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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

#11 Chelsea Cain

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Chelsea is awesome. Period. When I read the advanced readers copy of Heartsick, years ago, I couldn't shake the physical descriptions that she described, and now, she's only getting better at making me cringe. Please go pick up her new book, The Night Season (out today), and enjoy the interview!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

Sad goats.  Specifically, the goat I had as a kid.  Her name was Full Moon and I was weaned on her milk.  I loved that goat.  She got old and sick and my mother wanted to put her out of her misery, so she hired someone to do it.  He came by when we weren’t home and shot Full Moon in the head with a shotgun.  We came home and she was just lying there dead in her pen.  My mother felt terrible about that.   Big guilt.  I don’t remember it.  I’m not sure if I didn’t see her, or if I just blocked it out.  I was in my early twenties by the time my mom finally told me the story.  She still felt terrible, after all those years.  They buried her in the yard at that house.  I went by there about a year ago and they had torn down the old farmhouse and built a mcmansion.  But somewhere underneath it all are the bones of my old goat. 

2. Fellow Mourning Goats interviewee, Monica Drake, is in a writing workshop with you and Chuck Palahniuk, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think being in a group like this has been a big part of your success?

It certainly helped me with the first book – Heartsick.  When I joined the group, I was about 180 pages into Heartsick and I spent a year bringing it in a chapter at a time and rewriting it.  I knew nothing about how to write fiction.  And that group was like taking a master class.  They are all so incredibly smart about writing, and gifted at different aspects of the craft.  Of course we are also all nuts, so I think it’s good that we all have somewhere we can go once a week to remind ourselves that we are not alone, and to keep us off the streets so we don’t hurt ourselves.  I’ve been in writing groups before and personally I find them really useful.  But it depends on you, and it depends on who’s in your group.  Find people who make a living writing.  Ideally people who have MFAs, and know stuff.  People who are serious about it.  And meet on neutral ground.  Don’t meet at someone’s house.  Meet at an office.  Find a room at a library.  Meet every week.  And if it’s the wrong group, disband and find another one.  Eventually, you will find your people.     

3. What was it like going to number 8 on the New York Times bestseller list with Heartsick? As great as it must have been, was it stressful in any way?

That was up there with the birth of my daughter as a Best Life Moment.  Okay, it was better than the birth of my daughter.  That is probably a terrible thing to say – but it’s totally true.  I was in San Francisco, and my publisher and editor called me from a bar in New York where they were already celebrating.  There was lots of shouting.  I wanted to go right out and get a tattoo.  One, to commemorate the event, and two, because I figured that for the rest of my life people would ask me what I had the number 8 tattooed on my bicep, and that would be an excuse to tell them that I was a NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLING AUTHOR, THANKS FOR ASKING.  That night I did a reading in S.F., and no one came.  Not a single person!  Maybe if I’d gone through with the tattoo…

4. I saw you were thinking about giving out personalized floaty pens on your next book tour, have you done anything like this in the past? How did it go?

I’ve given out all sorts of stuff.  “I ‘heart’ Archie/Gretchen” buttons.  Severed fingers.  Severed hands and feet.  Rhinestone heart pins.  Jelly-filled people-shaped donuts with pretzel stabbed in them.  Temporary tattoos.  I’m always looking for novelty items to give away.  I guess I’m trying to make my readings an event.  A show.  On my last tour, I got friends to write murder ballads about Gretchen and perform them at a few of my readings.  There are so many authors and so many readings and so many bookstores, it just feels like anything extra helps.  If I could tap dance, I would. 

5. How does one write humor for The Oregonian, reviews for New York Times, AND horror that leaves the reader in physical pain?

Horror and farce aren’t so different in terms of structure.  It’s all about tension and reveal, timing, and the unexpected.  People are always so surprised to discover that I’m funny.  But I think my thrillers are funny.  Dark.  But funny.  And I think it’s important in a tense and nail-biting narrative to give the reader a break.  Maybe not a belly laugh—but the occasional wry smile.  Or at least a fleeting smirk.
6. I love the story on your website about wanting to be a firedog as a little girl, I think we all had big dreams as children, were your parents very supportive of the firedog? Being a writer?

My parents told me that I could be anything I wanted.  And I swear to you, I really believed that I could be a fire dog.  I was four or five by the time I realized that it was pretty much an impossibility to will oneself into becoming a Dalmatian.  I guess my parents didn’t want to limit my potential.  The only pressure I felt about what to do when I grew up was that I should choose something that would make me happy.  My mother thought I should be a stand-up comedian.  (I don’t know where she got this – because I was not a funny kid at all.)  The only time my dad ever seemed disappointed in me professionally was when I called him up at a low point and told him I wanted to go to law school.  By the time we got off the phone he had talked me out of it.

7. I read about the tattoo on your right shoulder, can you tell the readers what it is and what it means?

I have two tattoos.  I think you’re talking about the one on my left bicep.  It’s a tattoo of a snake.  Snakes are my one irrational fear, and I thought that by tattooing one on my arm, I could claim the fear and conquer it.  It didn’t work, but it’s a nice tattoo. 

8. Which is scarier and why? The worlds that you come up with in your writing, or dropping your little girl off at kindergarten for the first time?

Oh, God – Kindergarten.  A friend once told me that dropping your kid off for the first day of kindergarten was like throwing a puppy out the window of a moving car onto the highway.  I think that’s a pretty apt description. 

9. The advanced readers copy of Heartsick is beautiful, it's a white cover with a bloody hand smudge grabbing the book, what happened to that cover? Did you love it? Maybe this can be transferred to the movie poster?

Thanks!  That is a great galley.  They thought it was too gory for the general public.  But there’s a Japanese edition of Heartsick that used the design.  It’s tiny and square and completely cute in that particular Japanese way, and yet also blood spattered and disturbed.  Naturally, I love it.  

10. I read in an interview that you were planning on continuing to write humor books, under a pseudonym, can you give us any info on this? Are you working on anything?

I’d like to do one in the future at some point.  I miss those books.  I loved the collaboration with the illustrator.  Writing is such a solitary gig.  There’s interaction.  You work with an agent, an editor, marketing people, and then when it’s out in the world, there are readers and media people.  But mostly it’s you pulling threads of ideas out your nose and trying to knit something out of them.  I love working with an illustrator throughout the creative process.  We inspire one another.  There’s an energy to that that is absolutely thrilling.  As soon as I think of an idea—and find three months of free time—I’ll get right on that.   

11. You wrote your first book, Dharma Girl, and got it published in your early twenties, what do you feel has changed the most in your writing since then?

My advance for Dharma Girl was $1000.  My advances now have a lot more zeros.  It’s just completely different.  My whole approach is different.  I am part of something much larger, and there is more pressure, and I feel more responsibility.  This is my career, not a side project.  I wrote Dharma Girl by instinct.  It’s all gut.  I am much more purposeful and thoughtful about my writing now.  I guess that comes with practice.  Along with bad eyesight and cynicism. 

12. Again, with Dharma Girl, you say on your website that it is your favorite, why?

Dharma Girl is the story of my return to the hippie commune where I spent my early childhood.  It is the book that was burning to get out.  It’s youthful and intuitive and reckless and raw, but it will always be my favorite. It’s the book I had in me – the story I had to tell.  And it’s such a valentine to my parents and to my early childhood and to my mom (who died a few months before it was published).  It’s not my best book.  But it has a huge place in my heart. 

13. I don't like how everyone focuses around you being a woman (men and women can be equally sick in my mind), what are your thoughts on this kind of attention?

It baffles me.  Just last week a woman approached me at an event and asked me, “How can you write these books, as a woman?”  She was smiling, just making conversation.  But I was completely blind-sided.  It’s like asking someone how he can be a doctor as a redhead.  It doesn’t compute to me.  I think of myself as a thriller writer, not a female thriller writer.   

14. For all of our aspiring authors out there, what advice would you give them on writing? What do you wish someone told you when you started out in this career?

My most sage advice is the trickiest: you will never make a living writing, until you learn to write when you don’t want to. 

15. Thank you for giving your readers permission to laugh at your books! I think some of the subject matter is so scary and disgusting that laughter is the only thing that makes it okay. What's one of the sickest or most disgusting things you've written that you laughed at?

I’ve always thought that pulling someone’s small intestine out with a crochet hook was pretty funny. 

16. Which was more of an influence in starting this series, the Green River Killer or the hormones of pregnancy? I've read you comment on both in other interviews.

I couldn’t have written Heartsick without the influence of both. 

17. What have your tours been like? Are there a lot of interesting fans? Any scary stories?

I’m sort of disappointed at the normalcy and sweetness of my fans.  I expected more mouth breathers carrying axes.  But the vast majority of my readers are quite upstanding.  I do get the occasional creepy email or letter from people who like my books for, shall we say, the wrong reasons.   

18. I read an interview from the early 2000's and it seems like you never saw these books coming, was writing this series out of left field for you? A happy accident?

That first book was out of left field.  I’d always loved reading thrillers and watching cop shows on TV.  I had that idea for the first book, and halfway through writing it, I came up with the idea of writing a series because I had so many ideas for the characters and didn’t want to cram everything into one novel.  But I had no idea how huge they would be.  I still pinch myself.  I am covered with bruises from all the pinching.   

19. What's next for Chelsea Cain? Can you tell us anything about your next project?

The Night Season (book four in the series) comes out March 1, and I’m working on book five.   Gretchen moves off stage for most of The Night Season, so Archie and Susan and Henry have some room to grow as characters.  There’s a new serial killer on the loose, and Portland is threatened by massive flooding.  There is so much water in this book that I had to start looking up synonyms.  I ran out of ways to describe wet.  It’s a good old-fashioned heart-stopper of a thriller.  Less gore, and more action.  Lots of fun to write.  It’s also a good entry point to the series.  I wanted to write a book that people could read without having to read all the other books leading up to it.  But that would still be satisfying to loyal readers of the series.  Is that convincing enough?  Have you ordered a copy?   Please order a copy.  I’ll tap dance…

20. Heartsick, Sweetheart, and Evil at Heart are your last three novels, are you going to miss heart in the title of your new book, due in March, The Night Season?

Not at all.  I have a list of hundreds of heart titles they are each sillier than the last.  I’m excited to have some freedom.  Talk to me in a few books.  I’ll be back to “Heartburn.”

Thank you Chelsea!

And finally, don't forget to "like" Mourning Goats on Facebook and pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews on Amazon! 


  1. cool. had NIGHT SEASON on my Kindle for a few hours now. excited.

  2. Yet another home run! Great interview!

  3. I just finished this series. Read it all in a few days during a work week. Really, really good.