Elizabeth Engstrom is the author of ten books and over 250 short stories, articles and essays. She is a former publisher and editor, and is a sought-after speaker and teacher at writing conferences and conventions around the world. A recluse at heart, Engstrom holds a BA in English Literature/Creative Writing and is currently seeking her Master’s degree in Applied Theology. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her fisherman-husband and their duck-tolling retriever. Her most recent novel was The Northwoods Chronicles. Find out more at www.elizabethengstrom.com.
Apex: Your work covers a range of topics from the supernatural to the scientific to the day-to-day interactions of human beings, yet nearly all of it has a dark tone. What is it that appeals to you about horror and dark fiction?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I think it’s the cautionary tale aspect, the “you better watch
out” alarm that dark fiction affords us. It’s good to know—it’s reassuring to know—that dark consequences await dark decisions. As readers, dark fiction gives us the opportunity to delve into places we would never really go, try on the clothes of characters we could never be, and see what happens to them/us. We live vicariously through reading fiction. As a writer, those vicarious thrills are that much more vivid. I scare myself silly, sometimes, and I kind of like that.
Apex: Who are the authors who have influenced your writing the most?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I grew up reading Robert Heinlein, Rod Serling, Edgar Allan Poe, Theodore Sturgeon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Octavia Butler, and perhaps most influential, Shirley Jackson. I indulged myself in lots of science fiction, dark mysteries, and horror stories.
Apex: Who are your favorite authors to read for fun?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I devoured Stephen King in his heyday, as well as John Saul and Dean Koontz. These days, I’ve mellowed somewhat. I keep a list on my website of great contemporary reads, and they range from Patrick Suskind’s Perfume to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife to Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and Geraldine Brooks’ brilliant works, Year of Wonders and March. These days I read widely and in many genres. One of my all-time favorite books is Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, and I really enjoyed the first three books of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. Dragons! Who would have thought? I loved Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can also reread everything by John Steinbeck. The older I get, the more interested I am in everything, and my expanding taste of literature reflects that.
Apex: How has your experience running workshops and teaching affected your writing, either in content or your approach to the craft?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I find teaching to be very stimulating, engaging, and a lot of fun. The bonus is that I get to hang out with other writers. We’re an unconventional lot, and I like spending time with the unconventional people of the world. The more weird people with whom I engage, the more material I have for characters. The best part about teaching is that the teacher always learns the most. Over the years, students have taught me many subtleties of the craft. They challenge me in good ways. I teach a series of residency workshops (Ghost Story Writing, Science Fiction Story Writing) at the spooky, foggy Oregon Coast. These workshops fill up the day registration opens—mostly a group of regulars. We have a lot of fun, and we each write a good story. Creativity swirls thickly in the air. When I teach novel writing, it’s wonderful to see the lights go on as the students recognize the architecture of story the way humans like their literature. And nobody celebrates the success of a student with their first publishing contract like I do.
Apex: Of all of your stories (shorts, novellas, novels), which one was the most difficult to write and why?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I’m tempted to say that the one I’m working on is the most challenging, but that’s a given. In retrospect, Lizzie Borden was the most difficult to write, because it was a novel based on a true crime. I had to make the story fit the facts after I had already announced to the editor how I thought the murders had occurred and by whom. The whole thing was extremely tricky, amid conflicting available facts. Strangely enough, it still sells well after nineteen years. It’s a good story, one of the Great American Unsolved Mysteries. I’m not likely to attempt another project like it, though.
Apex: Which of your stories is your favorite, and why?
Elizabeth Engstrom: Again, I’m tempted to say that the one I’m working on is my best work. That may be true, or it may not be, but I’m currently totally in love with it. That is as it should be; a writer needs passion for the project at hand. I like Black Leather, my erotic novel, and I like Suspicions, a collection of twenty-five of my favorite short stories. I love When Darkness Loves Us, not because it was my first, but because it has two stories that mean a lot to me, not to mention the introduction by my dear friend Ted Sturgeon. All of my novels are completely different from each other—a marketing nightmare for my publisher—but over the years, my fan base seems to like my body of work.
Apex: How has your perspective on the two stories in When Darkness Loves Us changed since they were first published?
Elizabeth Engstrom: Well, the first and most obvious is that my storytelling skills have increased exponentially, thanks in large part to the aforementioned students and classes. That having been said, I think these stories hold up remarkably well. “Beauty Is” has been optioned twice for film, so something in that story resonates with many people. And so does darkness and a touch of claustrophobia. Were I to rewrite those stories today, I’d expand them. I would take “When Darkness Loves Us” to the next generation, and make a longer, darker tour through the mind of Martha in “Beauty Is.” But I stand by them as written.
Apex: What sparked the ideas for “When Darkness Loves Us” and “Beauty Is”?
Elizabeth Engstrom: Strangely enough, “When Darkness Loves Us” came to me almost fully formed while in the midst of an excruciating bout of claustrophobia while riding the submarine in Disneyland. I’d always known I didn’t care for small, closed-in places, but being stuck in one with my kids almost had me clawing my way out. Stuck in the other closed-in space of the airplane on the way home from that disturbing vacation, I tried to distract myself by spinning tales in my mind. By the time I got home, the story had its skeleton.
“Beauty Is,” on the other hand, had a completely atrocious genesis, in that a real developmentally challenged woman, who was part of a program in my community that helps people with limitations find work and live independently, had discovered the local bar and was being taken advantage of by the local drunks. I was so horrified by the thought that there could be such people that I had to write about it. This is why much of my fiction is dark: I write to understand. I had to understand, for myself, a world in which these things could happen. So I start with the ending, and then I devise some characters and challenge them to go to that place so I can follow along and discover how such things are actually possible, that there are places in the souls of men that allow them to justify such acts. In so doing, I understand myself better, because while none of my characters are me, they are all of me.
Apex: To be a bit contrary to the question most commonly asked of writers, where don’t you get your ideas?
Elizabeth Engstrom: Ideas are everywhere, all the time. But a good story is a mix of interesting character, complex problem, and compelling environment. Sometimes those diverse factions stew in the back of my mind or in my “creative compost” file for years before they find each other and match up. I never know when I’ll fill a gap, but when the three come together, it’s magic.
Apex: What’s next in store for you?
Elizabeth Engstrom: I’m finishing my master’s degree in theology while working on the next book. Tempered is a post-apocalyptic tale—very dark—with aspects of science fiction and fantasy thrown in. I can’t seem to keep what I’m learning from seeping in, so there will be a generous dollop of desperate, misguided religion incorporated as well.