Cauchemar Blog Tour: An interview with Alexandra Grigorescu and EXCERPT from Cauchemar!


Alexandra Grigorescu

“Ultimately, it’s a book about crossroads.”

In Cauchemar, debut author Alexandra Grigorescu weaves some extraordinary magic. This sultry southern gothic tells the story of twenty-year-old Hannah, raised in the Louisiana swamp by Mae, a midwife who relies a little more on voodoo than Hannah ever realized. When Mae dies unexpectedly, Hannah is thrust into two worlds, opposite in nature but just as dangerous—the distrustful townfolk Mae has kept her isolated from, and the sinister sorcery of Hannah’s witchy birth mother…

As quickly as Alexandra Grigorescu evokes the robust spices in deep south cooking, she sends shivers up your spine at the mention of something white and scaly sneaking through Hannah’s dreams…and into her reality. Alexandra stopped by the blog to answer a few questions and share an excerpt from chapter two of Cauchemar.

Alexandra, thank you so much taking the time to discuss your mesmerizing book with me. Let’s start with perhaps the most mysterious question of all: What led a Canadian in (currently very) snowy Toronto to set a book in the deep, swampy south?

Thanks so much for having me, Dee, and thank you so much for your kind words. Winter’s the perfect time to start taking a mental vacation to somewhere warmer, and nothing transports me quite like writing.

But the answer to that question lies, I think, in a quick little story: When I first started writing Cauchemar, I was living in this tiny bachelor apartment in Toronto, and I was dating my now-husband. We were in the early days of the spring thaw. I was taking a step back, assessing the vista of my life, and I had that fingertip itch to just write .

I’d discovered a nearby salvage shop (The Chief Salvage Co.), which was brimming with old B&W photos, jewelry, and bones that were sometimes sourced from the South. I’ve always had an affinity for bones, and I fell head over heels for this sun-bleached cow skull, lightly cracked and missing a few teeth—a bovine Yorick. I spent what was, to my newly unemployed self, a bit of a fortune on it, and mounted it as the only significant decoration in that small space. I’d positioned it, without meaning to, so it was reflected in the mirrored closet door. Everywhere I turned, I saw that skull, from morning to night. Thing is, that skull didn’t look like a cow’s to me. It seemed like a relic. It felt like parched coral. In the morning light, it looked almost reptilian.

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Grigorescu.

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Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not: An interview with Ian Doescher


Ian Doescher

Shakespeare Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Ian Doescher got a crazy idea to combine two well-loved worlds. His odds of navigating the mashup successfully were about the same as navigating an asteroid field, but maybe no one told him the odds. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars® was published in 2013 to acclaim from Star Wars and Shakespeare fans alike, lauded by everyone from high school teachers to Entertainment Weekly. I listed the book as one of my top reads of 2013. Its followup, The Empire Striketh Back, hits bookstores in February 2014.

Ian, thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for me. I need to start with probably the most asked question: how did this idea, rewriting A New Hope as a Shakespearian play, come about?

In the spring and summer of 2012, three things happened: I watched the Star Wars trilogy with some friends for the first time in several years, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I attended the Oregon Shakespeare festival with my family. I attribute the idea for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars to those three things combining in my subconscious. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we saw a funny modern adaptation of Shakespeare called The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, so I was already primed for novel interpretations of Shakespeare.

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“When we explore the past we are always inventing”: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
River of Stars

Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing epic stories for many years. From the high fantasy of The Fionavar Tapestry to magic-tinted analogous histories in Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s style weaves together sweeping narratives with poetic, pitch-perfect writing.

In his new book, River of Stars, now available from Penguin Canada, Kay returns to the land of Kitai, which he first introduced in Under Heaven. In a setting based on Song-Dynasty China, we meet the ambitious warrior Ren Daiyan, a second son who wants to win military glory and take back lands long lost to Kitai, and Lin Shan, a woman educated by her father in a way that only boys are allowed. Poet, songwriter, and thinker, Shan must navigate a society that wants her to be much less than what she is. As the face of Kitai shifts once more, as war looms and “barbarians” encroach, Daiyan and Shan move and are moved by the currents of history. . .

I have always been fascinated with the way you tell stories in worlds close to our own but a little removed: something like medieval Italy in Tigana, Moorish Spain in The Lions of al-Rassan—a world you revisited in the Sarantine Mosaic duology medieval Provence in A Song for Arbonne. Can you talk a bit about how you choose time periods and geographies, and why you set your books in (historically accurate and meticulously researched) analogues rather than the actual historical places in our own world?

Huge, very good question. I’ve done speeches and essays on this, so a sound bite is hard! Certainly there is no rule or formula for “where I go” in a next book. So far (knock wood) I seem to always end up with a time and place that fascinate me. I do that “quarter turn to the fantastic” for many reasons (see “speeches and essays,” above!). One is that I am not happy about pretending I know the innermost thoughts and feelings of real people. I don’t like “piggybacking” on their fame (or even taking obscure people and allowing myself license from that obscurity). I find it creatively liberating and ethically empowering to work in the way I do. There’s a shared understanding with readers in this: that when we explore the past we are always inventing, to a degree. I also like how a slight shift to the fantastic allows me to sharpen the focus of the story towards those themes and elements I want the reader to experience most clearly, and I can even change things, keeping even those who know the history on their toes!

Art by Li Gon-lin.
Art by Li Gon-lin.

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“We all carry our history with us”: an interview with The Hungry Ghosts’ Shyam Selvadurai

The Hungry Ghosts

In The Hungry Ghosts, author Shyam Selvadurai follows the journey of Shivan, a half-Tamil half-Sinhalese Sri Lankan boy who escapes the violence of the Tamil uprisings—and the controlling influence of his formidable grandmother —by migrating with his mother and sister to Canada. But, as Shyam revealed when he sat down to chat with me, a life can’t just be restarted from scratch. The past always follows us. . .

I absolutely loved The Hungry Ghosts. It’s a book I just sank into, and felt so sad throughout so much of it. It’s beautifully written. I’m wondering about the six-year gap in writing between this book and your last, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea. Have you been working on this for six years, were you taking a break or waiting for inspiration to strike?

It took me forever to get it down. It took a long time to describe the Toronto that I wanted to write about, which is kind of the amorphous, inner rings of Scarborough, and to find the language to do that. My language isn’t really suited to doing that for some reason, so it took a long time to stretch it to encompass that milieu and that terrain. It’s hard. That area doesn’t have a central street. The point of it is that it’s amorphous, the point of it is that there’s no central orientation except, of course, the Bridlewood Mall [a central hub in the novel for Shivan’s mother and the displaced Sir Lankan community]. And that somehow, the details. . . I wanted to be able to capture it in the same sensual details I capture Sri Lanka.

And of course, all the Buddhist stuff took forever to work because I wanted to find a way to incorporate it in a more literary way, rather than just an add-on, a little exotic add-on. It’s of course based on the story of the naked Peréthi [hungry ghost], and I wanted to be able to incorporate that in a literary way.

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“A historian is a kind of traveller”: an interview with Eighty Days’ Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days

Matthew Goodman is a narrative historian. In his latest book, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, he takes readers into the late 19th century to follow two remarkable female journalists as they race against time—and each other —to complete the fastest journey around the globe ever undertaken. Along the way they see the world in new and different ways, and we get to glimpse what life, colonialism, and the dawning of a newly globalizing but still highly stratified world. He was kind of enough to sit down with me to discuss this superb book.

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to discuss your new book with me. It’s a fantastic read. There’s an immediacy to it that I really appreciated. So some basics. What led you to this project?

I’m very interested in narrative history, which is really the kind of writing I see myself doingtelling a true story, a historical story, and using some of the devices that are usually associated with fiction. I like the fact that it’s possible for a reader to pick up the book and flip to any given page and perhaps not even know if they were reading a history book or a novel. So I was looking around, I had done a book like that before and I was looking around for another topic to do, and I sort of knew who Nelly Bly was, but I wasn’t exactly sure who she was. I knew she was a journalist. I live in Brooklyn, in New York, and there used to be a Nellie Bly amusement park in New York, so I know her as the namesake of this amusement park. But I didn’t know much else about her.

I saw a reference to her and I investigated it. I knew I wanted to write about a female main character. It turned out that she was indeed a journalist, but not just any journalistthis really amazing journalist. A female journalist unlike any that New York had ever seen before. This was a time when most women were relegated to writing for the Women’s Page, writing about recipes and gossip and shopping and so forth. Nellie Bly was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper in New York who was willing to get herself committed to an insane asylum, to expose the conditions in the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum. It was really courageous, she didn’t know if she was going to get back out. It took all of Pulitzer’s doing to get her back out. So I was thrilled to discover her.

And then I discovered that in the fall of 1889 she undertook her most audacious adventure yet, which was to try to go around the world faster than anybody had ever done it before, to try to beat in real life the fictional mark of 80 days that Jules Verne had set. I just immediately thought “That’s the book!” I’m thinking Nellie Bly in Hong Kong! Nellie Bly on the Suez Canal! Then I discovered that Nellie Bly wasn’t only racing against the calendar or against a fictional character but that in fact there was this real life, rival female journalist who was racing in the other direction to beat Nellie Bly! I was just captivated by that, the idea of these two young female journalists racing each other around the world, one going east, one going west.

Nellie Bly and Eliabeth Bisland. Image originally appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, reproduced in Eight Days, by Matthew Goodman.
Nellie Bly and Eliabeth Bisland. Image originally appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, reproduced in Eight Days, by Matthew Goodman.

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interview, Saturday Sundries

“Evil needs a doorway into our world”: An interview with The Demonologist’s Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper. Photo by Don Denton,
Andrew Pyper. Photo by Don Denton,

In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, (available March 5th) Professor David Ullman discovers that demons exist—and that they are the reason his beloved young daughter has been taken from him. I recently talked with Andrew about the bread crumbs his protagonist must chase, and the world of emotional horror that opens before him. . .

What brought about the genre shift to horror?

In hindsight—because all of this is hindsight when I talk about the “category” of the book, it’s all post-facto analysis—I was just following my nose in a narrative way and going where the story took me. But I think, why did it take me there? Because I’ve always been interested in the supernatural. It appears glimpsingly through almost all the previous novels, but in a kind of partial way. And this story demanded, because it entertains the possibility of demons existing alongside us in the real world, the creation of an entire world. Whereas the previous novels required people putting up a forbidden window, this is like, no, no, you have to build an entire premise whereby all human action will be infused with the supernatural companionship with demons. So once I recognized that, it felt quite liberating. I didn’t feel like there was a constraint of rules—although you can’t go that far, because that would make it a different kind of book. There was no sense of rules that might be broken.

It’s interesting to me, the idea of demons living alongside us. You play with this Miltonic idea of Hell not being a physical place, but living in us and alongside us. Unlike, say, in a movie like Constantine, where Keanu is transported to Hell, in The Demonologist we have these hellish things happening in our minds and all around us. Is that a conscious choice to stick with this Miltonic idea? What brought about this vision of Hell for you?

It is in part born because Milton is obviously an influence on the novel, a text that I used both thematically and to a degree mechanically, but I think that commitment, that is, the commitment to realism, having the story take place in the real world with these impossible supernatural beings moving through it, that was just an aesthetic choice of my own. I love horror and I love fantasy, but when it comes to those kind of stories, I’m definitely on the muted, restrained “keep it real” end of the spectrum. I know some people are like, “No, if you’re going to talk about Pandemonium, why don’t you take us inside Pandemonium? Let’s see the floor plan.” Mine’s a more internal, psychological Pandemonium. That’s just what I prefer. I personally like those kind of stories, like Rosemary’s Baby, where this is a story about the Satanic but it actually takes place in present-day New York.

Charles Grignion (engraver) after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book VI of Paradise Lost (1749), engraving.© Christ's College Old Library
Charles Grignion (engraver) after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book VI of Paradise Lost (1749), engraving.
© Christ’s College Old Library

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interview, Saturday Sundries

Saturday Sundries: An interview with Wild Girls’ Mary Stewart Atwell

I recently had a chance to sit down with Mary Stewart Atwell, whose debut novel Wild Girls is an incendiary coming-of-age tale like no other. . .

Where did this idea come from? What inspired you to write about the wild girls, this difference between “the secret darker self” and “the daylight self” of girls?

I was teaching at my old boarding school, in my twenties, thinking about my own adolescence. So I wrote a realistic novel about boarding-school life and I wasn’t very happy with it. I came back to it a couple of years later. I’d never written anything with any magical realistic elements, but I started thinking about girls acting out in a metaphorical way. It really clicked for me and said something true about my own adolescence: while it doesn’t happen to everyone, for me, I became a different person for that time.

I can look back at myself at 15 and 16, and I just don’t relate now to who I was at all, so to me, it seems more true in an everyday way, to really explore what happens if we took those feelings to an extreme in metaphor. What would that look like?

I like that idea of truth in magical realism. The supernatural element is actually something that took me by surprise. I expected a psychological outburst from the wild girls, but to see what actually happens to these girls took me aback. Can you see this sort of story working without the supernatural element?

To me, it was what brought it alive: If you write about female adolescence from a realistic perspective, it’s a story we’ve heard so many times. Giving those girls power that in a realistic situation they could never possibly have is what made it click for me. Power is what they’re missing, so at those times they have more power than anyone in the community.


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