Author Interview: Rachel Harrison

Author Interview: Rachel Harrison

Feature by Janelle Janson

Rachel Harrison has blown up the horror scene with her exceptional contemporary voice. First with The Return, then with Cackle, and most recently with Such Sharp Teeth. Her newest, Bad Dolls, is a short story collection featured in audio and eBook format, and it’s phenomenal. To know Rachel’s work is to love her.

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JANELLE JANSON: Hi Rachel! Thank you so much for carving out time in what I’m sure is a busy schedule to chat with a super fan like me. For those who have been living under a gravestone, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

RACHEL HARRISON: Well, I’m certainly not as interesting as someone who lives under a gravestone. Skeletons are a fun bunch, at least in my experience. Anyway…I’m an author who lives in Western New York with my husband and my cat. I’m pretty boring, but someday I’ll be a skeleton and then I’ll party hard.

JJ: Skeletons are some of my favorite people. Let’s start with an easy one. Can you describe each of your novels in five words?

RH: Oh gosh, this is a challenge! But I love a challenge! Here goes…

The Return—Friendship breakup in kitschy hotel.

Cackle—What’s bad about a witch?  

Such Sharp Teeth—Womanhood & lycanthropy & full moon fun (I cheated by using these babies: &&&. I’m a rebel! I live outside the law!)

JJ: You rock! That was perfect. Regarding Such Sharp Teeth, I listened to an interview where you compare being a werewolf to being a woman—can you explain or expand on that?

RH: When I got the idea for Such Sharp Teeth, I was at a point where I was tired and sad and ferally angry over never feeling in control of my own body. I wrote the book to explore these feelings using werewolves as a vessel. I hope the parallels are clear on the page.

JJ: Oh man, that really resonates with me. What was your inspiration for Cackle? Why a cute animated spider?

RH: Cackle came about because I was turning thirty and freaking out about getting older, and wondering why it mattered so much to me. I was raised on Disney movies and fairy tales, and those stories imprinted upon my baby Play-Doh brain that young pretty princesses were good, and old ugly witches were bad. And as an adult, I started to wonder why? What’s so bad about being a witch in the woods? Why were independence and power vilified? Why was being polite and docile and winning the prince cast as aspirational? The answer was so obvious, and it scared the hell out of me, so I wrote a book about it. As for Ralph the spider, he doesn’t speak, but he does wear bow ties and top hats because he’s a gentleman. With Ralph, I was looking to provide the protagonist, Annie, with an unconventional source of companionship and love and fulfillment. Annie had this very specific idea of how her life was supposed to look, who she was supposed to get her love and validation from. Ralph was part of challenging that idea. And he infuses some extra fun and magic into the story.

JJ: That makes so much sense. Speaking of a gentleman, Ralph reminds me of my tuxedo cat, Jules. The Return has one of my favorite covers, and I have a serious horror crush on this book. You write realistic stories involving female friendships. Was there anything regarding your own relationships that prompted this story?

RH: The Return was inspired by my own group of close college friends who scattered across the country after graduating. We were all on different paths and had experienced a lot of growing pains, and it wasn’t something we were open about. I think we were all afraid to be honest about the realities of our lives, our struggles. It was a lonely time. I channeled all those experiences into the book.

For the cover design, that was all Katie Anderson at Berkley. Her work is just beyond. The talent of the entire design team at Berkley is mind-blowing, and I’m just very grateful to bask in their starshine.

JJ: I think I understand how you feel. Also, standing ovation to Katie Anderson and Berkley. If you couldn’t be a writer, what profession would you choose and why?

RH: I’d be a therapist or a personal trainer. I’m sure there’s an alternate timeline where I’m one of those things, wishing I could be a writer.

JJ: I always wanted to be a marriage counselor, but I would make a terrible personal trainer. When did you write your first story?

RH: When I was three or four, before I could physically write. I dictated stories to my mother. I’m sure they were nonsense, but we all start somewhere!

JJ: I love that! Does writing come naturally for you? What is your process?

RH: Sometimes it comes naturally. Other times, I can’t put a sentence together, I can’t focus, I go to look something up and next thing I know I’m down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. It’s a real toss up! As for process, I work better early in the morning. I need quiet. I try to limit my distractions and not think about the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. My work is voice-driven. I write in first person, so I function best keeping it to one project at a time, so I can inhabit that character and their voice while I write. Like method acting, but annoying only to me. I try to go into a project with a general sense of what will happen, with the beats of the story, but I can’t work from a detailed outline. I need to have some breathing room to discover things as I go. I’m an intense drafter. It’s important for me to have momentum and be settled into my protagonist’s voice and get it all down. That’s when writing is the most fun for me. Then I go back and edit. That’s when I get to be tortured by plot holes, occasionally blown away by my staggering talent, and horrified by what a terrible speller I am. I was kidding about the talent part, obviously.

JJ: What was the book that got you into horror? Is horror your preferred genre?

RH: I can’t remember which book, but I do have a very vivid memory of reading the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson for the first time. It was very much a gateway for me. Horror is my favorite genre. I’m a proud ghoul.

JJ: What genre other than horror would you want to write?

RH: I’d dabble in science fiction. I have a story called “Goblin” that’s got a Black Mirror vibe. I don’t think I’d ever write something that wasn’t speculative. I want monsters, I want the supernatural, I want the uncanny. I want something beyond the ordinary.

JJ: I love “Goblin!” I can certainly see that as a Black Mirror episode. I need to know…what is the best piece of advice you have been given?

RH: Best writing advice would be to just do it. Stop thinking about it, stop talking about it, don’t allow yourself to get stuck in doubt or what-ifs. For best life advice, you’ll have to ask me in the alternate timeline where I’m a therapist.

JJ: What are your favorite horror movies? Do you ever get scared watching them? What is your biggest fear?

RH: I scare very easily. I watch most horror movies through my fingers. Some favorites are The Orphanage, Jaws, The Shining, Midsommar, Train to Busan. My biggest fear…hmm, hard to pick with such a wide selection. Lately it’s loss. Sorry, you said fun stuff and I’m over here like “I often think of death…”

 JJ: If you hosted a fictional dinner party, dead or alive, who would you invite and why?  

RH: Shirley Jackson, Rod Serling, and Jordan Peele. I’d be too nervous to speak, but I’d love to bum a Chesterfield cigarette from Mr. Serling and just listen to the conversation, soak up all the brilliance.

JJ: Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that dinner party. What book have you read recently that you can’t stop thinking about? What book do you ALWAYS recommend?

RH: This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno is a stunner. Obliterated me. I think it’s a must read. I take my book recommendations very seriously, I like to cater to specific tastes, but can’t you go wrong with Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson, or Ghost Eaters by Clay McLeod Chapman.

JJ: Those are stellar recommendations. What are you working on now? Is there any news you would like to announce?  

RH: My fourth novel, Black Sheep, is out September 19. I’ll also be at StokerCon this year. I’m shy and easily overwhelmed, so you’ll probably find me wedged in a corner somewhere like I’m in time out, but I promise I’m friendly. Tap me on the shoulder and say hi!

Black Sheep publishes September 19, 2023, from Berkley. It is currently available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

Rachel Harrison

Janelle Janson

Feature Writer

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