Gothling me

Early work, 1970.
Photo by Bob Brite.

I was born in New Orleans on May 25, 1967. My parents are both from Kentucky, but my father had just received his first teaching job at the University of New Orleans, where he was a professor of economics until recently. My mother taught me to read by the time I was 3. Before I could write, I was telling stories into tape recorders ("The Bad Mouse," released on CD by Gauntlet Press, still exists as evidence). By age 5, I was making booklets about bats, writing stories like "Attack of the Mud Monster," and trying to read The Bell Jar.

When I was 6, my parents split up and my mother and I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I would live for thirteen years. (My father stayed in New Orleans, and I came back to visit a lot, so it has always felt like home.) I never stopped writing, but around age twelve I became really serious about it and began sending out stories, usually to wildly inappropriate markets like Redbook. In the meantime, I discovered the Beatles and Harlan Ellison, and was inspired to shake up my redneck high school with an underground newspaper (actually more of a broadsheet) called The Glass Goblin.

I sold my first story at 18, so I did experience the six years of rejection that is said to be average for writers -- I just started a lot earlier than most. That first sale was my story "Optional Music for Voice and Piano," to The Horror Show, a semi-professional magazine based in California. At its largest, The Horror Show's circulation was only about 10,000, but it was widely read and respected by horror professionals -- a good place to start. I sold them several more stories over the next two years, and in 1987, editor David B. Silva invited me to be part of the "Rising Stars" issue, featuring two stories and an interview apiece from five new horror writers. Among them was my friend Brian Hodge -- we met through that issue of The Horror Show.

After the "Rising Stars" issue came out, I received a letter from Douglas E. Winter, who I knew at that time only as the biographer of Stephen King. He was working as a publishing consultant for a hardcover horror line being started by Walker & Company, he'd liked my stories, and he wondered whether I had a novel in the works. I'd just begun my freshman year at the University of North Carolina and was hating it. That letter decided my future. I dropped out of college and began working on what would become Lost Souls.

While working on the novel and waiting to see if anyone would buy it, I went through an array of jobs including candymaker, mouse caretaker, artist's model, short order cook, and stripper. Mouse caretaker is the one I always get asked about. Basically, I was a flunky at a cancer research lab at UNC, where I fed and cleaned up after thousands of mice. I'd do this in the daytime, then come home and write about Steve, Ghost, Nothing and the rest at night, getting drunk on cheap wine and liquor whenever possible.

Gothling me

Gothling-me standing in front of the desk
where I wrote Lost Souls
(note bottle of Chartreuse at right), 1988.
Photo by Connie Brite.

Chris and me

Chris and me in France, 1998.
Photo by Hugues LeBlanc.

Through no fault of Doug Winter's, Lost Souls sat on the shelf for a year until Walker & Company decided they weren't going to start that new horror line after all. In the meantime, I had moved to Athens, Georgia -- I just went to visit friends and didn't leave. Though my fictional town, Missing Mile, is in North Carolina, it is also heavily influenced by my townie days in Athens. In July 1989, I went to the 40 Watt Club to see the band Government Cheese and met the nutty chef who would become my husband, Christopher DeBarr. He was dancing wildly with his shirt off, and tried to get me to take mine off too. I fell in love anyway.

In 1991, Dell bought Lost Souls as a paperback original. That was exciting enough, but a few months later they decided to make it the first hardcover in the Abyss horror line and signed me to a six-figure, three-book contract. Lost Souls was published in October 1992, and never received a lukewarm reaction that I know of. Readers either loved it or hated it.

I wrote the second book of my contract, Drawing Blood, in just nine months. (Its original title was Birdland, and I still think of it by that name, but Dell wanted something that sounded like a "horror title." Actually, I believe now that they wanted readers to think they were getting a sequel to Lost Souls.) As soon as I'd turned in the manuscript, Chris and I pulled up stakes and moved to New Orleans. I was finally home, and I've been here ever since. Around this time I put together my first short story collection, published as Swamp Foetus by Borderlands Press, later reprinted in paperback by Dell with the new title Wormwood (I think they feared some kind of reaction from the right-to-lifers).

It took me two years to write what was to be the third book of my Dell contract, Exquisite Corpse. When I finally turned it in, Dell announced that they couldn't publish it due to its "extreme" content. Jeanne Cavelos had left by then, and I never received an explanation from anyone at Dell -- but in the words of Richard Curtis, the VP "had to change her underwear after reading it."

Soon after, I received notice that Penguin, my UK publisher, was declining to publish Exquisite Corpse as well. Unlike Dell, they had the decency to at least offer an explanation. "I was very sorry not to feel able to offer to publish it," wrote my editor, "both because I have so enjoyed the success we have had with your first three books and because I admired the book's ambition and what I felt was a considerable development in your writing. But I did have very considerable reservations about the subject; which is not to say that fiction shouldn't handle shocking and dangerous subjects, rather that I felt very uncomfortable with the mixture of a [journalistic] approach to the characters and a tendency to see them as admirable, almost vampire-like characters. [As Caitlin Kiernan later commented, "I suppose it never occurred to him that vampires are, by definition, serial killers, or to question his implication that it's acceptable to view vampires as admirable."] There would be bound to be some negative response to the book, and I am afraid I couldn't feel that I could wholeheartedly defend it, given my own reservations."

At last the novel found homes with Simon & Schuster in the US and Orion in the UK. Around that same time, rock diva Courtney Love contacted me and asked me to write her biography. Yes, although she made clear from the beginning that she would not officially authorize the book, it was Courtney's idea. She'd read and liked Lost Souls, and she wanted a version of her story written to counter all the negative biographies that were supposedly being written. (Only one of these, the hatchet job Queen of Noise, has yet seen publication. An editor at the house that published it reportedly said of my manuscript, "It's responsible journalism, and that's not what we're looking for.") She would give me access to journals, letters, photographs, and other material I could never have obtained without her; in return, she would have control over what did and didn't go in the book. I don't consider the biography part of my real body of work, but it's a fairly juicy and readable piece of pop culture flotsam that financed a lot of travel, short story writing, and animal care. Courtney Love: The Real Story was published by Simon & Schuster (US) and Orion (UK) in 1996.

My next book-length project wasn't my idea either, but it turned out to be a lot more fun. Harper Prism, a fantasy/horror division of Harper Collins, contacted my agent with the news that they were publishing a series of novels based on The Crow and they wanted me to write one. I wasn't very enthusiastic -- I'd liked the first movie, but I wasn't a fan of the James O'Barr comic it was based on, and I was leery of "franchise fiction." So I named a price I thought they'd never meet, and they met it. When I started playing with ideas for the book, I realized that The Crow was basically just a revenant tale -- the only plot stipulation was that someone had to return from the dead to right a terrible wrong. My outlined tale of homosexuality, transsexualism, sadomasochism, and torture didn't faze the Crow people, and The Lazarus Heart was born.

Outside the Dakota

Outside the Dakota in New York, 1997.
Photo by Christopher DeBarr.

With money in the bank from these two books, I took some time off from novels and wrote a bunch of short stories, my first love. Most of these appear in my second collection, published in 1998 by Gauntlet Press as Are You Loathsome Tonight? and by Orion in 1999 as Self-Made Man. We also traveled a lot: to Italy, France, Holland, Jamaica, New York, San Francisco, and with my mother to Australia.

In late 1998, Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in publishing a chapbook -- he was doing a series of them, including one by Peter Straub. I was working on what was then intended to be my fifth novel, so I said I didn't have time to write something new, but I'd long been interested in publishing the untitled story out of which Lost Souls had grown. This appeared in 1999 as The Seed of Lost Souls. I liked working with Bill so much that when he asked me to do another book, this one a 10- to 15,000-word original novella, I agreed. There was a lot I didn't like about the novel I was working on, and when I threw out all those parts, I decided this story would make a better novella than novel. The hardcover limited edition of Plastic Jesus is scheduled for May 2000 publication by Subterranean, and a trade edition will be published in September. Inspired by the murder of John Lennon and my obsession with the Beatles since then, it will probably piss off a lot of other Beatles fans, but I had absolutely no choice about writing this thing -- it was one of those stories that took me by the throat and wouldn't let go until I was done.

Around 2000, I experienced something that didn't feel so much like writer's block as writer's fatigue. I was writing, but it came very slowly and never really gave me the high I get when the work's going well. I started another novel, but completed only two chapters over the course of two months, with every word feeling like an attempt to squeeze blood out of a cut that's trying to heal.

Finally I was so sick of myself and my moribund novel that I decided to write something else, something that would just be fun. This 'fun book' turned out to be LIQUOR, published in 2004 by Three Rivers Press, and it ended up changing everything I thought I knew about writing. Probably those changes were happening anyway, over those years that I felt so tired, and LIQUOR was just the conscious culmination of them. But in the course of writing it, I realized I was tired of always dealing with damaged, angst-ridden characters; that I was tired of writing horror, a field that had once felt boundless to me; and most of all that I was deeply dissatisfied with the way I'd been writing about New Orleans. Since LIQUOR, I've published nearly half a million words about these two young chefs and their families -- THE VALUE OF X, PRIME, and several short stories (some of which appear in my collection THE DEVIL YOU KNOW), with at least two more novels coming up -- and I've never enjoyed any characters more.

Chris and I currently live in an old house in Uptown New Orleans with one old dog and way too many cats, most of whom came from the pound or the streets. We also have an albino king snake, but we wouldn't if it was up to Chris. I've taken up birdwatching. And that's about it for now.

-- Poppy Z. Brite
New Orleans, LA, October 2004

A normal day

A normal day at Casa PZB, 1998.
Photo by me.