Charles Tan interviews Sheri Holman

Sheri Holman is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Witches on the Road Tonight.

Hi Sheri! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In Witches on the Road Tonight, what was the genesis of Eddie’s character to the point that made you want to write a book about him?

When I was a kid growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1970s, I was obsessed with my local horror host, The Bowman Body.  His show, Shock Theater came on Saturdays at midnight, right after Soul Train, and I rarely made it til the end — the movies were always so bad I fell asleep. Bowman, however, made it all worthwhile.   A dead ringer for Bob Newhart, he was balding and nebbishy, wore a black unitard and white sneakers and told really painfully corny jokes.  But staying up that late watching horror movies felt like an initiation of sorts.  I was being invited to witness something terrifying (I still have nightmares of Tallulah Bankhead in Die, Die My Darling!) in the safety of my own living room.  I was nine or ten, too young for boys and sex, but ripe for mystery and transgression.  I instinctively knew this was where I was heading, the world beyond childhood.  And of course the horror host is a modern day Virgil leading you into the dark wood and out again.  As a grown-up, I thought a lot about the death of regionalism and the onslaught of global media.  How all those wonderful characters from my childhood — Sailor Bob and Bozo the Clown and Bowman Body — were gone for good.  It seemed to me the torch of late night horror had been passed to the news.  First to Ted Koppel’s Nightline, the news that came after the news (with its ticking clock on the Iran hostage crisis) and then to CNN and FoxNews and the rest — info-tainment models that took fear to a whole new level, and have probably done more to boost the sales of sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications than anything else in the history of our country.

What was the most challenging aspect when it came to this novel? 

I originally conceived of this book as a more straightforward historical novel based around a Depression-era family of ginseng hunters.  When I started the book, I had three children under two, and one of my twin sons was undergoing a major health crisis.  I was about as strung out and terrified as I’d ever been in my life and didn’t feel I could afford to take any risks with my work.  But then I realized if I played it safe right then, I’d consign myself to being a fearful little writer for the rest of my life.  It was probably a choice made as much out of sleep-deprivation psychosis as anything else, but I threw out the safe book and incorporated two other characters I hadn’t been able to shake as much as I tried — Eddie, aka Captain Casket, and Wallis, a career driven 24 hour news anchor destabilized by motherhood.  At first I couldn’t see how these three storylines fit together, but then I realized I was writing about a family and the arc of fear in the 20th century.  It begins with Cora telling ghost stories in the mountains, moves to Eddie who defangs scary movies during the golden age of regional, independent television, and ends with Wallis, who peddles anxiety and terror on a global scale.  Dealing with the constant time shifts was extremely challenging,  but I wanted the reader to make the thematic connections that would arise from the juxtaposition of these three stories.  I’d been reading a lot about neurobiology and learned that the chemical loops of memory are always on and running, like a million movies playing silently in the background, ready to be retrieved in an instant.  There is really no biological distinction between past and present.  Moreover, we carve our neural pathways by walking and re-walking certain memories more than others, which is why trauma can become so deeply entrenched. This suggested  gorges and mountain paths to me and so landscape along with the folklore it generated, became an organizing principle.  We are leaping around in time and chemical impulses are leaping synapses and characters are leaping chasms in this book.   I took a lot of risks with the writing of it and it came from a very raw and honest place in my life.  It was maybe a little bit of a personal exorcism for me.  But there were times, especially writing Cora’s midnight rides,  where I almost felt like I was casting a spell — I got so caught up in it.

Some might consider the book to be horror, gothic, or weird, but how would you describe your fiction?

For me there is nothing more horrific than betrayal and loss of trust — whether it’s in a family or a society, it shakes your faith in what you’ve always understood to be reality. You’re left alone, without guideposts, filled with doubt.   So all the horror in this book lies less in the supernatural shedding of skins, and more  in the ease with which we do it.  Lovers betray each other, parents betray children, children betray parents, and all of this is played out against the existentially terrifying reality of war with its own asymmetric power dynamic.    I think good fiction pulls from lots of different genres, so I never try to label what I do. (Though I’d probably make more money if I stuck with just one thing!)  The Dress Lodger, my novel about a doctor and prostitute stealing bodies during the cholera epidemics could have earned a horror label, too.  I’m always happy when anyone considers my writing gothic.  Again, I never set out to do it, but I think growing up in the rural south where the dead are constantly with us, it can’t be helped.  Everyone told ghost stories where I grew up, and no one thought twice about terrifying the kids then sending them off to bed.  I grew up understanding that the ability to wield fear equaled power, which might not have been the healthiest lesson, but is something I continue to be fascinated by.  Of course Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson were enormous inspirations for me growing up.  Their writing, in its day, was considered “weird,” but I’m not sure what to do with that word.  When I first moved to New York, iced coffee was weird to me. Maybe I’ll write a gothic horror novel about that!

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