Recently I reviewed one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, The Troop by Nick Cutter. Today I’m very excited to post a Q&A I shared with the author.
To start Nick, thank you for this interview and congratulations on The Troop’s release. I’m a horror veteran and have loved the genre for years. I thought I’d seen and read everything. You showed me that I had not. Your book scared the crap out of me! But I also loved the characters and found parts of the book very emotional and therefore very rewarding. It’s only February, but I’m calling it already – The Troop is the scariest book I’ll read this year and I will be aggressively recommending it!
Well, thanks for that! It’s a long year ahead and I’m sure a great many fine books will cross your transom, but I’m heartened to hear that you enjoyed it. Certainly it was a blast to write it (as weird and twisted as that may sound …) and hopefully it finds an audience.
Nick Cutter is a pen name (and a very cool sounding one at that). What made you decide to publish The Troop under a pseudonym? Is there an origin story behind the name like Stephen King using Richard Bachman and George Stark in honor of Donald Westlake’s famous alter ego Richard Stark?
That was my agent’s idea—I write a different kind/genre of books under my own name, and my agent’s idea was to have some separation between these two “spheres” I guess you could say, or these two different styles of books. We kicked around a few names. We felt that a short, grabby, punchy name might work—hence, Cutter. (other possibilities: Stabber, Hacker, Plucker, Chopper, etc). And Nick is my son’s name. So we’ll see, in the fullness of time, whether he’s really all that happy about his little honorific!
It must have been quite a thrill to have Stephen King blurb your book with such declarative praise. I always thought to be successful with any genre you have to be a fan of it yourself. What are some of the books that have scared you in the past?
Huge thrill to have Mr. King even read it—there’s something so strange about your idol reading something you’ve read; I suppose it would be the equivalent of Michael Jordan showing up at your weekly pickup game and saying, “Hey, that’s a pretty nice jump-shot you’ve got.” Other than King, I love Barker, Straub, a lot of Koontz, and Robert R. McCammon. Ketchum, Lansdale, Blatty, Matheson … the list goes on. Recently, House of Leaves and Benjamin Percy’s last book and Joe Hill’s work are all great. And there’s a great press in Toronto, ChiZine, that puts out plenty of fantastic dark fiction.
Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share about how the genre is faring these days especially in publishing? I was excited to find out you’re Canadian because I feel like there is a real dearth of genre writing in this country, especially in horror.
I tend to agree, although it is kicking along domestically and elsewhere, but I can understand the sense of it not being as important to publishers as it was in its heyday, the 80s and 90s. That’s in great part, I think, because the horror boom during that time kind of killed the Golden Goose—too many shoddy books—and a lot of readers turned away because the quality had really gone down. And now it seems that often the books that get attention are the Zone Ones and Breeds and The Last Werewolf-kind of books: ie, books by literary writers who are “stepping out” to work in the genre. It’s kind of like, “Whoa, Colson Whitehead’s written a zombie book”! And these books aren’t necessarily rigidly within the genre, they’re meta- or meta-ironic or something like that: they kind of announce themselves as ostensibly horror, but not really horror so it’s okay to read it. They’re very often excellent books, but I still get a daytripper whiff off of them: this is the work of a “proper” writer dipping their toe in the horror pool for the illicit thrill of it.
Of course, the irony of the fact that some could say that I am doing the exact same thing does not go unnoticed by me!
You do have a lot of great contemporary horror writers, like Joe Hill and Christopher Golden (who skips around genres, too) and Jonathan Maberry, etc, so it’s not like it’s a dead genre or a dying breed of writer. But I’m not sure how many writers are solely horror writers: they are simply writers who write horror from time to time. Anyway. I could be wrong about a great deal of this, but that’s my sense of things.
How long had you been thinking about The Troop before you finally set pen to paper? Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?
In this instance the idea just kind of popped into my head. Fully-fleshed, as they say—then it was up to me to skin all that flesh off. I enjoy writing about child protagonists, so you could say the book had been gestating while I came up with an idea that would allow me to populate the book with kid characters.
For such a grisly, graphic tale of survival did you have any qualms over the age of your protagonists? I can honestly say as a reader I don’t think the story would have packed such an emotional wallop if the story had featured adults facing the same challenges as opposed to children.
I did have qualms, for sure. I was thinking: Even if an editor likes the book, is he or she going to be able to run it up the flagpole at their publisher? Will readers go there with me? So, yeah, I worried but the act of writing a book involves a lot of worry all the time, I’ve found, so I just put that particular worry on the enormous worry-pile and got on with writing the book. I was shocked to discover that not only did one publisher express interest, 4 or 5 ended up making offers on it. So it was one of the only “bidding wars” that I’ve ever been involved in as a writer, and it was for a book that I was almost to scared and ashamed to send to my editor! So thank goodness I found the guts to do that.
And yes, I really do think the book wouldn’t work the same way (if a reader considers it to work at all…) if it’d happened to a bunch of randy teenagers on a weekend screw-fest, or a bunch of hunters looking to bag a moose. Child characters were crucial.
The characterization in The Troop is one of the book’s greatest strengths. I like to say I don’t scare if I don’t care, and you made me care a lot about these boys, especially Newt. Was there ever any doubt in your mind who would die and whether anyone would survive? In other words, did you know from the very beginning how this story would end, or did that come with the writing of it?
Good question. And as you said, that’s pretty much the cardinal rule of horror: if you don’t care about the characters, love or hate, you won’t care what becomes of them. So my editor and I put a lot into those characters—and I mean, listen, as some reviewers have noted, they’re types: The Jock, The Nerd, The Sociopath, The Hair-Trigger Temper, The Straight Man. But in a horror narrative, there’s a certain joy in types, at least when it comes to longtime readers of the genre: you know how these characters are supposed to behave, because you’ve got this enormous backlog of pop culture and genre-specific history that dictates what they’ll do.
And I also liked working with the “fatal flaw”—that is, if you’ve got a jock character who is bossy, well, how will that work against him in the crucible of a novel like The Troop? If you’ve got a crazy person, how will his fatal flaw present itself? How does the Angry Kid’s anger come back to bite him? When you look at the book, you’ll see that these kids—the ones who perish—go because of their fatal flaws, which again are flaws built into the DNA of horror genre characterizations. Their fates are written in that DNA; they’ve got these predetermined vectors that they’re going to go down. So for horror aficionados I hope there’s some grim thrill in seeing how those familiar personality types, and the traits they hold, help push the narrative.
But ultimately, these kids were important to me. I came to care about them (all except Shelley, I guess, though he was a fun creep to write). So even though they were types and they had these roles to play … well, that’s the great thing about being a novelist. In the realm of the book, you’re God. So if you want to save a character, you can. Or if you want to off a character in a spectacular grisly way, you can do that too. So I wasn’t sure how a few of those characters would end up until the very end. And it wasn’t an easy decision, to be honest, but you’re also trying to make a narrative choice that will provoke a reaction in a reader. So we’ll see whether or not I managed that.
Finally, please tell us that there will be another Nick Cutter novel in the future.
Yes! It’s called The Deep. I’m working on edits right now. Set in a research station at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot called Challenger Deep, 8 miles under the sea. Some grim shit goes down, I can assure you.
Now that, I can assure you, is the best news I’ve gotten all month. Grim shit? Sign me up!