Interview with Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi

Hi, Erin! It’s a pleasure to have you here on Red Lace Reviews. How are you doing?

I’m doing well! Even though I was sad for summer to be gone, autumn’s arrival was anticipated! Tim, the kids, and I went pumpkin hunting, Trick-or-Treating, and made Frankenstein cupcakes. Though October went too fast, I readied myself to enjoy the sites of colorful leaves, watch basketball and scary shows, and enjoy time over the Thanksgiving holiday here in America. However, in just the first two weeks of November, we’d already driven in snow here in Ohio and listened to Christmas music in all the stores! Ha! We’ve enjoyed comfort food, did some Black Friday shopping, I’m making my Christmas reading list, and we’re preparing to put up our Christmas decorations soon. It’s hard to believe we went from preparing for and enjoying Halloween to all of this just within a month!

Breathe. Breathe. is your collection of dark poetry and short fiction that was published in October of last year (2017). Would you say that putting such a personal piece out there, for many to read, has changed your life? If so, in what respect?

In some ways it changed my life, or maybe my outlook on myself. It certainly healed me more than I thought possible after many years of not doing a very good job at sealing the wounds (or even talking about them). However, I am still a work in progress – when flood gates are opened sometimes there are emotional roller coasters that follow. I was anxious to even put things so personal out there, even if some of things were subtly placed within other characters I created. I am not as ashamed of myself anymore. Two years ago, I would have not as openly talked about things that happened to me such as sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, illness, etc. I still struggle in day to day life, but it’s better. I was always an advocate for others in those situations and for awareness, but of course, never let the more graphic details out of my own life. Even with those who watched me go through it. I felt alone and misunderstood but my anxiety and PTSD and trauma and chronic pain only heightened, so though I still deal with those issues, I deal with them better now. Writing has allowed that. It’s changed my life in regards to giving me more confidence; I understand more clearly who I am as a quilt made up of patches of all the things that have happened to me, and I realize I am more empowered and have value. Most of all it made me feel worthy of having a voice. It helped me find my voice.

A lot of sensitive subjects are touched upon, everything from anxiety, to loneliness, to the pain that love brings. What was your thought process throughout the book’s development?

I had some of the poetry written in my stash of unpublished poems from over the years – many of them I wrote just for myself to curb the urge to write and heal from the pain in my life. I chose some of those, found a theme, and then built on that. When I was approached to do a chapbook for the summer, I wrote a couple more, plus found that two short stories I had been working on fit for that version. When the publisher at Unnerving gave a red light on an expanded version to publish a few months later, I put fire to my pencil and I wrote even more, drawing on my overall themes, and as I wrote them, I’d see if they fit in with the rest. I added a short story, “Lunch Served at Noon,” which pulled in a sci-fi or Twilight Zone feel, of which I had written a few years prior (*attempting to download from brain to pencil faster than my seven pages a night sprint goal as seen pictured below*) and two more new ones. It amazed me how much of my writing could be pulled together and linked in a single thread.

My head was all in the same space with the themes and I noticed a trend of “breathing” whether that was breathing through pain, fear, anxiety, or from running from monsters to even being strangled. I didn’t have too much trouble including almost all of the new ones I’d written which was three more short stories and fifty percent more poems in just a couple months. It was as if the collection was writing itself, causing me to meditate, release, grow, and heal, all in a very short period.

Next, I chose based on sub-themes of domestic violence, abuse, sexual assault, healing from trauma, if they were Gothic in nature and fit the theme, and finally, I chose to focus on writing about creatures and monsters from nightmares that my mind created or from folklore. I let myself explore humanity and fear, within all these various themes and subjects, and address how far we’ll go as humans to heal pain. Fear was also a major component. All of that encompasses breath, and how when we can’t breathe, we are stuck inside our minds.

Beyond that, I tried to choose an array of poems and stories that really showed off all my writing and touched elements of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, crime, and which highlighted various types of poetry forms and dabbling. I possibly covered way too much ground with this one collection, but I also feel that in explaining all of that, it also did bring itself together in a magical way I can’t explain.

The collection is divided up into Acts 1 and 2: breathe through fear and breathe through pain for the poetry and then the section on short stories.

Beyond the process or professional writing though, I was like yelling to myself, “breathe NOW” because I was petrified to put my work out there for all to see let alone work that delved into my most personal background and emotions. However, I wanted to face my fears, be brave, and prove I was stronger than whatever held me back. I was hoping, in the end, that I’d not only grow from the experience and heal, but also inspire others.

How do you feel that your writing has potentially helped people, perhaps even inspired them to turn to poetry to express their own troubled emotions?

Oh, I really hope it helps people and I’d be honored to be an inspiration. Firstly, I hope it helps people find awareness to domestic violence, abuse, and crimes against women. I hope it shines a light on how trauma victims feel. I have had several readers write me to say I am strong, courageous, or that they feel kindred to me. I hope my ability to talk about it and remain positive and forward-thinking gives others hope. I have heard that it has and that my advocacy for women is something people love. I wish for it to help anyone who has been through similar things to know they aren’t alone, and they have a friend in me if they need one. Through all its darkness, I also hope that Breathe. Breathe. has streams of light throughout it.

As for having them turn to their pen, I hope they will and if they never have before, and need help, I’d be happy to lend a hand. But honestly, I tell others, just start writing down feelings, words, sentences, and you can always go back and align them in any poetry structure you want. Though there is a place for learning poetry rules and structure and types and practice, after many years, I’ve kinda myself thrown the rules out the window. I do what I want with my words. I would advise people that the most important thing is writing and sharing their emotions, whether with themselves only or to others. Be creative and have fun with your voice or be meditative and release your inner fears and demons with words. If editing is needed, that can always come later. Poetry is art and art is subjective. To make rules in art is sometimes pretentious and pompous to me. I will always experiment.

Recently several people have told me they have taken up trying to write poetry or have decided to write it again after a long hiatus. A recent reviewer, Kim from Down in a Book said, “Pretty much the entire time I was reading Breathe. Breathe., I found myself thinking, ‘It’s writing like this that makes me want to write poetry.’ And I mean that as a great compliment because reading and writing poetry is often not easy for me, as much as I wish it were so.”

Besides giving someone hope, there isn’t much means more to me than to learn I’ve been inspiring someone to write. Author Steve Stred just announced last month that he took up poetry again, after reading my collection Breathe. Breathe., and wrote a poetry collection called Dim the Sun. I was so stunned and humbled that I inspired a body of work by him. You can find that announcement here in which he talks about my collection being his inspiration. It’s available now and all proceeds go to help a Winter Olympian representing Canada in skeleton.

Can you pick out one particular piece from your collection, of either poetry or short fiction, that means the most to you?

Since we are talking about *meaning* the most to me, as opposed to my favorites, probably “Silent Screams “ or “You Say You Loved Me” in Breathe. Breathe. because of the fact it’s the first time I publicly put my true emotions, and my experience with severe illness and domestic violence abuse, into a piece of published work. That person in the poem, who is enduring the beating, is me. The person ill is me. And some may brush over that when you just speak up and say “I was the victim of domestic violence” or ignore the illness but I hope that through the poem, readers may FEEL what it was like and put themselves in my shoes, and furthermore, have empathy for others. It means a lot to me because it was like giving a piece of myself away. I’m a very private person and it wasn’t easy for me to put down my shields and publish these poems. It was important to me to overcome that fear.

As for stories, I really loved writing “Dandelion Yellow” in Breathe. Breathe. because it was my ode to one of my favorite authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and her story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as another early influence in V.C. Andrews, shown by the use of the attic for a setting. As much as it originated from me being upset that Crayola discontinued the crayon color dandelion yellow, it morphed on its own into a tale of isolation, blinders, and abuse. I’ve heard it’s one of my best and I’m very proud of that. Curtis from Cedar Hollow Reviews said it “was the best story he’s ever read.”

At what age did you start writing? Did you begin with poetry or short stories?

I always liked to write and color and do art as a child, but don’t remember the exact age or how it started. I think it was usually for school or projects. Maybe poetry, just messing around with words. I enjoyed reading the poetry books on my mom’s shelf—Frost, Dickinson, Thoreau—and tried to emulate phrases and sound choices and rhyme and write nature poems and essays.

My junior year of high school my English teacher encouraged me by saying I should consider writing long-term based on what I wrote for her. I already had written some poems, one of them after my aunt passed on of ovarian cancer which later won a regional contest, was chosen to go to the state level in a program for creative writing, and won our local newspaper’s holiday essay contest. For the latter, I got to meet the editor and attend a luncheon and tour the newspaper building.

After that experience, in my senior year, I became editor of our high school newspaper, got the Journalism bug, and then got a substantial scholarship to a university for their Journalism/Communications/English program. At the university level, I became absorbed in using all my writing ability for journalism and non-fiction narrative and had very little time for creative writing outside of classes, except a little poetry. I joined their poetry press organization, which two of my English professors managed. They were/are award-winning poets, and I was able to work on some poetry editing projects with them. During dark or lonely nights awake, I still put my pencil to notebook and wrote my feelings down that way, in lyrical or poetic styles, but only for myself.

Ultimately, I wanted my writing to make a difference one day on environmental, animal, political, health, and cultural issues. I wrote and edited plenty of stories, but they were all non-fiction, at first. There are all forms of being a professional writer, and I’ve been a professional writer and editor for twenty years now whether stand alone or as part of my public relations or other work. My poetry carried through much of that time, though I always remained an amateur with my fiction and poetry. I wrote a few stories after I had my first child, but all my binders (I write mostly using pencil and paper first) were thrown out by my ex-husband! This is still a huge loss for me still today.

To make a long story short, I think I just evolved from a young age into a writer, and being a writer and editor, claimed me in so many ways. I thought I could only do right by my family though by being a professional non-fiction writer and editor or have a respectable job in this or a journalism and PR field. No one ever taught me or encouraged me about writing fiction or poetry to put into print that others might read. I lost decades of fiction and poetry to this mind-set. I’m only trying to make up for it now, but I CAN finally say I’m a professional poet and fiction author as well.

One of the last poems I had published this year was “Wrapped in Battle” and it rounds out the TOC in the Dark Voices anthology from Lycan Valley Press. It is a tribute to women fighting cancer, in honor and in memory of all the family and friends who I know have battled or lost the dreaded disease. I think I’ve come full circle now in twenty-seven years – starting with the poem about my aunt when I lost her in high school to cancer and now writing this one in memory of all I know who’ve been touched. I’m not closing this circle yet, I’m heading off the wheel on this grand adventure, as there is still more to come.

What’s your ideal environment for writing? For instance, do you prefer the quiet, or the company of background music?

I am not one of these people that schedules writing time and sits down with a candle, soft music, or creates an environment and atmosphere for writing. At least, not yet. Too many years of trying to juggle small children (who are growing up now!) and working well over full-time. I write when the mood or muse strikes me out of nowhere. Often that’s now about 4 a.m. after I work and in the time before sleep, when all is quiet with my family but before they get up at 5 and 6 a.m. too (or they might be getting ready but not bothering me). I generally tune out the TV but sometimes have it on. Or it could be anytime something will come out of nowhere and I’ll scribble it down on anything. I am known for carrying all various sizes of notebooks everywhere. I can even be riding in the car when the muse will tell me a story and I’ll have to lock it into memory for later or jot it down to work on when I have a chance. When I can get out of the house and make a concerted effort to write or edit my writing, instead of just stolen moments, I like writing in a coffee café, a library, or the beach or park.

I just wrote an article about my writing process with accompanying photos for author Brian Fatah Steele’s site if anyone is interested. You’ll see my cat!

How long does it usually take to complete a poem; does it vary depending on the topic?

Not really very long. Sometimes a half hour. It just downloads from inside me mostly complete. Sometimes I don’t know it’s coming. Sometimes I meditate. Sometimes to completion it’s longer if I sit on it and go back and edit it. For instance, the next day, or sometimes a month will go by, and I’ll re-look at it, maybe tweaking a word or phrase a bit for better “roll off the tongue.”

You contribute a lot to the writing world, especially to the horror genre. How do you balance your career choices, what with being an author, editor, marketer, to name but a few.

Not very easily, I admit, though I have always tried my best. I’ve owned my own PR company for ten years, after leaving the healthcare Marketing/PR world, and Hook of a Book for seven of that. For a while now, it’s been mostly the publishing work I’ve concentrated on due to time but the last couple years have been exceptionally trying. I often don’t sleep for days at a time and get about 4-5 hours a day at most when I do. I work during the day when all are at school and my partner Tim is at his own job. I work after picking my daughters up from school in the evenings and I work all night. In the photo below, I was working on a Sunday (I’ve spent many weekends working too) editing Kill Hill Carnage by Tim Meyer while my daughters giggled over music and Instagram photos in the foreground. It’s not ideal because my family, friends, and health suffer due to it and I’m working on a plan to fix this for 2019. This is the year! I have some chronic pain and health issues so the level of stress that no sleep and the work in the PR/publicist realm can cause me exacerbates it. Also, the drama that sometimes seeps into social media and affects work and family life has taken its toll. People make up a lot of lies and assume things that aren’t true. It was my great passion to work with books and I’ve loved so much of it!! I don’t want that to die or to become burnt out or cynical. You’ve caught me just at a time where after years, I’m finally having to care for my health and make a change in terms of how much I take on, which is scary for us financially, as until recently, I was the only bread winner.

I like to be organized but sometimes it’s really hard to be because you never know what you will wake up to or what project will come to you as well. What tends to happen is that I take on too much, because I see a plan for them all in my own head where it looks like it will fit in, and then it doesn’t work out that way, because of other’s schedules or publication processes. Starting with December actually, I’ve aligned most things to take a much needed slow down after some heavy publicity months in June/July/Aug/Sept/Oct as well as numerous novel, novella, and short story titles edited, and I also read almost 600 submissions, edited one of the main stories (by Catherine Cavendish), and selected all the poetry for the gothic anthology Haunted are these Houses (and all that following on the heels of one heavy ride of a year) this summer. Needless to say, I’m going to be doing some important thinking about my life and my career over the holidays, so I can start off 2019 on the right foot.

As for being an author amid all this, my writing and my career as an author always seems to come last, because I am a put-other-people-first type of person, which is another reason I have to change my propensity to overwork at my job. I am a perfectionist, and also a person who finds it hard to say no, and indie doesn’t mesh well with either one of those. I have lots of stories in my head waiting to get out and some poetry collections to finish. It’s been one year since I published Breathe. Breathe., as well as many other poems and stories in various anthologies and magazines and sites this year, and though blessed to have so many people support me with interviews and guest article hosting, I’ve had to learn how to fit in writing, and not only the poetry and the fiction pieces, but also these promotional things for myself. I really enjoy it though and I hope to build on this in my future and make my own writing career a priority. I so appreciate everyone who has been on this personal journey with me this year and supported my work. It’s meant a lot to me.

Besides work, I also keep up my site Oh, for the Hook of a Book! For the last eight years there I’ve done reviews of books in various genres and countless interviews with authors and artists and hosted many an article just out of love for books and authors. I usually organize a Women in Horror project on it each year in February (or coordinate with another blog as I did with David from The Scary Reviews about three years ago in which we featured on his site, via mini-interviews with me, thirty women in horror in a month!), a Woman in History/Making History project in March, which is an article series, and a Poetry Project in April which features reviews, poetry by authors, articles, and interviews! As well you’ll often find me doing interviews with authors or directors/actors or writing articles as a guest on other sites such as Beneath the Underground, The Horror Tree, or HorrorTalk. Being an avid part of the historical fiction community over the years as well, I’ve also been a judge for an historical fiction independent book award (M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction) and have enjoyed interviewing some of the biggest names in that genre.

I’ve always volunteered in the community and one thing that takes most of my time with that currently is being the President of the Board of Directors for our busy and growing local Appleseed Mental Health Awareness Center and Rape Crisis Domestic Violence Safe Haven. In this role I lend my expertise and leadership skills and work with other members to ensure the organization runs smoothly and offer them whatever support they need in all they do. As a survivor of domestic violence, and an advocate for mental health awareness, I love helping here because I feel it’s a way to allow me to continue to heal, by helping others in similar situations I once was in. In the past, among other things, I was President of our local Ashland County Cancer Association Board and was the chairperson in charge of coordinating the annual Taste of Ashland event for four years in which we raised thousands of dollars for local cancer patients.

For 2019 I am working on a plan with my Hook of a Book business to limit my publicity work to a few minor projects, do more consultancy, and focus on editing and writing for hire, as well as my own creative writing projects with my collections, books, and story submissions.

While balancing just my work, writing, and volunteer duties can be a juggling act, I am also a mom of two teenagers and a pre-teen, all who are extremely busy in honors classes and activities like cross country, choir, and drama, so getting everything proportioned out right is important to me and family needs to be at the top. My son is in his first year of college in Washington D.C., which is about eight hours from our home in Ohio so that’s been a huge adjustment for us.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Erin. Do you have any closing words? Perhaps you can tell us of any writing endeavors you have planned for the near future?

I’m working on a poetry-only collection featuring water elements, and I’m very close to being done and heading into the editing stages. Water has always been a huge source of inspiration for me, supplying me with energy, both physically and mentally. It’s healed some of my chronic pain; it clears my mind. I feel at peace by the water, but also the anger and danger in its depths. I can channel emotions, and give and take emotions, near the shoreline. I believe water has special power for me. There will be sadness in this collection, but also sea monsters, ship wrecks, and coastal village intrigue. I’m a huge fan of the last three. I hope others like it, but I’m writing it because it’s fun for me! I’m looking for a publisher for it.

I’m also working on a short story collection based on the works of Van Gogh as well as stand-alone short stories and poetry for submission.

In larger works, I’m working on a novel still that I’ve been picking away at for years. It’s a revenge novel featuring an abused woman and the ghost of Emily Dickinson. It takes place in Emily’s hometown. I’m excited for this one.

And since writing my Vahalla Lane episodic revenge series in Breathe. Breathe., I’ve had some good response to it and so I’m writing on a novella when I have the chance featuring the story of one of the women, both in prequel and in sequel to what happens.

I’m talking with my good friend Duncan Ralston about writing a novel with him that has a cult theme (we both love cults – I mean not being IN one, but you know….) and hopefully we can work on that in small spurts.

And I am working on a few stories for two anthologies I was invited into for 2019 and brainstorming ideas for a short story or poem for a magazine editor that invited me to contribute—we’ll see what my brain comes up with.

Thanks so much for all your support, Cat! I enjoyed being here!

You’re welcome, Erin! Looks like you have A LOT on your plate for 2019, so I wish you all the luck! Keep being awesome!

Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi has Bachelor of Arts degrees in English, Journalism, and History. She is an author and has twenty years of experience in her field in jobs as a writer, a journalist, an editor, and marketing and public relations professional/publicist among many other things.

Breathe. Breathe., published by Unnerving in 2017, was her debut collection and a mix of dark poetry and short stories. Upon publishing it hit #2 in women’s poetry behind New York Times best-selling author Rupi Kaur’s second release. In its past year of publishing, it has hit the Top 5 Amazon paid best-selling lists in women’s poetry and horror short stories multiple times. Her work has been called raw, honest, evocative, beautiful as well as clever, brutal, and chilling by industry professionals, reviewers, and readers alike. She has stories and poems featured in several other anthologies (Hardened Hearts, PEN’s My Favorite Story, and Dark Voices) and magazines and was the co-editor of the Gothic poetry and short story anthology Haunted are These Houses.

She continues her own businesses, Addison’s Compass PR, which she’s worked for business and non-profit, and Hook of a Book Media, the latter of which currently takes up most of her time as she does editing, publicity, and consulting for many authors.

She’s been honored to have received a woman of achievement award in her community and to have represented the Business and Professional Women/Ohio as Ohio’s Young Careerist.

Proudly born in England, Erin writes multiple stories, novels, and poems from the forests of rural Ohio now where she frets over her three children, partner, and a cat.

You can e-mail her at hookofabook (at) hotmail (dot) com and find her easily at her website/blog. You’ll also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and her Amazon or GoodReads pages.

Newest Work: Breathe. Breathe. 

Book Buy Links: Amazon 

Breathe. Breathe. is a collection of dark poetry and short fiction exploring the surreal depths of humanity. It's a representation of how life breaks us apart and words put us back together. Purged onto the pages, dark emotions flow, urging readers into murky seas and grim forests, to the fine line between breathing and death.

In Act One, readers are presented with a serial killer in Victorian London, a lighthouse keeper with an eerie legacy, a murderous spouse that seems to have walked right out of a mystery novel, and a treacherous Japanese lady who wants to stay immortal. The heightened fears in the twilight of your minds will seep into the blackest of your nights, where you have to breathe in rhythm to stay alive.

In Act Two, the poetry turns more internal and pierces through the wall of denial and pain, bringing visceral emotions to the surface unleashing traumas such as domestic abuse, violence, and illness.

In the short stories, you'll meet residents of Valhalla Lane whose lives are on a violent parallel track to collision, a man who is driven mad by the sound of a woodpecker, a teenage girl who wakes up on the beach and can't find another soul in sight, a woman caught in a time shift pitting her against the Egyptian goddess Anuket, and a little girl whose whole world changes when her favorite dandelion yellow crayon is discontinued.

Amid these pages the haunting themes of oppression, isolation, revenge, and madness unfold through folklore, nightmares, and often times, raw, impulsive passion crafted to sear from the inside out.

With a touching foreword by the Bram Stoker nominated author Brian Kirk (We Are Monsters), Breathe. Breathe. will at times unsettle you, and at times embrace you.

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