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The Word Horde Interview: Carrie Laben talks A Hawk in the Woods with Amber-Rose Reed

Recently, author Carrie Laben sat down with Amber-Rose Reed to talk about Carrie’s debut novel, A Hawk in the Woods. This is their conversation.

A Hawk in the Woods by Carrie Laben

Amber-Rose Reed: A Hawk in the Woods is your debut novel, but you’ve published a good deal of short fiction. Did you know when you began the book that it would be a novel, or did it grow out of a shorter piece?

Carrie Laben: I knew Hawk would be a book-length project right from the start, because I knew that Abby and Martha would never be coherent characters unless the reader got a full picture of their family background as well as their present-day dilemma. Also, their powers (Martha’s in particular) need a fair amount of explanation. Otherwise, they’re just two very odd women doing very odd, sometimes unpleasant things.

Amber-Rose Reed: What was your initial inspiration for this book? Was there an idea, an image, or character that struck you and drew you into the story?

Carrie Laben: The initial initial inspiration is rather spoilery — I can, however, say that I drew from several real-life news stories that made a deep impression on me when I was younger, and I wanted to investigate the emotional desperation that might make someone commit the crime that sent Martha to prison. Once I started writing, Abby made sure I never gave up. I wanted to really understand what made someone like her — not exactly a villain, but certainly no hero, and someone whose most positive and most negative traits are closely linked — tick. And I wanted to be able to explain it to other people.

Amber-Rose Reed: There are a lot of disparate threads that weave together in the novel — illness; family history, drama, and trauma; as well as prison breaks and road trips, and of course the supernatural. How did you draw those story elements together into a whole? Were there certain aspects clearer from the beginning?

Carrie Laben: There were many times during the writing of this novel that I compared it to putting an octopus into a laundry basket — no sooner would I get one tentacle in than two more would pop out!  But the family history is the body of that octopus, with everything else growing out of it, so I kept coming back to that and making sure that even the most dramatic scenes flowed naturally out of what I already knew about these characters.

Amber-Rose Reed: Abby’s voice is distinctly modern, and some of her experience is very every-day relatable (who amongst us hasn’t been mansplained to on Twitter?). However, not all of what she goes through in this novel can be live-tweeted. How did you go about balancing the tone and feel of her every-day modern life, the family history they return to, and the horror aspects of the novel?

Carrie Laben: To me, taking the Lovecraftian and folk-horror elements and putting them in the most modern possible context was part of the fun. After all, if one were to accept that folk horror, or shoggoths, or what have you are part of your characters’ universe, they have to coexist with the rest of the universe in some way. Even Twitter. Once I accepted that, the balance came naturally.

Amber-Rose Reed: You’ve mentioned the folk song “The Cruel Mother” as an influence in the creation of A Hawk in the Woods. There are scenes throughout the book that strongly resonate with that haunting, folk feel and of course, the song itself features. Can you speak to the folk horror aspects of A Hawk in the Woods, and how that framing differs from the cosmic horror elements?

Carrie Laben: Growing up in a rural area with a multi-generational farming family, there are things about folk horror that really do resonate in that setting — especially the sense that there are traditions, patterns, and boundaries for a reason, and when you violate them bad things happen. But at the same time, some of those traditions, patterns, and boundaries are themselves bad things, so it can be a lose-lose proposition. Cosmic horror, of course, holds a slightly different viewpoint — it really doesn’t matter if you follow the rules or not. Your personal virtue means nothing. Abby, as befits her role in her family, is what I think of as post-Lovecraftian as well as post-folk-horror — she really doesn’t care if the universe gives a damn about her behavior or not, and she certainly doesn’t care if breaking with tradition brings down bad things on her head, because she’s confident she can master them. She’s taking both those horror traditions as part of her heritage and turning them into something new, which incidentally is also what I see horror literature as a field doing right now.

Amber-Rose Reed: And speaking of music, do you listen to music as you write? What (else) would be on your A Hawk in the Woods playlist?

Carrie Laben: I did have a playlist as a matter of fact! I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but in addition to three different versions of “The Cruel Mother” it includes “More” by The Sisters of Mercy and “Birds of Hell Awaiting” by Marilyn Manson in a nod to Abby and Martha’s high school Goth phase, “Fly” by Nicki Minaj and Rhianna which is definitely on Abby’s workout mix,  “Barracuda” by John Cale and “No One’s Gonna Love You” by Band of Horses, and quite a bit of Nick Cave. I generally find Nick Cave/Warren Ellis film scores very productive for writing.

Amber-Rose Reed: In addition to fiction, you also write a great deal of non-fiction on nature and birding. Many of your descriptions seem to draw from that experience. How do your research and non-writing hobbies inform and/or influence your writing? And what brought you to bird-watching?

Carrie Laben: Birding is all about close observation of fleeting details, and I think that’s the number one way that it contributes to my writing. It also inspires me to pay quite a lot of attention to landscape. Something subtly wrong with a landscape, whether it’s a dead tree that keeps growing or a season that changes a bit too fast, can be a quiet but powerful way to signal a much larger problem heading for the characters.

Amber-Rose Reed: Thanks so much!

Carrie Laben: Thanks to you as well.

CARRIE LABEN grew up in western New York. She earned her BS at Cornell and later her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens, where she spends a lot of time staring at birds.

Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, Clarkesworld, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place”. In 2015 she was selected for the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writer’s Residency, in 2018 she was a MacDowell Fellow, and in 2019 she was a resident at Brush Creek.

A Hawk in the Woods is her first novel. She is currently at work on a book of essays about urban environmentalism.


AMBER-ROSE REED is an avid reader and writer native to the Bay Area. She is an assistant manager at Copperfield’s Books, which nurtures her love for book culture, and studied Comparative Literature and History at San Francisco State University. Her short fiction has appeared in Eternal Frankenstein and Tales from a Talking Board.



An Interview with Anya Martin

Word Horde’s resident social media maniac, Sean M. Thompson, recently chatted with one of our favorite authors, Anya Martin, whose work has appeared in Giallo Fantastique and Cthulhu Fhtagn! Here’s what Anya had to say…

What do you think the role of genre is in fiction?

That’s a tough one in that like most writers I both hate being placed in a genre box, and yet I am a fierce defender of the claim that spec-lit in all its forms (SF/F/H, etc.) has every bit of legitimacy as literary fiction. I tend to prefer “mode” to “genre” and see the different forms of spec-lit as freeing me to approach realistic topics more, rather than less directly through a fantastic lens. For example in “The Prince of Lyghes,” my story in Cthulhu Fhtagn!, I consciously tackled the destructive impact of alcoholism on a relationship through the mode of Weird horror. The story begins monotonously because the daily life in such a relationship tends towards a constant, creeping dread, but the mode of the Weird allows me to push further into the emotional horror of that daily Hell by giving it a physical manifestation.

I’ll add that I never set out to be a Weird fiction writer per se, but since the recent ascent of the Weird, I have had an easier time selling my work. Before that, I was often told that it didn’t fit. It’d be nice to dream of a day when all books are shelved together and genres don’t matter, but genre classification is also a marketing reality that writers have to live with if they want to be published. Right now, I am fortunate in that editors and publishers seem to be more open to the type of whatever genre I write, whether Weird, horror, dark fantasy, or magic realism. I haven’t written a story I consider explicitly science fiction since “Courage of the Lion Tamer” (Daybreak, 2009), but I grew up loving science fiction and “Sensoria” in Giallo Fantastique actually started as a science fiction story. But that’s another story.

Cthulhu Fhtagn! edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Your story from Giallo Fantastique, “Sensoria,” contained a drug primarily taken at a rock and roll show. What kind of influence does music have on your writing, and have you been to a lot of concerts in your life?

I listen to music constantly, though I stick to instrumental when I am actually writing. A lot of experimental jazz, funk, Krautrock recently filling in gaps because I was such a punk rock girl. My punk/post-punk roots are still on my daily playlist–Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, John Cale, Bowie, Eno, Iggy, Ramones, Robyn Hitchcock, Pere Ubu, Wire, The Cramps, to name just a few. And yes, I have been to a fair amount of concerts from local bands to international acts, though not so many stadium-sized shows as I tend to prefer more obscure music. I was also a college radio DJ and music director. I named my show Dangerous Visions.

Music is more of a subliminal than a direct influence in most of my work, though my characters are often listening to music. However, as chance would have it through anthology invitations, I had two stories come out this year in which rock music was integral–”Sensoria” and “Resonator Superstar!” in Scott R. Jones’ Resonator anthology which explores a possible occult side to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable light/film shows accompanying early Velvet Underground gigs. The latter took a considerable amount of research and came out of attending a re-creation of that experience by a local avant garde film group in Atlanta. I actually wrote the first draft of what would become “Sensoria” around 1990, but its final form was heavily influenced by Goblin and Fabio Frizzi concerts–the latter in a London church on Halloween in 2014. So, OK, yes, my concert experiences, I guess, do bleed directly into my writing. I’m not working on any explicitly music scene stories right now, or wait, I just remembered the novel I am probably writing as my first might have something to do with a dead rock star.

Giallo Fantastique edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Do you have any writing rituals?

Well, as aforementioned, I do listen to music either before and/or while writing. Otherwise they fluctuate. In the winter, I’ll often drink green or camomile tea depending on whether I need a caffeine lift. I do coffee in the morning but that’s my nonfiction journalism day job time. For “Sensoria,” “Resonator Superstar!” and other stories that I need to tap into a more intense trance state especially as I get near the climax, I have drunk Kava. Some stories come together better in bed with my laptop with scented candles lit, and others sitting at my computer desk–I’m not sure why other than needing a change of scenery. I do usually prefer writing alone rather than in a public place like a coffee shop.

Would you ever eat a bug?

I have eaten bugs! Dried seasoned grasshoppers and still not sure whether those were caterpillars in the soup in China. Also more recently at a natural history museum insect-tasting event, but I can’t remember what kind of insects they were now.

Have you ever written a novel?

I have started novels but have not finished one yet. One in particular keeps knocking around in my brain. It seems manageable in length, I haven’t read anything else like it and fortunately the concept seems saleable. I hope to pick it up again sometime soon, but not until after a novella and I finish up at least three more short stories for anthology invitations.

How do you deal with fear of failure?

I just try not to think about it and keep working. Get the story done and move on to the next one. My brain may be a little too good at compartmentalizing, which is something I may tackle in a future story. On the other hand, right now I also try to keep my fiction goals modest. Get a few more stories completed and sold, see how my work is received, and then hopefully someone will want to collect them. And in due time, hopefully this winter, novel.

Would you consider yourself a fast writer, or a slow writer, in terms of your output.

Haha! Both. I tend to write very rapidly once a story gets going and have been known to complete a story in a day to a week. But I’ll start other stories and there could be long gaps of time as the parts come together in my head. “Resonator Superstar!” and “Old Tsah-Hov” in Cassilda’s Song (edited by Joe Pulver, Chaosium) were both written in two weeks or less, but “The Prince of Lyghes” evolved over three years and even when I thought it was done, I made more changes after a beta reader hit upon something simple and missing that should have been obvious to me.

Thanks for taking part. Anything to plug?

You’re welcome. I do have two more works slated to come out this year–making it a total of six in 2015. My short story, “A Girl in Her Dog,” will be in Issue #2 of Xynobis from Dunhams Manor Press. And Dunhams Manor is also publishing a one-act Weird play called “Passage to the Dreamtime” in its chapbook series. It’ll be the first time a work of fiction by me will be published in a freestanding format, i.e. not in an anthology or magazine, so I’m pretty excited.