Emily Ruth Verona
Tiffany Michelle Brown Interview
How Lovely To Be a Woman is Tiffany Michelle Brown’s exquisite first stand-alone collection of short fiction and poetry. You might already know some of her work from anthologies released by Black Spot Books, Cemetery Gates Media, and Death Knell Press. True to its title, How Lovely To Be a Woman deftly explores womanhood and the self with courage, brutality, and a few crows.
Read the full interview below.
The title is perfection. It’s elegant yet menacing, especially when paired with the cover design. How did you decide on the title?
The title is a bit of a wink to musical theatre kids like me. In high school, I performed in a production of Bye, Bye Birdie, and "How Lovely To Be a Woman" is a tune the ingenue, Kim, sings early on in the show. In both the movie adaptation of the musical and our production, it’s a cheeky number during which Kim sings about being super feminine and all the trappings of traditional 1950s womanhood, and yet, she’s changing out of a dress and into jeans, an oversized shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap – classic tomboy garb. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of the lyrics of "How Lovely To Be a Woman" and the actions undertaken by Kim onstage, because it’s a subversion of the preconceived notions of womanhood. It’s a visual representation that womanhood doesn’t always present in the ways you expect.
And that’s exactly what I wanted this collection to achieve. I wanted to show that womanhood and its implicit horrors are multifaceted. The title applies to each and every story in the collection, but in different ways. Sometimes, it’s sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. Other times, it’s sorrowful or full of power. I hope it resonates with readers on multiple levels.
And speaking of cover art, Don Noble did an incredible job. How did it feel when you first saw the final cover?
I’ve admired Don’s work for years. He designs such evocative, terrifying, memorable covers. The front cover image was a premade cover that I snagged a while ago, because I took one look and thought, That’s her. I wanted the cover imagery to be frightening and strong and monstrous. For me, all those spikes and scales on the cover represent armor – a natural and monstrous evolution that is the result of the terrors women face every day. She’s adapted into something else, something with teeth.
Nothing could prepare me for seeing the full wrap that Don designed. The text treatment, for me, evokes classic horror from the 70s, and I adore that vibe. I also love that the font is scaly, just like the monstrous lady on the cover. And don’t even get me started on the back cover. Seeing the full wrap made it real for me. That was the moment I knew I was going to have a book in the world. And damn, she was gonna look good!
You open the book with a note about being a white, cisgender woman and reminding readers that there are other perspectives and experiences of womanhood different from your own. It’s such an important statement, but one I haven’t really seen in an opening author note before. What made you decide to include it at the beginning?
It was extremely important for me to express up front that my experiences with womanhood are not the end all, be all. I’m a firm believer that gender is both a social construct and a spectrum. There is no correct way to be a woman. It’s not performative. It’s personal. All expressions of womanhood are valid, period.
And if we’re talking about horrors associated with gender, as a white, cis woman with privilege, I have it easy. I will never be able to fathom the challenges and horrors that BIPOC women and individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community face, including genderfluid and nonbinary folks. I want those communities to know that this book is for them, too. That I will always create space for them in the sisterhood. And that we needs more works in the world that reflect their experiences with gender and personhood, too.
Related side note, TERFs and others who seek to undermine the gender expression and experiences of others can suck it.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of ordering the stories and poems in this collection? Did you always know what you were going to start and end with, or did those change as you worked on the collection?
I always knew that "The Price of Motherhood" would open the collection. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written, and I think it introduces so many of the themes I wanted to explore in How Lovely To Be a Woman – societal expectations, motherhood, capitalism, and body horror.
As far as the other stories and poems go, well, that was a process. I went through many different iterations of the TOC, and there are some stories that I originally thought would be part of the collection that didn’t make the cut. I wanted a variety of themes, POVs, tenses, and subgenres of horror throughout, so it took some planning.
As far as the final story goes, "The Gift" wasn’t an original contender for this collection. I’m planning to put together a holiday-themed collection someday, so I was reserving it for that, but it just works. In a time when bodily autonomy and pregnancy are such important topics of conversation, politically and personally, it felt right to bookend this collection with two stories about pregnancy and motherhood, albeit from very different perspectives.
How did you decide to include fiction and poetry together, instead of just one or the other?
I write mostly short stories, but I’ve been dipping my toe back into writing poetry, and I happened to have some poems that explore feminist heartbreak and feminine revenge, so it was a no-brainer to include them. I also really enjoy reading collections that incorporate poetry, micro fiction, and flash to vary the length of pieces and the vibe of the overall book. People often say to write the kind of book you want to read, and I feel like including both short stories and poetry is one way I’ve achieved that.
Several of the stories/poems explore the pressure society puts on women and how women internalize that pressure, feeling immense responsibility to live up to it. Do you feel like there’s a compelling monstrosity in that pressure which pairs well with horror?
I absolutely do! There’s certainly a pressure = monstrosity kind of theme throughout this collection, and it’s intentional. I didn’t want the women characters in this book to simply follow the final girl trope, because our survival in this world is so much more nuanced than that. I feel like women possess an incredible ability to adapt in the face of societal pressures and truly horrific scenarios. In some cases, they grow stronger, adorn armor, become better versions of themselves. Sometimes, the forces at play turn them into something a little more monstrous. There’s beauty, terror, and resilience involved in all of these scenarios. We adapt, we survive, we thrive – and perhaps we develop a new row of teeth along the way.
You invent some great company/product names in these stories that sound highly marketable but also unsettling. What was it like creating fictional brands?
Funny enough, my day job is in marketing, so this is a situation where art imitated life. I’m fairly well-versed in understanding the motivations and needs of various audiences and consumers, but in horror, it’s taking those desires to the extreme, which was a really fun exercise in absurdity.
Two of the stories in this collection feature teeth, which I love and I think a lot of people in horror love. Why do you think we as horror writers are so fascinated with writing about human teeth?
There’s a quote from Agustina Bazterrica’s incomparable novel Tender Is the Flesh that immediately comes to mind: “I don’t get why a person’s smile is considered attractive. When someone smiles, they’re showing their skeleton.”
Body horror involving teeth, eyes, mouths, ears, noses…it all freaks me out, because I think there’s someone so intimate and vulnerable about our faces. Like many people, I hate going to the dentist, because the idea of someone doing work on my bones while I just lay there and allow them to is incredibly unsettling. And who hasn’t had dreams about losing teeth?
The two stories in the collection that involve teeth, "My Love, In Pieces" and "The Wailing", are grounded in pre-existing horrors. "My Love, In Pieces" is a modern adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s "Berenice", which is an absolutely terrifying teeth-centric tale. And "The Wailing" is loosely rooted in science, as individuals going through perimenopause and menopause can experience calcium deficiency and, as a result, brittle bones, dental hygiene issues, and tooth loss. Of course, for the sake of the story, I upped the ante and made the main character in "The Wailing" a medical marvel – in a bad way.
Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?
I sure do! I have a poem called “The Very Worst Kind of Ghost” that will be included in Under Her Eye: A Women in Horror Poetry Anthology from Black Spot Books, edited by Lindy Ryan and Lee Murray, and benefitting The Pixel Project, which will be available in November. I also have a micro fiction piece called “A Girl’s Gotta Eat” coming out through Dread Stone Press on June 2.
What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.
I can’t pick just one, but I can narrow it down to three! I have absolutely loved Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa, and Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey.
Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!
How Lovely To Be a Woman: Stories and Poems is available now.
Tiffany Michelle Brown is a California-based writer who once had a conversation with a ghost over a pumpkin beer. She is the author of How Lovely To Be a Woman: Stories and Poems and cohost of the Horror in the Margins podcast. Her fiction and poetry has been featured in publications by Black Spot Books, Dread Stone Press, Death Knell Press, Hungry Shadow Press, and the NoSleep Podcast. Tiffany lives near the beach with her husband Bryan, their pup Zen, and their combined collections of books, board games, and general geekery.