Interview with Sherry Austin

Q: Can you tell us a bit about “Mariah of the Spirits and Other Southern Ghost Stories”?

A: “Mariah of the Spirits” is a collection of original ghost stories. One story explores the theme of the lost soul, another of bitterness that survives the grave, and the title story is about a spirit on a perpetual journey. The stories reflect my interest in some of the Celtic beliefs preserved in the Southern Appalachians–birds as emissaries between worlds, mirrors as portals into the next world. I explore traditions such as graveyard workday, and the practice of burying the dead facing the East so they can rise to meet the risen Christ on Resurrection Day. I’ve also used some of the African folk beliefs that survive in the plantation South. The practice of covering graves with seashells to “keep down” the spirits, and the tradition of hanging colorful bottles on tree branches upside down to catch bothersome spirits, are both important in the title story.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

A: I’ve always been interested in after-life concepts, in the ghost as an artifact of our efforts to bridge the gulf between life and death. I have always been fascinated with the phantom hitchhiker motif, with the idea of a woman walking down an empty road on an endless quest. But the woman was without a face, a name. Several years back, in a slave cabin at a plantation exhibit, I noticed a pair of old, worn, high-top shoes. I became obsessed with the woman who might have worn them, whose name I could never know, whose body was dust in some unmarked grave. I wondered what a slave woman who worked all her life in the fields could possibly hope for, dream about. That woman became Mariah and what she dreamed about was incredibly ambitious for a woman of her time and place. The other stories followed.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of writing your first book?

A: My first book was a grueling experience. It was a Southern novel with both supernatural and comic elements, but it was depressing to write because I had to do a lot of research into World War II, and war, as they say, is Hell. Writing “Mariah of the Spirits” was like an escape into the Twilight Zone, “that wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination,” where I would live full time if I could.

Q: What plans do you have for the future?

A: I plan to write similar stories to those in “Mariah of the Spirits,” but novel-length.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading right now?

A: My favorite novel of all time is “Oral History” by Lee Smith, whom I call the Appalachian Shakespeare. In the ghost story genre, I like the collected ghost stories of Edith Wharton, the stories of Victorian women writers, modern ghost stories by writers like Robert Aickman, Muriel Spark, Isaac Singer, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ray Bradbury. One of our much-venerated North Carolina authors, Elizabeth Spencer, wrote a very short ghost-less ghost story called “Owl” that I love. One of the best supernatural stories ever written was Daphne DuMaurier’s novella, “Don’t Look Now.” Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Waiting Place,” is elegant, strange, and eerie, the ultimate literary ghost story. I’m always re-reading these and similar stories.

Q: When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to relax?

A: I generally don’t like TV shows or movies unless they’re old and in black and white. I like to watch the handful of good Twilight Zone episodes, especially “The Hitchhiker,” starring Inger Stevens. I also like the one where Vera Miles keeps running into her double at a bus station, and the one where the girl finds out she’s a mannequin. I love mannequins and you’ll find a story about one in “Mariah of the Spirits.” I also love sci-fi movies from the fifties like “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and I’ve watched the 1955 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” about fifty times.

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

A: Everything. It is the window to the world. Like all technologies, it has the dual potential for enormous good or enormous evil, but so did the quill pen, and the printing press.

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