Interview with Gwendolyn Kiste7 min read

Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in NightmareShimmerLampLight, and Interzone as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).

What was the inspiration for “All the Mermaid Wives”? How did the story develop/change from conception to completion?

GK: I’m a huge fan of fairy tales, and I love exploring different angles of familiar stories. When it comes to those familiar myths, mermaids are among the biggest; they’re so omnipresent in culture. Most of us think of The Little Mermaid but there are two very different versions of that story: the Disney cartoon and the original Hans Christian Anderson story. “All the Mermaid Wives” blends elements of both. There is at times an almost ostensible sweetness to this tale, especially with the wraparound from the brochure giving you tips on your mermaid bride. However, the cheerier elements belie a malevolence that was definitely present in the original Hans Christian Anderson tale (the unloved mermaids turned into seafoam, which was one of the most poetical and terrifying things I’d ever heard as a kid).

At this point, it’s been a few years since I came up with this story, but I remember it as one I was very excited to write. I believe it only took me a few weeks from concept to final draft. Not too much changed as I went along; my vision for the initial story is very much what ended up on the page. It was a really great experience all the way around.

How did the main character, Eleniora, first form in your imagination? Was there a pivotal moment, in the course of writing the story, where you discovered something unexpected about her?

GK: I remember being really excited to discover Eleniora’s voice and her strength as the story developed. At the start, she’s understandably very afraid; her entire life has been ripped away from her, and she’s in constant danger. However, as I continued work on the first draft, it was wonderful the way that she found this well of strength within her. She’s not always the loudest voice in a room, but she has a huge amount of vim and passion, and by the end especially, she knows what she wants. She’s fought her way through, and she goes after her life, her dreams, and her freedom, as do the other mermaids. As a writer, it was a fantastic feeling to write this particular ending; Eleniora had become such an empowering character.

Great fantasy starts with great worldbuilding, and the use of the instructional text is a particularly effective touch here. How do you generally think about/approach worldbuilding in your fantasy fiction?

GK: Only share what’s relevant to the story and the characters. As the author, you should always know more about this world than what you ultimately reveal to the reader. That’s because not everything is necessarily important to the story. Knowing those details as the storyteller is wonderful because it helps you feel rooted in the world that you’re building, but forcing the readers to endure every single last detail is often excruciating. So don’t be afraid to edit out anything that isn’t necessary. Your readers will thank you for it.

How would you describe your writing and revision process? What have you found to be most helpful for you when dealing with writer’s block?

GK: My process is everchanging. Sometimes, I write every day. Most of the time, however, I only sit down and add to my word count a few days a week. The rest of the time, I’m reading, researching, making notes, and generally daydreaming, which is one for the best ways for me to generate new ideas.

As for writer’s block, I’ve often found that it simply means that I’m burning out. The best advice I can offer—and the only thing that has ever worked for me—is to take a break. Even if it’s just for a few minutes or a few hours, it can help immensely.

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer and what advice would you give new writers?

GK: I’ve read a lot of great advice over the years, but one piece that really sticks with me is a quote that’s often attributed to Neil Gaiman (although I’ve also seen it attributed to Jodi Picoult). At any rate, the advice is very simply “You can’t edit a blank page.” This is something I have to remind myself every time a first draft is giving me trouble. I often want to wait until I’m super excited and inspired to write, but that can lead to too many days or even weeks with no writing at all. The reminder that it’s better to make some progress rather the none has gotten me out of many writing slumps in the past, so this quote has definitely offered me some meaningful advice and solace when writing feels like a slog.  

What are you currently reading? What book has been most influential on your life or on you as a writer?

GK: My TBR pile is ever-growing, and I’m convinced it will soon become sentient and devour me whole. Until that happens, the next books on my list are Luminous Body, a weird fiction chapbook by Brooke Warra, and Mary Shelley Makes a Monster, a new poetry collection by Octavia Cade. I’m absolutely astounded at the incredible books coming out of small presses these days, and that’s been where my focus as a reader has been over the last few years. In the past, so many great books never saw so-called “traditional” release, and that’s a shame, because we’ve lost a lot of great voices in the process, simply because a major label never picked them up. Fortunately, with social media and all the support from reviewers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, smaller press books are finally being given the spotlight they’ve always deserved.

In terms of the most influential books, there have been so many that have affected me over the years, but the two that are always with me are The October Country by Ray Bradbury and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. The quiet horror and creepiness of these books have definitely enthralled me as a reader and inspired me to no end as a writer.

Anything else you’d like to share?

GK: I’ve got several new works, either about to be released or recently out. My new story, “The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt from Lucy Westenra’s Diary)” is available in the November issue of Nightmare Magazine. It’s a fierce retelling of Dracula from the oft-overlooked Lucy’s perspective.

In terms of longer works, my limited edition novelette, The Invention of Ghosts, is due out on November 26th. That one deals with ghosts, complicated friendships, and the occult, and it’s part of Nightscape Press’s charitable chapbook line, so a third of all the proceeds go to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

Last but not least, I’ll also hopefully have a new novel out sometime in 2020. It’s a sort of weird fairy tale all about witches, witchfinders, revenge, whispering bones, and ghost birds. Keep an eye on my social media for more details if that sounds intriguing to you; I’ll hopefully have more details very soon on it!

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