Cynthia Jean (C.J.) Sellers spent her early childhood in Toledo, Ohio, USA, a place like so many in The Rust Belt around the Great Lakes that suffered disintegration of their vital core due to a dependency on manufacturing.
Her family—forced to choose between layoff and continued employment in a new area of the country—left behind the nucleus of several generations rooted in the Toledo area, to relocate to the wilderness of rural Virginia.
This isolation from roots and family support, friends and community, combined with pressures from corporate culture, led her parents to a meltdown that ended in divorce. CJ later lost her closest family members to illnesses of the brain.
Loss of identity/self, family, and place were the impetus for CJ’s decision to lampoon the dynamics of society and family gone off the rails through means of the horror genre.
That said, no family history plays out in her fiction, no characters literally resemble any persons living or deceased. Situations presented are metaphors for how life feels at times of great emotional disturbance and loss—normal life warps into the surreal.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Hi, my name is Cynthia J. Sellers, but prefer “C.J.” due to the gender ambiguity. Unfortunately, there’s a psychic medium using that name and she comes up in the web searches before me. We are not one in the same person. For one thing, she’s much prettier than I am. :D
About the real me, I’m a horror writer in my mid-forties and married. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, USA early on, then moved to Virginia to finish grade school. I’ve also lived in West Virginia, Connecticut, Maryland, and Tennessee, but now live with my husband and pets in Satan-central: Asheville, North Carolina. Channeling the resident devil, in the past eight months or so, I've put four horror stories up on amazon and one short apocalyptic horror tale on my website, plus a horror anecdote on wattpad. Feedback is most welcome. \m/
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Since Asheville has been overrun by the Chinese brown marmorated stink bug, lately, I’m spending a lot of time killing bugs. If they’re in my house, they must die. I’ve tried being nice, now I’m a stink bug serial killer.
Apart from exterminating, I'm always connected to some part of the horror writing process. I’ve got an anecdote for that. A few years ago I went to pick someone up in Hampton, Virginia. I was working heavily on a book about shifters, entitled Hunter's Blind (planned to be released later in 2014) and the opening sequence is a beach party during a hurricane in Nags Head, because I’d vacationed there on numerous occasions. Well, Hurricane Irene hit the region while we were passing through, and since we were not far from Nags Head, we went to stay at the heart of the hurricane in the hotel where the journalists were staying, instead of heading straight home to Tennessee where we lived. Turned out to be a great research experience, but also, it was just wicked cool, because I love extreme weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and storms. (This isn’t the way I usually tell the story, but I’m leaving out the names and related private stuff. heh)
On the way back to Tennessee, I passed through Asheville, North Carolina and fell in love with it. Within a six months, I’d bought a house. Since then, I’ve chosen Asheville as the setting for the modern-day timeline of the first novel I released last year, Skein, though I’ve changed the names of locations. Same with the sequel, Soul of Stones. I've planned a novella to be set here in the RV campground across the street. Also, I've just finished the first draft of a short story on the occult that's fictionally set in Asheville because Asheville IS a cesspool of sin — riddled with Satan-worshippers and baby-eaters. Yes, it’s all true.
So, yeah, seems like everything that goes on in my life ends up being somehow related to my writing. I meet people who inspire character behaviors or I might make up horrific stuff about the car in front of me while driving home…
To answer your question directly, when I’m not writing I read, research whatever catches my interest, have a family, friends, pets, hobbies… (ho-hum. Y’all don’t want to hear about how normal I am.)
What’s your favourite food?
That expensive pre-made fake shrimp and scallops from Sophie's Kitchen. Just so all you vegans and vegetarians out there know, if you buy my books, I'll be able to afford fake seafood...so you'll not only get horror stories but you'll save animals in the bargain! In the grand scheme of things, you'll be effectively cancelling out some of the horror I'm propagating.
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
Quirky and slightly seedy or creepy musicians like Tom Waits, Violent Femmes, Devendra Banhart... slow, tongue-in-cheek, and weird. Although, if I unexpectedly got rich from selling a load of horror books, crank up the disco. (...And, you probably don't want to see me Le Freak. Or funk. Quelle Horreur!)
Do you prefer the term Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?
I say horror, because that’s what I’ve always looked for in the book aisles. Horror fan first and horror writer second. The most recent thing published, Hot Toddies Aren't Enough, is along the lines of E.A. Poe type horror, such as The Cask of Amontillado, which people would nowadays probably consider weird fiction or suspense when compared to some of the more extreme offerings in the genre. A rose is a rose. “Horror” is fine with me, but whatevs.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
How do you rank your loves or narrow them down to a few? That’s so hard! Remaining neutral is probably a good way for an author to be, actually — easier to recede from the narrative if you’re not contending with your own strong judgments that may conflict with the character’s tastes, opinions, and so forth. That’s a habit learned doing small-town journalism, back in Tennessee: be a fly on the wall.
I can tell you that the most recent author I have discovered and loved everything so far is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I just read a few of her paranormal short stories in an anthology and recommend her.
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
Alien is definitely my favorite horror film. I was eleven when my dad took my brother and I to see it. That was the first adult horror film I got to see uncut, in a movie theater. Sigourney Weaver rocked as Ripley and Veronica Cartwright as Lambert is simply the best scream queen ever. I’m serious. All you movie makers are missing out — you should be casting Veronica Cartwright in all your horror films. The wide, darting eyes, lips stretching back in blubbery horror, the near hysteria...she scares the shit outta me.
As for my favorite horror novel, hard to say. I love so many for the ways they are different and there are particular things to love in each. It’s far easier to choose favorites from other genres than the one I write in.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?
Consensual sex gets you killed. What are we, puritans? Why is this still a thing? Fuck a duck! (Wait, don’t...)
Now in contrast, non-consensual sex and violations of personal boundaries I touch on often in my stories so far. It's not because I have a fear of these things or have been personally victimized — it's just that gender, hierarchy, domination, submission, violence, and sexual taboos are intertwined, complex subjects. I think I'll always be fascinated by them.
Which fictional character would be your perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
Perfect? With all the undiscovered indie writers in the world, there's got to be a fictional character that lives to offer neighbors unlimited, free line and copy-editing services. I would even bake cookies for such a neighbor.
As for nightmare? Gah — I hate parasites! Various worms come to mind. Dune's sandworm, Ken Russell's Lambton worm in The Lair of the White Worm, Star Wars' giant exogorth, which is a giant slug... I would not want a human centipede for a neighbor. One movie I could not sit all the way through was The Bay. Never will. That [chicken]shit gives me nightmares. I used to live in Baltimore, too! So, yeah, don’t want a parasite-infested Chesapeake Bay for a neighbor. I live right near the relatively pristine French Broad River, practically in the shadow of Biltmore Mansion and surrounding community. It’s too nice! Waiting for the other shoe to drop...
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
It's a very exciting time for both horror fans and writers, especially for those who are avidly both. We're no longer limited to the censored minority of stories and writers that agents or publishers thought were marketable. Now, there’s a lot of free-to-read horror on the Internet. You could read a different free horror story every day of the year and never run out of freebies. Apart from the obvious fact that most of the best stuff isn’t free, another incentive to pay for horror is because you want a favorite horror writer to be able to afford to write more great stories. If a writer is taxed with supporting themselves by other means, their grand horror opus may never be written. What would your world be like without [insert your favorite horror novel here]?
To summarize, the state of the genre today is that it's more of a direct dialogue between the readers and the authors without the middle-man, and that's awesome.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
John Ajvide Lindqvist of Let the Right One In fame. Loved that one, loved Harbor, but was disappointed by his Little Star, which is a later work. Lindqvist is not cliché so he keeps you guessing, but Little Star was too nebulous.
How would you describe your writing style?
It tends to wander into black humor. If it’s not the way the characters are set up, or the dialog, sometimes it’s in the structure of the universe itself.
In Glass, Heart (a short story that’s online free-to-read), a sense of humor is evident, but I hope to be the sort of author where the style evolves to suit the subject. There's a huge difference in the historical style of Pale Hunter vs. the good Catholic girl dating a confirmed bachelor in Hot Toddies Aren't Enough vs. the macabre and humorously self-conscious stoicism of Glass, Heart.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
Well one thing that was highly daunting early on was from another author who reviewed my first book release, Skein, and disliked the extent of the historical story aspect. He saw it as a back-story taking over the book, whereas it was meant to be two parallel stories in one volume. All the stories in the series are planned like that. In fact, after Skein, what’s not set in the distant past, is set in the future. It’s not your standard book formula and wasn’t meant to be. So, although his advice was well-intentioned, after I read and reviewed several of his books, I realized that we write very different types of stories and that's okay.
What aspects of writing do you find the most difficult?
Believe it or not, I'm a pacifist — have been since 9/11. Sometimes it’s harder to kill off characters or have them behave horrendously. For instance, there's a scene in the sequel to Skein that is a Lord of the Flies type situation of kids going at it. The book should be out already, but I’m writer’s blocked on that book due to that one scene. If I can’t justify that scene, I can’t justify the book. Strange, right? — a horror writer pacifist. Yet maybe such an attitude of voluntary restraint makes one more aware of the transgression into violence, so whereas some writers may take crossing the line of human decency for granted, I do not. There’s always a reason for it.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
Not to offend fans of the genre, my husband included, but I really don’t get the fascination people have with reanimated dead people. Ick. Also, Cormac McCarthy wrote a story called Child of God about a necrophiliac set near where we used to live in Tennessee, which you’d think would be enough to get me to read it, but no — doubt I’d write about necrophiliacs, either.
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you choose and how would they die?
The Vampire Lestat. I used to be an avid Anne Rice fan, but started to become disenchanted while reading The Tale of the Body Thief. Looking back, Interview with a Vampire was basically Punch and Judy complete with baby. About midway through Memnoch the Devil, I started to get seriously bored and irritated. If you haven’t read Memnoch, in it Lestat drinks menstrual blood and sits around talking in person with God and the Devil... This was five years before I was inspired to start writing fiction, so I wasn’t critical as a peer, I was just a disappointed fan to see the series start creeping into Catholic dogma instead of horror. Also, I was beginning to grasp the difference between dark fantasy and horror. I definitely lean towards horror, whereas Anne Rice went on to write a fantasy series about Jesus, which is definitely not my cuppa.
As for how I’d like to see Lestat die, he’s such a narcissist, I’d laugh to see him break his own spine so he can suck himself to death. Of course, like Punch, he’ll never die. For what it’s worth, I have similar complaints as a fan about Ridley Scott’s Alien film series. I wish he hadn’t jumped the shark and landed in religion.
What do you think makes a good story?
Every good story needs a solid premise, even if the structure is unusual. Novelty is fun, a slice of life can be interesting, but reading a novel is an event, and afterward I like something that sticks with you awhile, makes you think. That’s seldom accomplished without forethought by the author.
It’s also fun to look at something from multiple angles, whereas an idealist may favor the “right” perspective, I like layers and for the meaning to be left open to interpretation or to spark further discussion.
Hopefully, the story is not too repetitious in style or beating you over the head with a point. Leitwortstil is an exception, if done well.
I try to bear these things in mind with my own stories. Though it has to maintain a solidly moral perspective backing the story voice, most readers don’t want to be told what to think, so if one of my beta readers says, hey this is sounding a little preachy, I'm probably going to take a hard look at that section immediately. That's definitely not what I'm going for.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
All of the above. It depends on the character and situation. Sometimes there's something more to the name but not always. Basically, I don't have a set formula, whether it's characters, settings, themes, or what have you.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
One mistake I made early on, and I’d bet this is a basic impulse for writers, is to tackle the big things that affect our lives, such as love, death, survival... I’ve come around to the idea that great stories are seldom directly about those big things. For instance, you can’t talk about love in any satisfying way in poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. Music comes closer, yet there’s this quote to bear in mind:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gScRHCYY0OQ “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture, but that ain’t gonna stop me from tryin’.”
Personally, I don’t even try. Life isn’t mainly about the big things, it’s about everything in between; it’s the journey.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Brains, ambition, time, nerve, a spell-checker and dictionary helps (also, you have to actually use them), a handbook on writing style, adequate research material, beta readers who will call you out on your bullshit or catch your grammar errors... All essential. I tend to use Scrivener for longer works but just google docs for short stories to novella length.
If I sell enough books, I'll be able to justify hiring a pro editor and so will have more time to work on the stories. It’s not necessarily essential — depends on the writer.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Learn to use a comma. I've developed some bad habits over the years before I started writing for publication. What you can get away with in Internet chat and what you can get away with in literature are, of course, vastly different things. I used to punctuate my commas the way I pause when I think and speak, a sort of a Shatner comma. Nope. Wrong. I know it's wrong, but bad habits creep back in.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
As I’m still pretty new at this, I've barely started the marketing. I've got a website and a Facebook and twitter account. Sometimes I do these QnA things. I utilize the free download time as it comes available on amazon. I’m more in the learning mode, regarding what works best. One mistake I can warn others against was to release a horror ebook for free download around Halloween. It was lost in the shuffle. Everyone had the same idea.
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
The setting is my favorite character. Having lived in so many different states while growing up, and then also as an adult, I have a large palette of places to work from.
I don't have a favorite person character in particular, yet. All the characters are interdependent in the fabric of the overall story.
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
My least favorite characters tend to lead to writer's block and then end up getting redrafted or cut from the books. This is why it took over a decade to finish Skein. You will never meet my least favorite characters. I get bored if a character is too good or too evil or just make a convenient appearance to further a plot point, etc. Nobody likes contrived-seeming characters. I try to write people you can imagine really existing in the world, aside from whatever possibly super-natural attributes they may have for fictional purposes (and those are usually intended as metaphors for some aspect of the human experience).
Fame, fortune, or respect?
Or? We have to choose just one? <grin>
Stephen King has all three! Who doesn’t want it all?
If only one of the three, it would be fortune because I respect myself and don’t need fame. I can still enjoy the genre and the craft without worrying about other people’s opinions. In fact, it would be easier to enjoy the genre and craft without worry about money.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
I like it all but Pale Hunter is the one I’ve gone back to and reread the most frequently for my own enjoyment. It was also recently nominated for a James Tiptree, Jr. award for its exploration of gender. What I like best are the layers and complexity to the story, the relationship between the characters, that they do unexpected things, and that the world isn’t exactly as one would expect. Overall, it’s unusual. It has stories within the story and narratives within the narrative. Also, it’s a pretty short book. It took longer to research than it took to write it, so I guess I’m proud of that extra effort put towards world-building. Hope I got it all right. So far the feedback’s been good, what little there has been. It’s a challenge for me to write a serious book without becoming overly philosophical. In general, I’m evolving a body of work that might be characterized as gender horror, and Pale Hunter is the most pointed example of that focus and of my philosophy, without being explicitly philosophical.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
Those are just sitting on a hard-drive, chilling out. I don’t have the heart to fix them because they still have their unique appeal because I remember how much I enjoyed writing them. Maybe someday I'll look back on these early published stories and feel that way about them, too. All I can say is that as of right now, I'm liking everything I've got out there for what it is.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
It's hard to say. Everyone's tastes are different and every piece is pretty different from what came before. I usually tailor my recommendations to the audience.
In that regard, Pale Hunter is good for LGBT+Q readers, but it also works on other levels. A few people have read it, loved it, and yet completely missed that there was a connection to the LGBT+Q experience there, so it’s also good general horror.
Hot Toddies Aren't Enough is a general adult audience story with a medical setting, lots of sex, and a keg party. Some say it’s not that scary — more like suspense.
Skein/the Gorgon Star series is good if you’re looking for a new take on the demonic possession sub-genre, and mix that with Lovecraft. A monster surfaces in that story. Soul of Stones is a fun side-story in that universe, chronologically after Skein. Not the same monster. Two more novels are planned to come in that series. It will only get more epic as it goes along.
Glass, Heart is post-apocalyptic with humor but also young-adult-friendly. As I said, Glass, Heart is free to read on my website. That’s to give people an introduction to my writing, in case they’re unsure they want to fork over a buck or four on amazon. Pale Hunter is young-adult-friendly, for that matter. Or maybe New Adult. I am not sure about what's PC for the youngins, anymore.
I write everything for adults but some of it's okay for kids. Some is definitely NOT okay for kids. For instance, the Gorgon Star series is not for kids due to violence and explicit content.
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
My last book was Hot Toddies Aren't Enough. Simon and Jenny are two very different people who have conflicting ideas and expectations of how their relationship will proceed. The reader is privy to their inner lives. It starts out from Simon’s perspective, then switches to Jenny. I don’t want to spoil it for ya. It may be the closest I’ve come so far to writing a romance so far, though it’s more like an irreverent look at a dysfunctional romance. I could say so much more about this book. I loved writing it and hope you will see its charms too.
Next I'm working on some short stories. Also, I'm doing a mainstream thriller under a pseudonym. Books for the Gorgon Star series are in the works, as well as a shifter novel series that’s been worked on for a few years. That begins with the hurricane story, Hunter's Blind.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
My sexual orientation seldom comes up in polite conversation. Why would it? But it is a strong part of who I am and how I see the world. So here it is:
“How does your bisexuality factor into the way you write?”
I don't know if this is the case for all bisexuals, but for me, I think it brings a strong intuition to how I present my characters. I love both men and women, and I identify with both sexes. I really mean that. I was born female and am cisgendered, but put me in a man suit, I’d be a fish to water. I think about gender a lot because I've never fit neatly into the boxes. I listen, I see people as they really are, I think, not just as society idealizes them or how I personally prefer them, and sometimes I see through the necessary or gratuitous bullshit.
If I was being really reductive, I could say that all language and power plays are about mating and survival, yet, we don't feel that way about it in our comfortable lives, not when we're reading on computers or kindles or on smartphones, etc. We see social structures and we operate within those structures. But when we’re suddenly forced out of a structure into unknown territory, that’s where you’ll find my work begins.
Find out more about CJ from the links below
An excerpt of a turning point in Hot Toddies Aren't Enough
“He could see it in her eyes as it dawned on her when she worked her way around to the bedroom with a litter of last year’s spunk rubbers nobody’d bothered to throw in the trash. That right there, that evidence did something to Jenny. She didn’t say anything but it was like a hot glass cracking down the side due to sudden cold liquid carelessly having been poured in. She didn’t break down, but her sense of hope for their future was leaking out the crack. Simon enjoyed the moment though he did not pause or show it. This was a scene relived many times over the years. If they didn’t move too fast, he was fine with sparing them this little grotesquerie. But Jenny obviously needed a reality-check before things got outta hand.
He explained the situation to her now. The pipes at the cottage house were not insulated. They needed to migrate up here for the winter freeze.
She went along with it, but she wasn’t smiling. He decided he would not go so far as to ask her to clean up the mess around the bed. Nevertheless, she grabbed the trash can and did this first thing, as if she’d read his mind. It was natural to be disgusted. Moreso than their own mess. When they got back to the cottage, she promptly cleaned up around the bed down there too. He noticed for the first time how quiet she’d become and realized that was unusual for her. She was one of the more talkative girls he’d had over and never seemed to mind that he seldom had much to add beyond the minimal required response.
She didn’t complain, and they didn’t fight. She just said she had to step out to the store. She returned with cleaning supplies and a little step waste can which she placed beside the bed.
Simon could hardly wait to ignore the can and toss another rubber on the carpet. A lesser man might do something like that unthinkingly. Simon calculated the effect of his careless gestures, fully realizing premeditation made him a rather banal domestic monster, though he might not use those exact words for it in his head. Certainly he would never characterize himself like so aloud.
He was just a typical guy.
That was the tone he maintained in the face of the near-hysteria his carelessness inevitably provoked.”