Elizabeth Massie is a Bram Stoker Award-winning and Scribe Award-winning author of novels and short fiction for middle-grade readers, teens, and adults. Her favorite genres are historical fiction and horror fiction (which she often calls “skeery stories!”) She also writes nonfiction and fiction for nationwide educational programs. A former 7th-grade science teacher with 19 years in the classroom, she now spends her time writing, presenting creative writing workshops, and drawing ghosts, monsters, and other creatures–all part of her Skeeryvilletown cast of cartoon characters. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her creative and wonderfully wacky counterpart, illustrator Cortney Skinner.
Elizabeth is a kind person and a terrific writer. We discussed middle-grade and YA horror, Ameri-Scares, and what horror can teach young people today.
NTK: Thank you for chatting with me today, Elizabeth.
EM: You’re welcome.
NTK: How old were you when you first discovered horror?
EM: I guess it was back when I was eight or ten years old and we as a family watched The Twilight Zone television show. While some of the episodes were funny, some were thought-provoking, and some were sad, others were very scary. Yet, even though they were scary, the characters were more often than not sympathetic. So, the horror hit me emotionally on two levels.
NTK: What was your favorite episode?
EM: Oh, gosh! That’s a difficult question to answer. So many favorites! Here are a few at the top of my list…”Midnight Sun,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Lonely.”
NTK: Did The Twilight Zone inspire you to become a writer?
EM: I think a lot of things inspired me to become a writer. Certainly, The Twilight Zone television show was part of the inspiration. Included with that show, I would have to add The Outer Limits and Way Out which were spooky shows of the day. However, as to becoming a writer, I always loved to tell stories. I would drive my family crazy by asking, “what if,” all the time. Such as, “what if we are driving in the car and suddenly, it flies up into outer space?” Or, “what if you find out I’m not really a girl but an alien?” My “what if” questions would always lead to stories. My family was very patient with me and encouraged me. I think that is because my dad was a journalist/newspaperman who loved to write poetry and my mother was an amazing watercolorist. I was so lucky to come from a creative family! Okay, I realize I contradicted myself. I drove them crazy but they still encouraged me!
NTK: (Laughs.) It’s wonderful you came from such creative people. Stephen King has spoken of the same kind of creative process. He asks the “what if” questions too. What else inspires you? Do you have a muse? Do you find stories in dreams?
EM: I don’t have what people would consider a traditional “muse.” I’m inspired by life—by people I meet or just see on the street, songs I hear, articles or stories I read, experiences I have. And, yes, occasionally by dreams (my Stoker-winning novella, Stephen, came almost fully formed in a dream.) I think the “what if” remains the biggest factor, though. Because, since every story has a problem, whatever experience or person or song I encounter will require me to determine a “what if” in order to get it moving as a story.
NTK: When you write a story, how much control do you exert over your characters? Do they have free will? Do they take you where they want to go? Or, do you guide them?
EM: When I get started on a story or novel, I have a fairly clear idea of who my characters are. And, I have a fairly good idea what I want them to do in order to walk the path I’ve envisioned for them. However, as most writers will admit, we don’t know everything about them and sometimes they will us surprise us and say or do something unexpected. Or sometimes something will happen to them, based on their intended or unintended actions, that will make our jaws drop and we’ll say, “Wait…WHAT?” One of my characters in my novel Sineater died…I had no idea he was going to die. Complete shock on my part!
NTK: You’ve written YA horror and middle-grade horror as well as adult horror. Who is your favorite YA writer?
EM: Jonathan Maberry, Neil Gaiman, and Lisa Mannetti have written some kickass fiction for young adults.
NTK: What’s the difference between writing a YA or middle-grade novel and writing an adult novel?
EM: The answer will likely vary depending on the person/writer you ask. Here is how I see it: In adult fiction, (horror in particular) there are no limits. Write what you want how you want it, as graphically violent or sexually as you feel it needs to be to give the story the impact you are seeking. With YA horror fiction, it’s not quite as graphic…plus, the protagonist should be the age of or slightly older than the intended readers. Middle-grade horror fiction, in my humble opinion, is not graphic. It may hint at violence; there may be injury and in rare cases, a death. The main thrust of middle-grade horror fiction is to be intriguing and scary without being terrifying. And, like YA fiction, the main character or characters are the same age or slightly older than the intended readers. For all three, though, it boils down to this…what is a good story? What grabs the reader, holds the reader, and lingers in his or her mind after the magazine or book is closed?
NTK: Could you tell us about Ameri-Scares? How did this series come about?
EM: I was a 7th-grade life science teacher for 19 years. I loved it…the energy and sense of fun and life and wonder in kids that age is great. And so, even though I had been writing exclusively for adults for a long time, I thought it might be fun to aim some books toward kids in the 8-13 age range. I didn’t want to just write some random novels, I wanted a theme of some sort. I mean, R.L. Stine had that Goosebumps series, right? As someone who loves history, folktales, and legends, I thought it might be fun to write a scary middle-grade novel set in each of the 50 states of the Union and to base each novel on a historic event, legend, or folktale from the state in which the story is set. The research has been great fun! So far, there are six novels out from Crossroad Press. These are California: From the Pit, Virginia: Valley of Secrets, Maryland: Terror in the Harbor, Illinois: The Cemetery Club, New York: Rips and Wrinkles, and North Carolina: Mountain of Mysteries. I’m nearly finished with the next one—Tennessee: Winter Haunting. Last summer, I thought, “How will I get all of these written before I kick? So I asked Mark Rainey, a good friend and excellent writer with whom I’ve collaborated with in the past (on a Dark Shadows novel) if he would want to join me as an Ameri-Scares writer. He said yes! Thanks, Mark! His first in the series—West Virginia: Lair of the Mothman—will be out very soon!
NTK: What a terrific idea! And, a great way to get kids interested in history and myths. Do you have a favorite American myth or legend?
EM: There are so many legends and folktales! Each time I choose a state, I research and discover fun ones I’d never heard of before. I do love the story of “Resurrection Mary” (basis of the Illinois book) and the legend of the Brown Mountain lights (basis of the North Carolina book.) But you can’t go wrong with the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, or the Bell Witch of Tennessee!
NTK: We’ve talked about your favorite horror TV show. Do you have a favorite horror movie?
EM: This is going to date me, but The Exorcist scared the living jeebies out of me when I saw it in the theater when it first came out. And, I’m a person who has never believed in a devil. Yet, each time the mom or priest started back up those stairs to see Regan, I wanted to shout at the screen, “STAY DOWNSTAIRS YOU IDIOTS! YOU KNOW IT’S JUST GOING TO BE EVEN WORSE THIS TIME!!!” As to other films, my tolerance for graphic gore is pretty low. I love an atmospheric film that doesn’t rely on blood or guts to be scary. I thought Get Out was awesome, as was A Quiet Place. Chilling, edge-of-my-seat viewing, and the stories lingered.
NTK: How did you feel about the new version of Stephen King’s IT?
EM: Don’t hate me, but I wasn’t impressed. The actors were okay but I didn’t find it scary at all. Maybe, because I know the story? Maybe, because I liked the original better? I dunno. But, there were a couple scenes intended to be scary that made me chuckle (quietly so as not to disturb those around me, of course.) I don’t feel compelled to see the second half when it comes out.
NTK: Who is your favorite horror writer?
EM: Again, this is a “hard to choose one” question. For today, I’ll say, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Gary Braunbeck, Lisa Manetti, Lisa Morton, Monica O’Rourke, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson—though she also wrote some charming slice-of-life stories—Joan Aiken, Thomas Tryon, Lucy Snyder…I could go on and on! Ask me another day and I’ll likely have another list.
NTK: What do you think horror can teach young people?
EM: I was emotionally challenged watching The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and reading Ray Bradbury when I was young. And so, I believe that well-written horror not only stirs a sense of fear but also can birth a sense of compassion and empathy for the characters who are experiencing the terror. Well-written horror connects the reader to dark and dire situations and allows the reader to join with the characters as they suffer, learn, and (with luck) come out on the other side. Young readers can learn that bad things happen, that people who persevere will hopefully survive, and that the “oddball” or strange person is not always bad and the “good” person is not always what he or she might seem.
NTK: Do you have any advice for the up and coming writers out there?
EM: I’d advise up and coming writers this: Read all you can in various genres, write freely and not as if your mother is looking over your shoulder, and know that first drafts usually suck. Leave your work alone for a while, then get back to it and EDIT. Also, it’s okay to take a break from writing…sometimes the creative well has to refill. Get out and experience life. Pay attention to people, to situations, to music, to dreams. Everything is fodder. Good luck!
NTK: Elizabeth, what does the future hold for you? What books or stories do we have to look forward to?
EM: The Ameri-Scares series is picking up the pace now…so those who have young readers in their lives—check ‘em out! I think the kids will get a kick out of them…and you might enjoy them, too. Until I get my new website up and running, you can find the Ameri-Scares novels on Amazon or through the Crossroad Press website. The series is also in development for television by Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers), Assemble Media, and Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap. I don’t know when the show might be completed, or which network they are eyeing (streaming or otherwise), but I’m excited to keep writing the books on which the series will be based!
In addition, I’m working on a horror/historical novel called, The House at Wyndham Strand. I plan on having it done by summer. And, I’m putting together some horror shorts for a new collection to come out in 2019. Don’t have a title for it yet. How about, “Super Scary Shit?” Okay, maybe not!
NTK: (Laughs.) Thank you for speaking with me, Elizabeth. It’s been an honor.
EM: Thank you so much! I enjoyed our chat!
This interview appeared in the February issue of the Horror Writers Association Newsletter and is posted here with the kind permission of Editor Kathy Ptacek.