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An Interview with Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novelette, the Invention of Ghosts. To kick things off, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Gwendolyn’s author bio.

Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and her debut novel, The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can also find her online at Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome, Gwendolyn! You are an incredibly prolific author, and now you have a new novelette out in the world. Without giving too much away, would you care to tell folks a bit about it, and where they can find it to read it for themselves?

Invention of Ghosts ArtFirst off, thank you so much for having me on your site! It’s so wonderful to be here talking with you!

My new novelette is called The Invention of Ghosts, and it’s part of the Charitable Chapbook Series at Nightscape Press. One-third of proceeds from all the books in this series go to charity; for mine, I chose the National Aviary, a bird sanctuary in Pittsburgh and one of my very favorite places.

As for the story itself, it’s all about two best friends in college who get wrapped up in the occult. As they delve deeper into the spirit world, the tenuous threads of their friendship begin to fray, and they become haunted in a way neither of them could ever expect. This is one of my more surreal tales, and I’m so excited for it to make its way into the world. It should be out sometime this winter, hopefully by the end of December or early January. The print run is a limited edition, and there are only a few dozen copies left at this point, so for those out there who are interested, it’s available exclusively from Nightscape Press.

It sounds wonderful, and the fact that friendship is at the heart of the story seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Which makes a nice segue into the next thing I wanted to talk about… Your novel, Rust Maidens, might be described as industrial horror, or perhaps economic horror, and of course body horror plays a big role too. The central image of girls turning into manifestations of rust and blight is so evocative. Did the novel start with the imagery, or did it grow out of the more mundane elements which are every bit as horrific – the pressure to conform, the fear of losing your livelihood, the idea of a town itself crumbling away as industry dries up?

The very earliest kernel of The Rust Maidens was definitely rooted in how much pressure there is for us all to conform. I had this image of girls in an oppressive neighborhood breaking free in some horrific way. Originally, the concept was that they all died and then got up out of their graves and just went home, much to the horrors of their families. However, that sounded a little too much like a zombie story—and I love zombies, but that isn’t what I wanted for this one—so I decided to shelve the whole idea for a while.

Then about six months later, I wrote a ghost story that was published in Black Static called “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends” that took place in Cleveland in 1980. I had so much fun researching that era, and I didn’t want to leave it behind quite yet, so I decided to revisit the previous idea of the girls in the oppressive neighborhood. From there, I blended it with yet another story that I wrote and didn’t want to let go: a coming-of-age body horror tale called “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister.” Each of those story concepts gave The Rust Maidens a huge puzzle piece of its existence, so the book had a bit of a Frankenstein-esque origin.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this before, but that earliest idea with the girls getting up out of their graves was going to be called Something’s Happening to the Girls on Denton Street. I thought that title would have had an interesting, almost campy horror quality to it in the vein of titles like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. But once I started developing the newer version of the story, I decided a simpler, more evocative title would work better. Still, I just couldn’t let the original title go, so I named the neighborhood in The Rust Maidens Denton Street, and I worked that old title into the opening of the back cover description. It even became a sort of tagline for some of the book promotion, so it makes the campy horror fan in me happy that I still got to use it somewhere after all.

I also wanted to talk a bit about your novella Pretty Marys All in a Row. I love the idea of characters from urban legends, ghost stories, and rhymes forming a kind of club based on a common name. What was the inspiration behind the novella? What is your favorite non-Mary related urban legend or ghost story, and would you ever want to explore it fictionally?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with urban legends and folklore. My husband grew up loving them too, so it’s long been a favorite topic of conversation for us. One evening on a road trip, we got to talking about Resurrection Mary again, and we started discussing how there are so many folkloric characters named Mary. We went through three or four right away, and instantly I imagined all of them together, sharing some kind of strange, unlikely bond. The story blossomed from there.

As for non-Mary legends, it’s hard to pick only one! If I had to narrow it down, though, it would probably be the person hiding in the backseat of the car, and the service station attendant trying to warn the driver before it’s too late. That one still gives me the shivers whenever I think about it, how someone is doing their best to help you, but you’re afraid of them rather than the real threat. Prior to this question, I’d never thought about incorporating that urban legend into a story, but now that you’ve got me thinking about it, maybe I will someday. It certainly unsettles me enough to be worthy of a horror story!

Switching gears a bit, but still somewhat related… You currently reside in the Pittsburgh area, a city that’s had its own share of ups and downs with industry. Did the city have any impact or influence on you while writing Rust Maidens? What are some of your favorite spots in Pittsburgh, either places you go to gather inspiration, hidden gems, or places you like to recommend to people visiting for the first time?

Overall, I would say that Pittsburgh didn’t have a huge influence on The Rust Maidens; the novel was definitely intended as an homage to my home state of Ohio. That being said, since I wrote most of the book in Pittsburgh coffee shops, being surrounded with so many reminders of the Rust Belt probably didn’t hinder my process, so maybe I do owe a bit of a debt to the Steel City for that. (Don’t tell Cleveland, though; there’s a big rivalry between the two cities!)

As for Pittsburgh, there are so many great spots to visit. I’ve already mentioned it but my favorite attraction is without a doubt the National Aviary. I’m a huge bird lover, and I’ve gotten so much inspiration from just spending an afternoon there with my husband. There’s also the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museums, which are such amazing places and host so many cool events year-round.

As for locales more off-the-beaten path, Trundle Manor is a very nifty attraction for fans of the wondrous and weird. It’s a living museum dedicated to oddities, a kind of modern Wunderkammer. You won’t find anywhere else quite like it, so if anyone is ever in Pittsburgh, I certainly recommend scheduling a tour. You won’t soon forget it.

Speaking of residences, I have to ask about the abandoned horse farm, which is an evocative image all of its own. Have you every encountered any equine ghosts? Or any other types of ghosts around the farm?

No ghost horses, not yet anyhow, although my husband and I are always on the lookout! That being said, we do have what we call “Third Cat,” a little spectral feline that occasionally darts about the house alongside our two corporeal cats. My favorite part of this story is that my husband and I both started seeing Third Cat dashing in and out of rooms around the same time, but we opted not to mention it at first to each other, because we thought it was too weird. Then add to that the fact that a friend of ours has researched and written an extensive book about the paranormal in our area, and he told us that this exact phenomenon is very common in our region. So my husband and I are only one of many families with ghost pets apparently, which absolutely delights me to no end.

Changing topics completely, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Gwendolyn KisteI’m never sure what qualifies as unusual per se, but for almost fifteen years, I worked in different aspects of the fashion industry, both behind and in front of the camera, and that was definitely a unique experience. There was a lot I learned it from it actually—my ongoing love of photography came from that time, for example—but more than anything, I probably figured out how to multi-task from it. I did fashion design and then I also did my own fashion show production, so putting together a collection and also coordinating all the details for a live event certainly helped me learn how to prioritize tasks and work with groups of people. It also helped me get over any fear of public speaking since I had to go in front of crowds at the shows.

Also, yes, it has worked its way into my fiction, quite recently in fact. I have a story called “The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures” that will be coming out in the inaugural issue of Weird Whispers, a new weird fiction publication from Nightscape Press next year. The story is told with a wraparound device of a photography exhibit, and the plot deals specifically with issues of body autonomy in the fashion industry. It’s a weird little tale and one I’m very proud of, so I’m thrilled for it to make its debut in 2020.

Last, but not least, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’m slowly finishing up my second novel right now. It’s all about witches and witchfinders, whispering shadows and ghost birds. It brings together so many fairy tale elements that I’ve loved since I was growing up, as well as plenty of real-world horror too. I’m very excited and eager about getting the book out into the world (although I do wish it would stop dragging its feet, so I can actually finish it!).

I’m also hoping to put together my second collection in 2020. Most of the previously published stories are selected at this point; I just need to finish a couple of the new stories before I’m ready to put it together. I’m a big fan of short fiction, so it will be a lot of fun to have another collection. Still, that’s months away at the moment. Always so many projects to work on, and so little time in the day to make them all happen!

I look forward to reading both the novel and the collection when they make their way out into the world. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you again, A.C.! You’re the best!

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