Most authors I’ve discovered, including those featured for Women in Horror Month, were introduced to me by someone else, whether an author or fellow reader urging “you must read this” or praising the talents of a yet unknown (to me) writer of the perverse, weird, scary, and subversive. I’m proud to say that I found today’s featured femme, Joan Frances Turner, all on my own while browsing bookshelves on an book hunting excursion a couple years ago. The cover design of her debut zombie novel Dust immediately caught my eye, so I poked about a little further and discovered that the author lives in my home state of Indiana, which she also chose for the setting of her book.
I was already sold on a zombie story set in Indiana, but it was the opening line that gave me that rush you get when you realize you’ve stumbled upon braaaaaaiins… Ahem, excuse me… I mean, something truly unique and exciting:
My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.
How’s that for an introduction?
I tore into Dust like a newly turned corpse and set off on a weird trip with an even weirder zombie gang, the Fly-by-Nights. Dust is a fresh take on an old trope with a POV from the often neglected zombies. Even though the perspective is unique, Turner stays true to the good ol’ fashioned George Romero zombies. They shuffle, they shamble, they moan and groan, and fall apart. Just like a rotting corpse should.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s when Turner first saw the movie that defined the genre, Night of the Living Dead (1968), so she wasn’t corrupted by the endless incarnations of Romero’s walking dead (horse-riding zombies, talking zombies, the fast rage-virus-zombie that isn’t really a zombie at all but still owes as much to the real thing). Her untainted viewpoint gives the novel a nice innocent remember-when-zombies-just-shuffled-around-eating-brains feel. That’s not to say that diehard zombie aficionados don’t pen great zombie fiction because we all know that’s not the case (think Jonathon Maberry or David Moody). But for this reader it was a refreshing change of pace to read a tale of the undead from less of a fangirl perspective.
I read up on Miss Turner as much as possible after reading Dust and found out about some of her influences, but it was especially gratifying to have the chance to ask the author herself in an interview during our continued celebration of Women in Horror Month at Dreadful Tales.
I found out that we have more in common than just Indiana. She’s also a fan of Tuxedomoon, loves many of the same horror films I do, and her political leanings are in line with my own. Those commonalities don’t influence whether or not I like an author, but I have to admit there is a surge of excitement to know we connect on more than my love for their stories. It’s cool to know that if I meet Turner in person we could talk about more than the Resurgam trilogy. We could swap CDs, talk about our favorite foreign horror films, the best NW Indiana haunts, Richard Dawkins… ok, I’m getting a ahead of myself a bit.
First things first, I had a chance to ask Turner all kindsa questions about the influence for her books, the sequel to Dust, and the final book in the series, Grave, and also what’s next for the author. You’ll find that Turner goes the extra mile in her responses to my sometimes basic questions to give her readers and future fans an intimate glimpse into what makes her tick (Pst, it’s not braaaaaaains!). I hope you enjoy her banter as much as I do!
DT: DUST was your first published novel. What were you doing before you decided to start writing seriously and what gave you the kick in the butt to do it? You dedicate DUST to your mother. Was she a big inspiration?
TURNER: Pre-Dust I was (and still am) a lawyer who in her spare time scribbled random bits and pieces of stories but never finished them, or put them together into a coherent whole, or ever tried to get them published–but still talked incessantly about how “someday,” sometime, I “was going to be” a writer. Around my thirtieth birthday or so my mother finally said to me flat out, “You know, if you’re going to be a writer, you actually have to BE A WRITER!”, and I was sufficiently chastened to focus my energies, scribble down the two pages of notes that ultimately became a 750-page first draft and start the long, stubborn process of rewriting, editing, rewriting again, finding an agent (after about eighty-two attempts) and, ultimately, finding a publisher. So I really had to dedicate the book to my mother: Not only was she an inspiration, she was also my starting motor and the person most stubbornly convinced that if I wanted it that badly, I really could do it.
DT: There were three things that initially sold me on DUST that I would like to ask about. First, I loved the cover! The decaying, shimmering, solitary leaf
against the matte charcoal grey immediately caught my eye. Did you
have any input in the cover design?
TURNER: Even well-established writers almost never have any control over their cover design, and I didn’t have any over mine. I was very fortunate, though: I liked it a lot too, and felt like it captured the mood of the book particularly well without spelling it all out in the visuals. (I keep waiting for the “Oh, dear God no, that CAN’T be my book cover!” experience I keep being told all authors suffer through, but thus far I’ve been extremely lucky and liked them all.)
DT: I’m a Hoosier from Indianapolis, so when I discovered DUST was set in the Calumet region of Indiana I was pretty excited. You don’t come across many horror books set in Indiana. Why did you decide on that setting?
TURNER: Not only don’t you come across many horror books set in Indiana, you don’t come across many books at all set in Indiana, and almost none set in this particular part of the state: Jean Shepherd (whom I love) is about the extent of the Calumet region’s presence on the literary map. Besides it being near-virgin territory it’s also the part of the world I know best, having grown up here–I don’t believe in writing about places I haven’t actually lived in, if only because I need to be there physically to be able to bring them to life on paper–and has enough geographical variety of city, suburb, farm, factory, mill, forest and beach to make “shooting on location” lively and interesting. Also, the city of Gary gets such a barrage of contempt from outsiders that I wanted to highlight some of its lesser-known beauties, like the neighborhoods that are part and parcel of the Indiana Dunes (the book’s “Prairie Beach” is a thinly disguised version of the Miller Beach and Marquette Park Beach areas), and give them their own fictionalized life and spirit.
DT: The opening line, “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” made me laugh hysterically and all the bookstore browsers gave me concerned looks. You let the reader know right out the gate that you’re going to have a sense of humor about the story. Between the cover (I’m a sucker for a good cover) and the setting, I already knew I had to have this book, but that opening line made me feel really confident about my choice. Was it crucial for you to make sure that first line really grabbed readers? What else did you want to establish for DUST with it?
TURNER: The late comic writer Michael O’Donoghue had a famous National Lampoon spoof, “How To Write Good,” which skewers the typical sort of advice handed out to fledgling authors and is one of my favorite things ever. One of his narrator’s bits of incompetent advice is that every book or story needs a “grabber,” a first line that compels the reader to keep reading; his examples of exemplary grabbers include “Sylvia lay sick among the silverware” and “Even if I did love you, Alex, my father would never let me marry an alligator.” I was nervous about exactly how to begin my book, so after much hemming and hawing I thought–purely to amuse myself–“I’m going to write a grabber that would make Michael O’Donoghue proud!” (Also as I’m left-handed myself, my protagonist was destined to be a southpaw.) Mostly what I wanted to establish is that this was a book where dramatic bodily alterations happened as a matter of course and the characters were not going to waste time, no pun intended, falling to pieces over it; shit happens, you lose an arm, you keep right on going. That can be either comic or tragic depending on the context, and in Dust it ends up being both.
DT: DUST follows the young spit-fire zombie, Jessie, along with her gang the Fly-by-Nights. They have many trials and tribulations as shuffling, rotting undead throughout the story, but there is still a fun B-movie sensibility to it. Can you tell us about the second book, FRAIL, and how it is similar to DUST or different?
TURNER: I fondly think of Dust as my “B-movie on paper”–those shout-outs to Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls probably tipped everyone off–so thanks for proving me right. 🙂 Frail picks up several months after the end of Dust, its perspective switching from the undead to living human beings, but the question of what humanity actually is anymore continues to grow more complicated by the minute. (A reviewer called Frail a “post-zombie” book and while I can’t explain that without giving away Dust’s ending, it’s entirely correct.) Frail’s protagonist, Amy, has done a rather terrible thing which literally and figuratively haunts her throughout the book, and her own personal day of reckoning regarding that ends up being quite important for the future of, well, much of the rest of humanity–if Amy really is the human being she thinks she is. As noted, that’s open to question.
DT: Your website says you’re currently working on the last book in the “Resurgam Trilogy,” tentatively titled GRAVE. How will this last book differ from the first two in the series? Can you reveal any details about the final entry?
TURNER: Grave will unite several characters from both Dust and Frail–many of whom had been going along happily ignorant of each others’ existences–in an existential crisis of vast and potentially world-altering dimensions. There’s also someone coming to the most important decision of not only their own life but most of humanity’s collective life, and some very bittersweet goodbyes. And anything else I might say about it really wouldn’t make any sense at all unless you’ve read both Dust and Frail, so hurry and prepare well in advance.
DT: What drew you to horror, and zombie fiction in particular?
TURNER: I don’t feel drawn to (or away from) either horror in general or zombies in particular; this is just the story I had in my head and really wanted to tell, and this is the means by which I did it. I don’t feel affiliated with (or against) any particular genre, nor do I think it’s productive to go, “Well, I certainly don’t go around writing that sort of thing” because that guarantees you’ll end up surprising yourself. And also because it makes you sound thoroughly obnoxious.
DT: What are your non-horror influences? What about non-literary influences?
TURNER: Non-horror influences: Patricia Highsmith, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Monika Fagerholm, Colette, Isak Dinesen, Damon Runyon, John Dos Passos, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Russell Hoban, Ralph Ellison, Anthony Powell, Thomas Mann, Hilary Mantel. Non-literary influences: The original Night of the Living Dead (as noted), the original Carnival of Souls, the “Thriller” video, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the music of Comus, Magnet (The Wicker Man house band), Agalloch, Nick Cave, Peter Brotzmann, Tuxedomoon, Pink Floyd and The The.
DT: After the “Resurgam Trilogy,” what’s next for Joan Frances Turner?
Do you already have your next book planned? Will it be horror?
TURNER: After Grave is completed Joan will be retiring to the countryside for a long vacation while she works out a few ideas for her next book, which won’t involve zombies but does seem to promise a protagonist who can walk between life and death and back again whenever they see fit. Like many good fantasy and horror protagonists Joan also has a literary doppelganger, who roams the writing world under another name and may be trying her own, separate hand at realistic fiction in the future.
DT: It wasn’t until the mid-90s when you first discovered George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead –and we’re so happy you finally did! Any other new discoveries in horror film recently that have inspired you?
TURNER: This is where I have to admit that despite what all that enthusiastically described decomposition might suggest, I’m an extremely squeamish reader and viewer. Nonetheless, here are some favorites both old and new:
—Halloween (the original version). This was my first horror movie, watched when I was far too young to know what I was getting myself into (though by modern-day horror standards it’s now quite tame), so it has to head the list.
—The Shining. This may not be a very original choice, but it’s still the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen right from the opening credits. (I also have a huge soft spot for the miniseries version, but having been toned down for network television that one’s suspenseful instead of horrific.)
—A Tale of Two Sisters. The second most frightening movie I’ve ever seen and also so terribly, overpoweringly sad.
—Repulsion. A beautiful young woman falls apart by slow, psychotically hallucinatory degrees and it’s the more frightening because we never really understand why. Black Swan is Repulsion: The Ballet.
—Let the Right One In (original version), Habit and The Addiction. I normally don’t find vampires very interesting but these three movies are strong exceptions.
—Man Bites Dog. Dark satire of a serial killer and the hapless, cannon-fodder film crew documenting and glamorizing all his horrible exploits. It made me laugh so hard I felt guilty afterward.
—Baxter, a French film from the late 1980s about a bull terrier whose succession of owners all seem to have a strange habit of suddenly dying. If you’re envisioning Cujo this isn’t it, there’s actually no blood and no gore and yet the movie, and its title pet, are somehow that much more frightening because of it.
—Hellraiser (the first one). Honestly it’s a richly satisfying old-fashioned morality tale with some extreme BDSM imagery and refugee Mugwumps from Naked Lunch thrown in, and that’s a good evening out.
—Suspiria. I have to look away at certain key moments (mostly the ones involving that bloodthirsty seeing-eye dog) but this was a huge influence on Dust, by which I mean I saw the infamous attic-full-of-maggots scene and thought immediately, “I want something like that in my book!”, which is why a major character in Dust is literally a walking maggot hatchery. The soundtrack is also amazing.
—The Wicker Man (the original version, not that Nicolas Cage………thing). It’s one of my favorite fever dreams.
—Festen. This is technically not a horror movie at all, but rather the story of horrific acts inflicted on children and their attempts, as adults, to break through a solid wall of family denial. No blood, no gore, deeply unsettling and disturbing.
DT: I recently came across a Top 20 Greatest Horror Writer of All-Time list on Mania.com. 20 writers, not one single woman! Not even an honorable mention! As a writer, reader, and woman, what do you think about lists like this that so casually omit female authors?
TURNER: I think that that list is depressingly commensurate with “greatest writers” lists in every genre from science fiction to literary realism to poetry to drama, which more often than not have, at best, one or two grudging mentions of female authors against dozens of men and if anyone objects, the accusations of “You just want a politically correct quota system!” start flying around like trailer homes in a tornado. On the other hand, anyone who gets their reading list from any random stranger’s pet favorites, mine included, just isn’t trying very hard. Find your top greatest of all time, and if they happen to be all men–or all women–then that’s how it is, but if you’re automatically excluding “chicks” (or black authors, or gay authors, or any other category) before you start because you think “they can’t/don’t write that stuff,” your list isn’t worth much of anything.
DT: And to counter that list, who are your favorite female horror writers?
TURNER: I’m probably inviting heated debate as to whether they’re “true” horror writers, but: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates. Gemma Files also writes exceptional stuff.
DT: What are you currently reading?
TURNER: Currently in rotation on the nightstand:
—The Lawrenceville Stories, Owen Johnson. Turn-of-last-century boys’ prep school hijinks and about as far from horror fiction as you can possibly get; the worst that happens is someone getting a backside full of gravel after falling off a roof.
—Otherhood: Poems, Reginald Shepherd. The poems include “Wicker Man Marginalia” and “Hygiene,” a meditation on Jeffrey Dahmer, for any interested horror fans.
—Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Gregor von Rezzori. Not an actual memoir, but a fictional protagonist meditating on non-supernatural real world horrors.
—The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Martha C. Nussbaum. I don’t have much background in philosophy so this one is slow going, but still very interesting.
—La Toile de Charlotte, E.B. White. I am re-teaching myself the French I forgot after high school and working my way through all the children’s classics as practice. After this, possibly Le Vent dans les Saules (The Wind in the Willows).
DT: And, last one…
Vincent Price has invited you to the House on Haunted Hill and
wants you to choose the other 4 guests. Who do you pick and why?
TURNER: Keeping in mind that in real life I’d politely tell him there’s some stuff you just don’t do even for the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $10,000: The current Republican presidential candidates, of whom (as of my writing this) there are conveniently four, because they’d be so busy fighting and backstabbing each other they’d be sitting ducks for the giant vat of acid. Also, since gay people seem to be among their worst nightmares, I’d scare them so badly just by showing up that I’m good as guaranteed to win.
The sequel to Dust, Frail, is already out (published appropriately in October 2011) and Turner is hard at work at the final book in the Resurgam trilogy, Grave. I hope to have reviews for both Frail and Grave on Dreadful Tales… sometime! Stay Tuned!