Bitch Lit Goes All the Way: an Interview with Susie Moloney


By Ryan McBride

Susie Moloney is a bestselling writer of horror fiction. Born and raised in Winnipeg, she published her first novel, Bastion Falls, in 1995. Described by Books in Canada as “classic Canadian horror fantasy”, it deals (not surprisingly) with the snowstorm from hell. A Dry Spell followed in 1997 and brought her to the attention of readers all across the world – including Tom Cruise’s production company, which bought the film rights. In her third novel, The Dwelling (2003) she turned the haunted house story on its head.

Her latest dark offering is The Thirteen, released this June. Described everywhere as “Desperate Housewives meets The Witches of Eastwick,” it follows the fate of a coven of suburban witches who lose one of their own and have to replace her before everything goes to hell.

Recently Moloney—who lives in Winnipeg and New York—answered some questions from TWR contributor Ryan McBride by email.

Let’s assume the one thing any reader of horror fiction wants is to be scared by what they read. (Feel free to disagree!) Given that we all know (or think we know) the rules of the horror game by now, how do you as a writer keep the genre fresh for your readers? How hard is it to frighten people these days, and how do you rise to the challenge?

That’s a real poser, how do I set out to frighten? Geez. I’m not even sure I do!

I think the minute I decide to write about a subject or theme, it’s the subject or theme itself that frightens me. In The Thirteen for instance, I can read between the lines (since I wrote them, ha) and see my own fear of isolation and failure and making those super-hard choices as a parent, such as, “Do I sell my soul to the devil so that my daughter gets into this really great school?” Those are the tough questions. Joking aside, that is essentially one of the more frightening elements of the story, the mothers who make those choices for really good reasons, and then having to live with the consequences. Izzy [the story’s villain and leader of the coven] is the best representative of that.

I find that when the theme itself is frightening, then the scenes that illustrate the theme will be scary—they’ll write themselves, I guess. The scene that is often brought up to me, the one with the cats on the road, right there you can see my fear of isolation and living with the choices you make.

That’s a long answer to ‘how do I scare readers’! Also: I think if you make someone’s face fall off, that works too.

Setting plays a major role in all of your novels, from small towns (Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell) to haunted houses (The Dwelling) to the suburbs (The Thirteen). In fact, in all your books, places are as important a character as the people running around in them. What drew you to suburbia this time around? And what kind of place would you like to visit next in your writing?

Setting is of major importance to me as a writer, maybe as a person. I have deep associations to times in my life via setting. That’s where suburbia comes in, with The Thirteen. I kind of grew up during the golden days of suburbia, before the dream was declared dead and the suburbs became the bad buy, representing the worst of mankind’s footprint on Mother Earth: urban sprawl, the car economy, homogenization… you know. But hey, before that, it was AWESOME, man. It was overrun with kids. Parents were an afterthought. And I think because of that very homogeny, we turned everything into a mystery, a conspiracy. Sure the houses all LOOKED the same, but that was what THEY wanted you to think … when IN FACT, each and every house had some kind of HORRIBLE secret. Muwhahahahaha. I’m pretty sure by now you can hear my affection for the ‘burbs, eh?

My new novel [Moloney’s fifth, not yet published] takes place in a very large city. Interesting to me is the idea that the same homogeny that I found in the suburbs is also found in what is one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world, New York. There’s a comforting sameness to the frantic energy, the manic pace. After awhile, it’s not background noise, but music, something that sets the rhythm of your day. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a city, but this is the first time, I believe, that I have written darkly about a place, made it into a conspirator of the evil. The Dwelling doesn’t count because the house itself was haunted, so there.

A related question — I can’t help but ask: You carefully avoid pinpointing what city Haven Woods belongs to in The Thirteen. It could be any suburb in any city — which makes it all the more frightening. Is there anything particular to Winnipeg and the suburbs/ neighbourhoods you lived in here that influenced your portrayal of Haven Woods?

I lived on the east side of Winnipeg for the most part. When I think softly of my neighbourhoods, the places I’m thinking about are Elmwood and Transcona (and don’t give me any of that ‘Trashcona’ attitude, ‘cause I’ll kick yer butt and you know I can, ’cause I lived in Transcona). We lived on Dowling Street, moving there from Elmwood (and don’t give me any of that ‘Elmwood …’) when I was about nine or ten. It was a new development and all the streets and houses looked the same. They were building a community centre at the end of our street. I thought we were pioneers.

I took figure skating and gymnastics at that community centre. Friday nights we all went to the movie in the multi-purpose room. Everyone’s mom and dad worked in the commissary, selling little kids pop and hot chocolate. Golden.

About five years ago I wrote a short story called “Crone,” and it was about a suburban neighbourhood full of witches (sounds familiar, eh?) and it was exactly that setting—the multi-purpose room, everyone’s mom and dad working the commissary, except it was for a curling bonspiel—that began that story. I guess Haven Woods had its roots in that Transcona neighbourhood, but as I wrote it the place became more and more prosperous and genteel. But you could say it started out as Transcona.

(You know what scares the shit out of me about Transcona, and the ’burbs in general? The residential streets are ENDLESS. They just go on and on and on, like the corridors in a maze. You can get lost so easily. I used to imagine as a little kid, wandering too far out of my neighbourhood and ending on a street that looked like my street, but was in some way most definitely not my street. Who knew what the hell people were doing inside their houses? It could be—and often is—anything.)

It takes a long time for the obvious supernatural elements to really catch fire in The Thirteen. The opening scene is horrific, but we don’t know for sure what’s behind it (even if we suspect) for quite a few chapters. And even when the reader knows for sure what’s going on, you keep Paula, the protagonist, in the dark for quite a bit longer. Kind of an inverse Rosemary’s Baby. This struck me as an unusual and subtle tactic. Could you talk about what was behind this decision, and what kinds of things it let you do or get at in the book?

I’m a selfish creature. I really love to write set up, I like designing my world, I like getting to know my folks, I like a slow build, whether I’m writing or reading, and so I think I naturally take my time. I feel that I get more invested in a world I’m very familiar with, and people I’ve come to care about, so that when the hammer falls, I own it.

There’s also a kind of unspoken thing sometimes in commercial fiction, where the writer seems compelled to hit the reader over the head with facts so that when they’re used against them or as devices, there’s this big, “See? Eh? SEE?” moment. I think readers are smarter than that, and that there’s a bigger payoff when you’ve done some of the work yourself, as a reader.

And to answer the actual question, ha! The slow build means I can JUMP into a big-pay-off scene without too much lead in, because my reader already knows everything they need to know about the people, setting, involved. For example, by the time we get to Izzy’s back story, we believe she’s just pure-dee awful; I think the back story scene changes that somewhat and gives us that pay off, that moment when you’re reading and you think, “Sweeet.”

The culture of entitlement–get it now, pay for it later–is at the heart of what motivates the women in The Thirteen to become witches. But some of them — Audra, Marla, even Izzy— are also driven by the entirely understandable need to help and protect their families— especially their children. If the thirteen were men (warlocks instead of witches), what would get them into the Chapman house? And where might the story go from there?

I think that story’s been told many times, and when we write about evil in men, we tend to write about financial and political power being their motivators. Look at the movies Wall Street and Devil’s Advocate or The Firm (all great examples of boyish Thirteens), they don’t even bother to be subtle about it, they offer grand fortunes, great cars and nekked ladies to the wholesome young things in return for their souls, real or theoretical. The difference between those stories and The Thirteen is the fact that in my story, the girls take the bait—and the responsibility for it. There are no milksops in my stories.

Bitch lit goes ALL THE WAY.

Now that you’ve written four horror novels, looking back, what part of writing horror has proven the most wickedly fun? The most frustrating? What about writing comes easier now than it used to?

It’s worth noting that every year I write a few short stories. Two, three tops, and I write them just for fun, just to sit down and let the fingers fly. It’s not unlike when I was a kid and used to like to go to the field behind the school on Sundays because it would be empty and I could run as fast as I wanted from one end to the other. Remember running just for the sake of running? That’s what I’m doing with the short fiction.

Funny thing: they’re all almost always a wee bit of horror. They don’t have to be— I never show them to anyone, really. I could be writing animal stories, steam punk, comedy, porn. I could be writing lit-er-rat-chure. Could if I wanted to— no one sees it, so no one judges it— but in my gleeful moments when I want to indulge, have a little fun, clearly I like what I’ve been doing. So I write about beheadings, Satan as an infant, death-wishing, hell, murder victims who come back en masse to haunt their killer, suicide, ravenous electronics… the usual. Inside my head I’m a twelve-year-old girl who wants to hear the story about the Man with the Hook for a Hand: One. More. Time.

What can be frustrating, although I think I’ve made my peace with it, is a sometimes dismissive reaction to the subject matter from the writing community at large. While I believe that individually those other writers have a genuine appreciation for anyone who writes a whole book about anything (not so easy), there is a stigma attached to anything “genre.” It’s as though somehow it’s not as difficult, or not as important as a creative work. I can say that I’ve always felt that writing any book at all is really, really hard. And as my grandmother used to say, there’s honour in all work.

As for what comes easier now—nothing! Writing is like exercising. There’s a great pay off, but it’s way in the future, and until then it’s hard as hell and not much can get your ass in that chair, except maybe the glee of a great beheading scene.

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Ryan McBride

Ryan McBride is a Winnipeg writer, editor and photographer.