Cruel Summer: Interview with J.A.W. McCarthy

Welcome back for this week’s author interview! Today, I’m thrilled to spotlight author J.A.W. McCarthy. J.A.W has written numerous short stories which have been featured in publications including Vastarien, Apparition Lit, and LampLight among others. Her debut collection, Sometimes We’re Cruel, was released this week from Cemetery Gates.

Recently, J.A.W. and I discussed her inspiration as a writer and why she loves the horror genre so much.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I started writing novels as a kid, always something dark involving ghosts and angsty teens. My mom would read to me and illustrate the stories with her own drawings, so she instilled those interests in me from the start.

I love Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, of course. Jackson’s Merricat Blackwood in particular has been a big influence on my characters. As for contemporary dark fiction authors, I’ve found inspiration in works by Paul Tremblay, Hailey Piper, Michael Wehunt, Nadia Bulkin, Damien Angelica Walters, Mona Awad, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, to name a few. We’re living in a truly rich time for dark fiction with so many excellent authors working right now. Yourself included! And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe is one of the best collections I’ve ever read.

Congratulations on the forthcoming release of your collection, Sometimes We’re Cruel! What can you share about the book? How did you select the stories, and is there a particular theme that connects them?

Thank you! Sometimes We’re Cruel is my debut collection, out August 17th from Cemetery Gates Media. It’s 6 reprints and 6 new stories that focus on obsession and body horror. The collection covers work from the last three years, each connected by the theme of human cruelty. I didn’t set out with this theme in mind; I realized later, as I was selecting stories, that almost all of my work deals with the terrors humans (and the not-quite-human) inflict on each other, intentionally or not.

Why horror? What in particular makes you love the genre? What are your hopes for the future of horror?

I’ve always loved horror and I can’t even pinpoint how that started. I was a voracious reader as a child and my parents didn’t limit my reading, so eventually I found my way to the darkness. Even when I was trying my hand at writing more traditional lit fic, dark speculative elements crept in. Maybe it’s a way to explore and understand why this world can be so awful. When I’m creating the horror, it’s the only way I have control.

I hope to see more women and BIPOC get recognition. We’re getting there, and I think our progress is best reflected in the indie horror scene.

What draws you to writing short fiction? Did you grow up reading short stories, or did you develop an appreciation for them as an adult? Also, what are a few of your favorite short stories?

Aside from fairytales, I grew up reading mostly long fiction. My first serious writing projects as a kid were novels. In fact, I struggled with short fiction as an adult. I’m long-winded, with a passion for elaborate descriptions. When I started writing again, I didn’t expect that I’d be able to write an effective short story. One day I got an idea I had to run with, not expecting it to be successful… but then it was. Before I knew it, short fiction was all I was writing. My critique partners have really helped me sharpen my prose so that I can not only stay within word count but also write with purpose.

One of my favorite short stories is Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. It’s a masterclass in using pacing and small details to build tension.

Recent short stories that lit a fire and inspired me:

“A Heart Arrhythmia Creeping Into a Dark Room” by Michael Wehunt
“Resilience” by Christi Nogle
“The Smell of Night in the Basement” by Wendy N. Wagner
“Though Your Heart is Breaking” by Laurel Hightower
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far as a writer?

I have two: Aim High and This Is Not A Competition. When I first started writing short fiction, I didn’t do my research. I just wanted to see my work in print, even if no one else was likely to read it. Self-doubt told me I wasn’t good enough to get into any major publications, that my work wasn’t worth much money. While my early work was not there yet—I think most of us have to sharpen our skills and work our way up—I sold myself short in the beginning. There are so many indie publishers who are passionate, support their authors, and are doing amazing work on a shoestring budget. There is room for all of us.

If forced to choose, which part of the writing process is your favorite: developing characters, crafting dialogue, or establishing setting/mood?

Characters. I don’t outline and I usually don’t have more than a loose plan when I start a story, so I love developing my characters as I go and seeing where they take me. If I can develop interesting and strong enough characters, they will show me their story.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve got two novellas that are both two-thirds of the way finished. Both were shelved for the past seven months while I concentrated on my collection. Now that I’ve got time again, I’m eager to get back to them, particularly the one I’m currently calling “Merch Girl”, which is about a woman who sells merch for a nomadic band and her experiences on the road. She’s a monster, a mother, a caretaker resigned to her role, but then she comes to a crossroads when she finally meets someone like her, a woman who reminds her who she really is.

Where can we find you online?

I’m on Twitter and Instagram @JAWMcCarthy, and at I’m most active on Twitter, if anyone wants to say hi!

Big thanks to J.A.W. McCarthy for being this week’s featured author!

Happy reading!