R.S. Bohn is a versatile writer whose stories have been published in many magazines, among them A Twist Of Noir, Thrillers Killers N Chillers, and her story ‘The Black Oak’ can be found in the anthology ‘Etched Offerings’, out now.
Her narratives are striking and visceral and her use of physicality is unerringly effective. She uses humour to great effect in materials that are dark and gritty. She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about sacred bulls and female killers.
As a female writer do you think there are some sacred bulls living in the headset of US fiction?
I say this not with a certain naivete, but because writing has always been the home of the malcontents, the misunderstood, and anyone with an imagination who can make A go to B, thus creating a story. Does that mean that Toni Morrison could have written a story where a young guy gets his kicks using the filter in his family’s pool and ends up yanking out yards of intestine? No, only Chuck Pahlahniuk could’ve written that. But if she had written it, would your typical US reader have vilified her? Perhaps, but only because she’s Toni Morrison and that’s not what Toni Morrison writes. Not because she’s female.
It’s not about sex of the author, and anyone writing — I hope — is being true to who they are. But if that’s true, why do so many women, myself included, use initials? The easy answer is that it’s about branding, about appealing to the largest group of readers for whatever you write. In the back of our heads, we’re all thinking about publication, that elusive “someday” in which a hardcover of ours is sitting on a shelf. Given the choice, would male readers rather buy a gory crime thriller from Susan or Mike?
I think, in the past, it’s probably been Mike. But what I’ve witnessed over the past few years is a flood of female writers into previously male-dominated genres. And the predominately male writers and readership has welcomed them. There’s no Boys Club mentality. The noir community, in fact, is probably the most welcoming place on earth. That’s a group that supports each other, relishes each other’s successes. I think a smoky bar filled with noir writers sounds like heaven. It’d certainly be the most interesting night of my life.
I’m a product of the 80s. I’ve got optimism to spare. I’m only heartened by what I see around the interwebz these days and that, despite the fact that my real name is on every submission, a lot of male editors have taken an enthusiastic hold of my work and put it out there. It’s probably the Eye of the Tiger track that accompanies each one.
If there are any sacred cows, they’re shot down and eaten immediately. J.K. Rowling was untouchable. Then her smartest fans started dissecting the books and the stereotypes presented. The meta for that fandom — and honestly, most of them — is unbelievable. Readers are smarter than we think, so not pandering is the best course. Pandering’s boring, anyway. And don’t chicken out. If there’s a bunch of bull taking up space in your head, put a bullet through its brain and spill its blood on the page.
Do you think that female killers are motivated by different things than male killers?
I’m not sure they are. I think the writers of female/male killers are coming from different places. It’s like writing smut–from the outside, the mechanics look the same. But perceptually, what’s going on inside their heads or how to describe what they’re doing is going to be very different, depending on who’s telling you about it.
Everyone, no matter what sort of higher reasoning or expansive vocabulary with which they choose to explain themselves, behaves due to the same base urges. It all boils down to power: who’s got it, who lost it and wants it back, who’s willing to give it away in exchange for something else. Even hit men and assassins. The “cold-blooded” have something that drives them, even if it’s not readily apparent. It’s not all about the money. The most intriguing characters within those professions have some very interesting views on what they do, how they came to it and why they do it. I’m not saying they’re necessarily tormented, but there’s more going on than meets the eye. Layers of subtlety. And a character who is self-aware is, to me, always the most interesting to read.
Who are your literary influences?
It’s changed over time, but my soul absolutely leapt when I first read Jane Eyre. I found it in a house about to be demolished; the former owner had died, and his entire home seemed to be frozen in 1940. Reading the first few pages of that extravagant, dramatic book with that sort of language seeping into my brain while sitting on a dust-covered chair and being bitten up by fleas is one of my best memories. Changed my world forever. I was eleven.
I still like mile-long sentences with loads of fifty-dollar words. Not necessarily a good thing, but there it is.
Chuck Pahlahniuk, who shakes me up every time I read something of his. Thank you, Playboy, for first introducing me to him. I also highly recommend Playboy for its monthly dose of amazing, high-quality fiction.
Joe Hill’s short story, “Pop Art,” in his collection, “20th Century Ghosts,” may be the single best short I’ve ever read. The collection is good overall, but well-worth it just for “Pop Art.” Spec-fic at its absolute best. I learned a lot from that story. And best horror novel ever? Hands down, Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” Clearly, Hill learned at a lot at his poppa’s knee – his father being no less than Mr. King himself. I find myself trying to study King and Hill, yet always end up lost in their stories.
But above all else, Ray Bradbury. I probably have everything he’s ever produced, in as many permutations as possible. He is one of only two authors I’ve written a fan letter to. To his eternal credit, he wrote me back. A nice letter and a signed copy of one of his poems. Even now, when I’m stuck, need a dose of inspiration, want to get lost — I pick a Bradbury book at random and read. His use of language is astonishing and unique; poetry, sparse, perfect. “The Veldt” and “boys! grow giant mushrooms in your cellar!” are both outstanding and favorites of mine.
What do you think the difference is between Noir and Twilight Zone?
Noir grounds us in reality. It may be one of the most accurate reflections of society ever to come along. And I’m not sure noir has to apply to a certain time period, say, the last hundred years. There have always been disenfranchised characters living on the fringe, flying under the radar, harboring lust and greed and revenge in their hearts. Was there Victorian noir? Egyptian? Maybe Sherlock Holmes. One of the best things about living today is that someone could write Egyptian noir. Certainly one of the most lustful, violent societies ever to exist. Incan noir would be fantastic, too.
But Twilight Zone is truly fantastic, in that other sense. Probably the first exposure to speculative fiction that most people have known. And some might argue that my previous imaginings of Roman, Egyptian, Incan noir would fit more into this category, but T.Z. is about injecting that element of the unreal into a reality-based situation. And it ends on a, “But what really did happen that night?” note. Noir ends with a body and the concrete evidence that shit went down.
Do you think men in Noir literature are defined by the manipulations of the femme fatale?
It certainly seems, sometimes, as if women are the driving factors behind many of the nasty things men in noir get up to. But rather than coming across as “Women = Evil,” I am constantly thrilled by what I consider a deep respect and even worshipful attitude towards women. Women in noir are strong, even when they’re the victim. They may be stripping their clothes off, counting the bills from last night’s deal, or just sitting back, smoking a cigarette (maybe with or without a target on their temple), but they’re no delicate flowers. It’s a level playing field.
The men in noir aren’t so much defined by the manipulations of the femme fatale as living up to the challenge. That’s a glorious thing. And if I can say so, while the shit men get up to is interesting in its own right — I’ve been studying the male in its natural habitat for a long time, and what a fascinating study it’s been — the addition of a strong woman only makes things more delicious. I don’t think there’s a man in noir who would argue that, even when he’s got a high heel pressed to his throat and her gun pointed at his forehead.
Tell us about your novel.
The saddest folder on my external hard drive is the one titled “Unfinished Novels.” I’m not going to say how many actual unfinished books are in there, or how many chapters, or that one of them is twenty-one chapters of a Lord of the Rings rip-off with zombies and steampunk helicopters, but I will say that it’s useful to look in there from time to time and say, “You know, this really sucks. But at least I had the idea.”
Ideas aplenty, I’ve got. It’s the execution of a longer piece. The subtlety and promise of a short story or flash fic is so enticing; it just tickles the imagination. It seems like putting all those promises on the page, cementing them there, takes out some of the magic and replaces it with, you know, a massive amount of hard work.
I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but I’m finally writing a book in which all that hard work is fun. It’s fascinating, and I wake up every day thinking about it, ready to work on it. And instead of winging it — my previous formula for writing a novel — I’ve got outlines and two dry-erase boards with notes. I like it. It’s working. Mostly.
Readers of my blog will probably recognize where the idea for this sprang from. “The Witch’s Lover” was originally micro-flash inspired by a daily OneWord prompt. I wondered which witch was telling it, and from there, it spiraled into a story of post-adolescent crushes, dark and creepy obsession, and the sort of tragic horror that I’d never dared explore before.
Two witches–sisters–and Autumn, set in a fairy-tale world of bawdy-joke-cracking blue jays and lake nymphs that steal their loves away, beneath the water.
If I can pull this off, I’ll be quite pleased with myself, which would be a nice counterpoint to the daily “WTF is this!” that my writing usually incites.
Other than that, readers can look for my work in the Pagan anthology, “Etched Offerings,” and four others to be released this year.
Do you believe that the doppelganger is the ideal or Nemesis, and do you have an alter ego?
In the strictest sense, a doppelganger is Nemesis. But I do think there is worth in exploring the idea that a “bad” you is inherently freeing and even educational. There’s no better realization of this concept than in “Fight Club.” Of course, where one goes after meeting one’s doppelganger is the most interesting part; like some of the best noir, it asks the question, How did a good guy go bad? Or better: Where is the gray area of the soul, and who’s willing to walk there?
I admit to willfully ignoring my doppelganger for a long time. Then, almost without thinking about it, I adopted an alternate ego. It grew by leaps and bounds. I had monikers — Smut Queen! — I had worshipful readers; I had an inbox full of lavish praise and tons of reviews. I felt as if I was living two lives, and at some point, it no longer became fun. It became a real drag, actually. And a little creepy. So I killed her.
And maybe I took it all a little too seriously. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Oh, fuck me. Like I was the Mother Theresa of porn.
I don’t want to do it again — develop another identity. It’s exhausting. Not to mention that I’m prone to existential crises — otherwise known as Drama Queen Syndrome. “But no one knows/likes the real me!” The only downside is that if I get tired of me, it’s a little more difficult to kill me off. I may have to hire someone.
Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
I once was an avid hiker, and had the pleasure of living for a few years just outside of Seattle. I planned my weekends by hikes: this trail, that mountain. There are areas on the maps of Washington State that say “Wilderness.” Those people aren’t kidding. We’re talking bears and cougars and wolves and any number of things that I believe were dreamed up by Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, and then released into the wilds of western Washington to see how they’d get along. They have books that you sign at the trailhead, along with a warning that basically says, “Did you tell your mother you’d be out here? Because we need to know who to call when we find your mangled, half-devoured body five weeks from now.”
My boyfriend at the time got drunk one night, fell into a bonfire, and I left his sorry ass at the party in someone’s back forty (a literal back forty) with the parting words, “You better be home by six for the hike.” He broke in through our bathroom window at five (of course I locked the door and refused to answer it), and promptly fell asleep on the tile. And I, showing much more maturity and wisdom than he, decided that I would go on a hike marked, in my little black-and-white trail guide, as “for experienced hikers only” and “dangerous.” Alone.
I didn’t sign the book when I got to the trailhead, either. You know where this is going.
I actually made it to the top of the mountain, photographed a bald eagle on its nest beside a mountain-top lake, and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while my legs finished trembling. And then I hiked back down.
Stupid deers. Stupid, stupid deers and their stupid deer trails. Next thing you know, I’m standing in the middle of the woods, nothing matches the grainy pics in my trail guide, I’m out of sandwiches and Kool Aid, and the formerly picturesque moss-covered rocks and ancient terrain now looks like something out of a prehistoric hell.
I fell down a mountainside and skinned both knees and my palms. Got slapped in the face numerous times by pine tree branches. Heard a river, remembered I was parked beside a river, tried to get to the river and found it was bordered by about ninety miles of Devil’s Club. Google it. That is some serious, serious, messed-up plant that Stephen King planted there with his mind.
I went through the Devil’s Club. The river didn’t look too bad. Bit quick. But, you know, I can swim.
Got sucked under, held up my camera the entire time because I somehow assumed that once I was sucked under, I would remain in the same upright position. Hit a rock with my ribs, got chucked out of the river, dragged my bleeding, shivering body up a straight mud-covered incline, only to appear at the quaint fireside of a family of four, cooking hot dogs.
They stared. I staggered. Found the road. A half-hour later, I’m back at my truck. I did not cry, not even once, even when I realized the sun was going down and I’d been gone thirteen hours. What would’ve happened if I’d not found the river? Or if it wasn’t the same river, but another tributary that led deeper into the woods? What would’ve happened when night came? Bear fodder, my friends. Before or after I suffered hypothermia, who knows.
What would’ve happened. The next day, for the first time in years, I picked up a pen and a notebook. I wrote about what did happen — to another girl. Another girl who spent thirteen hours in the wilderness, then another thirteen.
Okay, so there were dinosaurs and that girl managed to evade them with a magical torch and because she could run like the wind. That’s not the point. The point is that I stopped writing, and then I tried again. And when that story turned into a mess, I wrote another terrible one (oh, god, how I hate those 22 year old literary geniuses; I just want to rip their hip, artfully-messy curls out with my dull incisors and spit their scalps on the sidewalk–there, now you know one of my petty jealousies). And well into my thirties, I was writing Mary Sues who survived horrible situations, but every step of the way, I learned something. And I sometimes wonder if I would be writing today if I hadn’t got lost in the wilderness and almost eaten by bears (it could’ve happened!).
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
Not all. Some care for their characters and give them soft landings and jolly endings. Their books are peopled with beautiful folk. Walking about in beautiful places, barely more than gorgeous scenery themselves. They’re quite safe, those books.
And some writers pluck the feathers from their characters’ wings with pliers and then toss them off a ninety-story building. If they turn into Batman or Frodo or anyone in a Bret Easton Ellis novel on the way down, awesome.
No, here is what he probably meant: Writers are not the most philanthropic members of the human race. If we see a conflict occurring, some bit of terribly bad luck happening to someone, a great sadness imploding behind someone’s eyes, we think: I should write this down! I could use it! We’re reporters on the fringe of humanity, but instead of being the straight guy, we’re the ones cracking the morbid jokes. I can’t tell a story the same way twice if I wanted to. And each rendition gets worse.
And then, worst of all, we end it with, “This is a true story,” and expect you to believe it. Because you should. Because if you don’t, we’ll put you in our stories and do gruesome things to you. Writers have ice in our hearts — just a tiny sliver.
Do you believe in the concept of a ‘muse,’ and if so, do you have one?
I do not. I patently reject the concept of a muse. I wrote the story — not some mythical, imagined, supernatural being from another plane. It came directly from me, and is based on the empirical rubbish trail of a lifetime. The ephemera, the glimpses of something, the heart-stopping moments, the mundanity of making a cup of tea. I take full credit, whether the work is good or absolutely atrocious. It’s mine.
I do believe that one can be inspired by anything; I keep a small notebook and pen with me wherever I go. Anything that strikes me as interesting, in any way, gets written down. Phrases, words, names, snippets of conversation, vague ideas. There’s inspiration in literally everything, everywhere. It’s just what leaps out at you, for whatever reason.
Inspiration, yes. Some quirky angel looking over my shoulder, whispering things in my ear, no.
However, I also believe that one of my dead dogs appeared to me in a dream and told me she was all right, so there’s that. No muses. But deceased pets are fine.
Thank you Becky forgiving us a peek into your talented and dark mind.
R.S. Bohn links: