HELLNOTES: First off, congratulations on the debut novel! Since many of our readers probably know you for your acclaimed short fiction (which we’ve previously discussed), I know that I speak for a lot of people when I say we’ve been eagerly anticipating this. While my review of the novel makes no secret of how highly I thought of it, for our readers who may not yet have read either, can you tell us a little bit about The Rust Maidens?
GWENDOLYN KISTE: Okay, I’ll give you my best elevator pitch! The Rust Maidens is a coming-of-age body horror novel set in Cleveland, primarily during 1980. As the city goes into a state of decay, and jobs at the local factories are on the line, a group of girls in one neighborhood starts to undergo a series of strange bodily transformations. It’s all seen through the eyes of Phoebe, a recent high school grad who wants desperately to get out of the area but feels tethered by her family and her best friend, Jacqueline. Interspersed with the chapters from 1980, there’s also a fast-forward to almost three decades later, when, as an adult, Phoebe returns to the city to unravel the mystery of what happened years before and to understand her own part in the girls’ transformations.
HN: Now that we have our bearings, could you tell us a little about the spark of inspiration behind The Rust Maidens? I noticed in one of your author bios that you’re an Ohio native, so was there a personal connection there? What was the process like of bringing The Rust Maidens from an idea through to the completed book?
GK: It was quite an intense journey to say the least. I built the novel from the ground up, so to speak, with Trepidatio. I started with an outline that I pitched to my editor Jess Landry back in June 2017. It took just over a year from that outline to finishing up the last of the edits. Considering that I’m used to the quick turnaround on short fiction, that was an incredibly long development period. And it doesn’t even include the fact that I was contemplating an early permutation of the book for almost two years prior to that.
It started with my short story, “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister,” which similarly deals with a young girl undergoing a metamorphosis. I really connected with that particular story as a writer, and I didn’t want to let it go, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it that wouldn’t simply be treading the same ground. Flash forward almost two years later, and I was working on a different story called “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends.” That one was set in Cleveland, and I thought how it could be interesting to combine the body horror of the former story with the Rust Belt decay of the latter. And that’s how The Rust Maidens were born.
The Ohio connection certainly runs deep for me. It’s where I grew up and a place that I’ll always love. While I live in Pennsylvania now, I frequently say that I’m a Ohio girl at heart, and truly, this book was a love letter and a kind of warning at the same time. It has hints of nostalgia, but it doesn’t dwell there. The 1980 era with the mill strikes and economic collapse in the Rust Belt isn’t really a time that you can be wistful about. I wanted to work on capturing elements of that time period, which is actually set four years before I was even born. That meant a lot of research and grounding myself in the particulars of that time. Print ads, cookbooks, commercials, fashion magazines, and of course music from the 1980s all became my best friends for weeks at a time. It was a fascinating and arduous process, and even for all my grumbling at times about it, I can’t wait to get started on another novel as soon as possible. It’s a great experience as a writer.
HN: From a mere description of The Rust Maidens, it might be expected that the town would be up in arms about the affliction befalling their daughters. However, one of the most horrifying elements of the novel is just how not horrifying it is to the maidens’ neighbors and, later, the larger world. Phoebe Shaw, the first person narrator, shares this perception, and it’s a fine balancing act that you pull off between the monstrous and the mundane. How did you settle on this tone and go about striking this balance? Was there a point where you considered leaning into the more horrific, which would have been an easier and more obvious choice?
GK: I love that you picked out how not-horrifying the transformations are treated in the community, because to me, that’s what makes the real world the most disturbing: how easy it can be for people to turn away from painful things that either don’t affect them or that they don’t understand.
I feel like that tone was there from the beginning. I personally love stories that explore the seemingly mundane aspects of horror à la Shirley Jackson. Just the everyday facets of what living through horror is like. In particular with this story, I wanted to juxtapose the girls’ transformations with real-world things like picket duty and block parties and the decaying environment in the Rust Belt.
As for balance, you know, this question made me think about how much in the early drafts, I had to make myself lean a little more into the horrific, and really amp up a few of the more disturbing scenes. More so than anything else I’ve ever written, I went way more into the characters and their inner lives in this one. It was only after the first draft when I realized that the atmosphere and scares needed a bit more build-up. So ironically, I did lean more into the horrific, and that was what ultimately created the balance as it is. I would say the very first draft was probably more weird, less horror. Even now, it’s still definitely a blend of horror, dark fantasy, and the weird. I wouldn’t say it belongs squarely in one genre or another. But then doesn’t every author say that these days? We’re all blending genres, it seems!
HN: While I hate to seem reductive, could you perhaps give us an excerpt that can whet our readers’ appetite for more? Is there a particular passage that you feel captures some of what makes this novel special?
GK: The author might be the worst person to ask a question like this, since we’re always so close to our own material! But here’s a quick passage that I do particularly love. I feel like it captures the atmosphere and character all in one. This is a scene early on when Phoebe and her best friend Jacqueline sneak into an abandoned house to drink the night after graduation. The specter of the future—and Phoebe leaving for college—lingers over them, as well as something else.
Downstairs, everything was as we’d left it. Two crooked lawn chairs we’d salvaged from a long-ago Wednesday garbage pickup, a dusty bottle of Old Crow bourbon, and a Coleman lantern that was liable to gas us to death if we weren’t careful.
“Don’t turn it up too high,” Jacqueline said.
“I won’t.” If we were lucky, we could get the fuel to last us the whole summer.
She and I sat together in the lawn chairs, giggling and celebrating and tossing back shots quick so we didn’t have to taste them.
“I’ll miss this,” she said, and I almost corrected her, almost reminded her that there would be nothing to miss. That I’d be back every weekend, just like I promised.
But then she looked past me, and something shifted in her face.
“Phoebe,” she whispered, nearly gagging on my name.
My throat closed up as I followed her gaze. The lantern glow flickered over a shape at the bottom of the stairs. Someone was standing there, watching us for longer than we cared to imagine.
HN: Horror has been called a “conservative” genre, and while we don’t have the space to unpack all of that here, for the purposes of discussion, let’s say that this is true but has started to change in recent years. Along those lines, one of the interesting aspects of the novel was trying to decipher what exactly it is that makes a “Rust Maiden” versus a “real girl” (i.e., who doesn’t change). Unlike more conservative horror titles, the girls who change in this story aren’t necessarily being punished for some violation of puritanical morality. A few may have transgressed a bit, but they were quickly brought back in line and several appear to have done nothing wrong. In fact, it’s the protagonist Phoebe who does things which would have gotten her killed if she were in an 80’s slasher film, but in this novel those refusals to kowtow to the Denton Street norms may, in fact, have saved her. Was it your intent when you set out to interrogate these kinds of themes about roles and conventional morality? Were you seeking to respond to the more patriarchal mores of horror on purpose, or are they so ingrained in the popular conception that any fresh view is unavoidably read in response to them?
GK: My intent was definitely to examine these themes of conventional morality and how they apply in particular to women in the horror genre. Broadly speaking, I wanted to look at all these social roles we’re expected to follow and how everything breaks down the moment the things we’ve always been promised—a job, a family, a life—are taken from us. Since that was an overarching theme of the book, I would say that the story very naturally developed in that direction, though of course, every tale takes on a certain life of its own once you start getting it on the page.
I like that you point out Phoebe’s so-called transgressions and how they have an almost protective effect on her. I did want there to be a kind of inverted logic in that way, mostly because it was so important to me as I was writing this story that at no point would this transformation look like a “fitting” punishment. It was also strange as I was writing the book; I knew from the start that the girls’ metamorphosis would be the centerpiece of the story, but it was so painful for me as the author to put them through it. That, in part, might explain why it took until the second draft before I went into the horrific parts of the transformations. I didn’t want to hurt them. But there would of course be no book without the transformations and the pain that goes with them. Still, it wasn’t easy writing that. I certainly felt like I suffered right alongside Phoebe as she was watching this all unfold.
HN: There are clear aspects of this story that make it a “coming of age story,” but they are present for two very different ages. The first age is that seminal, liminal point between childhood and adulthood, here perfectly encapsulated by Phoebe’s 1980 summer between graduating high school and her plan to leave her neighborhood for college. The second age, however, takes place in the “present” of the novel and isn’t so much attached to a specific cultural or age-related milestone, but it’s rather the way that Phoebe finally moves from “adult” to “grown-up,” which isn’t a function of her age but of her ability to truly accept her present and future as they are shaped by her past. How do you view these two milestones as working in conjunction with each other? How did you decide to do both of these via the split narrative, instead of hammering down into just Phoebe’s past?
GK: For me, the main connection between the two time periods is that they both center on economic downturns: first in the 1980 section with the labor union strike which was so common in that era, and then again in the “present” section, which actually takes place in 2008, right at the start of the Great Recession. I wanted to depict Phoebe as a product of both ends of these times, to show how her life has been marked by these economic collapses that she in no way caused but that still affected her profoundly regardless.
One of the reasons I didn’t want the entire novel based in 1980 is that it could have seemed like the book was trying to be too nostalgic or wistful for the past. I liked the idea of showing the past and then exploring the lingering consequences years later. I also knew where I wanted the 1980 section to end, and I felt like there was still so much of a story to tell after that point. Having the 2008 section allowed me, in essence, to tell the rest of Phoebe’s story, at least in regards to what happens to the Rust Maidens and her role in the events.
Because I’m an eternal optimist, I also believe that we can break the bad cycles that society creates for us. By showing Phoebe in a more modern setting as she faces the possibility that the cycle of the Rust Maidens might not be done with her yet, I gave her a second chance to come to terms with her past and make things right.
HN: In other places you’ve talked about The Rust Maidens and its connections to body horror, given the transformations that the Maidens undergo. Body horror often seems to arise in fiction dealing with women and social roles, perhaps because there is a visceral link to physical depictions and social discussions about (lack of) bodily autonomy. The Rust Maidens struck me because I rarely see body horror linked with urban decay. In hindsight it’s an ingenious use because it parallels the same undesired and uncontrollable changes, but were there any particular influences in your writing as far as the city collapse and body horror links? What are your thoughts on body horror more broadly, particularly as a link between external themes and the immediateness of fleshly traumas?
GK: It’s interesting that you ask about the urban decay of the novel, because it was the reason I ended up writing the book. As I mentioned above, I had wanted to write a metamorphosis novel for a couple years, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make the horror feel rooted in the setting in a way that hadn’t been overdone. When I started contemplating a body horror novel set in Cleveland, I immediately thought of how horrifyingly bleak those landscapes are. The idea of combining that setting with body horror seemed so different to me, and it was something I’d never seen done or at least not done very often. Still, at first, I was afraid that making girls turn into the decay of the steel mills and the broken glass of factories and the polluted water of Lake Erie might not work or could turn out too weird or hokey. But my husband and I always talk about how being afraid of doing something is okay, but that fear shouldn’t hold you back. He always keeps me inspired to go for things, even when self-doubt creeps in.
In general, I love body horror because it can conjure the terrors of the world around us in ways that are as intimate as humanly possible. After all, nothing is as close to you as your own body. Body horror lends itself to these devastating stories that can be grotesque but still very real and affecting. When I first saw Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, for example, I was stunned at how emotionally interwoven the horror is with what’s unfolding with the characters. There isn’t a beat in that movie that doesn’t simultaneously build the characters’ relationship as well as amp up the horror. I’ve read numerous analyses of the film, and it’s been taken as a parable for illness as well as mental collapse and romantic breakups. As much as the film devastates me every time I watch it, I deeply admire how malleable the metaphor of metamorphosis is in that film. For me, that’s the beauty of body horror: how it can become or reflect any aspect of human nature.
HN: I was hoping to ask you a little bit about what you’re reading now and your contemporaries. Are there other authors doing the same kind of work as you are and whom your readers might also enjoy? What about any authors that are doing wildly different stuff, but that you also recommend?
GK: I would say when it comes to authors who are doing similar work to mine, I highly recommend Brooke Warra and Christa Carmen. Brooke has her first standalone book slated for release in 2019 with Dim Shores, and Christa’s debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is out now and amazing. Also, if you like boundary-crossing female protagonists, then you’ve got to check out S.P. Miskowski’s work. She’s incredible, and I seriously can’t wait for her new book, The Worst Is Yet to Come, which comes out in February.
While it’s not incredibly different in genre at least, I’m starting to explore more horror poetry, and in that arena, I would highly recommend Stephanie M. Wytovich, Christina Sng, Saba Razvi, and Sara Tantlinger. They’re all brilliant writers, and I look forward to reading even more of their work.
HN: Finally, what’s next on your horizon? Besides any scheduled releases coming up, what are you just working on now? Do you plan on revisiting the concepts of the Rust Maidens again, or have you exhausted that topic for now?
GK: Right now, I’m in the earliest stages of a new novel as well as a novelette along with a few short stories. While I don’t want to divulge too much—I’m so superstitious about talking about a story before it’s done—I will say that across projects, I’ll be tacking everything from slasher tropes, Dracula, and witches to 1950s classic horror and something that might be taking a bit of inspiration from Sunset Boulevard. 2018 has been touch-and-go with productivity, but I’m really excited to dive back into writing full blast in the New Year.
As for concepts from The Rust Maidens, I’m sure I’ll circle back around to them again, but I’m hoping to go in some new directions. For example, I have no doubt that I’ll write about coming of age again in the future, but for right now, I’m curious about exploring horror more through the lens of older characters. When I was writing The Rust Maidens, I realized just how often I tend to write stories about adolescence. That meant that exploring Phoebe as an adult and how she changed were fun challenges for me as a writer, so I’m going to try to move a bit more into middle age and see what I can do there. I think there’s a fear in me that if I write characters closer to my own age, then it will hit too close to home and become too personal. But then, that’s what we’re doing as writers anyhow for the most part: telling very personal stories that are close to us. So in that regard, it’s probably about time I shake that fear. Besides, I also believe wholeheartedly that there isn’t just one point in our lives when we “come of age” anyhow. Hopefully, we’re all constantly going through changes and emerging on the other side as different people. That’s what I hope for myself anyhow. To keep moving forward, and learning, and becoming better, as a writer and a human being. Only time will tell how that works out for me!
Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, and her debut horror novel, The Rust Maidens. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, and LampLight, among other publications. A native of Ohio, she resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com.