Processing abuse with art: how Ksenia Anske makes horror and dark fantasy from real horror

I've known Ksenia Anske for almost twenty years. We were both students at Cornish College of the Arts, studying design, at the close of the Twentieth Century. A Russian who came to design school after studying architecture in her home country, her approach to design was always engaged, probing, and driven.

We'd occasionally stay in touch, but I hadn't talked to her in years when I heard she was one of the first round of writers (along with Seattle writer Scott Berkun) to be awarded the Amtrak Residency.

Her absolutely direct, and no-holds-barred, approach to writing, publishing, and getting the word out to her more than forty-six thousand Twitter followers is both intense and, I think, irresistible. As is her brutal honesty about her motivations and the difficult spaces she works within.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Today you tweeted about how frustrated you were with the scene you were writing. You're very vocal about your writing on Twitter. What does that do for you? Why do you like doing that?

It keeps me accountable. You know, if you're just alone at home, and you say "okay, this didn't work" — then you can say "all right, fine. I'll just forget about it and walk away." But if you actually state it, there's this feeling of guilt if you don't do it — because so many people have seen it. You think "oh my god, tomorrow they'll ask me about it." I mean literally, it's accountability.

Also, these are my readers, and my friends. Which is true: as a writer, my readers are my friends. I don't really go out much, and I don't really socialize. I have all these people in my head, and I'm on my own. I like being alone, I like being in silence. So these are the people who are waiting, and they've been waiting for too long for this particular book, since I won the Amtrak Residency and started writing it on the train. That was last March. It's the first book out of my — what is it? eight or nine, or something, I don't remember the number — that took me over a year to write. And I just can't wait to be done with it, but I cannot ship product that's unfinished, you know? This is my product.

So by tweeting, first, I'm venting — so that somebody will pat me on the shoulder and say "hey, you're doing okay." It helps; it's like "all right, sorry, I just whined for five minutes, I've lost it, I'm good now."

And second, it's accountability to all these people who pre-ordered the book: "hey, look. I'm working on it. I haven't forgotten. I'm not giving up." Every day I get up in the morning, and I get my coffee, and I start fixing it. This scene — today was the fourth day I'm fixing it, the fourth time I'm writing it, because it just wasn't right. So I get frustrated. But after I talk about it, I feel better. It's like you go out and shout in the world, "I'm angry," and then you go, "I got this off my chest, thanks for listening, I'm happy now."

Some writers kind of go away and close the door of their room, and then it's a black box, and you don't hear anything until the book comes out. You're very vocal not only about the process of writing, but also about the stories behind what you write and why you're writing. You go to some pretty dark places, both in your fiction and when talking about it.

Yes. My entire writing career started with me wanting to commit suicide, which is a really dark topic. People usually don't like hearing about it, and people who have gone through it don't know how to talk about it — or sometimes are afraid to talk about it, because it's still not a topic to discuss freely. Also depression; any kind of a mental illness or any kind of disorder that touches or somehow affects your psychology.

Especially if you're an artist. You're supposed to be the starving artist — there's this image we all have about that artist who's a little bit crazy — but it's actually a really, really serious topic, and it's a really big problem. Most of us creators and artists come to creating art from a dark place — when we hit the wall in life and art saves us.

We find a way to take this ugliness and make it into something beautiful. Not everybody can do it, but those of us who can, feel happy. It stops eating you from the inside, and this is why I'm sharing so much because ... let's say I came from a place in my life where I really wanted to die, where you stand there and you hate yourself and your life so much that you want to part with it. And then something happens. In my case, it was my children. I thought about them, and I thought, "this is really selfish, this is actually really terrible," and then it wasn't about me anymore. I couldn't leave them alone, and I decided not to.

And in that moment, something shifted. I stopped being afraid of things that I usually would not talk about. Like you're saying: dark places and dark things. Well — the fear fell off, after I decided to live. It just didn't bother me anymore, all these little problems were non-problems. And sharing this experience was what pulled me out of it.

Also my therapist literally told me to journal. I would go through these horrible panic attacks, and she told me, "You're going to buy a journal; you're going to write yourself out of those." That's how my writing started. That's how my trilogy started. I still have that journal! It has skulls on it, very fitting. It's black and has got really disturbing things inside of it, and I'm going to save it, because that was my road to writing, that was my first step toward it. That's why I don't have any fear about it anymore. It's gone.

I'm imagining you were journaling about things that were happening. How did you go from journaling to processing those things through fiction?

You know, surprisingly, I have been doing that since I was very little. I grew up in a very violent household, and I was abused in a variety of ways. I tried to cope with it as a child by being very silent — that was one of my weapons against adults who hurt me: I would not talk. Sometimes I would not talk for weeks.

I had a crazy imagination, which also is very typical, although I didn't know it at the time. As a child, when the people who hurt you are relatives or people who are supposed to love you and protect you, you can't process it — that somebody like that would hurt you. As a child you can't survive. So what you do is you suppress it, and you replace the image of that person with, often, an animal — something that is dark and scary. Usually it's a dog or a wolf or a bear; some kind of entity, some kind of animal, that in your child's mind you can justify would have hurt you, eaten you, bitten off your leg.

In my family — apart from the darkness and the anger and the hurt and the pain, and everything that was in there for generations that created the environment I grew up in — in addition, the culture in Russia was very well read and very intellectual. My great-grandmother had this huge library of books in her room. I'd been reading since I was very small, since I was four.

That was my solution to all my problems, and that was my helper: it was the books. I couldn't ask the adults about what was happening to me, so I would go and read books ... and I read books that I was not supposed to read, I think, at that age. But also things were happening to me that were not supposed to happen to me at that age. So the books explained it to me. For example, in One Thousand and One Nights, there's one fairytale about a gorilla falling on a woman — basically, a gorilla having sex with the woman — and I remember that it explained everything to me. I thought: "Oh, okay, this is normal. Oh, so it's a gorilla."

When I went to therapy and started remembering what was happening to me, at first, I remembered something black and furry like a gorilla. Then it was a black man; and then it was a man who was painted in black paint; and after that: "It's my father."

It took me so many layers to get to it, because the truth was pretty horrendous. And this is why it's taking me so long to write this book. Because it's a book about a woman remembering her sexual abuse at the hands of her father — which she has blocked — while she is on a train, and every compartment on the train contains a memory that she has to fight to see. So this, what you're asking about — what's funny and also not funny and tragic — is what I've been doing since I was little.

I would create stories in my head to explain what was happening to me based on fiction. I made it into fiction, and that's how I survived it. Everything I'm writing right now is coming from my five-year-old brain, six-year-old brain, seven-year-old brain ... All these stories that I made up in my head to be content with life and to continue functioning as a child, and then later to continue functioning as an adult. And so it's really not fiction for me.

People keep asking me, "How do you get these ideas?" I tell them they're not really ideas, but nightmares. I wish I had less, but there's so many that I just have to get them out of me. Otherwise I cannot be happy and smiling every day; it's too much. It's like living in a world where you have a trapdoor into a dungeon that you have to go in every day, and there's scary shit down there. Like in the movie The Road, have you seen it?

No, I haven't seen it.

Well, you probably read the book.


If you watch the movie, there's this scene where they come up and find this house where people hold hostages. In the book, it made my skin crawl — but the film, it's amazing the way they did it. Now when people ask me [how I get my ideas], I tell them "just go watch that scene." That is what I have in my room.

And that is where I have to go every morning. It's horrible, but once I get through it and I come out — and it's 3 p.m. and I'm done writing — I'm this happy cat.

You know, I heard from someone once that horror writers are the happiest and the sweetest people in the world.

It's because they process all their stuff, all their bad feelings and fears.

Yeah! So what I'm doing every day now is really what I've been been doing since I was little. Except now I'm putting it into words.

You mentioned reading, and you're obviously a lifelong reader. You publish the books you're reading on your Instagram feed, and you're a pretty voracious reader, it seems. What have you been reading lately that has struck you or that you like?

I'm trying to read books on business and on writing and how to plot. And at the same time I'm trying to read fiction, novel writers who can teach me how to write novels. And also short stories; every morning before I start writing, I read a short story just to prime myself for a particular style. At the moment it's Petrushevskaya, I'm re-reading her short stories. This one is There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself.

What a title.

Yeah, very lovely. She has been not published for a long time, she basically has been banned from publishing her stories in Russia, although there's nothing political in there and nothing really to persecute. But the government didn't want people to know the real lives of real people. The horrendous, dark shit that they have to go through. And she wrote about it — there's no beautifying it, no prettifying it. It's pretty dark and it's very stark and very painful. But there's this humor in it, this survival, and I absolutely love it. Her style is very simple. It's kind of like a fairytale: "there once lived a woman and her neighbor woman had a little baby and she wanted to kill the baby." She gives me inspiration to stop trying to "write," and just tell my story.

Another one I've been reading lately — I met the artist Victoria Lomasko, and I'm reading a book of hers that's journalism with illustrations. She talks about Russian people and their everyday lives. People on the outskirts of society, the sex workers, the kids in juvenile prisons, the LGBT people, and so on. It's very enlightening, because some of these people — even I was not aware of how their lives are, and the conditions they live in.

And let's see ... this book just absolutely changed my plotting. It's called The Story Grid, by Sean Coyne. I recommend it to everyone, and if I had the money, I'd buy it for every writer, because it taught me — based on reading The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of my favorites — how to hack your manuscript, and how to shape it into something that has very distinct parts. There's so many ways of doing it; it's just that his particular formula works for me really, really well.

You have every single one of these books on hand right here with you?

Hold on, I have this one, I'm actually really enjoying this one, it's very beautiful — it's called The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It's a sort of apocalyptic novel about the world dying from a virus, but told from the perspective of the dead people, who don't really die until everybody who remembers them dies as well. So there's this in-between place. I'm enjoying it.

Next I'll be reading City Infernal by Edward Lee, which is supposedly this dark horror kind of a paperback book in America, which I haven't really read much. I mean, I love Stephen King, but this one has a bloodier kind of opening. Oh, here it is: "The man walks with difficulty down the street. The street sign reads ISCARIOT AVENUE. He is carrying a severed head on a stick, and the severed head talks. 'Can you spare any change?'"

I mean this is just perfect, this is my kind of stuff! I've seen all kinds of reviews of this, from one star — saying this is just awful, cheap horror — to five stars — saying 'this is great!' So I'm going to read this ... and god, I can talk to you about books for hours. I try to read about one hundred books a year, and this year, because of my editing, I don't think I'll hit the goal, but that's usually my goal.

You give all your books away for free on your website. And then you also sell bound copies. Why did you decide to give everything away for free?

Well, that goes back to the suicide and depression. My book literally saved my life, writing my first trilogy, so I vowed to give it away for free to anyone. Because it does talk about suicide, it talks about teenage suicide, in particular.

When I wrote my second book, Rosehead, people asked, "what are you going to do now?" And I said "What do you want?" And I had so many student readers who said, "I don't have money for books." So I said, "You can have it for free; it will all just even out." There's a donate button, and people occasionally donate; somebody recently donated $100. I was like, "Wow! That just paid for all of these free books that people downloaded."

But I also sell paperbacks, and I sell e-books on all kinds of sites. The idea is: you pay what you want, or you pay if you have money. Even on my website, you can choose to pay what you want. You can pay five dollars, which only covers the cost of the book. Or you can pay nine dollars, and I get four dollars and it pays for my team and for printing costs. Or you pay thirteen dollars, and I can pay my team, it covers my printing costs, and it also gives me another four dollars to invest into my growth as a business.

And you view this as an entrepreneur would, because you ran a company before you were writing?

Yeah, I had a start-up.

I know that's a story unto itself, but how did it change your approach to selling and marketing your books?

The selling idea itself, often people are afraid of it. They think that somehow it's getting into somebody's face and demanding money from them, and they're either shy or they're afraid. They think it's annoying, but that's actually not true. And that's what I learned from my start-up. It's really helping people, holding their hands, and people will be happy to pay you if you just have your shit together.

That's all it is. It's surprisingly easy, because there are so many businesses out there that don't do the smallest things: they don't say thank you, they don't do what they promised they'll do, they don't apologize if they screwed up. If you just behave like a human being, people will love you — they'll shower you with money, they'll come back to you.

Because it's so hard — I mean, life is so chaotic. We're bombarded with all this stuff, and people are constantly coming and going. So we come back to the brands that we trust, the businesses that we trust. We say, "these guys have been making my shoes for this many years, and at least they, when everything comes apart around me, will be there doing the shoes. Or if they are going to go bankrupt, because they always communicated with me honestly, they will tell me 'We're so sorry; we're screwed. But do not fret: we'll try to make your shoes.'"

It's the same with writing books. If you talk to people like a human being, saying "I'm sorry I screwed up" —

Here's an example. Today I was supposed to ship books to somebody who won them in my free giveaway, and another person in Canada. It was 2:15, and the post office closes at 3. I was writing; I usually stop writing at 2, but I looked and saw that was 2:15, and I said, "I'll write another 15 minutes. Half an hour is enough for me to walk or bike to the post office." Next thing I know, my son knocks on the door, says "Mum something something," and I look up and it's 2:45. I go "fuck," I jump up — I'm like, 15 minutes is just not enough, I have to change, pull on my biking shorts — then I realize that the box is too large, so I start running around. Finally I think "I can't do it," so I start composing an email in my head: "Hi, I'm so sorry, I got carried away into writing, I didn't ship the books."

And then my boyfriend shows up at 2:57, and I say "I can't do this," and he's like, "Get in the car, get in the car now. Grab your stuff." I jump in, and we get to the post office one minute late. Usually they close right on time. I run in ...

All of them know me, because I've brought them chocolate before. One lady typed in — it took her 30 minutes to type up all these books that I was sending to the Philippines and Pakistan, Iran, England, and — I can't remember, there's pockets of my readers all over the place — India. And so I said "Wow, you work so hard, I need to bring you chocolate." She kind of laughed it off, but I said "No, I'm dead serious." And next time I came, I brought them a box of chocolates. Now they call me the lady who brings chocolate.

So I ran in, I'm like, "I'm so sorry I'm late," and the boss started grumbling. So I said "Hey, but I brought you chocolate," and everybody was like "Yeah, yeah, this is the girl," and she goes, "Oh, that's fine; you can stay for as long as you want to." It's so cute, and I said "See? I paid for my overtime with chocolate."

But yeah — so I came home and I emailed, so happily, to my customers: "I shipped the books." This is a small business. Customer service is number one. I will go and die and hit my face on the ground, get bloody, but I will get those books to my readers against all odds, because they paid for them. I mean that's a miracle, somebody paid for my words, and they're going to spend their time reading them. That's great; it makes me ecstatic.

How do people mostly find you? Word of mouth?

Yeah. I also now have a big readership that suggests my books to friends; also on social media. For example, on Instagram: I send out these books to book readers, and Instagram has these book review Instagram accounts — most of them are kids, some of them are teenagers, some of them are over twenty. They're younger, and so they have these accounts where they read books and they review them, and somebody would just send me a message saying "I saw your book all over the place, all of my friends have it, can I have it too?" And that's how it goes. Or on Wattpad, one day on Twitter somebody asked me, "Are you going to put your books on Wattpad?" And I said, "What is Wattpad?" So I went and I looked and I thought "This is cool." I posted the book, and just this morning I woke up and I had 150 notifications. Why? I don't know! This is one of those things that I wish I knew ... all of a sudden everybody's reading Rosehead.

Yesterday was quiet. Somebody is always reading my books there, but sometimes it just goes boom. And that's why I'm starting to get my business sense together, because I really need to understand what makes those spikes, how to turn them into sales. I make sales when a new book comes out, because all of a sudden people are interested in the rest of my books — if they like this one, they purchase the rest of them. And then it goes down. So there's always a big spike [when I publish a new book], and I have to keep it going constantly to survive. At this moment I'm not supporting myself financially. It's in bursts. And my boyfriend is like, "I'm an investor, when you make those millions"; and I'm like, "yeah, I got you."

And you keep it kind of in the family. Your daughter does all of your book design, right?

She does. I remember when she was a baby, I taught her how to draw. This is what parents do to children: they're just raising them with this hidden agenda. And she laughs at this. Yeah, she's really good; she graduated from design school in Orange, California, and she does all of my book covers.

The best part about it that is we understand each other. I tell her, "Just do a blah blah blah," and she goes, "okay, I got it." I don't even have to explain — a couple hours later it's done.

We're going to change the Tube cover right now. She was traveling, so it was hard to find an image for her. I don't know if you've seen the discussion, but basically it looks like a nonfiction book, so I'm going to take feedback. This is one other reason that I share everything — I get raw feedback from people, and if eight people out of ten say the same thing, that helps me; it helps me write a better book, it helps me create a better product. So, yes, she does that, but then the rest of my team is all over the place. My editor and my proofreader, you know, formatter, and so on.

Anything that we didn't cover that you wanted to talk about?

Well, I'm excited because Tube is going to be done in about two months. Maybe it will take me a few read-throughs, but this is the final draft. I have decided that I could probably keep perfecting it forever, but I can't do it anymore.

What draft are you on now?

This is draft five. And I've never done this many before. Each draft is a complete rewrite; it's not just revising it, I scrub through from beginning to end. So when that book comes out, it's going to be very important. I'm very proud of it; I worked really hard on it, harder than on any of my other books.

It's my best writing so far, and it's also a really important story — like I said, about a woman remembering her sexual abuse. I tried to dramatize the process of remembering something when it's hidden so well in your child's mind inside of you that you're acting like a private investigator, literally going back into your past and reviewing it. And so it was really challenging, because she jumps from present to past constantly. I hope I did the job right. So I'm really excited about that — and after that I'm going to be writing my first thriller, The Dacha Murders.

Cool. And Tube was the one you wrote on the Amtrak residency?

Yeah, when I started that, it was just a goofy kind of idea. I actually didn't think I'd ever win. I just submitted this little paragraph. They ask "Why do you think you're going to win?" and I said something like "Because I'm going to write a book about trains." And then I won. And somehow, because I said that, when I got on the train, I had to do it, so it became a book about the train. But it changed very much from the original first draft.

All of my drafts are on my website. If people are curious, they can download them and compare. That is another reason why I put it up for free on my site — because when I started writing, I wished there was a resource like that where I could go and I could compare something — let's say The Da Vinci Code or one of Stephen King's books — if I could see the very first rough draft and compare it to the final one, that would really help me as a writer. But I could hardly find that information anywhere.

That's an approach to writing — sharing that stuff — that most writers would find horrifying.

Yeah ... and actually, there's another book I'm reading, by Kit Reed called Revision, if anybody is interested — in the back she has examples, because the book is about revision, they're manuscripts of the first draft and the final draft. But it's still not enough. So that's why I'm doing it — to give back to the community and also learn. People constantly send me feedback, so I get better.

Anything else you wanted to add?

Just send me coffee, coffee beans, my PO box address is on my website. Coffee beans will keep me going. If you want more books, send me more coffee.

Do you eat coffee beans while you write?

Yeah. Actually, I need an IV for that.