In this interview, we delve into the mind of L. Andrew Cooper, an award-winning author and screenwriter whose works combine horror, fantasy, and literary fiction. From his latest novel, Crazy Time, to his short story collections, poetry, and non-fiction writing, Cooper discusses his creative process, inspirations, and the themes that drive his writing. We also learn about his background in literature and film, his experience as a teacher, and his thoughts on the role of horror in our culture. Get ready to be spooked and intrigued as we explore the dark and strange with L. Andrew Cooper.
1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Seeking creative weirdness
2. Your stories have an intensive focus on the larger domains of horror, unfamiliar experiences, and places. Do you think that experiencing something strange is necessary in today’s world?
We experience something as truly strange when it challenges our assumptions about how the world works. Such an experience might snap us out of complacency or stagnation, conditions that spawn prejudice or at least a willingness to accept the world as it seems to be as the way it has to be. In other words, the strange prompts us to see and think differently. It has the power to broaden our minds. Too many problems come from narrow minds unwilling to accept difference, so I’d say yes, experiencing something strange every now and then is necessary in today’s world.
3. Your book, Crazy Time: A Bizarre Battle with Darkness and the Divine, has tremendously focused on the mental illness and alienation that most of us are facing. What was the inspiration behind this theme?
In Crazy Time, the protagonist, Lily Henshaw, experiences so much trauma that she becomes convinced that God is out to get her. She questions her sanity—perhaps rightly—and feels cut off from the regular world. Although what I went through wasn’t nearly as bad as what Lily goes through, I wrote Crazy Time after a series of bad experiences that made me feel a little like the universe was aligned against me, and I realized that a lot of people probably feel that way at one time or another in their lives. Lily’s story ends up being quite surreal, but its major themes came from my more down-to-earth emotional experiences and should connect with readers’ experiences as well.
4. Another curious aspect is the formation of the character Lily as the main character in your book. Why did you choose a female character? Is it just a coincidence or a conscious choice?
I guess I can claim it was a semi-conscious choice. Some of my characters seem very real to me, and Lily is one of those—I feel less like I chose her than like she and I decided to work on her story together. That said, Lily is heroic, and my most heroic characters tend to be women. She suffers through more than enough trauma to make most people give up, but she refuses to be a passive victim. She figures out a way to fight back. I suppose many people assume women are more likely to be passive, less likely to fight. I’m glad Lily stands against that stereotype. The strongest, most influential people in my life have been women, and I like to reflect on such people and qualities in my work.
5. You also work as a screenplay writer. Have you ever tried to bring subaltern, unheard, or lost stories to your screenplay writing?
My screenplays almost always include diverse characters, both because they’re realistic—the world is a diverse place—and because bringing in different perspectives enriches the work. My script Wonder Drugs also features a female protagonist with a mental illness. She’s not as tough as Lily in Crazy Time, but she’s able to handle some pretty bizarre circumstances and stay strong. The black heroine of my script Familiar allows me to explore issues central to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. in the context of a horror story. The gay interracial couples in my comedies Come Alive and Leanne’s Man provide some very witty repartee, and the trans P.I. in Sam the Rhino adds a twist to the classic hardboiled detective story. While most of my characters and settings are based in the U.S., I’ve written people with Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, African, Latin American, and other heritages in addition to European. Every story is worth telling!
6. Another curious thing to know about you is that you wrote a story named “Cynthia“ in your third grade. Would you like to share your experience about this?
I think it was called “Cynthia,” but I don’t remember for certain. It was one of the first horror stories with a fairly well-developed plotline that I finished. I’m about as uncertain about the plot as I am about the title. I believe it was a fairly clichéd ghost story. A little girl (Cynthia, I presume) and her parents are killed in a car accident, and surviving siblings go back to their house to try to go on with life. The girl seems to be haunting the house. I’m pretty sure a refrigerator falls on somebody. At one point, the eyes in a portrait of the little girl glow. Anyway, it turns out the little girl was/is evil, that she caused the car accident, and she has come back to finish wiping out her family. No clue how I ended it. The story is important, however, because I shared it with my third grade classmates, and they seemed to enjoy it. The real victory, though, came the next day, when a girl in my class told me that my story had given her nightmares. Score! I had set out to write something scary, and I had succeeded! Of course, nowadays I try to give only adults nightmares, but that early experience of having an impact with my writing gave me a taste for doing it again… and again… and again….
7. Do you think horror stories evolved more risk factors than other genres and interests? What was the point in your journey of life when you realised that writing is your passion?
As I explore in my non-fiction book Gothic Realities, which is based on the dissertation I wrote for my PhD at Princeton University, for centuries cultural pundits have blamed Gothic and horror stories for causing, or at least shaping, stigmatized or otherwise undesirable social phenomena. Sometimes they’ve been right, and sometimes they’ve been wrong, but in any case there’s a long tradition of regarding horror as risky. Producers of horrific art—writers, filmmakers, etc.—have also received more than their share of blame for social horrors, so being such an artist is risky, too. I once had someone call the police about a picture of me on my Facebook page. I was standing next to a grotesque exhibit at a horror museum. The police, of course, told this person there was nothing wrong with the picture or my page. A colleague at an old job apparently thought I was “creepy” and was afraid to be around me. I don’t think I’m a particularly scary person… but I do write scary things, which is enough for some people to pass judgment. I am not deterred, however. I’ve wanted to write fiction since I learned how to write. I guess it’s an inborn passion. I’ve also always been drawn to the dark and scary stuff… I write in other genres, but the risks of horror suit me well.
8. Most of your world and imagination revolve around the creation and destruction of horror characters. Do you ever try to use your nightmares as part of your stories?
I often use the atmosphere of nightmares in my stories, and I’ve used the content of my nightmares quite a few times. The biggest nightmare-to-page transformation happened with my novel Descending Lines. I think the inspiration came from two dreams that got fused in my brain. In one of them, my consciousness was stuck in a body other than my own, and I had no control over the body. I was trapped and paralyzed, doomed to watch, hear, and feel whatever the body did. In the other dream, I was a vampire-like creature on an uncontrollable killing spree. To reveal exactly how these dreams figure into Descending Lines might be too much of a spoiler, but if you read the novel, you’ll get it. Otherwise, for decades, I had nightmares about one of the houses where I grew up. That house, along with the creek that ran behind it, is the basis for the TR4B stories in my collection Stains of Atrocity as well as the creek in The Middle Reaches, a project I’ll say more about in a moment.
9. Your stories are largely beyond mere romanticism. Have you ever thought of writing about romance in your stories?
While I have no interest in writing in the romance genre, I’ve often written romantic subplots. All my comedy screenplays involve romance, and a couple of other scripts do, too. My novel Burning the Middle Ground has two romantic subplots. In Crazy Time Lily develops a relationship with her boss, Burt, and it becomes central to her quest. Although I can think of some exceptions, I generally avoid romantic subplots in short stories—too much horror, not enough space—or I make any romance part of the horror, as in “Highway Romance,” included in Stains of Atrocity. I have no doubt that romantic interests enhance characters’ chemistry and provide good opportunities for storytelling, so I expect I’ll keep romance as a secondary interest as I go forward.
10. You have described “coast to coast“ as your favourite topic. Would you like to share the reasons behind it?
I think there’s a minor misunderstanding here, as in a couple of my bios I’ve written that I spent a decade teaching about my favorite topics coast to coast in the United States, by which I meant that I was in places all over the U.S., from the East Coast (New Jersey, Georgia) and in between (Kentucky) to the West Coast (California) teaching classes about topics I love (literature, films). Although I’m not teaching now, I loved sharing literature and films that have influenced me, as well as the histories of these art forms, with growing minds. Being part of people’s first encounters with great works and new ways of thinking inspires me.
11. Do you interact with your characters or try to end their stories?
Both. As I’ve mentioned, characters like Lily Henshaw are very real to me, and I interact with them as their stories unfold. They tell me the reasoning behind their decisions, why they feel what they feel, and more. However, I often know how their stories end as soon as they begin, or their fates will unfold a little later without input from them or from me. I rarely if ever have to try to end someone’s story. I have had to figure out how to kill someone—the method of death takes creative ingenuity—but the fact of death differs from, and usually appears to me prior to, the method.
12. When someone delves into the writings of romance and heartbreak, they genuinely tend to live and feel these emotions. Similarly, have you ever felt afraid of or scared about your own creations and stories?
Yes! I often think I scare myself more than I scare other people, but then I realize I’m willing to flirt with these thoughts long enough in my head to reproduce them as fiction, and most people wouldn’t be willing to do that. Nevertheless, occupying Brandon and Daisy’s headspaces in the story “Dinner for Two” (in Stains of Atrocity) was a horrific experience, and that story, about a mass shooting, still scares me. Being in Lily’s head as she lost control of reality while I was writing Crazy Time was also pretty scary. I could go on. When I write horror, I look for subjects that frighten me. I’m pretty desensitized, so if I can reach my own nerves, I feel more confident that I can reach others’.
13. While writing a horror story, we always want to test whether others are scared of it or not. How do you test whether your stories are horrific to others or not?
I have a small group of generous friends and family members who read my work when it’s raw and give me relatively honest feedback (they’re still nice about it, most of the time). At least for longer works, I am often able to recruit a couple of readers with a less personal attachment to give me pre-publication feedback as well. Post-publication, there are always reviews… one hopes. To clarify, I don’t always aim to scare. I do usually aim to horrify on some level, but I also like to shock, to fascinate, to bewilder, and, if I’m really lucky, to awe.
14. What are the main five elements, according to you, in a horror story? What are the hidden themes towards which you want your audience to look forward?
First, a character or characters in psychological extremity. This extremity is often, but need not be, distress.
Second, a catalyzing event that causes a break with the “normal” world. This event may occur prior to or during the events depicted in the story. It may be psychological, physical, or both. The world is redefined.
Third, an event or events in which a character or characters violently confront the difference of the redefined world. The violence may be psychological, physical, or both.
Fourth, a character or characters confront horror. The confrontation may be psychological or physical, preferably both.
Fifth, a character or characters are indelibly changed. The change may be, but need not be, death.
Any thematic material might work in the context of a horror story, and though I have recurring obsessions, I cover a lot of territory (not really hiding my tracks with the big themes, either). In Stains of Atrocity, the early stories tend to focus on loss, loneliness, and alienation from family. Concerns about social class sneak in now and then. Toward the middle of the book, stories focus more often on ways people become complicit in the horrors around them. I get more political and think more about racism, homophobia, and other prejudices. Later stories focus more on conspiracy, history, memory, and perception.
15. From ancient to modern times, horror stories have moved beyond the dilemma between god and devil. Do you think so or not?
While I might mention that Lily Henshaw in Crazy Time doesn’t necessarily see a dilemma between God and the Devil because she’s not too happy with the idea of either one, I agree, generally, that the horror genre has gained a wider purview as it has developed, never totally abandoning religious struggles and themes but incorporating more secular fears (and monsters to match) as many societies have become more secularized. As far as my recent work is concerned, Stains of Atrocity covers some metaphysical ground but isn’t concerned with god(s) or devil(s). Crazy Time uses religious material, but, like I said, it doesn’t involve a traditional dilemma, and I don’t recommend it for religious people who are easily offended.
16. There is something mysterious in one’s life or that they have heard from ancestors. Do you ever try to mix tribal religion, culture, black magic, and trance activities into your stories?
Quite a few of my novels and short stories take place in a world where a book called The Alchemy of Will, by Dr. Allen V. Fincher, causes havoc. The book is a study and collection of world religions, tribal and otherwise, that reduces them to rituals that accomplish different things through the force of will. It’s kind of like black magic… but more broadly based. Fincher and his allies show up in Stains of Atrocity.
17. In your upcoming book, “Stains of Atrocity: Twenty Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy,” you are descriptive about your characters’ psychology. Do you think it’s important to speak about characters’ psychology?
Direct description of a character’s thoughts doesn’t have to dominate storytelling, but understanding at least some aspects of how a character’s mind works is critical to writing well and usually pretty important for a good reading experience. I tell most of my stories from characters’ points of view (in either first or third person), so even when I’m not explaining thoughts, I let how a character thinks shape the words I choose and the way I structure sentences. And showing a mind crumble under the weight of horrific experiences is one of the joys of the horror genre! Likewise, so is exploring abnormal psychology, as I often do in Stains of Atrocity, as in the relatively mild story “Your Neighbor” or the ultra-extreme “Mandy Schneider Makes Friends.” Stains of Atrocity is available now on Amazon.
18. Your creative characters are not appealing, pleasing, or likeable. Why do you choose such characters?
Well, some of them are likeable, but in Stains of Atrocity, most of the lead characters are horrible people who do horrible things, so no, I don’t expect readers to like them very much. Common wisdom suggests that people need someone to cheer for and identify with when they read stories, but at least in short horror stories, I like taking away that kind of comfort. I intend for my stories to be disturbing, and writing about people who are unlikeable—who themselves disturb notions about the ways people are supposed to think and behave—gets me a lot of the way there.
19. In your book “Stains of Atrocity: Twenty Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy, “ you have largely portrayed humans’ interactions with violating activities and trauma. Do you think it speaks to the originality of life around us?
I think it speaks to the fragility of life around us. Luckily, many of my stories are pretty far-fetched, but I often portray violence on a large scale. Death comes easily, quickly, ruthlessly, making life seem brittle and cheap. I find that kind of fragility horrifying.
20. There is a section of people who like to read horror stories together. Would you like to suggest any stories from your book “Stains of Atrocity: Twenty Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy“ to read together?
If by “together” you mean aloud, my first suggestion is “Jar of Evil,” not only because it’s one of the shortest stories in the book, but also because it’s kind of a tongue-twister. More than any of the other stories, I wrote this one with an ear for rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme. You might also try “The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe” and “Kindertotenlieder,” both of which are also on the shorter side and involve a gruesome kind of poetry.
21. One of the creative parts of your stories is the inclusiveness of butterflies, lizards, etc. as your supernatural phenomena. What is the motivation behind choosing them over others?
I guess I probably think that the wee things convey the supernatural better than the huge, but I haven’t pondered this pattern much. In each story, my choice has different motivation. I’ll take three from Stains of Atrocity. First, in “House of Butterflies,” the title plays on the butterfly house that might be a feature at a zoo, the setting (a house full of butterflies), and the family at the center of the story (a famed combination of Hollywood celebrities and East Coast politicians, a “house” beautiful and delicate like butterflies). In “Lizard Chrome,” I play a lot with color, human and otherwise, so the chameleon was a natural choice. I also get to a point where I allude to humans’ “lizard brain,” amygdala, as well as to conspiracy theories about lizard people and such. Third, in “Food for Flies,” I went with flies mainly because flies eat… um… feces. It’s a nasty joke that makes sense as or after you read the story. Also, flies have a strong association with the demonic. The story brings up Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.
22. You also tried to mix up the humour and horror together; these days, comedy horror is becoming a new trend. What do you think about the extent to which humour can be used in horror stories?
Mixing humor in with horror can do a lot more than lighten the mood (which is sometimes necessary). Humor is a great tool for characterization. Some people are just funny, and we tend to like funny people more—even if we shouldn’t like them. I’ll admit to having cheered for a witty villain more than once. Humor is great for creating confusion along the lines of, “I should be totally grossed out, but I’m giggling… what does this reaction say about me?” The line between humor and horror can be very thin and sometimes doesn’t exist.
23. In “Stains of Atrocity: Twenty Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy,” your stories are always multidimensional; on the one hand, they portray the horrible experience, and on the other, they address social issues and discrimination, like in the story of the white couple murdering a brown boy. Would you like to share how you brought up the element of racism in your story?
I write about what scares me. Racism scares me. I bring it up in several stories, but the story your question refers to is “Food for Flies.” It starts when a white couple, Teddy and Tammy, shoot—perhaps by accident—a brown-skinned young man they eventually dub “Mo”. Since they’ve posted some rather nasty things about Muslims on social media, they decide to dispose of the body instead of calling the police. Soon, they face what seems to be supernatural retribution. Teddy and Tammy are good examples of the unlikeable characters I mentioned: they’re horrible racists who treat the young man they kill as worthless, but the story follows them to what I hope is a satisfying conclusion. This story is also an example of one of my humor blends. If you can laugh at the gross stuff.
24. Do you have other writers in the family?
My sister has tried her hand and done some good work, but she hasn’t yet published. I also have an uncle who has written quite a stack of books on Christian topics. I wouldn’t say writing is a family condition, but I’m not alone in having the bug.
25. Sometimes crime scenes and violence step outside the drawn boundaries in horror stories. What do you think should be the extent of the inclusion of crime in horror stories?
My stories include supernatural violence as well as violent crime; at times, the violence deliberately steps outside social boundaries. I believe in telling people that my work is only appropriate for mature readers; as I do in the Foreword to Stains of Atrocity, I believe in warning people that the content can be extreme. However, I don’t believe that fiction and other arts should be a space where people can draw boundaries that artists must obey. Violence is like strangeness: experiencing it in art can shock someone out of complacency and stagnation and potentially create positive change. Take my story “Dinner for Two,” about a mass shooting. The depiction of violent crime is extreme, and I suspect many people would say it crosses boundaries and is offensive. But mass shootings cross boundaries and should be offensive. If I wrote about one without being offensive, I don’t think I would be doing my job.
26. What would you do or how would you react if one of your friends admitted that he/she practices witchcraft?
I have known quite a few witches in my life and am currently very close to two people who practice witchcraft, so I’d have no problem learning about one more. “Witchcraft” is a loose term that, in my experience, generally refers to the practices of religious traditions often persecuted by Christianity (and perhaps other major world religions as well). Most witches are significantly more peace-loving than members of major religions (such as Christianity) and nothing to be afraid of.
27. Would you like to share something about your upcoming work and what is the driving force behind the coming works?
I recently finished a new science-fiction/drama screenplay called Planet Bliss. Like my horror/dark fantasy novel Crazy Time, but, well, sci-fi and a script, Planet Bliss combines an increasingly strange storyline with meditations on life, death, consciousness, identity, and other heady topics. I’m hoping it will do well at festivals and in competitions.
What has me more excited, though, is an ongoing project, a serialized story called The Middle Reaches that launches on Amazon Vella (https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella) Monday, February 27, 2023. A work of grotesque horror and surreal dark fantasy, The Middle Reaches unfolds in “cycles,” or fifteen-episode seasons, about an insane place full of strange creatures and uncontrollable desires. In “Cycle One: Shadow Man”, five friends get together after their high school reunion and regain memories of the place where one of their group disappeared years ago. The place calls to them, pulling them deeper and deeper into deadly otherworldliness as both they and their surroundings transform.
Basically, the larger story is released one small bit, or episode, at a time. The first three episodes are free (for my story or any other on Vella), and after that, you buy tokens and spend them to access more episodes. I plan to release an episode each Monday. The first three episodes are complete and ready to go! Please have a free read, and if you like it, give it a like!
28. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, particularly those who are interested in exploring horror and dark fiction?
You won’t be able to avoid the fact that writing is a business. Unless you’re very well-connected or lucky (note I do not say “talented”), you will have to choose. On the one hand, you can learn about and abide by the definitions of “good writing” wielded by literary agents and acquisitions editors and of “good stories” based on current trends in markets still dominated by a handful of major publishing companies. That kind of savviness, or conformity, is likelier to bring you success with those agents, editors, and companies. On the other hand, you can write what you think is good writing and what you think are good stories. That kind of recklessness, which I prefer, is less likely to bring you success with the moneymakers, but these days you can publish on your own, and small presses have broader minds, and… you never know. I shouldn’t be so either/or. Compromise is possible. In any case, be prepared for pressures to conform. Horror/dark fiction is perhaps even more business-like than other fiction because its core audiences have fairly well-defined expectations from what they buy, so definitions of “good stories” are narrower (according to the market).
29. What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your book(s)?
Every book involves something new, and I’ve written more than the twelve I’ve published as author or editor, so I’ll limit my comments to Stains of Atrocity. The stories collected in that book originated over the last twenty years. When I decided to put them together, I went back to re-edit and wipe off what I thought would be dense layers of dust. The stories surprised me: I had to get reacquainted with them, even the recent ones, and as I did, I discovered they all still had fresh ideas to share. A book on a shelf may collect dust quickly enough, and I might have aged a lot in the last twenty years, but the fictional creations seemed to have crept along their own, unfathomable timeline. The experience provided a canted view of literary immortality, a view that incorporated, of course, my own mortality.
If you’re looking for a thrilling and thought-provoking read, look no further than the books of L. Andrew Cooper. From his latest novel, Crazy Time, to his collections of short stories and poetry, Cooper’s writing is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. With his background in literature and film, his stories are rich with vivid imagery and compelling characters. So why wait? Head to Amazon and add L. Andrew Cooper’s books to your reading list today