Joe Sullivan: When did you realize that dark, speculative fiction was the space you wanted to explore as a writer?
J.A.W. McCarthy: I can’t remember a time when what I was writing wasn’t dark and speculative. I remember stories I wrote as a kid that involved sentient sunflowers, teens squatting in mausoleums, couples who somehow become conjoined. They were all awful and will never see the light of day. I’ve always loved horror movies, but it might have been The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder that woke up that part of my brain and made me recognize my own dark heart. I don’t believe it’s classified as horror, but when I read that book at age eight or nine I was as terrified as I was fascinated. I’d never seen a kid’s book that dealt with child murders and the supernatural. I remember thinking I wanted to write about stuff like that when I grew up.
You’ve gotten some excellent publishing credits in a relatively short period of time, and then a few reprints on top of that. How long have you been writing with the aim of placing your work in pro and semi-pro markets? Do you tend to write for calls more often than not?
I put writing aside for many years until 2017, when I got an idea for a short story I couldn’t shake. Short fiction was always a challenge for me, but for whatever reason at that time I decided to give it a go. To my amazement and delight, that story, “Until There’s Nothing Left”, sold pretty quickly to the anthology The Misbehaving Dead (and it went on to be reprinted by Kandisha Press in Graveyard Smash, and will be appearing on a podcast later this year). Then the next story sold just as quickly, and I made my first pro-rate sale in the next few months. I took a Lit Reactor class in 2019—my first writing class since college—and met some really cool writers, which lead to meeting my critique partners; my work would not be nearly as strong as it is today without them. Every success emboldened me to aim higher, and I started submitting to publications I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of getting into. There has been a lot of rejection, but many satisfying acceptances too.
As for open calls, I tend to not write for those. The few times I’ve done it, I’ve gotten some pretty crushing rejections and ended up with stories that were so specific that they had to be shelved then reworked. I think one of the only times I had success with writing for an open call was for your Paranormal Contact: A Quiet Horror Confessional. That call really spoke to me, and I knew it was something I wanted to write whether Cemetery Gates accepted it or not.
I read your story “Those Who Made Us” in LampLight, not long after we’d accepted a story from you for Places We Fear to Tread. It’s easy spotting a writer who’s ready for a new challenge in their nascent career. Everything they put out is imaginative and polished. Rereading your LampLight story, I think the line: “I discarded too many hearts that bore the scars of shameful deeds and long-buried cruelties.” is an excellent microcosm of your style. There’s no question here, I just want to give you a space to talk a bit about your debut collection with us.
Thank you for pulling that line—it’s one of my favorites. Human cruelty—intended or not—is a major theme in my work, which is why my debut collection is named “Sometimes We’re Cruel (and Other Stories)”, after a favorite story that was originally published in Nightscript V in 2019. It will contain six reprints, and six new stories involving lovesick ghosts possessing body parts, a cult that reduces their corporeal form, and a childhood hazing ritual that results in decades of repercussions. Lots of women battling the darkness that’s infected their world as well as within themselves, and a few who are happy to let the darkness run them. I am so excited to share this collection with everyone this summer, and thrilled that Cemetery Gates is giving it a good home.
You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a novella. What themes are you exploring with that story? What whispers of stories and books reside in your head beyond that?
I’ve got a couple of novellas going right now, both close to being finished. I usually don’t work on multiple things at once, but I got the idea for the second one in a flash of inspiration and had to run with it.
Both stories are very personal. The first explores aging, memory, and black mold, with plenty of body horror. The second is about a not-quite-human woman who sells merch for a nomadic band and her experiences on the road. It wouldn’t be my work if it didn’t include all the viscera of being human (or not-quite-human). Beyond the novellas, I’m challenging myself to write shorter. I’d like to write more flash fiction. My first flash piece, “With Teeth”, just debuted in Twisted Anatomy, the new charity anthology from Sci-Fi & Scary. That TOC is stacked with amazing authors, the book is affordable, and proceeds go to two great causes. I hope everyone will check it out.