War and Whiskey: An Interview with S. L. Edwards

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It’s an honor to bring you this latest of our long series of author interviews. In celebration of his release of Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts from Gehenna & Hinnom Books, I talked to weird fiction advocate, relentless memer, and thoroughly talented author, S. L. Edwards. Through the course of our delightful conversation, we touched on a diverse array of topics, including comics, war, and fiction’s responsibilities to history. I hope you enjoy this exchange as much as I did. Before you read on, however, be sure to preorder Edwards’ excellent debut collection. You don’t want to miss out on this momentous release.

-Justin A. Burnett

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“Fiction is a great medium for not just S. L. Edwards, […] but for writers across the world to collectively pool our feelings together. It’s a way to share, and maybe increase understanding in the process”

-S. L. Edwards

Justin A. Burnett: You now have a stunning fiction collection out with Gehenna & Hinnom Books. Besides the fact that it’s your debut release and features a diverse selection of work from your years of appearances in various publications, is there anything you’d like readers to know before they venture into the weird and wonderful world of Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts?

S. L. Edwards: I suppose the most important things that I would like them to know is: (1) it was a labor of love. I wanted my introduction to be a collection that samples a little bit of everything I have to offer. The stories were carefully selected, and I hope that pays off for a really fun reading experience. And (2) this was not a labor I undertook alone. I had a great editor in the form of Charles P. Dunphey and an eager partner in Yves Tourigny. But there were also hours of conversations, with friends, family and fellow writers. The collection would not exist without them.

I think you succeed magnificently in keeping things fun with Whiskey, but, as there must be with horror, there’s also a lot of discomfort, and much of it is deeply convincing. Do any of the recurrent themes—such as the broken childhood from which several protagonists desperately try to escape—come from your past?

That’s a good question. The short answer is “no.” My approach to horror, at least in the beginning, was to write what scared me.

I come from a relatively, if not exceptionally stable childhood. I’m the only child between my parents, and they really did do right by me. Even when they divorced, which I think is a pretty rough experience for any kid. Dad carted me all over North Texas to different comic shops. He made quesadillas on Wednesdays and watched “Ghost Hunters” with me, even though he had no interest in that. Mom was supportive, always supportive. She showed me reading was a leisure activity. And just really got interested in my hobbies.
Those themes don’t come from a place of familiarity, at least not the ones about broken homes. Even though I suppose you could say my home was “broken,” it was merely separated into two perfectly functional homes.

Now…the stories with depression. That’s a bit of a different story. That’s a reoccurring theme in the collection too. And one that I’ve had more encounters with than I would like. I’ve only recently become comfortable talking about the subject, but I’ve found there’s something vaguely empowering about acknowledging its existence.

When people do ask, I’ve always described it kind of like this: “There’s this person in the corner of the room. And they’re always there. And they’re to tell you, no matter what you do, that it’s not enough. That you’re not enough.”

That’s…that’s real enough for me. And that certainly is autobiographical in these stories.

Thank you for sharing that; It’s good practice to avoid mistaking fiction for autobiography, but what inspired that question is the amount of what Gwendolyn Kiste calls “heart” in her introduction to Whiskey, and what I’d be tempted to call “empathy.” Something tells me you are able to deeply identify with your characters. How do you achieve this identification, and how important is this imaginative empathy to your writing process?

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Part of it is lived experience. Talk to people, live with them. Go out, get your heart broken. I’m a bit naïve, I’ll admit that. I try to believe the best in people, even when it gets hard. And it’s gotten me in trouble more than once. Hurt more than once.

I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon though…

You’re right in that it’s a process. I need characters to anchor me to a story. Many writers can evoke terror, wonder, etc. through the use of powerful imagery. Lovecraft comes to mind, as someone with very flat (almost nonexistent to be frank) characters but who could just inspire such terror through his word choice.

But I’m no Lovecraft. Ultimately, I need people to help me through the process. And usually those people are the characters.

So I always do a few things before I write a story. I write a 2-3 sentence summary. I write a word count goal. And then I write a paragraph each about my main characters. I make myself care about the characters; I try to write something that gets an emotion out of me. And when I do that, the outline of the story begins to change. I try to think about what might evoke an emotional reaction of these people, and then work backwards to re-edit the story around those moments.

And this is a process, but it actually tends to go much faster when I do this kind of work. Because I write faster, and better, when I have an emotional stake in the story. And I believe that if I don’t care about my characters, readers certainly won’t. So, to answer that question, empathy is central to the process. It HAS to be.

To circle back to your earlier question and tie my answers together, the question of broken homes and childhood trauma. I gotta feel that. Because if I can’t, my readers can’t. That’s critical. I want to care about these characters before I let them go.

I like the line you draw around Lovecraft‘s work here—out of all the writer’s you’ve mentioned in other interviews, you remind me more of a Tolstoy than a Lovecraft, and I think that’s an interesting change of pace in the context of contemporary horror. If you were charged with the task of convincing horror readers to give Tolstoy a try, what would you say?

Oh God. Haha.

I suppose I would try to draw a line between horror and Tolstoy, to make the connection a bit more clear.

I’ll admit to mainly being a War and Peace guy. I tried Anna Karenina and am due to give it another chance. So keep that in mind as I go.

What I think makes horror so salient is that it inspires emotion. For all the talking down to horror writers get (I’ll never forgive a prominent reviewer, for instance, for DISMISSING Lovecraft on the grounds that he “merely” induced terror) fear is a palpable, evocative and profound emotion. Even more so when it’s dressed up, gilded with description and characters.

And War and Peace, perhaps more than any work, is a master-class in emotion. Some of that no doubt came from Tolstoy’s own background, as a former soldier and then a radical Christian philosopher (his pacifist treatise “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” still gets a bad rap from some governments). But for the reader what Tolstoy gives us is a clearer representation of the human experience, one more immersive than just a moment. We see poor Pierre Bezhukov turn from a bumbling oaf, to a radical philosopher, to man who plans to kill Napoleon. Poor Natasha Rostov falls in and out of love. And why wouldn’t she? That’s the human experience. That’s what we do.

So, if you, dear reader, are looking for works to resonate with your core, it might be healthy to look beyond fear. And I can’t think of a better work for that than War and Peace.

Maybe they don’t start there though. Maybe try a little magical realism first. I’d recommend 100 Years of Solitude before getting into the deep end of War and Peace
But I came to Tolstoy by way of Vasily Grossman, whose work Life and Fate was inspired by both his service as a Red Army correspondent and by War and Peace. That novel is…well, quite frankly it’s not for the weak. The novel certainly inspires terror, but also deep, deep heartache. Grossman lost his mother to the Holocaust, and this certainly changed him. I am not sure that I would recommend that book. It’s a hard one.

Last thing I would say is that yes, it’s important to feel more than fear. Fear most effectively functions alongside other emotions. Has more impact. And Tolstoy certainly makes his readers care about his characters.

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That was an excellent response! I particularly appreciate your second point, that horror is particularly good at doing what all great stories do: evoking emotion. While we’re here, and because I’ve always advocated an open border policy between horror and (god, here comes the awful phrase) “literary fiction,” are there any other books outside of horror you’ve drawn personal inspiration from or that a reader of horror might find especially worth reading?

I also hate that phrase. And, to demonstrate how much I hate it, I’ll answer by being as “un-literary” as possible:

I like comic books. Superheroes. Love ’em. Now, a lot of comics that I read have horror elements to them. But there’s also the smaller character moments that I treasure in things like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Teen Titans runs. And on the subject of non-supernatural horror, I would say Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a must. Dysart researched the Ugandan Civil War pretty thoroughly for that one.

So yeah, superheroes. I draw a lot of personal inspiration from superheroes. Except I wouldn’t call Dysart’s run “superhero.”

I have to admit I’m not up on comics, but not for a lack of respect or desire (the latter only recently acquired). I’m definitely going to have to check out “Unknown Soldier.” Speaking of research, you mention in your authors notes that several works in Whiskey come from historical research. Aside from adding a nice diversity to your palette of topics, what draws you to these historical narratives, and what do you think fiction can do—if anything—to help us understand or confront these events?

A lot of it comes from my day job. I research political violence, and as a fluent Spanish speaker a lot of my attention comes to Latin America.

I want to be careful though, because I can’t in good conscience say much more without it: I am a white man from the United States. I am not in a position to define anyone’s narrative, nor is that what I am trying to do. As I research though, I do have an emotional reaction to what I read. I think most of us would, and what you see in stories like “Cabras” and “Volver Al Monte” is not me making a commentary on any real, existing case, so much as my own emotional working through what I read.

Colombia is not a nation we should be characterizing by violence. Nor is Mexico, Honduras, or even Uganda. As fun as programs like Narcos can be, they’ve done some very sad damage to how we see these countries. We should not be doing that. Full stop. These are incredible places, full of wonderful people, great food, and blue happy skies.
Okay, now that disclaimer aside: I do work in historical inspirations into my stories. The “Tuta Puriq” of “Volver Al Monte” are inspired by the very real Maoist insurgency, Sendero Luminoso in Peru. “Cabras” mentions a bit of a dynastic struggle, based on the Somoza family in Nicaragua.

And to get to the latter part of that question, I think “working through” it is a very important aspect of fiction. Ultimately, I’d like to think that we are a world of empathetic people. I’d like to think it’s difficult to shrug off the suffering of another person, just because they’re not within your line of sight.

Fiction is a great medium for not just S. L. Edwards, the guy held up on his laptop going through issues of La Semana, but for writers across the world to collectively pool our feelings together. It’s a way to share, and maybe increase understanding in the process. Engaging bits of history even as inspiration can direct authors and readers to more carefully understand the dynamics that created this history and, in some cases, what perpetuates it.

Calling back what we said earlier about broken childhoods, I am not a survivor of a Civil War. I hope I never am. But I think these terrors are universal. I’d like to think, and maybe this is naïve, that sharing stories like this can get us to be careful in how we think about things like war. Is it really some heroic struggle? Or is it like Tim O’Brien said, that war stories don’t really HAVE heroes?

Which, in a way, brings us back into Tolstoy’s territory, doesn’t it? War is a universal experience, and it also represents an extremity in human behavior. I think your horror stories of war and shattered childhoods work so well together because they inhabit the outer limits of pain and suffering. They may even suggest that one pain, despite its differences, isn’t unlike another, and this realization seems to be embodied most in Manuel of “Cabras.” You mention, incidentally, that “Cabras” is your favorite piece; it’s mine as well, partially for the reasons I just mentioned. What makes it stand out to you?

It was rough to write. That one was so rough.

I think I liked it because it was the first story I wrote where I really just wanted to write it, regardless of what an editor might think. It’s heavy on exposition. I like exposition. I like writing it and I like reading it.

Also, the fun of having a truly silent main character was an interesting one. Poor Manuel…his character too, was a difficult one to get inside of. Here you have a man desperately trying to do the right thing, and yet he can’t. It’s just not an option available to him.

And then the “monsters” of the story. I won’t spoil this for potential readers, but I think one of the creepiest sequences I wrote involves something coming through the window. Yves drew the scene and just captured it perfectly. I was horrified.

All of it came together for something that, in retrospect, seems inevitable. Of course, war was going to come back to Manuel. It was foolish of him to think he could ever get away. But that desire to do right, to be good…for all the things that Manuel did, for what he was, I think there’s something to be said about someone who relentlessly tries to redeem themselves as Manuel did.

Poor bastard.

As something of a change in pace, as a Texan I’ve been wanting to ask you this: does it feel strange to be a horror writer from Texas? Do you ever feel a little “out of place?” I know I do, but I’m in the DFW area, and my day job keeps me in contact with a demographic of people who are far removed from stereotypical readers of horror. How has being from Texas defined you as a writer?

Haha. The bigger question is “how has being a Texan defined you?” We’re a gregarious, stubborn people. We’re loud, we announce ourselves. Essentially every Texan abroad is Robert Baratheon, but hopefully without the womanizing. We love Whataburger. We love our queso.

I am not sure it’s defined my writing, certainly my online presence though.

Speaking of online presence, rumor has it that you will make a meme about everyone eventually. How are you going to manage this?

These are slanderous lies. There are other better memers than me entering the field. Kevin Holderny chief among them. Matthew M. Bartlett’s cat, Larry, no longer needs me. And one day Robert S. Wilson will snap, probably fire me out of a canon.

Then it’ll be just me and Obadiah Baird. Our same dance. Him, rejecting my stories. Me, making memes about it.

And this will continue.

Forever.

It would be a pity to see you step aside to make room for fresh memes, but I begrudgingly respect your decision. As a sort of redemption, however, I’d like to point out that you also use social media to relentlessly promote other writers. Who are some authors we should be reading right now?

[Editor’s Note: I actually attempted to link the names of *every* author Edwards mentions below to a website, social media account, or Amazon page. My fingers went numb about two hours in, and I had to reconsider my plan of attack. Only books mentioned specifically by title or authors previously mentioned on this site are linked, but this indicates no personal preference of one writer over another by the editor. At this point, it’s sheer survival. I strongly recommend the reader peruse as much of this list as she can manage, however, since Edwards provides us with a veritable gold mine of weird fiction authors here.]

So, I just read Christopher Slatsky’s novella “Palladium At Night,” which was one of the coolest ‘cosmic horror’ stories I’ve ever read. You’ve got something of a NASA conspiracy mixed with this Blackwood-infused nature/terror story. A bit of Gavin-meets-Ligotti. His collection is amazing too. I think one of the most creative things I’ve read since joining on as a weird fiction writer.

I also just read Max Booth III’s Carnivorous Lunar Activities. That’s one funny story, and one with a lot of heart too.

And I’m flipping through some work by Kurt Fawver, who is one of the single most creative minds we have working in weird horror right now.

Then there’s those that need no promotion, but you never know. Matthew M. Bartlett is going to be as remembered and cherished as Lovecraft or Barron. His Leeds mythos stories are innovative, and his more traditional short fiction is just astounding.

S.P. Miskowski broke the wheel with her Skillute cycle. I hesitate to say “it’s Straub but better.” But that’s how I feel, sue me.

Gwendolyn Kiste is a treasure. We need to give her all deference not only for her astounding creativity, but just being personable and friendly as well. A genuinely good person.

Gemma Files has such an enormous body of work, but everything I’ve read I’ve just adored.

Michaeul Wehunt, of course, keeps threatening us with a new collection. He doesn’t have the guts. I’m kidding Michael, please don’t @ me. But really y’all, check out Greener Pastures if you haven’t yet.

John Langan’s Sefira and Other Betrayals came out this year and I gotta say, it may be some of his best. It’s less alien horror than say, Carnivorous Sky, but damn good nonetheless.

Nadia Bulkin changed the game. Speaking of politics and horror, she’s really rewritten the rules. She came out with a great “sports horror” story in Nightscape’s Ashes and Entropy

Betty Rocksteady’s debut collection is coming out soon. I’ve been waiting for this one for a very long time. Scott R. Jones too, who is quite a writer himself. Debut collections need all the help they can, so I’m gonna ask anyone reading this to look at those author’s amazon pages and see if they might be interested in giving their collections some pre-order love.

Jeffrey Thomas is a bit more established, but he has a collection coming out too. One that, if I remember right, is pretty high-concept. Look for that one.

Speaking of established, there’s the elite shrimp-rater himself. Peter Rawlik is known for some quality work in the Lovecraft mythos, but what you don’t know is that he has been the special guest judge in Arkham County’s annual shrimp pageant for the past two decades. The man knows his shrimp, and his way around a damn fine story.

Then there’s Brooke Warra, Fionna Maeve Geist, Farah Rose Smith, Amber Fallon, Premee Mohammad, Lena Ng, Jonathan Raab (you gotta pick up the latest books from Sheriff Cecill Kotto), Mer Whinery, Tom Breen. That whole circle. I like to see Erica Ruppert’s name in a ToC, and Alana I. Capria-Linares. Cody Goodfellow. Duane Pesice. Robert S. Wilson (who is also the editor of Nightscape).

When William Tea and John Paul Fitch bless us with their short story collections, I demand they let me write the introductions. Unless they get someone more popular. Or prettier (not possible). Then they better let me blurb it. And Christopher Ropes KNOWS that I will demand to blurb his collection. Sarah Walker too.

One of my first big writer friends, Jordan Kurella. She’s since moved on from horror into fantasy, but she’s still a good egg.

And Sean M. Thompson. That guy. Just gonzo.

Russell Smeaton, of course. When you see him a ToC, give him a chance.

And I suppose you should be reading poetry. There’s good poetry out there. KA Opperman, Ashley Dioses, D. L. Myers, Adam Bolivar constitute some secret society called “The Crimson Circle.” Scott Couterier had a poem I really liked.

And I’m sure there are some I have forgotten. I would advise then, that readers not be afraid of picking up journals. Occult Detective Quarterly, edited by John Linwood Grant. Vastarien, edited by Jon Padgett. Hinnom, edited by Charles P. Dunphy. All three of these editors are also some quality writers, and these magazines should ideally give readers and writers a pretty good sampling of what is out there. And of course, Doug Draa’s omnibus magazine Weirdbook.

Anya Martin! She combined some of my favorite things, dogs and the King in Yellow! See, there’s so many talented writers out there right now…

And Jayaprakash Satyamurty. Lynda E. Rucker. I better stop before someone gets mad at me.

Do you feel stylistically or thematically affiliated with any writers in particular? If your writing had blood relatives, who would they be?

That’s tough…and it may be a bit presumptuous of me to try and affiliate myself with more established writers.

I will say, a lot of my readers have affiliated me with Nadia Bulkin. Which is a HUGE compliment in my eyes. I can’t recommend She Said Destroy enough. And if somehow through some freakish accident one reads Whiskey, enjoys it, but has not read She Said Destroy, I urge you to drop everything and download it to your kindle.

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I think a lot of this comparison comes from the subjects that we deal with. Both of us deal with politics and political violence, but Nadia’s is more “socio-political.” She, more than any other writer, has demonstrated the power of politics in affecting everyday people. The State is not some alien entity in her fiction. It’s the air we breathe. It’s our streets. Our world. Everything inputted to us is part of this nebulous body politic.

My stories are considered “political,” in contrast, merely because my characters are given to long speeches. They themselves are often politicians, soldiers, police captains. That’s not the same as what Nadia does, in demonstrating politics.

Beyond this…I don’t know. So much of trying to come up with a place in this community is finding a niche. I certainly identify with someone like Robert Bloch, whose writing changed drastically and had an extraordinarily large breadth of writing abilities.

Yeah…maybe this one is better left to readers. Maybe they should define my place, if I deserve to have one at all.

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. It’s been a genuine pleasure interviewing you. I’ve got one more: what’s next in the world of S. L. Edwards? Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

It’s been a great opportunity! I’d say you’re pretty damn good at this.

So, I actually have two more collections in the works. The Death of An Author collects my pulpier stuff. Vampires. Lovecraft. The ilk. And Monsters of the Sea and Sky is an advancement of the themes developed in Whiskey. Half of Monsters will share a mythology, so I’m pretty excited about that one.

I’m also working to cleanse my palette a little. I’m currently working on a series of Weird Western stories, all focusing on a warlock sheriff, John Armitage. John lives in a world of vampire cave-civilizations, necromancer slave-owners, civil wars and great power politics. I’m working on a longer story in that Universe and I’ll just tease it as:

Warlock Sheriff vs. Samurais vs. Kaiju.

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