Cindy Rosmus writes some of the best crime stories out there. Her narratives are full of razor sharp dialogue, and characters who are compelling losers. Her stories are realistic, fast-paced, smart, and carry punch lines that stop a bar room brawl. She explores obsessive themes, and her characters are often caught up in cycles of jealousy and betrayal. She is also the editor of the brilliant magazine Yellow Mama. Cindy met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about Noir and forgiveness.
Do you think killing and fucking are related?
Sure, they are. Think of that “thin line” between obsessive love and hate. How many times have you been crazy about somebody one minute, and the next minute want to slice them up? It’s the ones we love most who can hurt, or anger us, on a dime. People we like, or tolerate, don’t have that effect on us. You don’t want to kill a casual friend for forgetting your birthday. But if your boyfriend (or a guy you think is your boyfriend) misses your birthday ‘cos he’s knee-deep into somebody else, you want revenge.
And in my stories, you get it.
Take Julio in “All Gone.” When the husband found out Julio was screwing his wife, he told Julio he would kill him. Julio splits (leaving the wife helpless in his apartment), winds up at the local bar, and shamelessly hits on the new barmaid. That somebody was hired to blow his brains out goes right out of his head, soon’s his cock gets stiff.
And poor Libra in “Baby Chicks.” When her bisexual husband leaves her, she gets involved with a teenage boy . . . who’s into AEA (autoerotic asphyxiation). Now, where is that going to lead?
Some horndogs wound up with a psycho bitch, some with a wife of a jealous, homicidal husband.
Who are your literary influences?
There are two Chekhov quotes that I write by:
1). “Never hang a gun on the wall in the first act, if you’re not going to fire it in the last.”
2). “Behind the door of every happy man should be someone with a hammer.”
Are you surprised?
I’m also a Carson McCullers freak. My favorite story of hers is “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”.
Here’s what she says about the pain of memories:
“You think you can put up a kind of shield. But remembering don’t come to a man face forward—it corners around sideways.”
Ain’t that the truth? It’s Psych 101. You’re trying to forget about the guy or chick that fucked you up, and what song comes on the radio? Your song.
And, in the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, McCullers speaks about loving and being loved:
“Now, the beloved can also be of any description. . . . The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. . . .A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp.”
You want to kill the one who hurt you. But at the same time, you want to hold and protect him. Nobody understands what you see in him, but do you give a fuck?
That’s what I write about: people who love the wrong people and who don’t give a fuck if readers approve.
I’ve had stories rejected because the editor (always some tight-lipped, tight-assed bitch) doesn’t understand “how the female lead character could possibly love a guy who treats her so badly.”
Maybe ‘cos I write from a cynical point-of-view, I’ve always felt a bond with J.D. Salinger. Actually, with Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is my all-time favorite book. People have told me it sounds like I wrote it. That’s some compliment. Like Holden, I have no use for “phonies,” and I love dogging them in my fiction.
Other writers have influenced me, like Joyce Carol Oates, whose versatility is astounding. Like, the same person wrote “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (her take on James’s The Turn of the Screw) also wrote “In a Region of Ice” (about a frigid nun who realizes she’s fallen in love with a young Jewish student). And forget “The Bingo Master.” Joe Pye is the ultimate “bad boy.” No, that’s Arnold Friend, in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Ever notice it’s the psychos we always remember best? In both fiction, and life.
To what extent do you use sexuality to reveal character in your stories?
Norman Mailer said, “There is nothing safe about sex. There never will be.”
Not in my stories, anyway.
In some, the male main characters are so sex-crazed, they’re duped by conniving females. Take Manny, in “Key to My Heart.” Michelle, his psycho girlfriend, has him wrapped. He loves his neighbor, Renee, but Michelle bullies him into not only dumping Renee, but into being a sex slave. At Michelle’s whim, he kneels, chained to the bed, hands cuffed behind him, his cock imprisoned in the “Gates of Hell.” There he’s trapped, as Renee is butchered by Michelle in front of him.
Jeff in “Gutter Balls” is a lonely, abusive fuck. His wife left him a year ago, so he’s hot to get laid. His only option is Daphne, a free-spirit who tends bar at the bowling alley where Jeff works. Both have dirty secrets: Jeff is a gay-basher, and Daphne is . . . not what she seems! Too late, Jeff discovers the great head she gave him isn’t worth the anguish that follows.
In “Baby Chicks,” teenaged Vince is into AEA (auto-erotic asphyxiation). To keep him, lovesick cougar Libra agrees to share his fantasy. It turns violent, and things get out of control.
And in “Calpurnia’s Window,” Tony fucks Calpurnia’s cougar mom to avenge Calpurnia’s cheating on him. Little does he know who (and what) he’s really dealing with, or that he, himself is the fall guy.
But in “Shangri-La” sexuality is the main character. Lars is a malicious, bisexual pornmeister, specializing in fetish films. His ex-girl, Val, is obsessed with getting him back. In a blizzard, she shows up at his house, where his electricity has been shut off, and eerie candles burn throughout. Realizing she’s lost him to 300-lb. “Mistress Pinky,” Val makes this Lars’s last pornfest.
How do think Noir differs from straight crime fiction?
When I hear the term “crime fiction,” I think of a police procedural. You know: the C.S.I. team; yellow crime scene tape; some poor, overworked, unshaven, chain-smoking dick trudging around, looking pissed off.
But “noir”. . . Noir is the opposite of “literary,” you know? Noir is black streets slick with rain, loving (and sometimes killing) the wrong guy or chick. Wondering when the body will be found. It’s booze and sexy, ugly people. It’s about not having enough—or too much—to drink. Noir is saying it like it is, and not giving a shit if the p.c. hounds find you offensive. Fuck them. Noir is seeing them laid out on a slab, nice and pretty. That’s about as pretty as noir gets.
How does forgiveness feature for you in your religious beliefs and does it conflict with your writing?
In my church, they always preach about forgiveness. God forgives us, so we’re supposed to forgive people who hurt us. But if they rob you blind, or cheat on you, it’s harder to forgive than if they just talk behind your back. Sometimes we say we forgive, but we won’t forget. That’s fucked up. If we carry resentment around, it eats away at us. It festers, like a leprous sore.
Me, I’ve been robbed blind, cheated on, and dogged more times than I can keep track of. Do I forgive people? I must, ‘cos I usually get robbed, cheated on, and dogged by the same people again and again! Is that unconditional love, or stupidity? I’ve told people I’m sorry for things I was not sorry for, and forgiven people who I know weren’t sorry for hurting me, either.
My faith never conflicts with my writing. I write about real people doing bad things that come back to take a big chunk out of their ass. And sometimes . . . kill them. Whether they’re forgiven, or not. In my fiction, you reap what you sow. Cheating, or fucking the wrong person often gets you killed. Like the narrator in “Ashes to Ashes,” who messed with Butcher, the biker. Butcher’s old lady Stephanie didn’t want an apology; she wanted blood! Julio in “All Gone” and Tony in “Hail, Tiger!” screwed the wife and daughter of mobsters, who aren’t famous for turning the other cheek. In “Thick as Thieves” and “Death Takes a Snow Day,” Tina’s late boyfriend Felix had robbed a crack whore’s jewelry to pay for the goods. Felix was beaten to death in jail. Though we assume he robbed Tina as well (and cheated on her with the crack whore), Tina forgave him over and over. Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:22). If Felix hadn’t died and gotten out of jail, he might’ve robbed and been forgiven by Tina again. Does that make her my most “Christian” character? Or one of my biggest dopes?
Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Even back then, I was trying to run away from home. I wanted my own space and peace of mind. Reality sucked, so I created my own. . . .
In grade school, I was beaten by the nuns (So what else was new?), and tortured by bullies. In September of 2011, I went to my grammar school reunion. When they asked us for comments, I wanted so bad to say, “If mass school shootings like the Columbine massacre were more common back in 1970, most of you fuckers wouldn’t be here.” Instead, I smiled and was charming and sexy, as ever.
I remember in sixth grade, the new kid, “M.,” had a birthday party. To my surprise, I was invited. Naturally, I didn’t go, since I knew the popular kids hated me, and also ‘cos my overprotective mom used to accompany me everywhere. One day, “M.” confessed to me that all the other kids had told her that if I (Cindy Rosmus) went to the party, they wouldn’t go.
Stuff like that gave me my insatiable hunger for blood, and revenge. It’s why I write what I do, the way I do.
If I didn’t have that channel, how high would the body count be?
Do you think hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? And why?
Why would you ask that?
Just ‘cos Liz in “Miss You” sliced Rafael’s jugular for dumping her for Trish? ‘Cos Lucia chopped up Alonzo in “Rent Me”? ‘Cos the scorned Lucia’s ghost possessed Joy in “Dollhouse,” so Joy killed Raoul in the same gruesome manner? ‘Cos in “Angel of Manslaughter,” Rich’s obsessed girlfriend stabbed and left him to die beneath the Jungle Gym? ‘Cos in “Key to My Heart,” Michelle hacked up her rival Renee in front of her sex slave, Manny? ‘Cos in “Il Paglicaccio Morto,” Baci sliced up Chaos the Clown? ‘Cos biker bitch Jess knifed “Kissy-Face” just for talking to her man? ‘Cos in “Shangri-La,” Val blew up Lars’s house? ‘Cos in “Cut Buddies,” Tammy missed cutting her rival’s throat, and cut her own, instead? ‘Cos Isabel, “ ‘The Sidge,’” masqueraded as her rival, killed her husband, and then . . . ‘Cos in Yellow Mama, insanely-jealous Samantha got behind the wheel of that ’69 Camaro and . . . ‘Cos Liliana switched souls with her cat “Bruja” and clawed out . . .
How has New Jersey influenced your writing?
I always heard we should write about what we know.
Flannery O’Connor was from the Deep South, so most of her stories were set there. She wrote about religious fanatics, hardcore atheists, hypocrites, nosy neighbors, sullen sons, precocious kids. Nobody’s stories entertain me more.
I’ve lived in Jersey all my life, so most of my stories are set there. Back in the 90s, Jersey had a bad rep, mostly ‘cos of toxic waste poisoning our air. In “Suicide Mission,” I wrote, “The sky as moist and red as your heart. That smell …only in Jersey can you smell it…of something being barbecued alive.” In a typical story, there might be a bar on every corner, a factory somewhere, and a Bruce tune would be playing in the background.
Now we have Jersey Shore making us look bad. In my fiction, you might find similar characters. But mine aren’t stereotypes. I doubt if readers laugh at Danny in “Lent,” or Nick and Vince in “The Waffle Mob.”
Two semi-autobiographical stories, “Fools and Drunks and Me and You” & “Fools’ Night Out,” focus on a period (early 80s) in certain Jersey peoples’ lives when they spent too much time being drunk, lazy, and obnoxious. But also happy. Is that a “Jersey” thing? Would Jersey readers object to seeing fellow Jerseyites portrayed as lazy, drunken slobs? And being proud of it? If I lived in Ohio, or in L.A., I might’ve set my story there. But would it have been the same story?
Since I am from Jersey, I talk and write a certain way. Not just the accent, but the slang. If readers don’t get what I’m saying, that’s the breaks. I read (and publish in Yellow Mama) stories by Brits that are written in dialect, and sometimes I get lost. But YM’s British readers won’t. I remember reading A Clockwork Orange in high school, and needing to check the glossary every few lines. But to this day, I remember that nagoy meant “naked,” and droogs meant “buddies” (or “mates.”) That’s just how it is.
If you had a part in a play and your role was to perform anxiety, which character would you choose to be and how would you express sibling rivalry on stage?
Can’t you see me as Stella Kowalski? Stanley’s wife in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella was madly in love with that brute, stood all kinds of shit from him. Loved the raw sex. Like Stanley told her, “I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’.” Stella was a nervous wreck with her sister Blanche around, partly ‘cos she and Stanley wanted to be alone, but also ‘cos deep down, she didn’t really trust Blanche with her man. Stella knew what a scumbag she was married to, but also sensed the animal attraction between him and her needy sister. After Stanley raped Blanche, Stella refused to believe it had really happened. How could she go on living with him, then? And she’d just had his baby! So up to till the end, when Blanche really lost her mind, Stella convinced herself that her beloved sonuvabitch was the one telling the truth.
Who is the real Cindy?
Wish I knew.
There are so many “Cindys,” sometimes I can’t keep track of myself. It’s part of being a Gemini. It’s like having multiple personalities that are all in tune with each other (Not!). Like, Cindy #1 hates change, but Cindy # 2 adapts to new situations easier than most people, but has to run it into the ground, first. Cindy #3 is a one-man woman, but Cindy # 4 is a . . . well, let’s just say a “free spirit.” I’m a bitch half the time, and a lovesick fool the other. I want to get trashed, but also want to wake up sober, raring to write.
Because there are so many “Cindys,” you can’t always tell if I wrote myself into a story. Still, tales about misfit tweens (e.g., “Backwards,” How Deep Will the Darkness Be!,” “Goodwill Toward Men”) were based on my own Catholic school experiences with nuns and bullies. “Pam the Prude” from “Epitaph” was pretty much me as a teenager. Shelley from “Fools & Drunks & Me & You” and “Fools’ Night Out” was me, back in the early 80s. Grown-up, but not really . . .
I hate to admit it, but there are glimpses of the grown-up “Cindy” (the real one!) in Libra from “Baby Chicks” (though I never strangled a teen boy during sex),Val from “Shangri-La” (though I never blew up my ex’s house), and especially “Miss You” (Nah, that bastard “Rafael” is still alive!).
The rest of it is up to you.
Cindy thank you for a brilliant and perceptive interview.
Order a copy of Cindy’s “Angel of Manslaughter” and other collections, “Gutter Balls” and “No Place Like Home” here.