10 Female Writers Who Could Teach Male Authors a Thing or Two

By Bob Freville

1. Kathe Koja

Long before modern readers embraced the brutal, gut-churning minimalism of Chuck Palahniuk, Kathe Koja introduced a clipped literary style to speculative fiction that was brusque, brave and fringe before fringe was really a thing.

A prominent figure during the 90s genre paperback boom, Koja made a name for herself with the seminal novel “The Cipher,” her debut book and the first title from Dell Books’ then-new Abyss imprint. “The Cipher” introduced us to a female voice that was neither flowery nor delicate but angry and foreboding.

Koja’s characters were grungy and subversive in ways that the literary world hadn’t seen before. Indeed, early works like “The Cipher” and “Bad Brains” introduced relatable twenty-somethings at a time when the mainstream was getting it all wrong with flicks like Reality Bites.

The dysfunctional couple at the heart of “The Cipher” is emblematic of Koja’s singular cultural perspective and the horrors of the book show us that girls don’t just wanna have fun, they also want to reach into the dark and rage.

2. Hannah Forman, aka Hannah Neurotica

The early-2000s saw a relative drought when it came to the kind of lovingly assembled homemade print zines that many of us had grown up on in the Eighties and Nineties. That is, until a young New Yorker by the name of Hannah Neurotica took a metaphorical sledgehammer to the duel concepts of publishing and gender politics in horror.

Neurotica began making her own DIY horror publication, Ax Wound Zine, in 2009, and it quickly filled the void left in the wake of Fangoria folding its print arm. It also filled another void, one felt by female horror fiends all across the nation. It was and is billed as the first feminist horror publication.

Ax Wound Zine became a place where women could discuss their favorite genre classics and put the themes of those classics squarely within the context of a woman’s perspective. That Neurotica did so with such bravery, wit and gusto speaks to why she remains an important voice, both in the zine world and among the women of horror.

Dudes, take note: Ms. Forman didn’t need balls to get the job done. She created something groundbreaking and wildly collectible simply by being passionate and steadfast.

3. Darcey Steinke

Most of the people I know in the horror/New Weird/Bizarro community are unaware of this blessed belletrist and her bloody incredible body of work. That is a shame since her second novel, “Jesus Saves,” is one of the most brutally imagistic and beatific fables I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Steinke got her start with the tough-as-nails romantic novel “Suicide Blonde,” so named for the INXS song that was popular at the time. A groundbreaking achievement in literary fiction, it paved the way for the bloody bildungsroman “Jesus Saves,” a tale of suburban domestic horror, child abduction, lost innocence and faith in the face of hopelessness.

What makes Steinke’s writing so potent is the economy of her language and the way that she is able to deploy it. Somehow, the simplest of descriptions becomes an onyx puddle of heartbreaking poetry. I challenge any visually-minded person to read the first chapter without automatically coming up with a shot list in their head for a film adaptation.

Men might make up the majority when it comes to best-selling horror, but few of them are as capable of writing truly imagistic prose like the kind found in Steinke’s work. If there’s one thing that her books  teach us it’s that an author’s style can benefit from being at turns scathing and sensitive.

4. Emma Alice Johnson

Emma Johnson is one of the strongest voices in bizarro and horror; she’s also a fellow Bizarro Pulp Press alum. Represent! But aside from sharing a publisher in common, I’ve had no real world contact with Ms. Johnson.

The only contact I have had is with her work, such as the gleefully gruetacular short story collection “Berzerkoids” and, more recently, short but (bitter)sweet “Lake Lurkers.” Suffice it to say that Johnson’s work has touched me despite our lack of actual contact, and that’s part of what makes her writings so special.

What this Wonderland Award-winning writer does so well is immerse you in a world that reminds you in some sick way of your own despite its ferociously foreign landscape. Expertly planting plot twists around every corner in the leanest of shorts, Johnson is able to gross the reader out and then tug at their proverbial heart strings in a matter of three pages or less.

Let that be a lesson to the Stephen Kings of the world who have to describe a pickup truck’s paint job or a wet fart for seventeen paragraphs before they’re satisfied that their work is done. The ladies have spoken and less really is more.

5. Francesca Lia Block

I’m not usually one to read YA books, but when my girl introduced me to “Wasteland,” I knew that it was back to the realm of S.E. Hinton for me. Francesca Lia Block’s prose are every bit as poetic in nature as the aforementioned Darcey Steinke, but they’re also elegantly plotted.

What Lia Block does in novella after novella is what the Coen Brothers have done with cinema; each of her books is a singular work, usually in a dramatically different genre than what came before. She never visits the same place twice and, yet, the reader always feels a certain semblance of familiarity. That’s because Lia Block’s signature is ingrained in the language.

When you read a Lia Block book, you feel secure in the arms of a guardian or guide, someone who is spiriting you away to a very unique locale. Once you get there, you never really want to leave. And like all of the best writers, Lia Block knows to cut it short, lest you leave without wanting more.

6. Flannery O’Connor

When folks think of Southern Grit Lit, they often think of Barry Hannah or Harry Crews, but the South had no finer scribe than Flannery O’Connor, a woman whose first novel, “Wise Blood,” said more about the Southern plight than Jimmy Carter.

Her portrait of a war-ravaged man resolving to form an anti-religious ministry opened the door for the irreverent social commentary of authors like Kurt Vonnegut (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces) and, yes, even Harry Crews (The Gospel Singer).

Chauvanism is such that the male literati long believed that women writers belonged penning meek little poems in the same way that they thought their wives belonged in the kitchen. What O’Connor proved in stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Revelation” is that a woman is more keenly aware of the world’s flaws than the myopic male who’s blinded by his animal desires, desires that O’Connor chronicled with acerbic humor and blunt conclusions.

7. C.V. Hunt

Author C.V. Hunt has been churning out books of all shapes, sizes and striations for several years now. From the doped out proto-bizarro How to Kill Yourself to her macabre twist on the #MeToo movement, Cockblock, Hunt kicks her readers in the crotch with bold concepts, batshit characters and Rabelaisian takes on ultra-relevant topics.

As the owner of Grindhouse Press, Hunt has established herself as an integral figure on the indie lit circuit, but it’s her words as much as her commitment to the words of others that really stands out. Consider the first line from 2013’s Thanks for Ruining My Life: “The city was burning down all day.”

It’s a blunt object to the solar plexus, immediately setting Hunt’s work up as something chaotic and matter-of-fact. Not convinced? Consider the opening of 2014’s Baby Hater:

“The first time I punched a baby in the face I didn’t realize what I’d done until its mother started shrieking. I stood slack-jawed in the middle of a sparsely populated mall in the middle of the afternoon, staring at the mother’s white knuckles gripping the stroller handle.”

This is how C.V. Hunt writes, with paradoxical abandon and precision, meting out developments in a flash and sparing no cringy detail. Some of our snowflake beta-male writers would do well to pay attention.

8. Elle Nash

As I said in my interview with Elle Nash earlier this year, this is an author whose debut novel is highly readable and highly literary at a time when many millennials have eschewed the word literary like it was leprosy.

Instead of making a splash with some silly first book about robots with giant alien penises or has-been celebrities in a steel cage match with cyborgs, Nash carefully crafted an uncompromising portrait of a bizarre love triangle and an imperfect protagonist who is allowed to be human.

That’s kind of amazing given the move toward more cartoonish plots by the indie press. And her novel, Animals Eat Each Other, is easily one of the most exciting releases of 2018.

What Nash possesses is the talent to let her work breathe; each page feels lived in, like you’ve been with her characters before. This sense of self or the uncanny is what makes it something to be devoured.

If her first novel is any indication of what’s to come, everyone should start clearing space in their Kindle libraries.

9. Tiffany Scandal

Tiffany Scandal sucks! At least, that’s what her official site would have you believe. But don’t get it twisted, this Scandal is one that won’t pass any time soon. In just five years, she’s gone from an Eraserhead Press New Bizarro Author with a scorching (and body melting) debut novella to a well-regarded mixologist of bizarro and hardcore horror.

Her third book, Shit Luck, was hotly anticipated by her peers and didn’t let anyone down. In it, Scandal does what all great writers do, she conceives of relatable characters who fend off life’s myriad facefucks.

While all you neckbeards are busy dreaming up steampunk adventures for cardboard cut out facsimiles of your pathetic asses, chicks like Tiffany Scandal are cranking out dope ass renderings of real people facing interesting problems. And that’s where my money’s at, Jack.

10. Riya Anna Polcastro

Finally, we’ve got Riya Anna Polcastro who took us on a gilded tour of Crazy Town in her debut novel, JANE. In the book, Polcastro expertly explores the ever-more-tenuous line between sanity and insanity, pitting a young female protagonist against the worst antagonist of all: heritage.

To say much more would be to spoil this hefty hell broth of mood swings, mixed emotions, madness and resignation. The best thing I can say about Riya Anna Polcastro is that her book is so challenging that it leaves you aching to read her next book, if for no other reason than you cannot imagine what she’ll hurl at you next.

Whoever said that chivalry was dead may be right, but if my experience reading these incredible women’s words are any sign, I’d say that admiration certainly isn’t. Snatch up a copy of each of these books today and heed my warning: Take notes, my man.

Alienation & Validation: 10 Questions with Author Elle Nash

Any author worth their salt will tell you that to craft a good first novel, you have to labor like you’re working the coal mines. It’s an emotional and oft-Sisyphean task that takes time, energy and a whole lot of pain.
Most of those authors are also full of shit. The hubris that attends your debut novel is something both naive and myopic. The bottom line is, most first novels blow, if for no other reason than the author went into it with the misguided intention of writing the next Great American Novel.
Elle Nash shows no signs of having suffered under such delusions and the amazing part is that her work shines as a result of this. Animals Eat Each Other is the kind of debut that all writers should aspire to, a highly literary work in an age where the trend has been to distance oneself from the literary.
Recalling at once the grimness of Flannery O’Connor, the ferocity of Gone Girl and the imagistic talent of authors like Darcey Steinke (see: Jesus Saves) and Francesca Lia Block (see: Wasteland), this novel tells a splintered tale of a bizarre love triangle in a way that we haven’t seen before and likely won’t see again.
Its author is an unexpected one, coming as she does from a background writing for manipulative mainstream publications like Cosmopolitan Magazine and the like. But don’t get it twisted, Elle Nash is not some insipid hack spewing out “13 Ways to Please Your Man & Not Be So Damn Ugly”. Nash is the editor of Witchcraft Magazine and a scribe who marries the macabre with the mundane in a way not unlike Bret Easton Ellis at his best.
I sat down with Elle to see if she could spill the realness about this incredible first book. Here’s what she had to say.

Bob Freville: “Animals Eat Each Other” is such an evocative title. What was your process with your debut novel? Did the story come first or did you think of the title first and then work from there?
Elle Nash: Thank you! The story came first. I had a few other titles previous to this one. In 2016 I’d written a poem called ‘the moon’ as part of a chapbook that won the Nostrovia Chapbook Contest, in which “animals eating each other” was a line, and that seemed to fit better than anything I’d thought of previously.
The process of writing it was long. It had started as a short story. I was working under Tom Spanbauer’s mentorship at the time and just kept expanding and felt it would be best as a short novel by the time I was finished with it.

In an age where more and more indie authors are kind of gearing their work towards the bizarro fiction genre, going out of their way to kind of give everything a shock factor without placing value on plot and character development, I found your book to be a breath of fresh air.

Was the humanism of the piece important to you and how did you approach the narrative? Were you aiming for something a bit more literary than what we see from most small press outlets today?
Thank you so much. I appreciate work that is shocking in the right way, but I’m a huge character person. Even with movies, I want things with far more character development than anything else– it’s something I find frustrating about blockbuster movies lately. There’s zero character development.
If you can’t make me care about the person I’m reading/watching about, even if I hate the character, which is still evoking something out of me, I just don’t feel invested in it. I want to be moved by what I read and the only way to do that is for me to know the character.
In that way I would say I was aiming for something more literary, if we describe literary fiction as something that focuses more on character. Plot is important too, but at the same time, I wanted the plot to feel natural and not too clean.

What’s more important to you as a writer? Style or substance? And do you think the two can be handled in a mutually respectful fashion?
Truly, both, but style more than substance. I can read a lot of sad substance stories but they may not break my heart. Style brings me to my knees.

You’re going to get this from every interviewer because it’s inevitable with any first novel: How much of the narrative is autobiographical?
I do get it from every interviewer! At this point, I just want to ask why it matters, if the work is good and compelling. Memory itself is a kind of fiction, so even if any of it were ‘true,’ it would only be true for a single person from a single perspective. It’s a similar experience reading a really good book, when you’re in the ‘fictive dream’ state. We love it because in that singular moment the truth is revealed to us in some small way.

Alienation plays a big role in this story, particularly the alienation of millennials from each other. It’s interesting to explore the detachment between people even when they are physically close. Is this something that you intend to continue to delve into in future works? Do you see your book as an artifact of the era that we are living in or would you prefer it be read as something more timeless?
Alienation is kind of a timeless feeling, I think, and it’s something I think about a lot, so it will probably show up in all of my future work in some form.

What do you view as Lilith’s biggest problem in the book?
That she wants to feel validated by her mother.

Fuck, marry, kill. Darcey Steinke, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Bret Easton Ellis.
Fuck Bret Easton Ellis, Marry Darcey Steinke, Kill Hubert Selby Jr.

Savage. (laughs) Are you writing another book or focusing on other things at the moment?
Yes, I’m working on a novel and also a book of short stories. I do try to switch to ‘focus on other things’ daily, like one day or for a few days I’ll wake up and think, “today I am not a writer” and I do all of the other things life demands of me. But I worry I might have too many days like that and then I become depressed and anxious and come back to writing again.

I know the feeling. What does your writing routine look like?
I frantically work when my baby naps most of the time. I also text a lot of one liners up into my notes app, and sometimes I just talk to a recording app on my phone while driving, which will transcribe (though not perfectly) the things I say to it. On Saturdays and Sundays when I can swing it, I will work a bit if I can while my husband is home.
I try to stay in the present moment a lot but it’s difficult. Most of the time, I’m thinking about my next project or story– about plot or things I should be writing down. Then I finish a story and I feel embarrassed by it and I’ll think about it until I can get back to the computer and add more or fix the parts I know are bad. Revision is hard. I try to revise things one moment at a time and not look at the big picture if I can help it…. that tends to overwhelm me, and it creates blocks in my work.

What are the two most important words in the English language in your opinion?
“Love me.”

Animals Eat Each Other is available from Dzanc Books. Click here to pick up your copy today.