We here at Dirge take pride in interviewing and profiling the talented and innovative women working in dark entertainment all year long, but Women in Horror Month is almost over, and it’s time for us to welcome our final author for the special series of interviews highlighting just a few great ladies in horror.
This week we are chatting with Shawna L. Bernard, better known as Sydney Leigh, a writer, editor, and artist native to the North Shore of Massachusetts where she lives with her Frisbee-chasing border collie, and teenage son.
Her short fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and reviews have been published in various anthologies and magazines, including Shock Totem, Shroud Quarterly, Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning, Widowmakers, and Darkness Ad Infinitum. She currently works for Villipede Publications, Shroud Publishing, as the Chief Editor of Eldritch Press’ Novel Division. She is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association.
She recently won the Best Horror Short Story Award in the 2014 Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll for “Baby’s Breath,”which appears in Bugs: Tales that Slither, Creep, and Crawl, as well as making it to the Final Ballot of the Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction.
Sydney Leigh: I’d say I was maybe twelve? Thirteen? I can remember writing a few stories with some elements of dark fantasy in them at that age, but I suppose the real horror started at about fifteen or sixteen with my poetry—I wrote it endlessly. In 2008 I joined a guild with quite a few horror writers and penned some short stories while with them. When I won a spot in an elimination contest, I began writing horror much more seriously. After a spell away from it following an accident in 2011, I got back into the groove—and that was just a little less than two years ago.
DM: Did you read a lot of horror as a child/teenager?
SL: I did. I was always an avid reader—I grew up in an extremely literate family and with a mom who taught nursery school and kindergarten—so I was reading and writing by age four. When I was really young, I was in love with Where the Wild Things Are, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, anything that evoked intense thoughts or emotions. As a teenager, I was constantly watching horror movies and had my head buried in a book whenever possible.
I vividly remember being absolutely absorbed in King’s It, ‘Salem’s Lot, Skeleton Crew, Night Shift, Barker’s Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show, and Douglas E. Winter’s Prime Evil, among others. They were an extraordinarily influential part of my childhood.
DM: Who would you consider to be your main influences in the genre?
SL: Everyone whose work I read and watched growing up certainly inspired my love of horror, but I can’t say anyone in particular has influenced me, per se—at least not in the sense that I have consciously emulated them or their writing. Although I did take a Horror Story class in college and remember Nancy A. Collins’ “Catfish Gal Blues” striking such a nerve that I carried the 999: Twenty-Nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense anthology everywhere I went for a while. Hers was a story that made me realize I wanted to create something that effective, atmospheric, and quietly disturbing someday, too. It really stayed with me.
When I started writing poetry in my teens, it was mostly fueled by nightmares and social and emotional circumstances, since I was a deep thinker from a young age and that always proved challenging. A teacher gave me John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean and that inspired me to express myself in poetic form. I fell in love with Plath, Blake, Crane, Ferlinghetti, Frost, Henley, Wilbur, Poe, Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Snodgrass, and Yeats, and a quite a few poems from that book made quite an impression on me, so likely had a strong influence on me as a poet: Shapiro’s “The Heart,” Davidson’s “A Ballad of Hell,” and Barry Spacks’ “An Emblem of Two Foxes.” The thing about poetry is it really doesn’t have to be horror to be an influence if you write in that genre.
Music also had a huge influence on me, for sure. Alice in Chains…the whole grunge, punk, alternative, and metal scene. If I were to list all the bands that inspired me, we’d run out of room.
I could go on and on…there are so many gifted people out there. It’s just incredible.
It’s hard to say, since I’ve never been a man and have nothing to compare it to, but to be honest I’ve never really given it much thought. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that being a woman has proven to be a disadvantage, other than perhaps being cheated, robbed, scammed, and plagiarized by a disreputable con artist posing as a publisher. But it’s hard to say, since that very well could have happened to anyone. Part of me felt like he attempted to use his masculinity to intimidate me, though, and it was a difficult time for me professionally and emotionally. I felt I was ganged up on a bit and that the force against me was heavily male—mob mentality and all that. But I definitely overextended myself and was perhaps more trusting than a man might have been, but again—that may be a personal flaw of mine, and not one inherent to me as a woman. It’s too hard to say. I don’t like drama or to engage publicly, though, and would rather simply allow the truth to uncover itself in time.
But hey, fuck that guy. The best revenge is to live well, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
However, I do think it’s somewhat different to be a female writer in the genre, in that when we write something it’s automatically—albeit inadvertently—classified as work written by a female author; whereas something written by a male author is seen without that label applied. And when I write, I don’t think my voice comes across as particularly feminine, nor are my topics or ideas all ones you might expect from a female writer. It’s hard, because as a writer you want someone to read your work without that bias attached.
DM: Have you ever had any negative experiences in “real” life because you write horror?
SL: Oh, absolutely. First and foremost, I began using a pen name for that very reason. The first time I submitted a horror story, I was teaching seventh grade English and ended up placing in a writing competition where I had to come up with a new story every few weeks. The public would vote to decide who was eliminated until a winner was chosen, so the stories were posted publicly—and I could have lost my job if my students, their parents, or the administration came across my work.
I’ve since been retired from teaching on disability following an accident, but I still use a pen name, because I’ve allowed myself freedom as Sydney Leigh that I don’t afford my “real” self. If I’m honest, there’s a part of me that feels some shame and embarrassment about writing horror, and I resent that…because it’s a direct result of the reception I’ve gotten to it over the years and in no way a reflection of how I feel about it myself.
I find that a lot of people don’t take horror seriously, and less people read it than “mainstream” fiction. There’s a taboo associated with it. So it’s not something I can share with everyone in my real life and that’s a huge disappointment to me. In all fairness, though, some have been good sports and very gracious despite their aversion to the genre. I’ve received a great deal of support from the unlikeliest of sources over the years.
DM: What stereotype would you like to smash?
SL: Well, I suppose to piggyback off that last question, perhaps that writing horror isn’t something to be ashamed of, and that simply because a work is quantified as horror doesn’t mean it’s lacking literary or redeeming qualities some of the more mainstream genres are more readily afforded. I know people who refuse to read something based on the sole fact that it’s horror, and while I understand that some have an aversion to gore and fright, I think it oftentimes comes with an automatic negative connotation. To be fair, part of that is a very human projection. It’s easy to cast aspersions and say that something you prefer is superior and find fault in all else. It would just be nice if people were more open-minded and didn’t pigeonhole horror as a one-note genre.
Those of us who read and write it know better, but I do think there can be a very stereotypical view of horror as a superficial, inferior brand of writing. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is so much more “horror” in our everyday lives than meets the eye, and there are many depths, layers, and facets to horror fiction, just like anything else. If more people were sympathetic to the notion that writing horror is a way of dealing with the darkness in the world around us, and that by confronting and exploring it in fiction we come to understand it better, it might be more widely accepted.