Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
This week Ann Dávila Cardinal stops by the Musas blog to talk about her debut novel FIVE MIDNIGHTS! FIVE MIDNIGHTS is a YA horror novel set in modern day Puerto Rico which uses the myth of El Cuco to examine topics such as identity, loss of faith, and substance abuse. But first a little more about the book...
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping through Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they'll have to step into the shadows to see what's lurking there—murderer, or monster?
OK, Querida! Let's get started!!!
1. What was the first image or visual that sunk its teeth in and wouldn't let go?
I love this question! Honestly, it was the amorphous image of El Cuco. I know, that sounds contradictory to the question, right? But when I first found out about him, that he was present in many different Hispanic cultures under different names, I kept asking people, "but what does he look like?" Most people just shrugged, some had their own images. But the idea of him not having a set shape was SO intriguing to me. Because ever since I was little, my imagination was always WAY scarier than reality, so I imagined him like the English boggart, taking the form of the thing you feared most. I loved that they found Naomi Romero's illustration of him for the cover because I think she really captured the visual that was in my head.
2. Speaking of monsters. Some people in the genre believe that the monster must never be visible - or at least not fully - in order to keep the tension up. Are you of this camp and how did you wrestle with keeping your monster amorphous being while keeping the dread a very tangible thing?
I actually had a lengthy discussion about this with my brother George. There was a scene where El Cuco took the form of a huge snake, and I got very detailed about it, describing the muscled body, the triangular head. George felt that level of description took away from the tension for the reason you mentioned. Since he's a psychoanalyst and understands much more of the human mind than I do (and has a dozen years of horror reading on me) I took his advice and went less specific in the end, more of a formless evil but with snake-like qualities...the sound of scales scraping, slitted yellow eyes, that sort of thing. He was right: it upped the tension. So I guess my answer is that I'm coming over into the less visible camp...slithering over, you might say.
3. I feel a bit of my chef side coming out with this next question. As I was reading I kept getting hints of classic tales and authors like dash of flavor coming out. I'd read a page and think, "oh here's a hint of King here," in the best way. What are some of your influences as you were writing this?
Oh, influences as I was writing it? I mean, I think at this point in my life I've had so many years of gathering influences that their voices are all in there, you know? I mean, what horror writer isn't influenced by Stephen King? Whether they admit it or not. I was a huge fan in my youth. And Anne Rice, Interview With a Vampire came out when I was 13. Gorgeous Gothic literature (don't even mention the movie to me. Sheesh! Tom Cruise as Lestat?).
But mostly when it came to horror it was movies that influenced me the most. I was lucky to be around for what I feel is the absolute heyday of horror cinema. And a childhood friend of mine, Maitland McDonagh, is a horror film critic, so she brought me to more films than I can count. Some great, some awful. I would answer the phone and find myself talking to Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) or Michael Rooker (Merle in The Walking Dead) who were calling for their interview (both have really sexy phone voices, BTW). Fifty-six years of these story-lines, literary and cinematic, wound their way into my psyche, so I'm not surprised they're visible in my work...or that I have spent years in therapy.
4. ...you talked to Robert Englund!?!?! WHAT?!?! We need to sit down and just walk through everything and also help me get new glasses. So, as someone who also juggled multiple storylines - how did you keep personalities separate? How were dynamics particularly important for the story?
Oh, it was just a hello and a "Hi, can I speak to Maitland McDonagh?" type thing, but it was enough for me to fangirl out! But Michael Rooker called me "Darlin'." Sigh.
Keeping the personalities separate wasn't the hard part for me, it was during the revision process, my agent or editor would say, "Lupe needs some more substance" then I would beef up Lupe, and then Javier would seem one-dimensional. It's kind of like when you fix up one room of your home, the others suddenly seem shabby. I eventually hit on the right balance, though. But it is a balance. And the dynamics between the two were so important because to me they represented the two cultures that I was stretched between as a kid. I think that's something that a lot of teenagers can relate to these days. They sometimes fight, but mostly compliment each other.
5. Speaking about culture. I notice that Lupe shares your last name (Dávila) and the moniker of Gringa-Rican in the book. Can you talk a bit about if and how you spoke to that feeling of being between two places and what it meant for Lupe to carry your last name?
It’s so interesting. It wasn’t until you sent this question that I realized Lupe had that name before I did! I was born Ann Marie Hagman. My dad was a Swedish/Irish/English 6’2” gringo. I was named after my great aunt, Ana Maria Dávila. We were born on the same date. But my father thought Ana Maria was too “ethnic.” I’m still disappointed my mother caved. When I got married, I took my husband’s Native American name, Cardinal, and used Hagman as my middle name.
After my mother died I held tight to the Dávila side of me, a way of keeping her around. When I started writing this book six years ago, I gave the character my maternal family name as an homage. Then I realized I’d worn the Hagman name for 55 years and I felt more Dávila. So I changed my middle name to Dávila. In traditional Spanish families we would keep all these names anyway.
When I called my Tío Esteban to tell him I was legally a Dávila now, he said, “you always were, Sobrina.”
6. Puerto Rico - of course - plays a big role in Five Midnights. It is also squarely in the present delving into a lot of the social, economic and emotional status of the island. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, any hesitations you may have had or how setting can often become another character?
Oh, so many hesitations. I've never lived on the island for more than a few months. I know that when you hit that one thing, that "Wait! no one uses that expression in Puerto Rico! That's more a Mexican expression!" you lose readers. They no longer trust you. So I worked hard on that and had many many other eyes on it, people who live and work on the island year-round.
And when setting a book on Puerto Rico, how does it not become a character? Good Lord, the pull from that land is extraordinary. It's a drug that gets in your veins and you think about all year long (particularly during the long hard winters!). And it would be irresponsible to not address the more difficult situation the island is in these days. Even pre-Maria it was a tough time. I saw it start in the 70s and 80s when my mother's town started to change. It was farmland, bucolic, then drugs came in and I learned the term tiroteo when I was a small child. It was hard to watch because I wasn't seeing it every day, when I came back I would be shocked at the changes, and my aunt would be surprised, because she was like that frog in the proverbial boiling water, it happened slowly so she didn't notice it encroaching on her private jungle.
Initially when I wrote about Puerto Rico I portrayed it as idyllic, heaven, the way it is in my heart. But that's not fair either. That's exoticizing it. I love it with all its brightness and dark corners. I love it with all my heart.
7. You deal with a lot in this book, from colonialism, substance abuse, faith and loss of faith, culture clashes and family. Did it feel like too much at times? Why was it necessary? I promise after this I'm going with fun questions!!
Oh boy! You are asking the tough ones! But that is fitting given the content of the question. I mean, yes, it’s a lot. Some of that was intentional, and some just came organically when telling the story, like loss of faith. That just happened naturally while telling Javier’s story. I think loss of faith is often a prerequisite for addiction. Not always, but often.
And substance abuse was just part of my daily life as a child. I had to hide the car keys sometimes, and clean the house and do the laundry. When you’re young and you can’t rely on the adults in your life you don’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself, you just do it. I hope i can reach a reader growing up in a similar situation and give them some kind of hope.
You asked if all these things were necessary. I don’t know about that, but I think all those things are there because they’re part of my own story. And no matter how hard I try to write away from that, it always bleeds through one way or another.
8. Let's switch this up a bit and do some fun ones! How about what are some of your favorite horror texts or movies and why?
Favorite horror...that's a tough one. In terms of books, loved The Ruins by Scott Smith. Great book, the movie...not so much. Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Very different kind of horror, more sociological based. I actually had coffee with him at BookCon this past weekend and grilled him as to what he thought was actually going on in that novel and he wouldn't answer. In terms of young adult literature, anything Daniel Jose Older writes makes me happy, and Zoraida Cordova's Brooklyn Brujas series is FIRE. Love her work. But my favorite young adult horror of all time was The Forest of Hands and Feet by Carrie Ryan. It's ten years old and is still the most gorgeous writing in the genre.
Movies...I loved Bird Box based on the novel by Josh Malerman. And A Quiet Place. Both made me think, a lot. Which is always something I like. And Get Out which was ground breaking in SO many ways. Of course I love the classics, anything by David Cronenberg or Guillermo del Toro. And as far as television, I'm a zombie enthusiast, but my love of Walking Dead is waning, I"m sorry to say. Though it will always have a special place in my heart and the first season is BRILLIANT. And I'm really in to the Danish series The Rain. Very interesting.
9. LAST QUESTION!!! If you could write from the POV of any monster - tell their story, get in their head - who would it be and why?
I would be Chupacabra, but since I LOVE goats, I would be goat KISSER rather than a sucker. Besocabra? Snort!
Buy a copy of Five Midnights wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!