Wednesday Lee Friday and I became Facebook friends several yearsago, after she wrote a thoughtful and favorable review of one of my short films. She is a talented writer who is never afraid to speak her mind, and I respect the hell out of her for that. I’m truly glad we’ve gotten to know each other a bit over the years. So I was quite thrilled when she agreed to take part in this interview series of mine.
Ryan Lieske: Wednesday, from one Michigander to another, welcome to La legado vivo! I appreciate you taking the time to talk about reading with me. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Wednesday Lee Friday: I am Wednesday Lee Friday, reader and horror writer, reviewer, HWA member, and general sayer of opinions. I think every topic is suitable for comedy when handled deftly, and that horror is far more than slasher movies and Saw sequels. I wrote a few books and am currently working on my first screenplay. Catch up with me at wednesdayleefriday.com
RL: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
WLF: Strangely, I have no memory of ever being read to as a kid. Someone must have, but I surely do not recall who or what. I do remember that, as the oldest kid in my family, I read to younger brothers and cousins. Mostly books celebrating holidays, or I would try to explain Peanuts comics to them. I’m not sure I did them justice, but I never stopped loving Charlie Brown.
RL: What books would you say sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
WLF: I thought the Enyclopedia Brown books were awesome. Solving them made me feel very smart—which was important since I lived in a home where that wasn’t reinforced.
RL: I loved Encyclopedia Brown! In fact, I started my own detective agency after reading those books. Recruited some neighbor friends and offered our services to find lost things to the adults. “Twenty-five cents a day, plus expenses.” I remember writing that on our little cards, but at that age I had no idea what “expenses” even meant. I think the only “case” we ever got was to find a pair of socks my brother had lost, or something to that effect. I eventually had to make up cases for us, but the other kids caught on quick that they weren’t real.
WLF: More than the books themselves though, what sealed it for me was when I got Donald J Sobel’s address from my school library, and wrote him a letter telling him I wanted to be a writer too. I got a form response back, with a postscript encouraging me not to give up. Writing to authors was a big deal when I was a kid (late 70s-early 80s) because you couldn’t just hit them up on the internet.
I have to mention though, that another book I read as a kid sort of set me on the path I’m on now…though I didn’t realize it at the time. The book, How to Care for Your Monster, was a spoofish book by Norman Bridwell, who also did Clifford the Big Red Dog. He took standard Universal Monsters and described how to care for them if you had a vampire, werewolf, mummy, or “Frankenstein” as a pet. That introduced me to the idea of taking a trope from one genre, and translating it into another. I also hadn’t realized that vampires and werewolves could be funny. When I started reading Stephen King a few years later, everything fell into place.
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? What were the books from this period that shaped you?
WLF: There were two main authors I read in junior high and early high school: Stephen King and V.C. Andrews. These seem dissimilar, but they were both typically about what horrible things are lurking under the surface of events that seemed normal, even desirable. King’s early anthos in particular—Night Shift and Skeleton Crew were basically primers on how to put a story together. How to reveal information, what order to tell the story in for the most impact. Even as a young teen, I saw reading as an exercise to prepare me for what I’d write later on. At the same time, being a “famous” writer seemed an elusive goal. It still does, come to think of it.
I read some V.C. Andrews a few years after I got a Kindle. I was taken aback by how poorly written they were, and also how inappropriate they were for someone my age (then, obviously). There’s also more unsavory stuff that I picked up on as an adult. Early King though? I still reread it all the time, and still notice new things on occasion.
While we’re talking about 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?
WLF: In school, we were often able to choose what we wanted to read from a list. I stuck to the list, mainly because stuff like Catcher in the Rye and The Lords of Discipline were of interest to me. I’ll take Brave New World over Animal Farm any day of the week. Even as a kid, I was drawn to controversial works and stuff that my Christian friend’s parents wanted banned from school.
RL: I’m with you there. I was big on “banned books” back then. Still am. Catcher in the Rye is one of those books I never understood why it was so controversial. I suppose it’s the language; but even as an adult, it’s always puzzled me. Speaking of which, have you gone back to Rye as an adult? I know that when I first read it as a teenager, I thought it was the most brilliant book ever written, and spoke right to me. However, when I re-read it in my 30s, all I could think was, “God, Caulfield is so whiny. What an entitled, elitist brat.”
WLF: I reread Catcher in the Rye every few years. Once I came to the conclusion that Holden is bi-polar, everything about the book makes a lot more sense. Objectively, parents probably don’t want their kids reading about a teen going to a prostitute, even if all they do is talk. Or maybe they just hated being called phonies.
RL: You know, that’s interesting. I never looked at him that way. But now that you’ve mentioned it, it does make perfect sense. You’ve gotten me curious, so I may have to give it another read soon.
Now, as a fan of both Brave New World and Animal Farm, I’m curious to know what it is you like more about the former?
WLF: I find Animal Farm to be an infuriating read, one where most of the characters are doing things they know they shouldn’t. Ironically, I don’t give the people living in Brave New World that much credit. Those people are drugged up sheep, because the only other option is misery. I think Brave New World is a more abstract novel, and was amazingly advanced for its time. It reads like a 60’s book, but it came out in 1932.
RL: 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?
WLF: Social life? Growing up? I’m not sure I understand…
RL: I’m not sure what “growing up” means, either. I see others use the term, so I thought I should put it in here. Still waiting for someone to clue me in on that…
WLF: In all seriousness, I read to escape the place I was living…in my head at least. By high school though, I was working full time and didn’t have much time to read OR go out. As I recall, I missed reading more than going out.
RL: I’m not too fond of my college years, but I was exposed to a lot of new literature that I either thought I had no interest in (but ended up loving), or had never been aware of. It definitely changed me, and helped deepen not only my reading life, but my own writing as well. 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?
WLF: In college, I discovered feminism and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in the same semester. So I was confronted right away with the struggle between free expression and political correctness. I was highly entranced by ideas like gender equality, gay acceptance (which we were still calling it in the 90s), and general social concern. I went to a Take Back the Night rally, and was totally into it. When the big stage presentation started, a woman read from American Psycho, and went off about how books like that shouldn’t be printed, that they encouraged this sort of treatment of women, and that anyone who enjoyed them was part of the problem. I remember crying in the audience, literally not knowing what to do—wanting to scream at the lady on stage that banning books is for lunatics, and that she didn’t even understand what she had read. It wasn’t an instruction manual FFS.
That led me down a long path of questioning every feminist ideal, debating fiercely at the suggestion that this subject or that person isn’t okay to joke about.
Overall, this experience led me to read a lot more about feminism and about the place of satire, sociopolitical commentary, and horror in contemporary fiction (American Psycho isn’t a horror novel, depending on who you ask). Much later, we found out that Bret Easton Ellis actually does have some whackadoo ideas about women. This was probably also when I started contemplating who a person was versus what they write. Or maybe it was Lovecraft…
RL: That is definitely an interesting dichotomy. It seems like every other day we discover something problematic about some artist or other. Lovecraft’s racism has been a hot topic these past several years, especially in horror and fantasy circles. How does knowing about a writer’s problematic behavior, viewpoints, etc. affect you as a reader? Do separate the artist from the art, or have you had to let go of certain writers because knowing what you know creates a barrier for you? For instance, I can no longer read Orson Scott Card since I heard about his views on homosexuality. However, I’ll still stand by the first two Ender Wiggins novels—I think they’re brilliant—because I don’t find those views in the books. Also, I read them before I knew, so I suppose that helps me separate. But I won’t buy his books anymore.
WLF: To some degree, I always think about what I know of an author when reading their work—for better or worse. These days, we have a lot more access to authors. I can tweet something to Joe Hill or Margaret Atwood, and there’s a good chance that they’ll see it, or even respond. That may lead us to think we know authors better than we do.
Obviously, no one wants to support a racist (except racists, I guess). But why should I deny myself great reads because Poe was in love with his underage cousin?
For older authors, buying books used is a great alternative. The authors don’t get a cut of used book sales, and we don’t have to miss out on good reads.
RL: I like the way you think. And I agree with you. I still read H. G. Wells, even though he was a proponent of eugenics. Were he alive today and spouting off about that shit, I wouldn’t give him a dime. But I can’t change history. And as long as I don’t feel that any of that “problematic” stuff shows up in the books, I’m okay reading them. Context is important for me when it comes to when a book (or film, for that matter) was originally released. I’m not excusing it, by any means. Just contextualizing it. Humans are complicated, mutable animals, and even those with views I find abhorrent can still be capable of creating meaningful work. But it can be like riding a teeter-totter sometimes, for sure.
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?
WLF: I didn’t have a car (still don’t) after college, but there was a fantastic used book store on my bus route to work. I don’t even think it had a name. The sign just said “Used Books.” So I used to leave the house a few minutes early so I had time to browse. Then it was half an hour early, then an hour. Finally I’d just head up there on my days off and spend the afternoon. There was no organization to speak of, so you could spend all day there. I got my first copies of Skipp and Spector’s Books of the Dead there. I also bought a zillion copies of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story so I could hand them out to my friends. I thought everyone needed to read it.
RL: I’ve never read Zoo Story, though I’ve always wanted to. Damn, I’m adding a lot of books to my must-read list while doing these interviews!
So, did you find, as you grew older, that the books from 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?
WLF: There are certainly plenty of books from my childhood that don’t hold up. Those are probably the ones I didn’t bother to remember. But The Giving Tree, Jacob Two-Two, anything by Roald Dahl (I didn’t find out until adulthood that Dahl wrote adult fiction that’s every bit as insane as his kid stuff) is all as enjoyable as it was then. But the V. C. Andrews love is a little embarrassing now.
RL: How has your reading life held up as you entered adulthood?
WLF: I do find that I feel guilty for reading when I’m not caught up on other things. I tend to read in places where I absolutely can’t do other things—buses, waiting rooms, the bathroom, a few minutes before bed. When it’s an especially good book, that’s when I find myself walking around bumping into things because my Kindle blocks my vision.
RL: What books are you drawn to these days?
WLF: Horror—mostly by small authors from small houses. Comedy and bios from funny people are a great way to gain insight and learn new things. I also read non-fiction, often on horror-adjacent topics like mental illness, true crime, The Poisoner’s Handbook, stuff like that.
RL: As a horror writer, I, too, read a lot of horror-adjacent nonfiction. I have shelves full of books that make visitors give me weird looks. Especially my collection of religious, paranormal, alternative history, and philosophy books. But I’ve got that built-in excuse: Hey, I’m a writer. Do you have a similar collection of literary oddities?
WLF: When your genre is horror, it makes sense that you might have a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum or a The Satanic Bible lying around. Witchcraft manuals, serial killer diaries and confessions, mortuary science, and everything by Vincent Bulgilosi are must-haves IMO. I’ve also got a variety of Bibles kicking around here, maybe more than the average non-Christian.
RL: Agreed. Essentials.
Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” (Although, some might argue those three books up there might qualify. Literally.) However, for want of a better term, what are yours?
WLF: I guess the closest thing I get to a “guilty pleasure” is reading something I’ve already read a zillion times. So that would mostly be work by Stephen King, Christopher Moore, and Margaret Atwood. For me, that’s more about Comfort-Fiction—basically a bowl of pastina and cheese for the part of your mind that craves words. “Guilty Pleasure” sounds like I should feel bad for taking the time to read it. Reading is never a waste of time, even if all you learned is that the book you just read sucks.
RL: Yeah, I hate the term. Like you, I’ve always called it “literary comfort food.” I mean, yeah, I’ve read every book by Robin Cook, and it almost melted my brain because he’s basically rewritten Coma forty-some times. But so what? So what if I find John Saul’s hokey books fun? I loved Suffer the Children and Nathaniel. GTFO.
Now, this could apply to all art, really, but in terms of writing, 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? Does it matter to you?
WLF: I confess, genre is a huge and sticky issue for me. I think of myself as a horror writer. But at least two of my books are probably more black comedy than horror. I’ve been told I’d sell more books if I marketed them as thrillers, but I want to hang on to the horror label for reasons even I haven’t fully parsed yet.
As a consumer of lit, genre helps guide me to things I’ll probably have an interest in. But it can also be limiting. Books like The Lovely Bones and White Oleander aren’t in the horror section, but IMO they probably should be.
To my mind, the problem isn’t categorizing books by genre, but rather failing to recognize that most books straddle at least two. Amazon seems to recognize this, which is why they have lots of subgenres. I wish though, that they’d allow for a lot more crossover in choosing genre designations.
RL: Physical copy, digital, or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you?
WLF: I have bi-polar disorder, so for me, having a huge variety of books with me is almost a necessity. Reading just a few paragraphs of a book can impact my mood for hours to come. Since carrying around even a dozen books is pretty heavy, that means Kindle for me. But I still buy plenty of dead-tree stuff, especially comics, books with pics, art books, anything I want signed, and special editions of things. I paid $80 fricken dollars for The Babadook pop-up book, and it came with a 2-year wait. I still think it was a solid purchase. Some things, you just can’t do with a Kindle. These days, I don’t buy a paper version of something unless I have a reason, though I always love getting books as gifts.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
WLF: Yes, unless it’s somewhere that it would be overtly rude to bring a book. So not to church, funerals, a dinner party, someone’s speech, or a dance recital. Weddings and sporting events are in the maybe pile. Everything else, I say books are okay.
RL: What books do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most? As a writer, and as a human being?
WLF: As a writer: Stephen King’s Carrie, Rage, Danse Macabre, ‘Salem’s Lot, On Writing, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew. Christopher Moore’s Lamb: Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Practical Demonkeeping—the Pine Cove Novels. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
RL: Okay, I know this is probably an impossible question to answer, but…what are your favorite books of all time, and why?
WLF: Is this really a question people are able to answer? I mean, I could probably come up with a top-three in a handful of genres or subgenres. But ONE book? How does one even choose? Best writing style? Best story? Most beloved characters? Greatest impact? Most reread? All of these would have vastly different answers. I’m gonna say the Collected Works of Charles Addams (for reasons that should be obvious) and leave it at that. No qualifiers.
RL: Okay, time for a little fun. Tell me about some of your worst reading experiences, or about an author you just cannot get into.
WLF: I threw Mystic River across the room when I was finished. I’d never felt so angry after reading a book in my life. But that’s because my connection with the story and the characters was so intense that I found myself morose at the outcome. Reading The Road left me in a funk for a week. They were great books. If fiction doesn’t make you feel something, it’s probably not very good.
But at the risk of offending people, I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can take pleasure in reading James Patterson. Movies based on his books are watchable, yet the prose in the books is painful. In Four Blind Mice, he wrote a character who spoke at least four languages and traveled the world, but his dialogue was absurdly bland and boring—and the things he said revealed nothing interesting. My frustration with what I call The Patterson Situation is ongoing. I really wish I could understand what people see in his work. If you know, please tell me.
RL: No, I don’t know, because I’m right there with you. I do not understand The Patterson Situation. At all. And thank you, because now I have a name for it. I certainly don’t disparage anyone who enjoys his (or should I say, “his?”) work, but I’ll never understand it. He blurbs his own books, for fuck’s sake! How does he sleep at night?
Well, anyway, thank you for discussing your reading life with me. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
WLF: My pleasure, and thank you!
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