Christa Carmen lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband, daughter, and bloodhound-golden retriever mix, and is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, The Daughters of Block Island, and Beneath the Poet’s House, coming fall 2024 from Thomas & Mercer.
Additional work can be found in Vastarien, Nightmare, Orphans of Bliss, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and the Stoker-nominated anthologies, Not All Monsters and The Streaming of Hill House. She has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA from Boston College, and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.
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Tell me about yourself. What inspired you to write?
I have been writing in one capacity or another for as long as I can remember—painstakingly bound and hilariously illustrated short stories as a child, emo journal entries as an adolescent and when I was in treatment for substance abuse, impassioned nonfiction essays and decidedly weak attempts at memoir—but I didn’t start writing fiction until about 2014. I’ve always loved the Gothic, so my first completed project was a gothic horror novel set in the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Monson, Maine… very Stephen King of me, I know. After that, I wrote predominately short stories for several years, and then returned to writing novels at the start of 2019.
Describe your desk / writing space.
Technically, I can write anywhere, but if I have the choice, I’m in my home office. My desk is over a hundred years old, a beautiful, massive, oak wood rolltop, with endless little slots and drawers and compartments, perfect to fill with odds and ends that I can look upon for distraction or inspiration. When my grandfather purchased a plot of property boasting a church and several additional buildings in 1970 or so, the desk was found in the rectory basement, once used by the parish priest, along with several gorgeous glass-front bookcases that also ended up in my home office.
My office also contains my altar, tons of paintings and artwork, books written by friends and colleagues, an old typewriter, endless candles, tarot decks, baskets of stationery and notecards, seashells, bird feathers, etc.
Do you have a writing routine, or do you write when inspired?
My writing time has changed significantly since having my daughter. I certainly don’t write at the same time each day; I don’t even write daily. To put it simply, I write when I have an ongoing project I need/want to work on, or if the idea for a new project or short story strikes me. Once I’m working on a project, especially a big one, I’ll get into a routine of hitting a daily page or word count, but I have to take advantage of the time during which I can write whenever it presents itself. That might be for twenty minutes in bed with my daughter while waiting for her to fall asleep or four hours straight on a weekend when my husband is at work and my daughter is with her grandparents or cousins. In a way, it’s more a more productive schedule than the one I had three years ago; I can’t waste time picking out ambient coffee shop sounds on YouTube or reheating endless cups of tea or screwing around on the internet. When I have an hour to write, I HAVE TO WRITE.
How do you come up with the title to your books?
The Daughters of Block Island is my take on the gothic, the culmination of years of reading books like The Monk andRebecca and wanting to throw my hat in the ring of decaying castles and damsels in distress. Like many popular subgenres, the gothic has been done to death, so I had to ensure I was bringing something new to readers, ultimately deciding to “make gothic meta,” with my poor tragic heroine, Blake Bronson, believing herself to be in the quintessential gothic novel. The book is also inspired, in part, by the Twa Sisters murder ballad, often known as The Dreadful Wind & Rain, as well as the Scream film franchise, so there is a little something for everyone within its rain(-and-blood!)-soaked pages.
With that being said, my two initial titles for this book were The Dreadful Wind & Rain (after the Twa Sisters) and A Gothic Story (my blunt, meta homage to Scream), but neither my agent nor my editor thought these were evocative enough, and in hindsight, I 100% agree, so after a few brainstorming sessions, we settled on something that hinted at the both the female relationships highlighted within the story and the isolated, island setting.
Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked has a less involved backstory; the title is the same as one of the stories within the collection. I felt like it adequately captured the eclectic mix of tales and subgenres that make up the ToC: something gothic, something hardcore… a little of this and a little of that.
What was the hardest scene for you to write? What types of scenes are your favorite to write?
I’d say the hardest scenes for me to write are both the first and the last, or, maybe not the last, per se, but the climax. The first scene I HAVE to get right before I can move on, even on a first draft, because the tone and content of that scene will set the stage for me for the rest of the novel in terms of my headspace and how I’m approaching the characters and narrative. I’ll go back over it thirty-six times if I have to, and once I feel like it’s “right,” I’ll allow myself to write the next chapter. And I feel like climax scenes are hard for any writer, no matter how skilled or experienced. It’s the place where you have to put everything together, where you have to prove to the reader that they’ve made the right choice by following you as far as they have.
What inspired your book/series?
The genesis of The Daughters of Block Island was a happy accident of ideas and inspirations that evolved more and more as time went on.
It begins with two key things: my infatuation with a painting by Katy Horan from her Murder Ballads collection: The Dreadful Wind & Rain, and a question that had always haunted me… that of why a mother might have to give one child up for adoption but is able to raise another—or others—herself. For whatever reason, these two things came together in my head when the need for a new short story to critique in an MFA residency group presented itself. After considering different reasons for why a mother might give up one child—a pregnancy resulting from assault, substance abuse issues that were dealt with later, or other, more nefarious scenarios in which the mother wanted, or needed, to protect one offspring and not another—I melded this tragic adoption scenario with the themes of The Dreadful Wind & Rain (or, as the murder ballad is also referred to, the Twa Sisters), in which two sisters are two-timed by a manipulative suitor, and the seeds for The Daughters of Block Island were not only planted, but watered, give sunshine, and nurtured above all other writing projects.
Still, the story was still just that: a short story. And to make matters worse, it was in epistolary format, so I was struggling with how to make sense of the (slowly) unfolding narrative over a series of painfully convoluted emails. Luckily, those in my MFA critique group, including rising superstar poet and writer Belicia Rhea (check out her novella being published in 2024 from Dark Matter Ink, Voracious, about a pregnant teenage girl with an eating disorder who works to reconcile her visions of a doomsday of insect plagues and her unique role in what she fears in the impending bug-filled apocalypse), and inimitable moderators Robert Levy and Nancy Holder, challenged me to question whether I was using the right structure… the right POV(s)… and the right length. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.
Fast-forward two years later, and I’m looking for the subject of a new novel to work on. I found myself rereading the critique group short story (which was originally titled “The Dreadful Wind & Rain,” like the murder ballad and Katy Horan’s gorgeous painting) and decided to try my hand at expanding it. It had potential but was also strangely boring, which was surprising… and disappointing. That is, until I realized I could really lean into the potentially trite trappings of a gothic novel if I acknowledged their occasional ridiculousness in some way. Another lightbulb went off, another unexpected source of inspiration, and I was applying the meta lens and self-deprecation of the Scream film franchise to my manuscript. Without (much) further ado, The Daughters of Block Island found its stride.
So, a murder ballad, an obsession with the psychological underpinnings of adoption, and Neve Campbell. What are the odds? The marriage of ideas resulting in exciting fiction sure can be weird.
What are you working on next?
My second novel with Thomas & Mercer, Beneath the Poet’s House, will be out next fall and also takes place in Rhode Island… on Benefit Street in Providence, to be exact, and features just as much gothic gloom and literary influence as The Daughters of Block Island.
Beneath the Poet’s House is based in part on the real-life romance between Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe and set in the actual house at which Poe first spotted Whitman tending her rose garden under a midnight moon in 1845. The novel sees protagonist Saoirse White navigate both a personal haunting and the lingering ghosts of much-revered public figures, as well as the ramifications of men who treat women as stepping-stones on their way to artistic greatness.
What authors or books have influenced you to start writing?
Emily Dickinson, Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freemen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Helen Whitman, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley, Margaret Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Frank M. Robinson, Sidney Sheldon, R.L. Stine, Jennifer McMahon, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael McDowell, Blake Crouch, Emma Cline, Lauren Groff.
If you had to compare your writing to another author which one would that be?
I don’t know if I can flatter myself as far as to say Gwendolyn Kiste, but I love her lush yet biting style and her lyrical way with language, the way she not only comes up with unsettling and important and ingenious ideas but executes those ideas to perfection. A lot of what Gwendolyn writes about consistently—feminist takes on vampires, sister relationships, the otherworldliness of birds, dark fairy tales, body horror, etc.—are subjects I’m drawn to as well.
Do you enjoy writing short stories or long form i.e., manuscripts? And why?
The first iteration of The Daughters of Block Island was a short story told in epistolary format, and I’ll admit it was strange for me to take an idea conceived as a short piece and expand it. Normally, the medium in which I set out to write is the medium in which I complete the project. I don’t really prefer novels over short stories or vice versa, though that wasn’t always the case.
A few years ago, I felt my strengths lied predominately in short fiction, and didn’t have as much confidence in my novel-writing abilities. That changed with—like anything else—lots of practice, and today, I switch pretty effortlessly between novels, short fiction, nonfiction essays, and children’s picture books, depending on where inspiration strikes.
Is there genre you’d like to write but never have?
Like I mentioned above, I currently write—and pretty regularly at that— novels, short fiction, nonfiction essays, and children’s picture books. I’ve also been dabbling in poetry, mostly because my last novel manuscript demanded it of me (several characters are poets, and the main character in particular is heavily influenced—maybe even possessed—by the Divine Poet herself, Sarah Helen Whitman… needless to say, I had to acquire at least a working level of proficiency in poetry, and pretty quickly). I think the only other type of writing I’d like to get into isn’t so much a genre as a category, and that’s middle grade and/or young adult novels.
What advice would you give to unpublished writers?
Advice is a tricky thing, because what might work for some might be neutral—or even harmful—for others. I’ve been asked in other interviews and by other writers and readers about advice for new authors, and I guess my simplest suggestion is simply: Write! Do not stop. Turn all your anger and disappointment and dissatisfaction (and, since I believe we each have a shadow side and a lighter side to our personality, all of your joy, success, and happiness, too!) into stories. Those stories make the world the magical place it is. It’s a real gift to harbor a talent and passion for writing. Embrace it, and share it with others, if you’re so inclined.
I do also think it helps to have a goal. Any goal, no matter how small, helps keep you on track. Maybe start with something that gets your butt in the chair as consistently as you’re aiming for and work your way up. My writing goals are simple these days: meet deadlines—regardless of what that looks like for word count or days in a row spent writing—and respond to the Muse when she comes knocking.