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Author Interview: Catriona Ward

Author Interview: Catriona Ward

Feature by Jena Brown

I was introduced to the work of Catriona Ward when I read her critically acclaimed novel, The Last House on Needless Street (Tor Nightfire, 2021). And like the rest of the book community, I was completely blown away. Since then, I’ve become a devout reader of all things Catriona.

Her latest book, Sundial, follows a mother who is struggling with her eldest daughter’s increasing instability. Ward skillfully weaves a twisting narrative that explores generational trauma and how strong the bonds of mothers, daughters, and sisters can be. Keeping consistent with her previous works, Sundial offers a complex narrative that keeps the reader guessing until the shocking and horrifying end.

Ward has a way of pushing boundaries with her characters. She creates people you want to like, but don’t dare trust, and the characters in Sundial fit this mold. It’s a gorgeous, desert Gothic experience, with a cord of tension that winds tighter with every page turned. I was thrilled to sit down with her and talk about who she would invite to dinner, what books scare her, and why we like to be afraid.

JENA BROWN: Tell us a little about yourself.

CATRIONA WARD: I was born in Washington, D.C. and lived in the states on and off throughout my childhood. This was interspersed with times in Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. So a wide and diverse range of places.

Then when I was in my 20s, I was an actor. And while I was incredibly unsuccessful, I caught the storytelling bug from that. But it was through writing that I found the correct channel of expression.

Of course, the first question people usually ask is, “Why Horror?” Especially people who aren’t that keen on horror. I think horror is a way for writers and readers to share empathy, particularly regarding our fears. It builds this sustained, empathetic bond between a writer and a reader, where you open up your fears to each other.

JB: That’s such a great point. I love how you view it as a shared experience. I’m sure the reasons people turn to horror are incredibly varied, but why do you think we like to be afraid?

CW: To me, horror is an incredibly moving human experience because fear is seen as such a shameful thing. We’re not allowed to be afraid anymore. We become vulnerable by willingly sharing the emotion. I think that’s why horror is a genre that speaks so deeply to us. It’s one of the few outlets that addresses the atavistic, unspoken feeling that drives so much of our lives. Not everybody is going to feel romance or get married, for instance, but everyone feels afraid. I think that’s really powerful, and as I said, it makes horror an incredibly empathetic genre—which is generally not the
perception of it.

I also think there’s a sort of rehearsal aspect to horror, particularly in true crime. And I think that’s important for women. I know when I’m upset, or things are a bit uncertain, I start reading true crime almost obsessively. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. The world is chaotic and there isn’t always a clear idea of what’s causing it, so there’s comfort in knowing that there’s a distinct perpetrator. And then there’s the fact that even though the negative and catastrophic feelings are looming, there’s a way to prepare for them.

In a real sense, especially for women and vulnerable people, there’s an aspect of rehearsal to reading true crime and horror. It’s sad to say, but many people are waiting for violence to happen to them in some aspect of their lives. So, there’s a sense of arming yourself against that impending violence by becoming familiar with it.

A friend of mine, who is a psychologist, told me you can respond in three ways to an anomaly or a threat: you can run away from it, you can attack it, or you can make friends with it. I think when you familiarize yourself with violence and arm yourself with knowledge, you’re making friends with your fear. It gives you the illusion of control, which is often lacking in our lives. We don’t know when the end is coming, but in fiction, we do.

JB: What is something about you that would surprise your readers?

CW: If you’ve read any of my books, I’m not sure that anything would surprise you.

Let’s see. Okay, second to my true crime enthusiasm, I actually take great comfort in late 1990 high school romantic comedies. I think because that’s around the time of my adolescence when those feelings imprinted themselves so strongly on me. But it’s also because some of them are so offensive—in all sorts of ways—that there’s almost comfort in knowing that you’re not as dreadful or as bad as they are. They also somehow lessen the terribleness of real life. They’re soothing because they’re sort of divorced from reality. Their priorities are so wrong. So for me, it’s very relaxing to be in that world. It’s the opposite of what I’m looking to get from a book. I read to find myself, but I watch 90s rom-coms to distance myself. It’s very effective.

JB: Let’s talk about your literary influences. Do you have any books or writers that have shaped how you write?

CW: Oh, yes. I’m always mesmerized by writing that makes you feel like the unexpected is just about to happen, or has happened—where suddenly, an action becomes incredibly surprising because the author has taken you so deep into the interiority of the character that the action is just as surprising for you, the reader, as it is for them. I have great admiration for that kind of skill.

Sundial is a far more realist novel than The Last House on Needless Street. It has a much more realist plot structure. So the author I was sort of thinking of when writing, and this may be counter-intuitive for a horror author, was Elizabeth Strout. I think her writing is so incredible. She has this way of turning a situation with a single word, in a way that is completely surprising. The things she has her characters do and say are so powerful and shocking. I think incorporating that kind of naturalism into prose is really magical, and I really wanted to bring that feeling to Sundial.

JB: Without giving anything away, what can your readers expect from Sundial? Is it anything like The Last House on Needless Street?

CW: Needless Street was a novel of the interior, and even though Sundial isn’t all exterior, it’s a story of wide-open space. That’s not to say that the places in Sundial can’t kill you just as easily as the places in Needless Street, but the threat is slightly different.

In the way that Needless Street was tight and confined and clenched, Sundial is open and expansive. It has a feel of frontierism to it because it’s set in one of the wildest places—an inhospitable place where civilization ends, and it’s just the individual versus the natural habitat. It’s very uncompromising, which I respect. And I think there’s something unnerving about being frightened in the daylight.

There’s also a sense that people who end up in the desert always have a story. It attracts the people who are going to match its energy. It has a bit of a  wild west feel, where it feels like maybe it’s more than just being at the edge of civilization; that maybe people living there are on the edge in more ways than one.

I was also interested in exploring the contrast of the United States. How the country can be a leader in so many ways and yet have all this wild land where people can live undiscovered and unbothered by society. There’s an exciting and dangerous sense that you can get away with almost anything in the desert, right? And that tied in so beautifully with the other thing I wanted to capture, which is sort of a 1970s MK Ultra energy. There are pictures I came across of very real experiments that the CIA did. And after they did these barbaric things, they discontinued the experiments because there was no practical use for them. It was just so egregious and wrong. It made me think of that line in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum says, “you were so busy thinking about whether you could, you didn’t stop to think about whether you should.”

It’s interesting, because we owe a lot ideologically and in terms of progress to the 1970s counterculture revolution, but during that rebellion, there was this feeling of anything goes and people pushed in all directions—not just towards progress. Some people just wanted to see what they could get away with. I think all of those things dovetail together so beautifully—or horrifically—with the sense of the desert being on the edge. So, Sundial is a novel of boundary pushing and finding the edges.

JB: What was the first book that scared you?

CW: The Monkey’s Paw, for sure. And I have two other books that cause that thing where ice runs down the core of you. The first is The Haunting of Hill House, which sounds so obvious, but that book is so frightening. And the other is Zombie, by Joyce Carol Oats, which is completely terrifying in a different, very visceral way.

JB: Describe Sundial in five words.

CW: Mistrustful families in the desert.

JB: Setting is such a visceral dynamic in your writing. You’ve talked before about how you went to the Mojave Desert to prepare for Sundial. Do you generally visit the places you write about? How do you stay immersed in these places while you’re writing?

CW: Global events have really influenced this in recent years, but I try and spend at least a couple of weeks in the places I’m writing about. The thing about finding the heart of a place is in the tiny details that no one tells you about, or that are hard to understand without being there. Trying to find the details that are embedded in the people who live there are very important, I think. With that said, my policy is to not use real places, because what I write is horrible. This started with Needless Street, because there are so many serial murders in Washington State and I didn’t want there to be any suspicion that this was connected with a real murder. I construct my imaginary world quite carefully. Instead of just doing geographical research, what anchors me are the things I experience when I go there. What I see, what I hear, what I taste.

With Sundial in particular, keeping the desert in the forefront of my memory is really sensory. The sense of being slammed by the wind and the sand blowing on your tongue is a completely unique desert experience. And the sand doesn’t do that on a still day. It’s this grit that’s blown across your face and almost rubs your skin raw. These very specific, tiny, physical triggers help me put my characters into this world. For me, setting starts from these tiny things and builds from there. If I can capture the details from the setting and merge them with the character’s senses, it brings those places to life. What are they touching? What are they hearing? And then knowing that, for instance, there’s so much noise in the desert. There’s the wind and a constant sort of ticking and clicking. It’s filled with such vivid life for something that looks so dead.

JB: What surprised you the most when you were writing Sundial?

CW: Callie’s friendship. The weight of developing their relationship and the way they talked to each other was like entering that secret world of childhood. I had no idea I was going to do that, but it unlocked the whole book for me. It suddenly gave me a window into Callie and her wonderfully strange world. Because children are a bit weird, aren’t they? Their minds are completely alien in a lot of ways. They’re a bit like the desert wilderness when compared to adult minds. From there, what unfolded was this Gothic sense of time. What it does to us, the debts it takes, and the scars it puts on us.

JB: What do you hope your readers will take away from Sundial? (Besides a terrifying fear of the CIA.)

CW: Despite appearances, my books are always about love and compassion in the end. With Sundial, I wanted to explore the beauty of love, and how it isn’t simple. The story is all about family, but I didn’t want to sanitize those bonds. I think with mother daughter relationships, in particular, it’s easy to sentimentalize them, and I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think you need to ignore or edit or censor some of the less acceptable feelings in order to recognize the strength of those bonds.

JB: If you could choose any four literary icons, living or dead, to have dinner with, who would you choose and why?

CW: Oh, okay. Kelly Link, because I love her. Emily Dickinson, because she just wildly disapproved of everyone and she’d have to come down from her room for once. I definitely have to choose Shirley Jackson. And David Sedaris. I think I’ve just constructed a fantastic dinner party.

JB: Alright, what are you working on now? What’s next?

CW: I’m in the depths of a book called Looking Glass Sound. It’s about a failed writer who goes back to his New England family cottage, which is on a cliff and overlooks the sea. He goes there to write his final novel based on his nemesis who has just died. He’s free to write the revenge novel of his dreams. However, he comes to suspect through eerie happenings in the cottage that perhaps his nemesis isn’t quite gone. It’s sort of a mix between  The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial. It’s something with a little more conversation and a little more realism, like Sundial, but it’s also very high concept, like Needless Street—it has that same Rubik’s Cube complexity. I was a bit wary about writing about writers, but I’m actually a bit obsessed with how this story has manifested. It’s been fun exploring how iterations of our past change what we remember and how we twist truth in order to see ourselves. Love, revenge, ghosts, writing, and New England—Stephen King country! I’m really excited about it.

JB: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much for spending time with me today.

Pictured left to right: The Last House on Needless Street, Sundial

Sundial is now available in bookstores everywhere.