Interview: Livia Llewellyn and the Weird

"I love writing to that point of no return"

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of horror, dark fantasy and erotica. A graduate of Clarion 2006, her fiction has appeared in ChiZine, Subterranean, Sybil’s Garage, PseudoPod, Apex Magazine, Postscripts, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and numerous anthologies. Her first collection of short fiction, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, was published in 2011 by Lethe Press, and was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. Her short story “Omphalos,” taken from the same collection, was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette and featured in Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, edited by Ellen Datlow. You can find Llewellyn online at her personal site. “The Engine of Desire,” the title story of her new collection, is reprinted elsewhere on this site.

I recently interviewed Llewellyn via email about her writing, her approach to weird fiction and horror, her view on sexuality in fiction, and her participation in perhaps the strangest play ever acted out, among other things… Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And which stories or writers with weird sensibilities do you remember most vividly from that period?

Livia Llewellyn: My parents were avid readers, but never very interested in genre or weird fiction. They had a few anthologies of ghost and “spooky” stories, and copies of Dracula and Frankenstein, but that was it for genre. However, they had a ton of mythology books, and lots of history and archaeology textbooks – my mother minored in ancient history in college, so I was all up in mummies and gods and ruined temples before I turned three. My parents were both teachers and very pro-reading, so anything I brought home from the local library was fine with them, as long as it didn’t involve sex, demons or Satanism (thus ensuring a life-long obsession with stories about sex, demons and Satanism, of course). I tore through all of Roald Dahl and Madeline L’Engle, I fell in love with novels like Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game and The Witches of Worm, but nothing really did it for me the same way that those Time-Life books about unexplained phenomena and lost alien civilizations did. I craved extreme weirdness and darkness, even though I couldn’t articulate it at that time in my life. I just knew I wanted stories that excited and freaked me out the way the black and white photos of dead people and crumbling civilizations in the archaeology books did. I wanted the fiction that went along with those photos, I wanted the stories of those places and the stories of the people who had taken those photos – because those would be the stories about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.

And then when I was maybe around eleven years old, my mother took me to Mr. Monk’s Antique Store, in a little suburb of Tacoma. Mr. Monk, a sweet man who was around eighty years old, led me to a back room filled with dusty furniture and a single bookcase crammed with horror, fantasy and science fiction novels and anthologies. Apparently my mother had decided that I could graduate to “adult” fiction – probably she was tired of my throwing fits in the stacks because she wouldn’t let me read novels like The Exorcist – and she trusted his judgment. I picked out five books (which I still have to this day), and on the way out of the store, Mr. Monk slipped a few extra paperbacks into the bag – one was a collection of Lovecraft’s stories. Naturally, I read it and promptly went insane with joy. And that was it. Lovecraft led directly to my discovery of the horror and weird fiction writers I love so much. And years later, I finally got to read The Exorcist. It was delicious. Who are the writers you look up to the most or feel the most kinship with? Which stories do you find most influential or significant for you and your writing, and why?

Llewellyn: If I don’t purposely make this short, I’ll be writing for a couple of days. So, this is an extremely truncated edition of who inspires me:

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (Book 2 of the Earthsea Cycle) was one of the few novels I read as a very young child that utterly floored and moved me. At its core, it’s a very sexual and chthonic tale of death and rebirth, told in prose that flows like cold black water. I pick it up every few years, and it remains as beautiful a novel as when I first read it.  

Laird Barron: I love everything he’s written, but in particular, “The Forest”, “The Imago Sequence”, “Procession of the Black Sloth”, “Hallucigenia”, and “The Broadsword” are novellas I read over and over again. He has the maddening habit of writing around the edges of cosmic horror, leaving out just enough of the story that it makes me want to tear apart the pages thread by thread, hoping I’ll eventually find out what that black void or terrible event was. I never do, which is a relief, because then I read them again, hoping…

Caitlín R. Kiernan: Some of the most beautiful and complex and sorrowful writing I’ve ever come across in my life. Her short stories and vignettes are what I love most — absolutely luscious prose, but never at the expense of the story or the emotional arc of the protagonist. Insanely inventive, luscious, erotic world-building, and a command of language and style that leaves me breathless. She’s the best.

Thomas Ligotti: Every time I finish one of Ligotti’s stories, I put the book down and say to myself, “oh, fuck it, I’ll never write as well as this, I’m so stupid I didn’t even understand half of what was going on.” And then I get angry and pick him up again and keep reading, because god damn. I know that doesn’t sound very inspiring. It is, but I just can’t quite explain why. Is there any weird writer or artist you’re particularly fond of that you think gets overlooked or underrated?

Llewellyn: I stumbled across Argentinean writer Silvina Ocampo about 20 years ago, when Penguin published an English translation of her work in the collection Leopoldina’s Dream. Her stories are typically told from the point of view of an “innocent”, neutral person (usually a child, usually female) who is gradually revealed to be an ultra cruel and violent being instigating and reveling in horrors that befall not only others but themselves, as they move through an increasingly lush and fantastical world. I don’t know many English-speaking writers who are familiar with her, which is a shame — she deserves a far wider audience and greater recognition than she’s been given. As a writer and reader, what draws you most often to weird fiction? When, if ever, does it falter?

Llewellyn: Well, there are so many definitions of, and forms of weird fiction, I think it’s easier for me to identify when it doesn’t work. A lot of time I’ll read something and not quite understand the reason for the setting or the style or details of weird that the author is using, but be able to understand enough to know that the fault lies in me as the reader, that there actually is plot and meaning behind everything, only I can’t quite see that yet — this especially happens when I’m reading bizarro fiction. And then there’s that type of fiction that has all the trappings of weird, but at some point you realize that the author just threw a bunch of tentacles and talking animals and “something-punk” details into a vaguely genre-ish world, but there’s nothing actually being said, there’s no meaning to any of it. What I love about weird fiction is when it does work, when all of these strange and disparate things somehow make sense and speak to me — but I still often can’t point out exactly why it works, why I’m illuminated or experience catharsis when I read it. What inspires you the most in your writing? Are there any themes or subjects you find yourself continually returning to or turning over in your mind?

Llewellyn: I write about suburbia, specifically about the Pacific Northwest, because that’s where I grew up and spent most of my life. Living in Manhattan was interesting but a bit daunting and crushing, and now that I’m just outside of it and have some breathing space, I’m finally starting to see it take shape in my fiction. I believe that geography and geology are profound influences on people, far more than they may fully understand. That mystical, crucible-like relationship between humans and the lands they live in and the cities and towns they fashion for themselves in such different places is something that fascinates me, and I know I’ll always write about that.

I write about mother/daughter/sister relationships quite a lot, which I think readers are aware of, and I obviously write about sex; but I also write about gender and sexual fluidity and inter-species relationships, mostly in stories and novels that haven’t been queried or published yet. I did get one story published, “and Love shall have no Dominion”, which is about a demon falling in love with a human — but it’s a hard read (i.e., violence and rape) for a lot of people, so I don’t really talk about it much. There’s a lot of things I want to write about, like “Dominion”, that I just don’t have the tools to successfully broach yet. But it’s all a part of what I’m trying to do with horror — to push my characters to their absolute limit, to the absolute edge of what we define as horror, and then push them over, to see what lies beyond, which is never quite what we imagined. That’s what inspires me — I love writing to that point of no return and then forcing it a few steps beyond, to see not just what lies there in that rubicon of an emotional moment, but to see how it evolves (or devolves) the character. That’s what I love about the best horror writing — it’s not about how terrible and gory and bloody that final moment is, but how the protagonist has changed for having experienced it. Do you see yourself as a horror writer first and foremost? I’ve noticed how freely your stories move between genres at times – science fiction, horror, fantasy – but always with a dark tint to them. How do you see yourself and your writing, in terms of genre or conventions you enjoy working with?

Llewellyn: Yes, I’m a horror writer first and foremost. I really can’t say that I’m a “dark fiction” writer, even though it’s probably a more marketable term. I do move a lot between genres, but it’s not something I think about when I’m writing, because I’m always concentrating on the emotion, on the fear and dread and terror that I’m putting the protagonist through, and where that emotional journey is taking her, how it’s changing her. Whether it takes her through a SF landscape or a fantasy or an erotic one is always secondary to me, and the “darkness” of the world is also secondary — the emotion is primary, which is why I think horror writer is a more accurate description of what I write. Can you speak a little bit about what sparked “The Engine of Desire”? Pun not intended, of course. Where and how did you find the catalyst for that particular story?

Llewellyn: Back in the seventies, there was a very handsome teenage paperboy — a stone fox, in the language of my suburban peoples — that used to deliver papers in his Chevy Mustang. You could hear that engine all up and down the neighborhood streets, and of course all the mothers would traipse out in their finest polyester outfits to get the early evening edition from him. He never left the car, he’d just crack the window, and slide the paper out in a thick rubber-banded roll. Yeah. And all the daughters, all the girls older than me, would fume and fight and preen in the driveways, competing with their mothers for a single smile, a single reaction from this guy. At some point, though, going over the scene in my head, I got rid of the car and the boy altogether, and it became an image of this invisible engine pounding through the suburbs, sending all these girls into some kind of ritualistic frenzy for the attention of the most beautiful girl they were crushing on, a frenzy and desire so great, that it became this endless unbreakable loop in time. And that became the central idea for the story. What role does sexuality play in your work, overall? In some of your stories, such as “The Engine of Desire,” sexuality and sexual desire plays such a driving role for characters and their actions. Do you see any connections between sexuality and horror, and if so what are they?

Llewellyn: Well, they’re both emotional and physical states of being — you can be horrified, and it does something to your body. So does being sexually aroused, so of course there’s going to be overlap, both in life and in art. Sexuality is a very large element in my fiction, but I think that’s just how I’m wired as a writer and as a person. I don’t think it’s something that has to be a part of horror, and certainly there are a number of horror writers who don’t make it a large part of their fiction. But, if you’re born female or become female, a good portion of your life becomes about your sex and about what sex (both for pleasure and for reproduction) is supposed to mean to you, to society in general, and to those you are with, whether you like that or not. When I write, I don’t think, “I’m going to make this protagonist’s story sexual!” any more than I think, “I’m going to write about someone who breathes air!” Sex is a major component in my stories because it’s a major component of life. What have been some of the most interesting responses to your stories?

Llewellyn: I have to admit that there haven’t been any really strange or weird responses to my stories. Individually, they haven’t received a lot of attention or reviews, and as a collection, the reaction has been very positive. Some readers and reviewers have expressed a bit of discomfort with the explicit levels of sex in some of the stories, but I expected that. I’m not complaining about the lack of reaction or reviews, though. Building a writing career is a slow process, and I think the internet often gives the impression that things should happen all at once, at the beginning of your career, that everything posted and published should receive instant feedback. I don’t need that — I’m happy to wait a couple more years before readers start posting disturbing or weird responses to my work! What projects are currently in the works for you, and can you share a little peek at them?

Llewellyn: I’m currently finishing up several stories and novelettes for a number of print and online markets — that will take me through the end of January, after which I’ll start working on a collection of five horror novellas. I don’t have a specific publisher for the collection; it’s just a project I’ve wanted to work on for a long time.

The following is an excerpt from a novelette I’m working on that takes place in Obsidia, the same Lovecraftian city-continent as in my novella “Her Deepness” [collected in Engines of Desire – Eds.]:

Beyond the dark bedroom window, the city rumbles, a reluctant and slow river of flesh and machines crawling toward the yet-unbroken day. Pire slides onto the mattress, pulling a bathrobe over her legs. As hot as it gets, she can’t fall asleep without something covering her, a flimsy protection of sorts. Against what, she’s never been able to say. She sighs into the pillow, eyes closed, mind already drifting with hum of the fans. Beneath her body, the building lets out a long shake, as though picking up the distant vibrations of something large and unfathomable. 

Just a truck, she tells her twitching skin. Nothing unnatural at all.

For the rest of the night, Pire dreams of deserts, high suns and strange large flowers, spurting thick dry pollen in the air. Skeletal oxen mount her, their ivory bodies folding like origami around her flesh. When she orgasms, thunderheads drop rain like tears from lidless, hollow eyes, melting her flesh away into the ground, leaving only the bones behind.

At dawn, the smear on the wall is gone. The ochre ceiling stain has spread. And sometime in the darkness and dreams, she rose from the bed, squatted, and pissed on the floor. Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read, and why?

Llewellyn: I’m going to cheat. The weirdest story I ever encountered was actually a play. Back in late 2001, when I was acting, I was cast in a play that this Russian director had created out of a series of sketches published by Argentine author Julio Cortázar in the book Historias de cronopios y de famas. Cronopios, famas, and esperanzas were strange groups of creatures who inhabited a city, interacting with each other in various political and cultural situations — very absurdist, surreal stories that the director had translated from Spanish to Russian, then back into English into this play of all dialogue and no stage directions. I haven’t read the stories in their original language, so I can’t quite tell you what they were about, or what they meant. Something tells me the director couldn’t, either.

So, we seven actors spent about four months rehearsing it in the basement of a Ukraine bar in lower Manhattan, just two blocks from the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. This director was a “shopper” — he’d come into rehearsal, say “show me what you’ve got”, and then we’d have to make up various scenes and actions for him to pick and choose from — stuff, I swear, that looked like something the staff of The Onion put together as a joke. To say the play was weird was a hilarious understatement — take every cliché you’ve ever heard or seen about absurdist plays with fetus-puppet kings, oppressive regimes, class conflicts, add some nudity, dancing, bits of “found music”, Sprockets/Klaus Nomi/Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-style costumes and choreography, and mash it all together into a three-hour extravaganza, and that’s what we had. The director screamed at us, constantly — everything we did was always wrong. I cried every night. Two actors quit and were replaced by Russians who didn’t speak a word of English. (Eventually, the director stopped speaking to us in English, so it actually worked out well for them.) But, like good professional off-off-Broadway actors, we sucked it up and soldiered on. Why? Because in March of 2002, we were going to be sent on a free two-week trip to Kiev, Ukraine, to take part in an Eastern European theatre festival. Now, we had performed this stupendous mess in the bar basement for about a week, to an audience of mostly drunk regulars. I had a beer bottle thrown at me — that’s pretty much the only constructive feedback we’d received. Needless to say, we were quite nervous about performing this, the weirdest play ever “written”, in front of hardcore, educated theatre-goers. But damned if we weren’t gonna get our free trip to Kiev, even if we were stoned to death at curtain call. Cut to the chase…

We performed it, we won some big award, and we were feted and celebrated like a bunch of goddamn rock stars. People in the audience raved about us, they wept and laughed and clapped and sang along with everything we did and said onstage. And we still had no idea what we were doing, but the Ukrainians did. Whatever weirdness we created onstage, they totally got it. It meant something deep and personal and cathartic to them. And that in turn gave us the meaning we needed to finally enjoy what we had done, even if we never understood it. So, that play was the weirdest thing I’d ever read (and experienced). I guess the moral of the story is, give yourself free reign to write or paint or create the weirdest weird-ass shit you can possibly conceive of, and never worry about if it makes sense or is right or correct or follows the rules. Because, I guarantee that somewhere in the world, someone will read it or watch it or listen to whatever you’ve created and say, “this makes sense — this is about me”.

4 replies to “Interview: Livia Llewellyn and the Weird

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  2. Wow, I’m from near Kiev, Ukraine, and being a huge fan of weird art and fiction I would totally want to see the play they staged back in the 2002.
    What was the name of the play? Maybe there’s a video or at least a detailed recap of the event?

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  4. Hello Livia, I recently discovered you as an Actress, the fulminating and mesmerizing wife of the Grim Reaper in the film, “Strange Things Happen at Sundown”. An instant fan, so I looked you up and will now access your books. Spent a childhood in Tacoma; there is definitely a climato-geographical influence. May I suggest a film you might find engrossing? It is “Murder Story” and stars Christopher Lee; it presents exactly what you write you desire in fiction. (I am a collector of Lee’s films. You may know he celebrated his 92d birthday last May by releasing a heavy metal album. So he does have a clue.…) Thank you for being there; more dark urges and dreams to you. May I add that Lovecraft was interested in amateur journalism, and describes his techniques in his correspondence with other fans.
    Cheers and Murmurs, David L. Kent