A Horror World Conversation with Mary SanGiovanni
By Steven E. Wedel

Back in 2003 I went to my first Horrorfind Weekend convention in Baltimore. One of the first readings I attended was for my online friend Marcy Italiano. Paired with Marcy were a couple other ladies I’d seen on the message boards but never really gotten to know. One of them, a solemn-looking gal with long dark hair, got up and read some horrific poetry from a chapbook she had out at that time.

“So, that’s Mary SanGiovanni,” I thought. “Not bad at all. And her poetry ain’t bad, neither!”

I’ve gotten to know Mary a little better since then, but she isn’t one to pour it all out online, so I was glad to get the assignment to pick her brain for Horror World. The job got even better when I was given galleys of her upcoming novel to read. You don’t have to get too deep into the book to find yourself asking, “Sweet little Mary wrote this?” Which, I suppose, just goes to show I don’t know her well enough yet.

Let’s open her up and examine her together, shall we?

Horror World: Since I’ve already mentioned your book, let’s start there. THE HOLLOWER should still be fresh on the shelves from Leisure Books when this interview is published. What inspired you to write this book?

Mary SanGiovanni: Thanks for having me here, Steve. Well, I've always loved monster stories, so for me, something supernatural and stalkerish seemed like the best kind of antagonist. But really, the Hollower really is a magnified, more deadly version of what the characters already do to themselves. See, when I wrote THE HOLLOWER, I was going through two years of rather tumultuous change in my life, and sometimes with change comes insecurity about the future. I think what's scary, at least for me, about THE HOLLOWER is that just about anyone is insecure about something -- it permeates our lives in sometimes small, sometimes big ways, and shapes our behavior -- but usually we can keep it somewhat in check. However, the Hollower drags out the worst of what we fear about ourselves, and exploits it -- uses it to drive people to their deaths, one way or another.

I guess the book was a way of working through insecurity.

HW: How long did it take you to write it, revise it, sell it?

MS: THE HOLLOWER manuscript was my masters' thesis, so it took me a little under two years to write, and a couple of months after that to edit it. I met with Don D'Auria of Leisure in May of 2006, and sent him the first three chapters. We discussed them again in June and he told me to go ahead and send the whole thing when it was done. So I got him the completed manuscript by September, and he called about two weeks before Halloween and made me an offer. I was delighted.

HW: You’re notorious for not smiling, Mary. Did you crack a grin when Leisure accepted THE HOLLOWER? What were your thoughts when you got the contract?

MS: ha ha ha. I was so stunned that I don't think I did much more then mumble "uh-huh, uh-huh" into the phone. But yes, after I hung up, nothing could pull the smile off my face. I kept thinking something like "omigod, ohmigod, ohmigod, Don wants to buy it. He said 'offer'! He wants the book! YAY!"

HW: Since I’m reviewing the book, too, I don’t want to go on and on about it too much here, but I do have to say that the level of writing is extremely good. It doesn’t read like a first novel at all. How long have you actually been writing?

MS: Why, thank you! I've been seriously writing and trying to get published since 1999, but I've written stories since I was a little girl. The Hollower is actually my second novel -- I wrote another, stranger one before this which I'm still trying to sell.

HW: What got you interested in writing? And, why horror?

MS: My mom wouldn't let me be a stripper and I'm no good at sports. I figured a writing career was easier than being a rock star. Less groupies, but less of a taxing lifestyle. Heh.

But seriously, I've always loved to read, and always loved a good story. I find something satisfying about world-building and creating characters. It's everything I loved about play as a child, and it's wrapped up in a neat package between covers of a book or magazine.

I think I'm drawn to horror because when I was little, I was afraid of everything. I still am. Horror helps me work through things. It renews my faith in people, because horror stories, to me, are stories of hope -- stories of strength of the human spirit. In horror, people rise above themselves and become something more than they were before. Good or bad, it's interesting to me to watch the change.

HW: Before THE HOLLOWER, you had a bachelor’s degree in English writing. You recently earned a master’s degree in writing popular fiction, didn’t you? Tell us how your education has helped your writing.

MS: I think one of the smartest things I ever did for myself was to join the Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. Through the program, I was on a more regimented schedule of reading in my own genre, and so I had the opportunity to learn techniques from masters before me and incorporate those skills into my own writing. Plus, I had the benefit of excellent critiques from my critique partners and from workshops with writers in other genres (who offer amazing insight into things you may not think of because it isn't so carefully focused on in your particular genre). Finally, I had the expert guidance of published authors in teaching and advisory positions -- people like Mike Arnzen, Tom Monteleone, Gary Braunbeck, and Larry Connelley. It was an amazingly inspiring time for me. I made lifelong friends and learned a lot about people and other writing styles, which in turn, informs my own writing. I can't say enough good things about the program. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn to write genre fiction better.

The obvious upside, too, is that since THE HOLLOWER is my thesis novel, I think the fact that it had been critiqued by published Leisure authors made a difference in my pitch to Don. And the fact that I sold the book helped me graduate.

HW: Okay, let’s dig in and find out what makes Mary tick. You’re a Jersey girl now. Have you always lived in the Northeast? Tell us where you grew up and what your formative years were like.

MS: Yup. I was born and raised in New Jersey, and in fact, have lived almost my entire life in the same town, aside from a few early years in West Orange.

This'll probably be hard to believe, but I was painfully shy growing up -- awkward and quiet and intensely uncomfortable around others. I had a good home life; I'm close to my sisters and got along with my parents. And I had a few close friends. But until high school, I was a shy, lonely, quiet kid that played computer games and told herself stories about people who weren't afraid to love and be loved and make jokes and have serious discourse and whose adventures made for a life to look back on fondly.

Then I thought, "Hmmm. Maybe I should just take a deep breath and talk to people and have that life for myself."

HW: Favorite childhood memory?

MS: Halloween. I loved everything about them -- the costumes, the trick-or-treating, the Halloween specials. When you're a little girl, you're kind of bombarded with stories about the fairy tale perfect, good, beautiful princess children who feed sparrows and deer from their hands because their innocence and kindness glow from them like an aura -- girls who strangers love on sight and who loved ones would go to any length for. That's a hell of a lot to live up to. But on Halloween, magic and imperfection converged, and you could be bad and "ugly" and still somehow be powerful and beautiful at the same time. The monsters rule. On Halloween, not even death could stop you from flying on the October wind and enjoying the chill in the air. If that makes sense. I guess essentially, I love horror for the same reason.

I have other fond memories, not so shady. My family had a house at Seaside we used to visit in the summer. I always found the ocean soothing, with warm sand beneath you and pretty seashells to collect, and at night, the lights of the boardwalk. It was, kind of like Halloween, a feeling of being free.

My memories of high school, of cruising, of talking around campfires…actually, the sentiments are the same there, too.

HW: These days you have a child of your own. I imagine you have a day job, too. What do you do to pay the bills? And, how hard is it for a single mom to budget time into the day for writing?

MS: Currently, I'm temping for an engineering company in their magazines and newsletters department. I also teach a night class at Hudson Community College. Plus I'm writing. I have an amazingly supportive family, and they help watch my son while I'm doing all these things. When you're a single mom and working so much, you want to spend whatever time you can hanging out with your kids and getting to know them before they slip into that dark and foggy place from twelve to twenty-two. Plus there are friends and significant others who want your time. It's always a case of juggling things you want to do in between things you have to do, and making the most of every minute. I don't get much sleep. Heh. After my son goes to bed, I write for a few hours, I surf the web, I answer email. I work better at night anyway.

HW: I’ve heard of some other single mom writer, a British woman, who became a billionaire because of her writing. Can’t recall her name at the moment. What are your long-term writing goals?

MS: I think I remember hearing something about that British woman. Was it romance novels? Instruction manuals about the Wicca? I forget.

You know, it's funny -- I have a list of short-term goals and long-term goals, and I've been checking things off as I accomplish them. I suppose my primary long-term goal is to get to a point where I can write full-time. I think nowadays that probably means incorporating movie option money and other kinds of adaptations into your income of advances and royalties. And I'd like to be able to look back on a body of work that at least fans of horror, if not households across America, will like and remember.

HW: When you’re not working, writing or taking care of your son, what do you like to do for fun?

MS: I love watching horror movies. I've seen just about everything ever put out. I also love playing videogames, and I like messing around with art programs on the computer. So when I have a little free time to myself, I indulge in visual delights like that. I also like to read, usually in the tub. I light a candle and read and the bath relaxes me. When I want a night out on the town, I like to go out to dinner or go dancing, or go to a rock club somewhere. I love to sing, so whenever I can sucker people into going to karaoke with me, I do. I like to get some kind of exercise when I can. I used to take Tae Kwon Do for years, until I hurt my knee. I loved that. Now I'm thinking of taking up belly dancing.

HW: Are you still writing poetry? Do you work in other genres or forms?

MS: Actually, I write very little poetry anymore. I think it's an amazing talent to be able to write poetry well, but I don't think I have that talent. I enjoy writing short stories, and would try my hand at screenplays if given a chance, but I really think novels are my favorite form. Occasionally I branch out into sf and fantasy, and would someday like to try some kind of western, maybe, or something really surreal, but my first love will always be horror.

HW: Horror is so often thought of as a boys’ genre. What’s it like for you, being a chick who likes horror, writes horror and hangs out with boys who like icky things? Do you think female horror writers are treated differently than men?

MS: I've never had a problem playing with the boys. Ahem. What I mean to say is, all the things I like -- horror movies, videogames, sports (sort of), D&D, heavy metal -- they're all traditionally male-dominated. I think that guys generally think that's cool, because it gives us common ground to share our thoughts and feelings about.

I think historically, women in horror have been treated differently than men. In many male-dominated businesses, women are prone to sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. That's nothing unique to horror, but every once in a while, it happens there, too. However, that said, in my personal experience, for the most part men and women alike in this business have been incredibly supportive and are really sex- and gender-blind. Folks in this business have treated me like an equal and a colleague and have given generously of time and advice. They treat me like "one of the guys," so to speak, when it comes to my writing.

Outside of the business itself, I think a lot of people hold to this unfortunate and mistaken belief that women can't write scary horror. Over the last three decades, I think women writers have effected a change in thinking, along with women directors and filmmakers and producers, making strides to not only bring the work of women to the attention of the masses, but to show it to be of equal quality to the work of men in the same field. Groups like Persephone, which is a women's genre fiction writers group, are part of that change. I don't believe in hiding my sex, and don't much mind why people pick up my book, so long as if they like it, they think it's not "great writing for a woman" but simply "great writing."

HW: What does your family think of the subject matter of your writing? How about your son?

MS: I think my mother would rather I wrote something nice and sweet like romance, and my sisters want me to write high-paying thriller best-sellers. But they all seem very proud and excited for me about the book (although I think my dad might be the only one who will have the stomach to read it). And as for the Sprout, he's very excited for me, and he thinks it's cool that his mother wrote a scary book. He does, of course, want to know if this makes me famous, and by extension, if it makes him famous, and when the big movie money will be rolling in.

HW: There is a rumor going around that you like toast. What’s that all about?

MS: Toast is the great unifier, the symbol of peace, an icon to young breads everywhere, looking to make a difference from toaster to plate. Toast is the safe word in awkward situations. Toast is the greatest pick-up line ever.

(Actually, "I like toast" is a quote from a cartoon, Ed, Edd and Eddie, chosen for its random nature and peace-keeping abilities in times of online stress.)

How's that for an explanation? Heh heh.

HW: I’ve also heard that you are an avid gamer. In fact, a reliable source has told me you’ve agreed to be video game reviewer for a new Web site. Tell us about your love of gaming.

MS: Few things excite me like big CGI guns blowing monsters to gory monster-flesh chunks. I love survival horror videogames, and collect them whenever finances permit. I'm a PS2 girl, but I've also got some great games for the PC and am hoping to pick up both a PSP and a PS3 soon. My favorite games are the Silent Hill series from Konami, The Suffering (the first moreso than the second), and this new one for the PC, Indigo Prophecy. I'm always in and loving it.

HW: Do you like football, too? I suppose you know guys dream of meeting a woman who likes things like horror and violent video games. As THE HOLLOWER brings you to a larger public arena, are you ready to deal with the marriage requests from slavering men?

MS: heh. I am, as a matter of fact, developing a taste for football. I suppose I am a default Giants fan. It is not, contrary to popular belief, a ploy to win over the heart of a jock, but actually more of an arc in the pursuit of well-roundedness.

Well, it's heartening to hear that there are men out there who love chicks who love horror, sports, and videogames. I think I'm ready, should my rocket to fame and fortune put me in such a position, to set up a new folder in my hotmail to field marriage proposals. There will be points for romance and creativity (something involving stargazing and sweet-talk will probably work best), since I've been-there, done-that a few times with standard proposals, but if they're good-looking, have jobs, and can make me laugh, send them my way.

HW: Tell us what you’ll be doing to promote THE HOLLOWER? I saw that you have some signings arranged on your Web site. Will there be more added?

MS: So far I've done a guest blog with Maria Snyder to promote the book, and yup, I'm doing a bunch of signings. I'm trying to book a few more around the Uniontown/Greensburg area, and a few more in Morris County, NJ, where I live. I'm doing a Pick Six interview with Heidi Miller, too. I'm kind of new to the promotion thing, so I'm learning as I go -- free ads where I can squeeze them in, interviews, press releases to newspapers, signings, that sort of thing. Living the high writer's life.

HW: When I interviewed Don D’Auria a while back he named you as one of the fresh new authors he was really excited about publishing. What kind of promotional push is Leisure giving THE HOLLOWER?

MS: I'm flattered that he thinks so. Leisure has been great to me. Their publicity department has contacted newspapers and sent out review copies and they've put me up on their website and listed my signings, as well. Don is very accessible. Every step of the way, he's answered questions and explained stuff to me and helped me understand how everything works. I'm proud to be one of their writers.

HW: Did Leisure have the foresight to sign you to a multi-book deal? Maybe this would be a good time to ask you if you have an agent, too. Do you? If so, did your agent submit your book to Leisure, or did you wait to get an agent until after you got an offer?

MS: I do have an agent -- Frank Weimann with the Literary Group. I signed on with him after I sold the book to Leisure, and he agreed to represent me for THE HOLLOWER and for another book I've written. My agent is also negotiating for the book I'm working on now. I just signed a one-book deal with Leisure, but Don and I have discussed my doing other books for him.

HW: What should we look forward to seeing from you next? And, what are you working on right now?

MS: I'm working on a sequel to THE HOLLOWER now. Likely that will be the next book. I also have a completed novel my agent is shopping, and keeping all fingers and toes crossed, that novel will hopefully see print soon, too. In other arenas, I'm editing an anthology for the Garden State Horror Writers with Gary Frank. That should also be out soon, and has, if I do say so myself, quite a selection of talented tri-state authors.

HW: What advice would you give the young author looking to make that first novel sale?

MS: Be persistent, and be patient. Go to conventions, network with editors and agents, and in the meantime, keep writing. If you sell one book, they're likely going to expect you to produce something else within a reasonable amount of time thereafter, so keep at it. It's a long, slow business, but it isn't impossible, and you only get better as you go.

HW: Now that you’ve made that first mass market sale, do you feel pressure to make your next book even better?

MS: Absolutely, especially because this next one is a sequel. I want it to be leaner, meaner, and definitely scarier. I'm interested in people's reactions to this book, because I can learn from them and make the next book even better.

HW: That Brian Keene feller is often called “the zombie guy.” Karen Koehler is usually thought of as a vampire writer, and even your humble interviewer is typically thought of only for werewolves. The monster in THE HOLLOWER is pretty unique, ensuring you won’t be typecast. Did you consciously avoid the traditional monsters? Would you consider writing a novel about one of the archetype monsters?

MS: Ha! I suppose I could be labeled "the faceless monster writer chick." But really, it doesn't roll smoothly off the tongue, does it?

I did, actually, try to avoid the traditional tropes of monsters with this book, partially because there is such a rich history of literature that is somewhat daunting to live up to, but mostly because my father was teasing me when I was throwing out ideas one day about how anything I came up with has already been done.

The kinds of monsters that most delight me to write about are ever-changing, growing, mysterious -- monsters I can make up my own rules for. I would write about one of the archetypes, though, if I thought I could do it justice and bring something new and fun to it, the way the aforementioned authors have for their novels. I dabble a little; I have written a short story about werewolves and zombies for SMALL BITES and I'm working on a werewolf novella, actually, too.

HW: Let’s go back to that smile thing for a second. What’s up? Why won’t you smile for photos? I did see a picture of you smiling once. It was nice.

MS: It's a sad story, really. When I was a little girl, this mean boy around the block used to tease me and make fun of my smile. Although I'm smiling and laughing all the time in person, I guess I get very self-conscious in front of cameras, and smiles rarely look natural unless I'm caught off-guard. Chalk it up to one of those insecurities.

HW: Okay, Mary, what should I have asked and didn’t? Or, what do you want to say to your growing fan base right now?

MS: You're pretty thorough and asked a lot of great questions. I guess all I've got left to say is a huge thank you to all the people who bought the book and have said such kind things about it. I'm delighted (and, truth be told, relieved) that it has been so well-received so far.

HW: That’s fine, but I was looking for you to announce to everyone who your favorite Oklahoma-based, Horror World-employed author is.

MS: Words could never do justice my deep love and admiration for you. It goes without saying.

HW: Thanks for your time, Mary. We all wish you the absolute best with THE HOLLOWER and all your future work.

MS: Thank you! I really enjoyed this. And thanks for the well-wishes.