The Moment All Hope Is Lost: A Conversation with Horror Writer Amanda Headlee
I’ve had the great pleasure to work with horror writer Amanda Headlee on the release of her very creepy debut novel, Till We Become Monsters. Amanda herself is very not creepy (even if by her own admission, she’s kind of weird). Subsequently, one of my fascinations with Amanda is not only why she loves horror, but how she manages to write about it so effectively while being both incredibly normal and efficient given the wide array of day-to-day things she’s engaged in. Fortunately for me and you, I was able to talk to her about all of this and that conversation is captured below.
Please introduce yourself and the pitch for your forthcoming work.
I'm Amanda Headlee and I like writing, bicycles, and the macabre. For as long as I can remember, I've been writing stories that were created to elicit fear. Things that go bump in the night are the spark for my imagination. When not writing, I can be found cycling the back roads of Pennsylvania or hiking the ancient Appalachian mountains. Till We Become Monsters is my debut novel that releases on June 01, 2021. This is a story about consequences for those who believe in the lies that they tell themselves, which results in their humanity becoming their greatest burden to bear. After the Perrin family, along with two friends, are stranded in the winter forests of Minnesota, family dysfunction and jealousy begin to unravel deeply buried secrets. The betrayal by one of the survivors whittles away at the prospect of the others being saved. At the moment that all hope is lost, that's when the monsters appear.
Why do you think it's the "things that go bump in the night" that spark your imagination?
The saying "things that go bump in the night" refers to an unseen entity making a sound that frightens us and interrupts our sleep. The fear materializes from not being able to see what's making the noise. It could be anything from a harmless little raccoon building a nest in your attic to a crazed person who broke into your house and is hell-bent on making you the first victim in their killing spree. When one of our senses is compromised—especially sight—our minds compensate by generating an explanation or sensation. Situations like this spur my imagination into overdrive because first off, I'm in a vulnerable state due to the fact I am either nearly asleep or awakened from a deep slumber. Second, I have no idea what made the sound. My initial thought is always that it's something coming to harm me. At that point, I begin to fabricate every possible adversary from serial killers to demons. Once I'm more or less cognizant and scared, I either accept the reality of my impending doom or write a story based on what my imagination has created to frightened me.
During these moments, why do you think you feel compelled to write a story as opposed to engaging in some other form of artistic expression? Said differently, do you have any thoughts on why you're a writer and not something else?
There is an allure and a natural feel to writing stories that I don’t feel with any other form of artistic expression. I play the piano and saxophone, but music of my own design doesn’t flow from me like writing fiction. I’d enjoy creating my own graphic novel but drawing stick figures can only get you so far. Maybe one day I’ll team up with a brilliant artist and together we can bring something to life. And with dancing or singing… well, let’s not go there. Those are reasons as to why I stick with writing stories above all other forms of artistic expression. Writing is my niche, my native habitat. Through these other forms, I cannot envision myself properly conveying the message that I want to share. When I am out of my writing element, I tend to focus on how uncomfortable I feel or believe I’m an imposter. This in turn muddies what I want to communicate through that form of art, and I walk away from the project. A pen is my paintbrush, musical instrument, and voice. Writing is the most natural way for me to transpose the images from my head down into a tangible format that can be seen and shared.
Are there ways that your musical training has enhanced, or hindered, your writing? Building on this theme, how does your training as an endurance athlete and cyclist influence your writing practice? And are there any ways all of this connects or hangs together?
Musical training has been quite influential in writing. There is something with the beat and flow of an instrumental song that pulls me into a focused state to form a realm of creativity. I see music. This sounds quite weird as I write out this answer, but I’ve heard several professional musicians say the same thing. When listening to a score, I can visualize the waves of sound and it creates a vibrant fantasia of imagery in my mind. Sometimes I write down what I “see”. There have been times when those images have made their way into stories. However, the music cannot be of any variety. Words are a distraction, so the music must be entirely instrumental. And the sound must be soft, like rainy-day jazz. I surmise that my writing music choice leans heavily toward pieces that showcase the piano or saxophone because of my experience in playing both instruments. When I write, I’m either in a vacuum of silence or listening to this type of music. Music is also an escape from writing. If I am working on a story, idea, character, or plot and become stuck, I need to get away from consciously writing words. Playing an instrument helps free the creative flow. I’ll repeatedly play a song on the piano or sax until the story struggles are resolved. I’m quite sure I go into a trance or something of that nature when this occurs. I’m often asked why I only play music for myself… this is why.
On a similar note (no pun intended), training as an endurance athlete is another outlet that I utilize to help work through stories. When my head is in story time, but I need to work out for training purposes (e.g.: riding an indoor trainer, lifting, swimming, running, etc.), I’ll zone out during the physical activity and work on my current writing project. Sometimes I’m able to scribble in a notebook while exercising. Other times I use the voice recorder app on my mobile to talk through what I am thinking about. Just so no one freaks out as they read this, I do not “zone out” whilst riding a bike outdoors. That would be a disaster of epic proportions. There is probably a neuroscientist who can explain why these combinations of writing, music, and physical activity work. At least I would like to think there is one who exists who can debunk my weirdness.
Weirdness and music and flow, I love that answer, and in providing it, you've started to talk about your writing process. I'm curious given your full life, day job included, what else goes into that process, how regimented it is and whether it's changed over time? Also, is writing a novel different in terms of that process than writing a short piece?
Scheduling my days is quite complicated, especially going into the race season. I use a calendar app to plan out my day and Trello to schedule my projects. Trello helps me to ensure I'm keeping on track with everything that I have to do and my deadlines. My day job is Program Management and that heavily bleeds into my day-to-day life. Therefore, my life is quite regimented. My scheduling approach is quite agile as it needs to shift over time as the race season changes. Spring to Fall I need to invest more time in training yet at the same time, ensure that doesn't impact my day job or writing. In order to balance this, I tend to write very early in the mornings. Late nights don't work for me as my brain is usually fried by 10 pm. Wintertime is when I take training a little easier and pour more into writing. In regards to writing novels, I'm a planner. I have to develop a high-level outline and flesh out some characters before I can dive in. With short story writing, the process is the exact opposite. For that type of writing, I usually do a brain dump on paper then piece the plot and characters together once that first draft is compiled. It's interesting how both those formats vary in approach.
I won't ask you if you can picture living in a less regimented fashion, but given how much you balance, can you picture a future version of yourself where you live differently (and what would that look like)? Relatedly, with your debut novel coming out, what do you want to happen for you now that you have a book out in the world (and where does this overlap with your previous answer)?
One must be agile in life while keeping goals in check. The future me continues to be flexible by figuring out how to balance newly added endeavors around key milestones. There are three core pillars that make me who I am: project manager, author, and endurance athlete. Those pillars will always exist. Anything that gets added will be properly balanced between the three. I sadly cannot see myself living a less regimented lifestyle. There is a lot I must accomplish before I'm stone-cold dead and underground. Now that my first novel is out in the world, I'm going to...continue writing. There are so many stories to share and I want to tell them all. The current focus is on applying the lessons learned from the first novel to hone my writing craft, and revising my backlog of projects that will hopefully be one day accepted for publication. And a future movie deal would be quite nice! The continuation of writing is essentially one of my core pillars. I don't have to carve out additional time for it. The only situation that may happen is that I'd have to shift some time from the athlete pillar to the author pillar. It's okay if that occurs because one must be agile in life while keeping goals in check. The goal in my life is not to be a professional athlete, but a professional author.
Based on your experience with the publication of Till We Become Monsters, what do you think it takes to become a professional author?
I believe there are two types of authors: hobbyists and professionals. A hobbyist author is going to write whenever inspiration strikes. They aren’t going to fight their muse to get words down on paper. Hobbyists may or may not have something published. They write more for their own pleasure and work by their own schedule. Whereas professional authors are writers who force themselves to put pen to paper almost daily. They have hard deadlines and can’t wait for the muse of inspiration to appear. Additionally, professional authors invest a lot of time, money, and education into the writing craft because their ultimate goal is to make writing a career. That doesn’t necessarily mean a “full-time” career. There are plenty of professional authors who balance a day job with a writing career. For me, the definition of what it takes to be a professional author is a powerful dedication to the craft of writing and doing whatever it takes to ensure the craft is maintained.
An almost final question based on a conversation we had recently: what do you believe is the defining element (or elements) of a successful horror novel?
Horror must evoke the emotion of fear or dread in the reader to be successful. The fear is typically caused by placing an ordinary character in an extraordinary situation. For example, in my novel Till We Become Monsters, fear is elicited by seeing one of the characters—just an ordinary person—become so consumed by his resentment of his brother that jealousy possesses him, evolving that character into something grotesque and deadly. There should also be a level of plausibility that grounds the story, which allows the reader to connect to the plot and characters before the chaos and hell break loose. The sibling rivalry between the two brothers during their childhood in Till We Become Monsters is a conflict that is believable. Some readers may even be able to relate to the relationship. However, that rivalry is taken to the extreme to where it becomes the trigger point for the horror in the plot. These elements are kind of my holy trinity for horror writing: evocation of fear, the ordinary suffering from the extraordinary, and incorporating plausibility.
What did I miss or what else do you want to share?
I encourage everyone to read horror, not just because it's my favorite genre, but because these stories are tools that readers can use to be armed against a terrifying world. Horror stories are lessons on how to survive extreme situations. As I mentioned in my answer to question eight, horror places an ordinary character in an extraordinary situation. Through that element, a reader will be shown what to do and what not to do in order to survive that extraordinary situation. I absolutely love talking about this genre. If anyone has any questions or would like to discuss aspects of horror, I can be contacted through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Happy reading!
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