Who wants a double helping of Issue 048 author interviews? Today we have Laney Gaughan serving up a hint of horror to start off our weekend as she talks about her story “Syrup-Tapping Season.”
LSQ: First sentences can hold a lot of power in a story, and yours certainly does, setting the tone for the creepiness to come so wonderfully. Do you have any advice for crafting the perfect first sentence?
Laney: Thank you so much! First sentences can be hard because there is a lot of weight to them, but they can also be really fun. One thing I always try to do with first sentences is to say something surprising that will (hopefully!) make the reader curious about what follows. In the first sentence of “Syrup-Tapping Season,” for example, there is the contradiction of the act of tapping trees for syrup – something completely harmless in real life – requiring an evacuation procedure. The contradiction introduces a question that the rest of the story answers.
As you mentioned, first sentences are also a really great place to establish the tone of the story and characterize the narrator (whether they play an active role in the story or not!). In “Syrup-
Tapping Season,” I wanted to establish a tone that felt fairytale-like, but twisted. Sylvie isn’t overly technical in the way she describes things – “near the woods” and “children” have a lot of different definitions – but treats the reader like they already come in with an understanding of what is meant, with the familiarity of a bedtime story or fairytale.
LSQ: As beautiful as nature is, it lends itself perfectly to horror stories. Why do you think that is?
Laney: There is something unknowable about it, I think. We understand a lot about nature, of course, but I don’t know if it’s possible to reach a point where it doesn’t surprise us occasionally, or where we can control what happens. There’s something comforting about that, but also something ominous there because it reminds us of the unknowable parts in ourselves, and what they might do left unrestrained.
LSQ: Is horror your preferred genre to write? What do you like most about it? What are the challenges in writing it?
Laney: I definitely gravitate towards horror both when I’m writing and consuming stories. So many things that are central to horror as a genre – grotesque imagery, mystery elements, settings that are characters themselves – are things that I get really excited about writing. The focus on setting in particular appeals to me because I love to write with a specific sense of place. When I think about some of my favorite horror stories, the setting always plays a huge part. Hill House, the Overlook Hotel and the Unknown, are locations that themselves are iconic. One thing that appealed to me about the concepts of “Syrup-Tapping Season” was the active role the setting had on the plot. The forest itself is sort of the third main character.
One of the things I think is difficult about horror, for me at least, is making sure the characters remain central. Horror is primed for character study – you can learn so much about people by what frightens them and how they act when they are frightened – but it can also be easy to lose characters amidst all the other elements. You don’t want characters to just be empty vessels to fill up with trauma as the story progresses; it runs the risk of the horror elements becoming gratuitous and exploitative, and moreover, it isn’t enjoyable to read. It should all come back to the characters, who they are, and why the reader should care about them. That is what my favorite stories do, and what I try to replicate in my own writing as well.
LSQ: Are there any other projects you’re currently working on? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?
Laney: I’m in the early stages of a new project, which is always an exciting place to be, if a bit of an unsteady one. This is my first attempt at a proper haunted house story, which is something I’ve always wanted to write. There are witches, ghosts, and three siblings with widely different perspectives attempting to figure out what it all means.