WiHM Special - Stephanie Ellis

A widely-published author and poet with plenty of her work published in numerous compilations and collections in addition to her own releases, Stephanie Ellis has brought plenty of attention to her work in the past. Now, in honor of Women in Horror Month, I talk with her about her writing history, her past work, and her upcoming novel Reborn.

Me: Hello and thank you for taking the time to do this. First off, when did you get into horror in general?
Stephanie Ellis: Hi, thank you for inviting me! Horror became more central to my life relatively late in life. It was always part of my experience, whether through books or movies, which pulled me to the subject at different times but I did have a general hiatus from this darker side in terms of films when I had children. During that period – when they were babies or infants - I really couldn’t handle movies or tv series with that sort of content, I’m not sure why but possibly because I started to see the world differently as a parent. I came back to it though!

Me: Were you into genre films growing up? What films specifically got you into watching horror movies?
SE: I’m really going to show my age for this one! For much of the 70s, Hammer Horror was a regular on British TV and I would often watch these at the end of the day (provided it wasn’t a school night) with my parents. They would’ve not long shut the pub (where we lived) and come back upstairs and it was a bit of time we spent together. I also caught the classic folk horror trio around that period: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Witchfinder General. After that, we were into the 80s and I saw all those films when they first came out: The Thing, Poltergeist, The Entity, Hellraiser. All those films which now inspire remakes or sequels.

After the hiatus I mentioned above, I started to watch horror films again, and with the streaming services I am able to catch up to a certain extent (bar the Saw and Halloween franchises – I’m not a big slasher fan!). My eldest daughter introduced me to The Purge series, as well as Korean horror and because of the latter, I’ve learned to give work from different cultures a go. I’m of an age where I don’t mind subtitles anymore!

I’ve rewatched some of those Hammer Horrors in recent times and they’ve lost the scary factor but I still love them.

Me: Who were some of your favorite writers growing up? Do you try to take influences from their style with your own voice in your work?
SE: Charles Dickens was, and remains, one of my favourite authors. I was given his Christmas Books in a slipcase for Christmas when I was 11 and I’ve loved him ever since. Through him, I was introduced to ghost stories and some wonderful characters. A lot of social commentary was included in Dickens’ work and his tales illustrated real horrors in a fictitious setting. I also read a lot of other classic literature during my teens, Shelley, Stoker, Emily Bronte, various Russian authors, mainly because this was what was on offer in the libraries, but it was always something with a dark undertone. I found Dostoyevsky particularly grim but there was something about ‘bleak’ storylines which appealed to me.

It was only in my late teens, early twenties, that I began to pick up mainstream fiction, discovering Stephen King on the way.

I think what I’ve taken from those early reads is that horror doesn’t have to exist solely in a ‘horror’ book. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, or Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, could be regarded as horror. I don’t try to copy their styles by any means, but I use those examples to validate how I write my work which tends to be a more slow burn, or ‘quieter’, than what the world at large regards as standard horror fare.

Me: What was the starting point of becoming a writer? Were you always into writing growing up?
SE: I didn’t come to writing until late in life. Growing up, I was of the generation where you were expected to have a career, and the creative industries never featured in any career discussions! I was an avid reader but the thought of being a writer just didn’t exist.

After I’d had a career break to look after the children when they were little, one of my first jobs was as a part-time librarian in a junior school and then full-time in a secondary school. During that period I was reading a lot of books for kids (and adult ones at home) and thinking I could write as well as the ones I’d read, or at least attempt to!

I started properly about eight years ago, writing short stories and submitting them, and I had my first publications when I was about 49/50 (I am now 58).

The above all relates to prose by the way. I will admit to starting to write poetry in my career prior to having the children. Not really poetry, more verse, and it was during my time as a technical author. When things got tough at work, I would turn those events into humorous verse – just to vent – and share with my colleagues who worked in my little corner of the office. Our group of software and engineering authors were often the ones called in to put work produced by others to rights or pick up the pieces of some disaster. We did not receive the same pay or promotions as these colleagues had had and it did lead to resentment. I still have those verses bound together, a little diary of that time! From those beginnings, I continued to dabble (but for personal pleasure rather than publication), taking that, too, more seriously, several years ago.

Me: What is your writing process? How do you stay focused on writing?
SE: My process is no process! I am a pantser. I tried to plot and plan when I first started writing, thinking that was what I should be doing but I couldn’t get on with it. Now, I’ll have an idea, usually a character in a certain situation and I just start to write. I place myself ‘behind their eyes’ and walk with them. This way, they tend to tell their own stories and I have found that at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark, I will suddenly be presented with an image of the end and so it is easy to head toward that. I used to worry that I would be writing with no idea of how to finish it but I’ve learned to rely on the story to present its own ending when it’s ready.

Once I’ve sat down to write, I’m generally fine with the focus but it’s getting to that point in the first place. I can find all sorts of reasons not to! I have also learned that I need a small amount of stress or a close deadline, to keep me going. I left my old day job two years ago to write full-time but with all those hours suddenly available, I found it very difficult to actually get on and do it, whereas before, I would cram everything into the few hours I had. In more recent times, I have picked up some proofreading and formatting work which has reduced my writing times on occasion, and knowing there’s less has pushed me back to getting on with things and stop prevaricating. I suppose it confirms the truth of that saying ‘be careful what you wish for’!

Me: Having contributed to various anthologies early in your career, what tools and skills do you acquire working on those that transferred to future projects?
SE: Those anthologies taught me the ‘how to’ of writing. How to submit in the appropriate manner – it was where I learned about Shunn formatting, how to follow guidelines, and how to work with an editor (and learn they were there to support and improve your work and not tear it apart!). Being part of these anthologies introduced me to different sub-genres of horror and also raised my awareness of the themes and tropes most commonly used. The latter was particularly useful as it alerts you to those ideas which have been done to death and so become boring or cliché; from this, you can let your mind think a bit outside the box to try and come up with something more original (you hope).

Doing that number of short stories has also led to a considerable tightening of my own work and a more fluent ‘voice’. My use of pace, tension, and atmosphere has improved considerably. I’ve also learned I can write to a deadline, sometimes at short notice, when someone asks me to. The short story route has effectively been my writing ‘school’ and I believe I am still learning – and will always be learning.

Me: What is the general process for getting involved in these projects?
SE: In the main, it’s by hunting down submission calls. These can be found on HorrorTree.com which hosts publishers’ latest calls – these can be for anthologies, novels, novellas, and magazines – or places like Diabolical Plots Submission Grinder, or Duotrope. Sometimes someone will alert me to a particular call, and then I’ll go over, make a note of the details, and hopefully get a story written and submitted. Then it’s just about waiting for the decision.

Occasionally, I will be invited by someone to write for them. This is normally someone who is already familiar with my work. But I will say that when I send a piece in for these, I’ve always added the caveat that they accept it only if they’re happy with it. I do not believe an invitation means automatic acceptance. I want to make sure my work is of the appropriate quality and the editor is happy.

Me: How did you settle on the plot for your novel Reborn?
SE: Reborn is the sequel to The Five Turns of the Wheel. I had done a lot of world-building in the latter, and I wanted to expand this in the new book so I immediately settled on the idea of a journey or quest – in this case a quest for rebirth. I also wanted to bring in an element of closure for one of my characters and generally allow my favourite grotesques (Tommy, Betty, and Fiddler), to wreak havoc. I had also decided I wanted to explore the mythology and history of this world a little more. These were all just very loose ideas and ‘wants’ but they took on a solid form as I wrote.

Me: Was there any special significance to making the characters connect to the universe started in “The Five Turns of the Wheel?”
SE: Absolutely of significance! Once I’d created these characters, I couldn’t bear to let them go! And there was a point when I was writing Five Turns that I realized if I carried on a certain path, Tommy, Betty, and Fiddler were going to face a very grisly end – and that would have ended my Five Turns world! I couldn’t allow that to happen. So although they’d been weakened at the end of Five Turns, Reborn allowed them a vehicle to come back with a vengeance as well as introduce some new creatures from their world, including Sister! I want this world to continue to grow and hope to write more books in the series.

Me: Was there any part of your real self injected into the characters?
SE: Very much so via Megan, particularly in The Five Turns of the Wheel. The pub in which she grew up is based on The Cider House where I lived, although my pub was in the middle of nowhere, and The Five Turns pub is in a village. The cluster of villages mimic those few around The Cider House and I’ll say my dad read the book and recognized both pub and villages. There is also the trauma of miscarriage which she endures and I included aspects of my own loss, to the extent of repeating the words that the doctors spoke to me and the awful treatment I had in the hospital. My editor back then queried this, asking if would someone speak to you like that. Well, yes they did, and this was my way of working through something which made, and continues to make, me angry, even after all these years.

Moving on to Reborn, those aspects shared with Megan fade but I bring in places I loved to visit when we lived down in the south of England. We lived in Southampton, not far from Winchester, which we used to visit regularly. The book mentions St. Catherine’s Hill and the mizmaze at the top of it (which Betty walks) and we used to walk up that hill a lot, and occasionally walk the same turf maze. Walks around the Water Meadows and the city itself and the people you would see also feature.

Whilst there is less of me in the characters of the book, I continue to be present in the places explored and the countryside they travel through. The historic landscape, from stone circles to ancient cities, is a real love of mine.

Me: Once it was finally written, what was the process for having it published?
SE: Brigids Gate Press had already taken on The Five Turns of the Wheel from a previous publisher which had closed but I was lucky enough that I knew Steve and Heather Vassallo, who had read Five Turns before they even set up as publishers, loved that world and would at least give it an initial read to see if it was for them. Luckily enough it was! It then went through a round of edits and a proofread before being formatted for publication.

The above makes it all sound very easy, normally the way to submit to a call from a publisher (or when approaching an agent) is a bit more involved. You usually have to send in a synopsis, the first three chapters, and a cover letter containing a pitch and blurb for your book. Then if they like it, they’ll make a full manuscript request. After that, it’s down to waiting for acceptance or rejection in the usual way.

Me: How do you do to keep your creative energy flowing?
SE: I think writing has become a habit now, something I need to do and I find the more I do it, the more the ideas come. Sometimes this can be distracting when you want to finish one project and you’ve just had a wonderful idea for something else! You do have to discipline yourself.

I read widely in fiction and as a history fan, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction for certain eras. This simple act alone can trigger some thoughts.

I also find it’s useful to empty my mind for a bit. I go to the gym and find the time spent on the cross-trainer, switched off from everything, is the time ideas come to mind. It doesn’t work on the weights as I count my reps and lose track of where I am!

Me: Lastly, what else are you working on that you'd like to share with our readers? Thank you again for your time!
SE: I am about 1/3 of the way through a slasher horror novella in verse, a co-authored project with another poet. I can’t give too many details about that but it possibly has a publisher for it already and is going really well so far. (And I know I said I wasn’t a slasher horror fan earlier but the slasher bits are being attended to by my partner in crime!)

I started the follow-up to Reborn the other day. Only half the first chapter but it is a start. This one is going to be set in deep mid-winter and allows Tommy, Betty, and Fiddler to introduce us to their version of Mother’s Night and Yule. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

I have recently finished a dark historical novel, Women of the Witch Eye, set in 1649 England, a few months after Charles I was executed. It is a murder mystery with witchcraft, suspicion, and political and religious turmoil thrown in. I am currently querying agents with this particular book. (And I have ideas for a follow-up!)

I do have a few other things bubbling away in the back of my mind but I’m trying to ignore them until I get the work already in progress finished.

Thank you for hosting me!

This interview ran as part of our 2023 Women in Horror Month celebrations. Click the banner below to check out the rest of our month-long celebrations including various reviews and interviews: