Gemma Amor is the Bristol-based Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Award nominated author of thirteen published books. Her books include Cruel Works of Nature, Dear Laura, White Pines, Girl on Fire, Six Rooms, Grief is a False God, and These Wounds We Make. Her debut traditionally published novel, Full Immersion, released in 2022 from Angry Robot Books. Her most recent books include The Once Yellow House, Christmas at Wheeldale Inn, and The Folly. Gemma is also an illustrator and has created covers for many horror books, including her own.
Gemma writes for many podcasts including the wildly popular, award-winning, multi-million download horror anthology show, The NoSleep Podcast. Her scripts, “The Train” and “The Funeral,” were performed live on stage as part of the NoSleep Live European tour, which culminated in a sell-out show at the renowned Rival theatre in Stockholm.
She is also the co-creator, writer, and voice actor for the horror-comedy audio drama podcast Calling Darkness, which stars TV and film actress Kate Siegel. Additionally, Gemma writes and voice acts for Shadows at the Door, and she has had stories featured on Creepy and The Grey Rooms podcasts.
Gemma’s influences range from Carter to King, Shakespeare to Shelley, and she has a particular love of misunderstood monsters and women with an axe to grind. I recently had the distinct pleasure of discussing with Gemma about her recent work and future plans.
[GdM] Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with Grimdark Magazine. I absolutely loved your short story, “Adrift,” which appears in Grimdark Magazine Issue #37 and serves as your tribute to Edgar Allan Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle.” Could you tell us about what drew you to this classic horror story and more broadly about your inspirations from Edgar Allan Poe?
[Gemma Amor] I had been working with the NoSleep podcast on a story for their Poe themed series, and done some research into his catalogue of works as part of that. MS Found in a Bottle appealed to me because of its grand scope and the themes of self-doubt, guilt, shame and loneliness often prevalent in Poe’s work. I wondered what it would be like if I took some of those themes and the setting and wrote my own version of the protagonist, delving deep into why a person might feel so adrift and lost in the world- often, as adults, we feel that way when wrestling with grief, and to me, being lost at sea is the perfect metaphor for loss and heartache. Plus, being adrift on a vast alien ocean gives the protagonist time to confront death in her own way, beyond mourning the loss of her father- it allows her to spend time with the idea of her own mortality in an almost peaceful yet inevitable manner, trapped on a small boat with sharks circling around and gradually closing in. This story was one of the earliest of Poe’s to receive literary acclaim and the success of it encouraged him to publish a collection, so I appreciated the importance it had in his life.
[GdM] Your latest novel, The Folly, is a brooding Gothic gem with strong Daphne du Maurier vibes in both its setting and in your beautiful prose. Could you tell us about the inspirations for this work, including both du Maurier and other sources of inspiration?
[Gemma Amor] …Anyone who follows me on social media will know that I spend a lot of time in Cornwall, hiking and exploring. It is a wild and beautiful part of the UK that often feels like another country altogether, but that beauty (and the weather) are unpredictable and volatile, ever-changing (parts of Cornwall even have their own unique microclimate), and I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to set a novel there. I have been an avid du Maurier fan for years, Rebecca being extremely influential on me, although my relationship with the protagonist has changed considerably as I’ve gotten older. My favourite works are her short stories, many of which are also set in Cornwall, as indeed Rebecca was. Du Maurier had an enormous understanding of the human condition, and was an expert spinner of dread, suspense and slow, creeping terror. I wanted to write something in tribute to that; specifically I wanted to write something that summed up how her works made me feel- confused, enthralled, seduced and shocked, and all played out against a moody, Cornish coastal setting. Beyond that, I’ve also always had a fascination with ornamental folly structures, of which there are many scattered around the country, and I thought it would be an ideal place to examine a father-daughter relationship from the point of view of two adults thrust into living circumstances beyond their control.
[GdM] Although it’s never mentioned by name, it’s clear that The Folly is set during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is it important for authors to capture this tragic period of our recent history in fiction? Did writing about the pandemic help you come to grips with our shared suffering as a society?
[Gemma Amor] …I personally have a fair amount of unprocessed trauma from my experience of the pandemic, in particular in relation to the lockdowns we experienced, trying to parent an ADHD and dyslexic child during that time, and losing a loved one to covid in 2021. It was such a horribly surreal time, so fraught with threat and death and uncertainty and misinformation, with the very best and worst of human nature on display across the globe, that I think I had to refer to it in some way or I would have gone a bit mad. Pretending the pandemic didn’t happen is mind-boggling to me, so I am deeply surprised not to see it pop up more in current fiction and art. I have never subscribed to the view that novels should exist solely as forms of escapism- I prefer to think of novels as mirrors held up to society, sometimes, and if the reflected images within make us uncomfortable and make us confront things about ourselves we don’t necessarily wish to, then so much the better, I say. That being said, the pandemic itself doesn’t feature heavily in this novel, but does run along in the background as an enhancer to Morgan’s isolation. I would perhaps like to write more specifically around covid in the future, but felt that would have detracted from the closed-nature of The Folly.
[GdM] You make it seem so effortless to adapt your writing style across sci-fi horror (Full Immersion), occultist epistolary body horror (The Once Yellow House), Daphne du Maurier-style Gothic fiction (The Folly), and even a Victorian Christmas tale (Christmas at Wheeldale Inn). In every case, I am in awe of your stylistic perfection and authenticity. What is your process for moving so fluidly across different genres or subgenres and adapting your writing style to fit each specific work?
[Gemma Amor] …Goodness, I wish I could tell you I had a defined process, but honestly I just write whatever has gripped me in the moment and the stories sort of make themselves up as they go along- I do think they are influenced by whatever I have perhaps been reading at the time, or things that inspire me in a particular moment- a painting, a song, a movie, a place I have walked through. I don’t really make a deliberate effort to genre-hop, I just tend to focus on the characters and their motivations and the rest just sort of coalesces around them. I tend to throw word-pasta at the wall to see if it sticks, which is no doubt a disappointing response but I am a very chaotic and rather disappointing person, really.
[GdM] You have published both traditionally and as an indie author. What are your thoughts about some of the pros and cons of these two approaches? Which path would be your recommendation for new authors seeking to publish their first novel?
[Gemma Amor] …I try wherever possible to make no recommendations beyond: do what feels right to you in that time, at that moment, and for that book. There are so many pros and cons to each form of publishing and I consider them all valid (with the exception of the more predatory vanity presses masquerading as indies). I have self-published, worked with indie presses and gone traditional, and enjoyed all three for various different reasons. I do tend to veer towards self-pub for those perhaps at the start of their journey as the traditional route can be exhausting when you are previously unpublished- querying is not for the faint of heart. That being said, some people love the process, so I say, do some research, look at what your favourite authors are doing perhaps, then run a few experiments and see what happens. You live and learn in this industry, and I think a lot of us authors are hybrid authors nowadays. I have no real regrets for any of my books, and feel I made the right call for each of them so far- certainly I’ve been lucky enough to find my readers regardless of manner of publication.
[GdM] Could you tell us the history behind Christmas at Wheeldale Inn? How did you decide to write a Victorian-era Christmas horror? Did the Victorian setting pose any challenges compared to writing a modern-day horror?
[Gemma Amor] …Christmas at Wheeldale was a direct response to my discovery of the disgusting ways in which Charles Dickens treated his wife (who bore him ten children) in the later years of their marriage (which, incidentally, had been a financially very fruitful relationship to him in the early days of his career where money was scarce). His repeated attempts to discredit her sanity and even to have her committed to an asylum on the grounds of mental instability and alcoholism (actually refused by the asylum itself) revolted me so much I decided to write a version of a Christmas Carol where the protagonist was a woman looking for escape and redemption rather than a grasping old man, but greed and meanness still featured heavily. The Victorian setting presented no challenge, as I adore research and so many of our old pubs are little time-capsules from that era anyway. The setting is based on a real-life pub set high on the Yorkshire moors, which is frequently snowed in for days on end, sometimes with patrons still inside. It seemed the perfect place for ghostly encounters with vengeful spirits.
[GdM] Full Immersion is one of my favorite books from any genre. You’ve dealt with the raw emotions and real-life horror of postpartum depression in such an honest fashion, ultimately finding a path toward hope. I believe this novel can serve as an inspiration for mothers and fathers everywhere who are faced with this issue. Now that some time has passed since its publication, what is your perspective on writing this novel and the impact that it has had on you and your readers? (In asking this question, I also want to share my deepest thanks to you for writing Full Immersion.)
[Gemma Amor] …This is perhaps a question with a response so large that I might need an essay to answer it properly but I shall do my best to be succinct: I think one of the things people have missed the most with Full Immersion is that it is, at heart, a horror novel, and as such perhaps does not have the happy ending that some interpret it to have- which is to say, there is sometimes no definitive end to postnatal depression, and the effects and implications of it can have lifelong impact. I would be hesitant for people to find it a hopeful or inspirational novel as there are many things that Magpie has not fully dealt with, in particular her relationship with her therapist, which is a good deal more controlling and manipulative than first impressions might suggest, but she has reached some better understanding of her own condition and some acceptance of her past and her future. I think I am happy knowing that the representation of postnatal depression and the intrusive thoughts that came with the condition were presented in a way (based on my own experience) that other parents have been able to identify with, to the point they have felt less alone. I have had some wonderful messages from other parents who have been through the same sort of trauma I did and I am thankful that for a brief while, I made them feel seen and heard and validated. The impact on me personally is complicated, though, as Magpie’s story is in no way complete, but I do perhaps feel some catharsis, allowing me to appreciate how much I have overcome and how far I have come since those dark, confusing days. But I also know there is a long way to go- although that is for different novels. I doubt I will write a book like Full Immersion ever again, to be honest- it drew too much lifeblood from my veins. I am grateful for the opportunity to put the book out in the world, however, and am proud of myself for having done so.
[GdM] You are also an accomplished artist, with your artwork playing a prominent role in The Once Yellow House. Could you tell us how you came to adopt an epistolary style for this occultist horror and how art became such an integrated part of the novel?
[Gemma Amor] …I have long wanted to write an epistolary novel and it made complete sense to me that if the protagonist was an artist, her diary would be filled with doodles and sketches and pallet swatches and more. I wish I had expanded on what artwork there was, honestly, but time and printing costs were a little against me. Other books like The Raw Shark Texts explore similar themes with interesting text layouts that fascinated me, and I wanted the novel to act as a puzzle the reader had to try and piece together, as many first-hand accounts of major tragedies are, after the event. It also helped portray Hope’s fragmented state of mind and relationships with other people, and allowed me to introduce other points of view without it being too jarring a switch from one character to another.
[GdM] In addition to being an outstanding horror novel, The Once Yellow House is also your tribute to the color yellow. What is it about yellow that you find so intriguing? (I’m asking on behalf of my daughter, who is also very passionate about this color.)
[Gemma Amor] …Honestly, I think the best answer to this is to read The Once Yellow House, paying particular attention to Hope’s thoughts and research and footnotes in relation to the colour yellow, and it is all laid out in there- in a nutshell, it is a duplicitous colour that means many different things to different people. Colours in general feature heavily in some of my favorite works of literature and obviously in visual artforms, and it fascinates me. I am a highly colour-driven individual and this won’t be my last exploration of hue in my work.
[GdM] Could you tell us more about your work in podcasting? What would be the best starting point for our readers to check out your podcasts?
[Gemma Amor] …I was the co-creator and voice actor for a horror-comedy audio drama podcast called Calling Darkness, season one of which features Kate Siegel, and this was very much a teach-yourself how to podcast experiment that turned out rather well. Season Two is very much the baby of my writing partner from S1, but I still feature. Beyond that, most of my stories have appeared on the well-known horror anthology show the NoSleep Podcast, also on Shadows at the Door, The Hidden Frequencies, and more. I have story consulted for the folks at Fool and Scholar, working on their audio drama Never Mind Cruxmont, starring Adjoa Andoh, and have popped up as a host a few times on Pseudopod, too.
[GdM] Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. What’s next for Gemma Amor going into 2024?
[Gemma Amor] …2024 sees the release of my destination horror story collection All Who Wander Are Lost from Cemetery Gates Media, and that’s it for book releases that year. I will be working on the Titan anthology of ancestral horror stories I am editing called Roots of My Fears, and looking to find a home for my next novel which is currently with my agent. I plan to make a big return to short stories, publishing those individually each month, and of course I hope to paint and travel and enjoy all the things I have enjoyed in 2023 to the best of my ability. Oh, and I aim to cultivate a slightly healthier work life balance…but then I say that every year!
This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #37.