July 15, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: an interview with Nicole Cushing, author of "Mr. Suicide"

Nicole Cushing is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of multiple stand-alone novellas and dozens of short stories. Her work has been praised by the pop culture websites Ain't It Cool News and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Several of her stories have been selected as honorable mentions (long list) for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series. Her first full-length short story collection, The Mirrors, is also slated for publication in 2015. A native of Maryland, she now lives with her husband in Indiana. 

About MR. SUICIDE: Like everyone else in the world, you've wanted to do things people say you shouldn’t do.

How many times in your life have you wanted to slap someone? Really, literally strike them? You can't even begin to count the times. Hundreds. Thousands. You're not exaggerating. You're not engaging in ... whatchamacallit? Hyperbole? You're not engaging in hyperbole.

Maybe the impulse flashed through your brain for only a moment, like lightning, when someone tried to skip ahead of you in line at the cafeteria. Hell, at more than one point in your life you've wanted to kill someone; really, literally kill someone. That’s not just an expression. Not hyperbole. Then it was gone and replaced by the civilized thought: You can't do that. Not out in public.

But you've had the thought…

Available at: Word Horde and Amazon

Gef: Right off the bat, penning an entire novel in the second person point-of-view isn't something you see everyday. How did that come about for Mr. Suicide?

Nicole: While second person point of view is seen as an oddity, the truth is that most of us have a second person voice in our thoughts. For example, when I'm on the highway and see a police car along the side of the road, I may think to myself “You gotta slow down”. Or when I put my foot in my mouth I may think to myself “You idiot! Why'd you say that?”

So there's this completely natural, self-chastising aspect of second person point of view. I saw that aspect as a tool that would imply (throughout the novel) that the protagonist's mind is divided, caught up in continuous dialogue with itself. It's the same aspect of second person point of view that Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City exploits to great effect. I've always loved that book's first line: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

I also thought that second person p.o.v. would signal to readers (right away, on page one) that this novel is a bit of a departure from business-as-usual, that they're in a different kind of book.

Finally, I think my decision to go this route was made easier by the fact that I'd used second person point of view in several short stories. So I had a degree of comfort with it, right from the start.

Gef: While you have some notable works out there in publication already, this marks your debut novel. How does that milestone feel?

Nicole: It feels like movement in the right direction. I've enjoyed writing short fiction, but have felt myself gravitating toward longer and more complex work. I want to challenge myself and grow and the novel is the next natural step for that. Both commercially and artistically, the novel is the vehicle for where I want to go.

Gef: How much of a tightrope do you have to walk when approaching subject matter that either delves into mental illness or traipses along the edges of it? How deep into research do you have to go to get through a novel like this?

Nicole: When authors excel at depicting mental illness, they do so through effective characterization. They create characters who have mental illness (rather than caricatures of mental illness). They fully explore a character's emotional and interpersonal worlds. There's depth to the character. Layers. Even if the overall feel of the character's mind is foul, there's a richness to the foulness.

That's what I aspired to do with this novel. I felt compelled to dive deep into the mind of my main character. To accomplish this, I didn't do research in any traditional (detached) sense. I simply drew on my own experiences as a teenager with severe (and, at that time, untreated) depression. Also, several people I grew up around had significant mental health problems (some of which were extremely disturbing and/or resulted in tragedies). It was by drawing on all these sources, compositely (and by using my imagination) that the main character came together.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Nicole: For this book, I was influenced by the way Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, J.D. Salinger, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Jay McInerney depicted how people mentally and emotionally fall apart. I came to see the Person-Falling-Apart-Story as a subgenre of fiction, to which Mr. Suicide belonged.

In terms of tone/tension/transgression, the novel was influenced by Selby and Jack Ketchum (particularly the latter's book, The Girl Next Door). Ligotti's antinatalistic views exerted some influence on the book, but he was probably an even greater influence on my depiction of the world as sickeningly unreal. Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl and Mário de Sá-Carneiro's “The Great Shadow” may have also been influences in this regard.

More and more, I'm excited by the work of writers from outside the U.S. Recently, I've come across the work of Roland Topor and Hermann Ungar, two additional authors of Person-Falling-Apart-Stories. There's an intense, introspective, nightmarish quality to their fiction that speaks to me.

Gef: How would you describe your style of horror? I don't know if "mind bending" could be called a style, but I'm inclined to call it that.

Nicole: In some ways, I'm the worst person to ask that question because I see my work from the inside-out. Aspects of my work that don't seem at all distinct to me may strike the average reader or reviewer as noteworthy.

But, setting that caveat aside for now, I think I'd sum up my work this way: I use horrific, mind bending, transgressive, and absurd content to explore themes of depression, anxiety, alienation and loss. “Mindbending” is part of that equation, but I think there's more to it. I'm not sure if I can sum my approach in one word.

Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the horror genre?

Nicole: I live in a culture that tells me to ignore trauma, disease, insanity, serious injury, death, and grief. I'm supposed to just look the other way, invest my emotions in politics and/or religion, watch football for three or four more decades, and have the good manners to let myself be ushered off to a nursing home when my inevitable physical and mental decline becomes too unpleasant to look at.

In such a culture, horror is an oasis of truth. Horror dares to say that yes, we will suffer; yes, we will die. Horror is brave (and, I'd even say, dignified) that way. There's dignity in daring to look our fate in the eyes.

There's another thing I should mention, too. When I read horror fiction, I'm reminded that other people see the world in a way that's similar to how I see it. They, too, think about these unpleasant realities that we're all supposed to ignore. And, when I realize that, I don't feel quite so alone.

Gef: Along with Mr. Suicide, you also have a short story collection out this summer. How much of a gearshift is it for you between writing a novel and a short story?

Nicole: It's a significant gearshift. Yes, there are some lessons from short story writing that I applied to the writing of this novel. (Like I mentioned earlier, my use of second person p.o.v. in short fiction helped prepare me to use it in the novel.)

But, to me, there are more differences between the two forms than there are similarities. For starters, a novel (at least, my kind of novel) needs to capture a character's extended personal journey. That means I have to be willing to essentially live with the same character in my head for months on end (instead of the mere days in which a short story can be written). It also means committing myself to depicting the character's motion through life, from chapter to chapter to chapter (whereas short fiction is a bit more like a snapshot).

Honestly, I feel like I learned a completely new skill set by writing Mr. Suicide (and the trunk novel that preceded it). So it was awkward when I briefly went back to writing short stories for a couple of anthologies this past winter. I think my short stories and my novels come from slightly different places in my brain, and switching back and forth takes some effort.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Nicole: I always wince a little when I hear folks say something along the lines of: “There is no such thing as an original story, all you can do is bring your unique voice to the old tropes.” The people who say such things are generally well-intentioned. Often, they're people who are quite successful, too. So maybe they know things that I don't.

But, at the same time, I have to wonder if they're reading the same work I am. When I read Brian Evenson's story “Windeye” or his novel Last Days, I see fiction that is strikingly original. To me, the way that Glen Hirshberg uses horror fiction to explore the inter-generational impact of catastrophe (in his novella Dancing Men and his story “The Janus Tree”) is original. And then there's Thomas Ligotti. The magazine Interzone said (appropriately, I think) “...he has a dark vision of a new and special kind, a vision that no one had before him.”

So, I reject that piece of advice. The field has always had innovators. There will always be innovators. Why not at least aspire to be one of them?

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Nicole: As much as I love the literary, philosophical, and psychological aspects of horror, I have an almost-equal appetite for schlock. After a long day of writing, there's no greater pleasure than sitting down to an entertainingly-bad horror movie.

I recently ran across quite a doozy on Amazon Prime called The Freakmaker. (It's a 1974 film starring Donald Pleasence as a mad scientist hellbent on kidnapping college kids and making them into leafy, bipedal human/plant hybrids.)

Pleasence's character articulates his motive for going into such a strange field of research–something about wanting to create an improved version of humanity that can feed off sunlight and carbon dioxide (thus eliminating world hunger). But, as you can imagine, this attempt to impose logic on the scenario only makes the whole thing more bizarre.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Nicole: You mentioned that I'll have a short story collection out very soon. It's getting the final polish now. It's called The Mirrors and it's being published by Cycatrix Press. There are other books in the works, too, but it's too early to talk about any of them.

I'm also doing a fair bit of nonfiction work for Scream (a glossy, photo-filled horror film magazine). July's issue, for example, includes my interview with Phantasm's Reggie Bannister about the making of the new sequel Ravager.

If folks want to keep up with me, they can check out my website, www.nicolecushing.com or add me on Facebook or Twitter (@nicolecushing).

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