As we begin our series of “Road to Mo*Con” interviews, I thought that I’d take this opportunity to pick the brain of Lucy Snyder. As a guest of last year’s Mo*Con, she challenged people with her views on spirituality. Since one of the themes for this year’s Mo*Con is gender issues in the genre, I’m especially focused on her opinions on this topic:

What was your introduction to the genre, as a fan and as a professional?

Gary Braunbeck was my introduction both ways. Before I met Gary ten years ago, I had graduated from the Clarion workshop, and consequently I was mostly oriented toward science fiction and fantasy. I had been reading and enjoying horror fiction before that, but most of it had been marketed as gothic literature or dark fantasy or something other than out-and-out horror. For instance, there’s a lot of dark, disturbing stuff in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but reading it in college I never thought “Hey, this is horror.” And more to the point, I’d been writing horror, but I saw myself as writing fantasy and SF.

Again, my genre disconnect was largely due to marketing. I was a teenager in the 80s during the horror boom, and all I saw were the gory, garish covers publishers put on horror novels. I found those really off-putting. Not because it seemed like “male” fiction — I’d been reading lots of hard SF and spy thrillers, which back then was definitely seen as guy stuff. It was because I associated horror with ignorance, superstition, and sub-par writing. The blood and evil clowns and keytar-brandishing skeletons struck me as incredibly stupid-looking, and I assumed that the contents of said books would surely be just as dumb as their covers. Likewise, I’d seen a few slasher movies and thought, “Wow, that was not for me” afterward, so that also discouraged me from trying books that were overtly marketed as horror. While I blissfully missed out on a lot of crap, I also missed out on some good novels by writers such as JN Williamson.

My experiences as a webzine editor didn’t improve my opinion of horror much. Most of the really badly-written, poorly-plotted submissions I got were about psycho killers etc. Sure, I got bad SF submissions, too, but they were forgettably bad. As an editor you will never forget your first batch of necrophiliac poetry, no matter how hard you try.

Conversely, the dark fiction I received that was good always seemed like it was something else: fantasy, usually, or SF. If a story has a lot going on — and good stories always do — chances are the eye of the beholder will manage to see it in light of their favorite genre.

Anyhow, enter Gary Braunbeck, my own personal horror ninja. Early on he gave me a copy of his collection Things Left Behind, and it blew me away. It was emotional, and beautifully-written, and most of all, it was smart.

And then Gary was all like, “My horror collection — let me show you it!” And so over the years he’s shown me the good stuff I’d missed the first time around because it had been marketed the same as the stupid bad stuff.

How do you react to the line of thought that “women can’t be scary”?

Women can’t be scary? Ha. I’d like to see someone tell Poppy Brite or Sephera Giron that to their faces. But let me know first so I have time to make popcorn.

But seriously, that line of thought is bullshit, because it’s all kinds of subjective. What’s “scary”? Everyone’s fears are unique. Yes, there are some experiences that speak to the universal human condition, but from there our perception of what’s frightening is inevitably framed by our personal experiences.

Take a story in which a young child is snatched from the family home while the parents sleep. If you’re a mother or a father or a doting big brother or sister, that scenario has a lot of potential to be scary. But what if you’re a teenager who views little kids as annoyances? That scenario would be a huge yawn unless the kidnapper is some kind of cool monster.

As a reader, I don’t find many pieces of horror literature that actually make me feel afraid — disturbed, perhaps, but not scared. Dan Simmons’ The Terror had me reaching for a blanket in the middle of July, but it didn’t have me checking under the bed. So I don’t look for “scary”; I look for “interesting”.

Q: Do women tell different horror stories than men? If horror is all about fears what “fears do women have”?

A: Again, this is very subjective. Sure, the stories I write have different themes and concerns than the stories my husband writes. But he writes different kinds of stories than Ed Lee or Jack Ketchum. I would like to think that every writer is telling unique, imaginatively personal stories, but of course we can all point to plot retreads that were clearly done just to make a buck or two.

Do women have fears that men might not immediately appreciate? Sure. But then, some women might not appreciate them, either. Ten years ago I didn’t have much visceral appreciation for stories of miscarriage; I do now.

Gary and I have wanted a baby, and a couple of years after we got married I got pregnant. That was a happy time for us as a couple, but for me personally it was pretty scary. I worried that the baby would be deformed. I worried I would lose the baby. My body was changing, and my personality along with it. I was becoming this whole other person, and I didn’t have any damn control over the change. It scared the hell out of me to realize that the person I thought I was could be altered so radically by a few little hormones.

And then I miscarried. And I cannot sum that up as anything but fucking horrible. Do I fear that happening again? Hell yes.

That fear is unique to my biology as a woman. I could incorporate my miscarriage experience into a story and convey the fear and the pain with every ounce of skill I have as a writer, and I expect I could connect with most female readers and many male ones as well.

But I wouldn’t connect with everybody. A reader has to be willing to engage with a character to feel anything as a consequence of reading a story, and I know that a certain portion of male readers will start to disengage from anything that comes off as too “womanly” because, hey, this can’t happen to them, ever, so why should it seem compelling?

But the flipside is also true: there are things that men fear that a lot of women just don’t find scary. For instance, my collection Sparks and Shadows has an essay in it called “Menstruation for Men”. Women generally find it pretty funny; men generally recoil in horror from the imagery of bloody bladders and tampons lodged in penises.

Bookstore statistics indicate that female readers tend to read both male and female writers, but that the average male reader won’t read female writers. This is clearly an issue of cultural conditioning, and a complex one that doesn’t have easy solutions any more than the current trend towards aliteracy — people who can read, but don’t — has easy solutions.

Some people have privately made the observation that they suspect a trend toward women shying away from horror or complain about its quality of fiction (in relation to its treatment of women) because of some prevailing attitudes. Is horror pushing women away as readers and writers given the trend of violent fiction in small-press?

I don’t think that violence per se is the problem. Well, to a certain extent, okay: some readers are turned off by gore and violence no matter how they’re handled. On the other end of the bell curve is a portion of horror readers who crave blood and guts and don’t care about the finer details as long as they get the chills and thrills they’re looking for.

But in between are readers for whom the specific ways violence in fiction is presented matter a great deal. Sexist portrayals can and do turn off readers of both genders. But expectations and preconceptions play a role before a reader even opens a book.

Let’s take rape, for example. Rape is often such a horrific, scarring assault that a number of people who’ve lived through it can’t bear to read any fiction that deals with it, no matter how off-stage it is.

And yet I’ve read plenty of books — not just horror novels — wherein a female character is raped purely to amp up the plot. I can picture the never-been-raped writer sitting down and thinking, “Hmm, I’ve got this female character … how can I put her in peril? Wait, I know — rape! That’s perilous! *furiously types*”

In many old romances, rapes are unrealistically (and insultingly) portrayed as a kind of rough seduction the woman secretly wants. Plenty of old sword-and-sorcery novels play rape as masculine privilege: the “good guys” rape when they’re feeling cranky. I remember throwing down Lord Foul’s Bane in disgust after the protagonist rapes Lena. The Thomas Covenant series has been popular, so clearly other fantasy readers — presumably people who hadn’t been raped themselves — were able to overlook that part of the book.

Rapes in horror are often a bit harder to overlook. In horror a rape often happens on-stage, in detail … and if it’s handled badly, it often comes off as porn for sadists.

And that, I think, is where I think horror’s reputation precedes it: horror gets up in your face. It’s brutal, and often brutish. It’s nasty fiction for nasty people — just look at the awful covers!

But just as it’s a mistake to assume that a garish, adolescent cover is indicative of garish, adolescent writing, it’s a mistake to think that women don’t read and write horror. The fact is, dark fiction is gaining a lot of popularity with females … but what they’re reading and writing mostly isn’t marketed as horror.

Browse the burgeoning racks of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and you’ll find monsters, demons, and scares galore. But instead of a brain-slurping, festering zombie on the cover, you’ll see a hot young thing with a blade in her hand.

Maybe the dark fiction being popularized in other genres is a little more toned-down than it would be if it were published as outright horror. And I do think more women ought to be making it as top-tier pro writers outside the romance genre. But the way I see it, women are most definitely writing horror, and people are reading it.

Is the community of horror writers supportive of female horror writers, or are we still looking at “an old boy’s club?” Have you sensed any open discrimination of women, for example, at cons?

I can’t think that I’ve ever experienced open discrimination at conventions — honestly, lit snobbery against the horror genre has been more prevalent (and tiresome), but that’s another story. I think that what happens is that people who think of themselves as having fairly progressive notions are still carrying around unexamined gender stereotypes and are buying into double-standards.

Our society has certainly come a long way from the bad old days when the only professions open to women were teaching or nursing, and if you got pregnant you lost your job. But we still have one big-ass double standard gumming up the works, namely the one that says that a woman must first and foremost be decorative. Men are mocked if they’re seen as insufficiently powerful; women are mocked if they’re seen as insufficiently pretty.

Once you get past high school, though, the standards for male power are pretty diverse; Stephen Hawking can’t bench-press anything, but he’s hailed for his mind and scientific accomplishments. Alton Brown’s no cage fighter, but his black-belt cooking skills and sharp wit have earned him millions of admirers.

But the standards for female beauty are still on the straight and narrow. James Edward Olmos and Laurence Fishburne have plenty of female admirers, but when’s the last time any of us saw a movie actress with acne scars? Or any noticeable facial scars? Does Britney Spears get criticized more for flaws in her singing, or for shaving her head? When’s the last time you saw a publishing house send an average-looking female writer on a national book tour?

How you look has no bearing on the quality of your writing or the entertainment value of your stories. Your author photo should not matter — and yet, it does.

Most girls are still being pressured to think of their appearance first and skills/talents second or sometimes not at all. They are taught to back off, wait their turn, be careful, be nice, whereas boys are told to get out there, take chances, fight and be independent. Girls are still given the message that they should be supportive of their boyfriends’ ambitions — aspire to be a cheerleader but never the quarterback. I work in a university building that is overwhelmingly male, and I regularly overhear undergrad boys talking about girls; few if any of them seem to have been taught to be supportive of their girlfriends’ ambitions.

I know female authors with supportive spouses — I count myself among them. But back in college, supportive boyfriends were few and far between. One boyfriend read one of my stories and asked me “Why can’t you write anything nice?” Another, who had literary ambitions of his own, looked disdainfully at a contributor’s copy of a magazine that had come in the mail and sniffed, “Well, I could do that, too, if I wanted to be in some silly horror magazine!”

My father was always supportive of my desire to be a writer … provided I stuck with nice, pleasant, non-threatening poetry. I figured out a long time ago to not bother telling him when I’ve published horror stories. My mother’s relatives “distanced” themselves from me after one of them read one of my online horror or erotica stories (I don’t know exactly what happened; they simply stopped speaking to me or answering my email).

Getting published and building a career as a fiction writer is a hard slog whether you’re male or female. But I think women who start out writing overt horror often get steered away from it by friends, family, English department professors, etc. who expect them to write something “nicer”, something that will go in a journal with irises on the cover rather than in a pulpy magazine emblazoned with a bloody skull. Or they find a general lack of support for their writing efforts — for instance, they start having children and it’s just expected that as mothers they shoulder most of the child-raising duties — and they quit trying to get published altogether.

So, I think most of the negative sexism is frontloaded as social pressures undermining female writers’ confidence and will to succeed before they’ve gotten good enough to consistently produce publishable work. I don’t think there’s a great d

eal of overt sexism in the genre, although the fact that most horror anthologies have overwhelmingly male contributors still makes me wonder if stories with “female” themes are unconsciously (and unfairly) deemed boring by horror editors.

But the pressure to be “nice” still affects working female writers. On one author’s list I subscribe to, a woman novelist reported that her literary agent discouraged her from having a blog on the grounds that “it’s too easy to piss people off”. I wonder if her agent would give the same advice to a male client. Regardless, many female authors follow that same advice and avoid talking about politics etc. in blogs so as to not unduly ruffle feathers. Contrast this with authors such as Nick Mamatas who often seem to thrive on online controversy.

Once again, a double-standard: male writers who make bold, opinionated, snarky declarations are entertaining their readership, but if women do it, whoa, they’re risking losing their readership.

What can be done to foster more of an atmosphere of mutual writerly respect, giving women writers the esteem they deserve?

That’s a tough question. I see male writers disrespecting one another more than I see male writers disrespecting female writers. I’m on some women-only lists, and there are plenty of battles that erupt over one thing and another and disrespect or the perception of it is at the core. I think every writer is concerned about respect, and many are probably over-sensitive to being disrespected.

I’m not sure that respect is the problem right now — I think it’s more an issue of fostering diversity. If the only women who stick with writing overt horror long enough to become recognized pros in the genre have a specific type of hard-headedness or are conforming their stories to what they believe a perceived-as-male readership wants to see — then that’s ultimately limiting the potential growth of the genre.

Are you tired of being treated as an expert on all women because you have two X chromosomes? To give more of a perspective on the idea behind this question, I’ve had my share of the “you’re an oppressed writer, now tell me about it?” type questions where I almost feel like I’m expected to speak for the history of my people’s suffering. Do you feel unduly put in the position of being a kind of political advocate?

I’m a little uncomfortable with it; I surely can’t speak with authority about the lives of most women simply because I haven’t lived any life but my own. I’m odd in a lot of ways, and so I can’t make too many assumptions about the universality of my experiences. But because I don’t fit in, I’ve spent a lot of time watching how other people fit in (or try to and fail) and a lot of their efforts have to do with conforming to gender expectations.

The result of that is I don’t mind talking about sexism, so I don’t feel unduly put-upon. I guess if every interviewer asked about it, it might get old, but since feminism and humanism are still dirty words in a lot of places the question doesn’t get asked so much.

I’m still forming my own ideas about what sexism is and isn’t and how it affects men and women both. And I think it’s an important dialog to have.

If you’re a person who absolutely subscribes to the notion that boys and girls are wired differently, if you believe that boys are “naturally” better at things like math, then you also have to believe that girls are “naturally” better at writing, because that’s what the test results say.

And then if you open your anthologies and see that 75%-90% of the contributors are male, you’ve got to realize that there’s a disconnect somewhere, that raw talent isn’t translating into writing careers, and at the very least that’s a sign of wasted human potential.

What are you working on now? What can we be looking for from Lucy Snyder?

I’m doing research and making notes for my second novel, and I’m waiting with bated breath to see how quickly my agent sells my first novel. I’m still out there supporting my first two collections, Sparks and Shadows and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. If the novel is well-received, I’m going to focus on long fiction; if not, I’ll try again with something else and in the meantime I’ll work on more short fiction. I’m staying busy.

***
If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say “hi”, feel free to stop by my message board. We always welcome new voices to the conversation.