Chantal Noordeloos' short story collection 'Deeply Twisted' ended up with two entries in Kit Power's best of 2014 reads list, including best flash piece for 'A Taste Of Darkness'. Chantal kindly agreed to sit down with Kit for an in-depth interview, discussing in depth how this collection was formed. This discussion is spoiler free, but familiarity with the collection will probably enhance your reading experience (also, it's really good, so treat yourself).
So, without further ado, here's part 1...
C'Soulman' has the feel of mythology about it - a sense of a modern folktale, almost. Can you remember what the initial inspiration for the story was?
You have no idea how pleased I am that you say that it has a mythology / modern folktale feel about it. *pats finger tips together and mutters “excellent” in a villain’s voice.* That’s exactly what I was going for with this story.
As for what inspired me, I was asked to write a story for an anthology called ‘Songs for the Raven’, and the instructions were ‘It needs to be a little more literary’.
After I lost my initial ‘deer in headlights’ look, I realised that I really didn’t write literary work... at all. From what the other authors told me, they were still writing ‘scary’ stories, and my idea was to write something about real human horror. I wanted to write about proverbial monsters and mix this in with real ones.
The title of the anthology reminded me of Odin. I could picture him sitting there with a raven on his shoulder, and have people tell their life tales to his bird. From there ideas started forming in my head. I didn’t want to use an existing character, but I did want to give the story that mythological feel. It had to be a character that I would use again.
I love to blend mythology or fairy tales with a contemporary setting (don’t get me wrong, I also adore past or futuristic settings). Using present-day knowledge, mixed with old fashioned superstition and a hint of magic, can lead to really interesting stories. Using a contemporary setting forces the reader to suspend their belief a bit more. If the setting is relatable, the oddities within it will be more apparent than if the setting already demands you to use your imagination. If that makes sense?
You do a good job with this story of managing to create something that feels simultaneously fresh but also folk/old. Was the contemporary setting part of how you set out to achieve that? How did you avoid simply 're-telling' an existing legend?
I like to think that I could have pulled this off in any type of setting, but that may be over confident on my part *grins*. In all fairness, it’s very difficult to make something truly original, because everything has been told before. The only thing I could do is add my voice to this. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of souls, though ironically I don’t believe they exist. Soulman to me is a combination of magic and nature, or mythology and realism. By giving the character both the modern twist and the old fashioned feel, I was hoping to create something that was relatable, yet fantastical at the same time. My aim was to pull the reader in two different directions whilst reading it. That way I think I avoided retelling an old myth, by creating a twist (that was hopefully unexpected).
The protagonist of the story is an unusual character. Why did you decide to use first person perspective for this tale?
First person perspective is always a challenge for me. I don’t actually use it that often. I didn’t want to make it easy on myself with this story. The Soulman is a mysterious character, and I knew I would risk his mystique by telling the story from his view point, but at the same time, I liked the idea of looking at humanity from the eyes of something immortal. The whole idea behind the story was that there was a different perspective on these self-proclaimed ‘monsters’. By using the first person perspective, I could show the other characters from a more neutral point of view.
Secrets are a running theme throughout the collection. What is it about this theme that you think provides such fertile ground for horror stories?
The obvious answer would be that the fear of the unknown is one of the strongest motivators behind horror. Death is a great example of this, it fascinates us as much as we fear it. Secrets stimulate curiosity and the need to dig deeper into a story. In a way secrets are a forbidden fruit, we believe its taste is sweeter when we do get to try it against all odds.
Personally I like it if I manage to surprise a reader. It’s a little quirk of mine. Of course it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a real treat for me.
‘A Taste of Darkness’ begins by inverting a fear of the dark with a fear of the light. Did the rest of the story flow from that idea, or did you work backwards from the concept to that point?
I used my own fear of the dark in this. One night I thought to myself, as I was laying in bed, am I really afraid of the dark? If there was a monster in this room, I would surely rather die without seeing it? That thought made me think of things that would make light more terrifying than darkness. There are things we don’t want to see. The darkness is a perfect mask for this, in both the literal and the figurative sense. The light can be symbolic for understanding and acknowledging your situation.
Btw, to answer my own question “‘yes... I’m still totally afraid of the dark.” I don’t even know why, there is no logical explanation for it.
This story is incredibly bleak – without hope. Do you find such stories harder to write? Have you ever freaked yourself out with something you've written?
I freak myself out on a regular basis when I write horror (sometimes when I write other genres too) To be honest, I can get way too close to my own stories at times, and they give me nightmares. The hardest thing I’ve written (and am still writing) so far is the ‘Even Hell Has Standards’ series. The topics I use depress me. I’ve been trying to write the second story ‘Wrath’ for months now, but I’m actually struggling to get it on paper the way I want it to. I cry when I write it, and I feel very miserable. So much so that my husband can tell when I’m working on it, and he keeps urging me to work on it some other time.
The theme within the story is ‘Child Brides’. I had to do some research, and I can tell you, it’s even more horrible than I initially thought it was.
People ask me why I write things that make me unhappy. I must confess, there is no solid reason. They’re stories that present themselves to me, and I get tempted by the potential of them. I don’t realise how much it will upset me until I actually start putting the damn thing to paper. You could say I put the story before my own well being, but that sounds a tad dramatic.
I know from my own experience that sometimes when I write about really disturbing concepts, it’s often out of an attempt to make sense of behaviours or events I have trouble comprehending. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you this kind of subject matter, or is it more a case of ‘writing what scares you’?
I don’t think it’s so much me ‘making sense’ out of it, as me ‘wanting to make a statement’ about it. For the ‘Even Hell Has Standards’ series, I use topics that pain me. I want to point them out in a most unkind way. In some of the stories I seek a strange form of vengeance. Those are the stories where I battle my own demons. But there are others in which I turn my main characters into martyrs. In a sick way I’m pointing the spotlight on human cruelty, and showing the world that it’s there. By using a fantastical setting (in this case Hell) I feel like it softens the topic a little, if that makes sense?
On that subject, you make use of religious imagery often, both in this book and other works. Do you ever worry about causing religious offence with your writing? And what it is about religious iconography that you find so interesting?
I constantly worry about offending people. It’s not something I would set out to do, but at the same time I’ve learned that there is always someone in the world who will take offence at what you do, so you might as well stick to your guns. I try to approach religion with at least some respect.
As for what I find so interesting about religious iconography... it’s the same fascination as I have with mythology. It’s a really rich source of inspiration and there is an air of mystery around faith, and it even comes with its own demons... what more could a horror writer want? Personally I’m fascinated with Lucifer, who was once the favourite angel and has taken on the role of the adversary. I like to use him in my work a lot, and I have a very set image of him, that I use throughout most of my work. At this point, I’ve built a whole concept world that I plan to use in several of my novels and short stories. It does worry me that it will offend people, so a while back I’ve ran the idea by a very religious friend of mine. He absolutely loved it, and told me he didn’t think I was being disrespectful at all. What I like to do is use actual parts of the bible, and twist them in such a way that I can make a new story out of them, or use symbolism that I can give new meaning. It’s great to play around with.
This piece feels very immediate. Did the whole piece come to your mind at once, or did it emerge in the writing?
I wrote it in an afternoon. Not really exciting, I know. When I first started out I was just writing stories for anthologies etc. This one was for a calendar (in the end the publisher went out of business and the calendar was never made, but someone else snatched it up) I had to come up with something horrific in less than 500 words. At that time I didn’t have a lot of experience with writing flash fiction, so I decided to think of one of the most horrible things that could happen to me... and thus a story was born. For Deeply Twisted I added a little bit of padding to create some more atmosphere, but the original story was very short.
How many of these stories were written for anthologies/prompts vs. just written for the fun of it? Do you prefer responding to a brief/anthology call or whole cloth creation?
I think about seven or eight stories were written for anthologies. I prefer coming up with my own themes. Writer’s block is never really an issue for me (though I do get confidence block quite a lot, but that’s a different story) and I have a lot of stories to tell. However, when I started out, it was nice to work for something that offered a theme. It’s especially handy when you’re working on short stories, because a mere title could inspire me to write something I wouldn’t have thought of myself otherwise. At that time I would search through open calls until I would find something that sparked my interest. Later I was approached by editors, who would ask me to write for their anthologies, so I’ve written stories that I would normally not write at all. The Dispensation of Jack Harrington would be a good example of such a story *cheeky grin*
We'll get to it, promise! ‘When The Bell Tolls’ has a startlingly original conceit. Can you remember anything about how the initial idea came together?
I remember the moment it came to me very well. Again... it wasn’t very exciting. We were in bed watching TV, and I turned to my husband and said: “I want to write a story about a clock...” Well, I said slightly more than that, but that would spoil the story. It was a purely visual idea at first, though as I was writing it, I was very inspired to add in little layers. This story isn’t the last thing I shall write about that clock tower, I think. On the one hand I like the mystery that it holds now, but at the same time... there is so much story behind it. I may just have to write about it one day.
I found this story to be intensely cinematic. Do you often picture your stories as movies in your head?
Yes! All the time!! I’m a very visual person. To be honest, I get more inspiration from random images, than I do from books or movies. (Not that I’m never inspired by the latter)
This story has, IMO, one of the best opening lines in the collection, and one of my favourite from recent years full stop. Do you sweat opening lines a lot, or do they tend to just arrive?
*Laughs*... okay, guilty confession time, I had to look up what the opening line was. I have the memory span of a goldfish with Alzheimers, and I’ve written this story quite some time ago.
When I read the first line: “Holy Crap, it’s a clock” I snorted. It’s something I would have said if it had happened to me, so that’s why I probably used it.
The first line is only marginally easier than the last one. I struggle writing it, and I often change it several times. It’s far more forgiving than the last line. I know it’s supposed to lure people in, but if it’s not good enough... you have a whole book to make up for it.
The last line, on the other hand, always gives me nightmares. Especially in novels... after all that build up... how do you end it? What is the last thing you leave your reader with? *trembling lip* I just don’t know.
With ‘Victims of Evolution’ you tackle a genre that has itself almost become a cliché in the last few years – the ‘Genuinely Original Twist On The Zombie Genre’. How concerned were you with having something new to say within this very crowded genre?
Can I be honest? The whole zombie hype has sort of passed me by. I know it’s there, and I’ve caught snippets of it (The Walking Dead comics, that romantic Zombie film, I think it’s called Warm Bodies, etc.) I’m a little neutral about zombies. I don’t even think I was trying to be ‘original with zombies’, they were just a tool I used to get the story told.
This was another anthology request, and the assignment was to write something ‘splatterpunk’. Zombies were the goriest monsters I could think off. I had this idea in my head that I’d been wanting to write for quite some time, and it just ‘fit’.
There’s a superb twist about a 3rd of the way in to this story that sends things in a surprising direction. Had you always planned that twist to happen there, or did it happen earlier or later in your planning? Or did you not plan?
I knew where this story would end, so the surprise was conscious. There have been some really awesome reactions to the twist from some of my readers.
The story ends with a striking statement about nature and humanity. Did you always have that endpoint in mind? Can you recall the train of thought that led you to that conclusion?
When I was younger I had this theory. It was a little silly, but I thought it would make an interesting story. My idea was that if species would become too destructive, nature would find a way to eradicate it. That’s how this story was born.
I liked the idea of taking the ‘humans are the real monsters’ to a different level, and making a bit of a statement towards the footprint humanity leaves on this earth. I thought it would be cool to have nature fight back against the plague that we are. Surely evolution would in the end be a benefit to all of the world, not just one species?
Go on then, tell me where 'Jack Harrington' came from – an anthology request?
Yes, it was called ‘Serial Killers’, and I thought... I can do this. It’s one of those stories where I had to challenge myself a bit, because it didn’t come natural to me. I feel more comfortable with ‘supernatural’ horror.
How much of a challenge was it for you to think yourself into the head of the lead character here? Is that something you’ve ever struggled with in general, or for specific stories/characters?
I felt less connected to the character than I usually do. It was difficult getting into his head. Most of the times when I struggle with that, it’s when characters have a job that I have no affinity with. Like the judge in Death Awaits you. I kept thinking: “I know nothing of this, am I convincing enough?”
Years of role play have helped me to crawl into the skin of different characters. I use that for my writing. It helps... a little.
This story is a classic 'slow reveal' tale, as you drip feed us information right up to the last page. How hard was it deciding when to reveal details of the story?
I must have rewritten the ending several times. For this story I had a beta reader, and the poor guy must have read the same bloody story five or six times until I was happy with it. Of all the things I learned whilst writing, ‘hiding the gun’ has been one of the most interesting and difficult. It’s such a challenge to show what you intend to do at the end of the story, without being too obvious about it. To some readers it will be obvious no matter what I try. (I’m one of those people who can often guess the plot very early on in a book or a movie) But if I’m lucky, I get to surprise some readers as well. One thing I can’t stand is if I’m reading a story and the ‘reveal’ turns out to be something completely random that you couldn’t have predicted. You need to give your reader a chance to figure it out, and there should be a certain logic to the ending.
The twist in this one doubles as almost a dark punchline – do you think about stories in these terms? How much have you thought about the relationship between comedy and horror?
It’s funny you should ask that, I recently wrote a guest blog (link: http://www.catherinecavendish.com/2015/01/funny-fear-with-chantal-noordeloos.html ) about how similar comedy and horror are. Both are extremely bound to personal taste, and you can get some very intense reactions from readers (or viewers if we’re talking series / movies) whether they liked it or not. Gore is a perfect example of that in horror. Some readers won’t call something ‘horror’ if it doesn’t have gore, and others will say that gore is often gratuitous.
I personally love a little bit of humour in my horror. I don’t always use it, though with bigger works (like novels) I tend to at least put in a few characters with a sense of humour. I like the contrast between dark and gloomy, and light and funny.
Uncle Edmund’s funeral I wrote in the hopes that it would come across as comical. I may have sniggered at my own imagery as I was writing... bad, I know.
Check back soon for part two, where we discuss more stories in the collection, as well as take a peek at Chantal's plans for 2015...