Nikki Nelson-Hicks (@nikcubed) is honored to be described as “the lovechild of Flannery O’Connor and H.P. Lovecraft.” She tips her pen in a plethora of genres from Horror to Holmesian to Steampunk to Supernatural Detective Pulp to Weird Western.
She also has written screenplays (Power, Corporate Politics, Angel Bar, Fine) and a radio play, The Box. You can stalk her on any of her social media accounts.
KRISTEN TSETSI: “Show me something old in a new way. Make me think. Make me feel. Make the words burn like drops of fire inside my brain. I want to taste them when I read them aloud. I’m an old reader—I know magic when I read it. I can feel if there is soul in the words. Don’t try to lie to a liar.”
This was your answer to a question in a Huffington Post interview about what you look for in a book, what excites you as a reader. Do you have a favorite passage you can share that does all of this?
NIKKI NELSON-HICKS: Terry Pratchett…well, hell…most everything about the Discworld series, to be honest. The scenes that often come back to me are his themes. How he dealt with gods and what they owe their creation (spoiler: EVERYTHING).
In Small Gods, he plays with the idea of a god that discovers the fact that They need us more than we need Them. It’s a fascinating idea and I often think about it. Small Gods quote: “Gods don’t like people not doing much work. People who aren’t busy all the time might start to think.”
A scene from Men at Arms:
“Something Vimes had learned as a young guard drifted up from memory. If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat. They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar. So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.”
From Carpe Jugulum: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
On the subject of writing, are you familiar with the book, Writer Ferrets Chasing the Muse by Richard Bach? There is a scene where the main protagonist, who has been fighting writer’s block while trying to create his Magnum Opus, realizes he can’t write because he doesn’t like his story. He thinks he needs to write a literary classic of the ages, when, really, he just wants to write children’s books about dragons and hummingbirds. When he finally lets go and writes the stories he loves, he finds happiness. There is a plaque above his desk that I have stolen: HAVE FUN! DON’T THINK! DON’T CARE!
TL;DR: Don’t worry about new. Try to write something true. That’s where the power lies.
You’ve written a lot. Short stories for anthologies, short-story collections, novels, and screenplays. You explore genres, have fun with characters and scenarios, accept unusual writing challenges (like the one from a publisher looking for short pulp-genre stories that revolved around chickens), and you publish regularly. But you said a few years ago in Authors Interviews, “I try not to think of myself as a Writer with the capital W. The burden of that title constipates me.” What makes capital-W “Writer” such a loaded word?
It’s the societal expectations of the Writer or Author title. As if I have some special training or education that makes me, god forbid, an expert on some subject. I am not. Every story starts as the same muddled soup of an idea and I flail around until I find a workable vein and I write my ass off making it into something understandable.
I’m not gifted; I’m just really stubborn.
I helped with a workshop recently on world building. It was a Zoom thing, about 40 people attended. We spent about 90 minutes talking about how we crafted our stories, our worlds, and, hey, you can too! There’s no playbook to this. You can do it however you want, whatever method your story requires. That’s where the magic is! Play and have fun! Yadda, yadda. Rinse and repeat.
The moderator contacted me a week later to let me know how the attendees rated our workshop (I had no idea I was being rated; now THAT would’ve constipated me), and the reaction that most reported was how refreshing it was to see “real authors are just like normal people.”
Oh, poor sweet Summer child. “Real authors.” What does that even mean? It’s this sort of thinking that kills the creative spirit in so many people. Oh, well, the person tells themselves, I’m not smart enough/educated enough/don’t have a special pen that flows with the blood of Muses to pursue that dream, so I’m not even going to try.
Think of all the stories we’ve lost because of that fatalistic mindset, that divisive idea that you must be born gifted THIS WAY if you want to create THAT THING.
Nothing makes my blood boil faster than the clipping of someone’s wings.
When asked what advice you would give young writers, you say, “Stop waiting for permission. Just…tell your story.” You were 40 when you gave yourself “permission” to write. Where did the idea come from that a form of official approval is needed before someone can write?
I grew up worshipping books. As a kid, I thought there was a governmental department that fact checked every word so that only the truth could be printed on paper. This belief caused a lot of problems when I discovered UFO magazines and Weekly World News, but I digress.
I loved to read. When I was seven years old, I tried to check out a book on bats from the school library. The librarian wouldn’t let me take it until I read aloud from it because it was for fourth graders. I read and. boom, I was put into a Gifted Program. (I didn’t tell them the reason I wanted the book was because I was thought all bats were vampires in disguise and I wanted to learn more about how they did that. But, again, I digress.)
I loved stories. All kinds of stories! Myths, legends, all of it! And I loved to create new stories built on the bones of the myths that I was gulping down like air. And it was fun!
Until, as the “The Logical Song” by Supertramp tells us:
They sent me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh, clinical, oh, intellectual, cynical
In school, especially when you get into high school or college, stories are dissected like frogs on a plate. No one enjoys them. Now stories must have meaning, metaphor and lofty goals. Have you created an outline? What sort of impact will this story have on the reader, the world? Adverbs, kill them. Adjectives, gerunds, narrative POVs. 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Omniscient or Limited? Come on! You have to know all of this, ALL THE THINGS, and if you don’t, well, you’re not a real writer, are you?
It took me years to unteach myself all the crap that was poured into my head: How only literature was worth writing. That horror, sci-fi, insert your genre here, were wastes of time and not “real writing.” And don’t get me started on how women can’t write horror.
One of my proudest accomplishments thus far as a writer has been helping people who have wandered across my path, as if I was a storybook crone in the woods, and trusted me with their hidden desire to write stories.
“But I’m just a housewife/waiter/insert dead end job here, I can’t be a Writer. I don’t have the *insert societally approved documentations here.*”
“Sweetie, stop that…stop that right now. You come from a story telling race. We are made of stories. We need them more than we need food to stay alive.”
TL;DR: We don’t live in a society that appreciates creativity unless it can make somebody (not necessarily the creator) money. So, Society. Society is a bastard.
Your stories are here to be entertaining, you’ve said, adding, “I don’t have any higher goal than that.” Which implies there is a higher, rather than parallel and equally valuable, goal to achieve. (It’s hard not to think this way, because, as you illustrated, it’s what we’re taught.)
I wonder if you might say something to any writer who doesn’t feel “literary enough,” which some messaging would suggest is synonymous with “good enough,” because they’re drawn to writing for entertainment.
I think it’s a scam. A title you can hang yourself with if you get too caught up in it.
Look, Shakespeare’s plays are filled with sex jokes. The guy was obsessed with dicks. Mark Twain is credited with saying that Great Literature is like wine and his stories were more like water; however, more people drink water than wine. Aesop was a hunchbacked, uneducated slave whose fables, simple stories filled with talking foxes and races between hares and tortoises, have endured for millennia.
Stories are stories are stories.
Some time ago, my friend Logan Masterson and I were invited to host Stouts and Stories, a lovely event at a pub where we gather to drink, share our stories, and answer questions. It was an easy-going crowd until someone posed the question, “What responsibility do you feel your stories owe to society?”
Yikes. At that point in time, the only book I had out was the Jake Istenhegyi stories about zombie chickens and swamp monsters. Logan, always a man ready to get on a soap box, gave a ten-minute-long speech about how he wanted his series of stories to build a bridge between the established religions and the outlier pagan ones. It was heartfelt and very eloquent. When it came to me, I said, “My stories are to distract you when you’re on the toilet. I don’t have any loftier goals than that.” And, for the most part, I still don’t.
While the project I am working on, Politics of Children and Other Stories of Revenge, isn’t as pulpy or monster heavy as my older works (there’s still murders, don’t you worry!), in the end, if people’s legs aren’t going numb while reading my stuff on the potty, I will feel that as a failure.
TL;DR: Write the story you want to read. Write the story you want to tell. Don’t get hung up on marketing and genre.
There again, though, is the distinction in artistic value between what you write and other kinds of writing. Writing a story collection or a novel seems like a lot of work just so you can distract some stranger sitting on a toilet, so entertainment must mean a lot more than that. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t stand in line for it. Why do you think we need it?
Why do we need entertainment? That is a many, many layered question.
I firmly believe that the thing that makes humans different from our fauna brethren is not the ability to use tools, but our unique ability to weave stories. We need them. More than food or water. We need them to not just stay alive but to live.
The very first stories were to teach children about danger. Telling a kid, “Don’t go near the water. You could drown,” doesn’t have the impact of, “If you go near the water’s edge, Jenny Greenteeth might be waiting beneath the waters and she will grab you and gobble you up, and you’ll never see your family again!”’
As we grow, our stories teach us things that we need to become better, stronger human beings.
Religious parables and koans are a way to digest a huge truth in small, palatable bites. Fantasies show us there are monsters in this world that want to pick their teeth with our bones but that through friendship, loyalty and courage, they can be defeated. We need heroes, fantastical characters that can show us to be greater than what we fear.
As a child, I lived in a very…um…as my therapist so eloquently described it, “f—d up environment.” I was lucky. I turned to reading as a defense mechanism. I used stories like a shield. I never had friends to play with, but I had stories.
Sherlock Holmes took me on adventures and made me feel like the smartest person in the room. Don’t even get me started on Star Wars. I’m a kid of the ’70s. That shit is pretty much my religion. And Terry Pratchett held me by the hand and showed me truth in the lies. My favorite scene in Pratchett’s Hogfather:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
See what I mean?
A lot of genres get flack for not being highbrow enough. Romance is only for horny housewives or Tinder rejects. Science fiction is for nerds. Fantasy is for soft-brained people who can’t handle reality. Those observations are, to put it bluntly, bullshit. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a love story. Curled up in a blanket, sipping a hot cup of tea, and watching two people find each other? What’s the harm in that? Science fiction is a stepping stone for a budding scientist to manifest science fact. Imagination is a gift! It’s how we discover new worlds, new medicines, new routes to different realities. Lay off the nerds! And people who love fantasy? The first stories our ancestors took the time to write were about heroes and gods. From Tolkien to the Marvel Universe, what’s your problem with that? Leave the cosplayers alone.
And to my favorite abused genre: horror. Have you a clue as to how many times I’ve been told that people who write/read horror are deviants, twisted psychos who enjoy gore, torture and gothy death things?
We provide a way to witness terrible ideas and themes, but in safety. I wrote a story, “Coon Hunt,” that has been turned down by publishers because they thought it was too intense, but it also won a cash prize from a literary magazine. (Although they completely gutted the story and rewrote it so it wouldn’t offend their readers. Hey, I still cashed the $100.) Tired of waiting for someone with balls enough to print it, I published it in my anthology of short horror stories, Stone Baby and Other Strange Tales. There isn’t any cursing or explicit gore in “Coon Hunt.” It’s a grandfather telling his innocent grandson a story from his childhood.
To the boy, it’s just a story, but to an astute reader, it’s terrifying.
A coworker, a stereotypical elderly Southern lady, pearls and blue hair, learned I was a writer and bought one of my books: The Perverse Muse. (Of all the books I have out there, she chose this one.) A few days later, she came up to me, shook her head, and said, in the softest, cottony tone, “I don’t understand how your brain works. I just don’t. Can I ask? Do you have a relationship with the Lord?”
Another time, I was on a panel and was blindsided by someone asking me how I justified writing horror. “Why doesn’t a nice girl like you focus on something more light-hearted? Bring some kindness into the world? I bet if you looked deep inside yourself, sweetheart, you’d find a lovely poem in there.”
Putting aside the face slapping misogyny, I nearly burst out laughing in this guy’s face.
Let me pull out an old chestnut here by G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist.Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
The same goes for people like me who write stories that are tinged with horror, death, and bit of fun (i.e monsters) on the side. I am not inherently dark or creepy. I scoop wasps out of the patio; if they don’t hurt me, I let them be. I let spiders live on my front porch; a few cobwebs in the summer means less mosquitos. If I find a worm cooking on the hot asphalt, I will move them onto the cool ground.
Because I can feel their anguish.
And why? Because I write about pain. I write about loss and fear and terrible things that gnash and grind bones in the dark. I see both sides of the story. I feel the pain of the victim as well as the monster. I am Janus Sighted and, because of that, I go out of my way to not inflict pain on any living thing.
We do not bring more darkness into this world by writing horror. We show it to you. We mirror the monster hiding behind you. And we teach you how to kill it.
The greatest compliments I have received so far as a writer have been from people who have told me my stories gave them comfort when they were sick or in a dark place. A school counselor contacted me about a high school student who struggled with reading. She offered him a prize if he’d read just one book from her library. He pulled my book, Sherlock Holmes and the Shrieking Pits. “I probably won’t like it,” he said.
He devoured the entire book in one day. It was the first time he had ever done that. It gave him the courage to try and find more books that would be FUN to read.
My one and only fan letter was from a man who read my Jake Istenhegyi: The Accidental Detective series on repeat while he was bedridden with Legionnaire’s disease because it gave him a place to escape to when he felt like his body had betrayed him.
Do you see the power in stories to comfort? To provide a little bit of light in a world that is so full of shit?
And it might be my only shot into heaven.
You credit the Nashville Writers Group, which you and four others founded in 2004, with supporting your commitment to becoming a published author, and you recommend all writers try to find a similar support system. What has being in the writers group done for its members in terms of finding presses or figuring out self-/independent publishing and navigating the business end of the writing world?
The most helpful aspects for me regarding the Nashville Writers Group was all the contacts I made. For example, it was through the NWG that I met Alan Lewis who introduced me to Tommy Hancock who eventually launched the Jake Istenhegyi: The Accidental Detective stories through his small press Pro Se.
It was through the NWG that I met Tracy Lucas who then introduced me to Todd Keisling and through Todd I met other writers in the horror genre.
Writing is a very lonely profession. We spend so much time in our heads that it is necessary to find others who understand why we do what we do.
On the business end of writing, it helps having friends who are far more experienced and can hold your hand through all the accounting and marketing and all the things that give me hives just thinking about them.
You need a tribe, as cliché as that word has become. Just be careful and choose the voices you let into your head wisely. Not everyone wants the best for you.
What’s a hard lesson you’ve learned in your time publishing, both on your own and with independent presses, that you wish you’d known a lot earlier?
Many small presses run more like a clubhouse than a publishing house. My first contract with a small press was for 80/20 profit split. Guess who got the short end of that stick? I did all the writing, all the marketing, all the conventions where I shill out the product and they get the meaty part of the steak.
I was too eager to get published. The editing was crap, the formatting was terrible. Ugh. When the rights reverted to me, I rewrote it, smoothed it out, hired an editor and a layout and cover artist, and published it under my own house, Third Crow Press. It put a dent in my bank account, but I have a finished product I am proud of.
Never work for a flat fee. You get X amount of money and the publisher get XX amount of money for every copy they sell. The math always works out to you getting screwed.
OH! And if your publisher tells you that they don’t do quarterly sales reports, get an IP lawyer and get your rights back. Learn from my fail.
Your attitude toward writing and publishing screams independence, including a time you told a publisher you would never publish anything with him again if he insisted on using the cover art he’d chosen for the first book of yours he was publishing. He ended up changing the cover, but you would have given up an easy-in for a second published book over cover art.
But—you’ve also said you’d like to be published by one of the Big Houses because you’d like to see your book in bookstores. Would you be willing to trade cover approval for bookstore shelf space?
I’ve thought about that a lot. Would I give up control for a contract with one of the Big 5? The prestige of being with one of the Big Boys, a book that I can point out to my friends at Barnes & Noble? Something in (gasp) hardback? Ah, wouldn’t Mama finally be proud?
Uh, I dunno.
You give away all your power. They decide whether the protagonist is This or That. If the story is too long or too short. And then to slap some shitty cover on it? Something that is completely tone deaf to the story within the pages? These are my stories. That is my name out there. Who is going to trust or respect me if I don’t respect myself?
No, thanks. Maybe I’ll never see my name on the NYT Bestseller list but, goddamn it, I’m proud of my stories. They are mine.
No…no…no. I’m saying it while sitting here in the comfort of my own poverty, but I seriously don’t think I could stomach being such a sell-out.
Considering your fiction is a blend of genres that might not fit neatly into an easily marketable box, how do you reach readers, and where do most of your sales come from?
Conventions. When I do a face to face convention, my Amazon numbers always increase. I have tons of swag, bookmarks and magnets. I have found great success by handing out my story, “Perverse Muse,” in a pamphlet form. “Have a taste of what I have to offer! Free!”
People love free.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.