The most dangerous creature in the universe is a mother who is battling for her baby’s survival.
Annie Neugebauer’s story “If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” features two mother and child relationships, and both mothers will stop at nothing to ensure their babies are able to eat and survive. The first mother we meet, Bethesda, undertakes a dangerous journey to ensure her baby daughter is able to breastfeed. In the world of this story, breastfeeding is common. However, seeking out the services of a midwife who specializes in nursing problems is rare. I don’t remember the last time I read a speculative fiction story involving a visit to a lactation consultant, do you? Whether you have nursed a baby or not, “If Those Ragged Feed Won’t Run” is an intense and intimate read. The fierce action scenes can be read as a metaphor for the emotional roller coaster of motherhood.
In this harsh world, people avoid the roadways outside settlements for their own safety. Should you find yourself stranded out on the road during an emergency, local culture expects that you’ll run for your life and leave your screaming children behind. I can’t help but wonder, what does that do to a society’s worldview, when the cultural expectation is that a child could be left behind to die at any moment? What if that was your child, or your sibling who had been left behind? What kind of person would you become?
Bethesda is the first mother we meet. Intriguing to me is that the second mother we meet doesn’t believe in leaving her baby behind. “If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” may be action-packed, but this is a story that mostly takes place in silence. Hardly a word is spoken. Perhaps that is one of the results of a worldview where vulnerable babies can be left to die: a silent world. Being silent can keep you safe, it means no one knows where you are. It also means that that you can hear every step the danger takes, as it comes closer to you.
These next questions will make sense if you’ve already read the story:
Are you still humming that lullaby? Interesting that this lullaby is about rewarding a baby who quiets down.
Have you ever watched a cat teach a kitten how to catch mice? That momma cat, is she the “good guy?” What about the mice?
It is especially thrilling to have Annie Neugebauer back in Apex Magazine. She most recently graced our pages with the Stoker nominated “So Sings the Siren,” a haunting short story about looking horror right in the eye. Neugebauer’s fiction sneaks up on you and sharply takes a slice right out of you. Her knife is so sharp, you’ll never even notice the cut. But the scar will stay with you for years.
A Texas-based poet and writer, Neugebauer’s fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Pseudopod, Tales to Terrify, Fireside Magazine, Liminality, Uncanny, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Vols 3,4 and 5, Do Not Go Quietly, Not All Monsters, The Shadow Booth 3, Artemis Rising 5, and so, so many more. A prolific essay writer as well, her nonfiction essays and columns can be seen at LitReactor, WriterUnboxed, the Horror Writers Association, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere. She is highly active in the writing community and was a founding member of her local writers group. She is an active member in the Horror Writers Association and a member of multiple poetry societies. You can learn more about Annie at her website annieneugebauer.com or following her on Twitter @annieneugebauer or Facebook /AnnieNeugebauer.
She was kind enough to let me pick her brain about that lullaby (which I am still humming, btw), the connections between motherhood and hunger and horror, the unique pains of writing about her own experiences with lactation specialists, her truly magnificent organizational skills, and more.
Let’s get to the interview!
APEX MAGAZINE: Of course, I was humming a specific lullaby while reading this story, because how could I not? What inspired this story? How long did it take you to write it?
ANNIE NEUGEBAUER: The lullaby itself was the original inspiration. I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I spent so many hours singing it to my baby. Since that entails standing and swaying in a dark room, there’s not much to do except sing and think about what I’m singing. Those last lines have always struck me as unusual and haunting. What is a nightbird? Why does it call at dark fall? The concept bloomed from there, and utilizing a cart with pulling beasts felt organic to the song. This was one of those stories that came to me knowing exactly what it wanted to be, so I drafted it quickly over a few days during my daughter’s naps.
AM: Could be the fiction I’ve been reading lately, but I can’t remember the last time the challenges of finding a doctor for a newborn who can’t latch and the intimate aches and pains of giving birth showed up in a horror/dark fantasy story. How did the fact that Bethesda is traveling to visit a more knowledgeable midwife/lactation specialist make its way into this story?
AN: Thank you! I love writing stories that people feel they haven’t seen before. I also tend to put parts of my life into my fiction, as most artists do, and in this case that was my own struggles to find a lactation consultant in the first months after my baby’s birth. I went through four before finding the fifth, who truly helped us by diagnosing her tongue tie. Any nursing mother will know how that easily translates to a story about battling for survival.
AM: When it comes down to it, this is a story about mothers who will stop at nothing to make sure their babies can eat. What connections do you see between writing (and reading) horror, hunger, and raising a newborn?
AN: Yes, absolutely. There are all sorts of connections between new motherhood, horror, and hunger. I’m sure I’ve only begun to tap that well. In this case, retrospectively, I’m seeing a sometimes regretful empathy that biological motherhood brings with it. The physical pain and recovery of birth and nursing, the hunger, becoming food, survival and the bubble of exclusivity between newborn and mother. I’ve never understood other biological mothers as deeply as I do now that I am one too. That’s comforting, but also isolating. (Are they the only ones who can truly understand me?) Love and horror are so often intertwined. There’s a wealth of material there.
AM: My brain can’t let go of the bit of world building at the beginning of this story that says this is a culture that teaches parents to leave crying babies behind to die. What does that do a culture and to the children and young adults of that culture, when they grow up knowing babies can be left behind to die? (My brain is having a really hard time reconciling this! Help!)
AN: It is difficult to swallow. I have a morbid fascination with the ways in which societies normalize horrific things. For Bethesda, this is a fact of her life. That’s hard for us to wrap our heads around, but at the same time, we have similar things in our own world. Some impoverished communities, for example, have abysmal infant and maternal survival rates. Others use the sale of their children into human trafficking as a mode of survival. These realities are not as far away as we like to think they are.
AM: Are there particular themes you revisit in your writing? What is your writing process like?
AN: There are certainly themes I explore often: hope, darkness, grief and loss, fear, noncompliant femininity, control vs. chaos, LGBQT+ relationships, monstrosity, parents and children, violence, forgiveness, psychological terror, difficult truths, and more. My usual process is to think deeply—sometimes for a very long time—and then to draft quickly. I’m a pretty clean drafter, so my revisions are usually about follow-through rather than line edits. I have good critique partners and friends that I depend on for everything from feedback to brainstorming help.
AM: You’ve been publishing short stories, poetry, and nonfiction for over ten years now. How have your approaches to writing, craft, and the publishing industry changed over the years?
AN: That’s an interesting question. My approach to writing is largely the same, although of course I’m constantly trying to grow. (And now with a little one I have far less time for the work, so I’m learning new methods to keep creating.) My approach to the industry has mellowed, I think. Over a decade of this ridiculous job has worn some serious patience into me. I’m grateful for it. The pandemic has amplified my “go with the flow” mentality threefold. I feel more peace with where I am.
AM: While many of your short stories and poems can be found in genre magazines such as Apex, Psuedopod, and Uncanny, much more of your short fiction can be found in themed anthologies, such as the recent Not All Monsters: A Strangehouse Anthology of Women in Horror and The Binge-Watching Cure II: An Anthology of Horrors. How is selling fiction to a magazine different than selling fiction to an anthology editor?
AN: It’s not all that different, really. At the end of the day it’s still a fingers-crossed best guess at what might interest someone. With magazines that have been around a while, it’s easier to guess correctly at editor taste by looking at past issues. With anthologies, it depends on how many other books the editor has put together. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a try-and-see. I think themes can make anthologies trickier. I try not to write to theme unless directly invited or if something happens to particularly tempt my imagination, because there’s too high a chance that I’ll end up with an oddly specific story that no one else is going to want. I do have my favorites (like Apex—this is my sixth piece with them including the magazine and two anthologies), but I like to publish widely by market. There are just so many cool pubs out there with great editors and artists to work with. I think it helps me find a wider range of readers too.
AM: I am flat out jealous of your organization skills! When and how did you realize template, charts, and other organization methods could be useful to you and your fellow writers?
AN: There was no “when” for realizing they’d be helpful for me; I just made them for myself from the get-go as I needed each type. I shared them with writing friends often enough that I decided there was a need for them. (You mean not everyone is compulsively organized?!) Since I already had them anyway, it was a fairly easy thing to offer them to others on my website. Those documents have become a great traffic draw to my site, and it’s been fun to hear from writers when they’ve been helpful. I’ve benefited from many free resources that other writers offer, so it feels good to be able to offer something back to the community.
AM: Thank you so much Annie!