I am very excited to present my interview with Christie Stratos author of Anatomy of a Darkened Heart. I recently read and reviewed her book, which is her debut novel and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was a real treat to read this fantastic Victorian era dark fiction story and it’s the first time I’ve read a book set in this time period. Since it’s release I’ve seen so many great reviews talked about on social media and the amount of buzz about this book had me really excited that I’d selected it as part of my Women in Horror feature. I loved everything about the book and was so glad when Christie agreed to talk with me, I had so many questions I wanted to ask her about her writing and her book. After narrowing down the list of questions to a manageable amount here are the ones I choose. If you haven’t read Anatomy of a Darkened Heart I highly recommend it as the next book to be on your list.
The Scary Reviews: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What propelled you to start writing? When did you start writing?
Christie Stratos: I’m an American east coast writer and I’ve written all my life. My imagination has always run wild – there was never a time when it didn’t. Even when I was very young and had bed sheets with various characters and decorations on them, I would make up stories about them. My editing side came out when I would think up the same story but improve it over and over, even with slight changes of words. I started out writing poetry and quickly expanded into writing anything and everything.
TSR: What are the themes you like to write about?
CS: My favorite things to base my stories on are self-realization and the shades of gray that color all of us universally. I like to point out the causes and effects in life as well as the extensive consequences of things we don’t think matter that much. Everything matters, especially in the way we treat people, and the idea that some things can’t be reversed is another thing I like to explore.
TSR: How much research did you do for Anatomy of a Darkened Heart?
CS: A lot! I thought I knew so much about the Victorian era based on research I’d done in college, books I’d read, historically accurate period dramas I’d watched, but it turned out I barely knew anything. The 19th century was a time when things were changing more rapidly than you might think, and so things like how many times a day and what times during the day mail was delivered was far trickier than in other time periods. Manners and etiquette were so particular that I really had to look deeply into them to make sure I got them right or acknowledged why someone acted outside of the era’s expectations. I used so many resources I could have had a whole bibliography at the back of the book.
TSR: How long did you spend planning for the book before you began writing it?
CS: I didn’t do too much planning. Instead I had a vision of a woman shrouded in darkness who didn’t really mean to be the way she was. But I could see from this vision that there were layers to both her innocence and her darkness. I had to wait until I felt that vision needed to be written, and then I began writing. That’s how all my writing works. That’s also why the ending changed completely from when I first wrote it back in November 2014 to when I finished the book in August 2015. With no planning (being a pantser), you can never be sure how the next scene you write will change the rest of the book.
TSR: How did you come up with the title?
CS: The title of the book was something that came to me through writing down lists of different words that suited the nature of the novel. I had a lot of words that really didn’t strike me right, but I remember wanting so badly to use “Anatomy of” in the title. I felt the book was really showing the creation of a person – a darkened heart. And that’s how it was born! The title of the collection – the Dark Victoriana Collection – sounds simple and obvious, but it wasn’t so easy finding something that represented the time period, the atmosphere of the books, and the fact that they aren’t really a series but a collection of books surrounding a family’s slow destruction. Again I resorted to lists of words and finally settled on the Dark Victoriana Collection with a little bit of help.
TSR: What is the significance of the cover art?
CS: Every single thing on the cover of Anatomy of a Darkened Heart is significant, from the wallpaper to the dress and even the stairs. Literally everything plays a part in the story, and my hope is that readers will suddenly realize each time they close the book after reading another section that something important they’ve read is actually on the cover. It wasn’t easy to fit so much in, but I worked very closely with a designer at eBook Launch and we got it just right. More “solid” and “immoveable” parts of the cover have significance throughout the book, like the wallpaper and the stairs. Things like the dress, Abigail’s direction on the stairs, the flower, the key, the mirror – those things all play parts as well in particular scenes and sometimes in multiple places in the book. Literally everything matters though!
TSR: Can you tell me who are your favorite authors? Which author(s) had a significant impact on you growing up?
CS: Oh boy, that’s really hard to answer. Shakespeare is my number one favorite author that had the greatest impact on my writing. The psychology in Hamlet fascinated me as well as in Julius Caesar, and the way both plays flowed beautifully while presenting such intense psychological issues and situations really fascinated me. In plays like Macbeth, you’ve also got on of the issues I write most often about: where does evil originate, before birth or during life and because of its events? I think other authors had scattered impacts on me, like Keats’ way of expressing his own life and feelings in “Ode to a Nightingale” while presenting all of it in a simply beautiful way, or Sharon Kay Penman’s moments of making historical fiction active and engaging, or even the general, subtle way Asian fiction gets points across without needing to say them straight out (a color can say it all). Little bits and pieces from many authors and genres throughout my life have added up to create my writing style, but Shakespeare had – and still has – the largest direct impact on my work.
TSR: What inspires you to write? Music? Other books? Real life events? Just an incredible imagination?
CS: If I’m writing something completely symbolic (e.g. Symbolic Experimentalism), then overwhelming spaces and oversized things heavily inspire me. The feeling of everything being larger than me, and in that case Holst’s “Saturn” from The Planets is the song that usually inspires me most, or Mahler’s Symphony #5 in C Sharp Minor, “Adiagietto”. Super specific, but those are what do it for me. If I’m writing a book, I have to create a playlist that inspires the feelings I’m trying to get across. For Anatomy of a Darkened Heart, that included Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music”, Grieg’s “The Death of Åse” from Peer Gynt, and other music from a CD literally called “funeral music”. It had to have that very dark and many times stiff theme. For my next series, a medieval historical fiction series, I’m using songs like “El Dorado” by Two Steps from Hell as well as “Sol Invictus” and “Apollo’s Triumph” by Audiomachine. Music does play an enormous part in my writing. If you want to know what inspires my writing in the first place, there isn’t a limit to what inspires me. Seriously, no limit.
TSR: Are you part of any writers’ groups? If so, what do you like about them? How do they help you or inspire you? If not, why not?
CS: I’m part of only one writers’ group: the #Awethors! I love them because everyone is extremely encouraging and there’s such a huge variety of writers, cultures, and personalities. If I ever have a question about something writing related, I can be sure to find the answer through that group. They’re the only writing group I need.
TSR: Do you read the kinds of books you like to write? Do you watch movies similar to or the same genre as your writing?
CS: I watch period dramas like Downton Abbey and The Forsyte Saga, but I actually don’t read that much of it anymore. I usually don’t like the way it’s presented! I like to read psychological fiction, literary fiction, and books that delve into the disturbing events of everyday life that we don’t necessarily realize could be going on. Tragedies and dramas are my favorites. You don’t find much comedy on my book or DVD shelves. My favorite movies are from the 1930s-50s, and in the next few years I’ll be writing books based on the film noir style.
TSR: If you could write anywhere in the world – in a fictional or nonfiction place – where would you write?
CS: Sigh…Morrowind! That’s an RPG game, part of the Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda, and it’s my favorite video game. The fantasy world is beautiful, free, and much simpler. No technology and an unending number of quests and factions and skills to master and places to explore, and… Well, you get the idea.
TSR: What’s next on the your agenda, is there more to Anatomy of a Darkened Heart?
CS: Anatomy of a Darkened Heart is the first of five books in the Dark Victoriana Collection. The next three books will be novelettes that have crossovers with events from AoDH, but they won’t be completely based on it. We might learn some new things about the Whitestone family, but also about the town around them. The final book, however, will be a novel written from the maid’s perspective, and that book will reveal brand new scenes and a whole other side to the household. After the Dark Victoriana Collection is finished (2017), I have another dark historical fiction series coming that will take place in medieval times. I have publication plans after that for noir books, a Wattpad series, and more, but I won’t spoil the surprise!
Wow Christie, that’s great news! I’m really excited to be able to delve in to the Victorian era again. The whitestone family and the other characters in the book will be so enjoyable to visit again in the future. For me when I read a book that I loved as much as AoDH I always want more. I find myself really missing them like a friend I don’t spend enough time with, that person I miss as soon I say goodbye.
You have a seriously busy schedule for the foreseeable future and I really look forward to your next installment of the Victoriana Collection. Thank you so much for the very insightful answers and the time you spent on this interview.