Interview with Author Van Essler

Vial Thoughts for 2023 and Beyond

Raw Dog Screaming Press (RDSP) will be releasing the debut novel Vial Thoughts by Van Essler in May of this year. If you like gothic horror meshed with dark fantasy and dystopian themes, which also offers other cross genre bending twists like science fiction in the vein of Mary Shelley, then keep your eyes peeled for its release (or pre-order is open now!), but in the meantime, join us in reading the interview below to learn more about her processes in creating her book.

Vial Thoughts by Van Essler was described by USA Today best-selling author Virginia Nelson as having “a truly outstanding heroine on a journey to self-discovery through generational trauma” and as a “masterpiece.” Professional Reviewer Paul Allan Goat said it’s “a darkly lyrical and stylishly stygian page-turner—literary opium.” As a reader, you don’t want to miss this thrill ride of a read, both unique and original.

Our award-winning small, indie press is excited to bring Essler into the RDSP family. Editor and SHUWPF mentor Heidi Ruby Miller said, “Her voice is smart. Her world, immersive. And the thrills are chilling.”

So, what’s it about?

Balanced on a thin wire between horror and steampunk, Van Essler’s debut novel Vial Thoughts is an acrobatic performance at the darkest of circuses. Lenora Leahill has recently inherited her father’s estate and is ready to take her place in the enlightened Age of Awareness where books can be instantly consumed as injections using an Aqua Peritia cuff. She has grand plans for securing her legacy, but navigating these new responsibilities alone is not easy, especially when it’s impossible to see clearly under the city’s ashfall.

When an old colleague of her father’s demands fulfillment of a promise Lenora knows nothing about, she discovers this new Age of Awareness is haunted by a dark history. Lenora must wade through the shadows of the past and gain her footing in the present if she has any hopes of a future—unless death or madness finds her first.

Essler wrote Vial Thoughts for her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University based on some of her previous writing. “The seeds of Vial Thoughts came from a group of short stories I had written,” she said. “I had all these wonderful pieces of a world that mirrored back so much of our own society that we often ignore; I knew I needed to merge them together into a novel. I brought those lovely ideas to the SHUWPF program to craft a story worthy of those pieces’ potential.”

Now, Vial Thoughts will be her first novel. Who is Van Essler and what are her thoughts about how she writes across genres, her writing inspirations, and how does she mesh social issues into her work? Let’s dive in.

Q: You write dark fiction across multiple genres and sub-genres in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy realms. Can you describe a bit about your writing, the work of meshing genres, and the journey you’ve been on?

A: Absolutely! I always find it fascinating how different writers build their stories. I think where many writers start is with what pulls them as they read. I’m a huge horror fan, but I’m also keen on many other genres and read widely. My goal for a story is always to create an engaging experience, so I draw inspiration and craft techniques from everything I’ve found as an engaging read, whether that be horror or fantasy or memoir.  

I find meshing genres extremely satisfying. In many ways, it’s like creating a tapestry; you weave the right colors in certain places for it all to come together in a clear picture. The individual elements for my stories typically brew in the back of my mind long before I sit down to write, further clarifying my initial ideas. Much of my first draft is figuring out how to connect and arrange those threads of ideas. There’s a balancing act in cross-genre, but the ratios are different with each tale. Part of my revision process is playing with those ratios, seeing if the sci-fi is too heavy or the fantastical needs a boost.

I don’t remember when I first caught the writer bug, but I recall writing chapter books at eight that I would share with classmates. Looking back through my writing journey up to this point, I feel like I’m always striving to simply tell a good story that connects with readers. I’m sure that sounds cheesy, but I think that’s what all writer’s really want. The thing is, “a good story” is subjective, so we end up with this rich literary community of various types of stories.

Q: You have, I believe, some societal issues interwoven into your work. What is your voice conveying to readers either softly or loudly or both? How important do you feel stories are in the battle for a better world?

A: Stories are vital in our battle for a better world. Throughout history, we’ve told stories to both pass on the knowledge of our past as well as explore our hopes for the future. One of the strengths of speculative fiction is how writers can reframe current issues in society today in a different world. By experiencing those issues in a fictional setting, it can give readers a new perspective on them.

One of my favorite things about this book was being able to shed light on so many societal issues organically through the plot, like the struggles of the female protagonist, Lenora, in a patriarchal society. Others are more subtle, but I feel readers will recognize those issues as they mirror our own. One of the big issues tackled in this book was how much perception can control society. The spin of information we access on the internet has a direct effect on our actions, so hopefully the parallel information system of Aqua Peritia in the book conveys this issue throughout the novel.

Q: What is Vial Thoughts about in your own words? What types of readers might enjoy it?

A: Vial Thoughts is the tale of an activist entering the public sphere and figuring out how to fight for causes that matter to her. So many stories explore coming-of-age, but I feel like we go through many phases of life and thereby many types of coming-of-age—this is a story of the phase of entering adult society for the first time. The protagonist, Lenora, has just finished college and inherited a grand estate; she’s ready to take on all of society’s ills and fix them. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any experience with how her world actually works. The devices she regarded so highly carry a steep price. She underestimates how much her gender will be viewed as a weakness. The plague of madness is far worse than she realized. When she stumbles onto a conspiracy, she has to learn on her feet how to fight for her better tomorrow.

I feel like many readers of gothic horror will enjoy this book for its lovely dark atmospherics and fair share of blood. Those who like psychological terror will be pleased as well. Even though the book is stronger on the horror side, I believe many science fiction readers will dig into the world dynamics and strange devices, especially those that love a good punk read with the characters battling to take down an oppressive authority.

Q: What authors or books have inspired you and your writing in your life? Both classic and contemporary.

A: Wow, this is a tricky one since there are so many! For classics, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were both huge for me—the tone of those books carries so much weight in their stories. Monsters have always fascinated me because you can see their trauma, their desires, yet it’s undeniable, they are the villains in the narrative. I’m also always in awe of how Shirley Jackson wrote psychological and societal terror.

In more contemporary works, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus proved a big inspiration for creating settings that are so vibrant, they become not only an aesthetic but a character. I love the bold brutality of everything from EV Knight and Poppy Z. Brite. They don’t shy away from getting gruesome but manage to utilize it to enrich their stories rather than using it to distract.

Q: You’re embarking in 2023 on publication of your debut novel. How do you feel? What are you most looking forward to?

A: I feel delightfully surreal at the moment. I dreamt of publishing a novel for as long as I can remember, so this is definitely a tremendous milestone for me. I’m trying to soak in that glee while trying to keep mindful of all the next steps on my journey.  It’s a truly wonderful feeling to be able to take your passion and send it out for others to enjoy.

As silly as it may sound, I think I’m most excited to hold the actual book in my hands. This story has been a document on my computer for so long, it will be magical to see it as a physical book. To be able to feel the texture of the pages and see it wrapped in a gorgeous cover will solidify that this is real.

Q: What are your writing goals for the future?

A: I hope to experiment more with cross-genre. My work usually tends to lean on the dark side, but I’ve found that pulling other genres into my stories has been a rewarding experience. I’m currently in the process of submission on a cyberpunk fairytale novel, and my work in progress is my own strange take on a haunted house—with portal fantasy and time traveling elements blended in with the horror.

By day, I’m an English teacher, which has inspired me to start tinkering with both fiction and craft books for younger readers. Overall, my goal is to consistently strive to create those “good stories.” 

READ AN EXCERPT of Vial Thoughts in our Spooky Premonition preview magazine.

Praise for Vial Thoughts –

“From the ashes rises a truly outstanding heroine on a journey to self-discovery through generational trauma. Highly recommend, a masterpiece!” – USA Today Bestselling Author Virginia Nelson

“Van Essler’s debut novel Vial Thoughts surges through your veins with its frightening vision of a dystopian world where knowledge is bought, sold, controlled, and killed for. Feeling a little too possible for comfort, this steampunk dark sci-fi is a shot of adrenaline from the first chapter that will leave you tearing through the ash-covered streets sweating, panting, and begging for more.” – Bram Stoker Award Winner EV Knight, Author of The Fourth Whore

“An utterly readable mélange of steampunk and gothic horror, Essler’s stellar debut novel—the first installment of her Age of Awareness saga—is like a milky shot of absinthe: hypnotic, hallucination-inducing, and highly addictive. There is a lot to love here: the richly described pseudo-Victorian setting, the brilliant use of sensory descriptors throughout to create a fully immersive reading experience, the cast of memorable characters, the relentless pacing and tightly woven plotline… but ultimately the power of this novel is the story’s heroine, Lenora Leahill, a courageous and ambitious 23-year-old woman living in a patriarchal society where women have been systemically repressed for generations. After the death of her father, Leahill stands alone to battle a corrupt political system as well as a madman demagogue—not for her own personal gain but for the advancement of an ideal: the Age of Awareness. A darkly lyrical and stylishly stygian page-turner—literary opium.” – Paul Goat Allen

Van Essler, Biography –

Van Essler tinkers with devious devices and macabre magic. She writes a signature blend of dark edged, cross-genre fiction, creating fantastical settings to expose real world societal issues. Her work appears in Like Sunshine After RainStory Emporium Magazine, and Zimbell House anthologies and she won the Founder’s Award from the Professional Writers of Prescott for fiction. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. A tarot deck collector and believer in cat naps, Essler makes friends with all her dreams, whether they are sweet reveries or nightmares. She lives in the Seattle area with her family and spoiled, ginger cats. You can find her on Twitter @VanPunkAuthor or her Facebook author page.

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Review copies, when available, can be obtained upon request, and interview inquiries can be coordinated, through Erin Al-Mehairi, publicist, at or Twitter or Instagram (@erinalmehairi).