Let’s start with an introduction: Who is S.A. Hunt?
S.A. Hunt is… a hillbilly, a witch, a soldier, a wanderer, a rock chick, a gunslinger, a lover, a dreamer, a doer…
… Good God, that all sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? But I feel like at this point I’ve earned the right to editorialize my life a little bit. I’m Samara Hunt, but my friends call me Salem. I’m a horror author living on the shores of Lake Michigan, a transplant from the Appalachian hills of Georgia. I love dogs and bicycles. I’m 80% Irish, 10% coffee, and 10% nightmares.
Your next novel, the brilliantly-titled I Come With Knives, is due to be published by Tor Books in May. The sequel to Burn the Dark, it looks really cool. How would you introduce it to a potential reader? And what can fans of the first novel expect from the sequel?
If you liked where things were going in Burn the Dark, the story continues in I Come With Knives, and everything gets turned up to eleven. I can’t wait for y’all to read the vineyard scene and the new, expanded ending. There’s at least two car accidents, dismemberment, and lots of running from cat-possessed people.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
It actually started with a pun, believe it or not. The word “coventry.” My mind just sort of drifted to the phrase “coven tree,” and I got to thinking about a coven of witches that had this tree that was important for some reason.
Did they worship it? How did they take care of it, what did they feed it — blood? Where did the tree come from? What was the tree’s purpose? Did it sustain the witches somehow? How did that work — was there a spirit trapped inside, like some kind of home-grown dryad? Who was going to come rescue that spirit?
Where, why, who, when, what?
My ideas come from the same place everybody else’s does: my daydreams. You know when you’re standing in line at the bank and you get this little mental movie of a bank robber storming in to rob the place, and you have a daydream about yourself saving the day, ripping the gun out of his hand and dismantling it right in front of him? That’s a story idea right there. Maybe you’re sitting on the john in the middle of the night, you hear a gurgle in the bathtub, and you picture a pale hand reaching up out of the drain. Where the book part comes in is where you deepen that scene. Throw a curveball in there. Take that idea you had and answer the five Ws with it: what, where, when, who, why?
Let’s go back to the hand in the drain. What if that’s not a ghost? Or maybe it is; we’ll figure that out later. Imagine the other end of that creepy drain-hand. Is there an entire person on the other end of the arm, crammed into the pipes under your bathroom like a giant clog? Yes. There is a whole-ass person squeezed into the sewage pipe, writhing and slithering slowly around your house like the world’s most disgusting snake, every bone in their body broken, pulling themselves throughout the network of pipes in your house with their fingers. That groan you hear when you turn on the hot water? That’s not the pipes creaking against the studs in the wall.
There’s your What.
Okay, what’s your Where? Where would be the best, most interesting place to set this story?
Think about creepy tenement buildings — this crawling pipe-woman could visit everybody in the building. Wait, no. No. Set it in a small town, spread all this out to maximize the paranoia and misinformation. A rural town, where all the houses are spread out. Set it in a country football town in some flyover state, maybe even your own real hometown. Bad cell coverage. Long, lonely roads. Make it harder for people to find help when the pipe-woman shows up and—
Wait, why is she coming out of the pipe? Is she there to get revenge? Of course she is.
Wait. Maybe not.
Is that overdone?
Maybe she’s coming to warn people of something worse. Maybe there’s someone or something worse out there coming to get you, and maybe it killed her too. It killed her and disposed of her body in the town reservoir, and now her ghost is slithering through the town’s pipes from house to house, trying to head off the real villain and scaring the hell out of everybody in the process.
The danger’s not in the pipes.
It’s hiding in the pantry.
Now, you have your What, your Why, and your When. Now for your Who. Who is the protagonist of your pipe-woman horror story?
Let’s make it a woman. Her name is… Joanne McGinnis. 38-year-old woman, a New Englander, maybe. Maybe the south, like Georgia or Tennessee. Hey, Tennessee would be good. You don’t read many books set in Tennessee. Now, think about what generates suspense. A feeling of impending doom? Helplessness? Let’s start with a feeling of helplessness.
What’s something that creates helplessness? Physical restrictions.
Let’s break Joanne’s leg. That’ll make for some good suspense scenes of her trying to escape the pipe-woman or the serial killer on that leg. Give her a wheelchair and a pair of crutches. Make one of the doors in her house just a little too small for the wheelchair, just for detail’s sake, or maybe there’s a raised threshold she has a bit of trouble with. Chekov’s Gun that shit, use that in a scene later.
How did she break her leg? Maybe she’s a roofer; she fixes and installs roofs for a living, and she fell off of a roof during a job. We’ll open the book with that, with a nice meaty suspense scene where she’s by herself on the roof, nailing down the last bit of felt for the day, and she trips over something, maybe a nail sticking out of the roof, and tumbles off. Hangs by her fingertips. Give her a moment of agency, have her try to work her way to safety by hand-over-handing her way across the eaves like American Ninja Warrior, but the gutter breaks, drops her in the front yard three stories below.
Maybe she owns the roofing business, she’s got a few employees, she’s established rapport with them. One of them checks up on her every day after work to make sure she’s okay. The employee’s name is… Sandra. Sandra Miller.
Maybe it was Sandra’s nail she didn’t hammer in far enough that Joanne tripped on. Maybe she goes back to the work site to inspect the roof and realizes it was her fault, so she takes care of Joanne out of guilt, and she doesn’t say anything about the nail. It eats at her, but she doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Sandra and Joanne have a bit of romantic tension, but the nail thing makes it a tortured sort of tension. Sandra’s got a complex about her carelessness getting people hurt. Maybe she was driving drunk and killed somebody ten years ago.
Doesn’t have to be a close relationship; even just causing the death of a stranger can fuck you up for a long time. She went to prison for it and the roofing thing is her first post-prison job. Joanne likes her, but the prison thing weirds her out, so she’s hesitant about letting her past her defenses.
While we’re talking about side characters, we’re going to want a window into the workings of the police department in this story as people start to die. I kind of want to isolate Joanne and make life a bit lonely for her, a bit more introspective and austere. She’s not the marrying type; maybe she married a guy a few years ago and they got divorced.
Hey, what if they had a kid? Okay, we want to preserve that feeling of helplessness, so we don’t want the kid being too old and too big. A little boy, around six or seven years old, just big enough to manhandle a wheelchair, but not big enough to fight a grown man. His name is… Liam. Joanne has visitation rights, gets custody of Liam on the weekends. Liam’s smart, does good in school, but he’s no Little Einstein. Helpful, kind of a smartass. Best kind of kid.
Anyway, back to the divorce; Joanne’s ex-husband Terry Morland is a cop for the town police and an Afghanistan veteran. This definitely makes things awkward between Terry, Joanne, and Sandra, especially with how Terry leveraged his position on the force to keep Liam in the breakup, and the drunk-driving conviction doesn’t help. Because of Sandra’s DUIs and prison time, Terry can’t stand her and tries to bully her away from Joanne—
(“Time for the butch drunk-driver to hit the road, I guess,” he said quietly into his coffee mug, not looking up from the newspaper.)
—and even though the prison thing makes her conflicted, Joanne tends to defend her because Sandra’s Great With Kids, unlike Terry, who is just this massive asshole, which is why he’s a cop in the first place.
At some point you just know he and Sandra are going to get in a drunken fight and the serial killer is going to kill Terry the Ex-Husband Cop in the middle of the scene, establishing the killer as a Bonafide Badass and forcing Sandra to square off against him as Liam struggles to get his mom’s wheelchair through the kitchen door and out of the house.
There’s your Who.
When? Well, this one is a trick question. Like I said, the cell service in Podunk, Tennessee is shit, probably because of all the mountains. So you won’t have to set it in the 1980s to keep people from using cell phones to ruin your suspense. And honestly, unless you’re aiming for a specific era to capture that je ne sais quois — like the wood-paneling-and-Space-Invaders kitsch of the 1980s — you should be writing your book in a timeless, familiar way, so that people reading your book in the near future could set your story in their own time, or no time at all. So the When is largely irrelevant, at least in the supernatural-thriller genre.
And so. There’s your five Ws. That’s where I get my ideas. First, it starts as a daydream, or my imagination catches on something like a shirt on a nail, and once I start probing and answering questions, I’m just pulling things out of my ass, one after another, like the world’s grossest magician.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I had read some of my stepbrother James’s collection of fantasy novels in grade school, and a few from Waldenbooks — chiefly, Mercedes Lackey’s The Black Gryphon, which is still one of my favorite fantasy stories. For a very long time, Skandranon Rashkae was my absolute favorite character, and I still love gryphons to this day.
When my family’s house burned down in 2003, I ended up moving into a little apartment in town. I didn’t have internet or TV, so I started reading my way through Dean Koontz’s back catalog, starting with Intensity. I have good memories of late nights in my quiet, austere new apartment, sitting in my bedroom door, back against the doorframe, reading paperbacks by the light of my stove hood. Koontz became my gateway drug to Stephen King, and the rest is history.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Maybe it’s my calling, maybe it ain’t. I haven’t seen enough of the world to say for sure. But writing, and everything that comes along with it, really suits me.
I love every part of the process — the long days sitting alone, fixated on my screen, channeling the first draft into the page, watching the characters come alive… the back and forth with my editor as we polish the manuscript to a shine… the game of email tag as my editor excitedly sends me drafts of the cover art… and finally, my favorite part, the midnight emails and tweets from new readers demanding to know when the next book’s being released, or threatening me with death (or worse) if I kill their favorite character.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
When I’m working, I absolutely have to, have to, have to minimize distractions. No internet, even if that means I have to pack up my laptop and travel out somewhere that has no wifi. A picnic table at the park, the end of a dock, a lonely country road, wherever my bike takes me. When I was living in Georgia, I would set the parental control on the router to kick me offline from 1pm to 7pm, and I would write during that block of time, and only inside that block of time. No writing outside that block. And I take weekends off, like a normal 9-to-5 day job.
When my daily time is up, I always try to stop writing mid-sentence so I have something to give me momentum the next time I pick it up. As for researching, I try to save that for when I’m done writing for the day. While I’m writing, I pull names and concepts out of my ass on the fly, make a note to the side, and look them up after Writing Time. I love researching, so I’m going to be digging up interesting tidbits on my downtime anyway; I might as well use that time constructively.
All those things keep me looking forward to writing, and keeps me from getting burned out constantly picking at the manuscript all hours of the day.
I draft in Scrivener, edit in Word. Scriv’s the best twenty or thirty bucks I’ve ever spent. If it was up to me, I’d edit in Scrivener too, but industry conventions dictate that the final manuscript has to be polished in Word.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I used to tinker around with it back in high school like twenty years ago. My language arts teacher Mrs. Jordan, Gods bless her merry soul, used to let me eschew the coursework to get on her classroom computer instead and do my writing during class. I owe my talent partly to her, and partly to mud.
Err, that is to say, MUD, or “Multi-User Dungeons.” Back in the late 90s and 2000s, I was real heavy into text-based roleplaying games online, where you logged into a Telnet server and played tabletop games with other players in real-time through a text medium, like a chatroom. MUDs led into MUXes (Multi-User eXperience), MUXes led into MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucination). I was on a Wheel of Time MUSH for a little while, a Transformers MUX, a Final Fantasy MUX.
I considered it “interactive fiction,” and it contributed heavily to my development as a writer. Roleplay scenes could last for hours, they could go all evening, and they consisted of “poses,” each pose being a contribution from each player describing what their character was doing, and we took turns writing them round-robin style. Think of cyberpunk hackers playing Dungeons & Dragons, and you’ve probably got the right idea.
Anyway, being forced to produce writing on the fly or risk being shouldered out of the night’s session went a long way toward building my sense of discipline for writing.
After graduating high school, I didn’t write again for the next twenty years.
I spent that time trying to be a Responsible Adult™, working at places like Walmart, Lowes, and eventually, the Army for eight years, where I ended up deploying to Afghanistan. It was in the sandbox, listening to Taliban rockets blow holes in my duty station in the middle of the night and staring death in the face, when I decided that if I was going to write that book I’d been meaning to write since I was a kid, now was the time.
When I got home, survived my divorce and moved back home, I couldn’t find any work. Nobody wanted to give a veteran a job. So I made my own job, and started writing books. I made enough on my self-published books to replace my wardrobe, pay the bills, and move to Michigan. That’s when I got the three-book deal with Tor.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Between broadening tastes in agents, editors, and the general book-buying public, more inspired authors, and the increasing breadth of work in the self-publishing industry, I think the genres I enjoy and traffic in have lately enjoyed a supernova of imagination and talent, and I’m happy to stand on shelves next to these other authors.
There’s also a larger acceptance — and dare I say, demand for — content where queer characters and characters of color are front and center, and I’m incredibly happy to be part of this modern enriching of literature.
I want to make my oeuvre as representative of authentic humanity as possible, and that means making it as queer as goddamned possible.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m focusing on getting Malus #2 and #3 out the door, but Outlaw King #4 is always in the works. If Tor ever buys more books in the Malus Domestica series, I’ve got fantastic ideas for that, and I already have some manuscript drafted on the next volume. I’ve got a retro scifi inspired by John Carpenter’s movies, a Mad Max-style adventure set in a nuclear winter where war decimated the world in the 1980s. I’m also planning a haunted-house story set during the Cold War. Apparently I should also be writing a supernatural thriller about a roofer with a broken leg named Joanne.
I’m also building a photography set inspired by old noir and Hitchcock movies. You can find them on my Instagram.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers. Fantastic, Crichton-esque, well done. I’m ripping straight through it, even though it’s a doorstopper.
I just finished Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, a nonfiction memoir/how-to guide by the hosts of the true-crime podcast “My Favorite Murder,” and it was super good. Before that I read a supernatural suspense novel, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, the hosts of YouTube variety show “Good Mythical Morning.” That one was startlingly good, and I hope they do another one.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World: A Tibetan Journey. This one was my personal bible for a while, until I gave my copy to my brother.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
You might already know this if you follow my social media, but I am transgender and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I started taking estrogen around the end of November and I’m already seeing a pretty amazing transformation.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
The releases of volume 2 and 3 of the Malus Domestica series, I Come With Knives and The Hellion, respectively. Knives will tie up the story started in Burn The Dark with a blockbuster of a climax, and then Hellion introduces a new story, with a new villain, in a new setting, while deepening the lore of the series and revealing more of Robin’s life prior to the events of the books. I can’t wait to see what people think.
And then there’s the further developments of my transition. 2020 is going to be a mind-blowing year, I think, and I’m really looking forward to it.