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.

An Interview with Hart Hanson

Our editor-in-chief, Dani Hedlund, sits down with Hart Hanson, creator of the critically-acclaimed show Bones, to discuss his new book, The Seminarian. Hart and Dani first met when she interviewed him about his debut, The Driver, which Dani has been bananas about for years. She devoured the new book in one caffeine-fueled Sunday, and she’s terribly excited to chat it out with Hart…

Right, Hart, let’s get the most cliché questions out of the way first. What inspired you to write The Seminarian?

I live a few steps from the Venice Boardwalk, which, if you know anything about Venice, is where everything happens. It’s a busy, crazy, diverse, wildly energetic, and bizarre place! When you live here, you can’t help but look at people and wonder what their story is. One day, I was cruising by an empty house I was quite jealous of, and I started to wonder what kind of person would live there and what they would do for a living. That’s what inspired the main character, Xavier Priestly—Priest.

I also made a list of interesting protagonists for television, films, or books. Priest is a combination of two of these protagonist concepts: one was somebody who has a bit of oppositional defiance disorder, and the other was somebody who leaves seminary.

I started to think more about the story through Priest’s character, like who he hangs around and works for. I knew planning a mystery book means I would need to figure out who would be Priest’s “muscle.” I was bored by every kind of “muscle” I came up with until I talked to a stunt person who was so fantastic she inspired the character of Dusty Queen.

As anyone who talks to me knows, I’m a huge fan of your first book. At the time, The Driver was your first long-haul prose piece, and we spent a good chunk of time talking about how different that was from writing for TV and film. How did writing The Seminarian feel different from writing The Driver?

I learned a few important things writing The Driver that I was able to bring to The Seminarian.

What I was most proud of in The Driver is the depth of character. So, when writing The Seminarian, I was inclined to be less worried about diving into subplots that complicate Priest’s character. I took that even further here than in The Driver, and I’m happy with that direction.

I also learned how to tighten plot. Having gone back and read The Driver as it was being pitched for TV adaptation, I felt there were so many weak points in the plot that relied on my urge to direct readers, like “don’t look there—look here instead.” This time, I put a lot of effort into making sure plot details weren’t superfluous. Granted, the plot of The Seminarian is still very adventurous and, hopefully, puts readers into strange and weird places. But it bears greater scrutiny and makes sense when examined from multiple angles.

You did a great job at that! How did you keep every subplot so organized? I’m imagining an old-school detective board with lots of sticky notes and red thread pinned chaotically between them…

Not that far off! One way is by planning everything out, but sometimes, when you get down to writing, different things happen. Writing The Seminarian felt like a constant back and forth between my outline and what my characters actually wanted to do.

After I wrote my first draft, I had the urge to be super hard on myself by examining any potential red herrings and connecting them back to the plot in a significant way. This led to huge changes in character, pacing, and entire movements in the plot. I worked very hard to sift through these plot and character details so that everything made sense after.

One of the things I loved in this book is that there are no uninteresting or throwaway characters. Every side character is so fascinating they deserve their own book. How did you make them all so unique?

I learned working in TV for so many years that to have two-dimensional characters on screen is a problem in many ways. If your central characters are the only interesting characters with interesting stories, you are going to kill your leads because they have to be in every single scene!

At risk of revealing something vulnerable about myself, I feel I’m very much a solid secondary character in other people’s lives. I’m surrounded by people who are more interesting, fun, and clever. So, as a fellow secondary character, I feel the only thing I can do is give other secondary characters their moment in the sun.

It’s so important to have interesting secondary characters because of the effect they can have on your main character’s personalization and growth. A good thing to ask yourself when writing and editing is: does the story really need this character?

Something that stood out to me is how these characters aren’t just different in their build and backstories—they also have such different language. It’s so charming! How did you keep each character’s voice so distinct and recognizable?

This might be due to my TV training, but it’s ineffective to rely on characterization through parentheticals in dialogue, such as “ironically said” or “angrily asked.” For one thing, actors don’t like that—they need space to do their thing. Also, emotion should be suggested enough by the dialogue alone. The book-equivalent of this is if you have to keep clarifying who is speaking, maybe your characters aren’t speaking uniquely.

I like to go to the Venice Boardwalk or a local cafe and just sit and listen to the fisherman or other locals talk. I’m not very recognizable, so when I walk around with a camera in my hand, people assume I’m a tourist. I can sit and listen to people talk and pick up on their unique dialects, slang, and other quirks.

If you had to greenlight a series based on one of the side characters of this book, who would you make the main character in a different series?

Well, the smart answer would be Cody Fiso running a big private detective agency in Hollywood! That would be a very solid series.

Another fun option would be a series around Baz—a lawyer who tries to do the right thing and is surrounded by people who try to help her by doing the wrong thing.

Maybe CBS could make a series out of the two social workers giving air high-fives and making inside jokes that no one else understands!

When I tell everyone why I’m such a huge fan of The Driver, I commend how you tackle enormous existential questions through a fun romp. Still, I wasn’t ready for The Seminarian to tackle the existential romp of religion and the role God plays in the world so gracefully, but you did it! Why was that the big subject you wanted to tackle?

The minute you have an ex-seminarian as your main character, these questions are bound to come up. I read somewhere in passing that if you went to the Vatican and the people visiting were incredibly honest with you, most of them would say they no longer believe in the tenets of Catholicism but firmly believe we should live as though they are true. Priest has all the structure and mindset of a religious person, even after rejecting religion.

As for the larger existentialist questions in the narrative, I’m fascinated with religion and envious of everyone who is religious. In the years we’ve been together, I’ve told my wife many times I would love to be religious—I would love it. But you can’t make yourself believe something. If I can’t believe in religion, at least I can respectfully poke around in it in my fiction.

While writing The Seminarian, did anything elucidate itself about religion and life to you? Or did you come out with the exact same feelings?

I came out the same except I accepted there are great mysteries in life. I do not accept anyone knows the answers to them. One of the people I have existentialist conversations with is my good friend Rainn Wilson, who is something of a spiritual seeker. I remember saying to him once, “My poodle knows as much about what happens after we die as the Pope does.” People have theories, but not answers.

I think before the book was written, I understood certain characters’ decisions less. The shorter answer to your question is: I think when you write about people and these big topics, maybe you get a little less judgmental. Maybe.

Like 99% of novels on the shelves—and shows on the telly—we’re used to having a central romance, so I was shocked to realize, when I finished the book, that I didn’t notice there’s no central romance here! Why the decision to focus on something else as Priest’s motivation?

That’s a great question! In The Seminarian, the biggest question Priest has about romance is a chicken-or-the-egg situation: do I go out and get love, or do I behave in a way which allows love to come? It’s a bit like religion: do I have faith, or do I behave as though I have faith and the faith will follow?

I knew that Priest’s emotional story was going to revolve around the nature of friendship and the nature of parenthood. If I had Priest pursue romance, that would have taken away from the central thrust of these two themes.

I was also fascinated by the notion that perhaps he already met the woman he should have been with, but for all the reasons elaborated upon in the book, she moved on. He mentions all his relationships were with women who eventually decided they needed to be with someone that they’d want to spend the rest of their life with. So, Priest has bigger things to deal with than his love life, and he’s had enough failures with romance that I didn’t want or need to see another failure—and I definitely don’t think he’s ready to succeed. Perhaps if there’s a sequel, I’d like to explore what happens next time he runs into someone he’d be interested in.

Despite all this, this book, as a whole, is actually quite sexy! There’s so much sexual chemistry going on in the background that it’s absolutely ludicrous. Was this decision intentional to compensate for the lack of Priest’s romantic journey, or did it just feel natural for your other characters?

That is so delightful to hear! When you write a book, there’s a balancing act of meeting the elements of genre and taking risks. Although you have to satisfy your audience’s expectations, you can challenge the way they think about those expectations. The risks I took with The Seminarian being a detective story is not including a femme fatale and having absolutely no attraction between Dusty and Priest—they are really, really, really great friends. I would love to explore how their dynamic develops in a series!

Regarding the other characters, I think chemistry is a necessary element for stories. If I’m reading or watching something, and a character is not in a sexual or romantic relationship with someone, I want to know why.

Speaking of your previous work, you have so many different projects going on: You write books, you work on TV shows, you’re co-writing, you’re constantly travelling, and you have grandkids! How do you balance everything?

I’m really lucky to be one of those people whose job is to write! I treat writing as a workday—I put in my hours. Sometimes I look at other writers and think, “Oh my god, how prolific are they?” when I’m split between television and books (and yes, grandchildren). But it’s a rare day when I can’t get in six hours of writing. It’s my job—I love it, but it’s my job.

You left The Seminarian on such a huge cliffhanger that I’m going to be heartbroken if it isn’t turned into a series! Since everyone is going to desperately want a follow-up, can you tell us about any plans for future installments?

I have a very big plan. I have a bin full of ideas for characters, situations, and plots for this universe. Some of these ideas fit better with certain protagonists than others, but I think it would be shitty of me to not fulfill the cliffhanger element that I set up at the end of The Seminarian in another book. I do know where Priest is going to be in the beginning of the next book, and I have some ideas for which cases he might find himself embroiled in.

An Interview with Tiana Warner

Congratulations on releasing your latest book, The Road Trip Agreement! What did your writing process look like for this story compared to your other series’?

Thank you! This story was inspired by a road trip I took along the Oregon coast, so the process kicked off with some real-life setting research—which is obviously quite different from writing fantasy books. I began the draft while on the trip and finished it fairly quickly while the setting was fresh in my mind. Compared to writing fantasy, I find contemporary romances to be quicker because you don’t have to spend time creating or researching the fictional world(s) and magic rules.

As a bisexual woman writing and publishing much needed sapphic stories, what are the struggles that you’ve faced within the industry?

When I first started publishing, there weren’t a lot of LGBTQ+ publishers or even that many LGBTQ+ novels, so I remember being unsure whether there would be space for my trilogy about a girl who falls in love with a mermaid. Now, there are more options than ever for sapphic literature, which is amazing! It’s lovely to see the genre grow and become more mainstream. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had serious struggles within the industry, other than the occasional bigoted one-star review. But those people don’t deserve my mental energy. Overall, the book community is a wonderful and accepting place, and I’ve definitely felt the love.

Do you think there are differences between writing adult sapphic romances and YA sapphic stories?

The only real difference is in the age of the protagonist. YA protagonists are teenagers, and adult books have adult protagonists—simple as that. For my stories, there is also a difference in the heat level of the romantic scenes, but that’s not necessarily a rule. There are lots of adult stories with closed-door romantic scenes and YA stories with more graphic scenes. Same with violence levels and the intensity of the subject matter.

Staying on the topic of genres, do you have a preference between writing adult sapphic novels or fantastical mermaid and valkyrie stories? Is there a new genre you’d like to try out?

I alternate between writing contemporary adult romance novels and YA Fantasy novels, and I love being able to do both. Fantasy novels are so fun to write but take a lot longer and are more mentally draining because of all the worldbuilding involved, so it’s nice to break those up with something that takes place here and now. Both genres are equally fun to write and have their unique challenges! As for trying out a new genre, I’ve always wanted to write a psychological thriller (à la Gone Girl, my favorite book), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. One day!

Are there any books coming out in 2024 that you’re looking forward to, and why?

Oh, Ylva Publishing has a lot of sapphic romances launching next year that I can’t wait to read. I’m also always excited for whatever Kate Quinn’s next book is—she’s one of my favorite authors. She has a new one coming out in February that I can’t wait to get my hands on.

I noticed that you’ve had books optioned for film—that’s amazing. Which of your stories would you like to see on the big screen?

I’m still trying to pitch my Mermaids of Eriana Kwai trilogy to Hollywood! The world needs this story in cinematic form, and I know the audience is there—I just need to convince the studios. Really, as a writer, seeing any of your work on the big screen would be a dream come true.

If you could give one, general piece of advice to aspiring authors out there, something that they should follow to the ends of the earth, what would it be?

Being an author is super tough and a solitary career, so connect with other writers! I have a critique group that I owe my sanity to. I met them through a local writing group on, and we’ve been friends ever since. We meet in person once in a while to read excerpts and get feedback, and generally are just there for each other in a group chat. It’s nice to have people who are going through the same struggles, who you can go to conferences with, exchange drafts with, talk about the industry, and celebrate your successes together. Try checking out local writer conferences or joining various online spaces.

What can we look forward to from you in the future? Do you have any other stories you’re working on right now? Any other projects?

2024 will see the launch of my next adult sapphic romance, Snowed in with Summer, which is inspired by a dog-sledding trip I took in the Yukon. There’s also the third and final book in my Sigrid and the Valkyries trilogy, a young adult sapphic fantasy that takes place in the nine Norse realms. I’m also drafting several other stories in the meantime! I invite readers to sign up for my newsletter and/or follow me on Instagram to stay up to date with all of my new releases.

An Interview with V. Castro

What inspired you to write your latest novel, The Haunting of Alejandra, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

I want this book to terrify you, but also leave you with an immense sense of hope and love. This book was inspired by my own struggle with mental health after I had my last child. Being a parent can be terrifying, as is losing your sense of self. This book explores what it feels like to have the floor dissolve beneath your feet and all you see is darkness.

You often weave elements of Mexican folklore and culture into your horror stories, as seen in The Haunting of Alejandra. How important was it for you to reimagine the La Llorona legend, and how did you approach the task of putting your own unique twist to this well-known story?

I didn’t set off to write her story; it just happened as I began the tale of a woman experiencing immense pain from losing her sense of self. It occurred to me that La Llorona has always had her story told for her. No one knows how the story originated. Women should have the ability to tell their own stories in their own voices. It is very important for me to write about my culture and our history because there are so few books that do this. There should be more stories with Women of Color as leads, written by Women of Color.

Generational trauma is a major theme in your novel. How did switching between time periods and the perspectives of women in Alejandra’s ancestry aid in your exploration of generational trauma? Did you face any challenges or make notable discoveries in this narrative structure?

It was important to show how different women viewed themselves and interacted with others at different periods of time while also grappling with their demons. This evolution shows how trauma passes on through the generations if not addressed. In some cases, it couldn’t be addressed. It felt very natural as I wrote it because I have seen it in my own family and personal experience.

In addition to your novels, your most recent short story collections, Out of Aztlan and Mestiza Blood, showcase your skill in shorter forms of storytelling. How does your approach to short stories differ from full-length novels, and do you prefer one format over the other?

I get an idea in my head and write. The story determines the length. It’s something I don’t overthink. Sometimes, I see the narrative start to finish.

In The Haunting of Alejandra, Melanie’s character bridges the gap between science and spirituality, embodying both a therapist and a curandera. Can you elaborate on the opportunities this duality presented in your storytelling? What insights might aspiring authors draw from your experience in crafting such a character?

I wrote this character because I want people to feel comfortable returning to their indigenous beliefs for healing and comfort. Since this is a supernatural book, I want the magic that I truly believe in to shine through. As a Woman of Color and someone who practices brujería, this felt true to me.

We all experience pain and sometimes terror in life. Fear is universal, but how it manifests is different for everyone. Narratives that do not conform to the dominant culture are valid.

Image credit: V. Castro

You’ve skillfully incorporated historical fiction into select chapters of The Haunting of Alejandra. Could you share more about the creative decisions behind integrating specific historical figures and events? Were these historical elements present in every draft or did they come as you edited the book?

The historical aspects were included in the original manuscript. I wanted to show generations of women from different time periods to show what had and hadn’t changed. Identity is also a large part of Alejandra’s journey. Self-discovery and change are painful, but they can open so many roads toward a better future.

The Haunting of Alejandra delves into the topic of postnatal depression. How did you balance the need for emotional depth and accuracy while still taking care of your own well-being?

It was something I experienced, which is why I felt compelled to write the book. There was a lot of pain I had to express. Writing about this and hopefully helping others was a big part of my own healing process. Some things in life are hard to share. Picking up a book and feeling seen can give comfort. I want to give others hope with this story, even though it is horror!

Are there any books or authors that have helped guide your journey in crafting your unique writing style and voice as an author?

I never thought this would be what I ended up doing. It was a vivid dream that led to one story in 2017. All my life, I have been an avid reader, but I didn’t know this was inside of me. It has been a beautiful gift of tears and joy. We all have a voice; it’s just a matter of finding it.

The publishing process can often feel more challenging than writing a book. What has that process been like for you throughout your career and what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting or currently navigating this stage?

It has been a journey of highs and lows, and I am still reaching for certain milestones. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance. I think if you can take rejection and have patience, then go for it. But always be true to your voice. Find your voice and follow it. There is only one of you, and the story you want to tell can only be told by you.