Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Interview with Sumiko Saulson: Ashes and Coffee + Social Awareness in Horror


I first heard of Sumiko Saulson’s work during a 2013 Women in Horror Month (WiHM) event when she was an ambassador and interviewed twenty-five women for her WiHM blog series.  I noticed she was a horror blogger as well and I didn’t at the time know of many Black women running such a blog. Not long after, she interviewed me for her non-fiction book 60 Black Women in Horror. If you haven’t seen the book, pick up a copy and read about the authors, filmmakers, scriptwriters in horror that you don’t know about, but should!

Sumiko’s latest release is a short story from the Death’s CafĂ© series by Mocha Memoirs Press entitled "Ashes and Coffee"!

Blurb: Death is stalking Berkeley, California in a sleek new jacket and snazzy checkered fedora. Insects and animals collapse in his wake. When the indigent begin to mysteriously die in the streets, the rest of the town is indifferent. Red Montgomery, a nineteen year old black homeless woman, is the only one who can see him and feels powerless to intervene. But is she?

Excerpt: Something was gravely amiss in Berkeley. Red knew it, but who was going to believe her? She was young, black, female, and out on the streets. Those were four strikes against her. A girl like her could get shot asking for help, like Renisha McBride...


In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the horror submissions editor for Mocha Memoirs Press and I chose Sumiko’s story for publication. Here’s the reason: while I love novels, I have a soft spot for the short story form. "Ashes and Coffee" is an example of why.  It’s a quick read, but full of sympathetic characters –most of them homeless. Having Red, a homeless woman as a heroine gives a new meaning to horror.  Where will she go? How will she hide or protect herself? Who’s going to help?

No one.

There are touches of light in this story, however. Death happens to be quite the snazzy dresser and goes through several wardrobe changes between Red’s sightings of him. And Red comes to a realization about herself that I didn’t see coming.

I reached out to Sumiko and asked to interview her about "Ashes and Coffee", her other writing, and what it’s like to be a Black woman in the horror game.

First off, thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style. Give us your horror credentials.

Readers and critics alike have commented upon my skill for creating visually and sensually compelling or immersive environments. That sort of writing style lends itself well to horror. One of my English teachers said, “You’ve got a gift for grossing people out.” I’ve been a fan of the literary genre since I was a preteen. Both of my parents were avid horror fans, and I started out reading some of the darker episodes in my father’s Asimov’s Science Fiction periodical. The first horror novel I read was my mom’s copy of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I think of myself as a writer with a mainstream literary voice who writes about characters frequently underrepresented in the genre. I have both horror genre and literary fiction influences and they show. As with many writers moving over to prose from a poetry background, my writing relies heavily on imagery. My stories tend to be character-driven: relatable people in unfathomable situations. For me, horror is most terrifying when you can imagine being in the protagonist’s shoes.

I think that it bothers me when people compare me to other writers, but such comparisons probably do indicate that my influences are showing. I was compared to both Stephen King and Toni Morrison this week and they are both heavily represented on my bookshelf. When someone compared me to James Patterson I was surprised. That was the first time anyone compared me to a writer I’ve never even read. The longer I write novella and novel length works, the more frequently I find myself compared to writers I’ve never heard of it. It’s kind of a relief. My first novel got compared to Stephen King so many times it started freaked to me out.

When did you start writing and what drew you specifically to horror?

I started reading when I was three years old and wrote my first story when I was about five, so I was an advanced reader. My first published writings were as a teenager. I was on my high school paper, and I had poetry published in local, community papers in my later teens, such as the Tenderloin Times. I put out two self-published poetry books, one when I was 16 and one when I was 18. 

I was profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the young, upcoming neo-beatnik poets. The first time I tried to write a novel, it was science fiction. I couldn’t figure out a way to end it.  Many years later, after a nervous breakdown and a series of personal tragedies and mental health issues, I started to write horror as a way to process what I’d been through. The genre lends itself well to exorcising metaphysical demons, and since I’ve read it more than any other, I know how it works.

What inspired you to write “Ashes and Coffee”? Does your heritage influence your storytelling?

My heritage influences my storytelling primarily in that it influences my character development.  My writing itself tends to be compared to a bunch of white men writing suspense and horror. As a teenager, I was very disturbed by the limited kinds of roles people of color and people with disabilities are allowed to occupy in mainstream modern horror. I wanted stories with people who looked and talked not just like me, but by the people around me, so both my heritage and my upbringing affected how I think about who should be in a story I’m writing. My characters tend to be multicultural. I have a lot of African American characters, biracial characters, and non-white characters of other races but my characters, even the white ones, are usually types of people I grew up or lived around.

I’m mixed, of African American and Russian Jewish heritage.   My father was a second generation American. His grandparents were Ellis Island Jews escaping the Marxist persecution of the Jews in Russia before World War I. My mom is black, her parents were from the south but she was raised in Los Angeles. Both of my parents were. My mom grew up in Watts, my dad around Venice Beach. They met in college in the sixties. I grew up in California and Hawaii.

My parents didn’t want my brother and I to be hassled for our interracial heritage growing up, so we were raised in very mixed neighborhoods. When we were little, people had certain ways of objectifying: strangers running up wanting to kitchy-coo over the little mixed kids. I was born in 1968 and people of my parents’ generation thought we were the iconic representation of MLK’s dream speech coming true. They tried to shelter us, but adolescence was a rude awakening for my brother and I both. We’re only a year apart. One day you’re thinking you’re equal, the next day you’re not little and cute anymore. People decide you look threatening, and security guards start following you around the mall.

Your story focuses the plight of the homeless in California. Was this based on firsthand knowledge? How did you weave the street language and culture into a horror tale?

The amount of time I have personally spent being homeless is limited. When I first moved to San Francisco when I was nineteen, I stayed in single room occupancy hotels in the Tenderloin, a low rent sort of skid row neighborhood, where they kicked you out after twenty-eight days and you had to stay on the street for three. The city eventually made that practice illegal. I was homeless for a couple of weeks before I got into an SRO in San Francisco in 1987, and I was also homeless in San Francisco for a month in late 2005. I was homeless in the Venice Beach/Santa Monica area for about a month in 2004 as well. So I would say I spent about three months total on the street in my life. When I was a teenager in the Tenderloin, I did have a red mohawk like the character, and they did call me Red, a nickname I didn’t care for. 

But other than her fashion sense, Red is not very much like me. She’s more like teenage runaways I have known over the past twenty years living in the Bay Area. I would say that my story more specifically addresses the plight of the homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area. Homelessness is different here than in other parts of the state. Young homeless people tend to gravitate towards places like Haight Street in San Francisco, or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley because there is safety in numbers. Homelessness is very dangerous for women. Many women become homeless escaping domestic violence, only to become victimized again on the streets.  Here is some information about that: http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/domestic_violence

If you ever have been homeless, it changes your attitude about people who are homeless. Although I wasn’t homeless for very long, I don’t feel any differently about talking to or being friends with someone who is homeless than I do about being friends with anyone else. Maybe it’s also because I was a punk rocker, and it’s an anti-classist subculture. My fiancĂ© was homeless when I met him, and had been homeless for five years. We’ve been together for six years now.

For you, what makes great horror? What do you like to read?

For me, plot timing and character development are the key elements of great horror. Suspense is a part of horror, the anticipation that leaves your reader on the edge of her seat. Part of that anticipation, especially with longer works, is character development. In short stories or flash fiction, the roller coaster shock and surprise plot twist is often the fear factor. A very well crafted short horror story can also be an allegory. One of the scariest short stories I read as a young teen was W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw.

It has all of that: the relatable character of the concerned parent, the plot twist, and the underlying moral message that connects it to deeper concerns about mortality and the world we live in. It is a simple moral: nothing in life is free, beware the hidden costs.  It frightens us because we can all relate to the character’s error in judgment, because deep down most of us know we would make the greedy money choice if we had three wishes. It’s also a story about making things worse trying to fix them, and that is also a common fear.

What scares you?

Death. I didn’t write my first novel until after both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. I have since lost my father. I suppose our mortality gives us this critical kick in the ass that makes us jump and jump down instead of basking in the warmth of our respective comfort zones. My father was an avid sci-fi and horror reader, and I felt that if I didn’t get to doing it he wouldn’t be around to read it. But in the wake of his death, I find myself writing a lot about death and the separation involved. Even if you believe in an afterlife – which I do – the unknown, and the abrupt and indefinite loss of communication with a loved one is terrifying.

I’m also afraid of corpses, maggots, and razor blades.

How can artists of color (actors, writers, filmmakers) succeed in horror and dark fantasy fiction circles? How can women? Do you feel your work has been received differently?

I think we need to make our own versions of the “old boy’s club” and support each other. In the 1990s, I worked in video production in the Fillmore, and we knew a bunch of rappers and promoters doing cross promotion. Some of them got pretty big, like Rappin 4Tay and JT the Bigga Figga. They came up by sharing resources, though. Often you would see these guys come out with compilation albums and they’d have t-shirts listing all the artists and they’d all push the same group effort.

Things like Women in Horror Month, and Graveyard Shift Sisters, to me, are an example of that model of cross-promotion. So are anthologies like Dark Matter and Dark Dreams. It certainly is what I had in mind when I put together 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction, which is a text of biographies and interviews.

Once it is actually read, my work doesn’t seem to be received differently. It’s that whole getting your foot in the door thing that is kind of tough. People look at you funny when you’re black and female and writing horror. In the brick and mortar world, genre fiction bookstores have actually been the most exclusionary. Local bookstores that focus on local authors have been quite supportive, and even mainstream stores have been kind.

Most of my readership is female, and I think that might be to my favor. Someone described my short story anthology as soft horror and I cringed a little. My beta readers are fans and I notice the male ones are generally clamoring for more action. Some of them even ask me to chop out the side characters – characters I develop, because I hate suspense and horror where they just keep introducing people with zero development to chop them to bits. That is so formulaic and predictable – the horror equivalent of red shirts on Star Trek. But all of that descriptive exposition isn’t a big enough turn off for them to stop reading my books, so I guess I’ll stick to my guns. However, it is stylistically more literary fiction and less horror. Some people might interpret that as feminine.

What’s your next project?

Happiness and Other Diseases is coming out on October 18, 2014. It is the first in a series, one I believe will be a trilogy. The series is dark fantasy and includes element of horror and romance. It’s called Somnalia and is about the children and grandchildren of the Greco-Roman sleep god Somnus. Some of his grandchildren are very naughty. They seek to enter the realm of mortals through blood rituals and sacrifice. Dreams are supposed to help mankind to process things, even bad dreams. Some of the nightmare spirits are dissatisfied and want earthly power and worship. They are also very sadistic and they don’t experience emotions in the same way as humans do.

In the first book, Flynn Keahi, a conflicted young man with mental health issues, is being attacked by one of these creatures, Mercy. Mercy has become attached to him in succubus-like manner and is slowly draining him to death. No one believes him, so he ends up locked up in a mental hospital. Somnus’ mother, Nyx, the goddess of night, is fed up with Somnus’ unruly grandchildren, and declares that if this mortal – Flynn –dies, that she will condemn Mercy, her father, and all of her siblings to a fate worse than death – mortality. Somnus protests that he should be able to send someone to protect Flynn, and Nyx says he can – but only if the can find a suitable candidate among Mercy’s generally vile siblings. He chooses Happiness, aka Charlotte, who being half-human, is a bit less vicious than her siblings.

How can regional and cultural horror become more mainstream and recognizable to the wider horror fan base?

I think that with the advent of the eBook and the self-publishing revolution, regional and cultural literature increasingly has the same niche as indie film has in relation to Hollywood, and local music in relation to the mainstream music industry. Local and indie markets are both a simultaneously existing, separate market, and a feeder market in music and film.

Where regional or cultural genre fiction has mainstream audience appeal, the way L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress series did, there is going to be a natural crossover into the mainstream. I know a lot of black women who love L.A. Banks, but I also know a lot of white guys who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer who love the Vampire Huntress series.

But if you come from a very indie-purist scene like here in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you write in a mainstream manner, you will get some flack.  Just writing genre fiction is liable to get you a sell-out label. Introspective stream of consciousness biographical material is popular here. But I’m still going to get a lot of bookings in October, when horror is popular due to Halloween. I’ll also get some in February due to Women in Horror Month and Black History Month. But if I want to casually stroll into an open mike anywhere the rest of the year, I’ll get a good reception for genre fiction such as horror with a college age audience. To get one from people my age, I need to whip out that old beatnik style poetry, which they are calling spoken word these days.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?

Editing. I’m highly prolific, and I have had to take my mother’s advice about not releasing too many products onto the market at once – she has a public relations background. When I first started writing, I dumped some sloppily edited product on the market. That can get you a bad reputation, so I have learned to be more careful. I also pulled one of the books and am re-editing it.

It will always take me twice as long to get something edited as it does for me to write it. In addition to hiring, begging, borrowing or stealing proofreading and editing help, I keep studying it at community college in order to improve my personal skill with it. I am referring to both content and copy editing. I have to be about two-thirds of the way through writing a story before I can attempt any content editing. That’s usually the point at which I roll back and fix consistency problems in order to make sure that everything rolls into the ending the way it should.

Sometimes I end up adding more action later, usually based upon some external suggestion.
Spotting one’s own typographical errors seems, at times, impossible.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy reading, drawing, painting, singing, and video games. Graphic design used to be my day-job, but my paintings and drawings are considerably more folksy and cartoon-like. Stylistically, you would call the paintings abstract impressionism. I have had some local showings in cafes and cultural centers. In January, I was a part of a gallery exhibition for the first time. The exhibition ran through April at Expression’s Gallery in Berkeley and was about Homelessness. That might be of interest, since it does relate to "Ashes and Coffee". There’s a blog entry about it on my art page at DeviantART: http://sumikoska.deviantart.com/journal/SRO-accepted-into-Homelessness-exhibit-425042877

Thanks for being on the blog, Sumiko! If you’d like to know more about Sumiko’s work, links to her online are: 

Twitter @sumikoska



About The Interviewer
Eden Royce is a native of Charleston, SC whose great-aunt practiced root, a type of conjure magic. She now wishes she’d listened more closely. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. She also reviews books for Hellnotes, a website dedicated to horror in fiction, art and movies and is the horror submissions editor for Mocha Memoirs Press. Besides writing, her passions include roller-skating, listening to thunderstorms, and excellent sushi.  A list of her work can be found on her website: edenroyce.com and she blogs about all things writerly at: darkgeisha.wordpress.com (@EdenRoyce)
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