An introduction may hardly be necessary – considering the whirlwind of success Gemma Amor saw in 2019 – but an introduction will come, nevertheless.
Last year, I discovered a large number of independent writers worthy of a bestseller’s list, Gemma Amor being one of my ultimate favorites. I read her first story collection, Cruel Works of Nature, in June, while it was still being freshly promoted on various bookstagram accounts and review blogs (having released at the tail end of 2018). “Foliage” immediately drew me in with Gemma’s effortless writing and wonderfully creepy imagination. I tore through that collection faster than anything I’d read in some time, ever hungry for the next story and what emotionally horrible things would accompany them. By the time I had finished, Gemma Amor’s name was ingrained in my memory. I started following her accounts on Twitter and Instagram, hopeful to be an early reader for whatever she released next.
It so happened that I joined her fandom just in time. In less than a month after reading Cruel Works of Nature, she released a novella you probably saw on various 2019 Best Reads lists: Dear Laura. I read it in one, exhilarating session. It was emotional, suspenseful, and uncomfortable; basically, the best ingredients for a book. Now, I had two titles under my belt for Gemma, both of which floored me. In no time at all, Gemma had become a favorite writer, one that I’d anticipated would make my own Top Reads of 2019 when the time came (which she did, in multiple categories).
Fast forward six months (in which I let Gemma know I was eagerly awaiting more), and I had several more releases in hand. Her second story collection, Till the Score is Paid, featured several more extremely personal entries, including “The Strangler,” a haunting story about postnatal depression. There was also the illustrated short story, “Grief is a False God,” released on its own around the same time. Despite its brevity, this release kicked me in the heart; it’s not one to miss.
Of course, Gemma Amor has so much more planned for her readers. Between her various projects (including the NoSleep and Shadows at the Door podcasts) and upcoming releases, fans will frequently have something new to explore from the author. There’s the upcoming Girl on Fire novella (an extension of the short story we read in Cruel Works of Nature), the White Pines novel (crowd-funder, folk-horror and wonderfully strange), and the recently announced Six Rooms novel (title subject to change, another outing with Cemetery Gates) all to come in 2020. And knowing Gemma, she probably will have more appearing along the way.
To fuel this feature on the author, I spoke with Gemma online in the midst of her busy schedule to talk about each of her releases, the way she writes (and draws), other female authors she would recommend, and much more. Though there have been some minor edits for errors, what follows is mostly copied and pasted from our digital interview.
AM: Seeing as this is a spotlight, let’s start simple before diving deep. Who are you? Where are from? And when did you start writing for the public?
GA: Hi! I’m Gemma Amor, a horror fiction author happily living in Bristol in the UK. I’m originally from a bleak part of the country called the Fens, near Norfolk, where there is too much sky, no hills, a lot of mud and thousands of irrigation ditches. Graham Swift wrote a book about it called Waterland, and it is every bit as desolate and unforgiving as its location.
I’ve been writing since I was a child, but operating this author suit for just under two years. Before that, I worked in marketing and wrote content for websites that sold toilets.
AM: When it came time to create Cruel Works of Nature, how did you go about compiling the collection? Were all the stories already done, or did you start the idea of a collection first?
GA: Full disclosure: Cruel Works of Nature was only possible because of the NoSleep Podcast.
So, for context, I’ll go back a few years. I was unemployed, heavily medicated and battling some fairly severe postnatal depression. To help me unscramble the thoughts crashing around my very tired skull, I began to write every day. I’ve always been a writer, but lacked the time to invest in it as much as I wanted. Unemployment solved that issue rather nicely, it turned out. I also listened to podcasts, as a way of helping me focus and keep the dark thoughts and anxiety in check. I stumbled across this little horror anthology podcast called The NoSleep Podcast, and instantly fell in love with it. After I had binged every episode, I thought, ‘I should send them a story.’ And so I did. And, to my enormous surprise, it was accepted.
My first ever published and paid for story was ‘His Life’s Work,’ which [was] featured on Season 10 of the podcast. After that, another story followed. And another, and another. And so on, until I realized I had enough material for a book. I met a small indie publisher though the NoSleep community, and the rest is history, as they say.
AM: In that collection [Cruel Works of Nature], which story was hardest? Which was easiest? Which was the most personal?
GA: I don’t find that any of the stories I write come too easy, partly because I pour myself into them far too much. I’m also an agonizer, and perfectionist. I write fast, but then spend days rewriting and tweaking each sentence until it feels ‘right,’ which is a grueling process as I’m constantly self-correcting and reworking. If you were to ask me my favorite story, I would have to say ‘Foliage,’ which is my tribute to VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a book which still haunts me years after reading it. ‘Sketchbook’ is about the relationship between a mother and her son, and how far she would go to protect him, so I would say that is probably the most personal of the collection. But then ‘Black Sand’ was written while I was on holiday in Sicily, trying to adjust to my mental illness, and in ‘The Path through Lower Fell’ I took great pleasure in murdering someone who had royally pissed me off; so, each story is a bit of a journey, to be honest. I don’t really write unless it comes from the heart.
AM: You did the art in that collection (as well as Till the Score is Paid and Dear Laura). How long have you been drawing? Is it a hobby or a side job (or both)? Can we expect you to continue doing this with your releases? (I love your style!)
GA: I love to paint and draw, and always have. Sometimes I accept commissions, but largely I use it as a way of relaxing. Usually I paint while watching a movie, rather than frowning at a computer or smartphone, so it is very good for my general anxiety and happiness. And yes, I’ll be doing more. I enjoyed painting the cover for Dear Laura, and am itching to paint another.
AM: Which comes first – the story or the drawing? How do you decide which image you are going to do for a story?
GA: Always the story. Then I try and think of objects or scenes that feature heavily within. I like solid outlines and minimal colors, so [I] tend to paint items that lend themselves well to that style. I would actually like to try it the other way around: just paint something, see what happens on the paper, and then write a story about it. I’m a heavily visual person, so I love the idea of a visual prompt.
AM: With Grief is a False God, you actually had someone else do the art. What brought about that decision, and how did you come to using Anibal Santos?
GA: Actually, for this project, I was approached by the publisher, Cemetery Gates Media. They had some fantastic art from Anibal (who is a vastly superior artist by the way) and a great concept for a story, and wanted to know if I’d come on board and help with the word side of things. I took one look at Anibal’s art and thought, ‘Yes, please!’ I’ve worked with the publisher before on the anthology, Other Voices, Other Tombs, and was delighted to be able to work with them again. I was really pleased with the outcome.
AM: Grief is a False God touches on a subject I’ve read from you elsewhere: postnatal depression. In general, you write from a personal place. Do you have any sort of – I don’t want to say RITUAL, but for lack of a better word – ritual when writing something so personal to you?
GA: No ritual. I just throw myself at it. I am a character-driven writer, and sometimes the horror is almost incidental, if I’m honest. So, I tend to start with the human emotions and the background stories and the motivations and the other complexities that come with being alive, and weave the horror in around it. There is no ritual when I write – I just sit down, start hammering the keys, and wait to see what comes out.
AM: We are going to touch on everything a bit here. Next, Dear Laura. Again, a story with a lot of personal fire in it. This story is emotionally gripping and suspenseful. You do know this would make a great movie, right? Have you auctioned/submitted this to any studios (or any of your stories, for that matter)?
GA: I am very keen to get Dear Laura optioned, yes. First I think I’d like to get it adapted into an audio production. I’ve been too shy to ask the NoSleep gang, as it isn’t their usual fare, but maybe I should bite the bullet. I’ve had some vague discussions of options for other stories, but nothing that has come to any fruition. But I fear that is how it goes, with the whole TV/Film thing. We’ll see – I’ll keep plugging away!
AM: Where did that story come from?
GA: Dear Laura was my attempt at writing a stalker story where the stalker didn’t actually star in his own movie. I am tired of narratives that glamourize behavior that traumatizes others, putting perpetrators center stage and giving them exactly what they crave, even on a fictional basis: attention. I wanted to highlight the impact people like this have on an innocent person’s life, and write a female protagonist who could be both a victim and a victor, and the main focus of attention.
I am also romantically obsessed with the notion of letter-writing and letters, and could think of no better way to make Laura center stage in the story than hiding X behind a series of impersonal, horrible letters. I feel like they made the relationship between the pair more horrifying, somehow, because of the anonymity associated with the act of sending an unsolicited letter. It’s an intrusion of privacy, but also an awfully tangible one, one that lasts because the words are written down rather than spoken, and can be re-read, and re-examined, and obsessed over, as Laura does.
AM: Dear Laura made a lot of Top 2019 Reads lists. How does it feel to have blown up so much this past year?
GA: Bloody marvelous, and I cannot believe how brilliant the community in general has been in signal boosting a novella [of] which I decided to write and publish with very little preamble. I am always humbled and grateful for the support I get from readers, reviewers and other authors, and to see the book touching so many people in the way it has is wonderful.
AM: Since this feature is for Women in Horror, who are some of the female authors you most highly recommend and why? Who influences you?
GA: Goodness, how long do you have?! (Haha)
Here are a few: Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Mo Hayder, Arundahti Roy, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, the Bronte sisters, Austen, Iris Murdoch, Anne McCaffery…the list goes on and on and on!
I’ll always recommend Carter first, I think; particularly, her collection of sexually charged, brilliantly twisted fairytale adaptations, The Bloody Chamber. I was utterly seduced by her voice and imagination and her truly magnetic style of writing. I try and emulate her wherever possible.
Stay tuned for part II!
Interview conducted by Aiden Merchant