DarkEcho Horror
Blowgun by Rick Berry
NANCY HOLDER: Staying On Target
"Try to let go of the angst...It's like in Star Wars when the good guys start to freak out trying to blow up the Death Star, and their C.O. keeps saying, "Stay on target. Stay on target." ...The writing is the staying on target. The publishing is when you blow 'em up."

by Paula Guran
November 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online, 1998)

Nancy Holder is a petite blonde who looks like she would be more at home at a Junior League meeting than in a gathering of horror writers. But not only is she at home in their group, say her peers, she is one of the best horror writers around: She's sold 20 novels and about 80 short stories that have been translated into 18 languages and is the recipient of four Bram Stoker Awards for Outstanding Achievement from the Horror Writers Association (three for the short stories, "Lady Madonna," "I Hear the Mermaids Singing," and "Cafe Endless: Spring Rain." one for best novel, Dead in the Water, 1994.)

Holder got her start writing romance and still occasionally abandons the macabre for less frightening themes. Her most recent accomplishment, however, was becoming (at 10:30 a.m. on October 28, 1996) the adoring mother of Belle Claire Christine Holder. We understand that Belle helped a bit with this interview and think that it should be considered her first.

Q: Nan, at NeCon where you were Guest of Honor last July, I heard you tell about the first story you wrote when you were in second grade. Something about a merman? Could you tell us a little about it?
A: Yes, indeed, my first work was a romance about a merman, a mermaid, and another evil merman who kidnapped the mermaid. The good merman was a seaweed lumberjack and he hacked his lady love out of the bad guy's net to save her. I wrote it on that little-kid paper with the two dark lines and the dotted line in between so you can figure out how big to make the letters. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Westrom, saved it for me for years and then I promptly lost it.
Q: Too bad, I think it had real potential. But writing wasn't your only early interest. Weren't you quite serious about ballet?
Nancy Holder A: I was one of those totally obsessive ballerina types for most of my life until around age 20. I dropped out of high school to study in Europe because I'm not built like a typical American ballet dancer--I'm short and I have relatively short legs. My chances of employment were better in Europe, hence the move.

In the States, ballet is a brutal, bitchy world full of anorexics. Europeans tend to be much more sanguine about the whole thing, basically because ballet is much more like a normal job. You graduate from a ballet "high school," apply at a bunch of state-supported companies (which are usually a sort of auxiliary to the local opera company), and you get a pension when you retire. My fellow students lived at home and went to school tuition-free. It's a lot different from our system, where you'll find hopeful dancers waiting tables or working at their studios as secretaries to pay for lessons. (Or welding, if you can believe the old movie, "Flashdance", which you shouldn't.)

When I quit ballet, it was an immense relief. I never enjoyed it very much. I was simply obsessed by it.

Q: As long as we are discussing "early influences" -- you had an unusual childhood: California, Japan, psychiatric patients at Camp Pendleton, and a mother who instructed sheep? I seem to recall a story about you ritually immolating Barbies by fire?
A:My father was a psychiatrist in the Navy. We lived in California and Japan. In Japan he had the odious task of discerning which of the many young men desperate to get out of service during the Vietnam war really were crazy and which ones just wanted out. He warned me over and over about LSD and as a result I have never taken it, because I was afraid his warnings would rattle around in my subconscious and result in a bad trip.

One of my fondest memories is walking through the sultry Japanese nights to the hospital movie theater--an enormous quonset hut--to watch Hammer horror films with about 300 guys in blue pajamas, blue pinstripe bathrobes, and blue zoris (flip-flops, go-aheads, whatever you call them). They all knew I was Capt. Jones's nutty daughter. I saw "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" the night of my 12th birthday and it terrified me. I saw "The Haunting," my favorite horror movie ever, in a base theater. You could GET popcorn for 5 cents a bag, or buttered for 15 cents a bag. Using some queer logic that now escapes me, I took this as a license to buy 3 bags at 5 cents each. Iwould devour them all.

About the sheep: We used to live in Walnut Creek, California, and my older sister raised 4-H sheep. My mom taught the ewe, Big Bertha, to blow her nose on a big red bandanna. I find it utterly incomprehensible that we then sold Bertha to be slaughtered and eaten. I don't eat lamb, I don't eat pork (pigs are very smart; did you see "Babe"?) and I have a lot of trouble with chicken and beef. Fish I deal with, but I can't pick out a lobster and then have it boiled to death on my behalf. I really should be a vegetarian. I have been in the past, but it's a lot of work and I'm already very bad at getting enough protein.

Speaking of boiling, I used to give my Barbies stupendous Viking funerals in our backyard. I think it started after I saw "The Viking" with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. I'd dig a big hole and line it with trash, then wrap the Barbie in a sort of Kleenex toga and lay her on a bier. I'd set the whole thing on fire--I never actually immolated the Barbie--and throw snails in to appease the gods. Later, my pagan roots weakened and I froze the snails on carefully lined-up blocks of ice so they wouldn't suffer.

My mom used to be in the house and call out, "Honey? What are you doing?" and I'd sing out, "Playing Barbies, Mom."

Q: Oh I loved that movie...wasn't Sidney Poitier in it wearing Peter O'Toole's outfit fromLawrence of Arabia? Must have had great...uh...resonance for girls our age. I do doubt that many little girls sacrificed snails as a result of it, though, so it seems to me that a future as a horror writer was assured. Maybe others don't see it that way, though. Why does a nice lady like you write horror? For that matter, why do you think people read it?
A: When I first started writing, there wasn't a genre called horror. Despite the fact that I was clearly interested in the dark side of things -- "Tales from the Crypt" comics, sneak-watching "The Twilight Zone", and so on--it didn't occur to me that I could sell that kind of fiction. I started reading historical romances in college because I'm a history buff, and when the idea of writing anything took hold, I wrote what I was reading. Book Image

Then an employee of my husband's gave me a copy of The Shining;. Whoa, what the heck was this? I loved it and read all the King that was out there. "Ghost Story" had come out so I read Straub. Then I found Charles L. Grant, who later became my mentor, and read the short story anthologies he edited, finding my way to his books. This stuff wasn't in a special horror section in the stores at that time. I looked for their work in the G's, S's, and K's. Then I realized most of their books had black covers (although The Shining was yellow) and started looking for books by other authors with black covers, moons, skulls, etc.

Why do I write horror? I have absolutely no clue. I guess I can respond with, why not? I have an 8-year-old friend who is a complete R.L.Stine fanatic (only he calls him "Bob"). He has read all the Goosebumps books, God bless him, and that's turned him on to other "nongenre" reading.

I think we human-types all like this stuff, but some of us have closed that area off. "Keep out. Off limits." Horror readers and writers just go around those barriers and slog through the sewers.

When I was going through my years of infertility, trying to have my child, I wrote the darkest novel I've ever written. I haven't sent it out because it has no warm heart, no light. I'll reread it some day and try to bring some light into it. If I can't, I'll never try to sell it. It is too unredeemingly grim.

Q: Obviously, then, you draw on your own feelings at least to some extent. What process do you go through--mentally, emotionally, practically--when writing? Do you ever frighten yourself as you write?
A: Sometimes I feel creeped out when I write, but I don't necessarily frighten myself with the precise thing I'm writing. I like to feel creeped out because it makes me think I'm doing my job. Once I was writing and feeling quite despairing because I didn't feel edgy. I thought I was getting jaded about my work, which is a nagging concern of mine. But I was sitting in a chair thinking the whole matter over when my husband came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. I went through the ceiling! I was so happy I whirled around and hugged him even while he was apologizing.

Another time, my younger sister took me to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. We spent the night as a birthday gift. This is the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining (although a more airy and bright hotel I never saw). Room 217 of the hotel is the Stephen King suite--red velvet. They have a couple of the cars from some of the movies--Christine for one.

I got in bed and started rereading the book. Nothing was happening and I started worrying again about getting jaded. Then I started hitting parts about room 217. I got so scared I had to wake my sister up to take me to the bathroom. I was jubilant and she was grouchy, to say the least.

I never want to get jaded. That's death for a writer. I'm very inspired by Charlie Grant, who has written so much, yet finds a new challenge for each book. Once he wrote a book in black and white, with only one mention of one color, red. He tries all kinds of stuff. He's wonderful.

Q: I can't say that I blame your sister for being grouchy; she probably would just as soon you have been less "jubilant" in the middle of the night! But you do get along with SOME people. You've written two books now with Melanie Tem. How did you two get started as a "team" and how do you write "together"? After all, she lives in Colorado and you live in California.
A: Melanie and I wrote two books together of a proposed "Demon Lover" series. I had mentioned to her that a romance editor had once planned a demon lover series and asked me to participate. I was very excited. The thing fizzled before it got off the ground (and before I had spent any time on an outline, thank goodness.)

Melanie said, "Why don't we do it?" She had two caveats, that our books not be romances and that they have redeeming social value. I had no such needs but agreed. For our first book, we wrote the outline, then one of us wrote the first 50 pages, sent it to the other, who edited those 50, sent it back, etc. It worked fairly well except that we were on two different computer systems, I on a Mac and she on an old DOS machine.

The second book, I wrote the entire first draft, but unfortunately, Melanie didn't like it and we went back to the 50 pages plan. She did a final run-through at the end.

Q: You might not realize it, but YOU were the first " big name" writer that I ever had as a guest in the Horror Writers Workshop on AOL in November of 1994. You seem very comfortable with on-line technology, have even used it in your novel Making Love and "Hell Is For Children" in Dante's Disciples. What influences do you see the Internet, computers, and what-have-you, having on writers in general and writers of imaginative fiction in particular?
A: I'm very comfortable with computers, but not very computer-literate. I regard computers as tools like toasters. I don't know how many watts or volts or whatever my toaster uses. I don't know how hot it gets. Same thing with my computer. Ask me how much memory I've got and I have no clue because I have no need to know. I rely on my husband, who built his first computer from a kit because you couldn't buy the things then. A friend made him a beautiful mahogany keyboard. The enormous box had *8* K of memory and we toggled in the instructions.

Thank god for computers, say I. I believe the Net has increased literacy among kids--although now Quicktime movies and multimedia and easier to use browsers are changing that. Earlier, to use the Internet you had to at least be able to type to surf the Net. Computers have made me a much better writer. I mean, you spend all damn day typing five pages on your typewriter, and you think, "Hmm, 'gorge' would be a better word here than 'throat.'" Are you really going to make the change, necessitating retyping all those pages? Or worse, hand-writing it in and making your manuscript look messy? I know Harlan Ellison thinks it's wrecked writers and writing but not for me. He told me he writes it in his head and then puts it on paper, but I could never do that anyway. Most of writing to me is nonverbal.

I know I got more experimental when I moved from IBM to Mac. I did not want to go to a Mac, not at all! My husband kept cajoling me. I finally did it and LOVED my Mac. I had IBM friends who used to laugh at my toy computer who couldn't do half the things I could. When Windows 95 came out I laughed. Big whoop. But it looks like IBM et al. may eventually have the last laugh. Too bad.

I just got a Duo but I haven't started using it yet. This is being written on a PowerBook 170. Yes, an ancient machine. Almost four and a half years old, I think. No salvage value.

Q: (Well, I love my Mac, too and I can't say that I've ever heard anyone say. "Oh I love my IBM clone! I adore Windows!"). What's coming up in the future for you as far as writing? As a new mother you are certainly looking toward some dramatic changes. How do you see this affecting your life as a writer?
A: I'll have a Highlander novel out in April and I'll start work soon on an sf trilogy for Avon about gambling dynasties in space. My editor said, "Think Pulp Fiction!" and that thrills me to pieces.

I tried for many years to have a child, going through all the high-tech in-vitro fertilization stuff, procedures, big surgeries, etc. I spent countless sleepless nights and months of paralyzing depression during which I could barely write. The lifting of that weight is the surest cure for writer's block I have ever had. I'm delighted to be back in the land of life and expression. I hope my daughter, Belle, will be the little reader the Belle character was in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. She makes sweet little "o" mouths when I read to her now, although I suppose one could argue that since she's only 10 days old, that's gas. Everything's gas, they tell me. umph.

Q: They don't know anything. Ignore them! Pretty soon she'll like text so much she will literally devour volumes. Eventually you can put the books back on the lower shelves and the magazines back out, though. I always like to ask people what THEY would like to tell us. Here's your opportunity to tell me (and everyone else) whatever you think we should know.
A: I would love to tell everyone to write, write, write. Try to let go of the angst about your career and your salability and all that and put your efforts into accumulating pages. It's like in "Star Wars" when the good guys start to freak out trying to blow up the Death Star, and their C.O. keeps saying, "Stay on target. Stay on target." That was my mantra when I was trying to have a child. That's my mantra now, for my life. The writing is the staying on target. The publishing is when you blow 'em up.

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Copyright © 1997 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.