I first partook of Llewelyn’s fiction in the Ellen Datlow edited short story anthology Nightmare Carnival. It was a story entitled The Mysteries, which left me feeling rather odd. I was unnerved, not the kind of scared where you have to check behind all the doors in the house, but rather imbued with the kind of existential irked-out-ness which makes you afraid to go out into the backyard alone, to stare at the stars.
Llewelyn’s work is vicious, but beautiful: like a stampeding bull ready to gore you, except, right before the horn of the beast enters into your guts, you notice a flower tucked behind its ear.
Make no mistake, her work is not for the faint of heart. One scene near the end of her story At the Edge of Ellensburg disturbed me in the profound way only the most well executed and graphic scenes of violence can.
So what did I do when I found such a brilliant author? What did I decide to ask a woman possessed of such ethereal work, and who has such a poeticism to her stories?
I asked her about coffee, ice cream, and bees.
Her official site is LiviaLlewellyn.com and you can purchase her short story collection Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors through Amazon, and you can pick up the audiobook of the collection through Audible.
What’s the worst flub-up of your name you’ve ever gotten on your coffee at Starbucks?
Probably Navian. All of the other names have some similarity to Livia – Lydia, Lybia , Liberia – but Navian? I think they just like to fuck with me. Most of the time I get Olivia, and I’m fine with it. As long as I get my double shot of espresso, I’m not going to throw a hissy fit about it.
Do you have any writing rituals? Any preferred time of the day, or type of environment to produce within?
I have a day job, so when I write revolves entirely around it. That means my evenings are when I write, even during the weekends. I typically turn off most of the lights in my apartment around 7:30 pm, sit on my couch with my netbook on a pillow on my lap, and write while listening to really creepy ambient music. I occasionally have a glass of wine while writing – it depends on my mood, and on what I’m working on (I’m an over thinker and worrier, so sometimes a bit of wine makes it easier to just plough right in without constantly editing and second-guessing myself). By around 9:30, I’ve usually thoroughly freaked myself out – not because of my fiction but because I have a severe fear of the dark, and my apartment is full of insects – so I stop writing, turn on all the lights and the radio to the local classical station to keep the devils away (or at least keep them entertained), and hide under the covers until morning.
Do you ever cut out some of your sexual content from your stories to get them into an anthology, upon an editor’s request?
I’ve never had to do that yet, but I’ve had editors request rewrites and revisions – some major – from me before, and I’ve complied (although not without a wee bit of surliness on my part, I’ll admit). In each case, I wound up with a far better story, so I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t do the same for sex scenes. Then again, a lot of the editors I write for tend to have very specific ideas of what they want, and I do try to stick to the parameters they set in advance, including levels of sexual content and the context in which any sexual content appears. I did have one story rejected that had a fairly graphic sex scene in it, but the editor was looking for dark fantasy, and I gave him very bleak horror, so a rewrite wouldn’t have worked, even if he had asked for it (he didn’t). In that case, it was my fault: I misread the market.
Does your middle name start with an L, because then it’d be super alliteration.
My middle name is Siân (Welsh for Jane) so, sadly, no. In Starbucks language, however, I’m sure it’s something super fantastical, like Lllewelwalksdjfklslln – or, Navian.
Which of Lovecraft’s monsters do you think has genitals?
That’s not an aspect of elder gods that my fiction has ever explored, so no, I’ve never thought about it. Besides, I think if they procreate, it’s not in such a typically “human” fashion, with gigantic elder junk. (Hee hee!) I imagine it would be a process beyond our comprehension.
Cthulhu, is it a he, a she, or an it? I prefer to think of it as an it.
I know that typically Cthulhu is written about/depicted as male, but who really knows? I’m writing a story (titled “Bright Crown of Joy”) that addresses that, on what he/she/it actually is. (Oh, and, it might actually go into that mysterious procreation process a bit!) So I’m not going to answer that right now, except to say perhaps none of these things, and something altogether different.
As a member of the ginger tribe, do you think people with red hair have had to deal with more bullshit than say brunettes?
I think that depends on what part of the world you live in, and what century. As a 20th/21st century North American ginger who is more of a strawberry blonde than classic red, I only ever experienced some light teasing for my hair color – it was a little more red in grade school, and so of course I got some shit from classmates about my hair and freckles and pale skin. But no one ever beat the shit out of me for it. No one’s ever told me they wouldn’t hire me for a job because I might be – GASP – Irish. It was more along the lines of smartasses occasionally reminding me that they read somewhere that redheads were once associated with Satan and devilry and sexxy sex sins – to which I always replied “once?” and then flew away on my broom.
Do you tend to write fast, or slow? Pen and paper for a first draft, or computer all the way through?
For horror and dark fantasy, very slow. For short fiction, maybe around 300-400 words an hour. For novellas and my never-ending novel, closer to 700-800 words an hour. I write with a computer, and stick to it all the way through the process – I only use pen and paper once the story is finished and I’m editing. For erotica, however, I tend to write more quickly – I think because I know people don’t take it seriously or think it’s going to be good, I don’t come to the writing of it with all those weighty (and bullshit) expectations of it having to be perfect and impressive. So I can clock in at around 1000 words an hour – which is why I’m writing more erotica this year than horror. I’m hoping that what I’m learning to do with writing erotica will transfer over to writing my “regular” fiction, and I can speed up my process a bit.
Cheerios, ever since I was six months old. I loved them when I had no teeth, and I’ll keep loving them when I’m a toothless old hag in the Home For Horror Writers Who Can’t Afford to Retire But Are Super Incontinent.
Favorite serial killer?
I’ve never been interested in real serial killers or true crime fiction about them, so I’ll answer this with a fictional serial killer. Probably Dexter – I know, I know, Hannibal is what all the cool kids love nowadays, and the set designs and writing and acting are all just over-the-top phenomenal, but in a fictional world, I would much prefer (and be more likely to survive) an encounter with Dexter over Hannibal.
Favorite character named Cyril?
Cyril V Karakallos, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1748 to 1757. While he was studying to be a monk, he was expelled from the school for “behavior issues”, stirred up trouble with the Catholic Church, and had the occasional help of a “thaumaturgic” monk. There’s nothing more irresistible than a Christian bad boy who can cast pagan spells with his bedazzled cross.
Can you read Cyrillic?
Not a lick of it.
You have a wonderfully poetic quality to your work. Do you ever find yourself getting lost in the words, unsure where you were going to travel with the plot?
Sometimes. But not always because I’m caught up in the flow of the language or the pretty images – like most writers, sometimes I just go off in a wrong direction with a wrong idea, and keep writing until I reach a dead end. Then I have to go back and figure out where the right fork in the road is. And yes, I do kill my darlings – but that only means I take them out of that particular story, and save them in a “odds & ends” document. I don’t see why I have to completely erase out of existence a sentence or paragraph I love. Writing is a lot like sewing – if you have leftover bits of fabric and notions, you save them in case you can use them for a future project.
Favorite science fiction authors? Favorite horror authors? Favorite fantasy authors?
I’ve listed my favorite horror writers numerous times, so I’m just going to name my favorite SF and fantasy writers. And I do mean a few – I could list hundreds of names. For science fiction – Kim Stanley Robinson, Pat Cadigan, Peter F. Hamilton, Philip K. Dick, Linda Nagata, Maureen F. McHugh, Charles Stross, Neil Stephenson, James S.A. Corey. To be honest, I haven’t kept up with science fiction as much as fantasy and horror, so a very large portion of my favorite authors aren’t current popular favorites (or, they’ve moved on to other genres, as Dan Simmons did). For fantasy – China Mieville, K.J. Parker, George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, Ricardo Pinto, Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemisin, Jacqueline Carey, Caitlin R. Kiernan. I could go on, but I’m lazy. And honestly, listing a bunch of writers probably isn’t as informative or as interesting as explaining why I like and read these writers over others. I’ll save that for another interview.
If you knew you could make a boat load of cash from writing something like 50 Shades of Grey, would you?
“(Anaïs) Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica. She was one of the first women known to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in the modern West known to write erotica.” (Wikipedia)
“The thing is, (E.L.) James’s writing reads like a bad photocopy of (Stephenie) Meyer’s writing. Meyer is a terrible writer, but James is worse, by a magnification of ten… She throws adjectives at us until they finally don’t mean anything at all. Characters are clumsily described every time they walk onstage… The narrator’s interior life is vapid and painfully literal… I don’t begrudge anyone their right to get off on whatever they want to get off on, but I do encourage them to find some better erotica when they’re done with these books.” (Dan Savage)
Money is nice, but at the end of my life (and after), which of these writers do you think I’d rather be most like?
You live in NYC. What’s your favorite part about living in the city? Least favorite part?
I live just outside of New York City (as in, about three minutes away), in a very small city that’s really nothing more than a suburb of NYC. But I lived in Manhattan for ten years, and I work in Midtown. Everything I do is informed by NYC, which has both negative and positive aspects. I love the culture – museums, theatre, dance, galleries – and the counterculture (what’s left of it). I love the architecture – I’m a big fan of big buildings, of megalopolises like Hong Kong, Singapore. I thank “Blade Runner” for my love of horrifying and overwhelming urban spaces. I love the little gardens and parks and secret spots in NYC – they’re all over. It’s kind of amazing to be dragging yourself up and down canyons of iron and steel and glass and suddenly come across a pocket of benches and green trees and a waterfall that’s two stories high. I love the Village and the LES and the waterfront areas and all the little corners of Brooklyn and Inwood and the Bronx. I love that all my friends are just a few subway stops away.
Subways – a nice segue into the negatives! Our subways system is an eyesore and an embarrassment, and riddled with trash, crime and schedule delays and fuckups that make commuters sob with frustration and rage. Housing for the middle and lower classes is disappearing, and the people who help run this city are being forced further and further out of it, spending more and more money and time trying to get to jobs that barely pay enough to cover the rent. Rent increases are forcing NYC-based, privately-owned restaurants, theatres, stores out of business, and what’s replacing them are chain stores, ultra-luxury housing, and anything that might possibly attract tourists. Which is a shame. I came to NYC because I knew I could find a job and make a living here in a very unique city, but I was better off twenty years ago than now, and am living in a metropolis that in many respects looks no different than any other large city. But that’s the reality of the situation, and most likely the reality of every major city in the world – no matter where you go, you find the same restaurants, the same retail stores, the same movies and cultural experiences. You have to work harder to find the truly authentic areas, and those are shrinking ever year.
I also want to state for the record that I find the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and the entire surrounding area with its hundreds of thousands of gawking, souvenir-buying, selfie-taking tourists, utterly repulsive and profane.
What’s with the bees?
When I was young, we had a colony of bees that moved into the house wall between the kitchen and living room one summer. You could hear them if you woke up early in the morning, when the house was absolutely quiet and they were all inside. I was both terrified and fascinated by them. Later, when I was a teenager, I accidentally stepped in a yellow jacket nest in a field across from our house. Much hilarity ensued – by the time I got home, I had yellow jackets up my pants, down my shirt, in my hair. My mother ripped my clothes off as I hit the front porch, and had to basically beat me in order to kill them all. I was stung maybe 30-40 times – I got off lucky, it could have been hundreds, but 1) I was running really fucking fast and 2) my beagle, whom I was walking, managed to attract most of their attention (she wasn’t stung once, because beagles can run like little fighter jets). So, yeah, I’ve always been a bit neurotic around things that can bumble, buzz and sting. I joke about it a lot because when I moved into this apartment, there was a bee nest in the wall by the fire escape window. The hole was filled up, but they still hover around the apartment a lot every year. I can’t escape them.
What do you think leads to writer’s block, and or an inability to produce?
I have no idea. Every writer comes to their work with a different set of problems, hopes, neuroses, fears, etc. – I couldn’t tell you what causes it, or what writers do to overcome it. It’s individual and specific for each person. And for me it’s a private part of the process, and not something I discuss with others. People are free to speculate as to what causes me to stop writing or to write at all, but I prefer to not give away what happens in my head when it happens. As an analogy, I’ve never been interested in “behind the scenes” features on movies or plays. I don’t want to know or see the process behind the creation of the art. I only want to see the end result, so I can bring myself into it as a viewer/audience member and not be thinking “oh yeah, I heard that person had problems with this part, etc.”. Same for fiction.
Who do you think would win in a fight, Mary Shelley, or Joyce Carol Oates? My money’s on Oates. I bet she has a mean left hook. Although, Shelley might fight dirty.
I think it would be a draw. I can’t imagine either of these women losing at anything. If anything, they’d bond and form some kind of unstoppable time-traveling writing/crime-fighting team, and the rest of us would basically be fucked.
Do you like to listen to music while you write?
I have to, because my apartment building is very old and there’s no insulation – you can hear everything in all the other apartments, which is unbelievably distracting. So I have headphones on, and listen to a variety of very strange ambient albums. I very rarely write without it.
Favorite flavor of ice cream?
Anything with peanut butter, bananas or rum in it. I also really, really love those Captain Crunch bars, although now they’re called “strawberry shortcake” bars or some bullshit. And I love drumsticks – except those aren’t called drumsticks anymore, either, but back in my day, they were called drumsticks and we loved it, consarnit! God, I hate growing old.
Favorite movie where someone in ice screams?
The Antarctic is basically a gigantic block of ice, so everyone on that continent can be considered to be “on ice”, so: The Thing. I don’t care if that’s not logical, because I’m a cheating bitch. If you ask me which version, I can’t even.
What do you think of the concept of genre? Do you think the future will be less constrictive in terms of genre blending?
Genre categories are great for marketing and promotion, and to identify who you are to readers who want to know what your fiction is about before buying it. They’re great for identifying as part of a tribe of writers, if that’s important to you (it is to me for social reasons, which are somewhat important). Beyond that, they’re not much help if you’re trying something new, if you’re blending genres. So many people are hung up on “what” this or that particular novel is, that in many ways the categories become (in my opinion) a detriment and a hindrance to publication. I’m writing a novel that’s literary erotic horror. That’s three different genres, typically all marketed and sold separately from each other. No agent is going to represent a writer whose novel straddles three separate marketing categories. No large, major publisher is going to buy it, because they think it will be a nightmare to promote – large companies are set up to sell and publicize their product to booksellers and reviewers within the parameters of very specific, pre-defined genre categories, and “literary erotic horror” is not one of them. So, you can blend the fuck out of as many genres as you want, but if you want to be professionally published, you’ll have to stick to a single traditional genre category when finding representation and a publisher. (Which means I will have to pick only one of those three genres to pitch my novel as when looking for representation.) That’s my take, anyway. Of course, I think if you self-publish or can find smaller, more nimble, forward-thinking publishers than most of the Big Five (or find a very forward-thinking imprint within one of the Big Five companies), then there will probably be less constrictions. And it always helps if you can compare yourself to someone famous who’s gone that route of genre-blending before you (Margaret Atwood, Emily St. John Mandel, Michael Faber, Kazuo Ishiguro). Publishers love nothing more than the illusion of a sure thing packaged in the form of a “new literary sensation”. Yes, I’m jaded. But I’m right.
I heard you used to be an actor. If you could perform your dream role, what would it be?
Any of the lead females in the Greek plays, in particular those translated by Robert Fagles and Robert Graves, would be dream roles. If I had the power, I would switch genders to male, and perform Richard in Shakespeare’s “Richard III”. That’s always been my unattainable dream role. However, Wallace Shawn’s “The Fever” has to be at the top of the list, even just as a staged reading (for those not familiar, it’s a blistering one-person, one-act play). I still might do that someday, given enough time and enough rum and enough people in whatever empty convention room I can find.
Would you ever want to perform a short story collection, or a novel, for an audiobook?
I would have recorded the audio version of Engines of Desire, except I didn’t have access to a professional recording studio. I have a great reading voice. Seriously. Twenty years in theatre did not go to waste.
Who do you think would win in a fight, Laird Barron, or a polar bear?
I love Laird and think he’s a great guy and one of the best writers on the planet. That said: unless he was properly armed with the right rifle (one with a large enough caliber of bullet to stop a charging predator weighing up to 2000 pounds, and that wouldn’t freeze up in extremely cold weather), the polar bear would win. Sorry, Laird!
I don’t have one. I have many favorite films – there’s no way I could chose just one. Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Alien, Aliens, Dead Ringers, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Exorcist: Dominion, The Devil’s Backbone, Taxi Driver, Mulholland Drive, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard, The Best of Everything, The Red Shoes, The Great Beauty, Stoker, In the Mood For Love, Kairo, The Final Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dune (shut up!), Ben Hur – those are all among my top picks. I think together these films touch on all my interests and obsessions, although I could list a hundred more. A shout-out to Dodgeball, too – I fucking love that stupid film.
What do you think weird fiction is? It’s one of those genres which A. may or may not be a genre, and B. seems incredibly hard to define.
I have to be honest: I don’t care about the definitions of weird fiction. I never have, I never will. I know there’s a lot of discussion going on online about it, a lot of introductions to and essays in anthologies about weird fiction. I find all of the debates and commentary interesting, but ultimately I don’t give a shit. It could be anything, according to everyone’s collective opinions. I know a lot of my stories are lumped into the weird fiction category. But I approach every story as horror when I write it. Which category is the correct one? I don’t care, because it doesn’t change how I write.
How many licks does it take to get to the center of the universe itself? Will the world never know?
You are correct: the world will never know.
I heard you like to swear? Have you ever had to fuckin’ cut out some of the swears and shit you felt like motherfucking writing because some asshole told you to cuntin’ cut some motherfuckin’ shit out of the fuckin’ fucker?
Like a weapon (and sexual content in my fiction), I use swearing very effectively. Using something effectively tends to make it memorable, which is why people think I swear more (and write more explicit xxx stuff) than I actually do.
Is the Pacific Northwest haunted by the screams of your fallen enemies?
No, because I never go after my enemies. They fall by their own hand. I never have to do a thing. – Time does all the work for me. The downside is, of course, Time does and will do the same thing to me.
Plane, train, or automobile?
Train. If I had the money and time, I’d travel only by trains across the continents – and I’d take super-expensive cruises on the non-poopy lines across the Atlantic and Pacific. I’m very much a fan of 19th century transportation. I loathe zeppelins, aeroplanes and those new-fangled auto-mobiles.
Any new stuff comin’ down the pipeline soon?
Nothing new at all – everything I’m working on this year will be published next year, and everything being published this year is a reprint. So, this year is a bit quiet, but that’s fine. Next year is going to be big.