By Patrick R. McDonough
Dead Head Reviews (DHR): Thank you for giving us your time, Laurel. Your first published book, Whispers in the Dark came out December 2018. How has the response been?
Laurel Hightower (LH): It took a little while to gain any traction, but so far the majority of the reviews have been positive, for which I’m thankful! I would always encourage people to be honest in their reviews, because I want the book to reach the correct audience, but it’s pretty nerve-racking while you’re waiting to see if what you put out there is any good.
DHR: Would you mind expanding on why it took some time to gain traction?
LH: That delay was due mostly to my inexperience. Working with an indie press, I did understand that there wasn’t much of a marketing budget, but I didn’t have any clue how to market myself, or how to get the book to the right reviewers. I noticed that a couple of the other authors who’s books came out around the same time as mine had a lot of reviews, so I started backtracking, figuring out what they were doing and following suit. I didn’t know anyone in the horror community at that time to ask, but someone in Horror Aficionados on Goodreads mentioned Ladies of Horror Fiction, and that led me to submit my request to Sci-Fi & Scary. I was lucky that Sian Plummer accepted Whispers to review, which was in March, and then it took time for that review and others to get posted and make the rounds. A lot of other lovely reviewer folks have given their time to read a rookie author and post reviews, and of course my interactions on Twitter have been invaluable.
DHR: What was the process like when researching and inquiring for agents?
LH: It’s a bewildering process, as other writers know! Looking for the right fit, who represents the genre you’re writing in, is accepting new writers, and who has the connections to get your material in front of publishers, is time consuming work. I researched a number of them, looked at who was currently in their “stable” of authors, and what they indicated they were most interested in reading. The other part of the equation is patience, which I have a hard time with. Everything in writing and publishing moves at glacial speed – it can take an agent months to get around to reading your manuscript and responding. I probably had an easier time than most, because I had my mom coaching me, and her agent actually agreed to look at my work, which I know was a huge leg up. I had no promises about his acceptance, and I still had to go through the normal query process, but he eventually took me on as his agent, which was a big deal for me.
DHR: That’s so cool that you and your mom have the same agent! You were on an episode of Ink Heist – A Podcast for Readers of Dark Fiction. Did Shane and Rich approach you for that?
LH: Yes, Shane did – I definitely had a “who, me?” moment when he tweeted me about it. He had very kindly agreed to read and review Whispers, and I was kind of waiting with baited breath to see what he thought. He ended up enjoying it and asking me to be on the show. I was their third guest and nervous as all get out, but talking to Rich and Shane is like hanging in a bar with friends. They do such a great job with that podcast.
DHR: I couldn’t agree more, and I think you did a lovely job. Have you been on other podcasts?
LH: Yes, I’ve been on one other – Boneheads Weekly is a long-running podcast run by some wonderful guys based in my hometown. We were members of the same Facebook group, and after Whispers was released they had me on to talk about it. It was a funny situation, because basically I was invited into the basement of some guys I met online, which is a nice set up for a horror story on its own. They’re awesome though, incredibly knowledgeable about books, movies, graphic novels, everything. Their shows are a lot of fun.
DHR: Oh wow, ha-ha. You have an infant, congrats by the way! When do you have time to write?
LH: My writing time is pretty strictly scheduled – most weeknights I try to write between 9 and 10, and on weekends I write during my son’s naps. It’s made me a lot more organized about my time!
DHR: That’s a nice segue into my next question. Do you have a specific spot you have to write in or are you a mobile writer?
LH: I tend to write on the couch in our living room. I don’t have problems finding a new location if we’re on vacation, but if I’m home I prefer to be there. I have trouble working in public places because of the noise factor – I can be high maintenance about silence, as my husband can attest.
DHR: Looking back on Whispers, how do you feel about it as a story?
LH: It’s interesting because by the time JournalStone signed me on, I set it aside for a long time and worked on other projects. I worried, as we approached publication that it wasn’t representative of my best work, and it seemed like all I could see were problems during the editing process. Having the story seen through the eyes of readers has brought me back to an appreciation of it. Hearing from people about the parts that resonated with them helps me to see it in new ways every day, and curbs my instinct to beat up on my own work. At this point I feel proud of it, and of my characters.
DHR: That’s awesome. I know you currently reside in Kentucky. Did you grow up there? If so, how did it influence your work?
LH: Yes, I grew up here – I moved away to go to college, but came home as so many of us do. I imagine it influenced my work most in the types of characters I created – living in California and Tennessee, I could detect a lot of regional differences in how people interacted with one another, and I’d say it comes across unconsciously in my characters. That, and all those weird regional dialect things I never realized were weird…
DHR: Not sure if you’ve ever been in my old stomping grounds, but you’d flip with the New England accents. Whispers is a stand-alone. Will the next also be one?
LH: That might depend on who picks up what work and when – my second book that I’m revising now is the first in a series that has three completed manuscripts, and half of a fourth. I ended up creating a world I didn’t want to leave, so it became a continuing series, with respect to the characters and the town, though each book is kind of like its own episode. The first one is titled Silent Key, and definitely involves ghosts again, though the character dynamics are pretty different. My protagonist is an NYPD gang squad specialist named Cam Ambrose who moves to her uncle’s ranch in Texas after her husband’s brutal murder. The other completed manuscript I have is for a standalone thriller, but who knows if any of them will ever see the light of day? I sure hope so!
DHR: Oh, wow! I really hope so too! Do you have any desire to explore Sci-Fi or dark fantasy?
LH: Not at the moment, because I don’t read enough of either to do the genre justice.
DHR: That’s fair. Who do you look up to and why?
LH: Hmm, I’m blanking on specific people – it might be more of a mindset. People that have the ability to give zero fucks, I think. I wish I could just get stuff done without giving anyone else headspace, but I’m not good at it – so the kinds of women I see who are perfectly comfortable doing what’s right for them, and not worrying about six degrees of anxiety over it, those are the ones I’d like to emulate.
DHR: You mentioned how your mother is a writer. How was that like growing up?
LH: Ha – there were pros and cons, for sure. It was cool to read all these books with my mom’s name on them, and there were cassette tape audio versions of at least one, which was neat. I grew up with the knowledge that this was something you could really do. The evidence was right in front of me. It meant I was held to higher standards from a young age in my writing, so I’m sure I benefited from that aspect. With writing as a career, and especially back then, things were always feast or famine, so it could get hairy sometimes. I don’t want to give the impression we weren’t taken care of – we always were, but the rest of my family seemed to have a higher threshold for uncertainty.
DHR: What does she think of your stories?
LH: She’s very proud – she was excited when she first learned I was working on a novel. She’s always been my first beta reader, and she beats the hell out of me on notes, but it’s always worth it.
DHR: I’m so envious of you in that position. What genre does she typically write in?
LH: Her first four were sci-fi, and the rest have been mystery/thrillers.
DHR: Does she have a story or stories that’s inspired your work?
LH: I don’t know if it inspired my work, exactly, but I always loved Satan’s Lambs. It was my favorite, plus I got a kick out of all the conservative backlash for the title.
DHR: Yea, I can imagine. I do love that title, though. I just googled the book and the cover has the same tone as Whispers, neat! Can you see yourself shaping your little boy into a writer one day?
LH: Not shaping him into it, no – if he should choose to try it, I’ll give him all my support, but I want him to do what makes him happy, always. I’m thrilled that he’s so into being read to, and will often open books and “read” them to himself or his class, so I hope he’ll be a reader. But whoever he chooses to be, I’m his cheerleader 100 percent.
DHR: Spoken like a great parent. You’ve mentioned how short stories aren’t really your forte. Could you expand on that?
LH: There is such an art to being able to craft a story arc with limited pages. Maybe it’s about stretching myself, and I haven’t been brave enough to try it, but it always seems like the ideas I get for stories involve a much longer investment. I say that now, but maybe tomorrow something cool will pop into my head.
DHR: Along the lines of something popping in your head, has a dream been the catalyst to any of your stories?
LH: Definitely for scenes in some of my books. Silent Key has a scene based on a vivid nightmare I had. When I was describing it to my friend, it creeped her out, so I decided I had to use it.
DHR: I need to read that scene as soon as possible, please, he-he. What kind of music do you tend to gravitate towards?
LH: My husband would call it depressing singer songwriter – I like a lot of ballad, low-key one-offs. Mood music, plus some high octane stuff for workouts, or rocking out in my car like I think I’m cool.
DHR: You’re super cool. While we’re on the subject, do you write or read while listening to music?
LH: Nope, can’t do it, too distracting. Sometimes I’ll listen to instrumental horror soundtracks while I’m working – Hellraiser, Candyman, It Follows – but most of the time I need total silence. I’m a joy to live with, let me tell you.
DHR: It’s better than being a loud pain in the ass like myself, I’m sure. What are your goals for the foreseeable future?
LH: I’d love to get Silent Key polished and picked up for an early 2020 release, hopefully with the thriller not far behind. I have an outline for a novella I’ll work on after that, and if there’s much interest in Silent Key I’ll be polishing, or, more likely working massive rewrites, on the sequels.
DHR: Fingers crossed! Pertaining to writing goals, do you have a bucket list?
LH: I’d love to have my work included in a Night Worms package, to have it read by John F.D. Taff or Johnathan Janz or Hunter Shea, or Caitlyn Starling or Catherine Cavendish or Josh Malerman or, well, you know, any one of these incredible horror big shots we’re so blessed to have. I’d like to get accepted to the Kentucky Book Fair, and actually see my books on the shelves in bookstores. And I want to make it to Scares that Care next year!
DHR: Those are all fantastic goals and I don’t see why they wouldn’t become a reality! I also hope to go to Scares that Care, but we’ll see how that goes. Is there anyone you would like to make a shout out to?
LH: I’m almost afraid to, because there are so many and I’m bound to forget someone, but definitely Sian Plummer and Lilyn George at Sci-Fi & Scary, Shane and Rich at Ink Heist, John Lynch, Michael Patrick Hicks, Shanannigans at Reads and Reels, Joe Lewis, James Thomas, and Chad Jennings at Bonehead Weekly. I mean, can I just shout out the whole horror family?
DHR: Absolutely! Laurel, thank you for letting me interview you! You’re always a pleasure to talk with.
You can follow Laurel on:
Main Website: laurelhightower.com