It’s Spooky Season and we’re featuring interviews from some of our authors whose books explore the horrors and vulnerabilities of a life lived. Francine Cunningham chats about the experience of writing her debut short story collection, God Isn’t Here Today.
“Cunningham is uniquely funny even through homophobia, whorephobia, death and aching loneliness… Opening this collection feels like stepping into a lively discussion between friends you’ve known since kindergarten when someone is already mid-rant, in a good way.”—Sarah Ratchford, Maisonneuve
Invisible Publishing: Francine, what makes a piece of writing spooky/eerie/horrifying?
Francine Cunningham: I love when you know something grotesque is going to happen, and keeps just almost happening as the author is building the suspense, and then it does but it is so much worse than you could have ever imagined.
IP: As you were structuring God Isn’t Here Today, which authors/works offered you guidance or insight?
FC: Guts by Chuck Palahniuk, or Desperation by Stephen King, or The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. For me it’s the visceral, lives in the body, makes me want to throw the book across the room, writing that keeps me coming back to the horror genre.
Pacing is such an important part of that, when an author can deliciously drop hints that make you want to read ahead to just find out and get the scare over with but is crafting such incredible sentences that are lyrical and delightful that you have to read every word, it’s a perfect torture.
IP: What kind of catharsis did you experience during the writing of your book?
FC: Some of the stories in this collection are based off my real life, they have that nugget of my lived experience in them, and for me it was about processing the real-life horror I had experienced. For example, “Who Is Erik?” is based on my experience with a man masturbating at my window and me calling the police and having them come to my home and berate me for having my blinds up. It became my fault for watching TV in my living room at night. After that experience I was so afraid of the cracks in the drapes of my house and would imagine eyeballs peering in on me that it caused a lot of problems with my sleep, my mental health, and I didn’t feel safe leaving the home for a long while. At the time I was also getting a lot of calls from a random person who was looking for someone named Erik, and a lot of phone calls with just heavy breathing. I was so young, living in a new city away from home, I just didn’t know what to do. Writing this story and taking it to an extreme place helped me move on from this time in my life, and this experience. And there are plenty more stories from the book who likewise are based on me processing my own grief, fear, and projections on what could happen. I live my inner life in the what if space, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.
IP: And now that your book has landed in the hands of readers, what catharsis have you experienced upon hearing reader feedback on your book?
FC: That readers like it! Of course, I was hopeful but the response has been so positive that I am absolutely delighted. Also, that readers went on this journey with me and took the dark leap with me. I have readers let me know it’s their favorite collection ever, or that certain stories will stay with forever. That’s pretty cool. I have stories from collections that I go back to over and over and to think that my stories are that to some people is awesome.
IP: Is there a particular visceral scene in this work that stands alone for you as a favourite? Like, “I can’t believe I got to write this?!”
FC: [Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead!] In my story, “Come and Get Your Ice Cream, Motherfuckers”, I had so much fun building up to the ending and just fueling it with a rapid pace that didn’t allow for a reader to stop and breathe. I wanted the reader to get swept up into the motion of the piece and get carried away like the ice cream man was. And I think, hope, that it works.
I also have a very special place in my heart for “Thirteen Steps”. I love playing with structure and having structure inform an extra layer for the story. And this story is so much about memory and the present and how when you are ruminating you can get caught so far into the past that it effects your present moment and intrudes upon it. Of course, the young fellow in the story was moments away from being executed so his thoughts were of course a melding of the past and present with an active block on the future. For me that story is structured with the movement of the steps that lead to the gallows. Traditionally there were thirteen steps and then a long drop as they would call it, and this story is told in thirteen mirrored paragraphs to move the character physically up to the top of the gallows before he embraces his long drop. I had fun with that one.
Also, in “Mickey’s Bar”, there were so many unexpected tender moments that even today when I reread them I find tears rolling down my cheeks. Those characters came alive on their own in that one. I loved writing the ending where Doris and Mickey can finally look into another eyes after a life time of loving each other.
IP: As we head into Spooky Season, do you have any beloved rituals (annual traditions or repeat film viewings) that you’re looking forward to?
FC: I think it may be kind of cliché but I love a good re-watch of Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, and
the Scream franchise around this time of year. Oh, and Casper, the one with young Devon Sawa. I remember being a kid, and when he turns back into a person…let’s just say my Junior High
walls were plastered with pictures of Devon, and I had at least one note book cover with our initials
penned into a heart.
I also really enjoy the fall ritual of going cozy, which for me starts with a good house clean and a good house purge, along with the putting away of summer things and clothes and the bringing out of fall and winter things. I love when you get to transition your wardrobe. And then the food, I can finally use my oven again without getting heatstroke, and I go hard on the baking, the making of casseroles, plenty of soups, and just as much roasting as I can. Dinners get more complex and I get to try all the recipes I’ve been waiting to experiment with.
And of course, building a haunted house in which to scare all the kids. I try to make it actually scary and I’ve had kids who haven’t been brave enough for years to go through but come up to me and proudly announce they’re finally ready to go through. I haven’t been able to do Halloween full out since COVID, but maybe this year I can do a bit more than the last few years.
Even as they flirt with the fantastic, the stories in Francine Cunningham’s debut collection, God Isn’t Here Today, unfold with the innate elegance of a spring fern, reminding us of the inherent dualities in human nature—and that redemption can arise where we least expect it.
Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist and educator. God Isn’t Here Today is her debut collection of short fiction. She is a winner of the Indigenous Voices Award in the 2019 Unpublished Prose Category and of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Francine is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia, and currently resides in Alberta.