant to do things, and that’s you with writing, Jessi.”
Hearing someone I loved so much say that tore me to shreds (especially after I caught them making fun of my fictional characters with another person), and I never showed my writing to anyone again until I was a Junior in college. I was working on a B.S. in Psychology, and I was completely sold on the idea that I’d go into mental health and that would be my ultimate life path. But that B.S. required me to pick a minor, and I couldn’t hold myself back when I saw that there was one specifically for Creative Writing.
I thought that minor would just be a fun way to let some of my pent-up ideas out, but then my Intro to Creative Writing professor pulled me to the side and told me upfront that I needed to switch majors to English. Soon after, a ton of my other English professors also started telling me the same thing. By my Senior year, I was still majoring in Psych, but the head of the English department told me I’d get full-funding if I applied to their Creative Writing Master’s Program. I took the offer, and I haven’t looked back since.
I’m really proud to say that I can independently support myself with income from both my day-job as a commercial blogger and the side income from my short stories. I never, ever thought I’d have the skills to do that, and I’m so thankful those professors pushed me to believe that I could.
My plan right now is to ride this wave for as long as possible and see where it takes me. The writing community is amazing, and my heart belongs to them.
Writing horror and dark fiction could be considered the art of conceptualizing anxieties. A typical horror narrative throws an individual into an experience with the unknown, dissecting how that individual reacts in the face of nothingness(the monster, the specter of imminent death, etc.) Your narratives tend to draw the reader in through your main character’s anxieties, but then you seem to explore the concept of anxiety itself — and I can’t help but think of the yarn and hex dolls filling the frozen lake from your story “The Lake of Poppets”. Who do you think explores anxiety well in their fiction?
If I had to pick one contemporary writer whose exploration of anxiety inspires me, it’d be Samantha Hunt. Her short fiction collection THE DARK DARK was on my thesis reading list, and I still go back to it whenever I need inspiration. A lot of her stories follow middle-aged women who struggle with feelings of restlessness and unease, despite having what most people would consider perfect lives. “A Love Story” in particular is about a woman who can’t stop obsessing over all the different ways her children could be molested or murdered, to the point that she starts romanticizing her irrational thoughts and they become comforting to her. It’s very quiet, domestic horror, and I love how you can tell the ideas come directly from her personal experiences and the places she’s lived. Her ability to turn life into fiction is something I try to mirror in my own work, because I think that nugget of truth transforms the fears you’re writing about into something other people can easily imagine themselves experiencing.
Are you working on long stories(novellas/novels)? What do you imagine will be your first book, and what additional themes do you hope to explore with it?
Currently I’m on track to (fingers crossed) complete my first novel by the end of the year. It’s a YA dark fantasy that follows a young fish-man who has lost connection to his past lives and is trying to make friends he can trust inside a cursed forest where humans are skinned for their bones.
It’s incredibly different from my published short fiction in that it pulls away from the Southern setting and female protagonists I usually write—but the same themes of dealing with anxiety and the intense feeling of not fitting into your own skin are still there.
The nameless protagonist’s main conflict is that he is constantly being told that he is inside a body that is naturally meant to enjoy solitude and preying on humans, but he finds himself quickly realizing that’s not the truth at all, and that these other fish-men are more than likely just repeating what they’ve been told countless times during their past lives.
I’m writing it with my two little brothers in mind, and I hope it can become a story that invites adolescents to trust their inner voice when they’re surrounded by insidious stereotypes that would push them to do otherwise.
Jessica Ann York is a horror writer whose work has been featured at PseudoPod, Vastarien, and Cemetery Gates Media. She serves as an Associate Editor at Pseudopod and as the Webmaster of the Atlanta Chapter of the Horror Writers Association. Her fiction centers around women who take comfort in using the macabre as a window to understanding anxiety. Through writing and research, she’s come to love the things that used to scare her (like the baby tarantulas and rats she’s raising). You can get updates on her and her strange pets at Twitter @JessicaAnnYork1.