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Feature Interview
an interview with
Gemma Amor
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Gemma Amor
Her new book, mental trauma, and a successful publishing journey
Feature Interview
Her new book, mental trauma, and a successful publishing journey
Gemma Amor
Horror author and artist Gemma Amor has already written many books, but her journey into traditional publishing is only just beginning. We spoke about that and many other things in an interview that began with the pandemic and our various experiences, including the trauma of COVID and the difficulties of dealing with that for two years, and how we’re just now coming out of that trauma ... at least for the moment. And for her, it includes a new book, Full Immersion, due out in September. We begin there ...

*     *     *
So you have a new book coming out.

I do.

And you mention that that ties into trauma—not COVID trauma, but ... I don’t know how much you want to talk about that, without giving things away ...

It’s hard. It isn’t a spoiler to say that it’s my examination of my own journey through a mental health crisis that I had, which ... again, it’s difficult, because so much of my journey in the last five years has been self-diagnosis, which I don’t recommend to anybody, but at the same time it was a case of me not really understanding what was happening, or even realizing what was happening to begin with. And then when I did realize stuff was happening, going away and doing some research and realizing, “Ah, that sounds like me. Oh, this sounds like me.” And then taking that to a health care professional who would then say, “Yeah, that sounds like this.” ...

What we all think was the root of it was a very delayed reaction to some post-natal trauma, and what I didn’t understand at the time, which I’ve done some reading around now, is that it’s not that uncommon for some women to experience post-natal issues in a delayed way, a good couple of years after their kids are born sometimes, because what I think tends to happen when you have a child is you sort of go into survival mode when they’re very small, so life becomes about feeding and sleeping and changing and eating. And then when they’re suddenly a bit more self-sufficient, you have an opportunity to sort of look at yourself and realize “Ugh, I’m not in a very good place right now.”

Cover of Full Immersion, due out 13 September from Angry Robot books
So that’s pretty much what happened with me, and as part and parcel of all of that I found myself unemployed. I wasn’t performing terribly well in my job, I wasn’t functioning particularly well as an adult on a day-to-day basis, and especially not as a parent. And then when my son was four, and I was without a job, he started school, and I suddenly found myself with an awful lot of time on my hands and an awful lot of issues to work through. So I started a very lovely routine where I’d drop my son off at school and I’d walk down to the café on the street nearby. I would start typing ... I bought myself a secondhand laptop from the shop up the road and I started typing, and eventually, about five years later, there’s a book. So the book started as a very autobiographical kind of brain dump of everything I was feeling and experiencing and going through and having trouble processing, and then later on I had a conversation with Angry Robot, the publisher, who wanted to know if I had any novel-length projects that I could submit to them, and I had a choice: I could either write something brand new, which I knew would take a very very long time, given that it was the pandemic and the speed at which I was working, or I could revisit something that I already had and see if that was fit for purpose. So what I did was I dug out that manuscript that I started writing when my kid first started school, and I thought long and hard about how to communicate the kinds of things I was trying to communicate about my experience, but do it in a way that was, I guess digestible. It wasn’t just, “Here’s my diary,” you know?

Right, it wasn’t just a journal ...

Right, yeah, and turn it into a novel, but also, I didn’t want to cheapen the message, or the things I was trying to talk about or write about. I didn’t want to trivialize anything. So it was a case of trying to come up with a way of fictionalizing an experience that wasn’t fictional in a way that did the subject matter justice, and didn’t look like I was having fun at the expense of my mental health condition, which I didn’t particularly want to do. That’s not to say that you can’t do that with topics and themes that are difficult. I certainly poke fun at myself in other ways. But this particular topic was too deep and traumatic for me to do anything other than something quite serious.

Right.

And the only genre that kind of stuck out for me in that sense, aside from horror, was science fiction. Science fiction has long been used to explore the vagaries of the human mind and all the things that go on in our brains, and I had grown up reading a lot of Isaac Asimov. He talks a lot about identity and humanity, and I felt like I wanted to do something that kind of echoed some of the basic tenets of scifi with elements of horror woven in, so that the examination of what I’ve been going through was quite serious and meaty.

So I did that, and I sent the manuscript over to Angry Robot, and they said yes, and the rest was history. But what I didn’t think about so much, which I probably should have thought about and came to a couple of weeks ago, when my husband finished reading the book, was ... there’s that quote from Jurassic Park that scientists didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should, they think too much about whether or not they could, and I think there was a certain element of that with me: How do I approach this opportunity, how do I get this book out there? Should I have? I don’t know. A lot of the experiences in it also belong to my husband, and they belong to my kid. It wasn’t an easy experience for [my husband] ... But he’s been very supportive; he loves the book. But that’s the thing now that I’m approaching publishing day, I’m now starting to have these like “Ohh, should I have done this?” I wasn’t even sure when I sent it whether I should have. I don’t know; I have very mixed feelings.

I get that. I’ve started semi-fictional, autobiographical things of my own.

At the same time you have a right, and this is the thing that I’ve figured out, is that you do have a right to your own story, and you do have a right to work through things in a way that’s helpful for you. What I would say is that I probably should have had the conversation I had with my husband after he read it before I wrote it. But then I also didn’t really know what the book was going to be until it was finished, and by then it was too late. [laughs] Because ... in traditional publishing, something I didn’t realize is the number of edit processes you go through, so the book came back with structural edits, and that meant there was still work to be done in evolving it, and actually it was in the course of those structural edits that a lot of the deeply personal stuff came out, because I just decided to lean into it, you know; that was my opportunity to really kind of exsanguinate. So it wasn’t really until the finished thing was going off to the printer’s and I had the e-ARCS out that I was like, uh, yeah ... but you can have those conversations if they’re receptive with your family members. It’s your experience and it affected you. It was your trauma, and you are allowed to take ownership of it.

I think the dialogue has been quite helpful for me to have with my husband, in a way. I was able to express on the page things that I haven’t been able to verbalize in real life, partly because I didn’t know I felt that way about those things until I’d written it down. Which is what therapy’s also very good for. You don’t often know how you feel about something until you hear yourself talk about it, until you hear it come out. And ironically, because the book is about therapy, the book was a form of therapy as well in that sense. It sort of scrambles my brain if I try and think about it too much. [laughs]

It’s like this meta thing where it’s like my life, and I’m reliving it and thinking about it and delving into what I think about that and ...

Yeah, it’s the most meta thing I think has ever happened to me, or sort of initiated myself—I can’t say it’s happened to me because I wrote the damn thing ... The projects I’ve just started working on now, I need to not just relive my own trauma for a bit. I’m just going to write purely fictional stuff now. I’m just going to lean into places where I’ve been, characters that I like in books, and authors that I like, but I’m not doing anything about my own life for a while, because I just can’t do it, I just need a break [laughs].

Yeah, totally. So you already have things in the works, as it were.

It’s interesting, because I found myself finally, for the first time in years, without any major deadlines; I have a few short stories to do, and a few book covers to do, but beyond that I don’t have any structural edits to do, I don’t have a book to hand in, and that being said, I have an agent, who’s sitting there waiting keenly for me to give him something to sell. So I’ve just passed him a novella; we’ll see what happens with that, he’s reading it at the moment. In the world of traditional publishing, novellas are a harder sell, but I hope that it will survive its novella length because I prefer short, sparse stories. I prefer to say more with less, and this story really spoke to me in a kind of ... it’s very inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s stories and short stories. She’s very similar; she did an awful lot with very little.

So he’s sitting on that. And I’m working on a manuscript that I must have started writing fifteen years ago, if not longer. I just found a draft of it that was about 64000 words in, and it was last updated in 2015. And I thought to myself, why not? That’s 64000 words sitting there that I can do something with. The problem was at the time I didn’t know enough about myself as a writer to be able to actually bring that to a completed project. I didn’t know enough about how to write a book. There’s an art to writing a book now that I have got the hang of, and I didn’t have it back then, so it sort of languished on my hard drive for years and years, and my problem with books was that I didn’t know how to finish them. I’ve since had a very good idea for how to take that one forward. So now I’m in the process of rewriting that with new protagonists in mind, with a new direction, and with my voice, because I didn’t have a particularly strong narrative voice back then, not something that was identified with me, which I think I do have now.

So in a way it’s like you’re co-authoring it with an older version of yourself.

I am. And also I may try co-authoring it with another author who I’m very good friends with, V. Castro, and I really wanted to lean into that friendship and the strength of that, and sort of portray that with the protagonist of the book. As I’m writing it, I’m realizing that it would be a lot easier to get the voice for the other character right if perhaps we wrote it. So I might try and sweet-talk her into writing it with me, but we’ll see.

Cool.

It’s more of a crime noir, very much based on places where I’ve travelled, in Asia and Vietnam in particular for this one. So that’s something I’m working on; who knows where that will go, or who that will involve, or whatever. I do have a book contracted to come out with Cemetery Gates Media next year and that is a novella. It’s going to be around 40000 words, I think. That one I’m very excited for. It’s tentatively titled The Once-Yellow House, although it might be also titled Thomas. I’m not sure yet. I like short titles. I am a big David Cronenberg fan; I love body horror and I love cosmic horror, and this is an exploration of that. In fact, and I don’t want to give any of that away ... because I have a good relationship with CGM I can lean into that one hard. That’s the one that wouldn’t get past the traditional publisher [laughs]. So I’m going all-out with this one and I probably don’t want to spoil it.

I probably have another two or maybe three manuscripts outside of that that I’m going to try and finish by the end of the year, so that my agent has lots to work with. And beyond that, I’m working on a treatment of Dear Laura at the moment with a lovely screenwriter lady and a small production company who are sort of guiding me through that process. So, again, it probably won’t go anywhere, but I’m learning a lot about how to write a movie treatment, which is something that I’d like to explore more of over the years. And I have other various podcasty bits and lots in the pipeline.

Yeah, on your website you mention that you’d done a podcast for some time, worked on a videogame as well ...

Yeah, I was sort of brought on board to write for a videogame. It’s gone a little bit quiet lately, so I don’t know quite what the status quo is with that. It’s a sort of indie game called Ivy Likes Stories, but I think with a lot of these projects it’s down to budget and time and what’s happening in the world at the time. I’d like to do more of that kind of stuff; I’m very keen to get into videogames on a bigger level, because there’s so many cool horror games and indie games out there at the moment.

Yeah, definitely. I’ve started development on a few games, and they start as relatively simple and become more and more complex and then never manage to get finished.

Novels are the same, I think. You have to really rein yourself in sometimes to do what you can actually achieve, rather than what you want to in your mind as it grows and grows. That’s the same with any creative endeavor, I think.

Like you have this world that you’ve created, but then you want to do all the stories in the world all at once in your novel.

Yeah. That’s interesting, because ... so, I’ve got seven books out at the moment, and Full Immersion will be eight. So Full Immersion and Dear Laura are the only two that are not connected to kind of a shared universe. All my other books have got sneaky little elements of a shared universe. And it’s something that is really tempting to keep building on and keep building on, and just go to town with it.

Well, yeah! That’d be an incredible sort of Easter Egg kind of thing.

Yeah, I think anyone that’s read White Pines will have spotted a few Easter Eggs in there, and the potential for me to build on that is enormous. The problem is, again, with traditional publishing with an agent, because those books already exist and they’re already out there, how much of that can I continue with new work, and keep a traditional publisher interested, you know? So the way around that is to write interconnected books that don’t look like interconnected books. [laughs] People that like hard work will find Easter Eggs.

So you’ve done a lot of “non-traditional publishing.” What would you say your experience has been with that versus the traditional publishing route?

They’ve both been wonderful for very different reasons. I do like the idea of continuing to be a hybrid author in that sense. I certainly don’t want to not work with the indies I’ve built up good relationships with, and my agent’s quite understanding of that. So in terms of self-publishing, which is kind of where I really started, it for me was purely about speed and getting as much work in front of as many people as quickly as possible, so that I could start to build a name for myself. And I think in that sense I achieved that, and achieved it quite quickly. I think my first book was out in 2018. So I haven’t done too badly in that sense.

When you think about the traditional publishing journey, even before you sign a contract, there’s sometimes years of being in the querying trenches trying to get an agent. There aren’t that many traditional publishers who accept direct submissions, so normally your agent submits your work for you, and getting an agent is quite honestly traumatic for a lot of new writers starting out. So I knew that wasn’t really for me. I knew it was more important for me to focus on the stories and the writing than it was losing myself in multiple rejections a day, which I just didn’t think I had the resilience for, emotionally anyway. And I knew, again, that that would damage my confidence, and then that would also affect my writing and my love of doing it. So the quick way to feel like you are doing the thing, for me, was to have people with a physical copy of my book in their hands reading it and interacting with it and reviewing it, and that’s what self-publishing gave me. It is literally the case of hit “Publish” and go.

Cover of Dear Laura, with cover art by Amor.
With Dear Laura, I use this example a lot, I wrote the thing in one month or two months, I can’t remember exactly how long now, I designed my own cover and did my own typesetting, and just hit “Publish.” And it’s my most well-known book and the one I got the Stoker nomination for. In that sense, self-publishing was beautiful for me in terms of giving me a foot in an industry that I don’t think I would have had had I gone the traditional route, or at least not for years.

And also, I think with indies and self-publishing it offers people that perhaps wouldn’t and haven’t had enough of a voice a chance to have that voice. I’m talking about marginalized writers, and writers of color, and disabled writers and queer writers and people that perhaps haven’t had their fair shot, or their opportunity to sit at the table, you know? Those barriers are gone when you just publish your own book. It’s like, this is what I’m writing about. There’s no barrier here, off I go. And I love it for that. It feels quite punk rock to me in that sense.

Yeah.

That being said, the traditional journey that I’ve had in the last couple of years has also been very edifying, very fulfilling. You work with a team who are all really invested in your book and making it as good as possible. I learned a lot through the structural edit process, the copy edit process, the line edit process. I’ve learned a lot through talking to marketing and publicity. I mean, having a publicist who is there to do that legwork and reach out to people and make connections and organize events has just been mind-blowing to me because that’s all stuff I had to do myself up until now. I still do that to a certain extent. They still expect you to promote your own book. They still expect you to be proactive and active on social, but I felt like this book was so important, I needed it to be in the hands of a few more people than just me, because I was too close to the material as well to be properly objective. So that’s where it’s been beautiful in taking a book that’s very serious seriously and doing it justice, and I really think that Angry Robot have done that, they’ve fully talked to me about all the aspects of it, and offering me support if I needed it, and they were open to things like me putting the trigger warnings in it at the beginning, I put in a list of resources at the back of the book for anyone struggling with any of the issues. They’ve just been incredibly accommodating to all of it, and it’s been quite a lovely process building a book with them, really. Slow, very slow. Traditional publishing is the slowest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Yeah, I come in at the end process of that, because proofreading’s almost the last thing, and I have to proof the layout as well. Sometimes it’s a rush job, sometimes it’s “We need this out yesterday,” but most of the time it’s weeks and months and ...

And the other things as well, on that note, is what I think with self-publishing and with indie publishing, self-publishing more so, if you want to do this as a job and make some money, with a self-published book you can start seeing some returns within a few months; the royalties are sort of two months backdated and they start coming in. With traditional publishing, I think the thing that people don’t always think about is that, from the date that you sign your contract, you’ll probably have an advance, which is a chunk of money, then it could take that book a year and a half to two years to go through all the edit processes and see the light of day in a published format. When it’s published you may or may not see another chunk of the advance, depending on the contract, and then the royalties I don’t think you start to see from that until perhaps some time after. So let’s say you sign a deal for your book, you’re not going to see the royalties for maybe a number of years after, which is a real consideration for people if money is something you have to factor in to having a creative career, and self-publishing gives access to your royalties in a faster way than traditional does.

Cover of Almost Ruth by Tyler Jones, with cover art by Gemma Amor.
How did you end up doing your own artwork and cover designs?

It started with wanting to get Dear Laura out as quickly as possible. I had this weird, arbitrary, self-imposed deadline where I wanted to get something out near my birthday, so I was like “Agh!” I paint anyway. I paint for a hobby. I sort of [use it to] relax in the evening, so I’m not staring at my phone, scrolling mindlessly forever. I find art is quite a good way of occupying my brain and my hands in a way that calms me down. And I just decided that I had a painting that I’d been doing a while ago that was just my hand as a study, just to relax me, and I thought, actually, this would work really well for the Dear Laura story, so I kind of finished that painting, figured out how to use Photoshop, figured out how to do the dimensions and cover templates in Amazon, and people really like that cover, I think because it is a bit different. And then I was like, oh, maybe I should do some more of these, so I just started offering commissions, and people just commissioned me. I’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half since I’ve been doing it. And I love doing it. I work mostly with self-published authors or small publishers. I work really closely with the author in terms of what kind of feel and style they want, what color palettes they like, other covers they’ve seen that really inspire them, the mood, the overall thing that they’re going for. I love that process. ... I know as a writer what a cover needs to do for me is pull out the main elements of the story and that book and communicate it in the right way to a potential reader. I think that’s really important. And so it’s really nice working with authors to get to that nugget of information and get it down visually in a book cover. I have a few that I need to do in the next month that I’m really looking forward to, some really fun ones, so ... test my boundaries and test my limits a little bit.

Cover of Slash-Her, edited by Janine Pipe and Jill Girardi. Cover art by Amor.
That’s really cool!

Yeah.

So I recently read Six Rooms and I thought that was ... not to be all fanboyish or anything, but I thought that was amazing!

Thank you.

I really liked the way that it has so many different viewpoints and also over different time periods, and goes back and forth like that. That’s really difficult to control, writing-wise.

Yeah, so there’s a running joke that I can’t write a story from beginning to middle to end. I write a lot for the NoSleep podcast, and there’s lots of jokes about how it has to be multiple timelines or it has to time-hop or it has to be multiple perspectives. I think I just enjoy telling a story in lots of different ways, from lots of different angles. I struggle with linear, and I think that’s probably because my brain struggles with linear as well. My brain hops around a lot from project to project, from story to story. So, it feels more dynamic to me to tell a story from different perspectives and with different voices. I tend to get a little bit bored when I just start typing, and then, you know, the end. It’s also easier for me to properly portray a character, I think, sometimes from first person, so I definitely found that with ... well, first or second [person] ... I found that with Six Rooms there were so many characters, there was such a big cast of characters, that I needed them to each have their own experience so that I could properly write them. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to write it from the perspective of one person looking at all these other characters and describing them. It would have been quite boring as well.

Cover of Six Rooms, published in 2021 by Cemetery Gates Media
I think that works really well with intimate books with one or two characters, and I have definitely done that sometimes as well, but it just didn’t suit the structure of this book. And the main thing ... So, Cemetery Gates came to me with an idea for a collection of stories around this particular house, which is based in a universe they’ve created, so there are other books in that universe. They were like, can you do justice to the idea of, here’s a house, and we want a series of stories set within that house, in a different room, and you can do whatever you like with that idea. So I could have just done a straightforward collection of short stories, each one set in a different room in the house. And it would have worked absolutely fine. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write a novel and structure it around each of those rooms, because I felt like it would take the reader on a journey as if you were on a tour of the house. I think the main thing I wanted to communicate was moving through the house and moving through those different environments and seeing it from different people’s perspectives, but also having the flashbacks, without spoiling it too much, so you could also see it from the house’s perspective as well; the house was also a character in its own right. So like most of my books do, it had a basic structure that I had in mind, and it just evolved, really, and it took on a life of its own, as they often do. I don’t always know what’s going to happen when I start writing it, and what happened with this one is that I started with that loose structure—six rooms—and then this whole cast of characters just kind of made themselves known to me, and I just went with it, really. But interestingly, there are flashbacks in the book that deal with one of the characters who used to live in the house; that wasn’t a feature of the first draft of the book, and [the book] didn’t really work. It felt a bit like a Clue ripoff, and I think the thing that finally gave that book its own identity, a sort of unique personality, was the inclusion of flashbacks, so that you got to meet the owner of the house, and then you got to understand the house a little bit more.

It was a journey, that one. It was difficult to write, difficult to keep track of everybody, difficult to tie off all the loose ends and all the narrative threads. I still think it could use a little bit of work, but then I always think that about every book, so ... It was a fun one to write, as well.

Yeah, it was definitely fun to read. And it did feel like you had managed to get everything sorted out in the end, all the different characters and everything.

I hope so. Cemetery Gates have since said it is one of their most steadily selling books, and everybody seems to be happy with it and like it. I’m glad the gamble paid off.

So do you have a general writing process?

Generally I just sit down and plug away from sort of between nine and three pm, every day of the week, in the week. Sometimes on weekends if I’ve got a bit of free time, which I don’t often have. And that’s about as complex as my process is, really. I just sit down and write and see what happens. There are certain things that I do do that are becoming process. I have some trusted beta readers. What will normally happen is that I will start writing a draft of the book and I’ll lose faith in it about two-thirds of the way in, and I won’t be able to see the woods for the trees, and I’ll need something to get me through the final push, so I will then send the unfinished manuscript to a beta reader or two, and they’ll give me their honest feedback, and that feedback will often shake something loose or unstick something that will give me the idea to finish the book in the right way. So that’s becoming quite habitual for me.

Every book is so different. Every story is so different. With Six Rooms I had white boards on either side of me, and I’d fill them both with flow diagrams and stuff to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. [But] I don’t really have a process. I tend to kind of muddle through, see what happens. I’m not a planner or a plotter at all, which I do need to get better at. I think there are certain genres I want to write that I cannot without proper planning. Crime is one of those. You aren’t going to write a crime thriller without a solid gold plot.

And you’d need the white boards out again for that.

Yeah, exactly. So that’s something that I need to get better at. I do tend to get bored if I know exactly what’s going to happen, and I lose interest in a piece of work, which is why I find editing so much hard work, because I’m like, Oh, my God, I know where this is going. My brain isn’t really geared for that; I just want it to be new and fresh all the time.

I am a big pantser and a fudger [laughs]. If I was to be kinder to myself, I’d say that I’m more of an intuitive writer. If you were to ask me what a past participle was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but I would know how words sound together and what sounds right and what doesn’t. I tend to write quite instinctually, so the process changes depending on the book. White Pines is a good example of, I had this idea in my head, I had this image in my head of how to start the book. I got about 15000 words in, 10000 words in, and it just didn’t work for me at all. So I binned those 10000 words, and my husband made me aware of a certain location that would suit the book better, and I started writing it from that perspective and it started to flow a lot more easily. And then I actually went up there and did some research and stayed in the area and drove around and explored, and then the rest of the book just unlocked and wrote itself. So I am going to start making more room in my schedule for research. It doesn’t always have to be on location; I’m not going to fly to Vietnam just to write a book. ...

Fun as that might be.

Yeah. But there’s a lot to be said for making room for research, and if you can go to a place and soak up the atmosphere, I think that should be part of every writer’s process as well if they’re able to, and obviously time and money and physical ability get in the way of that sometimes, but ...

“No” is the answer to your question. [laughs] I don’t really have a process.

[laughs] Well, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention or talk about or ...

I don’t think so. It’s worth giving a shout-out to the NoSleep podcast. I always try to do that. They were the first place that published anything of mine in any form. They accepted my short story “His Life’s Work” in 2018, I think it was, and that pretty much changed my life and made me realize I could be paid for writing, it gave me a confidence boost. I built up a very good relationship with them very quickly, and it meant that by the time I brought my first book out—it was a collection of short stories, most of which the show had produced—I also had a bit of a captive audience there from listeners who liked my work, and I think that gave me a real foothold in a very difficult industry. David Cummings, the show host, has been nothing but incredibly supportive of me from day one, and helped me promote the book. I’ve since gone on to write scripts for their live shows when they go on tour, I’ve been lucky enough to tour a little bit with them. I just did a live show with them at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the pre-party for StokerCon. I wrote a special script for that, which was riffing on The Shining obviously. I sort of hung out with them in Stockholm and in Brighton when they were on the European tour and in Bristol. I have a lovely, very good, close relationship with them. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them taking a chance on my work. I’d say they’re a huge part of my day-to-day life still, and I’m very grateful for that.

*     *     *
Full Immersion is out September 13th from Angry Robot books. Try this link here (https://angryrobotbooks.com/books/full-immersion/) and, hopefully, most good bookstores. All Amor’s other books are on Amazon, and you can find her on twitter and instagram as @manylittlewords.

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