Horror Writer Mary SanGiovanni Explains Why Characters Are the Heart and Soul of Any Story

  Mary SanGiovanni

Mary SanGiovanni

By Sean Tuohy

I recommend you read this interview with the lights on. Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the Bram Stoker nominated novel The Hollower, its sequels Found You and The TriumvirateThrall, and Chaos, as well as the novellas For EmmyPossessing Amy, and The Fading Place and numerous short stories.

SanGiovanni took a timeout from scaring the bejesus out of readers to answer some of my questions.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were going to be a writer?

Mary SanGiovanni: I knew probably since before I could actually write. I always told myself stories to amuse myself, and was always fascinated with the fantastic. But it was when I was about 16 and I worked for a bookstore in the local mall that it finally dawned on me that people could actually do that for a living, that people could make careers out of writing stories. I think it was then that I knew I wanted to do that.

ST: Who were some of your earliest influences?

MSG: Stephen King was definitely an early influence. I loved his early stories for the feeling I got reading them, for the creativity, if not the technical sophistication of his later works. I also gravitated pretty quickly to Lovecraft and Poe; to me, they made horror poetic. I loved short story anthologies, too, and used to buy them whenever I could find them; they were a big influence on me before I even really remembered all the authors' names. Anthologies like Charlie Grant's Greystone Bay, Poppy Brite's Love in Vein, Karl Edward Wagner's Horror Story series, and of course, The Dark Descent. Those works and authors led to other works and authors, and it delights me that today, there are so many great works of horror and thrillers to choose from.

ST: The Hollower Trilogy is outstanding. How long did you work on all three books and how did you develop the story?

MSG: Thank you! Well, initially, I had no plans to write sequels for The Hollower. It was my thesis novel for my Masters degree at Seton Hill University, and it took me about two years, give or take, to write. I sold it shortly thereafter to Leisure Books, and I guess it did well enough that they asked me to write a sequel, Found You. With that second book, I wanted to realistically pick up where I thought those characters' lives would have gone. I wanted to make parts of it familiar, as a sequel generally is, and parts of it new and different. I didn't want to rewrite the same book. I had been told once that in order to build on the momentum of your past work and build a writing career, you have to get at least one book out a year. It's been advice I've tried to stick to. Thunderstorm Books actually were the ones who asked me to write the third book, The Triumvirate. Both Found You and The Triumvirate each took me a little under a year to write. Of the three, I think The Triumvirate is my favorite. A trilogy goes by different rules, I think, that a sequel or a series. It's a triptych of ideas where the overarching story runs through all three, but the threat needs to be escalated and the scares need to be different each time than the ones audiences have seen before in relation to that threat. It was a fun book to write. What I liked best about it, though, was that I felt like that book not only ended those characters' stories for me satisfactorily, but bridged those books to my future works.

ST: In your novels you written such wonderful characters that come off the page, most of them are already broken people that must overcome huge odds. How do you write your characters? Are they based on real people?

MSG: Thanks! Characters are important to me. They are the heart and soul of the story, the part the reader cares most about, at least in this genre. I always start a story, whether it's a novel, a short story, or a novella, with an idea about the kind of person I think would make a good hero or villain, the kind of person I think I could say something significant through. The characters nearly always come before anything else. The story develops around those characters. Sometimes it's the monster I come up with first, because the monster is just as important a character to develop. Heroes and monsters, if both well developed, will balance each other, and anything worth saying about the human race comes from the exploration of that balance, and whether circumstances can or should tip the scales in one direction or another. Many of my characters are based on parts of me, and some are based on parts of other people. Really understanding people, their facial expressions and body language, the looks in their eyes, the thoughts and feelings that drive them—it's what makes characters realistic and even better, what makes them sympathetic and identifiable to readers. I like to think, though, that the qualities of both myself and others that I write into characters are blended with enough fictitious qualities that no one can point to a character and say, "Wow, that's so-and-so, through and through."

ST: What draws you toward the horror genre?

MSG: It's my fundamental belief that horror is a genre in which two things happen: 1. The injustices, the tragedies, the terrors of mankind are safely and vicariously explored, processed, and/or held up to scrutiny, so that we as a society can change them, and 2. We can see the amazing strength and resourcefulness that human beings are capable of when under extreme circumstances. Horror is a genre charged with emotion, but also with endless possibilities for the fantastic; I like a genre that allows the reader to put the average ho-hum of life aside, even if the unusual circumstances introduced are terrifying. There's a certain adrenaline rush, a thrill writing/reading about/watching humans relying on instinct in the face of the amazing and unexplainable.

ST: Do you have any upcoming project you would like to talk about?

MSG: I have a short story that is slated to appear in Lamplight Magazine, as well as a couple other short stories I'm contracted for, for various projects. I'm working on a new novel which I hope to have finished mid-2014.

ST: What is your writing process? Is it structured or unstructured?

MSG: It's not as structured as I'd like to be. I think a schedule is important for a writer looking to be prolific and productive, and I'm trying very hard to develop a schedule that allows me to produce more work faster. I teach Monday through Thursday afternoon, and I have a son, a cat, and a big family that need me and a significant other, but I still try to write at least 4-5 nights during the week, and during weekend nights that I'm not spending with family or my partner.

ST: What advice would you give to up and coming writers?

MSG: I'd advise new writers to read a lot; know what's going on in your genre, your sub-genre, and outside of it. Read the old stuff, the classics, as well as the new stuff. Also, write a lot; write what you love, what matters to you—it’ll matter to someone else, too. Learn the business: how to promote without spamming, how different publishing models work and what will work best for you, how to network, and what's going on in your genre and in publishing at large. Make sure you have health insurance and some type of retirement fund. Treat your work like the valuable commodity it is, and others will, too.

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

MSG: Hmmm. I have some kind of Sensory Processing Disorder (Sensory Modulation, I think) or Tactile Sensory Disorder (I’m not sure which; although I think they’re similar). Basically, it means I have extreme sensitivity, both mental and physical, to certain tactile experiences, primarily the feel of certain textures of fabrics, stiff, new, itchy, rough, or stained/dirty fabrics, seams and tags, etc. Touching the wrong kind of fabric makes my skin crawl. Hell, it makes my skin feel like it's trying to jump off my bones. It's a very weird, unpleasant feeling. I have to bring my own blanket and sometimes, even my own pillow to hotels.

To learn more about Mary SanGiovanni, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @marysangiovanni.

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