An Interview with Nicole Cushing
Earlier this month over at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, I reviewed Mr. Suicide, by Nicole Cushing. As my review went online, I found out Cushing’s book won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Debut Horror Novel. In this interview, Nicole and I discuss cons, “likeable characters,” Louisville, Kentucky, and the definition of evil.
First off, congrats on your novel, Mr. Suicide, winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best Debut Horror Novel. This isn’t your first time at the Stokers. How has reception been at cons this year?
I ran into a number of friends at StokerCon, some of whom I’ve known for many years. I think they’re happy to see how I’ve matured as a writer and as a person. (I was pretty socially awkward at cons, back in the day.)
At the end of Mr. Suicide, you tell how you were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Imp of the Perverse.” Can you tell us more about Poe’s story (it’s not his most well-known) and how it inspired Mr. Suicide?
Not to split hairs, but I mentioned Poe’s concept of the imp of the perverse, which appears in the story of the same name but also appears in other Poe stories. (Most notably “The Black Cat”–where it is referred to ominously as “the spirit of PERVERSENESS.” But it also shows up in “The Tell-Tale Heart”.)
Poe explains this concept in several slightly varying ways. The gist of it rests in his assertion that there’s a largely unacknowledged (but highly influential) aspect of every human psyche that yearns to degenerate into a state of villainy, ruin, self-defeat, or self-destruction. In “The Black Cat” he describes it as “…this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself–to offer violence to its own nature–to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only…” (the emphasis here being Poe’s).
I found this whole concept fascinating, and explored it (consciously and subconsciously) as I wrote the novel.
Mr. Suicide has been billed as “extreme horror.” Do you agree? What makes it extreme?
I think Mr. Suicide defies easy classification. The book does graphically depict several disturbing incidents (including, but not limited to, sexual violence, self-mutilation, and murder). Some folks see this as its defining characteristic and therefore dub it “extreme horror”.
But I think most readers sense that there’s more to it than just that. I take a polystylistic approach in Mr. Suicide. The book was partially influenced by literary writers like J.D. Salinger and Jay McInerney, partially influenced by the philosophical pessimism of Thomas Ligotti, and partially influenced by the emotionally realistic depiction of trauma in the work of Jack Ketchum. And then there are the unexpected eruptions of gallows humor that go off about once every thirty pages, too.
So yeah, it’s far more multidimensional than “extreme horror” suggests. Some people prefer to call it “transgressive”, because that implies that there’s a literary method to the madness. So if I had my choice, I’d probably label the book as “transgressive” rather than “extreme horror”. But I really don’t want to overanalyze this sort of question. Genre (and subgenre) labels exist as a tool to connect writers with readers. If the “extreme horror” label helps someone make a connection with my work, I’m cool with that.
Why did you pick suburban Louisville, Kentucky as a setting?
Setting was, to some extent, dictated by character. As I discovered more and more about my protagonist and his family, it made sense that they’d live in a cheap, prefab house in a Dan & Roseanne-style working class suburb.
So that answers part of your question. But you may still be wondering: “Why Louisville?”
And the answer is this: I usually set my stories in Kentucky or in neighboring southern Indiana. (I’ve lived in this so-called “Kentuckiana” border region for the last thirteen years, so I know how the scenery, the weather, and the culture combine to create a variety of distinct milieus.)
Setting can be used to gently nudge the tone and subtext of fiction in a desired direction. In my experience, that’s easier to pull off when you know the setting well.
What is your definition of evil?
That question presumes the existence of free will. (An issue on which I waver back and forth.) For example, you can label the main character of Mr. Suicide as evil, but to me he’s more of a walking, talking natural disaster–a perfect storm created by family dysfunction, social alienation, trauma, inherited mental illness, and sexual obsession.
Setting that considerable caveat aside though, I think that most of the actions we classify as “evil” are driven by selfishness. (In some cases, ferocious selfishness or selfishness on a grand scale–but still selfishness.) Someone (Martin Buber?) defined evil as the failure to consider the impact our actions have on others. That definition makes sense to me.
Should main characters be likeable?
I don’t think the protagonists of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, or “The Masque of the Red Death” are particularly likeable. If I remember correctly, Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t all that likeable either. And if you want to look outside the realm of horror fiction, you can find plenty of unlikeable protagonists in many great works of Russian and Eastern European literature (not to mention the works of American transgressive writers like Henry Miller and Hubert Selby, Jr.).
So I don’t think we need main characters to be likeable. History shows us that main characters can be arrogant, cruel, and/or lost in the rotting maze of their own twisted minds and still be quite effective. As a reader and as a writer, I find conventionally likeable characters to be shallow and utterly boring. I’d go so far as to say that a synonym for “likeable” is “banal”.
Why did you choose to have the story in second-person?
When I was a teenager I read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and enjoyed its use of second person point of view. Here’s the first line from that novel: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” That’s such an effective first line. It tells the reader that the arena of conflict for the novel is within the mind of the protagonist; that the conflict is between one aspect of himself (that led him to be in “a place like this”) and another aspect of himself (that feels humiliated by finding himself in this situation and feels the need to assert that he is above it). You get all of that information in just twenty-one words.
I think that’s why I don’t have as many hang-ups about second person as a lot of other writers do–I’ve seen it done well. Also, by the time I started the novel, I’d written a fair amount of short fiction that used second person. I felt confident with it. Most importantly, though, second person just felt like the best approach for this particular story.
I wanted to use second person point of view in the same way McInerney had in Bright Lights. I wanted it to emphasize the protagonist’s internal conflict. I wanted to depict a mind at war with itself–burdened with uncertainty and perversity. I also felt that second person evoked certain psychiatric symptoms (dissociative symptoms like depersonalization). And of course I harbored a suspicion that second person might lead the reader to feel more deeply immersed in the mind of the protagonist–and that this immersion itself would prove to be a horrific experience.
Finally, I thought that second person p.o.v. would clearly establish–right from page one–that this wasn’t an ordinary horror novel. I wanted to give the readers fair warning that they were in for some surprises.
Any advice to budding horror writers?
My advice for horror writers is the same advice I’d give any writer: be mindful of how you define success.
Writers often suffer from insecurity. At some point in our careers, we’ve all asked ourselves: “Am I doing this right? Am I a ‘real writer’? Am I on my way to becoming a ‘real writer’?”
Here’s what I’ve learned: the only definition of success that matters is your own definition–constructed after a thorough, honest assessment of yourself, the publishing industry, and where the two can best meet. (Shameless plug: I teach a workshop on this very topic.)
Don’t waste time chasing someone else’s idea of success. At best, you won’t achieve it and will have wasted time. At worst, you will achieve it but won’t enjoy it–because it’s someone else’s dream (and not yours). You won’t have success, success will have you. I can’t imagine a more hellish fate for a writer.
What books have you read lately that you would recommend to others?
I recently finished The Business of Books by the late André Schiffrin (1934-2013). It’s a memoir in which the author (a longtime presence in the New York City publishing scene) painfully recounts how multinational corporations took over the book business in the second half of the last century. Anyone who harbors even the faintest wish of working with large, NYC-based publishers needs to check this out beforehand so they’re prepared for the beast that awaits them.