Interview with Nicole Willison, the author of Tidepool
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Willson lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and her cats. She has been a frequent visitor to small coastal towns located along the Eastern seaboard but has yet to see anything truly alarming emerge from those waters, much to her disappointment. She's hopeful that her lifelong aversion to eating fish or seafood might earn her a little mercy when the hungry ocean gods finally start coming ashore.
Thank you for joining us, Nicole, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.
Thanks so much for asking me!
I live in Virginia with my husband and a rotating cast of cats. I’ve been making up stories and writing them down for as long as I can remember, and horror fiction has been my favorite genre to write and read for almost that long. I grew up in Maryland and spent a good bit of time on the Eastern Shore, which served as inspiration when I was developing the ideas that became Tidepool. In my non-writing life, I’ve been an editor and a web specialist, and I was a contestant on Jeopardy.
Who are some of your favorite writers, and why is their work important to you?
Cherie Priest – Her novel Family Plot is one of the best haunted house novels I’ve read, and I’m amazed by how versatile she is. She writes horror and steampunk equally well, as her Clockwork Century series proves.
Alma Katsu – She writes brilliant historical horror. I love how she weaves real-life tragedies like the Donner Party incident and the sinking of the Britannic into her fiction.
Neil Gaiman – He’s a beautiful prose stylist and has such a fantastic imagination. I can get lost in the worlds of Sandman for hours at a time.
Margaret Atwood – She was one of my early favorites. And talk about versatile! She can handle historical, contemporary, and dystopian fiction with equal skill, and she’s also a brilliant poet. I hate that The Handmaid’s Tale somehow feels more relevant now than it did when I first read it in the 1980s.
Gwendolyn Kiste – She writes beautiful, truly imaginative horror. The Rust Maidens is exquisite and unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
We loved “Tidepool”, it’s such a great and unique story. It combines elements of horror and mystery to great effect! What prompted you to write it?
Thank you! I came up with the idea a few years ago while I was walking along the beach and thinking about what I’d write if for some bizarre reason the producers of American Horror Story hired me to write my own season of the show. I imagined terrifying ocean creatures threatening a small shoreside town, and one lone woman who could prevent the monsters from destroying this place. I also got caught up in imagining what would happen to the town if she failed.
Thinking about who this woman was and why she could do these things kept me entertained for a while, and I finally realized I had a great idea for a novel.
We’ve learned the novel was showcased in Pitch Wars 2017, and you were mentored by Peter McLean. We’re huge fans of Peter’s work – can you tell us how does such mentoring work? How did it help you to shape Tidepool?
Peter is a wonderful writer, and I was (and still am) so honored that he chose my story to mentor in Pitch Wars 2017.
He read through the manuscript and sent me an email discussing the overall plot, pacing, and characterization and what fixes he thought I needed to make. When that was finished, he went through the manuscript again and performed a line edit identifying grammatical and style issues. He also asked questions about whether certain elements of the story were accurate for the time period, and I’m glad he did because in my early draft, my main character took a train trip that would not actually have been possible in 1913. Oops.
Pete really got what I was trying to do with Tidepool, and he was able to help me make the story on paper match what it was in my head. He even suggested the title.
How would you describe the plot of Tidepool if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?
In 1913, Sorrow Hamilton’s brother Henry disappears while on a business trip, and Sorrow travels to Tidepool, a small ocean town that’s the last place he’s known to have visited. After a terrifying encounter with a reclusive widow and her “daughter,” Sorrow learns her brother’s fate—and the denizens of the town, both human and otherwise, are hell bent on making sure Sorrow never leaves.
What draws you to darker stories and Lovecraftian themes?
I was a morbid kid who grew into a morbid adult, and I think there’s incredible power in well-told dark fiction. I’ve thought so ever since I first read “The Lottery” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and was blown away by their shocking endings; they were so unlike all the other dry literary stories in my deadly-dull grade school readers. I read and enjoy many genres, but nothing gets me excited like a new (to me) horror novel that draws me in. Most of what I’ve written since then has been an attempt to recreate that feeling for readers.
And I’ve also found Lovecraft’s ideas about cosmic horror—the concept that there are vast, terrifying entities that humans are powerless against, and that there’s not much separating us from those beings—so compelling. And terrifying. That definitely played a part when I was coming up with the ideas that became Tidepool.
Why do you think we get a strange comfort from reading these kind of tales? Or is it just me?
It’s definitely not just you—the past couple of years have been very uncertain and frightening for so many, and yet horror is as popular as it’s ever been.
Speaking only for myself, I think reading about terrifying situations makes me feel less alone when I’m going through something awful, and that goes double if the characters in a story manage to survive the scary situation and come out more or less all right. It’s an escape for me, and maybe a way for me to believe that whatever I’m struggling with will be manageable as well.
Do you get scared when writing your own work?
I wouldn’t say I get scared, but I’ve managed to gross myself out a couple of times. Recently I wrote a short story, “Turn All Things to Honey,” involving a legendary substance called mellified man, in which corpses entombed in honey for 100 years were made into a concoction that could cure all kinds of ills (or so it’s been claimed). Ever since writing a story about the stuff, I’ve never been able to look at honey quite the same way again.
Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to Tidepool's protagonists and antagonists?
Sorrow Hamilton is my novel’s protagonist. She’s bright, sunny, and outgoing, and probably the last person you’d envision when you read a name like “Sorrow.” She’s a recent college graduate who would like to become a reporter, but her plans are derailed when her beloved brother Henry goes missing. The last place she heard from him was a tiny shoreside town called Tidepool, and so she travels there hoping to get some information about where he might have gone.
Mrs. Ada Oliver is the novel’s antagonist, although she certainly doesn’t see herself that way. I don’t want to go into too much detail about her because I hope it’ll be more fun for readers to find out about her for themselves, but she’s lived in Tidepool for a while and does not welcome the arrival of either Hamilton sibling. She is very devoted to her duties, and nosy outsiders asking questions distract her. One might say there’s a certain…old-fashioned air about her.
Ada is such an intriguing, and tragic, character – how long did it take you to „nail” her persona?
It took a few drafts for me to get her just right. Parts of her persona—her chilly, formal voice and her habit of dressing exclusively in black mourning clothes—were in my head for her from the beginning.
At first, I intended her to be a very remote, alarming Woman in Black figure who’s rarely seen or heard from but dominates the story nonetheless. But I wanted to know how she became what she is by the time Sorrow encounters her and wrote a lot of biographical information about her early life. The more I wrote about her, the more I wanted to include her backstory in the novel so readers would understand who she is and why she does what she does.
I feel Tidepool has a feminist edge. Was that something you aimed to do or did that develop as you were writing it?
It was absolutely my aim from the beginning. Both Sorrow and Ada chafe against the expectations placed on women of their time, and that plays a large role in the decisions they make that get them to where they are in the novel.
What do you think characterizes your writing style?
I like to think I have a fairly straightforward writing style that allows a POV character’s voice to shine through. While I envy writers who have lyrical styles, that’s not me. I also tend to write slow burn horror that builds gradually over the course of the story, as opposed to hitting a reader with shock after shock right off the bat.
Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of Tidepool?
Shayne Leighton, the owner of Parliament House Press, is also an incredibly talented graphic designer. She asked me for suggestions for cover art, and I sent her a link to a painting of a female sea monster rising towards a boat full of unsuspecting fishermen, thinking something like that could work.
However, the final design was all her idea. And I’m delighted with it. I love it that a mysterious female figure is front and center, and the tentacles winding around the design give you some idea of what you’re going to be reading about. And I love the cover figure’s skull ring, as I have one just like it—there’s a little bit of me in that lady in black.
Have you written Tidepool with a particular audience in mind?
While I hope it will have broad appeal, I’m particularly hoping it will appeal to fans of gothic horror, cosmic horror, and dark fantasy. Someone said the novel reminded them of Hammer horror films, and I love that comparison! If you like Hammer horror, you’ll enjoy Tidepool.
What are you currently working on that readers might be interested in learning more about, and when can we expect to see it released?
I’m currently working on edits for a YA horror novel I consider a cross between the Bluebeard legend and The Haunting of Hill House. I also have a vampire soap opera that’s a cross between Dark Shadows and What We Do in the Shadows and a novel about a haunted house challenge in the works. Unfortunately, when and if those things are released isn’t up to me, but I really hope to see them out in the next few years.
Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
Getting my debut novel published has been the fulfillment of a longtime dream, and I’m so excited to share Tidepool with all of you. Thanks for reading, and stay safe and healthy!