This week I am thrilled to have as my guest, Lisa Mannetti. For those who haven’t been keeping up with news from the horror front, Ms. Mannetti won this year’s Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement for her debut novel, The Gentling Box.
When I originally asked Lisa for the interview, she most graciously offered to tell us about her writing techniques in addition to talking about her current projects. Due to the length of the interview, I’ve broken our discussion into two parts.
Today I’d like to introduce you to Lisa and we will be talking about The Gentling Box, researching your novel, Gothic and literary horror. Tomorrow we will be discussing point of view and Lisa’s upcoming projects.
Lisa goes all out for us, and I hope you enjoy her discussions as much as I enjoyed working with Lisa.
I present Ms. Lisa Mannetti:
TF: We’re going to start with your debut novel. Tell us about The Gentling Box.
When the book opens, he is not only on the verge of death having been afflicted with a hideously disfiguring and fatal disease by his mother-in-law, Anyeta – a choovahanee or sorceress. Then we follow the descent Imre has taken to this horrendous low point: He is dying, his wife has been possessed by her mother, his closest friends have been tortured and maimed by Anyeta and, his daughter, Lenore is her next target. In the present (that forms the final chapters of the book) we watch Imre attempting to resolve matters and save what’s left of the wreck of his life at great personal cost.
TF: What inspired you to write The Gentling Box?
LISA: What inspired me primarily was a lifelong love of Tennessee Williams (whose sister, Rose, was lobotomized) and a very strong interest in theater and specifically in this case, Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus. Somehow, my love of animals and my horror over the blinding scene in Equus and my fear of insanity and lobotomies combined inside my unconscious and my imagination; so, gentling (in the book) is a kind of lobotomy using long iron needles which is performed on horses, and the “box” is the tool of gypsy horse traders.
Additionally, my mother made me a gypsy costume when I was a kid (I wore it several years running since I hardly ever outgrew anything) and I was crazy over Maria Ouspenkskaya who plays the old gypsy woman in the Lon Chaney werewolf movies. “Is only one woman in whole country who can help you,” she used to intone along with the bit about the sign of the pentagram on poor Larry Talbot’s chest, and I guess somehow this transmogrified into love/fear of gypsies.
I was also terrified by demonic possession – thanks to the grammar school nuns who told us it was entirely possible. When you’re 8 years old and a nun tells you that St. John Bosco was levitated 3 feet over his bed, trust me, you believe it. When a well-regarded professor at Fordham (who happens to be a Jesuit) tells you essentially the same thing approximately 25 years later, you believe it even more.
Finally, I had (have?) a really morbid and keen interest in disease – my mother was a nurse (later, a public health director) and I spent a lot of time reading my mother’s nursing books as a child. In fact, my older brother and I used to play a game with her med/surg text book: You open a page (random selection here) and look at the picture. The other person must then turn the page to look at the next photo and so on. You lose if you can’t look at your picture and, remarkably, it never mattered who went first or where we started in the book – my brother invariably lost because he could not look at the patient with tertiary syphilis (who had no nose).
In fact, even chicken pox (or varicella as it was then also called) was too much for him. I lucked out because even though I was petrified (dare I say phobic) about leprosy the picture of that wasn’t too bad. Small pox (also known as variola) . . . shudder . . .
All I can say is read Zola’s Nana for the literary equivalent of what my mother’s nursing book said: “There is no disease so foul, so difficult . . .” Imre’s disease, glanders – which is a real disease – was inspired by these descriptions and memories.
TF: The amount of research you did was phenomenal and really paid off for readers like me who knew something of the Romany history. The book felt very authentic in both detail and setting, but you never allowed the information to detract from the story.
LISA: The Internet at the time was completely untrustworthy as far as doing research – in fact I used to complain to my students at Mount Saint Mary College that they ought to avail themselves of the library: a building with a card catalogue that led (sort of like a scavenger hunt) to actual books.
It was so obvious they were all using the same “research.” Given a topic (say, “The Yellow Room,” which is about madness and was one of the short stories I assigned) I’d find 21 out of 23 papers with the same perspective, language, etc. In fact, it was sinfully easy back then to pinpoint the exact article they all copied. So, for my work I basically utilized the library and a little-used human resource called Intra-library loan.
You can get books from any library in your county and despite Google’s intent to copy every single book ever published it hasn’t happened yet and there really is a lot more out there in libraries than on the Internet. It’s true you might be able to get professional/insider information online (medical, for example), but libraries are free – while pro sites will end up costing you your arms, legs, three car payments and whatever money you need so you can go into bars and eavesdrop to learn how to write dialogue.
The librarians of Wappingers Falls were sterling about getting me hundreds of books regarding history, language, culture – you name it. I was lucky enough that Dutchess County included Vassar College. Talk about gold mines!
TF: How do you determine when you’ve supplied your reader with enough information without detracting from the story?
LISA: As I was taught in a self-editing class, here’s the rule of thumb about information (or really almost all aspects of storytelling as far as background, setting, plot devices, etc.). Be like the CIA, in other words, as an author you only reveal any element strictly on a “need to know” basis. If the reader does not need to know that particular bit of information at that time, you don’t include it. Never telegraph (or signal) what is coming next and keep in mind that pretending to be a spy who’s totally in control helps you stay tight with focus and “kill all your darlings,” as Stephen King would say.
TF: You told me that The Gentling Box was originally 1,000 pages. Tell me how did you whittle that number of words down, and how did you determine what, if any, scenes to keep?
LISA: Here’s the god’s honest truth: when my agent at the time told me I had to rewrite The Gentling Box I got rid of everything but the title of the book, a few character names, the concept of gentling and the concept of the hand of the dead. In other words, I started out on page 1 with a blank slate. In fact, in the original thousand page version, Zahara was a ‘good’ character; so was Vaclav, the leader of the gypsy troupe. I really did chuck it all and this time through, I chose Imre to narrate the story in first person and listened to his voice.
TF: Your background is in 18th and 19th century literature when the Gothic novel was popular in England. Did you intentionally set out to write a 20th century gothic novel when you wrote The Gentling Box?
LISA: Whoa, Teresa, loaded question! LOL. First of all, novels were pretty much considered by the elite (translate that into those who were literate and therefore well-to-do) as being strictly a province of “women” during the 18th and 19th century. The best analogy I can come up with is to say that novels were dismissed like daytime TV soap-operas which were believed to appeal strictly to stay-at-home women in the 1950s and early 60s. In other words: fodder, tomfoolery, junk for low minds and small intellects.
Clearly everyone did not believe this or we would not have the legacy of writers like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Mary Shelley etc. Dickens, of course, is in a different class: people would storm the docks when another installment of his novels was arriving in New York from England. But, before we start channeling the ghost of literature 101 we have to keep in mind that there were tremendous changes between the 18th and 19th century and the beginning and end of the 19th century itself.
Here’s a little scoop for you, the age of Enlightenment referenced by the publisher on the back cover of The Gentling Box is wrong…I didn’t dispute it, but romanticism (well in place when The Gentling Box is supposed to take place) was a direct reversal of the rationalism that preceded it.
Have I lost sight of your question about gothic novels? Hell no . . . I’m almost there.
Most scholars disparage gothic novels – and for good reason. Books like The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole are mainly interesting in the way specimens of squashed spiders can intrigue entomologists (What kind of arachnid was it before someone dropped an anvil on it? Was it male or female? Is this species primarily found in Brooklyn or Borneo?) Books like Walpole’s have their place – and are worthy to a degree – but like the very earliest films created, they’re more experiment than art.
Let’s not forget a lot of the gothic material at the time was written purely to line the author’s pockets and to cash in on a popular trend. Kind of like most movies nowadays. <grin> But lots of mainstream novels were supposedly true (they weren’t, of course or were very loosely based on fact to give them cachet) including Robinson Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year (Defoe was a newshound) and the completely fictitious, Moll Flanders. Swift, for example, was afraid of his imagination and like Samuel Johnson, he was of terrified madness. The pendulum swung the other way in the early 19th century and that luckily spawned great books like Frankenstein.
So, did I set out to write a gothic novel? No. Because ‘gothic’ was a pejorative in my mind when I wrote the book. But, now that gothic novels have been run through the rinse cycle culturally speaking, I don’t mind at all being called gothic. Up till recently, the only gothic considered actual literature was what was produced under the term “southern gothic.” And there have been some incredible writers in that lifeboat: Carson McCullers, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote to name just a very few. But as long as it’s considered real literature and not “tripe” as it used to be, I’m very happy to be deemed a gothic novelist.
TF: I’ve seen the phrase “literary horror” listed on several agents’ websites. Some people have defined literary horror as “not splatterpunk” which isn’t really a definition at all. Do you have a definition of “literary horror”?
LISA: Literary horror is horror that strives to be beyond “rote” literature – it breaks ground, it avoids clichés, it’s well-written. To me, the term “literary” means the book (whether it’s horror-oriented or not) shows finesse and ideation – not just with story-telling, but with the choice of words, with meanings that underpin the book, with depth of character.
Literary is another term for classic. We all know instinctively as readers what makes a great book. Great storytelling, drama, characters that live and breathe, flights of imagination. Classic books capture us, grip us by heart, mind, and other assorted body parts and they don’t let go. Of course they can be read purely for story – that’s why children can read Jane Eyre (say) or the groundlings loved Shakespeare during the Elizabethan Age.
It’s why Charles Dickens was so popular in the 19th century, too. Jaws and Love Story sold more copies than the population of some Midwestern states. But the best literature reaches across the boards to people from every walk of life. Regular folk can relate solely through story, character, and situation – and scholars and students and critics can analyze to their hearts’ content.
To go a step beyond this level of literary horror (or any genre) you’re looking at works that map out new territory, that penetrate the prevailing collective psyche and set trends. Does that mean literary horror is arcane or difficult to understand? Not necessarily, though books of this caliber certainly can use language in a way that demands more effort and less passivity on the part of the reader.
This is not a new concept.
We’re used to it in art (think, e.g. Jackson Pollack and, going way back to the bad old 19th century, Paul Gauguin or Vincent Van Gogh ); film ( Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Hitchcock) music (Beethoven, the Beatles) and other venues. Calling any work of art literary does not detract from the notion of popular. To my way of thinking, the best “literary” works incorporate popular appeal and intellectual and emotional grace notes.
Stephen King has been compared to Charles Dickens for very good reasons. (You might not like everything King has written, but as a 19th century student, I can honestly say I don’t like everything Dickens wrote either. No one is going to produce that many works and have everything reach the highest level he or she is capable of producing but, so what?)
Looking for what I consider truly today’s groundbreaking literary horror? Try (among others) Robert Dunbar or Jeremy C. Shipp or Tom Piccirilli or, my personal favorite, Peter Straub.
I’m honored that The Gentling Box is considered literary . . . in my own mind I have a long way to go.
TF: Thank you so much, Lisa!
We’re going to stop for today, but be sure you read An Interview with Lisa Mannetti – Pt. II where we talk about point of view and Lisa’s upcoming projects.
If you have a minute, you can visit Ms. Mannetti at:
Her blog is at: www.lisamannetti.blogspot.com.
Or visit The Chancery House where Lisa creates ghostly e-cards you can send to your friends!