Known amongst writers for being “the nicest person in horror”, Priya Sharma’s fiction has appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark, and on Tor.com. She’s been anthologised in several of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series, among others. She’s also been on Locus magazine’s Recommended Reading lists. She is a Grand Judge for the Aeon Award, an annual writing competition run by Albedo One, Ireland’s magazine of the fantastic.
‘Fabulous Beasts’ was a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and won a British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. Priya is a Shirley Jackson Award and British Fantasy Award winner, and Locus Award finalist, for All the Fabulous Beasts — a collection of her some of her work, available from Undertow Publications.
Welcome to Parallel Worlds, Priya! It’s a pleasure to meet you. 2019 looks to have been an exciting year for you. What were the highlights?
Hi Allen, it’s lovely to meet you too.
I’ve been amazed at the warm reception my collection, All The Fabulous Beasts, has had. It took me a long time to write, so this all still feels surreal. As big a thrill is when someone gets in touch and saying they’ve read it and it’s touched a nerve somewhere. In fact, I’d go further. I’m just thrilled that someone other than friends and family has read it.
Ormeshadow has been another high moment for me. It’s my first novella, released by Tor. It languished on my laptop for such a long time and I never thought it would see the light of day. To hold a copy in my hands was a huge deal. I loved Henry Sene’s cover design and how Tor have packaged it. It’s a historical fantasy that includes some hard themes, like abuse and suicide, but also dragon myths. I think that’s difficult to sell and they’ve done a terrific job.
You’ve been called “the nicest person in horror” — I’m sure that’s not about a lack of horror in your work! Tell us how you’ve found working with other authors, and with editors and publishers.
That always makes me laugh. There are lots of lovely people in horror. The thing I’ve loved the most about going to events and conventions is getting to know other writers. I feel like I’m part of a supportive network. As to editors and publishers, I’ve been very lucky but I know this isn’t a universal story. My experience has been positive 99% of the time. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Andy Cox at TTA, the team at Albedo One, Sean Wallace of The Dark, JJ Adams of Nightmare, and Steve J Shaw at Black Shuck Books, to name a few. Mike Kelly of Undertow Publications did a fantastic job with my collection. I found him open, transparent, and fair in all his dealings with me. And supportive — very supportive.
What tips would you give to a writer trying to make a start in writing horror stories?
Let your horror serve the story, not the story serve the horror. Remember the difference between premise and plot. Don’t shoehorn your characters into a nasty situation for the sake of it. Characters carry your reader into and through the story — once you get to know them, they will generate plenty of horror for you.
Looking back to when you started, what advice would you give yourself?
None. I needed to make mistakes in writing to learn. There’s no shortcut for the work. Just do the work. Everything else follows that.
Who are your writing inspirations?
It’s a long and changing list. Jeanette Winterson, David Mitchell, Cyan Jones, Toni Morrison, Jim Crace, Sarah Hall, Sarah Waters, Marlon James, George Mackay Brown, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Hilary Mantel, Zachary Mason, Patrick DeWitt, Katherine Dunn, Susanna Clark, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Hoeg, Andrew Miller, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Cunningham, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Arundhati Roy. They’re not all genre writers but they’re all great storytellers.
Parallel Worlds is a big fan of games, films, and television as well as written stories. What are you watching or playing that you’d recommend to our readers?
I’m not a gamer. I’m an escapist at heart and I worry I’d enjoy it too much. I liked what the BBC did with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so I’ve started watching the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials with hope. The film version from 2007 sidestepped the most interesting elements of the book, which I hope the BBC will embrace. So far, so good.
I was introduced to Night of the Demon by friends and loved it. It made me realise that I have massive gaps in my film knowledge. Thriller-wise, I’ve just finished watching The Last Panthers and found it flawed but interesting. I’m about to start Watchmen and have high hopes for that.
What’s your process? Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’ or a bit of both?
I’m not rigid and the start of a story looks quite messy. I try and get everything down that crosses my mind: character ideas, lines of dialogue, little details, events. Then I have to sift these and start to build. It’s more like a patchwork or excavation than building from a blueprint. I’m somewhere between the planner and pantser. I like to have points I want to hit but I feel constricted if something’s too tightly plotted at the start. I like room to move and discover surprising things, even change planned endings completely. It makes me a slow writer though, which is frustrating, but I’m happier with the end product.
What do you consider the most important parts of a story? Do you focus on character, location, plot, or something else?
A good story needs to balance all of these elements. Characters are real drivers for me. Plot is never sacrosanct. I bend plot around my characters, not the other way around. Once they’re vivid in my own mind, I find myself thinking, No, she wouldn’t do that, she’d do this instead. A well-drawn location affects story mood, shapes the lives within it, and can become a character in itself.
Do you do a lot of research when you’re working on a story?
I love research. I’ve been to stately homes, museums like the Hat Museum in Stockport for an Alice in Wonderland story for Ellen Datlow’s collection, sat in a garden with an ornithologist and a bottle of wine, exchanged emails with a man who kept snakes, had a lengthy phone call with a woman with prosopagnosia… I like to be active. The internet is a great tool but being out in the world and talking to people and seeing things first-hand adds a whole new level of texture to a piece. It informs the language I use as well as the small truths that make my big lies real.
In ‘Fabulous Beasts’, you make use of a child narrator to tell part of the story in flashback. Eliza is an adult in some scenes and much younger in others. When you were writing, what considerations did you make in trying to portray a character in this way?
This story began in the first person and present tense. I’d written a lot of the childhood sections first and, to be honest, some of the violence and cruelty were too harrowing and immediate. Making those parts past tense gave Eliza and the reader a little bit more distance from what she went through.
I also wanted to deal with the consequences of Eliza’s experiences. The events cast a long shadow into the rest of her life and shaped who she became. By showing her as a successful woman, scars and all, and putting the trauma of her childhood into past tense, it contextualises what happened with who she’d become. I wanted to make her a survivor in the reader’s eyes, not a victim.
You make use of a variety of writing techniques in your other works, including clever use of the second person in ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’. Do you consider yourself an experimental writer?
I wish I had the skills to be experimental. I write from the gut and hope it works for each story. That’s not always successful. I’ve had to rewrite whole stories because of my alleged cleverness, changing tense and even point of view.
I think one writer that pushes the envelope in the experimental direction is Georgina Bruce with her collection This House of Wounds. Some of it is stream of consciousness. It’s raw, brave, and bold.
When you’re writing science fiction, do you approach your stories differently? Are there different techniques that you would employ for science fiction, fantasy, or horror?
No, but I would say my character-driven approach hasn’t always got me where I needed to be. I wrote something for Ellen Datlow’s horror anthology about the sea, which she rejected because it had morphed into a strange coming-of-age tale, rather than horror. She was nice about it though. I didn’t mind. She was right.
I think the foundations of stories should be the same with regards to the care and attention to character, plot, structure, dialogue, and world-building. You do it all with every story you write. Be consistent and true to whatever universe you’re creating. Fill in the world beyond the lines. It won’t be on the page, but your readers will get a sense of that.
Some people think horror is all about the scare. What would you see are its defining characteristics?
Horror contains as many nuances and shades as any other type of writing. It can be a whisper, not just a scream. It can be creeping dread and a hand on your arm, not just a knife at your throat. It can be unease, it can be disgust, it can be disquiet. Horror is subjective. And it’s more prevalent than you think. I remember reading The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. One of the characters has an illegal abortion, which was graphic to the point of being body horror.
What are you currently reading?
I have a few books on the go. Witch and other Stories by George Mackay Brown. He was from the Orkneys and his work is sparse and mythic. He captures the spirit of a long-ago age in small details, a land that remembers Vikings and saints. I find his work very beautiful and evocative. I’m also reading My Dead and Blackened Heart by Andrew Freudenberg (published by Sinister Horror Company), which has got me questioning the nature of horror — as the stories are like a smorgasbord of types of horror, some quiet, others nasty and graphic.
What’s your next project? Can you tell us about it?
I’m wrestling with a semi-Rococo frothy fantasy about switching identities, an automaton, and the architecture of stories, and am worried I’m out of my depth. Which is part of the fun.