An Interview with Phoenix Mendoza

Salivation is a miasma of raw and “mortifying” stories plucked from your writing past— a dizzying whirlpool of the horrific, the beautiful, the heartbreaking—what started you on your journey to write this anthology?

Teaching BLOOD/INK/BONE was the impetus for the anthology in many ways. As I taught that class, and as I started conceptualizing how and why I wrote the way I did, I started to realize I had all these tricks and tips I needed to implement myself. I knew these tips worked for other people, but if I was going to be writing about the process of resurrecting old works, then I needed to go about actually doing it so I could share with my students how it happens.

You mention in the foreword the thread tying the stories in Salivation together are “hunger born from loneliness, loneliness born from hunger.” Closely intertwined with these themes, I discovered an incredible grief in almost every story. Was there a catharsis in exploring this grief? Did you hope your readers would take away the same relief and release?

Absolutely. My goal is to make my readers feel. It doesn’t really matter to me what they feel as long as they are feeling profoundly. Catharsis, pathos, that’s always a goal for me. But something unique happened with Salivation. As I revisited stories I’d started in the past, I realized I’d written them when I was profoundly lonely. I thought I was writing about an experience that only I had had and that it was this deeply interior work.

In writing Salivation, I had so many people reach out and tell me how deeply relatable they felt these stories were. And it was such a bizarre thing for the old, not dead versions of myself to get to be a part of this community that were relating to these stories, and to realize I wasn’t alone. I was never alone.

Continuing with the topic of grief, your tale, “The Place,” explores how we grieve the imagination we have as children. You’ve expressed that this imagination is something creatives can someday find our way back to—can you explain how you recaptured that feeling of freedom in creativity?

To me, being an artist and creating is that unique feeling of synergy and synthesis where the story I’m imagining is coming out of me at the exact same time I’m writing it. That, at certain times in my life, has been a difficult place to access. But it was extremely easy when I was young. When I think about when it was difficult to access, and what was preventing me from doing it, it was because I was preoccupied with the imaginary audience and that was stopping me from purely creating.

However, the older I got, the more I realized I’ll always be unpalatable, and there’s no way for me to make my authentic artistic vision universally palatable. Even the readers who love my work, I still make them uncomfortable. So, I’m going to make the majority uncomfortable. It took developing into the artist I am now, into a natural state of self-possession, to employ that knowledge.

Image credit: Phoenix Mendoza

You’ve said before your background in horror informs how you write romance, that Salivation is “…neither horror nor romance, but instead the corruptible place these two entities compost together.” Could you dig deeper into how horror influences your style? How does it lend itself to the stories, themes, and characters you create and share?

I think the intersection between horror and erotica, and horror and romance, has to do with my protosexual development. Anything children are barred having access to, like sex and death and darkness and horror, become twined and therefore titillating because they are taboo. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels, so I would elaborately steal my mother’s books to read the sex scenes. And it felt super connected to going into a Blockbuster video and standing in the horror aisle where I couldn’t check out any of the R-rated movies. I have distinct memories of seeing the covers of Dead Alive, Silence of the Lambs, and Candyman and being so scared of those images and feeling a very similar thrilling titillation to reading the sex scenes in my mom’s romance novels. I have always been compelled by the way those two things are linked in my past, so if I’m writing romance, if I’m writing taboo titillation, I naturally slide into horror imagery. Are those things so different? They certainly weren’t for eleven-year-old me. So, they don’t feel that different for me now!

On the note of influence, what authors, books, or other creative media has been influential to you? What has shaped you into the author you are now?

So many things. But the two main ones are also from my childhood. One is Poppy Z. Brite, who wrote really literary, lushly written, extreme horror in the 90s. I read those books when I was in the seventh grade and they shaped me forevermore, because something that Poppy does, on a prose level, is make any absolutely horrific thing sound beautiful, and most beautiful things sound horrific. That juxtaposition activated something in me then, and it continues to be a goal of mine, and drive my artistic vision. I am obsessed with the act of taking something that is deified and ripping it down into the gutter. Or, taking the dead leaves and trash that’s in the gutter and lifting it up towards deification.

Also in the seventh grade, I saw the movie Velvet Goldmine for the first time. In its simplest form, it’s a story about the early 70s glam rock scene in England. But it’s a lot more than that. What compelled me as a kid was it’s so beautiful to watch, it’s so wildly creative, and it has nonlinear, multimedia, intertextual storytelling. I went home every day after school and rewatched this movie, took notes, and analyzed it to try to piece the whole story together. I learned so much about evoking feeling in a series of sensory vignettes that aren’t in a linear storytelling form.

You’re working on an upcoming anthology, Yellow Wallpapering, and have described it as a “…scathing feminist anthology… [seven women’s] steady descent to justifiable psychosis.” What drew you to the topic of “madwomen?”

I didn’t set out to. I would sit down to write every day, and every single story was about that. I think part of why that was coming out of me was that I felt insane. That is what draws me to madwomen. I was a madwoman.

This was about the time Roe v. Wade was overturned and there was intense sexism, sex-based oppression, and legislation happening in the world. And being a tattoo artist, I tattoo a lot of young people who share their beliefs with me. I feel like a lot of young people that I talk to think that we live in a post-sexism society. Or that women are no longer oppressed or that the patriarchy doesn’t exist or something. Which is crazy! So, I felt crazy, because that was what I was encountering.

In previous discussions, you’ve expressed that leaving a piece raw and bloody can be just as valuable as finely curating a piece for the consumption of a wider audience. What advice would you give to those vacillating between nontraditional publishing and traditional publishing?

Writing is an art, publishing is an industry. I think that’s important to keep in mind and to keep them as separate things in one’s brain. Every time I’ve gotten tripped up in my process has been because I was trying to unify these things. I realized I needed to write because I’m an artist, because I love writing, because it feels good to me, because I will fucking die if I don’t do it every day. It’s not about publishing for me, I have to write because I want to write and to say what I need to say. I have developed a readership that can sustain me financially, but I developed the readership completely outside of the publishing industry. It’s important to remember that finding readers doesn’t always mean you have to go through publishing. I’ve done indie publishing and I’ve also tried to traditionally publish and it’s too slow and too political for me. Instead, I’ve shifted my goal set to write whatever I want, say whatever I want, say it with as much artistic integrity and honesty as I possibly can, and then, if I feel like publishing, why not? But I cannot make it the goal for myself, because as soon as I do then I get in my head about palatability and marketability.

Phoenix Mendoza Interviewed by Ari Iscariot

Phoenix Mendoza lives in the woods with her wife where she raises pigeons, buries roadkill, and writes. An unashamed enthusiast of the carnal, compostable, and corporeal, she is wholly dedicated to finding and luxuriating in the junction where beauty and disgust meet to rot together.

Ari Iscariot is a queer, neurodivergent, chronically ill author and artist living in Florida. They recently graduated from Florida International University summa cum laude, with a BA in Literature and a minor in International Communications. Among their many hobbies, they DM for an insatiably chaotic DND group, attend weekly meetings with their (somewhat) less chaotic writing group, “Seaquills,” and regularly fall down research rabbit holes from which they’ve always emerged unscathed. (So far.) But mostly, they write. Their writing centers intense queer relationships, indulges in the power of ravenous love, and explores the transgressive nature of gender-variant bodies.