“Cake Between the Teeth” is homegrown horror, a small-town narrator confronted with the unknown that has come in from the cold. Tell us a bit about what inspired the tale.
I was watching a film called Black Coal, Thin Ice by Diao Yinan, and there was this scene where a guy pulls over his motorcycle to help a man lying beside the snowy highway. It’s a throwaway moment in the film, but it stayed with me. Not only because it was stark and beautiful (seriously, look it up!), but because I couldn’t stop agonizing over what I would do in that situation. It’s the type of decision that makes you yell at the screen in a horror movie: “lone woman stops to help disheveled man along dark, deserted motorway.” But then again . . . it could be fine. More than fine, actually; it’s probably the right thing to do.
In fiction and true crime, it seems so easy to spot the difference between a right and wrong choice. But in real life, in the moment, things are murky. I have an obsession with those urban legend type stories where women subtly rescue other women from bad situations based on the tiniest detail they noticed, like pretending to be best friends to help a stranger get away from a creepy guy. The stories are usually told with this secret-sisterhood bent, but it’s really insidious when you think about it. The implication that, at any moment, you could be the one with cake between your teeth when you should have been watching, listening, calculating the angle of a stranger’s frown on the other side of the room. Because the dangerous thing is not always simple to recognize, and many of us have learned to diminish our instincts.
Those ambiguous situations are truly hell for me: when you sense danger, but not enough to act on. So naturally, I wanted to share my hell with all of you!
The story flirts with the shadows that lurk between blissful ignorance and wisdom’s folly. Much of horror can be tied to similar uncertainties and the growing dread of realization. What is it about the moments between “what if” and “oh no” that make for such fine horror? Do you find them easier or harder to write than a monster-based horror story?
Funnily enough, I’ve come to the realization that the first third of any horror movie tends to be my favorite part. I guess that growing dread really speaks to me; the creeping intrusions on normal life, the process of rationalizing things that don’t make sense to us. It kind of bugs me when the protagonist is almost clairvoyant in their very early acceptance that something weird is going on. Like, the wide-eyed final girl who lingers behind the rest of the group, peering warily into the woods. I guess we all like to imagine ourselves as the smart one, the one who noticed the right things, but for me it feels more honest as a slow process. There’s a lot of meaty stuff to dissect in the cracks between “I know what I saw” and “nah, it can’t be.” Then, when the monster is fully revealed and the survival game made clear, it’s liberating. You don’t have to think anymore. You just have to run.
The great thing about horror is that it can serve a variety of needs, depending on how we engage with it. There are times where I like monster stories to provoke something deeper, make me pick at scabs. Then sometimes I’m just in it for the catharsis of pointing to a thing and being able to say, “you are bad and trying to kill me,” and that’s all there is to it. Because in reality, we don’t always get a monster we can touch and identify and destroy. A lot of my life has been shaped by those sticky gray areas, so they tend to naturally surface when I write.
Often, structure partners with plot when setting the tone for a story. Here, the juxtaposition of minutia and what the character pieces together after the fact adds to the tension of what the narrator suspects happened. Was this your intent from the beginning, or did the format flow organically onto the page?
Structure is definitely something I’ve been trying to leverage more as a writer, since I’m a pretty loose plantser. Early on, my ideas tend to be this primordial soup of images and sensory stuff, so making a plot out of it is kind of like trying to sculpt Jell-O without a mold. I’m like, this story could take any form I want, any at all! And then it’s actually very disorienting, and I end up smearing liquid gelatin all over the counter. A whittled-down scope helps me better understand the nature of the story I want to tell. In this case, the first few sentences actually came to me whole, and the voice of it cradled everything together nicely. The voyeurism, the angle of retrospective rumination. A mighty fine Jell-O mold.
The 2020-21 pandemic lockdown has taken its toll on many people. Do you find your writing habits have changed?
Well, I found out I got into the Clarion West summer workshop pretty much the same week everything started to shut down last year, which was . . . a lot to process. Of course, it was a bummer the workshop couldn’t happen, but the past year actually ended up being a nice little incubation period. I’m beyond grateful that I’ve gotten to dip my toe in a writing community for basically the first time in my life. I actually wrote the first iteration of this story during the Clarion West Write-A-Thon last summer, which I would highly recommend to anyone out there looking to connect with other speculative fiction writers. (Seriously, do it! I was always too shy to sign up in previous years, but I really wish I had.)
At the same time, though, I’ve definitely been feeling the creative fog that’s only natural when everything sucks. My attention span is fried, so I’m trying to be very strict with myself about finishing stories before I chase shiny new ideas. I even made a spreadsheet. Please send help.
Your website mentioned forthcoming works for “middle grade, YA, and adult audiences.” What can readers look forward to in 2021?
A bit of a variety platter! I have a sisterly retelling of Hansel and Gretel in the Gold Issue of Fairy Tale Review, and a historical fiction serial coming out with Cricket Magazine over the course of the spring. Other stories I’m working on include a slow-burn gothic fantasy, adolescent ennui on a failing generation ship, and the mechanics of breaking a blood oath.
Spread the word!