Ask the Author: A Q&A with Jessica Guess

Jessica Guess
Jessica Guess

First, I hope you all are doing well and staying safe during this pandemic. It’s a scary time, one made even scarier without knowing what the next steps will be, since they seem to change every day. All we can do is practice social distancing, watch for our symptoms, and help our neighbors near and far as safely as we can.

I know a lot of people have spent their extra time indoors reading. Unnerving is still releasing their Rewind or Die series, and I recently spoke with one of the series’ authors, Jessica Guess. Read on for our conversation about haunted carnivals, blogging, and more.


Sonora: How long have you been writing?

Jessica: Since middle school. I’ve been telling stories for forever though. They started as lies I’d tell my younger cousin to scare her into doing something for me. I’d tell her there was a witch who ate little girls who ate more than three cookies so she’d give me the rest of hers or something like that. I know, I know. Horrible. Those are the earliest stories I remembered telling. I only started writing things down in middle school after this one girl read a poem she wrote in class. I remember thinking if she could do it, I could too. I’ve been writing ever since.

Sonora: Tell us about Cirque Berserk, your novella in Unnerving’s “Rewind or Die” series. What inspired the story? What was it like writing it? Submitting it? Having it published?

Jessica: I was watching The Strangers Prey at Night and that movie was so colorful towards the end and had a great soundtrack. That night I was in bed and I got this image of a character on roller skates doing something horrible to the tune of Rhythm of the Night. I was so jarring and vivid. I had to write it. Not long after, I saw the Rewind or Die call for queries, and it seemed perfect for my story idea. At the time I hadn’t written anything yet, but I had an outline. I decided to query it and the publisher said he’d like to read it. That was around June or July. I wrote all summer and got the manuscript to him by September and he accepted it. I’m really lucky because the story came out very naturally. It wasn’t exactly easy to write, but it was easier than a lot of other long form things I’ve written. I was super proud of the story, but I was also a little shocked that he accepted it because I don’t think a lot of people get my writing. So far, the reactions have been good though.

Sonora: The carnival, a place of joy and delight, is a popular setting in horror. What do you think draws us, as readers and writers, to the carnival as a place of terror?

Jessica: Carnivals are supposed to be fun, but there’s a natural element of terror that goes along with them. Those rides are fun, but if you look closely at how rusted they are, or how maybe there’s a screw a little loose, or that the operator looks a little drunk, it gets scary. That’s the thing about carnivals. You’re supposed to only pay attention to the surface of things and not think too hard because that’s when it gets terrifying. In a carnival, things aren’t what they seem. We all know that, but we ignore the scary part for the sake of fun. Horror is the place where you don’t have to ignore it. You can look it right in the eye.

Sonora: Cirque Berserk is, among other things, a throwback to ‘80s slashers. What are some of your favorite slasher flicks?

Jessica: A Nightmare on Elm Street will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first slasher I remember watching as a kid. It’s what made me obsessed with horror movies. Urban Legend is probably my favorite from the 90’s, followed closely by Scream. I know everyone hates the 4th and 5th Halloween movies or pretend they don’t exist, but I really like those two. There’s a part in the 4th one where Jaime (Michael Myer’s niece) askes Michael to show her his face and weirdly he does. It’s a sweet moment where you think he might not be so evil but then he freaks out and goes back to being a monster. I liked that. Lastly, I mentioned The Strangers Prey at Night earlier. That has to be one of my recent faves.

Sonora: What are some of the unique strengths of slasher stories? What are some of their weaknesses?

Jessica: One thing I love about slashers is that no one debates whether they’re horror movies or not. Almost every other subgenre is re-imagined by non-horror lovers to be something else if the movie/book is considered commercially good. You see that with movies like Silence of the Lambs or Hereditary. No one does that with slashers because they are so purely horror. I love that about them. I also love that they all follow a formula. Sure, you can tinker with it, but it’s usually going to be some teens or young adults who are paying the price for something. Either for something they did or they’ve inherited some type of primordial debt from their parents or people who came before them. There’s also a visceral bad guy that either is or seems to be supernatural. That all kind of leads to their weaknesses though. When you don’t do something to tweak that formula or make it new, it becomes stale. A lot of slasher tropes are so overused that they become cringe worthy.

Sonora: When writing your own slasher, what did you want to add to the genre that you thought had been missing?

Jessica: I’ve always wanted a slasher with a black girl as the main character. That was the main thing for me with Cirque Berserk. I thought, what would I have loved to read when I was 16? What character would have satisfied teenage Jessica? Rochelle was born from that. I also wanted the story to be fun. Slashers are so fun to me. Right now, there seems to be this push to make horror serious and elevated. Sure, we can have that, but let’s not lose the fun stuff. Please. There’s room for all of it.

Sonora: Tell us about your blog, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. When did you start it? What’s been your experience with it since the launch?

Jessica: Honestly, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror started as a way for me to talk in depth about my love for horror movies. I wanted to offer a perspective I wasn’t seeing a lot of or discuss movies I wasn’t seeing people talk much about. I started it right after I finished my MFA program. I was looking for jobs and that was going horribly, so I decided to do something fun and rage about All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. The most successful post was the one I wrote about the importance Rachel True’s character, Rochelle (yes, my character is named after her) in The Craft. There was all this stuff last year about her not being invited to the panels and conventions that the other three actresses were. It’s ridiculous. And racist. BUST magazine reprinted that post with my permission.

Sonora: As you say on your blog, horror is dominated by white protagonists. How can the horror genre improve its treatment and representation of people of color? Of Black people? Of Black women in particular?

Jessica: I feel like people in power need to ask themselves this question more and then act on it. That would be a first step. If you have a publication, or are a literary agent, or an acquiring editor, or have any other position that creates opportunities, look for writers of color. Look for black women writers. We’re out here. It’s really good that some submission calls specify that they are looking for women and writers of color. Unnerving did that with Rewind or Die and that was the only reason I felt confident enough to submit Cirque Berserk. We’ve been left out and pushed to the side for so long that sometimes it’s hard to believe that anyone wants to give us a chance, so specifying that you want to hear from us is good. Also, hire black women as acquiring editors and literary agents. And believe women of color when they tell you something is harmful or damaging.

Sonora: What are some examples of horror stories — be they books, film, TV, anything — that handle diversity well?

Jessica: This is a hard one to answer because I’m not sure how exactly diversity should be handled. It seems that some people think of diversity as these boxes you have to tick off and the more you check, the more diverse you are. Kinda like, do we have a Black person? Check. An Asian person? Check. A gay person? Check. Wow, three checks. Look how diverse we are. But how are you treating those characters? Are they actually doing anything? To me, diversity is giving different types of people the space to tell their stories. Like the movie What Keeps You Alive. That movie had only white women in it, but it was the first horror movie I had ever seen that revolved around a lesbian relationship. Chambers was a show on Netflix that had the first Native American woman in the lead role. It was a great show that revolved around family, Indigenous lore, and cultural appropriation. My Sister the Serial Killer is a great book I read over the summer about a Nigerian woman trying to cover up her sisters string of murders. What I’m trying to say is that those examples didn’t have those characters in there to fulfill some kind of diversity quota, instead it was about creating stories about people we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear a lot from before.

Sonora: What are some cliches about horror’s treatment of people of color that you never want to see again?

Jessica: The only black character dying first. Please just stop doing that. It’s tired. Also, Native American burial grounds. Stop. I cringe every time.

Sonora: What are you working on now?

Jessica: A story about an iguana apocalypse. I know that makes no sense. It’s set in Florida if that helps. We have an iguana infestation that’s pretty bad. I’m also cooking up a gothic werewolf romance. I know that also makes no sense.

Bio:

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is for purchase on Amazon.

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Susan McCauley

susan mccauley
“I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid … I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear.”

Film is one of my favorite storytelling media. I minored in film studies, have written many papers on film (including an analysis of WALL-E based on postmodernism), and frequently go to the movies.

I was thus very excited when I saw that one of the contributors to Quoth the Raven was also a filmmaker. Susan McCauley, author of “The Cask,” has an extensive background in film. Read on for her thoughts on the overlap between film and literature, as well as what inspires her writing.

Bio: Susan received a B.A. in Radio-Television with a minor in Theater from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Text & Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College in London. Susan also studied acting at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in Los Angeles.

While living in Los Angeles, Susan wrote the story for and produced a short film, which won awards at the Houston International Film Festival and the Seabrook Film Festival. In London, her stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was performed at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre; and, scenes from her play The Prisoner: Princess Elizabeth were performed at HMS Tower of London. After returning to the United States, she was a producer on the Emmy Award nominated Civil War short film Now & Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier. In 2016, she wrote and produced the award winning short film, “The Cask.” In addition to the publication of short stories, she is currently writing her fifth novel and has two feature film projects in development.


Sonora: You are a screenwriter, producer, and actress, as well as a writer. What overlaps do you see between filmmaking and writing? Do you find that one influences the other for you?

Susan: I don’t act much anymore, but I still enjoy doing it from time to time if the right part presents itself. I see myself first and foremost as a writer. I just happen to write fiction and write for film. I’m quite visual, which is probably why I started as a screenwriter and later moved into fiction. I see a lot of overlaps for screenwriting and fiction in terms of “show don’t tell,” using dialogue, and story structure. The major differences in film and fiction are the formatting, how much detail you can give, and the fact you can really dive into the head of a character in fiction, which you can’t do in screenwriting. For film, you can give clues to character emotions, but the main focus must be on sound, light, and movement. In screenwriting, you have to get images across succinctly in very vivid, condensed descriptions so the director and cinematographer can translate those to the screen. In fiction, you have more time to explore what things look like, feel like, and smell like with words. You can even share a characters thoughts in fiction, which you can’t in film, unless you’re using a voice over to capture what a character is thinking.

In terms of being a producer, I am working to produce things I’ve written or have co-written. I have to be passionate about the story I want to tell if I’m going to put all my energy into seeing a project produced.

Sonora: What are some lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking that can be applied to writing?

Susan: Film, in general, is a quicker paced medium than fiction. You have to keep the viewer’s attention or they’ll change the channel or turn the television off. In fiction, they can certainly close the book — but once a reader has bought it, chances are they’ll pick it up and keep reading at some point. They are also mentally prepared for a slower pace.

Of course film is a visual medium. I recently watched the horror film A Quiet Place. The opening shot of that film establishes so much of the world we’re entering in a few seconds: a broken, desolate, post-apocalyptic world. In fiction, it might take the author a paragraph or a page to describe it all. So it comes down to showing with words over showing with visuals.

I find that I’m a bit more sparse with description in my fiction than most fiction writers and, personally, I like the pace and think (hope) my readers will like it, too. My use of more condensed description in fiction probably comes directly from my background in screenwriting.

Other than strong plot, dialogue, and screenwriting techniques that focus on keeping the story visual and active, I can’t think of anything else I apply to fiction writing — at least not consciously. Filmmaking itself is a totally different animal than writing a book. Filmmaking is a monumental team effort. With a book you work with editors and the publisher, but people tend to do their work individually, and then regroup. With a movie, you can have five or ten or fifty or more people all working together at the same time to make the script come to life. Books are more personal in how they’re written and consumed; films are more of a group experience in their execution and consumption.

Sonora: Film and literature have an intimate relationship. What are your thoughts on film as a storytelling medium versus books? What’s been your experience creating both?

Susan: Obviously books and the written word are much older than film; but, historically, storytellers would act-out or dramatize some of their stories, and film is a modern extension of that. So they definitely go hand-in-hand. I think books and films impact the human brain differently. Books are slower; we can read and use our own imaginations to visualize what the author wants us to see and imagine how the characters feel. In film, we see what the director wants us to see and move at the pace the director (along with the editor) have set for us, which is usually much faster than sitting down to read a book. Modern film in the western world is typically fast paced with stimulating visuals and quick cuts. Most of us have probably heard doctors warn of too much screen-time because of the impact it’s having on our brains. I do think there is something to that. But I think there is a place for both books and screens. I enjoy watching television shows/films as much as anyone, but I know I can’t watch them right up until I go to sleep. My brain is too stimulated. So, at least an hour before bed, I turn off the TV and read. I definitely sleep better when I do that.

As for my experience creating both, I have to have a different mindset when I sit down to work on fiction versus when I sit down to write a screenplay. And when I switch into producer mode, that’s yet a different mindset: calls and emails with directors, other producers, attorneys, accountants, guilds and unions, etc. I’m definitely more at home writing, but there are aspects I like about producing. I haven’t directed theater or film in years, but I’m planning to get back into it in the next couple of years. As a film writer, I want to be able to control the full vision of some of my works by directing.

Sonora: People often say “The book is better” when a film adaptation comes out. Is there a movie you think is better than the book? What makes it better?

Susan: Not that I can think of. However, when a film or television show is done first and then a book comes out based on the show, I’m not usually a fan of those books. The few I’ve read of those don’t seem to have the depth or fluidity of original novels. I do think that The Lord of the Rings adaptations were extremely well-done. I like The Lord of the Rings adaptations because they were fairly true to the books, and the world-building and characters created by Tolkien in the books were beautifully captured on screen.

Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Cask,” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” What made you choose this story to adapt?

Susan: I’d taught “The Cask of Amontillado” to English composition classes when I lived in Northern Virginia, and something about that story captured my imagination. I’d heard true stories of people being bricked into walls alive on history tours in England and Europe, and those always bothered me. The horror of imagining what those people thought and felt knowing they were never going to get out struck a chord of terror in my heart. I still have a visceral response in my chest when I think about it. I suppose the true stories I heard made Poe’s even more impactful for me. And, when I lived in London, a disgusting, rotten smell started coming out of the wall of my flat … Eventually the smell faded away. (I think a rat died and decomposed in my bedroom wall). But I thought of that, too, when I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was also bothered that I never knew why Montresor killed Fortunato in such a horrific way, and I wanted an opportunity to explore Montresor’s motivation. So, when I saw a call for adaptations of Poe stories, I knew I had to adapt “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sonora: “The Cask” is also a short film, which you wrote and produced. Can you tell us more about it?

Susan: I was teaching an online course for Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy about adapting fiction for film and, as I was pulling together material for the course, I adapted my short story, “The Cask,” into a short screenplay to use as an example. When I finished the script, I thought, “This would make a good short film.” So, with my background in film, I started reaching out to some friends in L.A. to help me make it happen. At the time, nothing came out of Los Angeles, but I was led to some filmmakers in Houston, where I live, who really loved the script and wanted to help me make it. In hindsight, I wish I would have directed “The Cask” since Hollywood really wants to see more women directors and it’s something I’m getting more interested in — but at the time, I was solely focused on getting the script produced. Long story short, I was the executive producer on the project. There isn’t money in short films so it wasn’t something I could go and seek out investors for. So, about half of the budget was my money, and the rest came from an Indiegogo campaign. I wish we’d had a bit more money since a couple pages were cut from my script … but we did the best we could with what we had (which is typical of filmmaking — especially indie filmmaking).

For those who are interested, here is The Cask on YouTube. (It did win an award for best film adaptation and played at several festivals around the United States.)

Sonora: Which short story of Poe’s would you like to adapt next?

Susan: I haven’t even considered adapting another Poe story. So many of them have been adapted, and adapted well. But, if I were to do another, I would likely do “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sonora: What is your favorite film adaptation of a Poe piece?

Susan: I honestly haven’t seen any others than my own! I probably should, but I purposely didn’t watch any when I was adapting “The Cask” because I didn’t want my work to be colored (or attributed) to someone else’s.

Sonora: How long have you been writing fiction? What drew you to horror?

Susan: Armed with my dad’s video camera, I started making movies for fun when I was eight years old … but I didn’t get into screenwriting until I was in my early 20s. I dabbled a bit with fiction in graduate school, but I didn’t fully swing my focus to it until about 8 years ago.

I blame my interest in horror and the supernatural on my parents. LOL. They took me on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World when I was three. That’s the first time I knew I had any interest in horror. I hid by my parents ankles on the ride, but then begged them to take me again. I think I write horror because it’s a fun and engaging way to experience things I wouldn’t want to experience or do in life. I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid. To an extent, I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear. For hundreds of thousands of years (or more), our ancestors had to hunt and fight to survive. They experienced adrenaline on a regular basis. We’re much safer in modern times. And because of that, I think we still have a primal need to feel that fear — even if it’s in the safety of our local coffee shop with a book, or in a cinema watching a film.

Sonora: What are some non-literary influences on your writing?

Susan: Life. There is always something from my life in what I write. It could be a story I heard, history, a place, a person, an animal. But there are always grains of truth from life in my work. I think that’s probably true for most writers.

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?

Susan: As a child, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. Laura Ingles Wilder’s accounts of life on the prairie also fascinated me. As an adult, some of my major influences have been William Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson, Johnathan Stroud, and Mary Downing Hahn. Some recent favorite books have been Took by Mary Downing Hanh and the Lockwood & Co. series by Johnathan Stroud.

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite directors? What are some of your favorite films?

Susan: Guillermo del Toro does some beautiful work. And Steven Spielberg is, of course, an icon. His films are extremely commercial, but he’s a master at storytelling.

I’ll admit, I don’t make it to the theater nearly as much as I used to because I have a nine-year-old son, but I watch what I can on Netflix and Amazon. As for favorite films, I won’t even try to explain why … but these have been some of my favorites over the years: The Color Purple, Star Wars, Alien, Ghostbusters, The Others, Quills, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs.

Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?

Susan: I have a novel I recently “finished,” and is back in revision. It’s a young adult story called The Devil’s Tree, which is actually an expanded version of my short story of the same name on WattPad. It’s a ghost story about a teenager overcoming her life-situation and learning to accept herself.

I also have two feature films in development, for which I’m a writer and producer. One is a psychological horror, The Murdering Kind, which is being directed by my amazing, long-time friend, Academy Award winner Barney Burman. The other is The Lost Children of York, which is an adaptation of the play I wrote when I lived in London. The lovely and talented Edmund Kingsley is working with me on The Lost Children of York as a co-producer and lead actor.


Check out Susan’s books:

Visit Susan online at www.sbmccauley.com

Watch Susan’s short film, “The Cask”: