Kira Butler is a writer and graphic designer from Montreal. She appreciates dark urban fantasy and low key horror and writes about everything in between. On Halloween she began a monthly offering, Short Fictions and Curiosities, and is currently completing her forthcoming horror novel for young adults, Wake the Dead. She can be found at kirabutler.com and on Twitter @kirabutler.
KH: Thanks, Kira, for agreeing to talk with me. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you get into horror?
KB: I started pretty young. I remember my first encounters with the spooky as a toddler: one of my very first books involved a haunted house and bats. I’m fairly convinced that it still rests in a box in the crawlspace under the stairs at my parents house, but I can’t remember the title, and I’m loathe to get under there now to try and find it, given that the crawlspace has an unreliable hanging bulb, it smells like mildew, and it’s just creepy. It was a picture book, and I might’ve been three years old at the time. Around the same age, my dad taught me how to draw by tracing the images I liked; I remember scribbling a bunch of apple-shaped bats with disproportionate wings on dot matrix printing paper — the sort that you had to peel the edges off? The book must have been a gift for Halloween, but I don’t think my parents realized the sort of impact it would have shaping my interests while growing up.
Then there was Bunnicula, which opened the door to the Christopher Pike books, and then Stephen King — all before I turned twelve years old.
Even today I still have discussions about how terrifying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was. Everyone remembers the illustrations.
KH: Did you post something about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark recently? I remember something about it showing up somewhere in my feed recently, but I don't remember if it was you or not.
KB: I did! A couple of years back, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was re-released with revised illustrations. There have been a few comments from several sources that it’s not the same experience whatsoever. The books I remember as a kid were a collection of creepy stories, but the illustrations by Stephen Gammell were downright terrifying.
KH: Your post was the first time I'd seen the illustrations and egads! I'm half-surprised the proceeds from the re-release aren't going to the 80s Babies Therapy Fund. But then again, Darkwing Duck gave me nightmares, so I'm probably not a good test sample…
KB: The Ghostbusters cartoon gave me nightmares. I think even The Goonies scared me. Now it’s all truffle shuffle chuck loves sloth oh isn’t that cute but so not politically correct in the slightest. I feel you, in any case.
For me, the change in illustrations is wildly unfortunate. I tend to veer towards nostalgia-based horror: a play on early childhood fears because there’s something still awfully resonant about them in later life that we remember as adults. It doesn’t matter that you’ve grown up and you’ve got your most pragmatic and rational faculties all in place, there’s still a part of you that remembers what it felt like to be afraid of the things that lived in the closet, or under the bed, or in the basement. That’s something that I like to play to, because it creates a sense of unease; there's a world of possibilities that undoes the limits of the world we understand.
Those of us that remember those original illustrations and are still talking about them today (believe me, I’ve had this conversation a bunch of times with a bunch of people) have a little part of their childhood selves scarred from the experience. It made a little mark on a generation. That’s good horror.
KH: Who else has made a mark for you?
KB: A handful of authors including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Dan Simmons, Mike Mignola, and J.K. Rowling. There are a ton more, but these writers are luminaries for me: they lit the path.
I remember finishing The Sandman and being depressed for a week that it was over. It was my first experience with graphic novels, but the characters were so real to me that it hurt to leave them once the books were done. I blasted through most of Stephen King’s early cannon over a couple of summers, and eventually that led me to Dan Simmon’s Summer of Night. I reread it recently just to see if my pre-teen brain was playing tricks on me; it couldn’t have been that scary. It was. It still is.
And, you know, as far as leaving marks, there’s Dracula. As far as the classics go, always: Dracula. Definitely the place to start when trying to purge yourself of the Twilight vampires. ;) I’ve got an edition illustrated by Ben Templesmith (who drew 30 Days of Night.) The art’s a really excellent addition to the story.
KH: Summer of Night looks terrifying. *requests it from the library* And it looks like it goes along with your thing for remembering the terrors of childhood?
KB: Totally. As a pre-teen reading adult fiction about children who eventually grew up to become tormented adults because of the things they suffered when they were younger, King and Simmons definitely laid some groundwork for future influences. This is adult fiction we’re talking about: gritty, nasty stuff, but I still found myself able to identify with the characters in It or Summer of Night or The Body because they were children when these stories began. (In the case of Summer of Night, there are other books written much later by Simmons about the older-selves of the protagonists: Children of Night follows Mike O’Rourke from Summer, and Cordy Cook is the protagonist of A Winter Haunting. Separate novels, but there’s a shadow lingering from early on. Continuity. I like it.)
KH: I've heard a lot of women say that The Sandman was their first experience with graphic novels, which always surprises me because it was awhile after I discovered Persepolis before I even knew Neil Gaiman did graphic novels... even though I was a big fan of American Gods. Actually, that probably says more about my weak powers of discovery than anything else...
I'm curious, though, how you discovered The Sandman and what drew you in?
KB: I’ve heard good things about Persepolis! Haven’t read it myself, but the recommendation comes up often enough that I’ll put it on my list. I really liked American Gods too. And Good Omens. And The Graveyard Book. And Stardust. (The Sandman was my gateway drug to Gaiman.)
I heard about The Sandman on subthread on the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab forums several years back. I think I have a bit of a collection… thing. I’m reluctant to say “problem” because the only real problem that resulted from hanging out on the BPAL boards was collecting too much perfume, and too many comic books. (The only “problem” I see here is too little shelf space.)
Death was the real catalyst though. The character, I mean. For one, she’s an anthropomorphic entity personified as a cute, quirky goth chick, and for two, she’s a really compelling character. Whatever Didi wants, she’s gonna get it.
KH: You say on your site that you write adult and YA. Any YA influences?
KB: As far as young adult fiction goes, I’m a huge fan of anything penned by Daniel Kraus. Both Rotters and Scowler changed the way I approach YA horror, and I loved White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick for the strong elements of gothic horror he used to shape the book. Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone series makes my heart sing because of the way she describes Prague, and I never miss a Holly Black release. Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood is a favourite as well -- it’s attributed frequently as the book that brought YA horror the mainstream, and I don’t think that assessment is unjustly given. I read it while backpacking in Paris a couple of autumn’s back in-between cemetery visits to Pere Lachaise and Montmartre. Blake handles a haunting like no one else I’ve read so far.
KH: We talked about literary horror influences, but what about life? Not every kid dives for the Stephen King. Were you not scared enough as a child?
KB: I think inasmuch as horror is concerned, there was definitely a predisposition towards it, but my childhood, I think (I hope) was pretty well-rounded as far as other influences go. I picked up a lot of my dad’s inspirations too — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future. I had Barbie dolls and Rainbow Brite and Castle Greyskull growing up. I watched Full House and The Goonies and Alf and that show with Steve Urkel? I think it was Family Matters? I did jazz ballet for ages, even figure skated. My dad used to sit down with me at the coffee table and we’d spend evenings drawing together. My folks read me the Narnia books. I made them read me so many books before I could read them myself. So many art classes. I have so many watercolour relics of fruit it’s not even funny. I still have my teddy bear from when I was three. I had what I consider a “normal” upbringing with astonishingly supportive parents who nurtured my creative side, who disclaim any responsibility for me veering into the dark stuff. I did sneak my Stephen King books from the library past my mother at first; she thought they would give me nightmares, and they totally did for a very long time.
I was afraid of my imaginings back then too: the dark, not closing the closet fully when I went to bed at night, getting my feet off the ground and under the covers as fast as possible, etc.
If anything reading horror and watching horror movies let me confront those fears and come to terms with the fact that they’re largely products of an overactive imagination. They’re not real. They’re controllable — you can always stop watching. Turn away. Close your eyes.
The question is: do you really want to?
KH: I know I sure don’t. So, it sounds like you were introduced to art and scary stories all in one go. I know that you're a designer now, as well as a writer. Did art and writing grow up together with you? Did you focus on one for awhile? Switch back and forth?
KB: I started designing websites at thirteen, which is pretty young all things considered. I taught myself the fundamentals of front end web development alongside the slow process of learning design, and eventually I got involved with Swanky.org; it was a design community, but in the days before free publication venues like Medium or LiveJournal, we were using the site to publish articles with our custom designs. In the beginning, writing and design were definitely married for me. I remember being picked on in high school for being a web nerd, and an art nerd, but for the most part, no one said anything about the fact that I was writing some pretty dark stuff at the time. I think they figured I’d grow out of it.
I didn’t really take either pastime seriously until I got to CEGEP and needed to start making decisions that would determine what I’d do with myself in the future. Writing took a back seat for a couple of years, and somewhere along the lines I turned into a creative professional with a BFA from one university and a specialization from another. At the time, I was getting ready to start a masters program in art history.
KH: Is there a particular area of art history that interests you?
KB: I don’t think taphology classifies, but if it did, I’d be all over that. (Neoclassical sculpture is the closest. There’s a cemetery in Staglieno, Italy that’s just full of sculptural mourning work.) I’ve always been very interested in the northern renaissance and in particular, Vanitas/Memento Mori painting. That probably would have been the direction I’d have taken for my course of studies… the real question would have been what I would have done with the degree. It became apparent pretty early that I wasn’t interested in curatorial or research work in the arts. I prefer to do rather than observe and catalogue.
KH: Did you decide not to pursue it?
KB: After six years post-secondary education, tacking on another four semesters in an art history masters program seemed a bit much. I decided to jump into getting my career started as a designer instead; I landed a job at a software developer and I’ve been at it ever since.
KH: When did you return to writing? After college?
KB: When I finally stumbled out into the real world, the writing did come back, but it returned in the shape of fan fiction. Harry Potter and X-Men, specifically. It’s funny to me now, because I can trace both threads of influence and see where they run through my life and how I’ve applied myself: I’ve never really been without either of them for very long — art or design. Fandom, though — I think I really learned to love the craft while hanging out at conventions with other writers. There was a lot of support from the community to try my hand at something original, and eventually that’s what happened.
KH: Where did you start with original writing?
KB: NaNoWriMo, actually. I used National Novel Writing Month as the jumping off point for the very first, very ugly draft of Wake the Dead. In the end, the whole thing got scrapped, but it was a good learning experience that helped me get started.
KH: What was the most important thing you learned?
KB: Make a plan! Outline! When it comes to NaNoWriMo, you have so little time to write (assuming you already hold a full time job or you’re in school full time) that you need to learn to budget your time accordingly and write fast. If you want to avoid a puttering meander through your novel, it’s best to approach the writing part with a solid direction: a full outline with scene breakdowns. Know your story world, too: what happens before you drop your reader into the action, and what comes after.
KH: This is an awkward question to phrase, but I think you'll get the idea. Why write YA and adult? What does each of these genres allow you to do that the other one doesn't?
KB: I think the important thing to recognize is that YA isn’t a genre: it’s an age group. The genre remains the same, whether Wake the Dead was written for teenagers or adults: it’s still dark fiction with horror leanings. But when you change the target readership, you change the way in which you approach your format. Young Adult fiction often throws you into the action fairly quick before lobbing further complications at the characters. Writing for this age group, you need to be prepared to get in, mess things up, and get out. Adult fiction allows for a little more preamble, and a longer manuscript word count too. There’s more time to draw out reader sympathy and wind up the tension. More time to make the characters bleed, so to speak. Other considerations involve content and language choices, which brings up certain questions: is it okay for a teenage protagonist to use foul language, or commit atrocities, or have sex (explicit or implied.) You’re going to put a young adult title with these subjects into the hands of a young adult, and it’s probably their parents who are paying for it — their parents who have the opportunity to veto the books branded as “something your mom will not approve of.”
My mom never approved of me reading Stephen King, but the fact that I wasn’t “allowed” didn’t exactly stop me. I think it was the lynchpin of encouragement, in hindsight.
For the times where I don’t want to curb explicit material so much, I veer back into adult fiction, and sometimes I still write teenage protagonists while in the context of adult horror fiction, but they are definitely doing the stuff that mom wouldn’t approve of.
KH: You mentioned Wake the Dead, which is your current novel-in-progress. Is it YA?
KB: Wake the Dead is indeed YA. Wake the Dead was written for my teenage self: we choose to work with protagonists who we want our readers to identify with, and while Eden Pearce is not a younger me by any means, I think I would have related to her disillusion when I was sixteen or seventeen.
KH: Where are you at in your process with Wake the Dead?
KB: I’m about a month deep into the revision/rewriting process. I’ve got a much better feel for the world and the characters having gone through the story once, so I’m hacking away at it. It’s better than the initial draft ever was. I’ve got the flavour and the flow and the themes are rising to the surface.
KH: So, we originally decided to talk because you started monthly offering on Halloween…
KB: This is true. I’m still pretty deep into revisions for the novel, but I wanted to try my hand at short format writing to take a break once in awhile. The project, called Short Fictions & Curiosities, delivers a free short story at the end of the month for download to all e-reader formats from my website, KiraButler.com. Each month the offering is a little bit different: the first release, "Chasing Ghosts," was made available this past Saturday. It’s about a young man who inherits a property in Spitalfields, but the place is a little unusual in that he never feels quite alone in the house. It’s a ghost story, absent the ghosts. Creepy and a little melancholic, but not outright scary.
In November’s release, "Second Line," we’ll travel to the bayous outside of New Orleans to contend with the aftermath of Katrina, and the circumstances get a little bit darker.
I wanted to play with texture and tone and characters, and by the shape of things to come, we might even encounter a few figures from the world of Wake the Dead later on in the year.
It’s an odd collection of stories that didn’t otherwise have a place to live, so I’m giving them a home and accordingly, access to some sunlight. They live in pretty dark places.
KH: The way you've decided to release the book is interesting--tweets/likes for stories, basically. What inspired you to go that route instead of the more "traditional" magazines/anthology/collection route?
KB: I try to make deliberate decisions with my marketing. Since I’m still a ways out from releasing novel-length stories, I figured the best way to make use of my time before the larger marketing efforts start is to begin by establishing a name for myself — pay per tweet, or pay per like is a great way to gain exposure for your content: I want to drive my website traffic to places where I can reach people, like a mailing list or a Facebook fan page, and as most social media venues are free to exploit, it seems like the best place to start.
I have other designs on using YouTube to my advantage too, but I’m still in the experimentation phase of trying to re-learn AfterEffects and video editing to make it happen. (Secretly, I just want to be John Green but without the idiosyncrasies and all of the added dark stuff.) I have author friends who are dabbling in podcasting to gain a better foothold for themselves. I have other friends using Pinterest to culture hack their books into the Pintersphere. Instagram’s another venue for authors to gain exposure. Vine another.
You can write the book and publish the book, but you’ve got to be smart about your marketing. You’ve got to have a plan if you want it to sell. I’m kicking off that plan way early in the game before monetizing anything is even a consideration. It’s an opportunity to try things, see what works, discard what doesn’t, and learn a bit before throwing myself into the deep end.
That’s not to say that these stories won’t find their way into a collection at any point. I think there’s an application for that as well — at the end of the year when it’s all said and done. I plan on compiling the twelve into an anthology (my first) that will have a couple of additional pieces that no one’s ever seen before. It’ll be available on Barnes & Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Amazon, Google, Scribd, and my website. (Which, by the way, is giving me a short, hard learning lesson in setting up a transactional eCommerce site, which I’ve never done for myself before.)
My advice to anyone else who’s got big ideas: carve out the time for yourself to make stuff, stick to it, and don’t be afraid to learn new things.
KH: I think I remember reading somewhere that you're interested in the occult. Is that true?
KB: I’ve had a fairly long-standing love affair with occult studies and the supernatural, but from an academic point of view, rather than the practical. You won’t catch me attempting to summon anything anytime soon. My latest fixation has been the Spiritualist movement, but I like to dabble in arcane lore where possible to gather ideas for future stories.
KH: What are your favorite sources for lore?
KB: I’m a ginormous fan of Atlas Obscura, iO9, Messy Nessy Chic, Grave Matters, Dark Links, and Boing Boing. You get hit with all sorts of inspiration for all sorts of things all at the same time.