They tell you to never meet your heroes. Well, I’ve been lucky in that regard, because the heroes of mine that I have met have all been kind and generous—none more so than Elizabeth Massie.
I met Beth through our mutual friend, the late author and journalist, Philip Nutman. Having been a fan of Beth’s work—I think Sineater is one of the greatest horror novels of all time, and I swear I’m going to make a film of it someday if I can—and knowing how dark, horrific, and, well, unpleasant her stories can be at times, I was curious as to what she was like in person. Being a horror writer myself, I don’t generally subscribe to the clichéd notion that because they write vile things they are a vile person. But, you never know…right?
Beth Massie is one of the kindest, gentlest souls I have ever had the privilege to meet. She has been a friend, mentor, and sometimes spiritual adviser to me for several years now—she even had some very nice and encouraging things to say about my debut novel, which, I’m not ashamed to admit, brought me to tears when I read them. I am honored to know her. And I was also deeply honored that she agreed to be the first interview for my La legado vivo! interview series.
Ryan Lieske: Beth, thank you so much for talking about your reading life with me. I’ll go ahead and let you introduce yourself to the readers.
Elizabeth Massie: I’m a lover of books from way back, which inspired me to become a writer. My first “published” book, The Squirrels and the Acorn, was written when I was four—well, I didn’t do the actual writing, but I told the story to my dad, who worked at our local newspaper. When I went to bed that night, he drove to the newspaper office, typed up my story as best he remembered it, and illustrated it with clip art from the ad department. The next morning, he presented the booklet to me and I was thrilled. And I was hooked. I’ve been writing full time now for 23 years, following a stint as a 7th grade life science teacher, which I thoroughly enjoyed (our class pets included tarantulas, worms, and rats, oh, yeah). My story “Stephen” won a Bram Stoker Award for best novella and my novel Sineater also won a Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. Other titles include my novels Hell Gate (from DarkFuse), Desper Hollow (from Apex), Wire Mesh Mothers (from Crossroad Press), Homeplace (from Berkley Books), the Ameri-Scares series of spooky novels for middle grade readers (from Crossroad Press), and more, as well as numerous collections and short stories. My short zombie tale, “Abed,” was transformed into an incredibly disturbing and brilliant short film by Ryan Lieske in 2012.
I look forward to being a guest of honor at the 2018 StokerCon in Providence, RI. In addition to horror, I write mainstream fiction, historian fiction, media tie-ins (The Tudors, Versailles, Dark Shadows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), spiritual/religious musings, and poetry. I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with my husband, illustrator Cortney Skinner. We like to go geocaching and to Starbucks. I hate cheese and love soft socks.
RL: *GASPING* You hate cheese? I live for cheese—although my girlfriend is making me cut back on dairy. How on earth could you hate cheese?
EM: Cheese is old, rotting, stagnant, smelly, coagulated milk. Need I say more?
RL: Sigh… fair enough. We can still be friends. But let’s get back to why we’re here. What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you, as a child?
EM: My mom read lots of books to us as kids. In particular, when I was three, I remember her reading little picture books to my sisters and me; these little books were written in French. The stories were about the adventures of dogs and cats. I think she hoped we would pick up the French along with enjoying the stories, but while I enjoyed the stories, I forgot all the French. Sorry Mom, I know you tried. As to the first book I remember reading myself, it was Fun With Dick and Jane. I was four and proud of myself. I recall clearly stumbling over the word “six” but other than that, I had it down. A lot of people make fun of the Dick and Jane books but they were actually well done, with lots of repetition that helped kids learn and remember words. And I wanted Puff to be my pet. Puff was a way cool cat.
RL: I loved Puff, too! Aww, I miss Puff. *wipes tear from eye* So, ahem, anyway… What is the book (or books) that sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
EM: Ever since that Dick and Jane book, I’ve been an avid reader. I read tons of books as a kid. If I had to pick one book or books that helped confirm (not so much seal, as I was already a “sealed” reader) were the Happy Hollisters series of mysteries. I still remember vividly how excited I was when we went to Richmond (we had no bookstores in my town) because they had a great book section in the Thalhimers department store and that department always carried the newest (and all the other) Happy Hollisters books. I have great memories of sitting in my bedroom, totally engrossed in the adventures of Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, and Sue. I gave my somewhat-worse-for-wear Happy Hollisters books to my daughter when she was little and she loved them, too. I also clearly remember reading and loving Elsie Dinsmore (an 1893 novel I found at my grandmother’s house). It was so sad and poignant.
RL: Are there books from back then that you have different opinions on, as an adult?
EM: I loved the Bobbsey Twins novels, though in retrospect I see how racist they were in the portrayal of their “colored” cook, Dinah. Her dialect was over the top as were the illustrations of the character.
RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
EM: I don’t think that’s true for me. The reading done during my pre-junior high years had as much impact on me as the reading I did when I got a bit older. However, I remember during the summer between fifth grade and sixth grade going to our library, sneaking up out of the kids’ section (which was in the basement) to the “grown up” section on the first floor and finding a copy of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. I’d heard there was a really creepy movie based on the novel, so I checked it out (I was surprised the librarian didn’t say anything) and read it in secret (my mother, as open minded as she was about many things, would have been appalled.)
RL: What were the books from this period that stuck with you?
EM: In junior high I adored the day each month when we would get these order forms (on newsprint paper) for the Scholastic Book Club. I usually ordered books based on how many pages they had as much as what the subject was. The more pages the better. I remember clearly ordering then reading Fantastic Voyage, the novelization of the film written by Isaac Asimov…all those murderous white blood cells and turbulence in the heart! I also read The Child Buyer by John Hersey while I was in junior high…was that ever disturbing. In high school, books that stuck with me include Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether? (It’s okay, I was. I’ll cop to it.)
EM: In high school I didn’t always like what we were assigned to read and honestly, didn’t read everything that was assigned us to read. I did fail one test because I didn’t read Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. I was too busy with other books, other fun projects (writing plays and making stupid home movies being two of them) to be bothered. Oh, well. And I certainly did read other things well beyond classroom assignments. Our Mother’s House by Julian Gloag comes to mind. If you haven’t read it, find it and read it.
RL: Okay, instantly added that one to my must-read list. Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
EM: My friends were as wacky (and unpopular) as I was. We had a club called “Young Fools on the Go” and we made films, created games and songs, wrote plays, and just did stupid stuff to entertain ourselves. While I read a lot, I also enjoyed hanging with the Fools. So, no, reading didn’t conflict with my social life, as goofy as that social life was. Though I always found time to read.
RL: Sounds like me and my friends in high school. I think we’re kindred spirits, Beth. Well, after high school comes college. What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college? Out of those, what stuck with you? How did they change you as a reader, and what type of books you started to seek out?
EM: My college years were a blur. I fell in love, got married after my sophomore year, and then worked to pay tuition for the next two years (my parents had covered tuition until I was married.) I was going for a degree in elementary education so most of the books I read at that time were education-based.
RL: My college years are a blur, too. (Not for the same reasons, and not for any reasons some might assume, but that’s a whole other blog.) What isn’t a blur is that for me, as a teenager with a car and a part-time job (and then subsequently in college), book stores became a big part of my life. What book store(s) were the first you began to haunt? Do you still haunt them? Are they even still open?
EM: We had no bookstores in my hometown. Now, we have a Books a Million that I hope can hang on. When I was a kid and teen I did buy paperbacks and magazines at our local Fishbone Pharmacy. One I remember buying (and totally loving) was The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, one of the few science fiction novels I’ve sought out. Finding it on that drug store book rack was surprising, as the book had already been out a number of years.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life? Are there certain authors, genres, or books that make you cringe remembering how you used to love them?
EM: The books I read when I was young hold important places in my heart. I can’t think of any that make me cringe now, except maybe for those Bobbsey Twins books and how they dealt with Dinah. I figure every book and story I’ve read have helped me in one way or other, moved me along toward where I am now.
RL: Same goes for me. I remain grateful to all of them. How has your reading life survived adulthood? Careers, families, etc. can take a toll on one’s free time, and I talk to a lot of people now who “wish they had more time to read, but can never find the time.” Is this a problem you have?
EM: I wish I had more time to read. Making a living as a writer is wonderful, challenging, and can be mentally exhausting. When I’m deep in the creation of one of my own novels I find my reading really slows down.
RL: So how do you work reading time into your life now?
EM: I still read but it ends up being 10 or so pages at a time rather than a couple chapters at a sitting. Right now I’m enjoying Christopher Golden’s Dead Ringers, and I’ve been at it for two weeks. Why? Well, I’m also in the process of writing a new novel of my own (Red House), a not-yet-named novella, and the 5th installment of the Silver Slut superhero adventure series.
When I finish a large project, such as a novel, it’s glorious to kick back for a few days and just read read read. I see it as refilling the well creatively…I savor the creative energy and offerings of other writers.
RL: What types of books are you reading currently?
EM: I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently—biographies, books on religion and spirituality, humor (I love Bill Bryson’s books!) I read these not only for my own enjoyment and education but because much of what I read serves as inspiration and research for future writing projects of my own. Not long ago I finished Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. It’s the true story of the man for whom the Mütter Musem in Philadelphia was named (the museum holds many of his original collections of medical oddities.) Of course, I still read fiction (Chet Williamson’s Psycho: Sanitarium was super!) but the scale has tipped more heavily toward nonfiction for the time being.
RL: Love Mütter! Been wanting to read that book for a long time now. Methinks I should order it soon. Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
EM: I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to reading. Gee, now I think I must go look for some to become guilty pleasures. I’m such a slacker.
RL: Nah, you’re good. I don’t believe in the concept, anyway. Like what you like. It’s a silly label. (Although I do feel a little tinge of embarrassment whenever I find myself enjoying a Dan Brown novel, but whatever…) Speaking of labels, what are your thoughts on “genre?” What I mean is, do you feel it’s necessary to label? Ultimately, do you think genre labeling even matters?
EM: While in an ideal world genre labels wouldn’t exist, publishers and bookstores (brick and mortar as well as online) want to know how to promote or how to place books on the shelves for the consumers’ ease of search. As a horror writer, the term “horror” is kind of a bummer, because it scares off a lot of people (pun intended). These readers miss a lot of great fiction because they think, “Oh, shit, that’s just another Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw.” Some fiction that has been classified as horror is quite intelligent and thought-provoking. And some fiction that has been classified as mainstream or literary could easily be put in the horror section. Genre labels don’t matter to me, but they do to some folks. So I guess I’ll live with it. What other choice do I have?
RL: Took the words right out of my mouth. Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you? And while we’re on the topic, what do you think the future holds for reading? Do you think physical books will always be available?
EM: I don’t have an e-book reader. I can read e-books on my computer but it makes my eyes tired spin after a while. I much prefer physical, hardcopies of books I can hold, can turn the pages, can stick a book mark in when I have to put it down. I also love the look of bookshelves filled with books. It’s at once peaceful and exciting. Since I don’t commute or spend much time traveling, I have never listened to an audio book. I do know they are popular and I’m glad…people are enjoying stories in lots of different ways. I think hardcopies of books will always be around, even if…sniff sniff….in museums.
RL: Speaking of King, he’s often been seen at baseball games reading a book during rain delays or between innings. Says he never goes anywhere without a book. Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
EM: I take a book lots of places but not everywhere. When I’m spending time with friends and family I want to give them my attention.
RL: All right, let’s get down to brass tacks—what are your favorite books of all time, and why?
EM: Many of my favorite books have elements in common; they are powerful, at times heartbreaking or even gut-wrenching, and so very human. These include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Stand by Stephen King, and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I love the spiritual/religious books by Leo Buscaglia and Mirabai Starr. I adore insane humor—Larry Blamire’s Blammary of Terms You May Not Know and Doc Armstrong: Suburb at the Edge of Never are favorites and they crack me up, and I love the hilarious books by Bill Bryson.
RL: Okay, just for fun, what are the books—be they widely lauded classics, or bestselling, popular phenoms—you’ve really, really disliked or outright hated?
EM: I found Hannibal by Thomas Harris to be awful. Odd, being that I really enjoyed Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal, though, made me feel ill, literally. I stopped reading about two-thirds the way through and gave the book away. That was a first for me. And I found the acclaimed The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to be agonizingly tedious, though I know I’m not the only one.
RL: Perhaps a mash-up? To be honest, I’d probably read that. Or at the very least watch the movie. Well, Beth, thank you SO much for talking to me about your reading life!
For more information about Elizabeth Massie and her work, you can find her online at: