The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

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