I recently reviewed Nicole Cushing’s novella Children of No One and enjoyed it so much I felt the need to dig into Cushing’s psyche by means of interview. She’s a new exciting voice in horror fiction. Get comfy, pull out some snacks and watch the show unfold below.
So how exactly did you get into writing fiction? Was this something you did since day one or something you got into as you got older?
From an early age, I wanted to write. However, I didn’t have the confidence to pursue any kind of career in the arts. When I went to college, I majored in psychology because I thought it would ultimately prove more marketable than an English degree.
I tried writing shortly after college, but that attempt sputtered out after getting just a handful of (well-deserved) form rejections. I tried a second time, around 2000-2002, but that attempt failed, too. I went to a lot of genre events and got to know a few people in the business. Hell, during that time I even managed to sell a story to a Cemetery Dance Richard Laymon tribute anthology. But I wasn’t writing regularly. Again, I had a huge crisis of confidence and an inadequate work ethic.
But in 2008, I decided to try again. And this time, I was mature enough to become teachable. I went to a convention in Columbus, Ohio called Context. I took several writing classes there, including a short story critique workshop led by Gary Braunbeck. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of short story writing that day, but the most important thing I learned is that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew.
From that point on, I dove into writing. I knew that, for me, it wasn’t enough for writing to be my hobbie. I really wanted it as a career. And I knew that there was a long apprenticeship involved, and that I’d have to plug away at it, steadily, if I wanted success. Brian Keene has always encouraged newer writers to read every day and to write every day. I can’t say I’ve lived up to that challenge perfectly, but more often than not, I have. And I think that work ethic has contributed to whatever success I’ve achieved so far.
I noticed you jumped into the bizarro scene a few years ago with your novella How to Eat Fried Furries. How did that come about and are you still interested in writing any bizarro related works in the future?
Nowadays, I think of Fried Furries as a collection of linked short stories, but some readers see it more as one complete, unified work – that’s how experimental it was…it’s hard to even define the form!
In any event, the book came about due to a bizarre, surreal dream I had about a man in an animal costume. (It’s been a few years, but if I’m not mistaken the dream that started it all was about an old man dressed in a snail costume who started to do that old break dancing move “The Worm”, very slowly, over the ground.) It was the only dream in my life that cracked me up. I woke myself up due to literally laughing in my sleep!
So, after that dream, I asked myself why someone would dress up in a snail costume. I wrote a short story about such a costumed snail-man. Then I thought about other strange animal costumes, and other strange reasons why people would wear them. All of them were absurd and bizarre and – to some degree – outlandish. I’d really had a lot of fun reading some of the Carlton Mellick III, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Cameron Pierce, and Gina Ranalli titles out at the time, so working with a Bizarro publisher made all the sense in the world.
As for writing Bizarro in the future, I can only say this: I never say never. I don’t see it as something I would do in the immediate future, just because I’m enjoying what I’m doing in a different arena. But I don’t rule it out. If I had a Bizarro fiction idea and felt compelled to write it, I’d follow that compulsion through. Right now, I’m just compelled to do other things. Other kinds of stories have just sort of grabbed me by the throat and said: “Write Me!”. My muse is abusive, that way.
What brought about the transition to writing cosmic horror?
I’d had some interest in cosmic horror, even during my Bizarro days. Unlike many others, though, my interest has never been focused on Lovecraft, specifically, or the Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve generally been far more enthusiastic about the work of Thomas Ligotti. In fact, the story “A Citizen’s History of the Pseudo-Amish Anschluss” (in Fried Furries) was inspired, in part, by Ligotti’s “The Town Manager”. So it was less of a radical shift than it might have seemed.
But to answer your question more directly: I was fairly new to writing, just a couple of years into my career, when I was in the Bizarro scene. Like any other newer writer, my stuff just grew and changed over time. I wasn’t motivated by disappointment with Bizarro, so much as I was by an interest in broadening my horizons. I started to read more widely, and got a kick out of the mental and emotional impact authors like Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood were able to trigger with their work. I aspired to write stories that explored some of that same territory. Here’s a metaphor that might explain what happened: I wanted to add more colors to my palette, to paint better and better pictures.
Lately, I think I’ve been growing and changing again. For example, the book I have coming out in April, I Am the New God, doesn’t quite seem like a cosmic horror book, to me. It might be a cosmic horror book, in the sense that Phillip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a cosmic horror book. But I don’t think the Lovecraftians would see it as a cosmic horror book. I would describe it as more of a character-driven exploration of the link between religious faith, mental illness, and violence (with maybe just a pinch or dash of cosmic horror embedded under the surface).
You definitely work in dark territory, drawing on obvious inspiration from Thomas Ligotti, H.P. Lovecraft and Gary Braunbeck. Are there other writers that have had a profound influence on you and do you plan on creating your own mythos?
Any list I compile will surely omit someone I’d rather not omit. But with that caveat, I’d be happy to share some additional influences.
In the last year or so, I’ve found myself quite taken with Poe (particularly his story “The Black Cat”, and his ideas concerning what he calls the “imp of the perverse”). I’m interested in characters who, in some way or other, self-destruct and descend into mental disturbance and/or irrational violence. Nobody does that better than Poe, I think. Violence, in his hands, isn’t cheesy or gratuitous. It’s as upsetting as it would be in real life, and the psychological depth he gives his characters means the violence is slathered with the ichor of a diseased conscience. Yum!
I’m increasingly interested in characters who live at the margins of society – the kind of folks who live lives saturated in horror and may not even know it. Hubert Selby, Jr. (author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream) is an influence, in that way.
I’m also an admirer of the Holocaust stories of Tadeusz Borowski (an Auschwitz survivor who went on to commit suicide, via gas, in the ’50s).
As for a mythos, if you’d asked me about this a week ago, I would have told you absolutely not. My favorite Lovecraft story is “The Music of Erich Zann”, and part of the reason that story is my favorite is that it has all the good stuff about Lovecraft without the (in my opinion) hokier mythos aspects.
But recently, I discovered that a character in my work-in-progress may, in fact, be a manifestation of The Great Dark Mouth (a god of nothingness, first introduced in Children of No One).
I was pretty surprised when I discovered that possible link. I’m almost finished the novel, and it had never even occurred to me. It was only when I was able to look back at the work, from the sort of bird’s eye view one takes during the revision process, that I was able to see a connection between the two. So, there’s a possibility that a mythos surrounding the Great Dark Mouth may emerge, in at least some limited way.
I can’t see myself consciously aspiring to build a mythos. If one emerges it will just happen naturally, without any planning on my part, simply as a result of my obsession with certain themes.
The Children of No One really blew me away. Can you list any artists that have impacted you and are you into behavior art?
From the time I first saw late night re-runs of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, as a relatively young child, I’ve appreciated disturbing visual art.
As far as naming individual artists, I’m afraid my frame of reference is so emeshed in the publishing industry that the only specific artists that come to mind are cover artists. For example, I’m thrilled with the work Zach McCain has done with my two DarkFuse novellas. He manages to create impressive cover art that is simple, professional, and eye-catching. It conveys the texture of my work in a single graphic.
Other cover artists I particularly enjoy are Aeron Alfrey, Caniglia, and my Hoosier neighbor, Steven Gilberts. I should also mention Lee Copeland, a Tennessee-based artist whose work adorns much of the wall space in my office. I’m particularly fond of his portrait of Rondo Hatton and a digital painting he did of a scene from my story “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Piggy Class”.
I have a confession to make in regard to the phrase “behavioral art”. As far as I can remember, I made it up for Children of No One. (Though a quick Google search reveals others have been using the term since 2009, so maybe I’m wrong.)
But I digress.
I do have an interest in behavioral art (or as most of the world knows it, performance art). Some of that interest manifested itself during my Bizarro days, when (like many Bizarros), I grafted performance art onto my readings. I don’t do that, anymore. But it was certainly an intersting experiment.
Prior to writing Children of No One, I’d discovered Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. This struck me as a particularly effective bit of performance art that succeeded in making the viewer – or, at least, this viewer – quite uncomfortable. Because of that, it seemed like the perfect piece to reference in a horror story.
There’s a strong occult element in The Children of No One. Did you have to conduct a lot research or is this something you practice regularly?
The occult is something that I find superficially interesting, but I’m not a believer. I’m an atheist. I find the occult to be a useful storytelling device, though. The occult enables a horror author to play with certain philosophical notions, by bringing them to life (so to speak) in stories. Because magick is a powerful force in the human psyche (if not, in my opinion, reality), it also lends the fiction some oomph it might not otherwise have.
My first meaningful exposure to the occult came from getting Alan Moore’s take on it. In the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he talks about the connection between art and magick. It’s a fascinating point of view, and it informed part of Mr. No One’s thought process. Alejandro Jodorowsky is another artist who has an interesting take on the occult, and I was influenced by him, as well.
I also conducted a little research by contacting occult expert Nathan Drake Schoonover. My understanding is that he’s appeared on some television shows on the subject. I told him a little bit about Mr. No One’s goals, and he suggested that Theyyam ritual might be one way in which he would pursue them. That sent me off to search for video footage of Theyyam ritual. When I found it, I decided I’d invent a Theyyam-based magick in the book. I wanted to capture the flavor of Theyyam, while creating from whole cloth other aspects of the ritual that just seemed to make sense to me.
I heard you read a short story 500 nights in a row. Is this true and how did this affect you and your fiction?
It is true.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a talk Ray Bradbury gave to college creative writing students, in which he encouraged them to read a short story each night, a poem each night, and an essay each night for a thousand nights.
By Bradbury’s standards, I’m a slacker. I only did it for five hundred nights, and I didn’t bother with the poems or essays. But the exercise did have a profound effect on my fiction. When I made a commitment to reading every night, I soon found that I got bored if I read too much of the same thing. So I was forced to seek out novelty (from my point of view). European authors. South American authors. African authors. Asian authors. I may never have read Bruno Schulz or Borges or the aforementioned Tadeusz Borowski or Hagiwara Sakutaro or Lauri Kubuitsile or Beatrice Lamwaka had it not been for my short story each night project.
So, it opened up my world, really.
Many writers have specific writing rituals they go through before actually sitting down and banging out those words. What is your writing process like?
No rituals, here. Usually, I have breakfast then simply sit down and write until I have to get ready to go to my day job. The only thing close to a quirky writing ritual I have is that, if I feel stuck on a passage, I’ll go to the games section of Thomas Ligotti Online and play a goofy zombie shoot ‘em up game. It blows off some steam and allows me to approach the text with a fresh set of eyes.
9. What are you working on now and what can readers expect from you in the future?
I’m finishing my first novel. (And by “finishing”, I mean, it’s pretty much all written and has been through a couple of rounds of revision). I’m re-writing one of the chapters now, and – once that’s done – I’ll read through the whole manuscript again. If it seems okay, I’ll then send it out to my first readers and see what they think.
This novel started life under the title Perfect Monsters, then became Mr. Shadow, before I decided to change the title again to The Psychotics. Although the more I think about it, Perfect Monsters might really still be a good fit. I dunno. I try not to worry too much about titles, at this point.
As for what readers can expect in the future…well…right now the big, upcoming project, is my forthcoming novella, I Am the New God. DarkFuse is releasing it on April 8th, but is taking pre-orders now at Amazon. (The pre-order price is a dollar cheaper than the price on release day, so it makes all the sense in the world to order it now).
There’s also the possibility that I could have a short story collection out at some point in the future. But it’s a little too early to talk about that in any specifics.
Oh, and one final thing. I’ll be teaching a writing class at this year’s Context speculative fiction convention (September 26-28 in Columbus, Ohio). For more information, visit http://www.contextsf.org/workshop.htm .