“Learn to Dwell in the World You Are Creating”: An Interview With Jan Stinchcomb

by | Sep 2, 2023 | Interviews, The Attic

Jan Stinchcomb, author of VERUSHKA


Keene Short: First, I absolutely loved Verushka, especially as a lifelong reader of all things spooky. I’m curious if you could begin by describing your relationship with the genre (or genres) you work with in the novel. What draws you to fairytales, horror, and the supernatural?

Jan Stinchcomb: I’ve been drawn to fairy tales and horror my whole life, and I was always more interested in witches than princesses. I was the kid telling scary stories at sleepovers––I consider those nights my debut––yet I have never seen a ghost. Perhaps horror is like religion in that there is an element of faith required to keep the stories going. In general I believe the supernatural gives us a way out of the tedium and despair of daily life. I’m thinking of the upsurge in seances after World War I when people were clearly using spiritualism to deal with grief.

As a reader I know I’m going to enjoy myself if I’m reading something dark or weird, but as a writer I often feel the challenges of being between genres. Am I horror? Literary? Fairy tale? The important question is who wants to know. I can’t let a marketing device control my imagination.

 

KS: What was your experience working with JournalStone Publishing to get Verushka into the world? What drew you to them (or the other way around)?

JS: They have published many authors I admire, such as Gwendolyn Kiste and Maria Haskins. They took me on and then moved in a timely fashion from signing to publication. Ideally you should be excited about your press while remaining realistic about the limitations of budget. I keep a running list of small presses and people I’d like to work with. Unfortunately the recent changes in social media will make it harder for authors and presses to discover each other.

 

KS: I admire the way you use arguments in dialogue. This works well for a family dynamic, but also to raise the stakes whenever one character wants to keep a secret. How do you go about crafting or revising dialogue so that it advances tension between and within characters while also moving the plot forward?

JS: In Verushka we see a problem familiar to many of us: parents and children don’t always understand each other even when they’re trying. Parents are often clueless and children lack the language they need to talk about their experiences. There is a lot of secret keeping in this book, but there are also many painful moments of characters sailing right past each other, unaware of what’s at stake. The reader is then forced to watch and wait as the tension builds.

I try to keep dialogue concise. Sometimes I feel like a playwright, over-relying on dialogue, and then I worry that I’m cheating somehow. The novel is supposed to be the great rule-breaker genre, and yet we all think we’re doing it wrong.

 

KS: On the subject of plot: Often, villains in fiction only get to explain themselves in a speech delivered to the protagonist. In this novel, you give the villain, Verushka herself, a whole chapter to speak, and she uses it to describe her own experience with another villainous character. Why give her this much space, and why situate it before the conclusion?

JS: I love your idea about villains explaining themselves. I’m never sure how to take those speeches, but readers definitely want to know about evil people. It’s a societal obsession. Verushka is so secretive that she would never willingly explain herself. Her chapter, however, is one of my favorites. Every other character in the novel has a Verushka story, whether or not they realize it.

There is always the question of what to include and what to leave out, and I tend to be a minimalist. We simply must have Verushka’s story in order to understand what drives her. As far as placement goes, you could probably rearrange the chapters of this novel quite a bit, and the structure would still hold. I chose to return the narrative to Devon at the end because she is the true main character.

 

KS: This isn’t your first rodeo, as far as publishing goes. Where did your experience with writing short fiction and chapbooks help you with Verushka, and what’s something you learned in the process?

JS: Thank you for referencing rodeos! I lived in Texas for a long time, and that’s where I started writing in earnest.

Short fiction taught me that every line is important. The length of a story does not determine its power. Compression and tension are things I value. But when you find yourself facing the novel form with its intimidating length, you can’t simply abandon precision. So how do you fill all those pages? You must learn to dwell in the world you are creating. Despite all your notes and outlines, the novel will reveal itself to you slowly. Plenty of novels are abandoned because the author didn’t understand that waiting is part of the process. Yes, I’m talking about myself. Novel writing is frightening. Another important stage is responding to the comments of your beta readers and deciding on your next step. None of this can be rushed. During these long stretches of dead time, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing nothing.

 

KS: Thematically, this novel is so rich. It leaves readers with so much to think about: What one generation owes to both its ancestors and its descendants, what sacrifices a mother is willing to make for her children, what it means for monsters of the “old world” to come back from Europe to haunt America generations after the first settlers colonized the continent. There’s even a complex way to read environmental themes into the character Verushka, who becomes a servant of the forest, who sacrifices other people in order to preserve the living embodiment of the woods. I’m curious what broader concerns were on your mind as you wrote the novel?

JS: You’ve hit on all my goals for this book. I definitely wanted to talk about the chain of intergenerational trauma and how hard it is to break. We can’t escape our past or that of our ancestors. We carry this past in our bodies, and no matter how far we travel, we cannot unload it. The US is full of people who came from some other place. The stories we tell about these places are bound to gain mythic power as the years go by. We also have to realize that by moving to America, we move into other people’s narratives.

I’m glad you noticed the forest is a living entity, whether or not one believes in sprites. Hopefully this book will make people think more about the forest, both real and symbolic. There are many spaces on this planet that must be protected. We are paying the price right now for prioritizing humans above all other creatures. It’s going to kill us.

 

KS: The three main time periods in this novel coincide with moments of heightened social and cultural anxiety over children: 1968, when runaway adolescents flocked to Haight-Ashbury; 1981, right before the Satanic Panic and the fear of stranger danger and contaminated Halloween candy; and 2013, when more adolescents began using social media, with all its accompanying health risks. The character Verushka herself is revealed to have been a victim of a predator. I’m curious if you might speak to the role of generational trauma as well as generational paranoia—even when it proves to be justified—in how you first wrote the character of Verushka.

JS: First of all thank you for this excellent question, which situates the novel according to history and theme.

All parents worry that someone wants to hurt their children, or worse, steal their children. This fear comes with parenthood, and I often think we are encouraged to be fearful by those who profit from a terrorized populace. (There’s a great book by Rick Emerson called Unmask Alice about the immense literary con job based on those famous “diaries” many of us devoured.) I remember the first time my parents took me aside to explain why I shouldn’t get into a stranger’s car. They weren’t terribly worried; they simply wanted me to be sensible and to know I could say no to strangers. By the time I had kids, that speech was barely necessary as almost nobody let their kids walk home from school alone, certainly not at age six. There’s always something new to be afraid of. You can keep your kids locked up “safe” at home, but as you point out in your question, the internet and social media will manage to infiltrate your space.

The Woodwards are like any other American family, subject to the latest trends and fears. Certain time periods and places make it easier for Verushka to pursue her agenda. Your question highlights a painful truth running through the book: precisely because the elder Woodwards haven’t come to terms with (or even recognized) their own trauma, they are left with paranoia and confusion, instead of wisdom, to raise their children. And the children are stuck out in the cold because of their parents’ blind spot. You can’t blame the kids for trying to save themselves.

 

KS: What do you make of the continued popularity of fairy tales in fiction, including speculative and horror fiction?

JS: These are our oldest tales and they exist all over the world. They’ll never go out of style, and not only because we tell them to children, but because they explain so much about human nature. They allow us to talk about evil as well as goodness. There is a lot of crossover between fairy tales and horror fiction. Just think of the witch.

Disney has kept the fairy tales alive, albeit in a sanitized version. The classic Disney narrative, with pretty clothes and happy marriages, is really a reflection of the values of an idealized past. For many people, that America never existed. Enough writers and filmmakers have pushed back against this storyline and helped to popularize the fairy tales in their original form, which is often bloody and violent. This in turn has opened the door to new tales and new versions of old motifs.

 

KS: This last question is in two parts: What books are you most excited to read for the month of October (aka the month of Halloween), and what stories are you most excited about writing next?

JS: First let’s start with the books I’m fighting to get to right now: Maeve Fly by CJ Leede, No One Dies from Love: Dark Tales of Loss and Longing by Robert Levy; Here in the Night by Rebecca Turkewitz.

October is a big month in horror, as always: The Night Parade: A Speculative Memoir by Jami Nakamura Lin; The Daughters of Block Island by Christa Carmen; The Reformatory by Tananarive Due; Root Rot and Other Grim Tales by Sarah Read. I also watch at least one horror film every day in October.

Right now I’m writing a story about the Brides of Dracula. I have been struggling with this one for a long time, and I don’t know if it will work out. I was encouraged to learn that Chloe Clark’s recent story in Electric Literature, “Accidental Girls,” took her seven years to get right.

Thank you for all the great questions!

 


Jan Stinchcomb is the author of Verushka (JournalStone), The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn, SmokeLong Quarterly and Menacing Hedge, among other places. A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best SmallFictions 2018 & 2021. She lives in Southern California with her family and is an associate fiction editor for Atticus Review. She refuses to choose between the sea, the forest and the city.

About The Author

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Keene Short writes and bakes on the Ohio River.