Celebrating Women in Horror – Interview with Author Penny Jones

Penny is contactable on Twitter @pennyqotu

Hi Penny! Thanks so much for agreeing to be on Rebbie Reviews this month!

Would you like to tell us a bit about your work?

Hi Rebbie, thanks for having me. I still see myself as very new writer so my work tends to be whatever open submissions catch my fancy, or if I’m lucky I might get invited to submit something to a publisher. So the majority of the time my work tends to be dependent on what publishers are looking for. But I would say I am drawn to dark fiction and horror, especially in the short form and the majority of my work tends to sit within that remit. Although I do have a couple of poems published, a novel that is currently doing the rounds of agents and publishers, and a novella that is due out in April.

I believe your Novella Matryoshka Is due out in April? What can you tell us about that? 

Matryoshka is about child birth, loss of identity and post-partum psychosis. It’s actually based loosely on a patient of mine from years ago. I’m a trained mental health nurse and one of my patients developed postpartum psychosis, but during the last two weeks of their pregnancy rather than following the birth. It was a terrifying time for both her and her family. For her it felt as if she was living in a nightmare where one by one her family were being replaced by their evil twins. Everyone was part of the conspiracy so she hid her fears until her psychosis was so acute she was no longer able to hide it. For her family and for the medical professionals involved in her care it was terrifying: she was refusing medication and we were unable to treat her without her consent, she was a flight risk but due to her pregnancy full restraint was not safe, and she wouldn’t eat or drink because she was sure we were poisoning her. She actually did manage to escape from the hospital ward she was on and ended up barricading herself in her attic, no one could get up there, and she only just fitted so even if we got up there no one would have been able to safely get her down in restraint. I decided against adding the attic ending to my novella as I thought my readers would have found it far-fetched. In case anyone is worried, she had a healthy baby (though labour did start in the attic, it did not finish there) and following the birth she accepted treatment and when she came back to see us six months later mother, baby and family were all doing well.

What inspires you to write?

Stephen King talks about “What if?” for me it’s “What if that was me?” I’ve nursed people who’ve been to hell and back and I wonder how they coped. I’ve spoken to families torn apart by abuse. Where siblings have attacked siblings. I’ve nursed the abused and their abusers, I’ve seen the spiral of despair that drive people to horrific acts on others, and then seen those who’ve been abused repeat those behaviours on others. But I’ve also seen the humanity within those same people, the attempts at kindness and selflessness that are done without ulterior motive. And I wonder what started it all, what could have been done to prevent this spiral of hurt and pain. How would I act if I’d been born into their life? I find it impossible to fully describe my fear that their story of horror could have been mine, that it could be anybody’s. I want people to feel for my characters, I try not to have good and bad characters, we all make bad decisions in life, and it usually just luck that those decisions don’t lead down a path of more and more bad decisions. I hope that my writing will make people open to looking at their own perceptions of others and makes them think how would I react if that was me? We are all the hero in our own story, but I expect for most people in at least one person’s  story you will be the villain.

Have you always wanted to write?

I’m not sure if I always wanted to write. I’m a bit flitty and always tend to be wanting to do something other than what I’m actually doing. If procrastinator was an Olympic sport, I would have a gold medal. But certainly others always wanted me to write (my parents bought me a typewriter for Christmas when I was 3). I’m quite lucky in that regard, my family are all very supportive, as are my husband’s family. We both come from families that are not only big readers, but also big genre readers and the majority of my friends either read genre or love watching horror films, so I never get asked “Why horror?” I think I started writing as I wanted to see if I could, never thinking that I would get anything published. Then I started going to conventions and festivals and met other writers and the horror community is so welcoming it all just snowballed from there.

If you could work with any author, living or dead, on a collaboration who would you choose and why?

There’s actually several. My first is I expect one that gets shouted out a lot, Stephen King. Although he wasn’t the first horror author I read, it was his work that really spoke to me as a teenager. I love the depth to his characters and that his work is often more about character than story. I have a great amount of sentimentality about his work, I discovered him when I was 14, and as a teenager I had a Ptolemaic view of life, and his writing seemed to echo my experiences. Even now I can pick up a copy of IT and feel the heat of the summer sun and taste the cider and ice lollies that I shared with my friends lying in the shade of the tree in the field behind my house.

The other two authors are ones I’ve actually met, and I’m still giddy to call them my friends and they are Robert Shearman and Cate Gardner. Both of whom I love for their mastery of their work. They have a control of their story, that leads the reader to feel completely lost within their worlds, as if you have fallen down a rabbit hole. Their writing always blindsides me, they’re like a magician or a quick-change artist, you blink and the story has altered completely, these narrative slights of hand have always awed me, and I have never read two authors who are so able to play on my emotions. If you haven’t read either of them then go buy their books now.

The final person isn’t an author it’s an editor and it’s Stephen Jones. Before I knew of the UK genre scene, of the HWA, or the conventions and festivals that happen around the country I would be desperate to find new horror writers to read. By the time I was 20 I had caught up with the back catalogues of the big horror names, and had read everything that my local bookshop and library had to offer on their ever diminishing horror shelves. Then I found Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror, and suddenly I had a wealth of new authors whose books and works I could immerse myself in.

So I suppose if I was going to do a collaboration it would probably be a Stephen King anthology edited by Stephen Jones, with my story squished in between Robert Shearman and Cate Gardener’s.

What do you feel the response has been like to your work?

I’m always surprised at how positive the response to my work is. It doesn’t necessarily fit easily within any particular genre. I will always say I write horror, but as there is often little that is supernatural and very little gore within my stories, I’m aware that readers may dispute my claim to that genre. I’m also always expecting people to say that they don’t understand my work. Not because of any high falutin reasons, but because as I said earlier I get distracted and tend to go off on tangents. The story makes sense to me, but I always worry that my woolly ideas won’t come across on the page. For example people have spoken both positively and negatively about my short story Dendrochronology as I don’t specify if the protagonist is male or female. This wasn’t done deliberately, I thought it was in the story and hadn’t noticed I hadn’t explicitly mentioned it.

Is your reading choice similar to what you write or is it different?

Usually I read horror, it’s my comfort go-to read, but I do read most other styles of fiction as well. Every so often I try and take myself out of my comfort zone with my reading, so one year I did an A-Z of authors I hadn’t read before, another year all the authors had to come from countries I hadn’t read an author from before. Even whilst doing this about ¾ of the books ended up being horror. A typical read for me though would be what I take on holiday which will usually be the new Stephen King novel, Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror, a novel by an author from whatever country I’m going to, and something from the airport shop that catches my eye.

What does Horror mean to you?

I’m not good with torture, so I tend to avoid anything to squeamish (I really want to watch Saw, but I’m still building up the courage to do so). To me horror is despair, it’s unrelenting, it’s when the book is finished and the monster has been vanquished and you still have to live with the consequences, to live with the knowledge that no one will believe you, that they may blame you, that it could happen again and there is no one you can turn to. I suppose horror to me is that ultimately you are alone.

What is your experience as a published author in the Writing Community?

My experiences have all been good. I’ve become friends with most of the people who published me, and I like to think I’m quite flexible when it comes to editing and publishing my work. I still see my work as starting with my story, which develops along the way as it is read by beta readers, editors and publishers. Luckily so far what I want from a story has only been improved by the writing community and I hope that continues to be the case.

What is your experience of being a Woman in the Horror Community?

Again I’ve only had positive experiences. I wrote a piece the other day about Mary Danby and about how the anthologies I read growing up had more women than men in them, and I would say my bookshelves probably echo this trend now. It may be, I tend to read works from publishers that have a good mix of authors on their books, so when I submit I tend to submit work to them as I want to see my book alongside their back catalogue, but I hope that my positive experiences in the horror community are not the anomaly.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I have a short story that I’m hoping to finish this week, and a novella that I keep putting aside as I’m stupidly fixated on each word I write being perfect for it, and they’re not.

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