In “Red Rover, Red Rover,” Larina Warnock’s short story in our latest anthology, a young man faces the choices he’s made to keep his sister safe, and the consequences of sins of omission. Read on to learn more about the story, and about Larina’s journey.
Q (Crone Girls Press): What do you write? How long have you been writing? What are your preferred genres and why?
A (Larina Warnock): I’ve been writing since elementary school, and I’ve dabbled in pretty much every genre. Most of my publications are poetry, but I actually prefer to write speculative fiction with a literary bent. I love the possibility of spec fic. It’s a genre that allows you to thoroughly explore cause-and-effect, to speak about the human condition in a way that illuminates and sometimes disturbs. Spec fic lets you tap into the entire realm of human emotion. I especially like combining intellectual appeal with emotional appeal when those two things contradict each other, either through plot or characterization. I think I write this way because that’s what I’m always grappling with inside: what I know to be true and what I feel to be true are all too often different things entirely.
Q: What inspired your story in this anthology? Tell us the “story behind the story.”
A: I don’t often know where my stories come from, but I would guess this one was inspired by a combination of things. I’m a teacher, and in our community, we have a terrible foster care crisis. There simply aren’t enough foster homes for all the kids who need them, and I wrote Red Rover, Red Rover right around the time my husband and I started talking about buying a house where we could foster. I was researching all the ways kids enter the foster system, and Phillip and Bianca were born. Around that same time, I was struggling a lot with PTSD symptoms. It was the height of the #MeToo movement. It seemed like I was bombarded constantly with news about sexual assaults that just went on and on and on. There were all these stories about how so-and-so knew, but didn’t say anything. I have a doctorate in education leadership and I focused my dissertation research on ethics in education. I’m really interested in the concept of motivated blindness–that we ignore things we know are wrong because we have a vested interest in them not being wrong. All of these things came together. Ultimately, Red Rover, Red Rover is a story about motivated blindness, what it means to be an accomplice, and how we define justice.
Oh, and I love dogs and all other animals. Red Rover, Red Rover has spawned a series of stories about dog breeds similar to the Sin Hound.
Q: What draws you to the genre of horror/dark fiction? What do you find there that you don’t find anywhere else?
A: Like many who grew up in generational poverty, I experienced a lot of trauma and have complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Horror and dark fiction speak to the part of me that knows really, really terrible things can and do happen, but with symbols and imagery so that, ironically, it’s a safer way to think and feel about those terrible things.
Q: There are a number of subgenres/tropes/flavors of horror. Where does your story fit? What drew you to this particular category?
A: Red Rover, Red Rover is supernatural horror. Or maybe psychological horror. Or maybe both. I don’t think this story would have worked in any other genre. Rover is, by his nature, a bit demonic (or angelic, depending on your interpretation of the Bible). As we read what he draws out of Phillip and Ernie, we have to ask ourselves what he might draw out of us. There’s nothing more disturbing or frightening than facing the consequences of our own sins.
Q: Why horror? Why do you write it? What about the genre appeals to you as an author?
A: I’m still wrapping myself around the idea that I do write horror. Much of my work crosses genres, but what I would consider my two best stories have both been labeled horror by editors. When I think of horror, I think of slashers and poltergeists, exorcisms and hauntings. I think my work is more disturbing than fear-inducing. I want to make people think, to see the potential for good and evil in every single person, including ourselves. Especially ourselves.
Q: Of the characters you’ve created, who is your favorite, and why?
A: I really struggled with this question. Even now, I’m not sure I’m telling the truth. In my (unpublished) novel, there’s a secondary character named Dinladel. Everyone calls him Plink. Plink was supposed to take up the space of two chapters, and his death was supposed to be a catalyst for the protagonist. Except he refused to die. I love (and hate) a character who has other plans for their subplot. In Plink’s case, he provides both a sense of levity and a sense of the harshness of the world I created. He might even live through the whole series.
And because I did really struggle with this question, I’m going to cheat and add another character, this time from a short story I wrote called “The Wishing Well.” She’s known only as “The Wishmaker” and she is a woman who lives at the bottom of the well. She crafts wishes for people who wish there, but only if the wish conforms to certain rules–and nobody but her seems to know the rules. Oh, and she may or may not be responsible for a couple of atrocities.
Q: What do you find the most challenging about the writing process, and how do you meet that challenge?
A: Time is easily my biggest challenge. I teach 8 different high school classes, advise the largest chapter of Future Business Leaders of America in Oregon, serve on a variety of committees and boards, and love gaming. That last might seem out of place, but what I find myself doing is working-working-working and then, when I’m exhausted from that, I start up DAI or Mass Effect or Greedfall and get myself lost in someone else’s story while giving myself the illusion that I’m actually doing something. What helps me the most are accountability partners. I’m part of a critique group that meets biweekly, and we send each other accountability texts and emails. “What did you write this week? What did you submit this week?” That sort of thing. It forces me to think about writing and submitting because I care what they think. And because I’m competitive and I don’t want them to out-work me!
I also hate the revision stage. I can have a piece tied up for years in revision because I am constantly second-guessing any changes I make. This is where having a critique group can be both very helpful and very challenging. Do I use their feedback or stick with my gut? What if they disagree with each other? How do I make sure it’s still my voice if I use their suggestions? I have the toughest time with advice about ambiguity. I love ambiguity and a level of non-closure. If we looked at our lives as plots and subplots, rarely would they resolve tidily. Instead, we have all these loose strings. Things that happen to us that we can never quite decide how to feel about or what to think about. I can get stuck thinking about these kinds of things for hours, so no revision happens. Then, when I finally do get a revision completed, my husband usually hates what I’ve done with the story, and I go back to second-guessing all over again! If I figure out a way to overcome this, you’ll be the first to know.
Q: What was the worst writing advice you ever received? The best writing advice? Why, and how did it affect your writing?
A: I have this love/hate relationship with the advice “Write what you know.” How can we learn if we only write what we already know? How do we write what we know and explore possibility at the same time? I’m in my 40’s and still trying to figure out whether that’s the best advice or the worst advice, especially for those of us who write spec fic. What I know for sure is that advice kept me from writing spec fic for years. It also kept me writing things that didn’t matter all that much. When I freed myself from writing what I know, I was able to write things with a lot more emotional power and societal presence. Maybe better advice would be “Write what you feel.”
Q: If someone asked you to recommend books/stories similar to what you write, who/what titles would you be giving them? And, why?
A: I’d point them toward Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or for a more modern take, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. While I don’t claim to be nearly in the league with these folks as authors, the dark undertone of their works while providing the illusion of being safe stories is what I strive for. I want to flip expectation on its head. I want to make people think about what it means to be human. I want to show beauty where it doesn’t belong and darkness where nobody wants it.
Q: What’s next in your writing journey?
A: This year I’ve dedicated myself to finishing two tasks long in coming. One is the final revision and submission of my dark epic fantasy novel, Keeper’s Calling, to agents. As noted above, the revision stage is my least favorite stage of writing. This piece has been in revision for too long. The second project is a collection of poems about my son, Zachary, who passed away in 2011 at 11 years old. I’ve put this one off for good reason, but it’s time for it to be in the world. Maybe my words and experience can help other bereaved parents.
Q: Anything to add?
A: Just before I wrote Red Rover, Red Rover, I went to a small YA writer’s conference. I don’t write YA, and don’t want to write YA, but it was a local conference, a friend was going, and I was looking for some inspiration to get back to writing after a long hiatus. As it happened, two of the guest writers talked about writing horror–one from a traditional angle and the other psychological. Both spent a lot of time referencing horror books and movies–and I knew almost all of them. It was the first time I seriously asked myself whether I was writing the wrong genre. Am I a horror writer masquerading as an SFF/literary writer? Would it be so terrible if I was?
That was over a year ago, and I still ponder those questions. Here’s what I’ve come to, though: It doesn’t matter. It’s okay to love horror and comedic fiction and high fantasy and traditional romance. It’s okay to write all or any or none of those things. After all, the best life mixes and matches experiences, casually switches genres and tone, leaves us wondering what the hell we just did. There’s no reason our reading or our writing should be any different.
A one-time teen mother and high school dropout, Larina Warnock holds a doctorate and teaches high school in rural Oregon. She has been a TEDx speaker, cofounder of an online literary journal, and an activist for underrepresented youth. Larina’s fiction and poetry has appeared in Space & Time Magazine, All Worlds Wayfarer, Rattle, and others.
To read “Red Rover, Red Rover” by Larina Warnock, pick up a copy of Stories We Tell After Midnight 2. And, once you are finished, please think about leaving us a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Reviews make our cold, dark little heart so happy…