Horror fiction is a playground of razor-edged shadows dancing widdershins around the reader. “To Cheer as They Leave You Behind” fills those hollow shadows with parenting, addiction, thoughts of perfection, and the nature of identity. One thing I appreciated about the story is how you addressed postpartum depression as it relates to how mothers “should be.” What was the biggest challenge when it came to writing this particular story?
Far and away the biggest challenge was that I’m not a mother, nor even a parent. I don’t have that personal experience to draw on. I think that’s part of why second-person felt right to me—I’m not saying “Here’s my story,” instead, the narrator is telling you your story, almost repeating it back to you.
Yet while I may not be a mother, there were other elements of the narrator I could resonate with in order to access her voice. In many ways, she represents qualities in myself that I’m uncomfortable with, pushed to an extreme. One of those is the instinctive voyeuristic streak that I think we all have as humans—the desire to experience someone else’s life, to know their secret business. It’s what draws us to fiction, to gossip, to pornography. What makes the story compelling is our urge to see more of the narrator’s shameful secret, what she’ll do next, even though in doing so we’re in some ways echoing that same voyeurism that theoretically disgusts us. The other quality I share with her is the deep, anxiety-driven longing for a perfect life. As much as we might try to love our scars and claim a “no regrets” philosophy, I think all of us, if offered a ctrl-z chance to do specific moments over, would take it in a heartbeat. And I think it would destroy us. Part of what makes life livable is the fact that we can’t truly redo anything, that we’re stuck with our choices. It forces us to acknowledge that perfection is impossible, which makes it easier to relax. The horror in this story comes from the knowledge that that drive for perfection—that this time I’ll get it right—really is that powerful. It’s not horror because the mother is preying on her daughter, it’s horror because she’s preying on her daughter and we totally empathize with her.
We would be tempted, too. And that knowledge is deeply unsettling.
What inspired this exploration of motherhood and twisted world of parenting?
Over the last few years, the Great Baby Wave has hit my local friend group. Especially with the time-skip nature of the pandemic, it feels like one day I blinked and suddenly there were toddlers everywhere. So part of the inspiration came from hearing all the little specifics—eating the placenta, the pads in the freezer—and feeling like these details were so evocative they demanded a story.
Beyond that, though . . . I honestly have no memory of where the story came from. I’d only recently started writing short fiction again after many years, having been inspired by folks like Joe Hill, Cassandra Khaw, and Nathan Ballingrud. And it was just one of those ideas that struck out of the blue and seemed so absolutely batshit that I thought “I have no idea if this will work, but at least I know it hasn’t been done before.”
Many people fear the thought of “losing” themselves, whether to addiction or to a diagnosis such as dissociative identity disorder. You touch briefly on such a diagnosis when the daughter struggles in therapy and with hospitalization: “‘It’s like I’m not even me,’ she gasps. ‘Even at the wedding . . . it’s like I’m not there. Like everything is happening to someone else.’ Her hand balls the poplin of your blouse. ‘I don’t want to keep living like this.’” I’m curious about the therapist’s commentary of dissociation being depersonalization. Do you have any personal experience with DID?
Nope! But I’d read up on it in the past, and the symptoms seemed like a perfect fit, given the daughter’s experience of being a passenger in her own body. Including any sort of mental health element in a story can be tricky, but I did my best to treat it in a respectful manner.
That mental health angle was crucial because I needed the mother’s bodysnatching to have consequences for the daughter, to create that internal tension and shame for the mother—to show that she’s truly damaging her daughter. In addition to driving the fundamental conflict of the story—that of the mother versus her own addiction—it felt illustrative for the larger point the story’s trying to make, about the damage parents can do by overly orchestrating their children’s lives or trying to live vicariously through them.
Writers are said to bleed on the page. How much of James L. Sutter ended up in this story? Do you struggle with the thought of putting too much of yourself on the page or are you able to maintain a level of personal distance as you explore your characters and worlds?
Personally, I feel like the more of myself I can put on the page, the better. When I used to write a lot in third-person, I’d often find myself slipping into first-person when the writing was going well, as I lost the boundaries between myself and the character. Sometimes that’s about really inhabiting the character, but just as often I think it’s because a character is brushing up against something I harbor and giving me a chance to take it out and poke at it. Which isn’t to say that a character is ever necessarily me. There’s that old adage about how every character is the author, and I think that’s largely true. My favorite writing is when I can dig in and explore an idea or emotion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, maybe one I even disagree with, but for which there’s some element of emotional resonance.
As noted in my first answer, there’s so much about the mother in this story that feels personal to me. Her struggle with addictive tendencies, and the way her anxiety fuels her drive toward overwork, status-seeking, and perfectionism. While I like to think I handle my issues better than she does, I can completely understand where she’s coming from. Which is part of why it was important to me to make her not just a villain—for all her faults, she loves her daughter desperately. The fear that drives her is rooted in a desire to defend and protect, because even if she managed to reverse it, she’s still someone who’s lost a child—she bears that scar, and is all the lonelier for it, since no one else knows about it. I think that sympathetic element is the other half of the story’s overall point, because while there’s an obvious danger to overparenting, the motivation behind it can still be pure and admirable.
As with everything tied to parenting: this shit is complicated. I’m in awe of the folks who manage to do it well.
You’ve written everything from roleplaying games to comics, music to young adult novels. Are there any projects you’d like to tackle in the future?
So, so many things! I’m a dilettante, and deeply impressionable: every time I read a great book or hear a great song, my brain goes “I want to do that!”
At the moment, I’m trying to focus on young adult contemporary romance novels (see below), but I’d love to do a Leigh Bardugo-style fantasy trilogy, an Expanse-style science fiction epic, or a Paul Tremblay-style horror novel. I’d love to do a bunch more comic book work. I’d like to release more music, both solo and with bands. I’d love to score a rock opera, and start a podcast, and edit a fiction imprint, and become a literary agent, and play every role in Les Mis . . . you can see my problem, here.
Still, as much as some of those probably aren’t gonna happen, jumping between wildly different projects helps me stay fresh and excited! I’ve always admired writers who can alternate between different genres or art forms and still make a career of it—it seems like a harder road, but infinitely rewarding. We’ll see if I can pull it off, but so far so good!
(I did kinda get to do to the Les Mis thing (bit.ly/3EpzudZ) with some friends at the start of lockdown, though.)
What’s next? What does 2023 hold for James L. Sutter?
2023 is set to be an exciting year for me! My first young adult novel, Darkhearts, comes out in June, and is totally unlike anything I’ve done before. It’s a queer contemporary romance all about falling in love with the boy who stole your chance at rock stardom and is far and away the most personal thing I’ve ever written. While it’s not autobiographical, it draws tremendously on my own experience as a teenage musician, my love of my hometown of Seattle, and my awkward bisexual awakening as a young adult. It’s also hands-down the funniest thing I’ve ever written!
At the same time, I’m also writing a top-secret science-fantasy comic book project that should hopefully be announced by the time this goes live. So if either of those sound interesting, please hit up my website at JamesLSutter.com to check them out!
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