Thrilled to welcome the great Donna Andrews to What Scares You on this icy, chilly, spooky February day. Donna’s award-winning Meg Langslow series has given her loyal, dedicated fans. I especially appreciate the bird puns in each title, and fun fact: my son Dash actually helped her name one of her Christmas books: Owl Be Home for Christmas. What scares the pants off Donna, you ask? Well, read on to find out…
What is your greatest fear?
I think for most of us the greatest fear is, ultimately, the fear of death. Which is unavoidable . . . but we all deal with it by channeling it into lesser fears, fears of things that can be avoided. If you’re afraid of heights, confined spaces, crowds, rabid beasts, clowns, zombies, penguins—you can at least try to avoid them.
What are your phobias?
I think my biggest one is claustrophobia, with a generous side order of acrophobia. Which is what makes my experience with caving so peculiar. Some of my friends used to go caving quite often, and the very thought of it both terrified and intrigued me. It took me quite a while to get up the nerve to even ask if they’d take me, preferably to a really easy cave that they were thoroughly familiar with. When we got there, we all half-walked, half-slid down a gravel-covered slope, rather like an amphitheater, to a hole in the side of a cliff. So far, so good. But the actual cave opening—I pictured a rough-hewn archway. Okay, there it was. Check. And some rough-hewn rooms. Check. But the entrance to the main body of the cave was just a hole in the ground, like something a large mole could have dug. I panicked. Somehow I levitated to the top of the gravel-covered slope—I really don’t remember climbing up—and stood there, trembling, telling them not to wait for me.
When I got over my initial panic, I ventured into the outer rooms, as far as I dared before retreating. Then I’d venture in again and go just a little farther, knowing I could retreat as soon as it got to me. The whole time the rest of the party was in the main body of the cave, I worked on going as far into those relatively shallow outer rooms as I could. I managed to explore most of the outer rooms by the time they all popped out of the hole in the ground. And the next time they took me to a cave, I actually went in. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. For one thing, they should have warned me that at some point in almost every caving trip, someone in the group will have a moment of insecurity and utter the fateful words “Wait—are you sure this is the way we came in?” But I did it.
“The entrance to the main body of the cave was just a hole in the ground, like something a large mole could have dug.”
Although I think it was at that “Wait—is this the way we came in” moment that I decided I needed to kill someone in a cave—only fictionally, of course—and explore the feelings of a claustrophobe who has to go into a cave. That led to my writing “The Last Caving Trip,” which appears in Storm Warning, the seventh volume in the Chesapeake Crimes short story anthology series.
What is your favorite monster/villain?
I’m not sure I have a favorite per se. But I’ve always preferred vampires to werewolves, and pretty much anything to zombies.
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?
One of my earliest memories of fear—and up there for the most scared I’ve ever been by a book—was in second or third grade, after reading Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and Flame. The plot involves the two stallions—one living on a small Caribbean island and the other shipwrecked there–being threatened by a rabid vampire bat. My random childhood fear of the dark morphed into a long-lasting fear of vampire bats. I remember lying in the dark, eyes wide open, listening for the beating of wings or the telltale squeaking noises, clutching my faithful stuffed dog, Duffy, with a death grip, while he took the dangerous outside edge of the bed. Duffy, of course, was fine with being on the outside edge—having no blood, he wasn’t in as much danger. The fact that my research showed vampire bats were never found north of Mexico reassured me greatly during the daytime . . . and not one bit at bedtime. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see the movie Nightwing until many years later—and thanks to that childhood vampire bat thing, I was probably one of the few people in the universe who thought it was, at some moments, really terrifying.
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
As a teenager I was very fearful of public speaking. It gradually faded as I got older, in part because I worked to get over it by doing things I was afraid of, like speaking to strangers on behalf of a friend who was even more shy, and taking an acting class as a (mostly backstage) drama major. But I didn’t realize how far I’d come until I was attending my first Malice Domestic as a published author. Someone came up to me and asked, “Wow, your first panel—aren’t you nervous?”
I answered, “Well, I wasn’t up to now—I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Luckily when the panel started, I realized that I wasn’t afraid. I was talking about something I knew better than anyone in the world—my books and my writing. And since then I haven’t much worried about public speaking. If I get butterflies, they’re from excitement, not terror. I fear I may have recovered so well that I’ve become a bit of a ham.
Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?
Torture porn. I can handle spooky, creepy, psychologically suspenseful, but if a movie involves maiming, disemboweling, gore for the sake of gore—no deal.
What is your favorite urban legend?
When I was a Junior Girl Scout, telling scary stories at sleepovers and campouts was all the rage. And for some reason “maniac stories” were the scariest—and of course the most popular. Like the one about the teenage couple whose car breaks down on a deserted road, in an area where the radio is warning that a violent maniac has escaped from the local mental hospital. The boyfriend says he’s going out to see if he can fix the car—but keeps the headlights off so he won’t attract the maniac’s attention.
He tells her if he taps on the hood, turn the headlights on so he can see. The girl huddles inside, hears fighting outside . . . the fighting dies down and she hears the tapping. Relieved, she turns on the headlights . . . to reveal the maniac, grinning insanely, tapping on the hood with the car keys.
Okay, it sounds pretty silly in broad daylight, but tell that story to a posse of twelve-year-old Girl Scouts tucked in sleeping bags around a dying campfire, and it’s terrifying!
Although I think the best maniac story is one in which a teenaged girl goes down to the kitchen to get snacks for her and a friend who is sleeping over. She doesn’t turn on the lights so her parents won’t catch her. Back in bed, she wonders why her friend isn’t eating the snacks. And she keeps hearing a creaking noise. She elbows her friend and asks, “What’s that?” The friend doesn’t answer. So she turns on the light, looks at her friend, and screams. And then screams again when she sees the maniac sitting across the room in her rocking chair, holding her friend’s severed head and plucking the hairs out of it, one by one.
It’s that final specific little detail–“plucking the hairs out, one by one”—that made this campfire story at once so horrible and so real. That, and the fact that—like the story of the marooned couple—the story ends not with graphic gore and violence, but with the moment of revelation and menace that is somehow even more chilling.
A published story that will give you that same frisson of terror—a story that seems as if it was inspired by those old campfire stories—is Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”
How do you deal with fear?
Facing your fears and vanquishing them is great, but there’s also much to be said for doing your damnedest to not even think about something that scares you and living your life as if it didn’t exist. I do both at different times, and there’s absolutely no predicting which one I’ll do in a given situation.
Is there anything you are terrified of eating?
I’m a fussy eater, so there are a lot of things I just won’t eat, but I wouldn’t say there’s any terror involved. I would be very, very nervous if forced to consume fugu fish or wild-picked mushrooms, but those seem to be reasonable foods to be nervous about. And I’d probably pick at my plate and watch to see what happened to my fellow diners before tasting them. Although I do confess to a certain amount of hypervigilance when confronted with unidentified hors d’oeuvres, soups, and casseroles—foods that could contain crab, which I’m allergic to.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
My greatest fear as a writer is that I will suddenly lose it. My talent, my ability to write, my nerve—whatever it is that lets us put words on paper and assume that other people will want to read them. And unfortunately, this is a fear that recurs as a normal part of my writing process. At some point during the writing of every book, I reach what I call the It’s All Crap Phase. When I hit that point, I realize that everything I’ve written is crap. And what’s more, there’s not even going to be enough of it. I’m an outliner, so I should know where I’m going, but I’m running low on plot and I’m going to run out completely before what I’m writing is even in the ballpark of being a full-length novel.
I’ve had this happen regularly for at least the last ten years I’ve been writing—maybe longer. I’ve felt it with books that got excellent reviews, sold well, and won awards. When it happens, I know, logically, that it isn’t so; that what I’m writing is no worse than any of my other books—maybe even better, as I learn more about my craft. But nothing can stop me from feeling that way. I just have to keep going. It’s always a relief when I get past the It’s All Crap Phase and can lose myself in the writing. But there’s always a nagging fear that maybe this time it IS crap. Or, worse, that however good what I’m writing really is, I won’t be able to shake the conviction that it’s crap.
What’s worse: being buried alive or bitten by a vampire?
Buried alive, definitely. There’s that whole claustrophobia thing. Although I think it would be even worse to be vampire buried . . . well, not alive in the conventional sense, but awake and fully aware.
What’s worse: the black abyss of space or the black abyss of the bottom of the ocean? Why?
Probably the black abyss of the bottom of the ocean, because if I were there, I’d probably be in a tiny little diving bell, and can you spell claustrophobia? At least spaceships have a more spacious view.
Donna Andrews was born in Yorktown, Virginia and lives in Reston, Virginia. The Falcon Always Wings Twice (August 2020) and The Gift of the Magpie (October 2020) are the the latest in her Agatha and Anthony winning Meg Langslow series, to be followed by Murder Most Fowls in August 2021 and The Twelve Jays of Christmas in October 2021. She’s a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and Novelists, Inc.