September 23, 2015

Dark Fiction in the Dark Ages: an interview with Lesley Conner, author of "The Weight of Chains"

Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

THE WEIGHT OF CHAINS: Gilles de Rais has control over every aspect of his life: the servants he employs, the village he lords over, the carefully crafted visage he shows to the world. He dictates where his subjects live, what they eat, if they live or die. He has ultimate power and wields it with a flourish to conceal the dark desires that lurk behind his smile and the despair within his castle in Machecoul.

When a wizard tasked with raising a demon loses control of the beast, Gilles's tight grasp on his world begins to slip. His cook plans to flee, taking her son away from the dangers of the castle. His guard wants to claim Gilles’s lifestyle as his own. His wizard frantically searches for a way to survive both his lord and the demon he has called into the world. And the villagers – like Jeanetta and her family –move through life in Machecoul too consumed with the task of surviving day to day, and oblivious to the turmoil building within the castle that is threatening to break out and consume them all.

Gef: What was the allure of medieval Europe that it wound up as the backdrop for your debut novel?

Lesley: It wasn’t the allure of medieval Europe so much as the allure of Gilles de Rais that led me use 15th century France as the backdrop for my debut novel. When I was in high school I toted around this old Time-Life book about serial killers. My teachers all thought it morbid and strange, but I was seriously obsessed with the thought process of someone who would do something so wretched. Gilles de Rais had a brief section in that book, which led me to doing more research on him. He was a nobleman and a war hero. People looked up to him, respected him. And he slaughtered the most innocent of his subjects. The idea horrified me, but I also found it fascinating. Add in the fact that he was into the occult, but still held a rigid ideal of being a good Catholic, and he became a character that I couldn’t resist.

Gef: The tone of the book feels very dark, at least with the premise of tyrannical rulers and demonic summoning and all that jazz? Would you say the story falls in with what's been called "grimdark" these days?

Lesley: Grimdark seems to be used more often to refer to fantasy novels, which doesn’t really fit The Weight of Chains. While it is set in a medieval times period, and shows medieval life in a more realistic setting (starvation and disease are real threats that play an integral part of the novel), it is definitely a horror novel. Actually, extreme horror would probably be a more accurate description.

When most people think of horror in general, or extreme horror more specifically, they don’t often think of historical stories, especially ones set during the 15th century, which I think is a shame. One of the things I did while writing The Weight of Chains was search for other current horror novels set during this time period. I wanted to see how other authors handled things such as dialogue and tone and whether or not to use contractions. I wasn’t looking to copy anyone’s style, but I wanted to get a feel for what worked for me and what didn’t. My search came up pretty dry. Sure, you have Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies and a few others that follow that format of mashing literature with horror, but that wasn’t what I was going for. I did read Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon. Fantastic historical horror, but more than 200 years too recent.

I would love to see historical horror become more popular. There are so many time periods and situations in which authors can throw monsters, both supernatural and human.

Gef: With a story like this, it sounds like you had to not just carve out your own world, but a magic system to boot. How much of a rabbit hole is it for you when dealing with those aspects of the world building?

Lesley: I actually managed to avoid the magic rabbit hole for the most part, which is good because believe me when I say I fell down plenty of world building rabbit holes while working of The Weight of Chains. There’s a LOT of research that goes into writing a historical novel, everything from what the people would have worn to the layout of castles. So much research.
Yes, there is a wizard in the novel. His name is Prelati, and he’s hired by Gilles to raise a demon called Barron. But the thing is he’s not a very good wizard. He does manage to contact Barron, but it’s more like if a spirit sees a bunch of teenagers playing around with a Ouija board and decides to fuck with them. The teenagers didn’t actually contact the spirit, the spirit contacted them. Barron noticed Prelati trying to conjure him, so he decides to see what’s up. And when he sees what is going on in the castle and the situation that Prelati is in, it doesn’t take long for the demon to decide that sticking around to see what kind of chaos he can add to the mix will be a grand time.

Gef: Say the word "wizard" these days and the casual reader is going to think Harry Potter quite likely, so what is your approach with things like that, where preconceptions may run completely contrary to what you've concocted?

Lesley: I think it’s impossible to write a novel now a days without people jumping to conclusions and thinking that they know what it’s about without reading it. I guess that’s normal, considering how much half-information we can all glean by scrolling through Twitter or ready a couple of blog headlines. It’s impossible to avoid.

As to how to approach those preconceptions … Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve tried to be very upfront about what The Weight of Chains is. It’s a horror novel. And a pretty violently graphic one at that. If people choose to not believe that, or if they skew what that means because they see the word “wizard” or “historical” or because they have preconceptions about what horror written by a woman is or how it should be, there is nothing that I can say or do to change that. At that point - the point where they have a copy of the book in their hands - then the only thing I can do is let my story stand for itself.

Gef: Is this a world you're hoping to revisit in future books?

Lesley: My personal preference tends to lean toward stand-alone books, and when I wrote The Weight of Chains, I intended for it to be a one shot deal. But I’ve had a lot of people who have read it ask me about a sequel. They want to know what happens next. I do have a glimmer of an idea for a second novel, nothing solid, nothing that I’m running off to write right this minute, but if it starts to take on more shape and to fill in with some details, and if there seems to be an interest, then coming back to this world is a possibility.

Gef: How has working as an editor helped you approach your own writing?

Lesley: Working as an editor for Apex has really helped me see how publishing – and writing as an extension of that – is a business. Getting a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad story. It could mean that it wasn’t right for that publication, or that they already have a story that is similar waiting to be published. It could mean that the editor really liked the writing, but the ending didn’t quite click for them. Apex Magazine receives around 1,000 short story submissions every month. We publish 3 or 4. That means we end up rejecting some pretty amazing stories every month, because it’s impossible to buy all of the good ones.

It’s also shown me that editors and publishers are people. People who love to read and love books and want writers to succeed. I think when you’re first starting out as a writer, it’s very easy to imagine editors as these publishing gods, sitting up on their thrones made out of rejected manuscripts, casting judgement with no thought or consideration to the lowly writer’s feelings. Editors are people. I’m a person. One who has a job and a family and responsibilities just like anyone else. My job just happens to be as an editor.

So how have these realizations helped me approach my own writing? Well, they’ve really put into focus that I need to write the story that I want to tell. I can’t let the word of an editor change who I am as a writer, because it could be that the story just isn’t for them. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t for any editor out there ever. The Weight of Chains started out as a short story. I submitted it to an anthology and got back a nasty rejection with the editor of the anthology telling me it would never be published because it was too violent and graphic, and it involves children. I cried. I was completely shattered and put the story away for about 9 months. I kept writing other stories, but “The Weight of Chains” and its characters kept talking to me. I decided to pull it out of the short story junk drawer and ended up talking to J.F. Gonzalez about it. I didn’t know what to do with this 8,000 word historical story that took place in the halls of a castle. Something I said must have sparked an interest because he asked to read it. Even though I was terrified that he would say the same thing the editor had told me, I sent it to him. A few days later I got a response. He thought I should expand it, that the story needed to be a novel. Same short story, two completely different responses by writing professionals.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

Lesley: In my opinion, the worst piece of writing advice is probably the one that most writers hear most often: Write every day.

I think the underlying intention of that sentiment is good – write, if you want to write a novel (or a short story, blog post, essay, anything), you have to write, you can’t just talk about it – but I have two young daughters, I’m the managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, I’m the troop leader for a very active Girl Scout troop, I do freelance editing, I’m a wife, friend, and daughter. And you know what, every single one of those things is important to me and takes time out of my day. Having those things in my life doesn’t mean that I’m not a writer, or that writing isn’t important enough to me. It means that I have a life and I’m building experiences that will make my writing richer and better. And I do write. It just might not happen every single day.

Daniel Jose Older recently wrote an essay about this, and the shame that can come from failing to write every day, and he’s spot on. When I first started writing with the intention of being published, if I would fail to write one day, this mass of guilt and anxiety and the very real dread that I was failing would slowly begin to eat away at me. I’d wonder why I was even trying to carve out time to work on my stories. If I can’t do it every day, then obviously it wasn’t important enough to me.

That’s bullshit. Believe me when I say that I have more than enough self-critical thoughts roaming around my head trying to trip me up. I don’t need to heap on guilt and anxiety over missing a day of writing.

Gef: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books or movies or whatnot, or anything a little off the beaten path from what most folks enjoy?

Lesley: I love zombies. Books, movies, TV shows. It doesn’t matter. I will consume them all. Hell, half my wardrobe consist of t-shirts with zombies on them. I love them. I was a fan before they became enormously popular, watching old movies with my little brother and a bowl of popcorn most weekends when we were kids. And when they suddenly hit big, I was in absolute paradise! After a few years of being everywhere, a lot of people seem to be getting burned out on zombies, but not me.

Yes, a lot of the time it can be the same basic story, a group of survivors against the undead, different names and faces all going through the same motions, but I think that’s part of the appeal to me. I read a lot – different genres, different styles, different voices – but when things in my life are getting hectic and I can’t focus on a heavy read, I will almost always grab a zombie novel or watch a zombie movie. There’s something comforting in the familiarity. Add in a dash of death, some chopping teeth, and a healthy dose of gore, and I’m happy.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Lesley: Jason Sizemore and I are currently editing a Best of Apex Magazine anthology that’s set to be released in early December. Going back through and reading all the original fiction from past issues of Apex Magazine and pulling out the best of the best has been a lot fun.

On the writing front, I’m working on a new novel. It’s a near future sci-fi that’s heavily influenced by the 1920s speakeasy scene and a reviewer for the New Yorker named Lois Long. Lots of alcohol, sex, and obituaries written for the gin joints that didn’t make it. The mixture of futuristic science fiction with history, and prose with magazine articles is incredibly exciting to write. I’m still testing out what’s going to work and what I’ll end up cutting, but the story is starting to take shape.

To keep up with everything going on in my little corner of the world, people can follow me on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

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