By Paul Goat Allen
Pseudonymous dark fiction writer K.P. Kulski’s debut novel Fairest Flesh is a blood-soaked fusion of the historical account of infamous 16th century Hungarian serial killer Erzsébet Báthory, a beloved German fairy tale, and profoundly powerful themes that are just as timely today as they were almost 500 years ago. And although the novel will be released later this year, a special hardcover edition featuring illustrations is currently available for a limited time. Kulski talked with BlueInk Review about being the timely message of her novel, misogyny in the industry and our society, and being a debut indie author.
BIR: First off, congratulations on a… for lack of a better word, startling debut novel. There was a lot to like here—from the fictionalized exploration of Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory (supposedly the world’s most prolific female serial killer) to the reimagining of the Snow White myth to the emotionally intense and profound thematic threads running through the narrative tapestry.
But before I get into the specifics of the story, I want to ask you about the publishing process. You’re obviously a talented writer and you’ve got master’s degrees in Ancient and Classical History as well as Writing Popular Fiction. I’m assuming Fairest Flesh was your thesis novel for your MFA degree. Can you walk me through your experiences trying to find an agent or publisher after the novel was finished?
KPK: Thanks so much. Fairest Flesh was a cap on the long learning experience of working on my MFA at Seton Hill University, but it actually wasn’t my thesis novel. I ended up writing Fairest Flesh shortly after graduating the MFA program. It had been a story stewing in my consciousness for some time and I think, at that point, I finally had the skills to bring it to life.
While it wasn’t my thesis novel, my time at Seton Hill University was integral to developing those skills as well as finding a publisher. My path to publication is not what I would think is the norm for most writers. Instead it was the culmination of a series of connections and timing.
BIR: Singing to the choir. I’ve been saying this for decades. It’s all about building connections, nurturing relationships—especially in publishing. My entire career has essentially been built on those relationships and connections.
KPK: Yes. For me, it really started with the close friendship that developed among a group of us in the program. Our friendship is rooted in how we all see the world, a good dose of irreverent humor and our shared creativity. We started calling ourselves the Broken Crayons, inspired by historic groups of creators like the Inklings and Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood.
Little did we know how much of a role this group would play. One of us (Nick) runs an indie press (Rooster Republic Press) and after hearing what I had been working on, he asked to see my manuscript.
With that, Fairest Flesh had found a path to bleed into the world.
BIR: You write under a pseudonym. Whenever I see a woman writing under a pseudonym, I think of the amazing Alice B. Sheldon—who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.—and something she said in an interview decades ago. “A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” Sheldon was an intelligence officer with the Air Force in the 1940s and I know you’re an Air Force vet as well so this comparison seems fitting. Two questions here—why the pseudonym and have you ever received any kind of prejudice or sexism for being a woman writing dark fiction?
KPK: Wow, I didn’t know how much I share with Sheldon. Talk about the feeling of being the “first woman in some damned occupation”—that is the story of my life. I served both in the Air Force and Navy where sexism is rampant. I also performed additional duties as a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate (SAPR) in the Navy and have seen some of the worst sides of what that sexism and harassment can do to female service members.
My experience in the military has led me to be cautious. I also know when encountered on paper, there is much more inherent respect given a rank and name that doesn’t include any sense of gender.
I was also concerned with privacy. Further, my fiction often contains elements of feminism which opens the door to a lot of abuse. I felt like it was a good idea to go with a pseudonym. It also helps me separate my personal life from my professional life.
In terms of the horror community, my experience has been quite positive, but I am a newcomer to the scene. I know and have seen that for many other women in the community that has not always been the case, including quite recently.
I see more women raising their voices when inappropriate or questionable behavior occurs, and I really credit the #MeToo movement for inspiring attempts toward change. A lot more women are stepping forward, and facing backlash, but are refusing to remain quiet. The persistence has exposed harassers, which ultimately helps make communities safer. For these women, I am so grateful. I want to give a general shout-out here, to all the women who have stepped forward. Thank you, you have made a difference, even though it probably doesn’t feel like it.
I’ve found that the horror community also has a robust and quite visible cohort of female authors and allies that actively promote women who write dark fiction. The Ladies of Horror Fiction (LoHF) in particular have been a big part of this.
Also, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any illusions of complete safety, but I see an active network of people who are refusing to put up with bad behavior. That counts for a lot.
BIR: I’ve been reviewing indie and traditional releases for almost 25 years and certain genre categories seem to thrive without the gatekeepers of traditional publishing—paranormal romance, erotic fiction, horror… Has the process of releasing Fairest Flesh in this manner given you more freedom, more fulfillment than expected?
KPK: Publishing with an indie press has been an absolute gift. I’m extraordinarily lucky to have known my publisher prior to signing, so I knew I was going with someone who was not only good, but has an active interest in promoting female writers. In fact, Rooster Republic recast its Strangehouse imprint a few years ago as one that publishes only women horror authors.
They have also been excellent at promoting my book and have given it specific attention that I don’t think I would have gotten at a bigger press. Further, since I’m new to publishing, I’ve had a million questions and Nick has been so gracious with answering, no matter how silly the question may seem. This has been invaluable in learning more about the industry.
BIR: That attention to promoting is a huge deal. A book’s success can depend largely on marketing and publicity. This is a critical aspect of the publishing process that many indie writers don’t fully understand or utilize properly. What’s the plan for Fairest Flesh?
KPK: Rooster Republic has been fantastic with this. Nick Day has a good sense of the market and he’s the one who made the decision to create a special edition with a unique cover and interior art. Then Don Noble knocked it out of the park with the perfectly dark and gorgeous cover art. Let me tell you, I screamed when I first got a glimpse of that cover.
BIR: Yes, it’s absolutely stunning.
KPK: A game changer happened when Paul Tremblay gave the book a glowing blurb. I was lucky enough to have met Paul when he visited Seton Hill and he’s just such a down-to-earth and kind person. I am eternally grateful that he took the time to read it. I’m still pinching myself knowing that he loved the book so much.
BIR: Yes, the Tremblay blurb was a huge deal. I rarely see that on indie releases—a big name writer writing a prepress blurb. Kudos to you for that. Let’s change lanes for a second…. How did your love for history impact the writing of Fairest Flesh? And would you consider the exploration of the historical figure Erzsébet Báthory a major selling point?
KPK: Studying history is like studying a tapestry, so many threads leaning against, folded into or running alongside other ones. I regularly encounter historical figures and events that I find inspirational to writing fiction. Erzsébet Báthory gets attention not only for her heinous crimes and brutality, but for being a noble woman. I think that’s why she’s revisited again and again, a female serial killer, an idea that draws questions. I think Erzsébet Báthory is a selling point because of this, but I also think the historic setting provides a lush backdrop that is just as important.
I’m particularly interested in the experience of women throughout history. I also really admire the work of feminist classicists of the 1970s who pioneered not only the study of women’s history, but pushed historians to go beyond the study of the elite social classes.
BIR: For me, the most powerful—and disturbing—sequence in the novel was when the witch Dorottya Széntes, whispers: “There are no princes. No knights. These are just ideas they tell girls, to keep them believing. And we do. We believe until we learn how to hunt for ourselves. Then we hunt each other.” This was like a brass knuckle punch to the skull. I love and hate this statement simultaneously. Can you unpack its significance, not only pertaining to the story but also as social commentary?
KPK: How patriarchy forces women into positions of competition is something I’ve analyzed across much of my fiction. In fact, declarations like this one have been uttered by more than one of my characters. I think that this is especially relevant at this moment of history where we’ve seen the resurgence of open misogyny and racism on the U.S. national stage.
The story of Erzsébet Báthory encapsulates all of this profoundly. She was a woman of noble birth during a tumultuous time in history. A period marked by the struggle for the very soul of Hungarian identity. By all reports Báthory was not only a great beauty herself, but from one the most powerful noble families in Hungary. In fact, her family was so significant that even when she married, she kept her surname. Clearly someone with a good deal of power and influence. Despite all that wealth and power, beauty holds so much meaning she was willing to risk the first two to prey on and brutalize girls.
Next, the Snow White overlay is an important tool of demonstration in the book. While many people have seen Erzsébet Báthory’s story as one with similar themes to Dracula, for me, she’s always been about Snow White. I see the overlap from multiple angles, but most especially in the harsh tragedy of the Evil Queen—someone who learned that there is no forever and that she’s only as good as her beauty. So she turns on the immediate threat to her position, a young pretty girl, instead of the ultimate source of her disenfranchisement, the patriarchal system.
These two women should be allies, supporting one another instead of at odds, but that’s what the system of patriarchy does best, convince women that they are in competition instead of being on the same team. Simultaneously, Snow White and the Evil Queen are inseparable because if we look closely, both are the life cycle of one woman. The Evil Queen is Snow White’s future, Snow White is the Evil Queen’s past.
Waiting for a prince renders women inert, encouraging action only to occur through a man. At what point does this waiting woman decide to feed herself? How does she go about it? Does she become like Snow White/the Evil Queen and attack other women, or does she create a sisterhood?
BIR: That’s a powerful word: sisterhood. You can change the world with that word.
KPK: Agreed—and I have to say that this is another beautiful thing about the spirit of the #MeToo movement. It is a reclamation of power as well as one of sisterhood, of identifying the issue as the system of patriarchy. It encourages women to reject these ideas by supporting one another.
BIR: It’s a subtle thing but you write about your characters Becoming the people they were ultimately meant to be—a slow awakening or maturation—in this novel, the witch Dorottya and the carriage driver Ficzkó are perfect examples of this. I believe we’re all in the process of Becoming the people we were truly meant to be—and how we handle experiences, both good and bad, has a lot to do with that growth. How has the experience of getting Fairest Flesh published changed you? Who did you think are you Becoming?
KPK: This is a great question. The publishing experience has been like finding where I fit in the world, something that’s been a personal challenge, especially as a biracial-Asian woman.
I’m not sure I’ve become who I am meant to be, as much as I’ve made choices that have helped me get here. I think it’s the same for Dorottya and Ficzkó in the book. At what point do we refuse to let bad experiences make us bad people? It’s all those little choices. The events can shape us, but they don’t have to determine who we are.
Being a writer has been one of my childhood dreams. I lost my mother young and subsequently had a hard childhood. I used writing stories and poetry from an early age to cope. In a strange way, I think it gave me an avenue to express my emotions to my absent mother, like a prayer in story form.
So in terms of “Becoming,” to have a book published is about becoming the woman the little girl me wanted to be. It feels like winning the spelling bee with my mother watching, but instead her presence has been transferred into the collective consciousness of the audience. I want to make the little girl inside myself proud. If I have that, I’m doing good. So ultimately, I’m striving to become what my past-self wished for.
BIR: There are countless writers out there that were in the same position as you were a few years ago—not knowing what the next step is. Any words of wisdom for them?
KPK: Take the time to get to know and talk with people in your writer community. Writing can be lonely, making connections with fellow writers creates a network of friends who understand and support you. Support other writers and industry professionals. Actively seek to push each other up.
Finally, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have a shot at your dreams. The only one who gets to decide that is yourself and if you’ve made that choice, don’t let anyone convince you to give it up. Rejections are going to happen, lots of them, don’t worry about it. Your job is to keep dreaming, keep writing and keep submitting.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.