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Stephanie Parent Interview

If you read Stephanie Parent’s debut poetry collection last year, Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell, you know she has a compelling voice. This year, Stephanie is making her novel debut with The Briars from Cemetery Gates Media. The story follows a former ballerina and a dominatrix working at a haunted commercial dungeon in Los Angeles. It’s a tale of mystery, sisterhood, and ghosts—three of our favorite things here at Frightful!

Read the full interview below.

You write fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Have you always been interested in all three forms or did one lead to another?

As a child and young adult I was a big reader, and fiction was my first love—I enjoyed reading about fantastical worlds and creatures, and I especially liked magical realist stories that blended the real world with touches of magic. However, I did also enjoy memoirs and cultural history-type nonfiction (there was a book about the history of Halloween that I read over and over!), so you could say all types of prose interested me. As for poetry, I approached that form through novels in verse—I was interested in story first, and that led me to explore poetry in greater depth.

How did you come up with the premise for The Briars? Was it always intended as a novel?

I worked at a commercial dungeon that inspired The Briars, and this real dungeon was supposedly haunted by the ghost of its founder. When lights flickered or faucets turned on by themselves, we would say it was Lady Laura’s ghost. (The faucet thing actually happened quite often—the water pressure was so low that if someone flushed the toilet and left the sink running, the water would stop completely and they’d think they’d turned it off, then it would start again a minute later. So, not really a ghost, but still a bit spooky!)

I started writing seriously in the last two years I worked at the dungeon, and while I was working on different novels and nonfiction projects, I always had in the back of my mind the idea of writing a short story about a haunted dungeon. After my memoir about the dungeon died on submission, I knew that gothic horror was having a moment, so I decided to try expanding this short story idea into a novel.

A lot of commercial fiction has a tendency to isolate characters that do sex work, but The Briars is about community and sisterhood. Was that an important theme for you as you worked on the story?

Yes, that was probably the most important theme. I’ve done sex work both independently and as part of a community at the dungeon, and having that support system makes a huge difference in mental health, sharing knowledge, and keeping each other safe. I really wanted to show that supportive side of the business to readers—but at the same time I included friction between sex workers. Disagreements and betrayals happen in the sex work industry as well, and I wanted to create a realistic, three-dimensional world.

More than anything, I strove to portray my characters as people first, and as members of a certain profession second. I wanted to show sex workers as people who make friends and enemies and fall in love just like anyone else.

Do you think the book world is starting to change the way it talks about sex work?

Yes, but not as much or in quite as positive a way as I would hope. I think sex workers have been included under the larger push for diversity we’ve seen in traditional publishing. This could be a good thing, but it also means that sex work risks becoming a “trend,” a label one puts on that disregards the nuances of being a three-dimensional person with many aspects to your identity. In addition, based on my own experience being on submission to major publishers, I would say that much of the demand for sex work writing is a desire for a very empowered, perhaps simplified or watered-down portrayal of sex work. I’m not sure all parts of the literary world are ready to address the complexities and negative aspects of the sex work industry, while still accepting this work as a viable career choice.

That said, I will say that indie publishers and readers don’t seem to share this same reluctance to read about sex workers. So far, most reviews for The Briars have focused on the characters’ personal arcs and relationships rather than the sex work element, which I really appreciate. As I said in the answer to the previous question, my goal was to portray three-dimensional people rather than characters who are completely defined by a job that “others” them.

The character of Claire is a former ballerina. What made you choose ballet for her background?

At first I was just intending for Claire to be a dancer—probably a mixture of ballet and modern dance. This choice came from my own desire to be a dancer when I was younger. I was never as serious about it as Claire is, but I felt like I understood her perspective and could write knowledgably about the topic. As for why ballet, I tend to write very descriptive prose and sometimes try to include more than I can. So once I had used ballet terminology in the first chapter, I realized it would be unnecessarily complicated to add in other forms of dance as well.

Were any of the characters more challenging to write than the others?

Jack was difficult, and I wish I could have made him a little more three-dimensional than I did. Since this was my first adult novel, I was very conscious of trying to keep the word count from getting out of control while keeping the plot moving, so it was a challenge to fully develop all the secondary characters. This was especially true for Jack because he was an outsider to the world of the dungeon, and we never get to see inside his head the way we do for so many of the female characters. I will say Jack was fun to write, though!

The cover is beautiful and gothic. Does The Briars have a lot of gothic inspiration? Who did the artwork?

Claire L. Smith did the artwork, and I’m so happy with it—she captured the tone and imagery of the novel perfectly! I always intended The Briars to be a gothic novel, since the gothic tradition includes more women’s perspectives and romance than other forms of horror. A ghost story set in a dungeon—even if it is a BDSM dungeon—just naturally seems like a gothic tale, and I’m drawn to gothic imagery like the roses and thorns portrayed on the book cover and within the novel itself. I consciously included many gothic tropes in the story, such as a once grand but crumbling setting, and a secret hidden in an attic.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about The Briars?

As I said above, I really hope readers will see this as a character-driven story where the characters just happen to be sex workers, rather than the other way around. I put a lot of my heart into this novel, and while I know it’s not perfect, I do hope readers enjoy it and get something of value from it.

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

Not this year (at least not yet!), but in early 2024 my creative nonfiction chapbook My Dungeon Love Affair is coming from Stanchion Press. The essays and vignettes in the chapbook will give readers more insight into the real dungeon that inspired The Briars. Readers might even recognize some real-life versions of the novel’s characters!

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

I really enjoyed Marionette, a horror novella by Antonia Rachel Ward. Set in fin de siècle Paris, the novella offers a historical look at sex work through a horrific lens. It’s inventive and evocatively written, and I highly recommend it!

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

The Briars is available now.

Stephanie Parent is an author of dark fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Stephanie spent much of her adult life in Los Angeles, where she worked at a commercial dungeon as a professional submissive and dominatrix—an experience that inspired The Briars.

Stephanie’s debut poetry collection Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell was published by Querencia Press, and her short fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Cemetery Gates Media, Brigids Gate Press, Black Spot Books, and many other publications. Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @SC_Parent for the latest updates on her work.

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