Author Sue Hollister Barr writes horror and sci-fi, as well as her own script, and I expect she’s got lots of twists up her sleeve. Spoiler Alert: “Holly” is sixty-seven. If she follows her mother’s timeline, she still has to move to an obscure island in the South Pacific and swim with sharks.
I meet my friend Holly at her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Catching up, we begin our conversation talking about people who are total assholes. For this blog, have I yet interviewed anyone who is a total asshole? I have not. Yet. Haha. Holly has self-published a rewritten “author’s edition” of her marvelous horror novel, Twisted, which already has some recognition from its original, conventional publication in 1992. She will follow that with her new sci-fi novella Rococo, which I love even more.
Holly is a member of my writers group, Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers (future post!), and always ready to generously dole the most intelligent, helpful and totally merciless feedback at the drop of a hat. My writing will never be on par with Holly’s if I don’t follow the simple advice she’s offered on so many occasions. The pressure is on!
From Berkeley Dropout to an Obscure Island in the South Pacific
I’ll start my story by introducing a compelling character.
I realize I know next to nothing about Holly. I didn’t know, for instance, that she was adopted. She was born in Manhattan. She was put up for adoption through a “then-snooty” adoption agency on the Upper East Side. When she was eighteen, she went back to this agency.
“It was a very strange feeling,” she remembers. “I’m the product these people sell. I wondered if my sale contributed to what looked like an authentic Louis XIV end table in their waiting room?”
She wanted to know who her birth parents were, but the agency would not tell her.
Holly was raised by a Protestant minister in a household that never understood her. There were things like conformity, fear and lack of spirit that she couldn’t relate to in the least. It wasn’t until she was over sixty years old that she finally found her birth mother.
“She’s in her nineties,” Holly reports. “She’s living on an obscure island in the South Pacific. Her boyfriend, who moved there with her and is younger than I am, built her bedroom on a platform out on the water. This is so that she can see both the sunrise and the sunset over water. And her bedroom is completely transparent so she can see the stars.”
While her boyfriend is sleeping, Holly’s mother likes to skinny-dip at night with the reef sharks. With a twinkle in her eye, she reports that their eyes are “mischievous,” but “they’ve never bitten.”
Holly considers herself boring by comparison. Still: “Whenever a guy has ever asked ‘can I walk you to the subway so you’ll feel safe?’ I feel like puking. On general principle, I’ve always refused to let fear dictate where I go and when I go there. Many a time I’ve walked in the most dangerous neighborhoods alone in the middle of the night, because I love to see the stars.”
Blood is, in fact, thicker than water.
Okay, now I'll set the scene:
In Berkeley, California, Holly was a nineteen-sixties hippie “so hard-core” the only thing that kept her going in school was the challenge of how to buck the system and still get A’s. Her masterpiece was when she made a bet with a friend who was always wrecking their social life by saying she had to do homework. Holly made a deal with this friend that she could get a higher grade on a term paper without reading the book or researching it in any way. In addition, she would write the entire thing in the time that it took the teacher to stroll through the aisles collecting the papers. Admittedly, this teacher was known to take her time, chatting with each student as she went. Holly’s concern was whether the teacher would start on the side of the room closer to her or farther away. Fortunately the teacher started on the side farther away, and fellow students, aware of what was going on, chatted a lot. Holly got an A minus on the paper. The minus was because it wasn’t typed.
She dropped out of Berkeley High School in the tenth grade. She went on to teach writing.
“One of the great coups,” she admittedly brags, “was that in 1982, the State of New York certified me to teach Creative Writing without a high school diploma.”
Twisted is “not for the squeamish or politically correct”
Now I'll build tension.
“When I was teaching writing,” Holly tells me, “I would tell my students that the one genre I couldn’t cover was horror. I morally objected to it. I thought it was sick and I’d never read it.”
Then her agent asked “Holly, would you write a horror novel if I got you half the money before you write the first word?” Holly said “Sure!”
She ran out and bought the first horror novel she could find, a Stephen King. Her concerns were specific: How many pages between blood baths? How many pages before the next person gets laid?
“What I found the most upsetting,” Holly remembers, “was I assumed I would have to struggle to come up with the sick shit I would need to include in a horror novel. What I found, to my horror – pun intended – was that just beneath my self-righteous veneer was an immediately accessible and apparently infinite well of the sickest imaginings possible.”
At the time she wrote Twisted, on a deadline, Holly was also working mandatory overtime for an airline. She’d scribble passages of Twisted on scrap paper with her right hand, while her left booked itineraries to Florida. The publisher loved the result, saying it was perfect the way it was and way above the genre, but they wanted her to add fifty pages so it could be sold for a dollar more per copy. By then Holly had fallen into the worse depression in her life, over a breakup, and couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. “So I basically fucked up my own book, padding it with formless, utterly embarrassing mush.”
She also missed her deadline, and her book dropped from the top of the list. The book was conventionally published in 1992 by a company who is now out of business. She assumed the book did not sell, and the whole thing was basically a wash.
Is my character’s fate in doubt? Yes! You must be wondering what happens next.
A decade later, Holly met a guy on an internet dating site who recognized her name. It turns out her book was still available for sale. She’d not seen a cent in royalties, but the book had been reprinted seven times and had a following.
Rococo has Thrills, Chills, Aliens and a Space Ship
The cast of Twisted is a collection of sixties hippies traveling from California to Long Island. It’s one of those stories where everyone is getting hacked up, one by one, but who’s the killer? The new, self-published release is an extensive re-write, both cleaning up the crimes of the past and adding new material. Or, as Holly puts it, “additional twists.”
“I’m glad I did it,” Holly tells me, “because as I read the thing I thought, ‘this fucking piece of shit has been out there for over twenty years with my name on it?’ Unlike the publisher, I don’t care how long it is. I just want it to be good.”
The only reason Holly even thought to re-release Twisted was because she’d made the decision to self-publish her sci-fi novella Rococo, which is a tale I adore, packed with the brilliant and totally unconscious social commentary that seems to flow directly from Holly’s brain cells to her fingertips as she types.
With Rococo, she’d nearly hit the “publish” button when she thought, “Wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture?” She has a book out there that’s been selling for over twenty years, still available on Amazon, and she’s gonna start by self-publishing a completely unknown work? She decided to start with Twisted, and follow it with Rococo.
Holly’s Rococo future-Manhattan dystopia is packed with ostentatious glitz, faulty tech, consumerism, holographic advertising, excess, thrills, chills, aliens and a space ship. Set in 2100, Holly spent two years on her research and relies heavily on serious predictions made by companies that are paid by major corporations to forecast the future. But Holly is not big on “message-driven” fiction, which she considers “icky.”
Asked about her social commentary, she says, “I guess it’s how I think. It could be argued that I’m a cynic but, like most cynics, I’m a romantic underneath.”
Good writers know the rules. They also know when to break the rules.
Holly knows there’s a stigma with self-publishing, something “any idiot whose writing is downright painful” can do. But there is a swan song quality to this. She’s sixty-seven years old. She worked for ten years as senior editor for a literary agency, so she’s seen the other side. She doesn’t want to turn her work into some agency where someone trying to make a name for themselves has to find something wrong with it to justify the salary. She’s going to do it her way.
I tell Holly about the people I meet who seem to reject “scripts.” I feel very encouraged when I run across the weirdos. They give me hope. Would it be accurate to convey Holly as one of those people?
“I’m so rebellious,” she counters, “that I don’t even like the idea of being labeled rebellious.”
Toss that script, too!
Writing is the only vocation Holly’s ever loved. But good writing, she believes, merely sparks recognition of the truth the reader already knows. Then Holly raises the bar impossibly high to describe really good writing as “words with such power that you literally reach off the page and grab the beating heart out of your audience like some kind of unbelievable kung-fu.”
Okay, I give up.
Holly would rather be in the presence of someone who disagrees with her on every single point, no matter how twisted – pun intended – the logic, as long as that logic is their own, than some script-following people-pleaser who agrees with everything she says. But she also feels on a deep fundamental level that “every time you make a separation, you cut off part of yourself. The purest form of being is just this open radar dish without any judgments or any filters.”
Is there still time to raise the stakes? Good stories involve death.
Okay, no one dies in this article, but I can’t help but wonder: Is there a moment of horrifying people that appeals to Holly?
“I honestly thought that I was just complying with the necessity of the genre,” Holly sheepishly answers. “If I’m gonna write horror, I’m gonna write really horrible horror.”
But then again: “In those moments where you’re completely untethered, you let go of all the little assumptions that you’ve been working on in day-to-day life. I think from time to time, everybody needs to crash. As in, let go of every assumption that you’ve got. And then, if it reforms in the same exact way, alright. But it will probably reform a little differently, and this will be closer to the truth.”
I'm gonna have to settle for my usual method of just keep writing until it doesn't suck.
When Holly looked through Twisted again, she realized something: Because she felt insecure about writing a horror novel, because it totally wasn’t her genre, she overcompensated.
“I made it as sick as possible,” she confesses. “I didn’t just make it gory. I now realize other horror novels are just gory. Mine is gory and sick. I really went the whole nine yards.”
At nine yards, it’s a great read! Thanks, Holly! I officially adopt “go nine yards” as my new writing dictum.
If you like this character, you're in luck: Holly is currently penning a memoir. She has a meetup group called "Old, Weird, and Don’t Care Who Knows It," but space is very limited. If you search under "Sue Hollister Barr" you'll find that her new, much-improved edition of Twisted is currently available on Amazon. Don't forget to leave your 5-star review! Or you can drop by some bookstores like the Strand, on Broadway & 13th (NYC), for a copy. Stay tuned for the release of Rococo, which this blog will be sure to plug.