I’ve known Barb Goffman since before I started writing crime fiction myself. I was impressed not only with the way she crafted her stories, but also the way she talked about them. Whenever I heard her talk about her stories, it immediately made me want to read them. Apparently, many other people feel the same way, since Barb has been nominated more than 35 times for major crime awards! (One of those is her current Agatha Award nomination for the story “Beauty and the Beyotch,” which you can read in the #29 issue of Sherlock Holmes’s Mystery Magazine.
I was excited to chat with her about what scares her and possibly inspires all those great story ideas. Read on to discover the one horror movie she watched that made her avoid them forever (honestly, I wish it had been a better one) and the creepiest room in her childhood home.
What is your greatest fear?
Being buried. Some people would say being buried alive, and yes, that prospect scares the crap out of me. But the idea of being buried while dead also freaks me out because I’m claustrophobic and—even though it’s nonsensical—I keep thinking, what if I’m sentient inside my body after death, and not only can’t I move but I’m stuck inside this narrow box. FOREVER. It makes it far more understandable why Lord Voldemort wanted to avoid death at all costs.
What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
I was maybe four years old, watching TV in our den. My mom was upstairs in the kitchen, sitting with her back to the back door, which in those days wouldn’t have been locked during the day. A man walked past the den’s sliding-glass door and started up the steps to the back door. I opened my mouth to let her know that the man was sneaking up on her, but no sound came out. After two failed tries to cry out, I scrambled up the stairs and found my voice on the way. It turned out the man was the meter reader, and all was well. But for decades afterward I had dreams in which I’d be in danger and would try to scream for help but no sound would come out.
What is your weirdest fear?
A lot of people are afraid of public speaking. Not me—except if I have family in the audience. Then my heart pounds like crazy. Considering that family is what gives most people comfort, it’s weird that family triggers my fear.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
My story “Evil Little Girl” is about a twelve-year-old ostracized girl who is repeatedly raped at sleepaway camp. I don’t find this story particularly scary, but it was critiqued by the writers group I was in when I wrote it, and one of the women said that when she first read it, she thought I needed to cut back on the details, that they were too horrifying. But when she read the story a second time to mark the spots that needed pruning, she couldn’t find them. I’d written the rape scenes sparely, but the emotions were real enough that she saw the details in her head—details that weren’t on the page. I guess that qualifies as the scariest thing I’ve written (though my gothic story “Nightmare” might run a close second). Both stories appear in my collection, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.
Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?
All of them. I won’t watch horror. I don’t like being scared. I told this to a friend a few years ago, and she said in an incredulous tone, “But you write really scary things.” That surprised me. I don’t think of my writing as particularly scary, especially overall. If it is, I guess I don’t scare myself.
What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever watched?
I can recall watching only one scary movie as a kid, and it turned me off horror (see my previous answer). It was The Initiation of Sarah. I saw it only the one time, but I looked it up online before I answered this question (thank you, Wikipedia), and it’s described as a bad TV-movie take on Carrie. I remember a scene with sorority girls terrorizing the main character, having lured her into a situation where she thought she was being accepted, but instead she was humiliated with food and mud thrown at her. This description doesn’t sound scary, but watching it as an eight-year-old was not a good idea.
Do you have a childhood memory of your parents or other trusted adults being truly terrified by something?
I was maybe four or five, and my dad was reading to me in the den when my mom screamed from the kitchen. She sounded terrified. My dad ran upstairs and proceeded to kill two spiders that Mom said had jumped out of the pantry when she opened its door. I’m not sure if I actually saw them or not, but I seem to remember them jumping waist high, as if on a trampoline. I recounted this story to someone a few years ago, saying that my memory can’t be correct because spiders don’t jump, and she told me that some of them can. And the spider phobia I had throughout my childhood was suddenly justified.
Barb Goffman has won the Agatha Award twice for her short stories and the Macavity, Silver Falchion, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Readers Award once each. She’s been a finalist for major crime short-story awards 37 times, including a current nomination for the Agatha for her story “Beauty and the Beyotch.” She’s an associate editor of Black Cat Weekly and works as a freelance editor, often focusing on cozy and traditional mysteries. In April, she’ll be toastmaster at Malice Domestic.