Amy Lukavics’s debut YA horror novel, Daughters Unto Devils, was released earlier this fall, so it’s about time to initiate her into the club. And who better to conduct this initiation than YA superstar (and Lukavics’s pal) Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series? Below, Roth and Lukavics chat about Stephen King, writing violent scenes, and reading with the lights on. They also share plenty of recommendations for the reluctant horror fan: There really is something in the genre for everyone.
VERONICA ROTH: Amy! It feels like not that long ago that I read a little excerpt of Daughters Unto Devils while you were working on it — and promptly turned on all the lights in my house. How does it feel to you for your work to finally be out there for people to read? And — I’m sorry, I just have to mention this — how does it feel to get compared to Stephen King? Because I have definitely seen that happen since your book came out! Talk about high praise, no?
AMY LUKAVICS: The Stephen King comparisons have been shocking, to say the least. His work has influenced me from childhood to adulthood, especially It, Pet Sematary, Carrie, and the Dark Tower series. His novella “1922,” from the collection Full Dark, No Stars, was what inspired me to make Daughters Unto Devils a period piece in the first place. I was also pretty moved and inspired by his personal story as depicted in On Writing — I can very much relate to the struggles of raising a family and trying to somehow make the whole publishing thing work at the same time. It hasn’t been easy (and I’d never expect it to be) but to know that someone like King went through similar struggles makes it easier to realize that I should never give up.
Having my first published novel finally out in the open, where people can publicly love it or hate it or anything in between, is an experience that’s been strange and fun and enlightening all at once. I love seeing readers’ reactions, no matter what they are, because it’s fascinating to witness how many different ways people will take a single story. Daughters belongs to the readers now, and I’m happy to let them have it.
While writing my books, I spent a lot of time thinking about fear — what sorts of things we’re afraid of, how we go about overcoming fear, and how we respond when we experience it. I mean, the whole existence of roller coasters and the success of horror movies and books proves that fear is, on some level, appealing to us, which kind of blows my mind. What is it about provoking and experiencing fear that you think we sometimes crave? Or to you personally?
That’s one of the things I loved most about Divergent — the entire concept of how much our fears can control us if we are unconsciously letting them.
Well, thank you!
I think that experiencing terror through scary books or movies can actually empower us, as odd as it sounds. I believe that whenever a certain emotion is awakened, we become acutely aware of whatever emotion rests on the opposite side of the spectrum and can learn more about ourselves as a result.
For example, the opposite of fear is (internal) peace. Just like we cannot fully understand the profound significance and possibilities of happiness without first experiencing sadness, we cannot know true peace until we’ve become intimately acquainted with fear.
Darkness in fiction is very appealing to me for that reason. It can bring up tough questions that we wouldn’t have otherwise contemplated, and it can offer peace to those who relate to such extreme feelings of fear or hopelessness.
You’ve mentioned to me before that horror writers sometimes get flack for writing in the genre — mostly because people don’t understand why you would want to delve into such dark subject matter with your writing. Have confused reactions like that come your way? How do you explain why you write and read horror, as opposed to something else?
I did have an experience once at an event where I was talking about writing with a woman who seemed to be interested in what I had to say about the process, until she found out that I wrote horror. Then she kind of crinkled her nose and said, “Yeah, but, like … think about authors like Clive Barker and Stephen King. The type of stuff they come up with, what does that say about them, if you know what I mean?” I did know what she meant, I just didn’t like it.
Because to me, all it “says” is that there are individuals who recognize the value of exploring the uglier emotions in the human range, because they do in fact have much to teach us. Many of my most valuable reading (and writing) experiences have been in horror. There are truths to be found in the darkness, and important ones at that.
Well, that and it’s just plain fun! Have you ever gotten any comments like that regarding dystopia or sci-fi?
I have, actually! Specifically about violent content, or characters dying. It’s something I still think about, how to make sure sensitive things like that aren’t gratuitous, but rather serve the story. It’s not an easy thing to figure out. But my answer is, particularly in a dystopian world, you need those dark moments. You have to show what’s wrong with the world for the character (and the reader) to feel like it’s worth their life to make it right. You have to have real danger to show real heroism, you have to have real darkness to show moments of real strength. Which is basically what you said earlier, about needing both sides of the spectrum.
One thing I’ve always loved about your writing is how you balance character development with beautiful writing with completely disturbing subject matter — how do you approach that balancing act, when drafting and editing? Do you think it’s important to strike that balance?
Thank you, V! Drafting is especially tough because I’m laying the foundation for the plot while also trying to get a grip on the voice and the characters, which usually don’t even come together until I’m editing anyway. Most of my first drafts feature a weak voice and painfully one-dimensional characters — thank goodness for revisions! While I don’t think there’s any one formula for a horror writer to follow, I personally enjoy the idea of morbid things being written about beautifully, which I’m pretty sure is all Shirley Jackson’s fault. For my own writing, rereading whatever I’m working on out loud will show me exactly how the sentences are flowing.
It must be similar balancing your kick-ass fight scenes with the ones that focus more on character development, yeah?
I feel like I tend to find the character development inside of the action (or the ass-kicking, as it were!), and by the time the story is over, I’ve finally gotten to know the characters through the things they’ve experienced … and have to go back to the beginning to correct inconsistencies or add depth to the beginning — or whatever I wrote first, since I don’t always write in order. I’m with you — thank goodness for revisions, they are definitely my favorite part of the whole process.
I’ve also consistently gotten the same reaction to my rough drafts, which is: this is relentlessly grim. How about some more balance? I guess I have a high tolerance for angst, just like you have a high tolerance for darkness. (And spiders.)
Do you have recommendations for the newbie approaching horror books? What are some of your all-time favorites, whether they’re movies or books or whatever?
Everyone should know this: while horror isn’t for everybody, there is something for everybody in horror if you’re curious enough to dig. There’s such a wide variety of stories available that it’s silly to write off the entire genre just because you don’t like specific elements, like the presence of a monster or graphic gore. Whatever your personal strain of darkness is, the likeliness that you’ll find it in a horror novel is high.
Some favorite books, in no particular order: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, an anthology edited by Peter Straub called Poe’s Children, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Volumes 1–3, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Horns by Joe Hill, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll.
Movies: Frailty, the film adaptation of The Exorcist, The Others, Pan’s Labyrinth (not technically a horror, but definitely horrifying and SO DAMN GOOD), The Babadook, the film adaptation of Pet Sematary. Do you have a favorite horror movie? I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this …
You’re talking to the girl who actually sobbed through The Ring because it was so terrifying. I am a big baby. The closest I get to horror movies generally is in science fiction — I mean, movies like 12 Monkeys, or Sunshine, or certain episodes of The X-Files, really disturb yet fascinate me. And I really love a sustained surreal, disturbing vibe, like all throughout Twin Peaks — or in Pan’s Labyrinth, which I loved! As someone who’s kind of a horror newbie, I’ll have to check out some of your recs! It’s been so great talking to you!
Same! Thanks for the lovely chat.