Clearer in the Night, dark fantasy, erotica, new adult, New England dark fiction, New England horror writers, Penner Publishing, Rebecca Croteau, Vermont ComicCon, Vermont fantasy writers, Vermont horror writers, werewolf
Over the past few years, Rebecca Croteau has become one of my favorite authors. There’s really no point in obfuscating the fact that she’s also been a close, treasured friend for far longer than that. We first met in college, as fellow aspiring writers who bonded over our obsessive enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling. In the years since, it’s been a pleasure, a privilege and an honor to keep in touch, watch each other’s styles develop and solidify, sticking it out through the rejection-slip years as few manage, and finally cracking the professional scene at around the same time with remarkable serendipity. Somehow I always sensed it would turn out like that. Rebecca’s always been one of those winners you can spot and bet on straight out of the gate. Sometimes it’s fun to be right. She’s a woman of endless wit, empathy, passion, thoughtfulness and unique insight, and it’s all there on every page of her work. She’s a versatile storyteller with an unmistakable voice, who at this point I’d gladly follow into just about any territory.
So far as weird writers singing each other’s praises, she always makes me think of HP Lovecraft’s memorial essay to Robert E. Howard: “It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself is in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt — for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics, he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom, if ever, did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he concluded with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality and reality in spite of popular editorial policy – always drew something from his own experience and knowledge of life instead of from the sterile herbarium of dessicated pulpish standbys.” Swap out some pronouns and such there, and I couldn’t say it better about Rebecca Croteau.
Croteau’s paranormal page-turner Clearer in the Night (Penner, May 11, 2015) is raw, angry, scary, and viscerally, emotionally and psychologically unapologetic, while also gorgeously atmospheric, expertly paced, and sexy as all get out. In short, it’s a damn good yarn.
Tell us a bit about Cait as a character, who she is to you, where she evolved from, and what about her story grabbed you and pulled you through the writing of it to the end?
RC: I wrote Cait when I was in the midst of the worst depressive episode of my life. What blew me away was how fierce she was, how even when she was tempted to give up, she refused to be destroyed by forces outside of her control. In a way, I wrote myself a lifeline, and then used it to haul myself out. (Uh, and meds, and therapy. In a big way. Because wow, that year sucked.)
In the broad strokes, Clearer followed a fairly well-trod werewolf-story plot, yet wound up feeling like an utterly fresh, unique take, for a combination of reasons. How did you approach making this mythological creature your own? What, to your mind, sets this take on the subject apart?
RC: When I started writing the original draft of this book, what was huge on the market was Anita Blake, Meredith Gentry, Twilight—all these books that told stories of mythological creatures basically being neutered and made tame. It was incredibly boring. I grew up reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz and watching Nightmare on Elm Street. I wanted to be afraid of werewolves and vampires. So I wrote a book that scared me.
But as I started exploring the characters that happened in the story, what I started to think about was how unbalanced all these paranormal relationships are. You’ve got these men who are supernaturally powerful, often hundreds of years old, and these young, naïve girls. Especially in Twilight. It’s creepy, seriously creepy. So I found myself playing with that quite a lot as well. More than one early reader has messaged me as they read the first part of the book, asking “I don’t like Wes. I’m not supposed to like Wes, am I?” To which I generally reply with an enigmatic grin and a digital shrug.
Which other characters in the story resonate most vividly with you, and on what levels ?
RC: Mrs. Dennis took on a life of her own. In the original draft, she was just this lady showing up with food for Cait’s mom, and then there was just SO much more for her to do. There’s still a lot of story to tell about her, how she got involved in all the things she’s involved in, and what she’s willing to do to maintain what she sees as the status quo.
Of course there’s the other stuff going on, paranormal elements we don’t necessarily associate with werewolves, at least not in the sense they’re used here. There’s the telepathy, a secret organization (which I don’t want to spoil so much about here), and all these other colorful, ambiguous characters running around with their own agendas. You weave all these potentially disparate elements to create a unique new tapestry. How much of this world-building was consciously crafted, and how much did it all just fall into place intuitively as you went along?
RC: I think all of it was a combination. Like, the secret organization. Stuff kept happening at the church, and I found myself asking why is Eli always here? Okay, let’s give him a reason. Cait’s telepathy happened very late in the drafting, as I recall, and I had to go back and retro fit a lot of the story to make it work, but it added something important to her character for me.
This town Meredith Falls seems to be full of weirdness, just under the surface of what most people perceive as mundane daily reality. It all catches Cait off guard, of course, so she’s in over her head, yet she might be surrounded on a daily basis by residents who are “in the know,” for whom something like werewolf-attacks would hardly be a blip on the radar. She has passing encounters with all sorts of enigmatic figures. Sometimes just a sentence or two would make me go, “Wait, hold up, that person sounds like their story could be its whole own book, or at least a short-story or novella.”
So how did this weird little town evolve in your imagination? Did you just explore and discover it while you followed Cait around through it, or did you have much of it pre-mapped out?
RC: My favorite series novels have these sorts of connections. I love paranormal arcs, but I’ve always found that they have a chronic problem; the main character has to keep facing bigger and badder threats in order to keep the reader interested, which means they have to keep getting more and more powerful. Dresden had to become the Winter Knight, Anita had to become whatever the hell she is now, Meredith Gentry had to keep gaining hands of power. Sooner or later, I would roll my eyes and find something new to read.
As a reader, the arcs that could keep my attention were Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, or Stephen King’s Derry books. Because each story focused on a different character or scenario, loss was more possible. Even when Harry Dresden fell into Lake Michigan at the end of Changes, I don’t know anyone who was like OH GOD HARRY DIED, it was more, “Okay, how is Butcher going to write himself out of THIS?” It leaves the reader with a lack of tension in the story, if you know the main character’s going to make it out somehow.
There are some characters in Meredith Falls that I know damned well are getting their own books. The fiddler who turns up late in the book is the romantic hero in my current WIP. There’s something going on at Strange Brews that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but that little coffee shop is an important part of this town, and we’ll be visiting it again. And of course, there’s the organization. But other than deliberately inserting the fiddler, once I realized who he was going to be, no, it was all organic, happening as I followed Cait’s exploration of her world.
Cait’s story goes to some pretty harsh, raw emotional places, both through Cait’s inner psychological journey and through some of the other equally interesting characters we meet (good, bad, everything in-between, and a case or two of “the jury’s still out on that one”). Digging deep into that sort of territory takes no shortage of nerve and guts. Particularly in dark/horror-themed fiction, that sort of warts-and-all rawness can get too intense or even controversial for some readers. Do you ever step back from some extreme place you’ve found yourself and go, “Maybe I need to dial this back a notch or two,” or is that the time to go, “In for a penny, in for a pound; go for broke or go home”? Where’s the line for you?
RC: So the original ending of the book was just Cait, sitting home alone, saying that she wanted to go out dancing. Essentially, I was saying that after everything she’d gone through, nothing had really changed for her. I sent it to my alpha reader (i.e. the only person who sees my drafts after nothing has happened but spell check), and for the first time in fifteen years, she emailed me back and was like “No. Fucking well NO. This is too goddamn dark, and you go back, and do it again, and you do it RIGHT this time.” So I changed the ending to give it as much hope as I could manage, given everything Cait had gone through.
Other than that, I push for the darkness. I refuse to write angst for angst’s sake, but to my mind, one of the benefits of horror and fantasy settings is that the horrible creatures and nightmareish settings can stand in for things that we’d never be able to say in realistic fiction. If you pitched a book to a publisher and said “I want to write an exploration of how reality TV hurts kids, and makes us all participate in our own cultural destruction,” you would be laughed out of your pitch, but set that in Panem, and you have a brilliant, wonderful, amazing series that goes a thousand times darker than realistic fiction could ever get away with.
You’ve been building your fiction-career both on dark fantasy and straight-up erotica. The fantasy writing also includes its share of hot, steamy scenes. I seem to recall you mentioning something about how the smut-factor can create confusion about how to market it. I think of horror/dark-fantasy authors I read all the time growing up…Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, hell, Stephen King sometimes…None of those folks were prudes about letting their characters sex it up between running around being menaced or being menacing. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, mixing horror and eroticism is at least as old as vampires in popular fiction. Why the (perceived by some) need to differentiate now, do you think? Am I missing something?
RC: I think it’s less about the erotica and dark fantasy, because as you say, they blend very well. Romance and dark fantasy, however, can make things complex. Romance writers are some of the most amazing, wonderful, and passionate readers I’ve ever encountered, but they are also very aware of the expectations of their genre (most specifically, the happily-ever-after ending), and can be justifiably brutal when a book that they expect to be romance turns out to be something else entirely. So we had multiple conversations at Penner about how to best position this book to get it in front of the audience that (I hope!) will enjoy it. In the end, it’s packaged very much as a New Adult book, which carries a certain expectation of romance. I do think it’s a romantic book, with interpersonal themes and stories very much at the forefront, but readers who expect a story primarily about the girl being torn between two hot guys are not going to get the book they’re looking for. I hope that they like the book they have in front of them, but I have put on my flame-proof suit, just in case they don’t.
I do think there’s room for a lot more in the New Adult genre than erotic romance, and I hope that Clearer can help to expand those boundaries a little bit.
A lot of the spirit of your work puts me very in mind of classic Victorian Gothic horror which I’ve always loved, particularly in the erotically charged elements (which you make your own through a more conscientious, modern lens, and are of course allowed to be more overt). Who/what were some of the authors/books/storytelling traditions that informed upon this book and these characters? What notes on the craft did you bring from there to here, and what would you have to say to aspiring storytellers about that?
RC: I’m such a horrible lit major. I’ve never gotten into Victorian literature at all. Everything I’ve read in that strain has been second and third generation at least. Outside of Dracula, actually. I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula intensely, because of the things it says about sexuality and independence, and how women in particular are punished for wanting.
If I had to point my finger at a single book that defined a lot of how I think about feminism, and women, and women in fiction in particular, I’d have to look at The Handmaid’s Tale. I read that book over and over in my early teens, and there’s still so much there. The book is so focused on the feminine, even though it’s very much about how men are basically enslaving fertile women as breeding machines, and it still explodes my mind every time I go back to it.
I suppose what I love the most about Dracula, the second-generation Cthulu type stories, and the more modern explorations of detective stories in urban fantasy is the way that it plays with this idea that the world around us is a veneer laid over this seething underbelly of The Real World, and how the characters we’re reading about are protecting us in our sheepish ignorance. Urban fantasy of course has its roots in the magical realism stories of Latin America, with Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books being the most famous.
I’m rambling. Advice to the would-be storyteller: read. Read in your genre, and out of it. If you hate it, read it until you understand why. If you love it, read it until you understand why. Do more of the stuff you love than the stuff you hate. Write until you figure out how you write, and then keep doing that. Also, hone your marketing skills. Read blogs about marketing, publishing, and the industry side of things. I strongly recommend Seth Godin for marketing, Writer Beware for industry news. If there was ever a time when writers could afford to take the first offer that came at them, that time has passed. The flat-out truth is that while your publisher will (hopefully) do everything they can to market you, the most impassioned connections come personally. I’ve reached out to the community that arose after everything happened with Ellora’s Cave and the Dear Author lawsuit last year, I’ve reached out to friends who write reviews in parallel industries, and I’ve made the most of connections I have through college and writing communities. The only thing that hasn’t changed in the writing profession in the past decade is that word of mouth sells books. I honestly think that’s the one thing that will never change when it comes to books and stories. An impassioned fan is your best ally.
Whatever the genre territory, your narrative voice is one of one of the liveliest and most unmistakable I’ve read in a while. As a storyteller, what would you say are the strongest overarching, driving obsessions in your work (as in themes related to characters, their psychology, the challenges they face and how they cope, etc.)?
RC: Aw, thank you!
I’m obsessed with relationships between women in general, and between sisters in particular. Sisters are a big theme in this book, and mother-daughter connections are huge in the sequel that I’m working on. Family connections, how we oblige and forgive each other. How women operate in our society, and how they gain and lose power.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately is what a feminist superhero looks like. A lot of the female superheroes that we look to get their power through the abuse or protection of men. Carol Danvers gets her powers because Marveil protects her from an explosion. Natasha Romanova is conditioned and abused into becoming the Black Widow. Do not even get me started on the BS that is the origin story of the Slayers.
Cait is not exempt from this, not at all. But I want to continue to examine that idea, how women gain and lose power in their own narrative, separate from abuse and male narrative. There’s bigger stories happening in Meredith Falls, and Cait will have a part to play in those stories, though it’s going to be a while before she gets her happily ever after.
So what’s the next big thing to watch for from you, in fantasy, horror, erotica, or whatever else?
RC: I don’t have release dates yet, but I have stories forthcoming in anthologies at both Circlet Press and Cleis Press. In Circlet’s Coffee: Hot!, I have a lesbian erotica sci-fi story called “Flavor Profile of a Smuggler.” A lot of things are up in the air at Cleis after their sale to Start, but I believe that Kristina Wright’s For Play anthology is still going to be released, and I have a story called “Telling Bedtime Stories” included. It’s a somewhat unconventional M/f/f story. I’m working on the second Meredith Falls book, and hope to have it in front of an editor before the end of the summer.
People looking to keep track of what I’m up to should follow me on Twitter, @ReeCroteau, it’s where I blab the most.
Rebecca lives in the wilds of New England with her family. She is owned by two cats. She has a fountain pen habit. You can also follow her at www.rebeccacroteau.com.