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Steph Nelson Interview

Set in 1989, Steph Nelson’s debut novel The Vein follows Syl Dixon as she returns to the Idaho town in which she was raised. Now a failed detective, Syl gets drawn into a mystery involving the death of a local man and an old silver mine. Could her Gran’s disappearance somehow be connected to it all? Evil is lurking in this town—an evil that has been around for almost a century.

Read the full interview below.

The Vein is a great title. Was it something that came to you right away or did it take a while to figure out the title?

Rob Carroll at Dark Matter INK gets a shout out for this one. My original title was The Silver Vein. He suggested The Vein and instantly I was like, YES, because the story is about more than a silver vein inside a lost mine. It’s about family lines too. The things we burden our progeny with unintentionally, and how they cope (or not). To some degree, we all have “bad ways” in our genes, as one of my characters would say, yet we must still make choices.

An old silver mining town is such an atmospheric setting. How did you decide this was where the novel would take place?

I built the story around the setting. The characters came next, and then I sort of hashed out something for them to do. I’ve always had a fascination with the early silver mining industry in the Coeur d’Alene mountains. All those men working underground in the dark from before sunrise to after sunset, really only seeing daylight on their one day off a week. So many died in the mines and their remains couldn’t be recovered. It has always been haunting to me.

When it comes to horror and thrillers, I love an old town with a rich and troubled history. Is Pate, Idaho inspired by a real place/an amalgamation of real places you know? Or is it entirely fictionalized?

Me too! That trope never gets old for me. Pate is absolutely inspired by a few real places. My family is from Spokane, WA, but my mom’s side is from Burke, and Wallace, ID, which are tiny mining towns just a little over an hour away from Spokane. They were the inspiration for Pate. My great-great-grandpa came over from England to work in the silver mines in the late 1800s, and his son (my grandma’s dad) was a miner too. Ever since I was little, I’ve been intrigued with it, specifically, Burke, which is now considered a ghost town. Burke was built in a very narrow canyon—not an ideal location for a town to begin with—and when the mines finally shut down, the town basically died. During the 80s and 90s, my mom and grandma would take us up to Burke, and my grandma would point out the ruins of where she was raised. So much had happened in the area, so many hopes and dreams for striking it rich and building a better life, and most of it ended in disaster. Whether fire, or flood, or mining accidents. Now it’s a ghost town. Just over. Dead. There’s such a finality there, and finality is terrifying to me.

What kind of research did you do in crafting the town’s history and lore?

I read some primary resources and accounts of silver mining in the area in order to get a feel for the way people thought and spoke, especially for the early 1900s timeline. But most of the research and lore comes from my own family. My great aunt is a family historian. She’s done a lot of work to preserve our mining history and she, along with her husband (my grandma’s brother), and their son, who does contract work with the (very!) few current working mines in the Coeur d’Alene mountains, took me up to Burke and Wallace for the day when I was still drafting The Vein. They showed me all these family sites, tons of photos, and a lot of stories came out of just that day trip. I’d been up there as a child, but to return as an adult and mesh my dreamlike memories with how the place actually is right now was insanely helpful.

The story is told from multiple perspectives. Can you talk a little about what developing those perspectives was like? Were any voices particularly challenging or particularly fun to explore?

I love all of these characters and had fun writing each one of them, even grumpy and misogynistic Sheriff Roger Mock. Lou Dixon (Gran), came as a surprise to me though. I had gotten almost done with the novel’s draft, and she didn’t have a narrative perspective at all. Her information was coming through other people talking about her, and it sounds silly, but it was almost like she was annoyed that people kept speaking for her, which is honestly so Lou. Then one day, I was like, “Fine, Lou, tell us about it,” and the proverbial floodgates opened up. I wrote her sections so fast, and they needed the least amount of editing even though they have by far the most grammar issues, thanks to Lou’s North Idaho dialect. If I had to pick a fave, she’s it.

The main character in The Vein is a former detective who begins investigating a local death in her childhood town. What was it like working on the “police procedural” facet of the narrative? Are you familiar with law enforcement protocol or did you have to read up?

Shameless brag warning: My dad is a retired homicide detective with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, and a decorated cop in general. His cases have been featured on Dateline and Investigation Discovery. He’s kind of a big deal locally. So my exposure to police work is quite organic, and coming from a young age. My dad is an excellent storyteller and I still request retellings of some of his best cases. But, I did formally interview him when I set out to write The Vein because of the protocol questions I had. There are so many procedural details that just don't make it into the dinner table stories because they’re not as exciting. I still text him random questions like “What if a body is discovered in one city, but the murder actually happened in another? Who investigates?” It usually results in a quick phone call, in this case—for my current WIP—about the nuances of jurisdiction. Since I set The Vein in a fictitious North Idaho town, I used what I had learned from him about how Spokane County functions, and speculated from there. State laws really vary, and especially Washington and Idaho. So let it be known that any mistakes in police work are completely my own. But considering that North Idaho (Coeur d’Alene) is half an hour from Spokane County, my dad was a priceless resource.

Horror as a genre loves to put people in confined places underground (caves, mines, tunnels, basements). We’ve got movies like The Descent and As Above So Below. Books like Stephen King’s It and Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings. Do you have a favorite book or film that takes place underground?

I love The Descent. I love It. Both deal with trauma as the real monster to be conquered. Another book I love that does this well is Below by Laurel Hightower. Her work unflinchingly explores the horror of being female in a patriarchal society, and Below is no exception. As for movies, recently I watched Beneath. I loved it because I’m always so drawn into narratives about survival. What wouldn’t we do to survive? I think it’s natural to wonder if you would choose yourself to survive over others in a situation where the choice was necessary. I think it’s neat and tidy to assume we’d be some hero, sacrificing ourselves for any other warm body. But horror challenges that. It wants to explore precisely where those lines are, and what motivates our choices. It encourages honesty. I think one of my fears is that I would choose myself to survive over others. Or I’d choose my kids, but that’s it, bitches. All you all are gonna die before me or my kids, you know? I hope I never have to find out! Beneath explores this with a father/daughter relationship in an unconventional way. Plus loads of glorious psychological horror.

Dark Matter INK is a pretty new imprint from Dark Matter and already has an impressive catalog of new and upcoming titles. What’s it been like working with them?

It’s fabulous. I’ve worked on The Vein exclusively with Rob Carroll and he’s an advocate, cheerleader, and strategizer. He’s got an entrepreneur’s brain, a marketer’s brain, an editor’s brain, and an artist’s brain. Probably more, but those are the brains I’ve noticed. On top of that, he’s a humble and open-minded person, constantly deferring to me when it comes to the final say on my own novel. I don’t know how he got so many skills and talents when some of us only got one, but I’m glad I landed in his world. He’s the kind of person who is both genuine and liberal with praise. Very rare. I know INK is new, but I feel like they’re building a brand that matters and lasts. Working with them is incredible and I recently signed another novel with them, so I get to do it again! 10/10 would recommend.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I do! My survival horror novella, Sawtooth, is coming out this fall with Cemetery Gates. I’m really excited about this one too. It’s based on a location in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, near where I live in Boise. My family camps and hikes there every year. It’s about a woman who takes a solo backpacking trip up to an alpine lake to scatter her wife’s ashes when she runs into predators, natural and not. Then I have another novel, The Threshing Floor, is coming out fall of 2024 with Dark Matter INK. It’s about a single mom who joins a healing cult to save her terminally ill toddler, but it turns out the miracles cost more than she bargains for. And I’ve got a suspense thriller novel that I may self publish in spring of 2024 because I just finished it, and I’m extremely impatient.

What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

I read a lot of horror and a lot of thrillers. I dabble in spicy romance when I need something lighter. (Please don’t judge me lol.) Most recently, for thrillers, I enjoyed The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke, and Violet is Nowhere by an indie thriller author, Faith Gardner. For horror it was Our Love Will Devour Us by R.L. Meza. She and I actually both participated in #pitdark in fall of 2022 and then signed with Dark Matter INK weeks apart. So, that’s full disclosure on our connection, but don’t be confused. I’m not biased when I say her book wrecked me in all the best ways and if you like horror that makes you feel things, you need to read it.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

The Vein hits shelves on August 8, 2023.

Steph Nelson's short fiction appears in Dark Matter Presents: Human Monsters and Mother: Tales of Love and Terror. Both are Bram Stoker-nominated anthologies. Her debut novel, The Vein, is forthcoming through Dark Matter INK. Her novella, Sawtooth, is forthcoming through Cemetery Gates Media. When she's not working on her next story, she's devouring horror, thriller, and even romance books. A lifelong PNW girl, Steph currently lives in Boise, ID, with her husband and their two teens.

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