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.

Fiction Fragments: Patricia Lillie

Lillie_hatLast week, horror writer Lynn Hortel stopped by to share her fragment and talk about the things that sometimes prevent us from finishing a writing project. This week, my friend and fellow Seton Hill alum, Patricia Lillie is here at Girl Meets Monster. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of catching up with Patricia at our MFA in Writing Popular Fiction alumni weekend. I hadn’t seen Patricia in a few years and our visit, however brief, was long overdue. You just don’t realize how much you miss someone until you see them and get a chance to remember why you love them so much. We stayed up WAY too late talking about financial troubles, our favorite beers, traveling abroad, life goals and how they change in middle-age, and, of course, writing. I hope I have a chance to catch up with Patricia again soon.

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published six picture books (not scary), a few short stories (scary), and dozens of fonts. A graduate of Parsons the New School for Design and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, she is a freelance writer and designer addicted to coffee, chocolate, and cake. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Her debut novel, The Ceiling Man, was released in 2017 and is available for Kindle and in paperback. Find her on the web at www.PatriciaLillie.com.

Her much nicer alter ego Kay Charles writes cozy-ish mysteries. Ghosts in Glass Houses, the first Marti Mickkleson Mystery, is available now. Visit Kay on the web at www.KayCharles.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: In the words of Chuck the Prophet from Supernatural, “Writing is hard.” Do you have a lot of unfinished projects? What do you do with them?

Patricia: I have a veritable shit-tonne of fragments stashed in various folders all over my hard drive. (Someday, I should collect them all in one place.) Most are beginnings that went nowhere. Sometimes, I find them later, they strike some chord, and I turn them into stories. Sometimes, they get published.

Girl Meets Monster: Which of your fragments have you gone back to and eventually published?

Patricia: “The Cuckoo Girls” (in Nightscript, Vol. 1, edited by C.M. Muller) started as a fragment I didn’t know what to do with and stashed away. Sometimes, they aren’t what I thought they were. What I thought was the beginning of a short story of quiet horror turned into the beginning of my first cozy mystery. (Boy, did I have to some cleaning up there!) Most of the time, say 99.9% of the time, they go nowhere.

Girl Meets Monster: What was the inspiration for this fragment?

Patricia: This was written in response to a prompt, at a time when I was stuck and making no headway in what I was supposed to be working on. I believe the prompt had to do with a character who shares a name with a character from a favorite book, but don’t recall exactly what it was. I do recall some of the places I thought it might go at the time, and yeah—none are good. Which is why it’s one of those unfinished fragments. No title, because I have a hard enough time coming up with titles for finished projects.

Untitled Fragment, by Patricia Lillie

Merricat Williamson wanted to write a ghost story. For that, she blamed her parents, who never told her the origins of her name, and her Freshman Comp professor, who led her to find out.

In her first class on her first day of college, he called her name. She answered “Present” even though she wished she was anywhere else in the world, but mostly in her room at home, instead of over-dressed and crammed into a tiny desk in an un-air-conditioned room at XXXX Community College, and he said something about living in a castle. At first, she thought he was calling her a princess. Dr. Benjamin George was beautiful. Merricat felt a flush rise from somewhere near her big toe up her body until her cheeks stung with heat. She heard the snicker from the back of the room—it had to be Miss Perky Blond Prom Queen—and she knew she’d been insulted. Tongue-tied, she said nothing and squirmed in her seat. Dr. Gorgeous-Georgous finished calling roll. Merricat didn’t catch the last two names, but one of them belonged to the Prom Queen.

As soon as she had a chance, she Googled “Merricat” and “castle” and discovered her parents were even more twisted than she thought. She spent the next two classes hiding in the back of the room, but over weekend she read We Have Always Lived in the Castle followed by The Haunting of Hill House. Had she read them before her first week of college, she might have answered the castle comment with, “Just call me Nell,” but she’d never heard of or read Shirley Jackson. For that, she blamed her high school English teachers.

Merricat Williamson always had lots of blame to spread around.

On Monday, she took what had become her regular seat in the back corner. Miss Royally Perky bounced into the room, scurried past five empty seats, and plopped down beside her. The girl was short. Really short. About a lollipop over Munchkin-level short. Merricat nearly gagged at the cloying smell of cheap perfume, but kept her mouth clamped shut and her eyes glued to the front of the room. Georgeous-Georgous was late. He needed to get there and start class before the pocket-sized prom queen tried to talk to her.

“We should be friends,” Little Miss Perky said. “I have a literary name too.”

Merricat ignored her and hoped she’d take the hint.

“Dorrit.”

Merricat burst out laughing. Her high school English teacher lived and breathed Dickens. Although Merricat had never read Little Dorrit, the title alone was enough to cause the pint-sized perk-miester endless grief.

“Yeah. Trust me. I’ve heard it all my life. My parents are barely above midget status themselves. I totally blame them.”

Merricat wasn’t ready to get too carried away, but maybe she’d found a friend. She didn’t make friends easily.

Next week horror writer C. R. Langille joins me here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to be part of this kick-ass blog series? Comment below, or drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!