[This issue, we sit down with speculative poet and author, Ann K. Schwader. Here, she discusses her use of world mythologies and folklore in her work; her forthcoming poetry collection, Unquiet Stars; and her advice for aspiring authors.]
ev0ke: What roles do spirituality, mythology, and folklore play in your stories? Do you find yourself drawn to one particular corpus of beliefs, or do you utilize whatever fits the story?
Ann K. Schwader: First of all, I try to keep in mind when I’m writing that one person’s mythology — or folklore — is another’s spirituality. I do everything I can via research to make sure I’m treating other belief systems with respect and getting the details right, even when my plotline (or the tone of a poem) is horrific.
I’m particularly drawn to Egyptian mythology, and pretty much any aspect of the divine feminine. However, I’ll use whatever fits the story or poem I’m working on best. In many cases, I’m writing for a particular project, which will dictate what corpus of beliefs — including fictional ones, like Robert W. Chambers’ Carcosa, or the Lovecraftian Mythos — I’ll need to use.
Sometimes I’ll suggest that a real-world mythology might have been spawned by a fictional one. The most fun I ever had with this “secret history” approach was in “Night of the Piper,” one of my Cassie Barrett investigations. I managed to suggest that the trickster Kokopelli was actually one avatar of the Lovecraftian messenger entity Nyarlathotep. But I researched Kokopelli first!
ev0ke: Most of your work — both prose and poetry — could be defined as horror or weird fiction. What appeals to you about the darker genres? What do you find so compelling about them?
AKS: I suspect it’s my own natural pessimism coming through, plus an imagination which goes past the glass being half empty to finding the hairline crack in said glass. That said, I’m not much drawn to undiluted horror. I like it as one flavor in a mix, usually with SF or fantasy, or perhaps archaeology or astronomy. Some kinds, like body horror or erotic horror, turn me off completely. YMMV, of course.
The appeal of the weird, for me, is its supernatural or fantastic component. I don’t need completely realistic horror. I can get that from the news any day of the week.
ev0ke: The forthcoming “Unquiet Stars” is your latest poetry collection. How did you go about deciding which poems to include? Did you start with the title poem and work out from there, or just see how things fit together?
AKS: The title poem was actually written pretty far into the process of assembling this collection. That title idea just popped into my head, and stuck there. The poem by that title turned out to be as much space science as cosmic horror, which is true for quite a few other poems in this collection.
Since I’m not wildly prolific, deciding which poems to include was a matter of assembling everything I had that was dark enough, new enough, and not awaiting publication elsewhere. The hard part was putting them into an effective order. I was trying for some sort of flow in tone and subject matter, keeping the new sonnet sequence in the middle. This took a lot of fiddling, and I hope the result is effective.
ev0ke: Which poem in Unquiet Stars was the most difficult, but ultimately most satisfying, to write? And why?
AKS: That sonnet sequence I just mentioned, “Faces From the House of Pain,” was far and away the most difficult thing in the collection to write. It started out as four sonnets written for a gaslight horror anthology project in 2018. I turned them in and waited — and waited — before eventually finding out the editor didn’t want them. I hadn’t been completely happy with limiting my take on The Island of Doctor Moreau to four sonnets anyway, so I went back to my notes in 2019 and put those four into a list. I then tried to figure out what other points in that short novel would work best for sonnets, and eventually wound up with a total of nine. Some were written “out of order” and fitted in later, which meant I had to do one last sweeping revision after I finished.
By then, however, I knew I was going to have a new collection of poems. Since I’ve had sonnet sequences in some of my other collections, and readers seemed to like them, I was very happy that I’d put in the work for this one.
ev0ke: Climate change and the Lovecraftian mythos are not two things that people would normally associate with one another, but that is the premise behind Mountains of Madness Revealed. Did you write your poem “Climate of Fear” specifically for this anthology? If so, how did you go about crafting it, combine these two elements into something unique?
AKS: Actually, “Climate of Fear” (a poem in heroic sestets) is the only reprint in that anthology! It originally appeared in Spectral Realms #1 in 2014. At the time, news was already coming out about the Antarctic’s ice being endangered by climate change. This reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains of Madness, which involves a lost civilization — and a few of its residents — frozen in Antarctic ice, then thawed by explorers. Bad idea. Equally bad idea to have the ice melting due to human activity, releasing these same cosmically horrific residents.
I think the reason these two ideas came together so quickly for me is that Lovecraft was fascinated by the cutting-edge science of his time, and used it in his work. AtMoM, for example, mentions continental drift — years before this was an acknowledged theory.
ev0ke: Your short story “Dancing the Mask” appears in Cassilda’s Song, an anthology in honor of weird fiction pioneer Robert W. Chambers. Unlike Lovecraft, Chambers is not well known outside of weird fiction and horror circles. Which other “lost” authors would you recommend to readers, and why?
AKS: J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), and C. L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore (1911-1987). Le Fanu was a prolific writer of Gothic tales and ghost stories, though readers might know him best for the vampire novella, Carmilla. His atmospherics are first-rate. C.L. Moore was one of the few American women writing weird fiction early on — 1930s & 1940s. Her best-known series stories feature the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry (dark sword & sorcery), and the interplanetary adventurer Northwest Smith (SF with shades of darkness). Many of these can still be found in anthologies, as can her deeply frightening SF novella, Vintage Season.
ev0ke: Your work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, from Best of Black Wings to the HWA Poetry Showcase to Sequitur to Weird Fiction. What advice can you offer to other authors who are struggling to find a home for their stories?
AKS: I think that path is different for each writer, and it’s probably much different for writers getting started now than it was for me in the pre-Internet times. One important point is to know your markets before you submit to them — don’t send material out cold. And always check project deadlines carefully. If you know you’re not a fast writer (welcome to the club!), don’t commit to a tight deadline you might risk missing. I’m not terribly good at doing social media, so I can’t speak to making connections that way. Both HWA (Horror Writers Association) and SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) offer web site material that non-members can access, along with newsletters anyone can subscribe to.
For poets in the field, I’ve found that belonging to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) is really helpful. Anyone can join, and they offer a quarterly journal plus poetry contests, annual awards for poetry collections, an email list, and much more. Their web site also has a very convenient market list for both paying and non-paying markets.
ev0ke: Where can curious readers find your books?
AKS: I have a writing web site where I post information on new work I’ve had published and where it can be ordered. The site also has a page titled “Instant Gratification,” with links to work I’ve had published online and which can be read for free.
I’m a Goodreads author.
I also have a Dreamwidth blog, Yaddith Times. I often post news of new work here, along with occasional topical haiku and my Goodreads reviews. The blog has no locked sections, no personal stuff, and absolutely no politics, so please feel free to check it out!
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you hope to attend in the foreseeable future, either in person or virtually?
AKS: Unfortunately, I’m even worse at doing these sorts of events than I am at social media. I don’t have any current plans to attend conventions, etc., in person or in pixels. Emily Dickinson of cosmic darkness, c’est moi.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
AKS: More poems, always. I have a few markets I try to submit work to regularly, though I sometimes wind up missing their deadlines. I’ve also got extensive notes for a new dark SF sonnet sequence, partially inspired by this pandemic we’re still clawing our way out of.