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Interview With an Author: S.L. Coney

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author S.L. Coney and her debut novel Wild Spaces
Author S.L. Coney and their debut novel Wild Spaces. Photo of author: Christy Oaks

S. L. Coney obtained a master's degree in clinical psychology before abandoning academia to pursue a writing career. The author has ties to South Carolina and roots in St. Louis. Coney’s work has appeared in St. Louis Noir, Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and Gamut Magazine. Their debut novella is Wild Spaces and they recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Wild Spaces?

Inspiration for this came from several different places. It started with an image in my mind that led to the final scene of the book. I also wanted to try and write something that held some of the same magic as Micaela Morrissette's The Familiars. And, of course, I was inspired by my background in psychology and my childhood in the lowlands of South Carolina.

Are the boy, Teach, or any of the characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Yes. In totality, my own father and the father in the story are very different, but my father's love of nature and his position as a biology professor at Coastal Carolina University and then later as head of the Malacology Department at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History played a large role in the creation of the father for Wild Spaces. Some of my fondest memories of my father involve going on field trips to discover specimens and fossils. The field trip scene in the book is directly inspired by that. It was really fortuitous as it lent itself really well to the themes of the book.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I sat down to write a short story, but it quickly became evident that there was too much story for that format. I wanted to show people the dynamics between the characters, how they worked, and then how they didn't work when another person, a toxic person, came into the equation. That was a lot of change to try and fit into five thousand words, so the story had to expand. The characters didn't change. I pretty much started with everyone, but I did have a significant scene change. Originally, the field trip scene didn't exist. I'm not sure why, as it was a natural place to go, but I had a scene that took place in a church, and it didn't work, no matter how I rewrote it. When I sat down to replace it, though, the field trip scene pretty much wrote itself, and I knew it was the right scene because it fell into place like it had always been there.

Wild Spaces seems to take some inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Do you have a theory regarding why Lovecraft's stories continue to influence and inspire contemporary authors?

Lovecraft dealt with large themes: the unknowable, fate, knowledge, or having too much knowledge. That appeals, I think, because they are universal themes and worries. What we don't know scares us. What happened to the missing person? What happens after we die? What made that noise in the basement? But, sometimes, what we learn can also frighten us. It can make us doubt or shift our worldview in uncomfortable ways. I had a biologist as a dad, so I was always being told stories that both grossed me out and made the world just a bit scarier. It's not always cosmic, sometimes it's microscopic.

While they have always been popular, the works of H.P. Lovecraft seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, inspiring a number of authors, filmmakers, and producers of television content. Do you have a favorite pastiche, television, or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

Bird Box by Josh Malerman is one of my favorite books that deal with Lovecraftian themes. Malersman's use of sound and the denial of sight in times of such danger really heightened that fear. It's a superb book—one of the few I've ever read that I had to put down because it was too tense. I kept asking myself, what is really going on here? But then there was a scene that finally just broke down that wall of doubt and made me a believer. It wrecked me. The movie was okay, but if you haven't read it, read the book.

Movie-wise, I really like The Endless. Being stuck in a time loop and having the world start to fracture so that reality is one thing in one place and something else at another creeps me out. Plus, I love the relationship between the two brothers. There's a lot of character work here that makes it a deeper film instead of just a spooky Lovecraftian story. That, paired with their questions about their past, makes it a winner for me.

The ending of Wild Spaces has a bit of openness that could, if you chose, allow you to follow The Boy beyond the story told in this novella. Do you have any idea that you may continue his story?

It does. The boy's story continues in my head. I've said in the past I wouldn't, but I don't know. He's still with me, and there are some intriguing things happening there, but I also really like this as a standalone. I like that people have the room to explore this story in their own heads and that they can bring their own thoughts and feelings into it. I won't say never, but it's unlikely.

What's currently on your nightstand?

A few less than what's in my TBR pile at the moment. The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson, Travels in the Americas by Albert Camus, and Pomegranates by Priya Sharma.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Stephen Graham Jones
Nghi Vo
Stephen King
Daniel Woodrell
Kelly Robson

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It doesn't have to be perfect. Don't get me wrong, it should be as good as you can make it, work until it feels done, and you don't have anything in it that gives you pause, but it doesn't have to be perfect. I'm a perfectionist by nature, and it's hard to let go, but there will be many opportunities to work on things. Have your story together, and make sure it's solid, but every single word does not have to be accounted for.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Secret of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. I lived a long way from my grandparents, so my grandmother recorded herself reading this book on tape and sent it to me. I was obsessed with this story and would listen to it every night when I went to bed. There was something magical about laying in bed with the lights out, listening to this story while everyone else was asleep. I was obsessed with it and with NIMH when I discovered it was a real thing.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Not that I can remember. My parents loved me, but they were very busy and didn't police what I watched or read, and neither of my parents were big fiction readers. So, I often ended up reading or watching things that, as an adult, I can say, "Well, that was inappropriate." But overall, I think it was good for me. It allowed me to take in varied information and think about things. I've never had a book hurt me.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No. I've bought books to try and read and haven't gotten through them, but I don't have the patience to pretend to read something. We're all different, and I don't think that having read a certain book really lends status. That being said, read widely. Read as much as you can from as many different authors and cultures as you can. It will open the world to you and deepen your understanding, but don't feel like you have to read something for status. Read to learn and enjoy what you enjoy.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Laughing Corpse by Laurell K. Hamilton. But not the new cover, the original cover. It had a real pulp sensibility that was a lot of fun.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Yes, Grit by Angela Duckworth. It really changed the way I think about talent and deepened my understanding of how we actually reach success. I approach all of my work differently now.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Yes. The same book as above. Grit. I can't think of a single instance where it couldn't be helpful.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. It felt revelatory to me when I first read it, and I'd like to have that experience again. His use of setting and subtext gives us a very glittering and desolate LA that really hit a sweet spot for me. Emma Cline’s short story "Los Angeles" also hits that same vibe. It's a sort of L.A. noir full of danger, ennui, and a sense of being lost. Both stories capture a vulnerability that is very alluring.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Christine and the Queens has a new album Paranoia, Angels, True Love. It's ethereal. And Asteroid City by Wes Anderson. That film has so many of my favorite soft spots—postmodernism, the desert, deadpan delivery, and the Wes Anderson aesthetic.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

It starts out early in a city I've never been to before. Maybe Belgium or Berlin. I wake with the windows open, and the morning is still cool. We go for a long morning walk, and then I have four hours of uninterrupted writing time. Then we meet friends at a café for brunch, followed by an exploration of the area and visits to the museum's bookstores. We check out the local arts scene, if there is one, and any other notable places. Then, later that night, we meet up with other creatives. I'm not picky about who I get to talk to as long as they're doing the work, and I'm not picky where we meet up, but somewhere off the beaten path. In that one instance, I don't want to be a tourist. I want to experience the city as a local.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

What made you believe you could be a writer? I didn't believe I could, but I knew I had to try. I knew that if I didn't follow my dream, there was no use in doing anything else. Even now, if I'm not working toward that vision, it feels like I'm wasting my life.

What are you working on now?

I have a novel in the works right now that deals with grief, ghosts, and shame. It's set in a small mountain town. There's a lot of nature, some murder, grunge music, and some family drama. I'm having a lot of fun writing it, and I hope readers will have a lot of fun reading it.

Book cover of Wild spaces
Wild Spaces
Coney, S. L.