2021 Debut author Nicole Willson is another person I’d like to meet in real life. The jaunty hat she wears in her profile picture intrigues me, horror used to be a favorite genre of mine to read, and I love hanging with people who are “very independent” and content doing just about anything by themselves, including writing. Nicole’s writing journey has brought her success in the form of published anthologies, contributions to The Weekly Knob, and her debut novel, Tidepool, which launched on Monday. The book is gathering great reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Wilson’s plot hits all the right beats . . . Devotees of cosmic horror will enjoy this woman-centered take on familiar tropes.” Music to an author’s ears! Like every other author I’ve interviewed, Nicole is busy (hopefully with more writing!), so I’m grateful she took the time to answer my questions.
Christina: Tidepool is a horror/dark fantasy novel, and your Goodreads page describes it as “Lovecraftian dark fantasy [that] gets a modern treatment.” What draws you to the horror genre? And for those of our readers who might not know what Lovecraftian means, would you please clarify?
Nicole: I’ve been a horror fan ever since I read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in middle school. Those stories made me aware for the first time of the power of this genre to draw people in and then stun them with a devastating, brutal ending. I’ve been hoping to write a story that replicates that experience for other readers ever since.
“Lovecraftian” refers to the works of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), a very prolific and influential writer of horror and weird fiction such as At The Mountains of Madness, “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Colour Out of Space.” He is known for his cosmic horror, based on the concept that there are entities—such as elder gods, rituals, and forbidden knowledge—that are vast and terrifying and that humans are powerless against. I had some of those ideas in the back of my head while writing Tidepool.
Christina: The story is set in 1913, clearly over 100 years ago. How did you choose that date in particular? Was it easier or more difficult than you thought to portray that era? Did you unearth anything surprising about Baltimore in 1913?
Nicole: I knew all along the novel would be set in the early 20th century. I eventually settled on 1913 because that year worked best for the real-life cities around the fictional town of Tidepool in terms of what technologies and places existed at the time.
And it was tricky to set a story in that era; even if Tidepool is a made-up town, Baltimore is not and so I wanted to be very careful to get things right. I bought a subscription to an online archive of the Baltimore Sun to get a clear picture of what my main character Sorrow Hamilton’s world was like: what she’d wear, where she might go to eat or entertain herself, and what was open in the city at that time. I also had to be careful with the dialogue; I got frequent questions from editors about whether or not a character of this era would use certain terms or slang, and if I couldn’t find proof that those existed in 1913, I changed them.
One thing that surprised me about Baltimore was that planning Sorrow’s travel was even more complicated than I’d expected. I assumed she’d take a train from Baltimore to Ocean City, another shoreside town, before making her way to Tidepool; that’s what she did in my first drafts of the book. After a question from my Pitch Wars mentor, I double-checked some back issues of the Baltimore Sun from 1913 and realized no trains made that trip; she had to take a steamer boat from Baltimore to another Maryland town before picking up the train. I also had to scoot Tidepool closer to Ocean City than I’d originally planned so she could feasibly make the journey I planned for her in one (long) day. Whew!
Christina: Your characters are multilayered and complex. What’s your approach to writing characters? Do you have a favorite character?
Nicole: I like to sit down and write character sheets for all the main characters and any supporting characters who have more than a few scenes in the novel. In addition to figuring out their backstories and what makes them tick, I like to envision them all as pieces on a game board. What got them to the place they are when the story begins? What moves might they make when they encounter each other? Will there be harmony or conflict? (Or both?) It’s fun!
I think every new main character of a new project is my favorite for a while. I’m very fond of Mrs. Ada Oliver in Tidepool; I hope that people who read her story will come to enjoy her (and fear her) as much as I did.
Christina: In a recent blog post, you talk a little bit about horror films (specifically, The Conjuring series) and the comment that they demand “viewers invest in a worldview ruled by Christian dogma” (as written by the New York Times critic with respect to The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It). What do you demand your readers invest in? And can you give a few examples of books or films that don’t encompass that Christian dogma?
Nicole: I hope my readers will invest in the idea that the supernatural exists right along with the natural and there are things out there we cannot explain, and while those things can be terrifying, they aren’t invariably evil.
The NYT reviewer’s comment about The Conjuring 3 amused me because the review made it sound as if that “Godly good v. satanic evil” worldview was exclusive to the Conjuring series, when it applies to the entire subgenre of exorcism films and then some.
But there’s plenty of horror that has little to do with religious dogma. Few Stephen King novels have overt Christian overtones. In fact, when Christianity shows up in King’s novels, its adherents—like Carrie’s dreadful mother in his first novel—are often portrayed negatively. As for horror films, there are the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises plus Night of the Living Dead, Alien, Get Out, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Descent, and any number of horror films out of countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion (Ju-On and Ringu from Japan, for example).
Christina: You’ve been open both on your blog and Twitter about your feelings of anxiety with respect to reentry after COVID-19 restrictions. (I share those feelings, by the way.) Do you think the pandemic has affected your writing? And do you think writing can help those feelings of anxiety ease?
Nicole: Like so many other writers I know, I thought the one upside of being quarantined would be having loads of guilt-free, obligation-free writing time—only to have my brain mimic the central figure of Edvard Munch’s The Scream whenever I sat down to write. I regularly contribute flash fiction to The Weekly Knob, a prompt-based challenge on Medium.com, and writing for them during the past year and a half was good practice in regaining my focus.
As for whether writing might relieve the feelings of anxiety, that’s still to be determined. Getting some fiction written and published while quarantine was going on did make me feel like I still had some control over things, but I think it’s going to take longer for my re-entry nerves to abate.
Christina: It’s awesome that you had the opportunity to compete on Jeopardy! (and meet Alex Trebek). What did that experience teach you? Did anything you learned there carry over to your writing?
Nicole: Being on Jeopardy! was a near-lifelong dream of mine and made me feel reassured that if I pushed myself hard enough in pursuit of a dream and didn’t let rejections deter me, I’d get there. And Alex Trebek was delightful; I’m so grateful I got to be on the show while he was the host.
And the experience carried over to my writing in a very direct way: on the plane back home from Los Angeles in mid-October of 2011, I thought “OK, that’s Jeopardy! checked off the bucket list. What’s next?” And it occurred to me that despite my lifelong love of writing fiction, I had yet to write a novel, something I’d wanted to do for a long time. NaNoWriMo, the worldwide “write a novel in a month” challenge, was beginning in just a couple of weeks. I signed up for the first time and wrote my first complete novel draft that November. It wasn’t a good novel, but I participated in NaNoWriMo every year after that, and in my sixth year, I wrote the first draft of the story that became Tidepool.
Christina: What is next for you?
Nicole: I’m finalizing edits on a YA horror novel I’m hoping to land with a publisher soon. I also have an adult horror novel about a survival challenge and a vampire soap opera in the works; I’m hoping people will get to read at least one of those some day.
Thanks to Nicole for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.