Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Karen Runge

Meghan: Hi, Karen. Welcome, welcome. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Karen Runge: I’m a dark fiction author and occasional visual artist, based in South Africa. While my own brand of horror is more on the psychological side of things, I adore every inch of the genre and devour it in all its forms and formats. Art is my alpha and omega: books, film, music, visuals—all of it. I’m lucky to have grown up in a family full of art-inclined people, where I was free to explore these interests well beyond genre and specific tastes. My parents both hate horror, but they never stopped me from reading it. I find humanity fascinating—the wheres and whys of the things we do—and this is the major lynchpin in all my work. We’re all such a hot mess: terrible and beautiful and complex as the world is wide. I could live a thousand years and never run out of stuff to write about.

Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?

Karen Runge:

  • I’m a huge nature lover. I volunteer for a local wildlife rehabilitation centre (we’re out in the sticks) and hike at every opportunity.
  • I have a phobia of pork. I mean, as food. Not just I-don’t-eat-it pickiness, but a full-on nauseous reaction at the very thought. I’d go into why, but talking about it… yeah. Phobias are phobias. Anyway. If you see me reference pork in any of my stories, be sure to strap in. There’s a reason.
  • This one often surprises me: I’m actually quite domesticated. I love cooking and baking and sewing: they’re interests I’ve avidly pursued from childhood. It’s great because if I can’t find something I want or like – from clothing to cakes – I can usually make it myself. Or try to, anyway. I also get a real kick out of making stuff for family and friends.
  • I speak three languages competently, and while Russian is a very weak fourth, I can read and write Cyrillic – which I put to regular use. Cyrillic is my go-to code. Lists, concepts, thoughts, poems… whatever I wouldn’t want people to see over my shoulder. So, my family might have some fun with that when I die.
  • Major confession: I have never seen Eraserhead. Yes, I know.

Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?

Karen Runge: First actual book? Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I was about six or seven, barely out of school readers, but I was determined to get through it. I won the school’s annual reading trophy over that—I remember feeling so proud. I thought this was a major life achievement. Of course I had to read it again a few years later, because for all my enthusiasm much of it went way over my head. Well, I was six. There was a pretty black horse on the cover. I tried.

Meghan: What are you reading now?

Karen Runge: I’m finally about to start The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, having just finished Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation of Christ. Not sure why I’m on such a high-brow, world-religions kick at the moment, but this is where I’m being lead so I’ll just go with it.

Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?

Karen Runge: I love the Narnia series. I still read those books once every few years. They’re like my literary comfort food. It’s surprising because I’m not much into Fantasy, not one for kids’ fiction, and just in general that type of book doesn’t exist on my shelves. But I grew up reading them, and have always returned to them. They’re so vivid and wholesome and beautiful.

Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?

Karen Runge: Honestly, I don’t recall a moment when this was a decision, or even a thought. It was always something I knew I wanted. My father was probably the initial spark: from a very young age he would tell me about how amazing books are and how wonderful it is to be in a world someone else has created. He inspired me to love books before I could read, so wanting to write was probably a natural next step in my little mind. I tried to write a ‘book’ when I was about eight or so—loose papers scribbled with crayon, stashed in an old suitcase and hidden in the back of my wardrobe. Since then I’ve attempted one just about every year of my life, all through school and beyond. I wish I knew where those early manuscripts were now. I probably burned them all years ago in a dramatic fit of teen despair. Seems likely.

Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?

Karen Runge: Not particularly, though my desk is usually best because all my stuff is in reach and I don’t have to wear pants to sit there. Ha. Otherwise I’m pretty good at blocking out external chaos. I can write in the back of a nightclub with pounding music and drunk people yelling all around me. No kidding, I have actually done this—hunkered down against a wall with a notebook on my knees, desperate to catch some line of prose before it slipped away. No matter where I am, I seldom struggle to zone out of this world and zoom into my own. Call it a natural talent.

Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?

Karen Runge: If I’m at home and this is serious, the place needs to be clean and tidy before I sit down. Desk organised, Thesaurus out, notebooks open. Music is essential. I go for Dark Ambient these days: my Seeing Double editor, Anthony Rivera, introduced me to Lustmord and my writing hours at home have been blissful ever since. If I’m afraid, I’ll read something good before I start; even just a page or two. I find it really helps me hook in and trust the tone and flow without second-guessing myself too much.

Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?

Karen Runge: Much of it—particularly the mental gymnastics of smoothing out how Character A ends up doing Horrific X. But with what I do, this challenge is honestly the point. In Seven Sins I wanted to find empathetic frames for seven heinous acts. In Seeing Double, I wanted to write through the eyes of psychopathic sadists. None of that is easy, but I’m there because I want to see if I can do it, and if I can, how effectively. It’s always a helluva growth process, every time. I love the challenge. That’s what gets me up in the morning, and when it’s going well, that’s what keeps me going. No matter how tough the subject matter.

Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?

Karen Runge: I drafted my short story Sweet Old Men in an hour, while on break at work. I crashed into a corner table with an Americano and a ticking clock, and presto. Story. The final version underwent very little in the way of editing from that barely legible first draft. It came out so complete, and it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. Sweet Old Men made it into Structo, a UK litmag, and later reappeared as the opening tale in my collection, Seven Sins. So that was pretty satisfying.

Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?

Karen Runge: Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood are top hitters for me. Toni Morrison, some Ian McEwan, some Cormac McCarthy. King goes without saying: I think many modern dark fiction authors first began by reading him. Specific books that did something permanent would be Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Senseless by Stona Fitch. I’m just as easily inspired by music or movies, though.

Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?

Karen Runge: A good story is like watching a great actor. Even if the genre or the theme don’t do much for you, you’ll be mesmerised by the skill, and you’ll keep watching despite yourself. I’m turned off immediately when I spot shallow emotional reactions: stuff that betrays the artist has no idea what they’re really tapping at. The discovery of a dead body does not make people go “Oh no” and then drop a cool quip about vengefully kicking ass. A good story will catch at the nuances, will convey something real. Even if we’re going wild, there are ways to craft the unconventional and the crazy so it presents credibly and compellingly to your reader. Ask Chuck Palahniuk. Ask the masters of Magic Realism. Basically, as in most things, it’s not so much what is done so much as how it’s done. The how, for me, is often what makes it.

Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?

Karen Runge: Some of the most popular and captivating characters in fiction have been the bad guys—actually, the worst guys. Patrick Bateman, Mr Hyde, Count Dracula himself. Maybe it’s not them we love, but their complexity? That definitely echoes back at me when I’m creating my own characters. If I’m getting it right I can’t not love them, no matter how vile they are. The deeper I delve, the better I understand them. Which isn’t always the greatest feeling when they’re about to do something hideous, and I have to describe it. I think without that bond, though, these types of characters tend to fall flat? So… yay for my artistic torment?

Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?

Karen Runge: Dear god, none of them I hope! Not to get stuffy, but the trick here of course is that every character an author creates is in a way a part of themselves. Even if the character is an antithesis of their own core values and beliefs, in the act of conveying that personality you’re still the one doing the filtering. So in a way, that’s an expression of you, too, only this time cast in the negative space. So my characters are all like me, and they’re not at all like me, but they’re all a part of me. If that makes sense.

Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?

Karen Runge: I try not to be, but yes I am. If it’s pink and has bunny rabbits on it, I won’t want it on my shelves. If it’s tacky digital art with bad texturing, I’m not going to feel too solid about the quality of the content. Unless I already know the author, it’s hard not to judge a book by the art. After all, the cover is literally the first thing you see when you pick up a book. I’ve been extremely lucky with my own covers; my publishers have made fantastic choices. Seven Sins was done by Stephen Fredette, former Scruffy the Cat bandmate of editor Stona Fitch. So that cover is special in a few ways. Seeing Double was done by the gob-smackingly talented Dean Samed, whose career has since seriously taken off. As of this interview, the Doll Crimes cover is in the capable hands of Ben Baldwin. I just saw his concept sketch a few days ago and had to go scream into a pillow I loved it so much. Cover artists are a different kind of genius: it’s incredible how they manage to incorporate so much of a story’s tones and themes into one single image.

Meghan: What have you learned creating your books?

Karen Runge: That even as I’m raging at myself that I JUST CANNOT DO THIS, I can, in fact, Do This. And am busy doing it even as I’m raging about how I can’t. Looking back on these moments, they become a great practical illustration of how your own mind can be your enemy, sometimes for no real reason at all. So if I’ve learned anything from that, it’s that my negative voices are often full of shit and the best thing to do is just block them out and carry on. Save judgement for the end, and shut up about it until we get there. This mindset really helps.

Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?

Karen Runge: There were a couple scenes in Seeing Double that took some serious mental work, and caused me a lot of emotional strain. I know cruelty, but I am not cruel, so writing first-person from the POV of someone doing something so vicious—and write it convincingly—meant draft after draft, each time in serious psychic distress. It took a massive amount of energy, so I’m always relieved when readers tell me those scenes affected them. It means they worked. And as the creator, I definitely paid for them.

Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Karen Runge: There’s a bit of a gap between literary horror and extreme horror. Actually, it’s more of a chasm with a few frazzled monkey ropes dangling in-between. I was chatting with Nikki Noir about this recently: how hard it is to find hardcore horror that doesn’t lean so deep into Schlock territory all depth is gone. Schlock is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but there’s still a step missing here. Filmmakers got it right with New French Extremism: why isn’t the literary equivalent keeping pace? And this is really what I try to do. When I wrote Seeing Double, I aimed for a body horror that would present in a literary style. I wanted it as far from Schlock as I could get it, without diminishing the gore. I had to make the gore… well, deep. And keep it real, so nobody would mistake it for Absurdo, either. With Doll Crimes, I’m stepping away from body horror and towards its psychological equivalent: mental and emotional trauma. My stories concern themselves with the raw realities of evil in the really-real world. Inescapable, sometimes inevitable, knocking-on-your-door-right-now type subjects. But even within that, my focus is on empathy, on exploring the extreme and the unthinkable as honestly as I can, with as much insight and sensitivity as I can. Literary horror? Trauma horror? My territory lies somewhere in the space between.

Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?

Karen Runge: For some reason I’ve never had a problem with titles? They just arrive in my head at some point and make perfect sense to me, no argument. I wish I had a more exciting answer, but I really don’t. As for importance: yes, there needs to be something different there, something that represents the key component(s) of the tale, isn’t too common/hasn’t been used, and still sounds pretty when rolling off the tongue. Tricky balances, here.

Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?

Karen Runge: They’re different, but on balance a novel probably offers me more, just with a longer wait to reach the pay-off. A short story can arrive fully-formed in a day, or work its way out over a few weeks, or get itself binned in the early stages because it’s proving to be a little nightmare you really don’t need to be dealing with. Your call. Whatever happens, they’re usually easier to get through (or at least, get them to the edits stage), purely because you’re only working with a max of roughly 8000 words? That’s much easier to thread and stitch than 50K plus. Novels take an insane amount of work, an incredible amount of mental energy. And you’re on your own in there for like a year. There’s a point of no return where even if you hate where it’s going and Every Day Is Pain, you cannot abandon it. You’re locked in, like it or not, and sometimes just about kills you. Successfully selling a short story makes me feel like I just got given a very, very pretty crown. Getting through a novel—and then successfully pitching it to a publisher—makes me feel like I just got the whole throne.

Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.

Karen Runge: My books and stories are about humanity—and inhumanity—first. As much as we find beauty, there is also real evil in the world. Sometimes life lines up to make the most wonderful things happen. But sometimes it does it for the opposite result, too. I find this fascinating, and in each of my works I try to represent reality and the nuanced complexities that go with each set of circumstances I create. If you prefer escapism, my books probably aren’t for you. People who enjoy my work are usually fans of people like Bloch and Ketchum and Ellis; the authors who take their souls with them when they dive into the dark. If there’s a takeaway in my work, I hope it’s the understanding that there’s more to learn from looking than by sweeping things under the carpet. There’s a reason why understanding and empathy have such a symbiotic link. Your life can change forever in just one second. Seriously. Anything can happen. As an individual, I think we do better if we stay real about that. And as a psych horror author, this is what I’m all about exploring.

Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?

Karen Runge: There were one or two scenes in Doll Crimes where I tried to unpin the veil for a moment and offer a more direct view of what was going on. I didn’t continue with them for a few reasons. One: this story is in a first-person POV, and lifting the veil goes against the shadowed mindset of someone who is actively being traumatised—which is what I really wanted to convey. Second: It just wasn’t necessary. What I had down was hard enough to confront without bludgeoning myself—or my readers—with it. And third: Sometimes less is more. And sometimes it’s not. But sometimes, it really is.

Meghan: What is in your “trunk”? (Everyone has a book or project, which doesn’t necessarily have to be book related, that they have put aside for a ‘rainy day’ or for when they have extra time. Do you have one?)

Karen Runge: Painting. Murals, specifically. I moved recently, and the walls here are very blank. I’m not used to it. In my last apartment, I risked the wrath of my landlord by painting a massive mural on my studio wall. (It’s okay, he’s a good dude and very kindly let me off the hook.) I like the things around me to be beautiful, or interesting, or unusual in some way. Every time I look up in this new place, I cringe at all the beige, all that emptiness. There’s only so much random stuff I can tack to the walls without looking like a hysterical teenager—and I love to personalise. For now I’m telling myself to see these walls as blank canvases. So, painting. Please.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Karen Runge: I’m gearing up for a new short story collection. I still have a few more stories to write for it before I pitch a publisher, but hopefully this ball will start rolling sometime in the next few months. Short stories are my first love, and I’ve been so crazy with Doll Crimes for so long that I’d love to take a few deeper breaths. Plus I’m really excited about what I want to include in there. I also have a poetry collection boiling in the background. I write poetry all the time, but getting it published would be new for me. I’m still waiting to hear back from my beta reader on that before I do anything drastic, though.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Karen Runge: You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook. I also have a kind of landing site (though I don’t blog).

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview?

Karen Runge: My huge, heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s followed and supported me over the years. It’s a brutal joke that writers (and artists in general) are often among the more sensitive, introverted types—where the only path to success requires we put ourselves out there in ways that just about strip the skin. It can be exceptionally hard. I’d be a mess in this if it weren’t for the beauty of some of the souls I’ve come across over the years in my career. Editors, reviewers, collaborators, fans. Friends. Random folks who say something nice. Thank you. You don’t know how deep it sometimes counts.

Karen Runge is an author and visual artist in South Africa. She is the author of Seven Sins: Stories from Concord Free Press, Seeing Double from Grey Matter Press, and Doll Crimes from Crystal Lake Publishing. Never shy of darker themes in horror fiction, she has been dubbed ‘The Queen of Extreme’ and ‘Princess of Pain’ by various bloggers and book reviewers. Jack Ketchum once said in response to one of her stories, “Karen, you scare me.”

Doll Crimes

‘It’s not that there aren’t good people in the world. It’s that the bad ones are so much easier to find.’

A teen mother raises her daughter on a looping road trip, living hand-to-mouth in motel rest stops and backwater towns, stepping occasionally into the heat and chaos of the surrounding cities. A life without permanence, filled with terrors and joys, their stability is dependent on the strangers—and strange men—they meet along the way. But what is the difference between the love of a mother, and the love of a friend? And in a world with such blurred lines, where money is tight and there’s little outside influence, when does the need to survive slide into something more sinister?

Seeing Double

A trio of expats living in Asia form a tenuous bond based on mutual attraction, sexual obsession and the insatiable desire to experience the deadliest of thrills.

As their relationship matures, the dangerous love triangle in which they’ve become entwined quickly escalates into a series of brutal sexual conquests as they struggle to deal with lives spinning out of control and the debilitating psychological effects of mental and physical abuse.

Known for her distinctive brand of unsettling fiction, author Karen Runge is at the top of the modern horror game in this, her premiere novel. Seeing Double is a beautifully evocative and stunningly dark coming-of-age exploration of human sexuality and the roles of masculinity and feminism, polyamorous relationships, social and psychological isolation, and the humiliation of ultimate betrayal.

Seven Sins: Stories

A mesmerizingly dark imagination fills this collection of seven stories that explore a multitude of sins, both familiar and deadly. Love turns to lust. Crimes escape punishment. The ordinary turns strange. Women take control – or lose it. Blood flows, flesh ripens. And throughout, people, good and bad, find themselves in the inescapable grip of desire. 

Karen Runge’s fresh voice resonates with those of the masters – Atwood, Oates, Mantel, King, and other writers who look bravely into the darkness and write unflinchingly about what they see there. With these disturbing but undeniable stories, Runge makes her dazzling first mark as a writer – one with a brilliant future ahead.

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