This interview first ran at Leviathan Libraries.
Indie & small press authors often produce some of the most inventive and thought-provoking fiction, and getting the opportunity to read Rebecca Rowland’s new work, Shagging the Boss, was a treat. Some readers may simply look at the story on the surface and enjoy the horrors explored. Others will look under that layer and see the horrors addressed through the subtext. And some of us will see both layers, weaving together, and find ourselves thinking about some of Shagging‘s implications long after reading the final words.
Today, Rebecca joins me for a chat about Shagging the Boss, writing, publishing, and identity.
SR: You’ve packed a lot into this novella. Did you always have a novella in mind or was it a short story that evolved?
RR: I’m generally a planner: when I sit down to write something, I almost always have a word count in mind. With Shagging, as well as with Optic Nerve, which releases this summer, I just sat down and wrote until it felt finished. They were both penned during the pandemic, a time when, I suppose, like everyone else, I just needed an escape. For the first time in a long time, I wrote without thinking of what I would do with the story after I was finished. I wrote it for me. The fact that two others found it worthy of outside eyes—it originally appeared in serial form in Midnight Tales before being picked up by Filthy Loot—felt fantastic.
SR: This is easily one part horror story, one part commentary on publishing, one part commentary on relationships, one part identity. Did you want to address all these things from the start? What was your initial focus?
RR: Two years ago, I was working as a librarian, and part of my job was to research topics for others, collect sources and so forth. Quite often, conducting searches led down rabbit holes on other subjects, things I’d bookmark and come back to read later for my own edification. I can’t recall what prompted this particular investigation, but somehow, I found myself on an article about boogeymen from cultures around the world: it was so fascinating, I began reading everything I could on some of the myths. One of the boogeymen ended up in a short story that’s being published in an upcoming YA collection by Night Terror Novels, and another, the yara-ma-yha-who, inspired Shagging the Boss. That was the beginning, for sure: the monster himself, the horror of it.
What I found, and still find, so fascinating about the myth is that the yara-ma-yha-who is a kind of outlier among boogeymen: he isn’t a monster that targets naughty children, he doesn’t hide in the darkness. He is a monster of opportunity: he sits in a tree and waits for an unsuspecting person to walk by, then he pounces on them, drains them of blood to weaken them, then—and here’s the really weird part—swallows them whole. After a short while, the yara-ma-yha-who then regurgitates its prey, and it’s up to the victim to run away while the monster is temporarily exhausted: otherwise, it will simply swallow them again. Each time the monster swallows and vomits them, they retain a part of that yara-ma-yha-who, and eventually, if they are swallowed often enough, they themselves become a monster. It reminded me of how a vampire operates: both how it feeds but also how it reproduces.
At the same time, there had been a controversy that made the national headlines about a woman who worked with celebrities who had been assaulted multiple times but kept returning to her position, never speaking out. A writer friend of mine told me that his wife had watched the story on the news and had come to the instant conclusion that the woman was lying: his wife insisted that “if it was that bad, she could have just reported him. She could have just quit.” My friend tried to explain to her what that woman likely faced: the possibility of her career being over, but according to him, his wife dug her heels in, refusing to even consider that someone might endure abuse in order to stay alive in a profession. The whole situation—what happened to the woman on the news, my friend’s wife’s reaction—made me consider what some artists do for their craft, what they are sometimes cornered into doing—or not doing—but also the consequences of those decisions. Shagging isn’t a story about workplace abuse—that factors nowhere in the story—but it is a tale of the choices we make to gain a foothold in a competitive environment.
SR: What comes more naturally to you – short pieces or longer works?
RR: Short pieces, hands down. My sweet spot is usually about 4000 words, though I have been writing a bit longer these days. I’m not interested in writing another novel right now because, quite frankly, I never like my characters enough to spend that much time with them.
SR: Spend 5 minutes on social media and you’ll see no shortage of publishing advice. Do you think that’s helping or hurting writers? Do you find yourself influenced by the controversies and hot takes and continuous discourse?
RR: Ugh—some of those feeds are just breeding anxiety and envy. I never bothered to get a Twitter account, and when friends tell me about this controversy or that, I am reassured I made the right choice. I stay on Instagram because it’s relatively clean of tirades: it’s much more difficult to squeeze a rant or a manifesto out of a photograph.
As far as social media in general, I worry about the pressure placed on independent writers and small presses to please the critics that hide in anonymity. All of a sudden, people can’t just “not like” a book: they have to trash it publicly to feel…I don’t know? What do they feel when they are doing it? If you read a book and it upsets or offends you, stop reading it. It’s not rocket science. Just because something isn’t my cup of tea or affects me negatively doesn’t mean it isn’t great art or it isn’t for other people, so what’s the point of verbally flogging the author? I am old enough to remember the controversy over Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: the public statements from feminist leaders and critics alike, urging people to boycott it because it was so sinisterly misogynistic. Can you imagine what would have happened had social media existed? Ellis’ transgressive book is offensive and deeply, deeply troubling in its portrayal (and graphic murder and torture) of women, but it’s also damn good writing and a magnificent commentary on the insipidness of yuppie culture. Although I don’t recommend everyone read it, it would be a crime to have seen it buried due to a slew of fast-typing armchair warriors.
SR: Where would you suggest a reader new to your work start? Is there a piece you think best represents you as a writer?
RR: I often tell people how proud I am of my short story “Bent”; it appears in my 2018 collection The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight. I feel like the voice in that story is one of the most authentic ones I’ve written. It’s also significant for me because it is a story that contains content I was initially hesitant to have published. I tend to gravitate toward quiet horror, but that story is much more graphic, and to be honest, I loved writing it. Since then, I’ve tried to push myself to write outside of my comfort zone, and I think I’m a better writer for it, and “Bent” was certainly the catalyst for that.
SR: Identity is an issue in Shagging the Boss. Certainly the boss’s identity and the behaviors stemming from it, influence his conduct and enable him to take advantage of others. How important is identity for you as a writer? How much does your identity influence your choices?
RR: Daniel, to me, is a predator, but not in the traditional sense. Without spoiling any of the story here, I would equate him with a predator in nature, like a shark, rather than with a predator in human society. He would agree, I think. It doesn’t make him any less scary, however. Sharks are sharks, even if they are part of the “circle of life” and all that jazz.
When I first started submitting my work for publication, I used the name “RJ Rowland” because I thought having a woman’s name would automatically drum up assumptions about the kind of story I would be telling. When I finally decided to use my first name, I actively avoided writing anything that could be construed as feminist because I wanted to distance myself from being female. Now, however, I don’t let where others want to go steer the car, so to speak. Sometimes I write queer horror, sometimes I write feminist horror, and sometimes I just write horror, period.
I understand the importance of the #ownvoices movement, but I think we need to be careful about how we chaperone artists. Putting boundaries on who is allowed to write what is dangerous for a lot of reasons, the biggest one being it’s a big push toward a mandatory outing of writers who do not wish to discuss their personal lives. It’s also a step backwards for encouraging diversity in literature. Yes, it’s important that characters read authentically, but if they don’t, the book/story won’t go very far, so it’s a fire that puts itself out. There’s no need to walk around with a heavy extinguisher, searching everyone’s backpacks for incendiary devices.
SR: “Shagging” is a loaded word with different connotations, including some controversial ones. Did you want to use language in the title to pique interest? How did you come up with the title?
RR: Yes, my new tagline for the story is now “It’s not workplace erotica!” I know the title is going to turn some potential readers away for a number of reasons, and for that, I have chided myself at times for choosing it. I selected it initially not for shock appeal but because of the opening scene in the book, where Daniel and the narrator are having a discussion. The former regales a story about holding onto the bumpers of cars in a snowstorm. That’s where the title sprang from. Of course I found it amusing to use the title ironically, and “shagging” pops up in different ways throughout the book, especially at the end, but that first metaphor is the central one that drove the story for me. For me, that metaphor is what Shagging is about, but I am happy when I hear that readers glean other meanings.
SR: What have you been reading lately that you’d recommend?
RR: I occasionally write book reviews for Ginger Nuts of Horror and Horror Tree, and the trend I have been seeing lately in the advanced reader copies I receive is uniqueness: unique in approaches, unique in voice… things I never thought I’d see in a story that work brilliantly. Little Lugosi by Douglas Ford just released; it is about a pet leech: the novella is creepy and unsettling and bananas in the very best way. Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste imagines what it would be like if characters from gothic classics were to live in 1960s California: it is wickedly smart and gorgeously geek-splosive in its winks to the canon. I’ve just started EV Knight’s Three Days in the Pink Tower, and I’m having trouble putting it down: it intertwines tarot card reading with surviving trauma, and the voice is incredible. I keep tossing around the idea of writing an essay on the horror Renaissance we’ve been having: it’s not just that there’s more horror there, it’s the quality of the horror, the experimentation that is happening…all of it. It’s fantastic.
Rebecca Rowland grew up in Western Massachusetts but spent her early adult life in the Boston area, and most of her fiction is set in those locations. She is the author of The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, Pieces, Shagging the Boss, Optic Nerve, and the upcoming release White Trash & Recycled Nightmares and the curator of seven horror anthologies, including the bestseller Unburied: A Collection of Queer Dark Fiction. Her short fiction, guest essays, and book reviews regularly appear in a variety of publications and horror websites. She is the owner of Maenad Press, maintains an Active membership in the Horror Writers Association, and makes her home in a landlocked and often icy corner of New England.