Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Loren Rhoads – Loren Rhoads is the author of a space opera trilogy called In the Wake of the Templars, a succubus/angel duology (with Brian Thomas), and a nonfiction travel guide to 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. Unsafe Words is the first full-length collection of her short fiction. You can find out more about her work at https://lorenrhoads.com/.
Thanks so much, Loren, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
Loren Rhoads: Brian Hodge described Unsafe Words, my new story collection, as a kaleidoscope, which I think is the perfect image. The stories morph from horror to science fiction to fantasy to dark non-genre literary fiction. I encountered the term genrequeer the other day, which is perfect. I don’t like to get pinned down.
JSC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
LR: I met a friend’s brother at the gross anatomy lab where he taught. He showed me around the insides of 3 cadavers. He offered to let me do some cutting, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Instead, at one point, he handed me a woman’s heart. I wasn’t thinking — I just took it. A moment later, it dawned on me that I was holding a human heart in my hand. As you can imagine, the moment changed my life.
A lot of that day’s anatomy research shows up in my story “Valentine.”
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
LR: One of the stories in this collection concerns characters who are very much like Led Zeppelin on the eve of their first US tour, except that they meet a succubus who makes them a deal they can’t refuse. My copyeditor called me to task because the Jimmy Page character talks about one of the devils being big enough to play for Manchester United. Turns out, my copyeditor is a soccer fan. She was offended that Page didn’t think first of his local soccer team… It was a minor detail to me, just a passing comment, but it was really important to her that I get it right!
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured in your book? If so, discuss them.
LR: Most of the stories in this collection deal with sex or sexualities. Some of the characters are lesbians, gay men, bisexual women, or non-binary people. Some are even straight. I wanted to reflect the beautiful complexity of the world and my own journey coming out as bisexual.
JSC: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
LR: I write full-time. That means I am always finishing a book, promoting a book that just came out, and simultaneously thinking ahead to what my next book will be. It’s exciting, because there are so many more ideas I want to share.
JSC: How did you deal with rejection letters?
LR: I laugh at rejection. Ha, ha! A couple of years ago, I joined a group that was trying to get 100 rejection letters in a year. The goal wasn’t actually to be rejected 100 times, but to reach for new venues where you might hesitate to submit out of a fear of rejection. When someone rejected a story or a pitch or a request to join a reading, you put a gold star on your rejection chart. Thinking about getting rejections as a game took away a lot of the sting.
JSC: What’s the funniest or creepiest thing you’ve come across while researching for one of your stories?
LR: Part of the story “Sound of Impact” is set at the Griffith Observatory in LA. When I first started visiting the observatory, one of its exhibits was about the Voyager spacecraft. It displayed replicas of the information Voyager took into space: line drawings of human anatomy, which I thought gave an excellent demonstration of what parts of us were good to eat. A photo looked from the crown of the mother’s head down the length of her body as the masked doctor held up her newborn. I assume the scientists wanted to convey that we give live birth, but it looked very much like we were proudly displaying our parasites. So very strange. When I finally got back down to LA and went to the observatory again, I was disappointed to discover that they’d remodeled the museum. The creepy old exhibits are gone. At least they live on in my story.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
LR: I commissioned Lynne Hansen to create an original piece for this book. She’s a cover artist whose artwork I really liked, someone who’d done a lot of covers for horror books. She asked to read my stories and wanted me to send her 3 book covers I really liked, so she could get the flavor of what I wanted. Picking covers to show her was really fun. Then she asked if I had any suggestions for a cover image.
I’d been saving a skeleton tree drawing forever. It had been so long that I don’t even know where I got the original image from. People on Facebook helped me source the original: a woodcut entitled “Adam and Eve taken from De conceptu et generatione hominis, 1580.” I asked Lynne to throw out Adam and Eve, but keep the skeleton tree. She was able to blend the tree and my love for Ray Bradbury into this lovely book cover.
JSC: Who has been your favorite character to write and why?
LR: The last story in the book, “With You By My Side It Should Be Fine,” is about a nonbinary kid named Tolly. The story is set in my hometown of Flint, Michigan after time travelers bring a flu forward in time and infect people who no longer have immunity to it. Which seems prescient now, but the story was written in the 1980s to get me into Clarion.
Anyway, Tolly’s in love with one of the scientist/time travelers. The love is unrequited, but no less passionate. I wanted to write about the way that true love is accepting of its object just the way they are. Tolly’s the most generous, self-sacrificing character in the book.
His story was inspired by David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album. That’s where the title comes from.
JSC: What are you working on now?
LR: I’m finishing up a proposal for a nonfiction book about the pioneer cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area. The people in the book range from Emperor Norton, a Victorian-era man who declared himself Emperor of the United States and decreed a bridge be built between San Francisco and Oakland, survivors of the Donner Party, Civil Rights icon Mary Ellen Pleasant who won the right for African Americans to ride San Francisco’s cable cars, Mexican land grant owners, and Charley Parkhurst, a transman who drove stagecoaches during the Gold Rush.
Many of our pioneer cemeteries are threatened by the wildfires this year. I want to document that history before it’s lost.
I’m also working on a novel about witches and vampires in San Francisco. I don’t see any contradiction between the two projects.
And now for Loren’s new book: Unsafe Words:
In Unsafe Words, the first full-length collection of her edgy, award-winning short stories, Loren Rhoads punctures the boundaries between horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction in a maelstrom of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Ghosts, succubi, naiads, vampires, the Wild Hunt, and the worst predator in the woods stalk these pages, alongside human monsters who follow their cravings past sanity or sense.
Featuring an introduction by Lisa Morton and cover art by Lynne Hansen, these never-before-collected stories come from the magazines Cemetery Dance, Space & Time, City Slab, and Instant City, the Wily Writers podcast, and from the books Sins of the Sirens, Demon Lovers, The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, Tales for the Camp Fire, and more. One story, “With You By My Side It Should Be Fine,” is original to the collection.
“Unsafe Words is filled with dark, lyrical tales that lift you up before they drag you under into quiet moments of fear and horror. Rhoads has a gift. She takes you deep, and when you come out on the other side, you’re just glad you’re still alive.”
— J. Scott Coatsworth, Captain Awesome of Queer Sci Fi
Editor: hey, that’s me!
Available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and for the kindle. Other ebook formats coming soon. Need more information? https://lorenrhoads.com/writing/unsafe-words/
Excerpt From “Still Life with Shattered Glass”:
State Street was deserted, probably until the bars closed. I was relieved no one would see us behaving like ghouls. Lily parked at the produce market beside the train tracks. “There’s a flashlight in the glove box.” She lifted a camera bag from the trunk.
I swallowed hard, my mouth dry despite the aftertaste of pinot. “I’ve never seen a dead body before.”
“Relax. You won’t see much of one tonight.”
I followed her across the street, glad to have my Docs on in case I stepped on anything. Lily scanned the tracks exhaustively, barely gaining ground. When I could stand the silence no longer, I asked, “How’d you get into this?”
“You mean, what made me ‘like this’?” A smile colored her voice in the darkness. “What incident in my unfortunate childhood made me such a pervert?”
When I didn’t answer, she laughed at me. “Maybe my brother made me pose naked and shared the pictures with his friends. Maybe my parakeet died and I kept her in a shoebox under my bed. Maybe my father took me out to the barn to watch him butcher rabbits. What do you think?”
I batted the question back to her. “What do you think?”
Her smile reflected the flashlight. “I don’t think about it.”
We scoured a good length of track before Lily decided, “They must have gone over this area with dogs.”
I changed the subject, hoping to cheer her up. “What do you plan to do with your photographs?”
“I’d like to get into the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art. And Professor Richardson, at the party tonight? He’s helping me find a book publisher.”
Do you find enough subjects? I wondered. What happens if the deadline looms and no body parts turn up? Ann Arbor is a small town. It couldn’t have that many violent accidents, could it?
Excerpt From “With You By My Side It Should Be Fine”:
Tolly adjusted the cracked mirror to catch the last of the daylight before he lined his eyes. Since the rats gnawed through the generator’s insulation, he was forced to make up his face in natural light.
The bedroom door creaked open behind him as Doug emerged, on his way to check the solar oven on the roof. Tolly said nothing. He had learned it was better to leave the older man to his thoughts when he first emerged for the night. While Tolly had grown up on a diet of sun-crisped pigeon, Doug still craved the things he’d left behind. As if his dreams took him home, Doug missed the past most when he first got out of bed.
When Doug returned to the kitchen to carve up breakfast, the roast pigeon smelled amazing. Tolly’s mouth watered. He arranged his low-cut blue dress to better display the hollow of his thin chest, then let the smell draw him into the kitchen. “I’m starved.”
“It’s kind of scrawny,” Doug warned. “Rats got the other one before I checked the trap.” He stripped the last of the meat from the bones with a scalpel.
Silently admiring the play of candlelight on the silver in Doug’s hair, Tolly wolfed down his share of the pigeon and licked his fingers. “It’s good.” He brushed his cheek against Doug’s shoulder. “I’m going out now.”
“Good luck,” the older man said.
Tolly wondered if he heard an accusation there. He knew the cupboards were bare. He slipped on his pumps, then let himself out of the apartment and descended the three flights of stairs.
Broken glass and fallen tiles cluttered the apartment building’s lobby, slippery footing beneath his high heels. Tolly crossed the room cautiously. A broken ankle meant a long crawl up the stairs and nothing but pigeon to eat for longer. He craved applesauce. Better yet, he thought, canned fruit salad.
The door to the street held no panes. Tolly pushed the revolving metal frame around and stepped out, combing a hand through his long black hair. The street outside was deserted but not silent. A family of rats wrestled in the doorway across the street. Tolly ignored them and got moving. He never carried a weapon. Experience proved that he was not a fighter, that a gun or knife would only be turned against him. Shattered glass or rusty pipes were always underfoot if he needed protection from the rats.
Tolly followed Jefferson Street up to the river, then lounged against the graffiti-scrawled marble of Citizens Bank. A fire several blocks away reflected off the low clouds. Tolly watched the light show.
He worried about Doug. The older man had become even more withdrawn of late. It hurt Tolly that he could not be everything Doug needed. Recently, he couldn’t even provide a decent meal for the two of them. That had to change soon, or Tolly would need to do something drastic.
Claws snicked against the pavement behind him, too heavy to be a rat. Tolly subtly noted the broken bottle at his feet before he turned toward the sound. Instead of an animal, he found a figure shrouded in a big black coat. Tolly leaned seductively against the cold marble and gestured toward the abandoned car where he conducted business.