By Kathryn E. McGee
I had the privilege of meeting Lisa Quigley and Mackenzie Kiera while studying with them in the UC Riverside Palm Desert MFA Program about seven years ago. We were beginning our careers by working on horror and dark fiction projects, and I remember how remarkable it felt to suddenly know these amazing women who were trying to do the same thing I was—make sense of the darkness in a way that translated for readers.
Since we graduated, Lisa and Mackenzie have gone on to do so much, creating an award-winning horror literature podcast as the “Ladies of the Fright” and publishing their first novellas (Hell’s Bells and All You Need Is Love and a Strong Electric Current) as part of the Rewind or Die series of “throwback horror” by Unnerving Press. I’m thrilled they were able to talk with me about their writing experiences and how it all came together.
Kathryn McGee: What initially got you interested in starting a podcast, and what kind of episodes have you produced?
Mackenzie Kiera: I remember the exact moment we decided to start the podcast, actually. After graduate school, we were reading several books in tandem so we could still have an excuse to call each other and talk in-depth about writing/craft/voice and all that. It was shortly after we’d both read My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix, and we just had this really wonderful conversation about the book and the author and how the book made us both cry at the end. Well, the next day Lisa called me and, said: hear me out. What if we start a podcast? We’re already talking about books every few weeks. What if we just record it and see if anyone wants to listen?
Lisa Quigley: Yeah, we really did start it on a pure whim. I had recently moved to New Jersey from California, and I had a six-month-old. I was struggling to adjust to living in a new place, feeling deeply lonely and uprooted, and experiencing some pretty intense postpartum anxiety. I’d started listening to podcasts to ease my loneliness. Mackenzie and I had always wanted to have a collaborative project, but we never wanted the workload that would come with starting something like a literary magazine or curating an anthology. A podcast sounded like a great way to have a project together, and it seemed so easy! (Spoiler alert: It was not easy.) At any rate, it might be a lot of work, but it’s incredibly rewarding, and I am so glad we took the leap.
KM: Have any of your conversations with authors been especially impactful?
MK: I think the most impactful conversation for me was our chat with Josh Malerman. He got his agent by accident almost, and before that, had already written something insane, like, 13 books already. And? He’d written them just for the joy of it. That conversation resonated with me. I really love the idea that if you write what you want and have a true love for the craft, eventually, it will all work out.
LQ: I don’t think I can point to any single conversation. Each guest has helped demystify the writing process in some meaningful way. I feel truly honored and privileged to be able to have these conversations with such inspiring artists.
KM: How has all the reading and interviewing you’ve done for the podcast changed your writing?
MK: We’ve learned that everyone has a different process. I can’t speak for Lisa, but one of the great things the podcast has done for me is to understand that everyone’s writing process is different and everyone’s path is different. The best thing you can do is write exactly what you want to write.
LQ: What Mackenzie said. But yeah, I think that’s exactly it. No two guests approach writing in the exact same way, but there is a common thread: They’ve each found what works for them, and they’ve committed to and prioritized their craft. I definitely believe in not “forcing” your creativity or following arbitrary rules. But I do think there is value in being honest with yourself, and really truthfully examining your time and how you’re spending it (without judgement, but also, with honesty). I don’t think it’s possible to hear people share their enthusiasm and excitement for their craft without catching some of that spark yourself.
KM: What about your concept of horror? How have your thoughts on what the genre can accomplish evolved over time? How does this impact what you choose to write about?
MK: I actually remember telling Stephen Graham Jones [once] that I wasn’t really into horror. The truth is, I’d always loved horror, I just didn’t understand its range. I, like so many [other] people, was under the misconception that horror was just slasher/gore/scream. And? There’s nothing wrong with that. I love watching it. I just was unaware that I’d already been loving it in Robert McCammon, Daphne du Maurier, Phantom of the Opera, and Tremors. I’m not sure why I was so ignorant. I grew up reading Stephen King, and yet I still didn’t completely feel like I was a horror person. It wasn’t until Lisa and I were picking books for the podcast [that] I realize that I was one-hundred percent horror. I’d just been staying out on the fringes in dark fantasy and macabre humor before really taking a solid dive into all the wonderful blood. As for how it’s evolving, I love to see the growth. I feel like horror has become this great safe place for people to bring heavy topics in for an honest conversation. It always has been, don’t get me wrong. But it’s experiencing a renaissance, too. I believe that’s due largely to the 2016 election. People (more than usual) required a comfortable, reassuring place to see that even though things can get awful, dark, and bad, the monsters don’t always win. I want to add, too, that personally I had no idea everyone in the Horror Writers Association would be so incredibly warm and welcoming. I expected some resistance, some sort of pecking order, but there wasn’t any. We were not only welcomed with open arms, we were (and are) supported by a very tight-knit, wonderful group of people.
LQ: Yeah…it’s really funny because I feel like I came into horror through the back door. I also never knew I was a horror fan or that what I was reading could be considered “horror.” I would try to describe what I liked to read and write and stumble over my words. I thought what I liked didn’t have a “label,” that it was simply “speculative.” I struggled to find books I connected with. So, yeah, I think it also started with Stephen Graham Jones telling me to read Joe Hill, and then I realized, THIS is what horror could be. And once I found horror—or, more accurately, once I realized that what I had liked all along was horror, I just hadn’t known, it was like a whole new world blew open for me. Suddenly, I had so many books to read, I couldn’t keep up. In terms of what I choose to write about, I’ve realized, what I really want to write about (and what I’ve always written about) is what scares me. Horror is personal, to me. It digs deep into our psyches and really gives us the most fertile ground for excavation. For getting to the truth of who we are and writing from that place.
KM: Can you each please tell us about your novellas? What is the subject matter and why is it important to you?
MK: All You Need is Love and a Strong Electric Current is about Sadie, who has a fetish. She’s everything a woman is supposed to be. She’s smart, she’s funny, she works out, has a good career, perfect hair, is a total freak in the sheets, but also wants true love. She’s important to me because she represents how, if you are everything you are supposed to be, you’ll go mad just trying to keep it all together. I built Sadie to be the female Patrick Bateman who finds herself in a Frankenstein plotline with 1980’s slashers and Hedwig and the Angry Inch playing in the background. It’s got love, Christmas lights, blood, lots of dead jocks, reanimation of dead body parts, sex, and of course, true love.
LQ: Hell’s Bells is about Sasha, Hayley, Tiffany, and Jessica—four best friends into black clothes and rock music. They dabble in Ouija boards and occult games like “light as a feather.” But when Hayley “gets saved,” she’s convinced rock music is satanic and conspires to save them all. Her good intentions go up in flames and the four girls accidentally summon the devil. Trapped in a basement with entities beyond their wildest nightmares, their only savior is rock ‘n’ roll. They have to hope to hell it’s enough, before another one bites the dust.
I wrote this book after spending months immersed in a Freddie Mercury obsession—it had to come out somewhere. I also wanted to write about my complicated adolescence in an extreme fundamentalist Christian household. I grew up very sheltered, and in a lot of weird ways, Hell’s Bells is also wish fulfillment. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the music my characters loved, and I always longed to belong to some kind of music scene. The story is a love letter to my younger self, and also to anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong.
KM: What made you want to write a novella, as opposed to a short story or novel? What is it about the form of a novella that appealed to you?
MK: Oh, that’s all Lisa. She convinced me I should do one more thing even though I was already insanely busy with work and a new baby. The idea of a novella was appealing because the length felt way more manageable than a full novel.
LQ: I just have recently gotten addicted to them. They’re such a great delivery vehicle for horror. Short, quick, to the point. Longer than short stories but not quite as immersive as a novel. You don’t have to suspend your disbelief for that long, you’re able to keep up a pace that isn’t quite sustainable in a novel. And in our distractable culture, there is something super appealing about being able to read a whole book in one or two sittings. I have utterly fallen in love with the form, and I’m not the only one. The novella is having quite a moment among horror fans, and I suspect this trend will continue.
KM: What did you learn from the process of writing your novella? How has your writing process changed?
MK: Personally, I found my voice. Lisa and I were talking about this the other day, actually. With the previous novel I’d written, I loved it dearly. I worked hard on it, and chased the market and made all of my characters into something that could be sold. It got a lot of attention and, at one point, an agent and I were flirting around with revisions. Ultimately, the voice was difficult for people to connect with. That hasn’t been the issue with this. I’ve heard from my readers that it’s all voice, and I think that might be the best compliment I could receive considering the response to my previous work. The voice came from just straight giving zero fucks. As I’ve said before, I had no time, a new baby, a new career, and then of course the podcast. So, when I sat down to write, I didn’t have a chance to think about how I wanted to sound, I just wrote and Sadie came out. Now it seems that whenever I write fiction, a version of her voice appears on the page, which leads me to believe that it’s just, now, what I sound like, and who I am as a writer.
LQ: I just realized that the most important thing for me is honesty. I could be writing about the devil or snakes materializing on walls and turning into leeches, but if there is no honesty there, it will fall flat. I have to start with the truth. Some truth I need to tell, a way I see the world, something that matters to me. All the blood and gore, it’s a magic trick—getting you to look at the train wreck while I sneakily expose my whole heart.
KM: Are there any current books or trends in horror you find particularly interesting?
MK: I’m all about Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia right now. It’s so gross and vivid and beautiful. I’m really excited to see color used this way in other horror books, too. Just because we dress in black doesn’t mean our book worlds need to be so dark.
LQ: Honestly, I really am just all about genre flipping and trope subversion. I especially love hearing from historically marginalized voices. Horror authors from BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities are emerging in horror and having fun with the genre, but they’re also flipping tables. They’re revealing where our stories reek of privilege and exclusivity, showing us what was problematic, how we can evolve, what we can do better. Voices like Hailey Piper and Jessica Guess and Alexis Henderson and Gabino Iglesias, and more. I love it, and I want more!
KM: How do you see your own future work fitting into the genre? What’s important to you to write about next? What new work do you have coming out?
MK: Mostly I am just really excited to take everything that pisses me off about society and tuck it into the pages of a horror book. One thing I’ve figured is, the way to make something personal is to find out what YOUR own personal horror is, and to write about that. Fellow horror writers who are much better than me talk about life’s true horrors (i.e. losing a child) whereas I want to talk about the horror of how women don’t have functional pockets because someone somewhere decided for us that our butts would look much better if everything was tight. Then that person got together with a purse company and boom. That’s my horror. Someone else deciding for me that sexy is better than having a place where I can put my keys.
I have a new novella about demon possession in the mix, and I just had a short story placed in Gabino Iglesias’s Halldark Holidays anthology. That was a wild ride. More short stories are floating around out there. I’m hoping some of them will find a home.
LQ: My novel The Forest will be published in October 2021 by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, and I’m working on another horror novella. Mostly, I just want to tell more honest stories. I don’t know how my work fits into the genre. Maybe that’s not for me to decide. All I know is that the stories I resonate with the most are the ones that give me a glimpse into other people’s weirdness. The universal in the specific, and all that. I just want to tell the stories only I can tell. The stories that matter to me. And that’s about all I can do.
KM: Do you have any advice for people who feel they are juggling a lot and struggling to find time to write? How has motherhood impacted how you make space for writing?
LQ: Truthfully? I just do it. There is no magic formula. Everyone has responsibilities, regardless of if they’ve decided to procreate or not. Everyone has the same amount of time in a day. It’s a healthy combo of prioritizing what’s importance to me and showing myself a lot of grace. I can’t do every single thing every day. Some days I’m better at being a mom, some days I’m better at being a writer. It all evens out. My kids are important to me. Writing is important to me. The podcast is important to me. When things are important to you, you make time for them. On my worst weeks, my “screen time” app will report that I’ve spent eight hours a day on my phone. Eight. Hours. When I am honest with myself, that means I’ve got time in each day I can use, and I choose not to. But I also don’t write for hours and hours a day. Most days, it’s 30 minutes to an hour. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with one focused half or full hour a day. When I write, I set a timer, and I don’t use the internet. I write in a focused container of time. Sometimes I can get 500 words, sometimes 2,000. It doesn’t matter, because each block of focused time gets me a little closer to a completed project. The podcast interviews are scheduled around kids naps and husbands’ work schedules. We make it work because we want to.
MK: This is a two-part response for me because everyone is looking for that incantation that will magic you a twenty-fifth hour of the day. The truth is, as Lisa said, you have to be honest with yourself. If you have an eight-hour workday, and you sleep for eight hours (does anyone?) well, then what are you doing with the other remaining eight hours? As a new mom, I remember actually saying to myself, out loud, “I could write, but I am choosing to stay here and watch my baby sleep.” And I would. I would sit in a rocking chair, choosing to be with him in a quiet space and rock for hours because I’ll never get those hours back. He’ll never be little like that again. The trick is to be just as dedicated to writing. It’s all choice, and you have to be honest with yourself about that choice. “I chose to watch Bridgerton until 1 a.m. instead of write.” My personal pet peeve is seeing people online complaining about not having time to write when I know they are all caught up with their watchlist, their reading list, and their house is immaculate and clean. You had time, you just chose something else.
I do want to clarify something, though. I used to be a write or die person. After having my son, the dedication hasn’t changed, but I do feel less naïve, a little less rigid. I suffered horribly from postpartum anxiety and it was very, very difficult to get into any sort of headspace that would allow me to create. I went through a phase of guilt and grief because writing wasn’t happening the way it used to. I really do urge everyone who is going through a hardship to give themselves space and time to heal. Lisa and I have both found our way through mental hardships back to writing. Lisa went through a Freddie phase, if anyone caught that, and I was able to crash back into horror with a heavy dose of old slashers. There are ways back in, you just have to try a ton of doors.
The trick, too, is to always ask. Ask a million people what their process is and maybe it will shake something awake and jive with you. It’s all about figuring out what works best for YOU.
KM: Where can readers follow you online?
MK: @Kiera1Mackenzie is my Twitter handle.