Interview with Nicholas Conley, Author of The Cage Legacy
Is he just a troubled 17-year-old high school student? A quiet, intelligent kid with a bad home life? Or is he a shattered human being, a boy who lost his faith in the world when he discovered that his loving father was secretly a psychotic serial killer?
As Ethan’s world suddenly spirals out of control, he must confront the reality of his dark past and finally make the decision that will either define his life – or cut it short prematurely.
Q. You have quite a body of previous works, having published more than 30 short stories. Where can our readers find some of these works?
A. You know, I was going through my publications just recently, and I was really surprised to find out that the number is now getting closer to 50. At the moment, most of my short stories are spread out all over the place in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. I have links to almost all of them on the “Written Works” section of my website, http://www.nicholasconley.com, and most of these publications are available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Q. It must be exciting to have your first novel out – I remember when my first novel-length work, “Solitude” came out almost two years ago, I was very excited. Certain life events inspired me to finally write a novel. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write “The Cage Legacy?”
Realizing my dream has really been incredibly surreal. Every time I hold the book and see my name on it, it’s an amazing experience.
A. The Cage Legacy was inspired by the death of my father, which occurred when I was 17 – Ethan’s age in the book. My father was a remarkably brilliant engineer, an MIT graduate whose work is still being used today—but because he was so uniquely intelligent, I think he always suffered from a sense of alienation. As an adult, I understand that feeling quite well—I occasionally feel that I’m not quite a real human being, but merely a reasonably decent facsimile of one. As a kid, though, I didn’t really notice his struggles as much as I maybe should have, and this fact used to weigh me down with a colossal sense of guilt. More than anything else, I remember him as a loving parent and an easygoing thrill-seeker in a Hawaiian shirt. I remember his intriguing ideas, his love of Carl Hiaasen books, and his laugh—a wonderfully warm laugh that made you feel as if you’d just said the most hilarious thing he’d ever heard in his life.
I’ve always been very close to both my father and mother—who, by the way, is an exceptionally-talented poet. Both of my parents were and still are incredible role models to me in many ways, so my father’s death was something I struggled with immensely. I was thrust into adulthood very quickly, I took on qualities of his that I didn’t previously know existed in me, and I was weighed down with a newfound sense of responsibility. It quickly became apparent that I was responsible for the direction of my life from that point on, and like Ethan Cage, I struggled to forge my identity in the wake of my father’s sudden absence.
I’ve been writing The Cage Legacy, on and off, since I was 17. I wrote my first draft all the way back then, threw it away, and I then continued coming back to it year after year. It was a story that spent years burning a hole in the back of my head, screaming for release. It wasn’t until 2011 that I tossed all of my old notes and started from scratch, reimagining the entire story with fresh eyes – and at that point, I’d finally grown enough as a writer to do the story justice. Seeing it finally realized makes me happy in a way that truly cannot be overstated.
Everyone handles the grieving process very differently. I have always used writing to work through my difficulties; I write so that I can come to terms with the world, myself and my past. Writing pushes me to discover my views, to reach my own conclusions, conclusions that I would not reach otherwise. I don’t hold back; I allow my writing to reflect me, no matter how uncomfortable that reflection may be, or what painful personal truths it may reveal. The Cage Legacy was truly a monumental book for me. Ethan’s disturbing narrative, as it evolved through the years, was the story that allowed me to finally get through and truly understand the pain I went through as the introverted, rebellious teenager that I was.
I hope that The Cage Legacy is something that can speak to people – I hope that people can relate to Ethan and learn from his story, as I learned from it.
Q. Where would you place the novel, genre-wise?
A. I’ve never been one to write for a specific genre. Personally, I feel that it works better to write the damn thing first, allow it to take on whatever unusual shape it takes on, and then figure out how to place it.
The Cage Legacy doesn’t slot into any particular genre too easily. Parts of the book are fairly horrific, certainly, so “horror” would be the first label I apply. Given Ethan’s young age—and the situations he confronts—The Cage Legacy is a fairly edgy young adult novel, as well. A psychological thriller? Absolutely. Crime? Yes, that as well. Mystery? To an extent.
Q. Were there any challenges particular to writing a novel that differed from writing short stories?
A. It’s really a completely different animal, in every way. With a short story, I usually try to flesh out one self-contained, very specific idea and keep it restricted to several pages. Writing a novel requires the reverse; it requires a heavier, far more complicated series of ideas that are then spread out and dissected in-depth. Writing a short story is like moving your pawn one space ahead and taking the enemy’s queen; writing a novel is like playing three games of chess simultaneously.
But I prefer writing novels. The longer form gives me much more room to really explore my ideas, you know? Since The Cage Legacy was released I’ve already written the first drafts for my next few novels, but I’m still in the long, long process of refining them.
Q. “The Cage Legacy” deals with the most frightening kind of monster: the human kind. Does the story at any point include supernatural elements, or is it primarily psychological terror?
A. The Cage Legacy is a fairly grounded story, for exactly that reason; I generally find that the more real something feels, the more terrifying it is. The idea of one’s father, the adoring dad who drives you to school every morning, secretly carrying on a double life as a vicious serial killer – while still somehow continuing to be an excellent, loving parent – is exactly the sort of notion that creeps into the most uncomfortable place in one’s subconscious. It asks a lot of questions. If I’m Ethan Cage and my dad, a person who, beforehand, seemed as familiar to me as my left leg, is really this…then what the hell does that make me? It’s a notion that sneaks through the doors of one’s mind, violates one’s safety zone and contaminates the concepts that one holds most sacred. That’s true horror, at least in my mind.
Now, I have no problem with writing more supernatural stories. Several of my short stories lean heavily in that direction, as does my next novel; the key thing, I believe, is that no matter how “out there” you get, you have to make it feel human. Keep the characters relatable. Don’t just pull out a severed head and expect people to be scared – look inside and see what actually scares you. This same sense of real, uneasy horror can be accomplished with a supernatural bent just as well as with a more realistic story, of course. For example, look at a novel like Mark Z. Danielewski’s brilliant House of Leaves, where the warm, happy idea of a family home is utterly violated by the sudden revelation that a dark, ever-expanding labyrinth exists inside this house. Stephen King also does this quite well, in stories like Pet Sematary. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is another great example.
But yeah, as far as The Cage Legacy, its horror stems from very real, very down-to-earth sources; fear of losing a parent. Fear of failure. Fear of losing one’s identity and being swallowed by one’s darker tendencies. In this particular case, any supernatural elements would have detracted from that central idea.
Q. Are your short stories psychological horror, or do they include various genres?
A. As I said earlier, I never write for a specific genre; I write whatever I want to write. While most of my stories tend to fall into the “genre fiction” category—horror, science fiction, urban fantasy, etc.—I’ve also written literary stories. However, if I had to put an umbrella term over the majority my work, I would tend to say that I write psychological thrillers/horror.
Q. Do the innerworkings of the human mind hold a particular fascination for you?
A. Oh yeah, absolutely.
Exploring the notion of “horror” again, I think that horror is the most versatile genre; it can mean anything you want it to mean. The closest we can come to a strict definition, though, is that a horror novel is symbolic of society’s fears at the time it was written.
As a culture, we’re not afraid of aliens in flying saucers anymore. We’re not afraid of giant monsters. We’re not afraid of a big man in hockey mask. Gore ceased to be meaningful once splatterpunk took over, and movies like the 29 Saw sequels and Hostel have more or less worn out the idea of “torture porn.”
We live in the age of “me.” The age of narcissism, where we are all so wrapped up in ourselves that we create multiple online profiles just to demonstrate our chosen excellent qualities. We buy products not for quality, but for the brand – everything from t-shirts, to soap, to cell phones to food is seen as a defining quality of our identity. Today, we all want to stand out. We all want to be individuals. As we walk through the streets with our noses buried in a thousand text messages, updating personal Facebook statuses 15 billion times a day, we’ve lost all focus on the outside world. We now exist within our own heads 24/7, like millions of floating satellites that barely ever intersect. So, what do we fear, in an age where “me” is everything?
We fear ourselves – we fear what lingers within our own minds.
Q. Did you have to do much research in writing “The Cage Legacy?”
A. Since the story was developed over such a long period of time, I researched it over many years, primarily doing an enormous amount of reading on serial killers and understanding the psychology that drives them. Why does someone kill other people? It’s a simple question, but with a very complicated – and at times contradictory – answer.
Q. In all of your writings, do you have a favorite character of your own creation? If so, Which one, and why?
A. Ethan Cage, of course! Ethan is utterly real and painfully relatable, even in his worst moments – so vulnerable, so unpredictable, such an interesting character. Even when his actions frustrated me, I always understood where he was coming from. By the end of The Cage Legacy, it was very hard to say goodbye to him.
Q. Is there anything you would like our readers to know about that we haven’t talked about yet?
A. There’s one question I’m asked more than any other – “Why are you a writer?” Now, I could take the easy route and simply cite George Orwell’s marvelous essay, “Why I Write,” which was an enormous inspiration to me, growing up. However, I feel that as a writer myself, I should attempt to give my own answer. Every writer has their own quirks and strange reasons for choosing such a bizarre career, and my reasons are no different.
So, am I a writer?
Because I couldn’t be anything else.
I’ve known that I wanted to write since I was a kid. The urge hit me out of nowhere; an unexplainable, overpowering addiction to create, a drive to sculpt new worlds, a fervent desire to thrill people with the stories I could generate from my imagination. It all started in elementary school, when I crafted an approximately 50-page sci-fi/fantasy story about parallel dimensions. I knew, all the way back then, that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I never looked back. From that point on, I absorbed myself into this strange thing we call “life,” as if I was living for the first time; suddenly, I felt the ability to see things in the vivid colors I’d never really looked at before. I was fascinated by my newfound ability to discover plot threads in people’s real lives, to subconsciously craft my life story with every moment that transpired. I learned to smell the freshest air and be revolted by the most horrid stenches; before that point, none of these things seemed to exist, but now they were all too real. I learned to look inside people and see who they were; I learned to study people and see what made them tick, and pull them outside of their boxes.
Suddenly, I wanted to shake people out of their apathy. I wanted to use my gift, as it developed, to change the world in whatever small way I was capable of. Once that piece of my life fell into place – once I realized that I was a writer – I feel it was only then that I truly embraced my life as a human being and felt happiness, for the very first time.
Writing IS my life. It’s my love, my passion, my single-minded obsession. Nothing else could ever compare. Without writing, there would be no Nicholas Conley.
Find at www.nicholasconley.com.
His book is available on Amazon.com,
and also from Post Mortem Press at http://www.postmortem-press.com.
~ by Sumiko Saulson on February 3, 2013.