“It’s Really All Just Gut Instinct”: An Interview With Livia Llewellyn

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My first introduction to Livia Llewellyn‘s fiction came via a passing recommendation in another writer’s book: specifically, Laird Barron’s introduction to Nate Southard’s Will the Sun Ever Come Out Again?, in which Barron wrote about his admiration for both Southard and Llewellyn’s fiction. From there, I picked up her first book, Engines of Desire, featuring stories in which strange horrors sat beside accounts of desire and obsession. I had the good fortune to see Llewellyn read last October, where her then-forthcoming second collection, Furnace, was mentioned. After reading Furnace, I reached out to Llewellyn over email to discuss both of her books, her process of revision, and the haunting imagery that saturates her fiction.

How would you describe the difference in tone between Furnace and your first collection, Engines of Desire?

Looking back, I’d say Engines of Desire was kind of all over the place, like one of those Whitman’s Sampler boxes of chocolates you can buy at the drug store. I had a very small selection of stories to chose from at that time, and they were a very wide range of genres and styles, because I had a couple of false starts before I settled on horror as my “umbrella” that I now stick everything under. Furnace is, I think, a bit more unified in theme and style: the stories are all horror, all highly sexual in nature. The writing styles are again something of a mix—but I think they work as a whole much more cohesively than the stories in Engines. The titles themselves are excellent indicators of this: “engines” isn’t specific, it could be about any number and types of engines. A furnace is a single machine with a single, specific purpose.

Some of the stories in this collection are shrouded in mystery–I’m thinking specifically of what the narrator of “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” learns about the community that she and her family visit in it. How do you decide what to leave in and what to leave hidden in a story such as that?

It’s not something I plan in advance, and I tend to go by my gut feeling as I’m working my way through the story. Sometimes I put a huge amount of exposition and explanation into the story as I’m working through the logic of everything, but then I go back and remove most of it in the rewrite. It’s a delicate balance, and sometimes I don’t get it quite right. You want the reader to be intrigued, and maybe even able to figure out the backstory based on clues and details scattered throughout the piece, but you also don’t want to spell everything out and rob them of the elation of getting it on their own. And of course you also don’t want to obfuscate so much that they have no idea what’s going on, you don’t want them feeling frustrated and cheated because you held back too much. It’s really all just gut instinct, and probably every writer has their own method for figuring out what to leave in and what to hold back. So I guess the short answer is I don’t know how I decide! How I approach each story is always a bit different than the one before. However, I should also add that this is a situation where having an editor helps immensely. I’m never able to approach the story without all that background and pre-planning in my head, but a great editor (or beta reader) can let me know immediately what’s clear and what needs a bit more illumination so that the rest of the “mystery” will help instead of hinder the reading experience.

When reading “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer,” I was struck by the imagery in it–from a seemingly idyllic small town to mysterious objects out to sea to the horrific actions of a patriarchal society. Was there one part of the story or one image that came to you first?

The seaside ocean trip itself was the first part of the story that came to me, probably because my family actually did spend many summers in little towns along the Washington and Oregon coast, visiting relatives and friends. And then a couple of years ago I was trying to write a story based around the image of the body of a gargantuan woman that had washed up onto the shore of a strange seaside town populated by silent men in black suits and top hats—but I still didn’t put those elements together until I decided to write a story from the POV of a young woman writing diary entries. Everything just fell into place after that—I wrote the entire story in two days, which is the only time that’s ever happened.

In the story “Stabilimentum,” you juxtapose real estate anxiety with some impressively surreal moments. How did you arrive on the progression that this story took?

This was one of the few stories that I’ve rewritten from scratch several times over. The editor of the anthology, Simon Strantzas, felt that the first version of it was a bit toothless—he was right. At that point it was a story about a woman with a regular spider problem in her high rise. I wrote around some of the problem areas but didn’t do much of a rewrite, and he sent it right back to me and sort of shamed me into actually putting some work into it. What can I say, I was being lazy and he totally called me on it. So the third time, I really deconstructed the story and rebuilt it, adding all of the surreal and strange moments that occur in the apartment and building, and then fashioning an ending that I felt the protagonist didn’t deserve, but got anyway because sometimes life is a bitch, even if you have a great apartment. And it was a much, much better story than I ever could have written without a good editor stepping in and directing me toward that final version. It was an exhausting and humbling experience, and I’m so glad I got it, because now I know what kind of a badass internal editor I need to be in order to get my fiction ready to send out.

The title story in Furnace moves from an evocative portrait of a dying small town to something much more cosmic in its scope and kaleidoscopic in its structure. When did you decide to have that shift from realism into something much stranger?

That story was originally written for a Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology. I knew from the start that I wanted to write something that had its roots in a very mundane, seemingly ordinary existence, so my protagonists could peel back the layers and reveal a very vast cosmic horror residing behind all of it—but a vast cosmic horror that’s discovered to be all the more appalling because it’s also a very mundane and ordinary part of the cosmos. I feel that’s a very “Ligottian” world view, so my approach to writing “Furnace” was always with that shift in mind.

When I saw you read at WORD in October, you read two versions of one story that were vastly different in tone. Is that the only instance of a work where you’ve approached a particular subject from very different angles, or is that a regular part of your working process?

I’ve only done this a few times, and it’s been for very different reasons than the example I read at WORD. In that instance, I was taking a novelette and turning it into a novel—I felt that the way I had written it, which was very poetic and intense, wouldn’t work for 65,000 words—I needed a different style for a longer work. But in the other cases, it was a situation where I had started a story writing a certain way, and realized a few paragraphs in, or even halfway through, that the style wasn’t working with the plot or idea. It was maybe too flowery, or maybe it was too plain and modern. So I’d have to play around with different styles until I found the one that best served the characters, the time frame, the plot. I did this most recently with the story “You Have the Right to Begin” (which is in Furnace)—it’s told entirely as a series of dream sequences from the POV of the three brides of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it needed a very poetic and image-heavy language to convey the dream state as well as the psychological state of each of the women. I had to rewrite each section a couple of times before I found the perfect cadence and tone for the piece—I don’t do that very often, but in the case of that story, it was what was needed, and the end result was worth the effort.

What are you working on these days?

I have stories that are due to two anthologies, then I’m working through the end of the summer on my novel. After that, it’s back to short stories as I finish up a collection of erotica, titled Tales of the Black Century; and then it’s wherever the wind takes me.

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