Have you ever written a scary story? In honor of the Halloween season, we are interviewing horror writers to learn about the craft of scaring readers.
We sat down with writer Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (pictured, via) to discuss her new biography, Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. This book explores the life of Thomas Dent Mütter who is arguably one of the most eccentric medical innovators in history; his namesake museum in Philadelphia has long been considered a hot spot for horror fans. Check out the highlights from our interview below…
Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: I had put together a proposal for my book, Dr Mütter’s Marvels, and friend of mine — who had very successfully sold his debut novel to Random House — asked if he could show it to his agent. I thanked him but explained how it likely wasn’t a good idea. That my weird and fairly grotesque book was very different than his pop culture-infused sci-fi novel, and therefore his agent likely wouldn’t be interested in my proposal. My friend said, “Cristin, if your friend who just sold his novel to Random House asks if he can show your proposal to his agent, that answer is Yes! Thank You! and that’s it.”
It was a real moment for me in understanding how often we as writers can sometimes limit ourselves when opportunities arise. His agent hadn’t rejected me — I was rejecting myself on behalf of his agent, without even giving his agent a chance. I eventually did submit my proposal to his agent, the incredible Yfat Reiss Gendell of Foundry Literary + Media, and she took on my project. A year and half later, the book sold at auction to Gotham Book / Penguin.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring horror writers?
A: Finish what you start. This is true for any writer — the best way to learn about your story is to muscle your way to the end and look back. As my mother always taught me, “Perfect is the Enemy of Good” and it’s a good thing to remember. Don’t kill your energy and love for a story by trying to get it perfect from the start. Just get to the end. It’s easier to rewrite than it is to write, and easier to fix problems once you know where you want your story to go.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: Write the book you’d want to read. If you catch yourself trying to appeal to someone who isn’t you in your writing — DON’T. I like to read my work out loud. If it doesn’t come easily off the tongue, or doesn’t sound like something I’d actually say, I rework it.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I am putting together the proposal for my next book. My agent and I both wanted to see how my current book, Dr Mütter’s Marvels, was received before deciding on which one of my ideas would work best as my follow-up book. To be frank, I think we were both wondering if the more grotesque elements of my book would be accepted by the general reading public. I am thrilled to say that readers have loved the book, perhaps especially because of the grotesque parts, and so the next book will be able to carry forward in that tradition!
Q: What are your favorite scary books?
A: I love scary true stories, particularly stories about serial killers. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (about turn of the century serial killer H. H. Holmes) is such a perfect book for me — literary and rich in true historic detail, and yet scary as all get out! It was a huge influence on Dr Mütter’s Marvels, and I highly recommend it.