#Interview: In Conversation with Gwendolyn Kiste

by Christina Ladd

Christina Ladd: “When the first crows fall from the sky, the villagers know I’m to blame.” When and how did that amazing first line come to you in the process of writing the book?

Gwendolyn Kiste: I love that you asked about the first line of the book, because I’ve been carrying that line with me for about five years now! It originally started in a different story altogether. That one unfortunately never panned out, but I kept thinking about that opening line. There was a short period of time that I tried to use it in another short story, but again, it just didn’t feel like the right fit. 

Then flash forward to the fall of 2018, and Scott Gable at Broken Eye Books asked me if I’d be interested in pitching a novel to him. That’s when this line came back to me, and I included it in the pitch for Boneset & Feathers. He really liked the concept, and that was when I knew the line had finally found the right home. 

As for where the line came from initially, I’ve heard stories for years about birds just inexplicably falling from the sky. It’s a real phenomenon that happens, and sometimes nobody is even sure why. It’s probably as a result of weather, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. It makes me so sad to think of that happening to birds, since I love them so much, so the image very much stuck with me. A part of me wanted to give the birds back their lives and their voices, so that’s why I decided to start with that line and expand upon the birds’ origins from there. 

CL: From salt circles to charms, the witchcraft in your book has very distinct and compelling imagery. Did you draw on any particular tradition to create the magic?

GK: I primarily drew from a lot of folk magic traditions. I’m located in Pennsylvania by way of Ohio, and we’re also near West Virginia—all three of those states have a long history of folk magic, in particular Appalachian folk magic. When you look around the world at different countries and cultures, there are various forms of folk magic everywhere, specialized to that particular area and its own history and resources. That inspired me to explore how malleable magic is, how dependent on what ingredients and components someone has access to. That’s such an interesting aspect of the history of magic overall: how resourceful people can be. Whether you believe it really works or not, witchcraft has always reflected so much about humanity and what we’ve gone through over the centuries. That alone is fascinating to me. 

Gwendolyn Kiste Author Photo

CL: Your writing is very evocative—do you write starting with the prose and mood, or do you work from the narrative or character and build outward?

GK: It really depends. I would say I usually start with the characters and narrative, and build outward from there. The narrative and the characters tend to go hand in hand for me: once I come up with one of them, the other follows pretty quickly. 

But then there have been other times when I’ve definitely come up with the mood and the style of a piece before I’m quite sure what or who it’s about. It might just be a feeling or a specific image, but I’ll know immediately that I want to write about it and explore what it means. Sometimes, writing has almost a dreamlike logic about it, how you follow one image or feeling or character down these unexpected paths. I often wish I could understand the writing process better on a more objective level, but I wonder if that would spoil the creativity entirely. For me, there will always be a bit of mystery about writing, and maybe that’s exactly the way it should be.

CL: Who would you say your biggest style influences are? (Doesn’t have to be authors!)

GK: Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson always loom large over my work. The way that Angela Carter reinvented so many familiar stories is still astounding to me, even though it’s been years since I first discovered her work. Shirley Jackson had such a unique perspective and also a unique way of blending humor with the horrific. I admire both those women so much; they were such visionaries and so ahead of their time. 

As for creators outside of the fiction world, I’m a big fan of 1970s singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell’s work is so beautifully poetic that it sometimes takes my breath away. I love Warren Zevon as well, how he created these almost mythic stories and injected them with an incredibly macabre sense of humor. I’ve been on a Fleetwood Mac and a Carly Simon kick lately too. That 1970s era of confessional songwriting will always be a favorite for me, as it’s exactly the kind of honest, emotional writing I want to do. 

I’m also a big fan of fine art, especially paintings and photography. I miss going to museums, because I used to love to walk through the art exhibits and just soak in the inspiration. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, things will be a bit better, and I can get back to a few museums. That’s certainly a big hope for me for 2021. 

CL: Horror is so often about relationships falling apart under stress, but you’ve continued a strong theme of female friendship and even female mutual salvation. Do you build your stories around these relationships, or vice versa?

GK: I tend to build my stories around these relationships. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was to write the stories you wish existed in the world. Growing up, there were so few stories that had multiple female characters who were actually working together. So many books and films have one female character at most, and that’s it. On the rare occasion when there’s more than one female character, they’re usually at odds with each other a la Heathers or Mean Girls. Even a movie like The Craft, which I do like, still ends with the girls turning on each other. 

More than anything else, what I want to see in storytelling is more complex female relationships. That isn’t to say there won’t be conflict—it’s a story; of course, there should be conflict—but I just want more dimensions to women in fiction and in film, especially their relationships with each other. So that’s what I’m always trying to do in my work: write those stories that I want to see in the world. 

CL: Which of the witches do you most see yourself as, Odette, Freya, Beatrix, someone else?

GK: I love this question! And you know, I’ve never thought about it. I always tend to identify a lot with the main protagonist in my stories, since I spend the most time in their heads, which means they also spend the most time in mine. But with Boneset & Feathers, I also relate so much to Freya, Odette’s sister, and Beatrix, Odette and Freya’s mentor.  

So if forced to choose, I would say that I see myself—at least on my very best days anyhow!—in Odette’s tenacity throughout the story as she never stops trying, in Freya’s quest for freedom as she dares to escape even the witchfinders, and in Beatrix’s unending hope for the future. Each of those three witches have qualities I admire so much, and I only hope I live up to their examples!  

CL: What witch power from the novel would you most like to have?

GK: I’d love to be able to communicate with birds. That would be so much fun! Crows already have a tendency to hang out in my general vicinity. It would be so neat to ask them how their day is going! Plus, it would be neat to be able to carry on a conversation with a creature that can fly. What’s that like, to be able to just spread your wings and take to the sky? I would love to hear what birds have to say about that. 

CL: How did the events of 2020 influence the writing or editing of this book?

GK: Fortunately, Boneset & Feathers was mostly done by the time the pandemic hit. I did complete all of the edits while in quarantine, but the editing process with Scott Gable at Broken Eye Books is always really great, so that wasn’t too stressful.

That being said, since Boneset & Feathers, I’ve written a novella, In the Rose-Colored House Where They Died, and another novel, Reluctant Immortals. The fact that those books were completely written during the pandemic was definitely a surreal experience. Time seems so oddly relative now. Things can feel like they were yesterday, even though they happened a year ago, or something can feel so long ago yet only have been last week. 

2020 was such a stressful and at times deeply bleak experience overall. I feel like it was certainly a struggle at times to write at all. That being said, I think writing can be an incredibly therapeutic experience. It’s absolutely helped me get through these very strange times. 

CL: What do you hope to see in horror in the next year?

GK: I really want to see lots of authors with unique voices getting their work published. Horror is such a broad, all-encompassing genre, and I very much hope the forthcoming releases reflect that. Fortunately, every year, I see more and more wonderful voices having their work unleashed on the world, be it in short fiction, novellas, novels, or poetry collections, so I’m confident that horror will keep being such a vibrant genre for years to come. I often say this, but it bears repeating: it’s a very exciting time to be a writer.

CL: Anything you can tell us about your next project(s)? 

GK: My next novel is Reluctant Immortals, due out in 2022 from Saga Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. It follows Lucy Westenra from Dracula and Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the so-called Madwoman in the Attic from Jane Eyre, as they navigate the tumultuous Summer of Love in 1967 California while battling Dracula and Edward Rochester, who have returned unexpectedly to their lives. 

As with my other work, this story definitely has a strong theme of female friendship, and it also deals with the way women have been erased over the years. Both Lucy from Dracula and Bertha from Jane Eyre are the lesser-known and less-celebrated characters in their respective classics, but they’ve always been the characters I’ve thought about the most from those books. Reluctant Immortals is all about them reclaiming their own stories from the men who destroyed their lives. Without a doubt, it was a very cathartic experience to spend so much time with Lucy and Bertha and allow them to have their say at last. 

Though the release is still a year away, I’m so excited about this book making its way into the world, and I can’t wait to hear what readers think! Hopefully, I’ve given these two unsung characters of literature the story they deserve! 

***

Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian who lives in Boston, MA. She will eventually die crushed under a pile of books, but until then she survives on a worrisome amount of tea and pizza. You can find her at @OLaddieGirl on twitter, or her work on Strange Horizons, Speculative North, The Dread Machine, The Nerd Daily, and more.

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