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Fast, raw, and nasty: Nick Cutter talks about The Troop

The_TroopLast month, I posted a review of a forthcoming horror novel by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter; that novel, called The Troop, is an early contender for one of my favourite books of the year. In advance of its February 25 publication date, the author agreed to answer some e-mail questions about the origins of the novel, the use of violence in fiction, and the appeal of the horror genre to both writers and readers.

Where did the idea for The Troop come from?

I got the idea from a fortune cookie, if you can believe it! No, no, that’s a lie. It was from a Star Scroll that I bought at a Mac’s Milk. Okay, that’s a lie too.

The best I can tell you is this: A few years back I was at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and they had an exhibit on water. How we use it as a species, how it’s used around the world … and the things that live in it. There was a tiny little area set off one side of the sprawling exhibit, a dark little room with a videotape running on a loop. A doctor talking about the little creatures who take the villain’s role in this book – one of those roles, anyway. I was fascinated. The novel kind of popped into my head.

Why write a pure genre novel under a pseudonym?

Well, it was more my agent’s idea than anything. I love genre stuff. Horror, thriller, pulp, noir, sci-fi and fantasy, you name it. Some of my closest friends in this city either run or write for ChiZine, a genre press I know you’re familiar with. My first books, as you also know, were written under a pen name – they were horror, too.

Now, in that case my mother actually found a half-written novel on my computer, the snoop that she is (this was back when I was in undergrad; I was staying at their house over the summer, so I suppose she was somewhat entitled …) and saw this revolting, violent, nasty novel and said: You absolutely cannot drag the good [family name] through the mud; if you insist on publishing this, for Heaven’s sake do it under another name! That makes my Mom sound like a character from Downton Abbey, which she is not, but anyway, I acquiesced, despite the fact that my family name is not really “good” – we’re a family of knaves and rum runners, carpetbaggers and scoundrels, happily and admittedly so, so it was weird to hear my mother make the request.

The “Nick Cutter” pen name is a similar situation. My agent felt that there should be some separation between literary stuff and genre stuff, so this was the idea we settled on.

I just don’t want anyone thinking it’s because I’m ashamed of my work in this field, or put less work into it or anything like that (though I suppose that’s the reason why people might not use their real names …) Long story short, it’s rather easy to discover who Nick Cutter is.

You had pretty much been “outed” by the national media well before the novel was published. Did the public revelation of your “true identity” rankle with you?

Not at all, for the reasons above. Horror was my first love. I think this would be even less of an issue if my most recent novel hadn’t been nominated for a literary prize. But I haven’t ever written any book thinking awards would be in the cards. I don’t give any thought at all to any of that. The whole “literary” side of my career has been a surprise, right from the word go. I truly thought I’d be a horror writer. I wanted that, which is why this novel means a lot to me.

You wrote a previous horror novel, The Preserve, under a different pseudonym; that novel also dealt with a group of male characters in a horrific situation that was manipulated by humans. What is the attraction of this situation from a writer’s perspective?

I think, most simply, a lot of my horror ideas conform to standard tropes. One of the most common and workable ones is: take these characters, isolate them, introduce a threat, and let nature take its course. You can find an endless number of horror books and movies that follow this very simple and highly effective formula. It’s great because of course they can’t get external help, their civilities towards each other break down, dissension sets in, fear and paranoia grip them, and sooner or later the Devil comes out to play. Backgrounding all that is the story of how those characters came to be there, suffering the way they are. It often compounds the horror to know that other people – their actions, their callousness, their evil – put those characters in that terrible situation.

There are human villains in the novel, but the chief villain is, so to speak, “environmental.” Why did you choose this approach?

The primary idea was to create a villain you couldn’t outrun. You couldn’t run out of the spooky house; you couldn’t escape the basement where the terrors lurked. This monster lives under your skin. You carry it around with you. So the only real hope is that you don’t let it get inside.

Horror fiction often reflects the pervasive social fears of the time: giant mutated ants as metaphors for nuclear fallout in the 1950s, or vampires as metaphors for AIDS in the 1980s. Is contagion a key terror to be exploited by horror writers in the new millennium?

I imagine so. I think things like environmental devastation and the like will have more of a role in horror going forward; they certainly do in my stuff.

Before it was rampant consumerism or the Red Threat or stuff like that; it proved a fertile ground for horror. Now I think you look around and see the ways in which the life we’re living doesn’t quite seem sustainable, and there’s no agreement on how to tackle some of these monolithic problems facing us as a species – those things put the fear of God into me.

Nick_CutterAny time you feel helpless in the face of a vast, unquantifiable, and unbeatable force, there’s horror there. So The Troop echoes that just a little bit – though honestly, I didn’t write it with any kind of political or social motivation. I just wanted to write a fast, raw, and nasty fireballin’ horror book like the stuff I read as a teenager.

I find that nowadays so much of the horror is done by literary writers who kind of segue into it (mea culpa), and there’s always some kind of political allegory, or some kind of arch irony to it: this is horror, wink-wink, but smart, thinking people’s horror, not the kind of stuff you’d find on the drugstore spinning racks.

Well, I loved that kind of horror! Still do. And I find when it gets politicized or diffuse, the way some literary horror can be, it’s not disturbing or scary to me. It’s defanged and more palatable, but that’s not what I wanted to write. I don’t think that King and Barker and McCammon, my horror idols, had those motivations when writing, or those constraints. There are outliers like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is very literary and experimental but still scary as hell. Anyway, I decided not to bother trying to split that particular atom. Old-school horror. That’s what I went for.

Like most of your work, The Troop is a strongly masculine book: there are no female characters in it. Why do you gravitate to the masculine perspective and experience so insistently in your fiction?

Oh, I think probably because I wanted to keep it in a zone of experience that I knew and felt confident with. If I’d used a troop of Girl Scouts, it would have been a disaster because I really can’t claim to know how they’d think and it would have come off as some awful Judy Blume pastiche. I have no real idea how teenage girls think or behave in private with each other. So I just stuck with what I knew, and was able to cast my mind back to those days when I was a Scout, hanging out with other boys.

One book that has strong resonance in The Troop is Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, especially in a scene in which one character attempts to divest himself of what has infected him by cutting it out with a Swiss Army Knife. Did you have Smith’s novel in mind as you wrote The Troop?

That’s a great question and a good catch. You and my editor have eagle eyes. I read The Ruins when it came out years ago. Loved it. When it came to writing The Troop, I wasn’t consciously aware of that resonance, although there’s a difference in that the character who cuts himself is goaded into it by another character, whereas in The Ruins that character acts alone. Regardless, the resemblance is definitely there.

Scott Smith blurbed The Troop; in fact, other than my agent and father, he was the first person to read it. His blurb probably helped sell it. He also gave some really great edits, which I implemented before the manuscript was subbed. After he bought it, my editor brought up this scene in relation to The Ruins. I had to hustle to the bookshelf and read the book again, and yes, there’s definitely a similarity. I couldn’t believe Scott hadn’t made note of it, actually. So I didn’t have Smith’s book in mind as I wrote, but for that specific scene, a debt is due.

The violence in the novel is plentiful and graphic. As a writer, what is your relationship with, and your attitude toward, violence in fiction?

It’s great! I dig it!

In all seriousness, if it serves a point I’m all for it. I spoke about this somewhere else, when someone asked if I’d gotten the “tone” of the book right. I said that I wasn’t sure I found the right tone, really, but it’s impossible to find the tone that suits every reader. If I’d softened some of it, the real horror lovers (at least lovers of a certain type of horror) would’ve said I’d chickened out instead of going for the jugular; and since I wrote it the way I did, no holds barred, you’ll have some readers saying I went too far. It’s a no-win situation, so I just wrote it the way that felt most natural to me.

Y’know, there’s kind of a sentiment in CanLit (at least as I interpret it) that you ought to gloss over or find a poetic distancing device to describe horrific events. I remember reading some book, can’t remember the title, that described a mortar blast dismembering someone, and it was painted in such a distant way, metaphors of flowers blooming and paper dolls ripped apart and whatnot, totally uninvolved and distanced from how the event would actually unfold. It felt like a huge cheat to me, a lie and a bromide to a certain readership who could only accept reading about such an event if you painted the outside corners of it, poeticized and almost romanticized it.

I think that’s cheap, and it’s kind of weak-willed on both an author and a reader’s part. If you’re gonna write it, write it. Don’t gloss it or weasel it or try to turn something rotten or terrible or terrifying into something palatable and sane and cleansed. Or do that, but don’t get pissy when someone else takes a different tack on the same scene, one that paints it in what may be its truer, unflinching colours.

Anyway, that’s me bitching and complaining. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. I don’t want to throw shade on anyone, or on my nation’s literature, which by and large I love. All of which is to say, some scenes in the book were tough to write but they felt like vital scenes, true to my sense of the world. But people’s tastes are gonna vary on that, and that’s totally fine and understandable.

What is it about the horror genre that interests you as a writer? What keeps readers returning to the genre?

I love to be scared. It’s a masochistic impulse. Sadly, the more you try to push that fear button, the more dulled it gets from overuse. It’s harder and harder to scare people. So what keeps people returning, I imagine, is what keeps a heroin addict returning to the needle: that familiar rush. Problem being, at least an addict knows he’ll get a rush. A lot of books probably disappoint on that level.

Do you worry about being dismissed as a serious writer on the basis of your genre fiction?

When I consider the individuals who would dismiss me or anyone else on those grounds, and consider the fact that I don’t really give a shit about the opinions of such individuals, it doesn’t worry me at all, no.

Will you continue to write pure horror fiction alongside your more “literary” output?

The market will make that decision. If the books tank, I won’t be allowed to continue at all. If they do okay, I’d happily keep writing them. If one stream runs more fruitfully than the other, I imagine I might flow with it. I have a mortgage to pay off!

Strong nerves, strong stomachs, no quarter: Nick Cutter’s The Troop

The Troop. Nick Cutter; $29.99 cloth 978-1-4767-1771-5, 368 pp., Gallery Books

The_Troop(Note: This is an early review from an advance reading copy. Simon & Schuster Canada will release this title in February.)

Some novels comfort readers, snuggle with them and stroke their hair and whisper reassuringly that everything will be alright. Other novels come at their readers with a sledgehammer. The Troop, by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter, is the second kind. The book, about a group of five boy scouts who, along with their adult scoutmaster, go camping on an uninhabited island off the north coast of PEI, where they are beset by a stranger carrying a mysterious – and highly dangerous – contagion, is billed as “a novel of terror,” but this is somewhat akin to calling Ebola a minor skin irritation.

Cutter wastes little time on the niceties, setting up his scenario and sketching his characters in quick, broad strokes. He is much more interested in ratcheting up the tension, something he begins doing in the opening chapters and continues more or less remorselessly for the next three hundred pages. This is a book that works best if a reader knows little or nothing about the plot going in, so suffice to say that as the nature of the threat facing the boys becomes clearer, Cutter inserts scenes and set pieces that are more and more outrageous, more and more over the top.

Thanks to various national media outlets, it is by now an open secret that Cutter is actually Craig Davidson, whose 2013 literary novel, Cataract City, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Many critics, in describing that book, used the word “mature,” which seemed to be code for “restrained.” In his earlier literary work under his own name (one previous novel, The Fighter, the novel-in-stories Sarah Court, and a collection of stories, Rust and Bone) and a pure horror novel called The Preserve, also written under a pseudonym, the author had indulged in scenes of violence and machismo that were rare in CanLit and felt – to a certain sensibility, at least – like a breath of fresh air. These were not absent from Cataract City, but it was clear that Davidson had worked to tone down his more overt tendencies in the area of explicit gore.

By contrast, there is nothing restrained about The Troop. Operating within a genre context, the author has allowed the darker side of his imagination to run riot, infusing the book with moments of Grand Guignol and body horror that recall Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, as well as David Cronenberg’s early film Shivers and Eli Roth’s cinema debut, Cabin Fever. The writing is propulsive and the momentum fairly unstoppable. Once this book has you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

What is most surprising in this regard are the moments of real tenderness that appear in the novel. A camaraderie develops between certain characters, leading in one instance to a moving scene in which they rescue a group of newborn turtles they have stumbled across. Elsewhere, one of the boys relates the story of a school project that involved carrying around a bag of flour as though it were a baby to teach the responsibilities of parenting. The boy, who is overweight and prone to sweating, carried his “baby” around diligently until the sweat from his hands soaked through the bag and it split down the middle. “I’m just saying that sometimes the more you care for something, the more damage you do,” the despondent boy concludes. This is an observation many more self-consciously literary novels would fail to arrive at. And there is an almost aching poignancy in the payoff involving a fictitious online persona the same overweight character creates to make himself appear more handsome and worldly than he actually is. What is most impressive is that these moments don’t feel like awkward authorial intrusions, but arise organically out of the context the novelist has created and developed.

Make no mistake, however: Cutter’s main concern resides with the horror aspects of his story, and he gives no quarter in this regard. Readers will require strong nerves and even stronger stomachs to endure some of what this novel throws at them, but there is a real energy to the writing, and it is clear that the author is having one hell of a good time, something that proves (pardon the pun) contagious. The Troop does not fall into the category of ironic, postmodern horror that was popular at the movies in the 1990s; rather, it is a straightforward, no-holds-barred tale of terror that starts strong and builds relentlessly to its conclusion. It is one of the goriest, gooiest, most gleefully grotesque novels to appear in a long, long time. Popular fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

Surprise inclusions, omissons characterize this year’s Giller shortlist

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoLeave it to Margaret Atwood to confound expectations.

If you’d asked me (or, likely, pretty much any literary observer) prior to this morning, I’d have said the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. A staggeringly ambitious book about Europeans’ first contact with Native Canadians and the collision of ideologies and cultures that led – for better or worse – to the creation of this country, Boyden’s story appeared as the quintessential Giller novel. Compared to Herodotus by Charles Foran in The Globe and Mail, called “a classic” by the National Post and “a magnificent literary beast” by Quill & Quire, The Orenda seemed like the book to beat this year for the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada.

At the announcement of the Giller shortlist this morning in Toronto, when it became apparent that Boyden’s novel did not make the cut, an audible gasp permeated the room.

Atwood and her fellow jurors – former Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American novelist Jonathan Lethem – culled from a longlist of thirteen titles a shortlist that is as surprising as it is intriguing. Only two of this year’s shortlisted authors – Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady – have been previous Giller finalists. Heavy hitters such as Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, and Claire Messud were left off the list of five contenders for the $50,000 prize. In their place are a genre thriller set in postwar Vienna, a story about the fallout from two brothers’ conflicted history, and a violent tale about a cop and a criminal in Niagara Falls.

The finalists for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)

Anansi is the only wholly owned Canadian press to feature on the shortlist. With two titles, this brings Anansi’s total nominations, over the twenty-year history of the prize, to thirteen. Thirteen in the year 2013 seems auspicious, but even if you’re not superstitious, at first blush this appears to be Lisa Moore’s year. She’s been nominated twice before – for her story collection Open and her first novel, Alligator – and this book, about an escaped drug runner who embarks on one last score, seems like the perfect confluence of accessible genre thriller and literary sensibility to nab the prize.

At the shortlist announcement, it was made explicit that the jury chose the five finalists at the same time they settled on the thirteen-book longlist – this was, arguably, a preventative strike against those who might have surmised that the jury changed its mind about David Gilmour’s longlisted novel, Extraordinary, after the controversy surrounding the author’s comments on a Random House–sponsored website last month.

What is clear is that this year’s Giller jury privileges books with strong narratives over more technically or stylistically innovative works. This year’s Giller shortlist comprises reader-friendly, plot-oriented fiction – stories told, as the jury statement that accompanied the longlist put it, in “remarkably familiar ways.” However, the books on this year’s shortlist – to say nothing of the shortlist itself – are not without surprise or interest, and observers will be paying close attention when the winner is announced at a gala dinner in Toronto on November 5.

UPDATE: A post on the Giller Prize’s Facebook page indicates that, contrary to the impression given at the shortlist announcement, the jury chose the shortlist “approximately one week after the longlist was announced.” The post goes on to stipulate, “This jury’s timing was unique to their particular judging process, which differs from every other Giller Prize jury and from other literary award juries and judging processes.”

Bodies in motion: Craig Davidson’s Cataract City

Cataract_CityMy review of Craig Davidson’s new novel, Cataract City, from today’s Globe and Mail:

Craig Davidson is one of this country’s great kinetic writers. Whether his focus is on bare-knuckle boxing or the lithe grace of racing greyhounds tearing along a straightaway, Davidson’s stock-in-trade is describing bodies in motion. There is a brute physicality to his writing that immediately sets him apart from his CanLit peers, many of whom prefer rumination and stasis to vivid action. It is no accident that one of the words that reappears throughout Cataract City, peppering the prose like a syntactical signpost, is “torque”: This underscores the almost palpable energy with which the author infuses his writing.

The Guaranteed Canadian Bestseller Formula™

[This] internal debate – Will it sell? – was by then occurring on a scene-by-scene, sentence-by-sentence basis. I found myself clinically dissecting bestsellers. The Da Vinci Code had short, poppy chapters. So I’d have short, poppy chapters. Eat, Pray, Love had a loopy narrative voice. So I’d have a loopy narrative voice.

I approached writing a book as a complex equation: The Guaranteed Canadian Bestseller Formula™. Take one spunky heroine (preferably Mennonite), add one northern canoe trip, a dash of illicit buggery (a priest or close family member, either works) and set it in a harrowing post-apocalyptic world where the spunky heroine, OfNomi, has lost the right to her own body … blammo! Instant chart-topper.

What I resisted seeing was that the writers whose success I wished to ape hadn’t set out to achieve it with the mixture of dire desperation and cold-eyed cynicism I’d developed. They were writing at least partially from their own experiences about topics that inspired them. They were … just writing.

– Craig Davidson, “The Things You Have to Endure”