Women In Horror Month: An Interview With Martel Sardina
My goal with these Women In Horror Month interviews was to get them each up in a timely manner, spacing them out throughout the month. Unfortunately, life often has different plans.
So, I have to apologize, mainly to Martel Sardina. Martel was gracious enough to answer my questions and I haven’t yet posted her interview. Which is a shame, because Martel’s interview turned out to be very in-depth and, I have to admit, quite badass. From her work as an editor to delving into a ground-breaking comic book project, Martel has seen several sides of the industry. She also has a penchant for hopping on motorcycles and vanishing into the American Frontier. In other words, like I’ve been discovering with most women in the horror genre, Martel is difficult to label.
Let’s start with a pretentious question that the tweed jacket stick-up-their ass types would ask: Why horror?
I’ve been drawn toward scary stories and scary movies ever since I can remember. The first horror movie I remember watching was the original version of THE BLOB. I grew up watching TV shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ONE STEP BEYOND. But the scariest stories weren’t always filled with witches or zombies or ghosts. One of the scariest moments I remember from a movie I watched when I was young was a scene in a western called SHALAKO. The Indians were shoving a woman back and forth, taunting her, as she’s trying to escape. Then one of the Indians pins her down and kills her by forcing her to swallow her own necklace. I know I didn’t sleep much that night. And now that I think about that scene, I may have just found the explanation for many of the nightmares I’ve had over the years.
I had to take one of those personality/strengths assessment tests for my day job recently. According to this test, my biggest “strength” is empathy. I’ve always been a sensitive/emotional person. But I’m particularly keyed in to feeling other people’s fear and pain. And when I say “feel” it, I don’t just mean I understand how they are feeling but I actually physically feel it, as if the fear or pain were my own. This empathy extends itself into my reading and my writing. Sometimes, it’s a “strength” I wish I could check at the door. I’ve had to put books down because I couldn’t stand what the author was doing to his poor characters. I’ve had to take a break from (or stop writing) stories because the content of what I was writing made me physically ill. When I read C. Michael Cook’s story THE LIVING WORLD (from Horror Library Vol. 3) which is about a woman who has an eating disorder and is starving herself, I wound up losing my appetite and not eating for several days after.
To me, horror fiction is about more than just plot. Yes, you have to have interesting things happen during the course of a story. But the best stories are the ones with the emotional connection. The ones that make you feel what the character is feeling along the way.
HEROIC: A WOMANTHOLOGY is comic project written entirely by women. Could you tell us more about that?
Heroic: A Womantholgoy is a anthology graphic novel created entirely by women to support The Global Giving Foundation. http://www.globalgiving.org/
The idea behind it was to support female creators (writers and artists) of all ages and experience levels. The seasoned pros were paired up with newbies to provide an opportunity for mentoring. I first heard about the call for submissions on Twitter. At the beginning, there was no publisher, just the idea of bringing female creators to work together to raise money for charity. The project was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. We needed to raise $25,000 to cover the costs of the initial 1,500 copy print run. The response to the Kickstarter campaign was unbelievable. It took less than a day to raise the initial goal of $25,000. By the time the Kickstarter deadline came $109,000 had been raised. Some of the additional money raised will be used to keep the original idea of providing a mentoring environment for female creators alive through future editions with different themes.
I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to be a part of this project because I wanted to learn something new. I’d never written a comic before. I was
paired up with a wonderful artist named Sarah Becan. http://www.sarahbecan.com/
I decided to adapt a short story I’d written previously to the comic form. It was harder than I expected. When you’re used to telling stories in a virtually unlimited number of words, the shift to comic writing is a tough one. You have to think about the story visually. How much can you say in pictures? How can you tell the story using the fewest words possible? Sarah writes and draws her own comics. Having her input really helped me figure out what I could trim and what I absolutely needed to keep. I am very happy with the end result and can’t wait to see it in print.
You’ve worked as an editor for places like APEX MAGAZINE and DARK SCRIBE MAGAZINE. How did “seeing behind the curtain” change your writing or your view of the industry?
It definitely taught me things not to do as a writer. Some of those things were craft related. Reading a poorly written story and being able to identify the weaknesses in the story’s structure helped me avoid the same mistakes in my own writing. Reading a well crafted story and learning to identify what the author did “right” in terms of structure, plot, character development, etc. helped me identify weaknesses in my own writing and the inspiration to make my stories better.
The other things I learned not to do have more to do with social skills and developing relationships. I don’t understand why so many authors feel the need to argue with rejection letters. At Apex Magazine, the volume of stories being submitted was overwhelming. And more than half of the stories I read did not fit the stated guidelines. When I started reading for Apex, I used to send personal comments with every rejection. As a writer, I like to know why the story is being rejected versus getting a form letter. Now I know why so many publishers send form rejections or never respond at all. It’s because the bad behavior of some authors out there. Arguing, cursing, and threatening an editor who rejected your story (no matter what the reason for rejection was) is going to cause you to be remembered for your bad behavior, not the quality of your writing. My advice is to write the best story you can and submit it. If it gets rejected, don’t take it personally. Just move on. Write. Revise. Submit. Repeat until your story finds a home.
During a break from writing, you toured the US on a motorcycle. What brought that about? Any crazy stories from the road?
When I was little, some of my relatives had motorcycles and used to take me for rides. I always loved it and couldn’t wait to have a motorcycle of my own. I took a rider’s safety class, got my license and worked my way up from a Suzuki Savage to a Harley Davidson Sportster. I don’t have many crazy stories from the road. I am a pretty cautious driver. The group of friends that I used to ride with would sometimes get frustrated with me because I didn’t like go much faster than the speed limit. I didn’t get my thrill from riding fast. I wanted to be able to take in the scenery and get wherever we were going in one piece. Many of my crazy road stories involve getting stung by bees that found their way under the face shield of my helmet. Though I have had quite a few crazy road stories due to sudden changes in the weather. I was out in Vegas once and rode in 100+ degree desert heat and a snow storm on the same day. I’ve ridden in lightening storms and heavy rain. I’ve been chilled to the bone and sunburned. I’ve also had my share of scares due to sudden changes in road conditions that weren’t weather related. In Canada, we hit a stretch of highway was under construction and the road went from a nice paved surface to muddy clay. I’ve ridden over bridges that had one paved lane and the other lane was steel grating so if you looked down you could see the water below. But somehow having the wind in your hair makes you forget all that. You learn to adapt to whatever changes Mother Nature or the Department of Transportation throws your way. I don’t have a motorcycle anymore. But I will again someday. I miss it. It was a lot of fun.
You claim to have a high tolerance for “freaky people.” Have you ever met anyone that was even too freaky for you?
Yes. There was a guy who used to come in to the Starbucks that I would sometimes use as an office away from home. I don’t know if he was homeless,
mentally disturbed or both. Every time he would come inside, he always had a rag stuffed into his mouth. He’d walk up to the counter, pull the rag out, order his coffee, and then stuff the rag back in. He never caused any trouble in the store as far as I know, but the employees were quick to escort him out. I always wondered what the deal with the rag was, but I was afraid to ask. I used to think about that a lot. I wrote a poem about him called “The Last Latte.” But I hope that what I imagined he might be up to is far from the truth.
What’s the single best thing you’ve ever done for your writing?
Several years ago, I attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp. In this program, the participants are required to submit a story for critique and critique stories by their peers. The stories are submitted several months in advance of the Boot Camp date to allow ample time for a thoughtful critique to be done. Then the group meets for a weekend. Part of the time is spent learning about the various elements of the craft of writing (POV, Dialogue, Structure, Character Development) with instruction from published professionals or editors. The rest is spent tearing the stories apart and discussing the critiques. I’ve attended both the short story and novel sessions. The instructors included: F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Jack Ketchum, Doug Winter, Elizabeth Massie, Mort Castle, and Tom Monteleone. The critiques really helped me identify weaknesses in the stories. Things like plot holes, continuity errors, poorly developed
characters. Things that you don’t always notice as the writer because you know the story. It’s in your head. It’s the translation from my brain to the page that I’ve found to be troublesome. My writing improved tremendously after my first time through. I wound up selling my first story. The second time for me was more about learning how writing a novel differs from writing short stories. My goal that time was learning more about the novel form.
“Horror is dead,” is a common and not-as-witty-as-they-think-it-is pun writers use to describe the state of the genre. Is horror dead? If so, how can would-be Dr. Frankensteins revive it?
Horror as a genre isn’t dead. Maybe there were years when it didn’t sell as well. Maybe publishers and marketing people have abandoned the term “horror” as a label and replaced it with another name like “dark” fiction. If horror is dead, then how do you explain the success of books/TV shows/movies like TWILIGHT, TRUE BLOOD, and DEXTER? I think would-be Dr. Frankenstiens should stop worrying about whether or not “horror is dead” and start worrying about writing the stories they are passionate about. If the stories are good, they’ll find an audience.
Finally, given that it is Women In Horror Month, what is it like being a female writer in a genre dominated by men? Do you find it has an impact on what type of fiction you publish or are generally expected to write? Do you feel any doors are closed for you that wouldn’t be for a male writer?
I don’t really think my gender has impacted my ability to be published. I guess I’m lucky in the sense that my name is sort of androgynous. When I submit a story, the person reading it might think the story was written by a man, unless they google my name and find out otherwise. Being female probably impacts my writing in ways I don’t consciously realize. Do my male characters think like men or women? I rely on my first readers to tell me if my character’s motivations don’t seem genuine. But I’ve never had anyone tell me that I can only write a certain type of story or that I shouldn’t try to write in a particular genre. As far as closed doors are concerned, if any have been closed, it was because I’m a human who has made mistakes, not because I’m a woman.
As much as I’m honored that you asked if I was willing to be interviewed for Women In Horror Month, I’m frankly kind of tired of hearing female horror writers claim their gender is the reason why their career hasn’t taken off. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t cases where women have been discriminated against. But of the women I’ve met, the ones who complain the loudest about “closed doors” or “boys’ clubs” are writers who aren’t being published because a) the quality of their writing is not as good as their male competition or b) they have abrasive personalities and are difficult to work with. And if I had to venture a guess, I’d say (b) is probably the biggest reason that their career isn’t where it could be.
I just finished up my duty serving as Jury Chair for the Long Fiction category of the 2011 Bram Stoker Awards. I read more than 100 stories in that category over the last year. Of those stories, less than 10% were written by women. Of the stories I personally selected for my “Top Ten” list, one was written by a woman. The other jurors (who were men) each had at least one story written by a woman in their “Top Ten” list. One of the jurors had four stories written by women in his “Top Ten” list. Our final list of five recommended works included one story written by a woman. When I was making my personal picks, I didn’t care who the author was. The only thing I was concerned about was picking stories that were the “best” of what had been published. Will some people complain the women were underrepresented in the awards process? Probably. But I’d rather be part of a system that picks the best stories without regard to the author’s gender versus implementing some sort of a quota system to “make things fair.”
I’ll wrap things up by saying this…I’ve been writing professionally for 7 years now. I’ve met hundreds of authors, editors, and publishers. Almost everyone I’ve met in that time has been helpful and tried to point me in the right direction. I’m not on the NY Times Best Seller list. I don’t know if I ever will be. I’m reading and writing the stories I am passionate about. I’m doing what I can, where I can to become a better writer. And I’ll try to help anyone who asks me to do the same.
For more information on Martel and where you can find some of her work, check out http://www.martelsardina.com/
Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in anthologies alongside Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, George RR Martin, and many more of his literary heroes. For a listing of his literary and film work, please check out his Bibliography at https://brad-hodson.com/bibliography/