Cover of Silent Key
aurel Hightower has been a fan of horror since she was a child–since kindergarten, or thereabouts–but by middle school had decided that writing wasn’t for her, being a “really insecure source of income.” The lure of it, however, has obviously won her back to the dark side: She’s the author of two novels, several novellas, and many short stories. Her latest novel, Silent Key
, combines horror and detective fiction into an amazing story and world, and we spoke about it at length for this issue’s interview, along with how she eventually became a published writer, working and writing and raising a son, and even romance.
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I really liked
That was the first novel of yours that I've read. I've read some of your short stories, and I enjoyed those as well. But
Silent Key just ... looked really interesting. And it was.
I'm really glad to hear that.
So I think you said somewhere that it was different than some of the other novels you've written, or maybe different from your short stories as well. In what way?
Well, so it's very different from probably what I'm best known for, if I'm known at all, is my novellas Crossroads
, and some of my short stories, you know, depending on how people prefer to access their fiction. But the novellas and the short stories tend to be kind of thematic, not always intentionally. It's not like “I shall write about this theme today.” It's more kind of this, you know, one road, one path, like, OK, this is what I wanna express. It's not going to be completely to the point. It's gonna be telling a story, but there's gonna be this sort of side expression of something here. Crossroads
, it was a lot about maternal sacrifice and what you'll do for your kids and parental cycles of how you interact with your own parents and those sorts of things, and it was pretty “here to there.” And Below
was kind of the same way as far as we're dealing with some elements of how you lose yourself in marriage and how you regain, you know, and some feminist aspects of things and how danger occurs for women in circumstances that it doesn't for men, but then also how we're treated a certain way over it, and about sort of trusting your internal voices. And then my short stories do tend to, I mean, they're certainly not all deeply thought out. Sometimes they're just like, yeah, I want to write about something creepy or gross or whatever. But a lot of them have that sort of inadvertent and sometimes totally intentional feminist undertone to them, feminine and feminist.
I was actually thinking I'd noticed there's sort of, not really a theme of justice, exactly. But there's some of that kind of thing. Like in your short story “Every Woman Knows This.” And I guess also in “Though Your Heart Is Breaking.”
Cover of Every Woman Knows This
Yeah, there's pain. I don't always have the same type of ending with the things that I write, but yeah, with those two in particular, it is a sense of justice after having experienced something. You can't make it completely right, and a lot of times you can't find justice in the avenues which in a more organized society you'd be able to. And so a lot of that is about finding that strength or finding that justice either within yourself or, more often, by accessing the people that are around you, the people that you share experiences with or pain or even just empathy. I find it hard, and I wrote one and submitted it recently that I had ended it one way and I was like, that is just so bleak I can't even deal with it. I've gotta add just a little bit of a punch there at the end. I can't leave it quite like that, even if that's sometimes how life turns out.
So how did
Silent Key develop?
Cover of Whispers in the Dark
So that is part of the thing, too. That's my second novel. My first one is Whispers in the Dark, and that was my debut publication, period. I had had no short stories, no novellas, no anything. Whispers in the Dark came out in 2018, and it took me at least 11 years to write. I don't think I really started keeping track exactly. It was eternal. It went through so many iterations. A lot of that had to do with being new at it, and wandering in different directions and not knowing that I really needed to plot very carefully, you know, keep track of things. I just went off on so many meandering tactics. And then Silent Key
I started writing as soon as I had submitted Whispers in the Dark to my agent, because I was like, I'm not just gonna sit here. So I wrote Silent Key
, and it's similar to Whispers in the Dark, in the same vein that it's a longer narrative. You've got a lot more time to be involved with the characters to build these relationships, these character arcs, and to weave in a whole lot of elements that I wanted to include. I was like, oh, that's gross. Let's do that! And also, oh, that's creepy. Let's do that! But I think the big thing for me with my novels is just how much time I get to spend with the characters.
Cover of Crossroads
It's been kind of funny because I feel like Silent Key
is finding its audience. I feel like the people that love it tend to really love it, and that's great because it really was something that, during that period, while I was writing it and some other stuff within that universe, it was kind of a hard time in my life, and that was a great thing to be able to just delve back into a world that I could create and control and characters that I could just sort of hang out with. And so I've really appreciated it. It's part of why I decided I wanted to publish it anyway. This was a great escape for me, and that's what I would love to give people. I don't necessarily look to be particularly transgressive. I mostly want to entertain. I want to provide a fun distraction. And if possible, I really love for people to connect emotionally with things, mostly so that they feel seen. You know, there's this weird feeling of isolation with a lot of things that we go through, whether good or bad, and I know how I feel when I read something, we're like, “Oh my God, this guy gets it,” or “This chick has been here.” So with Silent Key
, it was very much about including some stuff with the characters, about some grief and relationships and stuff like that, but I just really wanted to spend time with them, and I love romance. In a shorter work it's hard to really get to delve into that, because sometimes people feel like it overwhelms the storyline. If it's a novella, you know, I have constantly been told to get the romance out of my stories, but I love romance.
Yeah. Well, that's something that people do. They have maybe not the full blown romance all the time, but it's a part of human existence.
Cover of Below
Yeah, yeah. And in a lot of different ways, however people experience it. So I just really had fun with that. But I am well aware that it's so much a 180 from the stuff that I usually write.
Did you say that
Silent Key is part of a whole world that you're putting other novels or short stories into?
Yes. So it took a really long time for Silent Key
to get from conception to publication. The first draft of it was 200,000 words, and so I did a lot of edits and rewrites and things like that, and kept whittling it down some, and then finally, my fabulous media manager, Ryan Lewis, read through it. And he was like, OK ... everyone would just say, “It's long. You gotta do something.” I'm like, “But what?” And he was able to say this should be the midpoint, and you need it to be under X amount of words, and just rewrite it. And so I did. And then that was kind of the version I was able to send to Flame Tree, in to Don D'Auria, and that he liked. But yeah, I think the first version actually didn't take me an absurd amount of time to do because that was what I wanted to be doing all the time. And when I finished that, my at-the-time literary agent was still working on shopping Whispers in the Dark, and so I was like, well, I'm gonna start another one. And then I was like, but I don't wanna leave these guys. So I wrote a sequel and then I wrote another sequel, and then I've got half of a fourth manuscript and then outlines and little chapters for probably at least three or four more.
I don't know what I'm gonna do with them, because part of it is seeing how does this one go? Is this anything anybody wants to experience more of? But it's also one of those things that I wrote so much for myself. At the time of my life that that this was going on, what was so hard about it is I, and I've talked about this with Crossroads
, I had a really, really hard time getting pregnant with my son. It took us three years, and that's the kind of circumstance that really your world gets very small and it gets harder and harder. You just kind of put yourself in this little box of trying not to experience a lot of the disappointments and the pain. And that [writing] was my happy place. I would just come home and just delve right into this manuscript and hang out with my little imaginary friends. And so by the time I was writing the third one, I was like, no one's ever gonna read this. So I can do whatever I want with it.
Well, the characters, they're very deftly realized.
Silent Key leads or seems to be leading you into a potential next story, and I can totally see these characters continuing on and doing their own stuff and ... In a way, it's almost like if you have the right characters, they sort of come alive on their own and kind of tell you what they're doing.
Yeah, definitely. And I have at times had to remind myself, you are the writer, you're allowed to decide this doesn't make sense from a plot standpoint, you know. [laughs]
They [the characters in Silent Key
] didn't always start at the iteration that they are now. Dimi was pretty well realized. You know, he was so much fun to write. But Eric Morgan was initially just a regular guy who gets involved with them. But then, you know, I have really huge social anxiety that I've been able to work through quite a bit, but to me I was like no, actually I think this guy lives in the desert because he can't stand being around people, and sort of developing this idea of isolation in different ways, the way that the different characters are isolated either by their upbringing, by their personality, by what they've gone through, and I am really big on the concept of found family, so I really love just sort of weaving them in. As I continued with this series, I was bringing in other characters from the town. The sheriff ends up playing a much bigger role. And his family come into it, and you just have a chance to kind of expand on this town and make it this sort of weird little place where creepy, haunted things keep happening, you know, so, yeah, that's been just a lot of fun, to have the freedom to just kind of do that.
It's so weird. That one lived in my head and in my heart for so long, and I would revisit the manuscript at times and had it loaded on my Kindle. And sometimes if I just really wanted a comfort read, I'd be like, I'm gonna go revisit my friends. You know? So then it was so weird to put it out there. And be like, oh, no, no. Someone's actually read the story.
Other people are saying things about my characters.
Wait, how did you guys meet? [laughs]
Are you working on other novels or more short stories or novellas or ...
All of the above at all times.
I kind of thought as I was saying it, I'm probably just saying everything you're doing!
Cover of The Day of the Door
Yeah, yeah, I am. It's one of those lovely things. It doesn't always work this way, and sometimes you definitely do run into sort of a creative burnout. You know, like I had a couple of heavy deadlines last year that I just was really struggling with, and when I got done and I hit send on the last one, I really sat there and was like, I think I'm done writing. I think I've said what I need to say. And then, I slept that night and I was like “Ohh OK, actually I was just really tired.” I needed some time for the intake to watch some movies, to read some stuff. But yeah, I have what started as a novella, but has kind of expanded into a short novel coming out with Ghoulish in April, and that was one of the things I was working on last year. And then I have a novella that is on submission right now. And then as far as what I'm working on ... with short stories anymore, I tend to mostly just do invites when I get them, and that just has to do with me way overscheduling myself. There's very rarely a time when I'm like, “I certainly have nothing to write right now. Perhaps I should try this experiment.” So, it's good for me to be able to write to call sometimes or to comb through my little snippets of ideas and say, “Oh, I can merge this ...” So I'm working on one right now that I'm really enjoying. I have a novella plotted out that I really want to try to do this year, but it's, you know, going to be starting from scratch. And then I have a novel that is, I would say, significantly more along the thriller line than horror. I don't think it's going to end up being horror at all. My roots in reading and everything, while I definitely started with horror and that's always my first love, I'm a big crime reader fan. I love Ian Rankin's Rebus stories. And Reginald Hill and I love Louise Penny.
So that novel, I started it last year, but when I was like, OK, no, I really will write again, I sat down and was just reading through all my ideas and what I wanted to work on, and that is the one that's really been like, no, this is my turn. It's time. So once I get finished with this short story and some introductions that I owe, that is what I hope to be able to just curl up and really delve into. I feel like maybe novels take longer for me to get started on, not just because of the breadth of what you have to cover, but because I need to know who these characters are. I need to know who they are and what their motivations are and why I'm writing about them, you know? And so I've gotten to spend some more headspace with them and fleshing out what's going on there.
Is that how you develop characters, as you sort of, I guess for lack of a better word, hang out with them?
Yeah, I always wanna write authentically as far as characters go. I did a lot of acting when I was a teenager, so I try to employ those same like, OK, you know, let's get in this headspace. Let's try to react to something the way that they would based on their back story and what their motivations are and their age. That's another thing that I really enjoy, is writing about characters my own age or a little bit older, or significantly older. And that's part of the romance aspect of it, too. This is a conversation I have with a good friend of mine who's also a writer, he always says anybody can fall in love. That's easy. It's easy to fall in love. What does romance look like when you continue it, when it stands up to marriage or long-term relationships, children, illnesses, debt, all those sorts of things that are hard on marriages and hard on people in general? I like exploring how that romance looks. When you've been together for a long time, when the aspects of your life have changed in ways that you couldn't possibly imagine. So I like exploring those kinds of things, and with characters who are in different phases of their life, too. They might be caring for aging parents while they're caring for children. You know, that kind of thing. And that's what's intriguing to me. With short stories and stuff, I do sometimes write younger folks, but sometimes I just feel like I'm not in that headspace anymore, just, you know, evidenced by the fact I just said “younger folks.” Don't think I'll be fitting in with the kids.
Yeah, I used to work with kids. I was gonna be a teacher. I worked in a day treatment center where the kids went to school.
That was ages ago now, but at the time I felt a little more, you know, hip and with it, but not anymore. I think often what happens is people think they're writing their TV show or whatever from that point of view, and really it's from the point of view of somebody older looking back at it.
Yes, yes. And it's interesting, I have seen a couple of things, little comments in reviews ... I try to kind of stay away from reviews because I feel like reviews are very much a reader’s space, but also, let’s be honest, we're authors, we like to go check out and see what people are saying. Never, never respond, you know? But some people have said that Samantha, the daughter in Silent Key
, doesn't really sound like a five-year-old. And you know that I get it, too. I feel like there are a lot of authors who can really [write like that], and I don't think I'd ever try to write anything from a child's point of view, because I know that it would be me looking back, and I know that if it wasn't that, it would be me interpreting things through the lens of being the parent of a five- year-old.
This is gonna sound like some terrible humble brag, but my son is five and he has always been very verbose and had really very advanced vocabulary. So when I started reading those [comments] I was like “Oh, I kind of didn't think about this.” That sounds awful. It's like, oh, no, I couldn't dumb things down. But it's a legitimate complaint, you know, and quite possibly he would read that and be like, “That's not how kids talk, Mom. Like what are you even doing?”
But it also just sort of reiterates don't write from the point of view of the kid, don't write from the point of view of the teenager; you know, I'm not in that headspace. I think you're right. I think that's a really good way to look at it. It's not that point of view, it's the looking back point of view, the nostalgia aspect of things.
Silent Key, I feel like it's always from the point of view of the parent looking at how they're seeing their child act.
And then, she’s a child with different experiences than just your average child as well, and I would think that could possibly make somebody not act just like a typical five-year-old.
Yeah, because the kind of not only paranormal experience she's had, but the unfortunate experiences of being put in the middle of her parents’ marriage, of being made to keep secrets that are way, way above her, above her emotional maturity level.
How did you come to be a writer?
Well, I actually come from a writing family. So we were always big readers. I have one brother and one sister, and we were always writing little stories, usually very horrific, bloody, gory kind of things in, you know, like kindergarten. [laughs]
As five-year-olds you were writing horror stories!
Well, yeah, but maybe not five. I'm trying to remember, but it was pretty early because I remember there being a thing where my little sister–it couldn't have been more than like first or second grade–she got a note home from the teacher, she'd been telling these stories about, I think it was, Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street. And so, I think my mom thought she was gonna be in trouble for it. But the teacher’s like, well, no, no, no. We're having a lock in and we would like her to prepare a new story to read to us at that. It was generally–children are very bloodthirsty. So it wasn't just us. [laughs] ... There's the encouragement that you get in that aspect like, hey, this is the thing that you do, you know, this is a mindset that you have.
But for me, I actually looked at it, and I was like, wow, that looks like a really insecure source of income. Horrible. I'm not gonna do that. I'm going to go be an accountant or something. In middle school, I wrote a 115-page book or something. I'm sure it was godawful. ... But by the time I got to college, I was just like, nah, I'm just gonna read. And when you're in college, too, your head's very filled with the papers you have to write, and I was in paralegal school, so I was doing a whole lot of legal research and writing and I was working full time, so there just wasn't a whole lot of head space for that. But then towards the end of my program, I [didn’t] have words in my head, and so I started writing things. But you know, you gotta lie to yourself. You're like, this is for me. No one's ever gonna read this. Literally no one ever. Then you kind of fall in love [with it] and you're like, what if it's good? And so, yeah, it just kind of developed from there. And spoiler, it was not good. [laughs] But you know everybody starts somewhere.
I know. I can remember the first things that I wrote were influenced by the fact that I was playing Dungeons and Dragons.
Oh yes. That’s a great influence, though.
It is, but being a little overly literal, maybe, as a kid, I was trying to write a fantasy story but as though it were the D&D game, so you could almost see the dice being rolled as people did their combat turns and things like that. It was just like, oh, no, no, there's no flow here. At all.
But you know, I actually think that would do really well now. I think people would really lean into that as a choose your own adventure kind of a thing.
So did you end up going into the legal profession then?
I did, yes. Yeah. I am a paralegal. I have been at the same firm for 11 years now and I love my job. I definitely finally chose the right major, five colleges and God knows how many majors later, I really am in the right spot. I love legal work. I have this great mix of getting to do mostly litigation and then I also have an intellectual property attorney and he's brilliant, and he's got this just amazing mind. And as part of what you have to do when you write patent applications, you have to have this amazing capacity to understand things that you've never encountered before so that you can explain them in great detail, and he's wonderful at it. So I'm pretty sure with Silent Key
I sat and picked his brain for two hours about stuff. Anyway, it's a very, very lucky place to be because it's not only really interesting work, but I happened to land in this firm with just great people where I have this headspace. The job that I worked before this, I had no headspace. I was so stressed for two years. I didn't write a word. And then when I got to my firm that I'm at now, I was able to sort of be like, ohh, OK, I'm no longer in survival mode, you know? And so I do that work, and I'm very lucky now too because during lockdown my son was only two years old. And we had no daycare. We didn't have any help. We were both working from home. Yeah, it was rough. But I also very much treasure the additional time I had with him. You know, it's kind of one of those double-edged swords, but it was amazing to have him with me that whole time. But I finally at some point just told my job I'm not logging in until noon. See you then. I don't care if you pay me or not. I can't do it. I can't. And they were wonderful about that, you know. And then when we were coming back after lockdown, I was like, this whole half day thing, it's really working for me and I wanna keep doing it. Because I wanna actually have time to write now. And at first they kind of are like ... Well, you know what? OK, that's fine. And so every year at my review, they're like, you ready to come back full time? I'm like no! And you know, we just sort of move on. I'm immensely lucky in that I'm able to be part time now, which gives me a good block of time in the mornings to write, and also I have headspace when I get there. I still really love my work, and when I leave, I get to leave it there.
Do you end up writing most days? Is it in effect like a job?
Yes. It was less so until my son started kindergarten back in August. The other half of why I wanted to go part time is because I'd had this additional time with him and I was like, you know what, he's only gonna be this age once, and I'm not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. I don't have that mindset, and I deeply admire people who do, because that, well, that is hard. You know, it's very hard. But I just never had enough time with him. So when I went back to work at the office and he went back to day care, I had it arranged where I would keep him with me till about 10 in the morning. So we would have this luxurious sleep-in every morning and then get to have a nice breakfast, hang out kind of thing. So once he started kindergarten in August, they don't let you just bring them when you feel like it.
The luxurious lie-in has disappeared!
Oh, it's so gone, and it's so funny because he has always, even when I was pregnant, he would sleep at my same schedule. Like I had friends be like “Oh, the baby wakes me up.” I'm like, nope, he does not wake up until he hears the blender for the smoothie in the morning. Then he's like, “Oh breakfast!” Poor little dude had the worst time sleeping for the first three years. He had reflux and all this other stuff, but now, when we had to start getting up at 7:00 AM for kindergarten, he would drag out looking like a teenager. He's like, “What are we doing? No one should see this time of day,” and I'm like, I'm so with you.
Oh yeah, I'm with you on that. They're building houses all over this neighborhood, and they're building one from scratch next door, and they show up at like 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. The other people around us, normal people, they're like, “Oh, well, I've been up for hours by then.” And I'm like, oh, no, no, I've gone to bed at 2:00 in the morning. So no.
Do you ever just want to be like, wow, that's depressing for you. That's a wretched time of day to be up. [laughs] That is rough. I guess people have this expectation. You're supposed to be up by then, and I'm like, no, you shush. You can start making noise about 10, 10:30 maybe.
You say horror is sort of your first love. How did you end up there? Was it just because you were all bloodthirsty kids or ...?
It might be, but I actually feel like I read kind of everything I could get my hands on when I was younger and I would, like every kid, you start with the board books and the smaller stuff, and you build to chapter books and that kind of thing. But I feel like with horror, I know I was reading, like a lot of folks, those scary stories you tell in the dark by Alvin Schwartz and those just magnificently terrifying drawings and, you know, I was reading Goosebumps. I don't know that Goosebumps was around when I was really young. I can't remember when that started, but those sorts of things always gave me this sort of thrill that I was like, OK, that's what I wanna gravitate towards. I just remember being maybe 8, it's hard to remember, but I know that it was definitely elementary school and we went to the library a whole lot, and as you might imagine came out with huge stacks of books. I remember leaving the library at around dusk and it was fall because school had started back relatively recently. And there was this swirl of leaves. You know, this nice breeze that kind of tells you, oh, fall’s really on the way, and I remember thinking we could decorate for Halloween when we get back if we want to, and then it was weird to have this sort of epiphany that like, wait, I can seek this. I can create this delicious little feeling of this season and of the spooky aspects of it. I can seek and create that at all times. And that's just kind of how it's been since, you know, like I only ever wanted to watch horror movies. I know I read a whole bunch of other stuff too when I was a kid, a lot of mythology and also Sweet Valley High, all that kind of thing.
There's the romance part.
There is the romance part, but man, Jessica was awful. Poor Elizabeth putting up with that sister [laughs]. So it's almost like more of a vibe. I guess that I realized I could incorporate reading into it. And the media that I consumed into it. So yeah, I feel like I'm still just constantly one of the Halloween people and just always kind of seeking out that vibe whatever time of year it is.
I think that’s cool! ... I was going to ask you what’s next for you, but we’ve kind of covered some of that. Is there anything that we haven't really talked about that you’d like readers to know?
I guess sort of along the lines of what's next. It's such an interesting time to be in this profession, and that sort of goes along with whatever that old halfway blessing is, may you live in interesting times.
It seems like it's more ... interesting every day.
Yeah, probably more interesting than we always want, but there's so many different ways to approach publishing, and there's so many different ways to approach art and all this kind of thing. And I have really enjoyed being part of the indie horror scene. I remain very excited and energized by the smaller presses that I work with, and some of the ones that I haven't but that I very much admire their work and support their writers and things like that. And I just sort of feel like, for almost a long-term, overarching, incredibly arrogant goal, there's a big part of me that wants to be part of transforming ... of assisting in, obviously not on my own, but playing maybe a part in helping some of these presses reach more of a mid-list standing, because these are the presses that are taking the chances, and these are the presses that are giving voice to authors that otherwise you would never hear from. The trad pub moves so slow, and they're very much at the mercy of–and it's a business model. They get it, but they're very much at the mercy of “We don't want to publish this book with this marginalized main character that you've written because we think people won't connect with it.”
Or “we just don't think the people in our audience will buy it.”
Yeah. And we're gonna be the arbiters of that. I think we all benefit, including trad publishers, when they're able to sort of look and see like, “Oh, that actually is selling on this scale. What can we do to maybe do that on a larger scale than what we're doing?” And we're seeing quite a resurgence of horror being more mainstream. You've got a lot of Paul Tremblay, you've got Josh Malerman who has just, man, he has been knocking down walls. And he's been just doing his thing, and getting to see this stuff, and I really appreciate whatever part I'm able to play in that as far as working with these smaller publishers, because I know the novellas that I've put out wouldn't have made it through a mainstream publisher, certainly not the iterations that they're in, and it's just a big privilege to be in, so I'm just sort of like, yay, indie horror for life, you know, it's a fun place to be.
Yeah, definitely. And I think the time we're in, the technology we have allows for more of that, or it feels like ... I mean, social media can be terrible, but it feels like there are more outlets for more authors to get at least some kind of exposure.
Yes. It levels it to an extent. It means that you really can [self-publish], and obviously not with a great amount of ease. I have not self-published anything, but I am well aware of how much work that takes. You know there is so much that goes into it, but there is something that's really amazing about it because some of the most fantastic work that I've read has been self-published by authors who were just tired of waiting to get their chance. And I love that, because otherwise, we would never have read their words. I would never have met some of these folks, or gotten these perspectives, which can be utterly mind blowing. One of my passions, which has been taught to me because I am a cishet suburban white woman in the middle of the Midwest, so you know, it was not something I knew was a thing, but when I started meeting other authors they were like, “Hey, read diversely,” and I'm like, dude, you're right, this is not on the shelves, you know? And that's been one of the most eye-opening, most enriching experiences because I just always say we know each other best through our stories. And again, I'm a horror fiend. But knowing what scares someone else, I just feel like we can really see someone else's struggles, but also just their life and folklore and history and all this kind of stuff. It's a privilege and it's ... you know, I was a reader before. I'm a writer, and I'll probably be a reader long after. I'm a writer, so I'm just thrilled that there's this much stuff out there and that we just constantly get new material.
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Look for Laurel Hightower’s latest book, The Day of the Door
, available for preorder at https://ghoulish.rip/product/the-day-of-the-door/. You can find Silent Key
, and Below
on Amazon. Laurel Hightower’s short stories can be found many places, for instance her collection Every Woman Knows This
. You can find her on social media at twitter/X: @hightowerlaurel; Instagram: @laurelhightower; Bluesky: @laurelhightower.bsky.social; and TikTok: @laurelhightower, and on her website at https://laurelhightower.com/.