In the third installment of my "Indie August" series, I catch up with Brenda S Tolian. And when I say "catch up with", I do not use the phrase lightly. A mother, student, author, musician, podcaster, she's a woman who wears many hats (I think I might have even missed a hat or two). I've known Brenda as a fellow member of the Denver Horror Collective (DHC), and her stories...
Wait, let me go ahead and plug the DHC right quick.
The DHC is a Facebook group of writers who share their experiences writing horror stories. You can find them on Facebook under Denver Horror Collective.
Okay, the plug's done. Now, on to the meat and potatoes...the interview!
KD: What got you into the writing industry?
Brenda S Tolian: I have written stories since I was a child. However, I didn't receive much encouragement for the vocation. My mother saved things, but women are not always given accessible roads to follow their talents. I realized during a creative writing class that I enjoyed expressing myself through words.
KD: How long have you been writing overall?
Brenda S Tolian: Forever. In actuality, it was only in the last ten years that I became serious in the vocation and got my MFA. My first attempts were trash, laughable at best, but I think they have improved a bit with practice.
KD: A decade, wow! Nice. From what I know as a fellow member of the Denver Horror Collective, you are well versed in the horror genre. Was it an "I choose you and I will make you my craft" type of thing, or do you feel it just came naturally for you as a writer and no decision to make it so was necessary?
Brenda S Tolian: What I wanted to write initially was difficult to express in terms of realism. I watched two greats, Mario Acevedo and Stephen Graham Jones, present during my Regis University residency. They were doing it—expressing huge themes through horrific means. I saw horror as an abstract tool to describe the world around me. I realized that monsters always existed on the borders of our stories, culture, experience. They are always there waiting for us to translate the darkness into new forms.
KD: True. From urban legends to nightmares, horror can usually be found rooted in some aspect of culture. The Wendigo being a First Nation legend is a prime example. Now, you have a podcast with the incredible, incomparable Joy Yehle, who's also a horror writer. What can you tell us about the podcast? And how can we find it?
Brenda S Tolian: Oh, now Joy Yehle is the real powerhouse there! We wanted a place to spotlight lesser-known authors and academics in horror. We also wanted to talk about the form horror takes and how it affects society, especially women, consumption, and culture. We have had some great guests and wonderful conversations in this space. You can find, The Burial Plot Horror Podcast on pretty much any podcast platform, but you can start here at burialplotpodcast.buzzsprout.com.
KD: Definitely worth a listen, people. So, which comes easier for you relatively speaking, writing short stories or full-length features?
Brenda S Tolian: I started in short stories, but novels are fun as well. In short stories, you have to get to the point. If you want to do a lot of backstories, a short story is not the right choice. You also have to examine how your plot is going to go. I don't outline. My stories are rather organic, growing from a central idea or theme. I do a lot of research for both short and long-form, and as always, I am very place-based.
KD: Any other projects in the works?
Brenda S Tolian: My Blood Mountain is set to be published with Raw Dog Screaming Press. I also have a story in The Jewish Book of Horror by the Denver Horror Collective. My poem Skinwalker Moon will be released by the HWA Poetry Showcase this year as well. I'm also working on a Doctorate in Literature, another novel, and a book of dark poetry, so I need to figure out my groove going forward.
KD: What are your thoughts on the writing and publishing industry overall?
Brenda S Tolian: Writing the book is the fun part. After that, you have to sell it, pitch it, market it. That is the part new authors are not ready for. So far, I have been blessed to work with the best. So many worry about getting an agent, but that should be the last thing you are thinking about. Most of us won't be the next Stephen King, and that is ok. Most of us won't make our living writing so have a day job you like. I would say a day job is imperative. Don't write in a bubble; accept that experience is critical.
Read your contract and have someone who knows look at it too-there is never any reason to give all your rights away. I have had great mentors, and they have saved me from a lot of terrible mistakes. Also, research and ask around about the places you submit to. You can only blame yourself if you didn't do the work.
KD: What other advice would you have for other writers?
Brenda S Tolian: Write every day, read every day. I write horror, but I read the classics, books on writing, and read poetry, memoir, and essays. I read horror, of course, but you need to have a comprehensive eye. Think about your favorite books. What is it that you like about them?
Write what you know and take time to think about it a bit. Don't be afraid to kill some pages. I just rewrote 25 pages of a novel because it had a plot hole. I think the story is more potent because I was brave enough to kill and reform the plot. Try out different points of view; sometimes, shifting from first to third electrifies a narrative. Use the five senses, have your protagonist experience the world as you do, and then do the same for your creature. One other point of advice-If you don't read widely, it will show in your work. Writing is a talent that takes hard work. You cannot afford to be lazy.
KD: Speaking of reading widely, who were/are your writing influences?
Brenda S Tolian: Oh, I adore Vladimir Nabokov, Steven Graham Jones, and Kafka. In fact, I have a T-shirt that says their names as a reminder of what excellent writing is. I also love Angela Carter, Cormac, and Mario Acevedo. I learned my craft under Mario Acevedo as my mentor. I cannot stress enough what a good mentor can do for your developing craft.
KD: What makes your pen flow? In other words, what inspires you to write?
Brenda S Tolian: The San Luis Valley certainly inspires me with its haunting landscape. Music is also something that inspires me, from classical opera to old-school industrial. Either can
illuminate a dark kill scene. I make playlists all the time of songs that might be playing during
the narrative. I think of my stories as moving films that flow in whatever direction the protagonist chooses, good or very, very bad. Sometimes I see something in the local news or broader Colorado news that just screams for a story.
KD: A way of drawing horror from the world around you, huh? And if readers want to know more about Brenda S Tolian, where should they go?