Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s novella, “Splendid Chyna,” opens the collection Three on a Match (2017, Books & Boos Press). It’s the haunting tale of a newly blended family who move to a house built atop an abandoned amusement park—but though the tourist attraction is long gone, there are still secrets within its ruins.
Ursula Wong recently had the opportunity to interview Schoonover about her novella, her writing, and all things spooky and inspiring:
Ursula: What appeals to you about horror? Who are your favorite horror writers? What other genre do you like to read and write?
Kristi: Horror is a metaphorical way to process and interpret what scares us—all the sad and terrible things that can befall people in this world. Ghost stories are about trying to come to terms with what happens to us in death and the afterlife; zombies are about our eventual, physical decline and the loss of everything due to age or illness; vampires are about losing our souls and becoming victims, as circumstances can crush our dreams and hopes and turn us into bitter people; beasts and monsters are about unexpected catastrophic disruption, such as tragic accidents, natural disasters or life-altering acts of violence. Horror is a way that we can explore fears and personal issues from a safe distance—and it can also be a tool to help us cope with them.
As far as my favorite horror writers, anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m on Team Edgar Allan Poe and that I adore all Asian horror. I also love first-person POV work because of its automatic subjective (and unreliable) quality. Currently, I’m a huge fan of The Fiction Desk’s ghost story anthologies (they’re up to Volume III now). But I don’t really have a “favorite.” I’ve read some horror stories that will haunt me for the rest of my life; in addition to anything by Poe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” here are a few more:
“The Pool People,” Alison Lurie http://amzn.com/0385518315
“How the Dead Live,” Gina Ochsner http://amzn.com/0820334235
“The Hold,” Koji Suzuki http://amzn.com/1932234225
“Aura,” Carlos Fuentes http://amzn.com/0374511713
“Crickets,” Richard Matheson http://a.co/5b3BQec
Aside from being a short story junkie, I read a great deal of creative, historical, and scientific nonfiction—but in terms of genre, I’m not particular. I will generally pick something up if the description of the book grabs my attention and the subject interests me; it’s really anything that makes me think, “I can’t wait to read this!”
Not everything I write is horror, either, but there’s usually no intent there. A short story comes out the way it wants to—I’ve done literary, humor, mystery, chick lit, soft science fiction, even adventure.
Ursula: What are your five favorite books of all time?
Kristi: I’ve read many novels and there are several I enjoyed so much I go back to them again and again, but it’s short stories—even ones I read when I was a kid—that haunt me day in and day out. Here are five of my all-time favorites, and links where readers can find them:
“Dead Letters,” Mario Milosevic http://amzn.com/B004JU0IXG
“What Rough Beast,” Daniel Pearlman http://amzn.com/1882633059
“The Caves in Oregon,” Benjamin Percy https://amzn.com/1555974856
“Leiningen vs. the Ants,” Carl Stephenson http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lvta.html
“Jubliation,” T.C. Boyle https://amzn.com/0143037439
Ursula: I see from your bio that you produce plays. How has the theater helped your writing?
Kristi: I’ve mostly worked in community theater as either an actress or a stage manager, but it’s the acting that has truly informed my writing.
First, you are breathing life into a character that’s really, on the page, only fleshed out through dialogue—and you’re forced not to experiment, but just to get up there and breathe in that person’s shoes. So, any character I create now, I just automatically “step into” that person; see through his eyes, feel through her fingers, think his thoughts.
Second, although in acting sometimes you have guidance by looking at past performances—for example, I played Rita in Educating Rita and could watch the 1983 film for reference—ultimately, you have to take that flat character and make him 3D. Which means more than just standing in one spot on the stage, waving your arms. You’ve got a set to work with—usually, a set with props, all at your disposal. When your character is nervous, does she sit down at the table and start stirring that spoon fretfully in her tea cup? When she gets angry, does she slam down a book she’s been holding? It has nothing but improved my ability to give my characters great “stage business,” and has taught me the art of balancing dialogue with action tags; on a deeper level, it’s put me in touch with the subtext of my characters. Real people have subtext, too—think about how much we telegraph with what we don’t say. It’s important for characters to do that as well, and much of it is done through body language.
I highly recommend acting to any writer.
Ursula: What do you like best about the writing life? What bothers you the most about the writing life?
Kristi: In general, it’s an exciting, dangerous thrill ride—every day is different, full of ups and downs. Specifically, I love communing with other writers—there’s a secret language that connects us in interesting ways, and I love how we always seem to find each other—and when we do we know each other instantly. I love revision—it’s the chance to take a raw material and shape it into a polished piece. I love getting acceptance letters, and holding that final, published piece of work in my hands. I love that anything I write has the ability to deeply affect someone—even if it’s only one person I’ll never hear about or meet—just as the work of other writers has profoundly affected me. For me, the writing life is a reason to look forward to getting up every day.
On the flip side, what bothers me most about the writing life is the clash of philosophies that creates divisions in the writing community—and I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about issues unique to this life: literary versus genre, selling versus exposure, raw submissions versus revised submissions, formal training versus experiential learning . . .
that’s just scraping the surface. These are issues that I’ve seen split up working relationships and even friendships. Things can get sticky and difficult to navigate, particularly if there are opposing philosophies in a close-knit environment, like a critique group.
Ursula: You seem to like writing about theme parks (Skeletons in the Swimming Hole, “Splendid Chyna”). What appeals to you about them?
Kristi: Theme parks are places of intense emotion. First, they’re where happy memories are created, but those happy memories can become heartbreakingly sad with the passage of time and change of circumstance. They’re also places where a common negative incident can occur—such as the scraping of a knee—and it can become scarring because of that emotional intensity. Second, while they’re places of escape, we can never fully escape ourselves and our problems. Third, in a theme park, nothing is as it seems; it’s all a fantasy with a very ordinary, at best, or dark, at worst, underpinning. There’s so much going on that it makes for a rich, complex backdrop against which to set a story.
“Creepy and thrilling. This one is a real page-turner!” ~ Amazon review
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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