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Interview with Christi Nogle about The Best of Our Past, The Worst of Our Future
Christi Nogle writes fiction that’s somehow both grounded and surreal. I have described her as Shirley Jackson on mushrooms, because her stories have the grotesque elements and twists you might expect from the most surprising horror stories, but then dream logic will intervene, and you’ll feel like the glowing astronaut at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Anyway, she graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her writing process. Her new story collection, The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future, is coming out on February 21, 2023. It’s a good time to pre-order if you haven’t already.
Here is my interview with Christi:
Where did you grow up, and do you think the culture there affected your writing? For example, I've noticed that your characters often internalize their suffering instead of reacting outwardly…any connection there?
I was an only child, and my parents moved around a lot. We usually lived in the country around southern Indiana and Illinois but also for short times in a camper or van running around Florida, Kentucky, Idaho, and Alaska. Sometimes I attended church schools with only a few dozen children; other times I was homeschooled or just missed school in order to travel. My mom was always attentive and devoted, but it was hard to make friends or have other sorts of connections. We would occasionally visit extended family who were living more typical middle-class lives, so I could see how strange our situation was. My dad had some problems that I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say that it was safer to internalize than to react, and the overall lifestyle affected me in many ways, not the least of which was to throw me into books and into my imagination.
In many of your stories, there is a dreamlike turn towards the uncanny at some point, or a turn where you realize the protagonist has misled you or misunderstood something vital. Do these twists happen naturally as you write, or do you usually have a plan in the beginning?
I rarely know what a story is going to do before I write it. Often I’ll spend a great deal of time planning—writing notes about the setting, characters, details, dialogue, and what have you—but I usually don’t plan the events, at least not beyond the first few. It feels like I need a lot of preparation in order to get to a place where the characters and their situation feel real, and then once that happens, I begin writing in earnest to find out where their story goes. Sometimes I think I know what’s supposed to happen but then it does not feel right, and I’ll start again from zero with the characters, setting, and premise but with none of the events from the original draft.
Many of these stories linger over the details of interiors, of strange houses that might be works of art or might be traps or might be necessary to keep away apocalyptic hordes. Why might interiors and architecture be important to this collection?
There is a distinctive home in just about every story here. Some are described in detail, such as the sustainable desert house with its handmade glass windows and hippie furnishings in “The Gestures Remain,” the bakery with upstairs apartment in “Cinnamon to Taste,” and the haunted mansion with its red lawn in “The Pelt.” In others, the house may not be rendered on the page so much, but it’s clear to me still. I can see the little bungalow in “The Came Back,” for example, even though its description is minimal.
There’s a point in “A Children’s Treasury of Windows and Doors” where the main character is drawing houses from books, and I think that moment is a defining one for the collection. I’m sure my childhood figures in all my work, one way or another, but this collection is particularly close to it, I think. When we were traveling, I was always the one longing to settle down and stay in one place and would daydream about some of the places I visited in books. My mother always appreciated old houses and passed that down, and we both always had detailed dreams about houses as well.
Even today, my home, belongings, and immediate environment are incredibly important to me—probably more important than these things ought to be. A line from “The Pelt” is “one needs a little dread to make a home.” It’s fear that makes us hoard or shut in, but I think there are also plenty of people who have the best homes they can possibly afford in order to maintain respectability—they are afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. The house, to me, is intimately linked with fear about the future and shame about the past.
Think of a home as a fear-management device, one that can malfunction spectacularly.
The title story of your collection (The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future) is inspired by the Irish blessing, "May the best day of your past be the worst day of your future." Of course, the way it's phrased in the title, it's rather menacing! Did this saying have any special significance to you before you used it here?
The collection title comes from the story “The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future,” where the main character and her mother are living in the afterlife of their family’s “supposed glory days.” It’s just them now, the house is falling apart, and they’ve lost whatever sense of direction might have existed before. Before I had the title, I noticed these ideas repeating in the story, such as “all the best is in the past,” and then when the wedding scene came up, I knew that blessing would have to come in. I liked it for the title because it could mean both: a future better than the past, or the opposite of that.
Most of the stories here deal with trauma from the past and the question of whether the future will be any better.
Most of the protagonists in these stories are women who feel pressured to live up to societal expectations, or they feel exiled because they don't. And they often have complicated relationships with other women. Were you aware of any recurring thoughts or feelings you had about these topics that popped up as you wrote these stories?
Social expectations for women have been changing over my lifetime, and because of the way I grew up, the shift has seemed even more exaggerated. I was required to wear a dress to school and prohibited from cutting my hair, for example. While she was married to my father, my mother stayed home, had no money of her own, and was very clearly told what she was and was not allowed to do. Fast forward to 2022 and in some ways things have changed for the better, but you also have terrifying and vehement backlash, you also have reproductive rights being taken away in many states, including the state where I live.
The questions about what it means to be a woman, what is expected and allowed, have been prominent in my life and in my reading, so I’m not surprised that they come through in my work. The themes are most explicit in “In the Country,” where you see internalized misogyny affecting the relationship between mother and daughter and in “I Came Back,” where a father is not aware of how devastating his attitudes have been to his late wife and daughter. Even when these themes are less central to the story, they are still present. In “Unschooled” and “The Old Switcheroo,” fears around pregnancy figure strongly. In “The Pelt,” “Mirrorhouse,” “Resilience,” and the title story, the characters are taking a subordinate position without questioning it, and in “Move-in Weekend,” you see the character using that position as a type of shield.
These stories are often interested in describing and documenting some of the devaluation and (often internalized) hatred of women I have noticed.
Do you think there are still some barriers for women who write horror?
External barriers exist for women as well as other marginalized people, I’m sure, but it’s hard to weigh and compare those barriers. We know there are some horror readers who only read or celebrate male authors, or eighty percent male authors, but we also have some editors, publishers, and readers who are excited about women authors. The barriers encountered by one woman versus another will be different depending on other factors as well.
I think, though, that there are also important internalized barriers. I have come a long way but still find myself reticent and at times terrified to put myself out there, and I know part of that is personality, but part of it is that I’ve always been told (and shown) that it is safer to be quiet and reserved. Quite a few women horror writers report being asked some version of “What’s a nice girl like you doing in the field?” too. I’m sure that not all women experience these sorts of barriers, but I would imagine the number who do is significant.
Did anyone encourage you to write when you were young? And did anyone discourage you from writing?
I was skilled at drawing as a kid, so my parents, teachers, and classmates always encouraged me to think of myself as an artist. I grew up pretty clueless about the “real world” and so I fully expected I would paint or draw for a living even though I had no idea of how to get started on that. Eventually my grandparents persuaded me to go to college and study art, and that was the first time my writing drew much attention. Eventually I listened to professors’ advice and added a major and then a graduate degree in English. My mother and partner were also very encouraging once I started writing fiction. My very first short story, The Drought, 1983, was an attempt to express some of what had gone on in my childhood.
I don’t think anyone has tried to get me to stop writing, but some folks have tried to discourage the types of stories I write. I’ve been told that they’re hard to understand, too weird, too long, too short, too plotless, too complicated, have unlikeable or unrelatable characters, and so on. It often comes down to these people not being part of the audience I’m hoping to reach. I think lots of writers deal with these kinds of responses, so I’d recommend reading Michael Saless’s Craft in the Real World to get some perspective.
You're also a teacher of writing. What are the most important lessons about writing that you hope to impart to your students?
“You can do it” is probably the most important lesson, and close after that is the idea that you can use writing as a tool to develop your ideas rather than having to have the ideas fully formulated before you begin writing. I also lean hard into what George Saunders calls the “iconic space” and identifying what makes your own work distinct from others’.
In college writing classes, we tried to teach flexibility and expand their writing “toolbox.” For adult workshops and mentoring, this is also sometimes a focus, but since participants are typically more experienced and invested, teaching is often more about doing idea-building exercises with them, sharing stories from my own writing life, taking specific questions, and offering feedback on stories. I have a Zoom-based workshop starting February 8th, in case any of your readers are interested: The Art of Dread: Crafting Contemporary Horror with Christi Nogle
For writers who feel blocked or discouraged, do you have any advice on how to keep going? Do you still feel discouraged sometimes?
Feeling blocked could be due to so many different issues. You might have taken a wrong turn somewhere. You might be unsure what you want to work on, using procrastination to cope with feeling overwhelmed, or just needing a break. One thing that helps when I feel blocked is to do some journaling about what the reasons are. If I’m unsure what to work on, for example, I might set a game-type task such as brainstorming ten ideas or sprinting for ten minutes. Often an idea will come before the ten are done, and I’ll just go with it. If I’m feeling blocked for other reasons, the remedies might be different.
For discouragement, I try to advise people to focus on their successes as much as possible. Spending time around people who are positive and complimentary might help boost your mood. Helping and encouraging others can be a big help because then you can feel excited (instead of jealous and bitter) about the successes around you. Doing more of the things you do well (rather than trying to remedy your perceived weaknesses) is another way to combat discouragement.
I do still feel discouraged sometimes, but I think the focus and quality of discouragement changes. Initially I was unsure if I’d ever finish a story, a novel, or a collection. I still worry about what’s happening next, but the discouragement seems to affect me less because those prior successes are behind me.
What has been your proudest moment as a writer?
My mother and I were very close throughout my life, and she passed away in August of 2021. She didn’t get to see my first novel, Beulah, in its final form, but when I knew it would be published, she asked me to print a copy for her to read. She read it carefully and remarked that she’d loved it and had seen a lot of our experiences reflected there.
What dead writers would you like to thank for helping you write The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future?
Here are some writers who ignited or re-ignited my desire to read and write at one point or another. I imagine you can see the influence of some of them in the collection but probably not all of them: Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), Beverly Cleary (1916-2021), Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), Toni Morrison (1931-2019), Peter Straub (1943-2022), Octavia Butler (1947-2006).
What is a question you'd ask yourself in an interview? (Oh, and you might as well go ahead and answer it!)
Who are a few contemporary writers who reignite your interest in reading, and what books are you looking forward to?
Kelly Link’s four previous short story collections are among my favorites. Just now I am reading her newest, White Cat, Black Dog, and eagerly awaiting her first novel. Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall is a favorite, and I loved Mortal Love–an older book, but I just discovered it this year! Caroline Hardaker’s Composite Creatures was such a surprise, and I can’t wait for her next. Steve Rasnic Tem is a writer I always love to encounter in anthologies, and just lately his story collection Thanatrauma was a cathartic experience. Naben Ruthnum’s novella Helpmeet from Undertow Publications was the weirdest thing I read this year. Everything from Undertow is wonderful, and I look forward to more from this author. Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes and Fever Dream have lived on for me since I read them. Jo Koch’s Convulsive and R.J. Joseph’s Hell Hath No Sorrow Like a Woman Haunted introduced me to those writers this year, and I look forward to more from them.
I am always excited about any new works from Stephen Graham Jones, Gwendolyn Kiste, Brian Evenson, Kristi DeMeester, John Langan, Jo Kaplan, and Michael Wehunt as well.
Her novel Beulah is already out and is a great and surprising ghost story. For more information and links to her stories online, her website is: http://christinogle.com/
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