Shirley Jackson award-winner Kaaron Warren published her first short story in 1993 and has had fiction in print every year since. She was recently given the Peter McNamara Lifetime Achievement Award and was Guest of Honour at World Fantasy 2018, Stokercon 2019 and Geysercon 2019. Kaaron was a Fellow at the Museum for Australian Democracy, where she researched prime ministers, artists and serial killers. She’s judged the World Fantasy Awards and the Shirley Jackson Awards.
She has published five multi-award winning novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, The Grief Hole and Tide of Stone) and seven short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls.
She has won the ACT Writers and Publishers Award four times and twice been awarded the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Her most recent novella, Into Bones Like Oil (Meerkat Press), was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, winning the Aurealis Award.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I’m an Australian author of horror and science fiction novels, novellas and short stories. I published my first short story in 1993 and have stories in print every year since, an achievement I’m very proud of. I have five novels and seven short story collections in print.
Recently, my first three novels moved to a new publisher IFWG Australia. All three will be re-released over the next year, with Slights being first cab off the rank. Slights is the story of Stevie, a woman who kills her mother in a car accident and almost dies herself, catching a glimpse of the afterlife. She sees a place where everyone she’s ever slighted is waiting to take a piece of her. It’s a dark room where she is the center of attention and she becomes obsessed by it.
IFWG are also publishing Tool Tales, a collaboration between me and the renowned horror editor, Ellen Datlow. Ellen has an amazing collection of mysterious tools, and I’ve written tiny stories about them. It’s a small chapbook, with Ellen’s photos and my words. I really love it! It’s what writing fiction is to me; finding inspiration in strange things.
Can you share a snippet that isn’t in the blurb or excerpt for Slights?
“What do think of my haircut?” I asked Mum.
“I wouldn’t go back to that hairdresser, if I were you, Stephanie,” she said. She had a fleck of parsley on her lip and when she talked it wobbled.
“I know. Stupid bitch. I said I wanted a change and she does this to me.”
I had splurged and asked the hairdresser to give me a new style. She wanted to cut inches off, saying, “Once you pass eighteen, you have to be more careful.”
I said, “Fine.” How old did she think I was?
She snip snipped. Dark, wet entrails of my hair fell onto her thighs, criss-crossed the diamonds of her fishnet stockings. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The hairdresser said, “You know, you’ve got the sort of face which would suit a good red colour. You need a bit of a lift at the moment. Everything looks a bit flat. And maybe we should have a go at your eyebrows.”
She was a very slim girl. Her hair was black, cut like a metal helmet. She wore a tight silver T-shirt, a thick corduroy skirt, the fishnet stockings. She sat in a rolling chair, travelling around my body like I was an island, snip snip. She spoke incessantly, complained of slight after slight.
She sighed. “Anyway, I’m sure you’re not interested.” I looked up from her thigh and she wasn’t happy with me. She dried my hair without speaking, then held the mirror up for me to see.
I said nothing.
“Are you happy with that?” she said.
“You are kidding me,” I said. It shocked her. I suppose you’re meant to lie. I paid her even though she made me look like a fucking bimbo. All this from a woman who told me, confidentially, that she thought reading novels wasn’t smart because it’s all just made up.
“What DO you read?” I asked her.
“Oh, I love my magazines,” she said. “I can read them over and over, there’s always something different.”
What was the inspiration for the story?
Being a writer is about being an observer; noticing things. Writers will file things away in their memory, or on paper or screen.
Writers love detail and nuance. We want to know WHY.
Why is there a floor lamp sitting in a bus stop?
Why is that woman crying as she looks at photos?
Writing is often about finding out, or inventing the answers
For me, it’s sometimes about trying to figure out why the world is the way it is. Why some people live lives of loneliness, or despair, or destruction, while others will create beauty and find success in all they attempt.
Slights is, in part, my way of exploring a character so abhorrent, so opposite to all I was taught was good. One of the questions I get asked (though not as often as you might think; perhaps people are scared in case I say yes!) is whether it is autobiographical. It isn’t, not in anyway, but there are details there from my life. Things I’ve observed, heard, wondered about.
These are a few:
The hairdresser with fishnet stockings. I did have my haircut once by a woman who looked like the hairdresser at the opening of the novel, and I was mesmerized by her white legs, the fishnet stockings, and the dark wet tails of my hair across her thigh. That’s where the similarity ends, though. My haircut was fine, and she was intelligent and interesting, not the poor thing I’ve depicted in the scene.
The pipe smoker. This man, who Stevie annoys by making him put his pipe out, was inspired by an arrogant, obsessive man I observed in a pub. For the entire evening, he smoked his pipe. He had no companions, no book to read, no magazine. I wondered; is that enough for him? That’s all he cares about?
Lacey and her perfume. Poor Lacey, a victim, I think, before Stevie ever met her. She was inspired, physically and in her demeanor, by a woman I saw at a chemist years ago. She annoyed me because she blocked the aisle, choosing cheap perfume. I’ve seen people spend a while choosing a hundred dollar bottle, but these were two dollars each. She blocked the aisle, squatting, opening every bottle and sniffing it, making up her mind. I wondered; who is this perfume for, that she’s taking so much care over? And does she really only have two dollars to spend?
Golden Syrup Dumplings. I’ve never actually eaten these. When I was trying to think of a dessert that made Stevie think of her mother, that brought her comfort, I flicked through a classic Australian cookbook, The Country Women’s Association Cookbook. These ladies are very particular in their cooking, and I think this is why the golden syrup dumplings were perfect. Here are some of their rules.
I’ve still never cooked the dumplings. I actually don’t like them; they’re stodgy and too sweet!
The old railway carriage where Stevie takes Adrian. There was a park near my grandparent’s house, which I loved to visit as a young girl. One day, though, the railway carriage was filled with rubbish. My mother wouldn’t let me look at it. What could be so bad?
“The teenagers had a party,” she said.
The thing is; it was probably only bottles, chip wrappers, maybe some condoms. My imagining of what was there was far worse.
And that’s how long the image has stayed with me! That moment of fear, that delicious frisson.
Writing Slights was like a download of many of the things I had stored. The small sadnesses I’d seen, such as the lonely old man on Christmas morning with his solitary turkey roll. Stories I heard or read about. Atrocities.
And the details; small things I’d seen that implanted themselves in my brain.
When I decided to write a story about a personal hell, many of these details found a home.
Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
In a way, Slights is a love letter to books. One element of the story is about Jessie, the main character’s aunt. She’s a librarian who writes erotica (and secrets) in the margins of the library books. The books I chose to use were ones from my own bookshelves. Some were absolute and utter favorites (Rebecca, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle) and others were odd things I’ve picked up at second hand sales (the History of Magnetism). I love marginalia, the messages you sometimes get from past readers, even if it’s only correcting a spelling mistake.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I visited Edgar Allen Poe’s house in Baltimore. I think he only lived there for a few months. The wonderful thing to me was that as you walk in the front door, the wooden floor squeaks. I immediately imagined that he was inspired to write The Tell Tale Heart by that squeak!
I also visited Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s in Providence, Rhode Island. Again, I was struck by the possible inspiration she took from her home, especially the walls in the bedrooms. I looked for peeling yellow wallpaper and didn’t find it…
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
This is such an interesting question. From a very early age I was struck by the way language can be used cleverly, to make a point. One moment I remember very clearly is an interaction with the vice principal at my primary school when I was about six or seven. I was always running late for school for one reason or another, and had foolishly run across the road without looking properly. There was the vice principal (who remains to this day one of the most terrifying people I’ve met), standing with her arms crossed at the gate. At the assembly, while she didn’t single me out particularly, she made a point to tell us to get to school safely. She said, “It’s better to arrive late alive than dead on time.”
Dead on time.
I had nightmares about that, being killed and still having to go to school.
I’ve never forgotten that clever turn of phrase.
How many bookshelves are in your house?
Does this include the shed? Because there are three in the shed. One in my study. Three in the odd room that sits in the middle of the house and has books, TV, my father-in-law’s model ship, an old beer sign and a comfy couch. There are six in the room we call the sun room. Oh, and I also have a bookshelf with the Great Books of the Western World. Oh, and I forgot the tall one in my bedroom which has the books I’m reading, or want to read.
What’s for dinner tonight? What would you rather be eating?
It’s a bit cooler here today, so I’m thinking my delicious beef, feta and olive pie. It’s a slow-cooked dish so I never make it when the weather is too hot.
As I’m the main cook in the house, I get to eat what I want to eat most nights. But I’d love to know the word for the particular nostalgia you feel for a food you’ll never eat again. The chips and gravy from a small cafe long since demolished. My grandmother’s vegetable soup. The green bean curry I used to buy from a tiny restaurant in Suva, Fiji. My dad has a hankering for the kofta his mother used to make and I’ve never quite got that right when I try to make it for him. Similarly, my mother remembers her mother’s lemon tart, and through all the variations we’ve tried, none have quite hit the spot. What’s the word for that?
Would you rather always be an hour early or be constantly twenty minutes late?
This is the only one I can answer for sure! I HATE being late. If I have a book, or a notebook and pen, then that hour early will quickly pass.
Toilet paper—over or under?
WHO WOULD ANSWER UNDER???
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
I’m usually working on two or three things at once. I have a novel on the go (about an abandoned train tunnel and the ghosts trapped at the end of it), a short story (inspired by abandoned precious items) and a novella (also inspired by abandoned things. My current obsession, it seems!)
Can you tell us about a woman who inspired you. And tell us why?
There are so many I could list here, but I’m going to choose a woman who I only met once. She was a friend of the family when I was a child, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She wore this glorious skirt, made up of silk scarves, and I sat at her feet simply entranced by her. She was bemused by this but very kind, talking to me as an equal (I must have been younger than ten) and not treating me like a nuisance. She was calm and, my mother told me, very successful. I can’t remember what she was successful in.
The thing that inspired me about her, beyond her calm, charm, and style, was the story I heard about her later. That she had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her husband, and endured nights in jail because of his influence, and many other things my mother didn’t want me to know. But she got away from that man and began her life again. This strength of character, this proof that things can change, that you can fix anything, has honestly helped me through life.
Obviously I have never suffered anything like she suffered, and like many like her have suffered. But even in small ways, she gave me strength.
As a woman author, what are you most proud of in bringing into horror literature?
My own strong voice.
Well we look forward to reading much more of your voice in the coming years and thanks you for being a part of our Women In Horror Series!
Be sure to include Kaaron’s novel Slights in your immediate To-Be-Read list!
Slights by Kaaron Warren
When Stevie Searle almost dies in the accident that kills her mother, she doesn’t see a shining path or a golden light.
Instead, she sees everyone she’s ever slighted, waiting to take a piece of her in a cold, dark room. The person whose place she took in the queue, the schoolmate she cheated off, the bus driver she didn’t pay? All waiting. All wanting to take their revenge when she finally crosses over.
Stevie is fascinated by the dark room so she sends herself there again.
And again. And Again.
Richard started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatised himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner, and an inappropriate amount of books.