An interview with Daniel Crocker, by Jennie Fiske.
Q) How and when did you conceive of The Cornstalk Man?
A) This is usually a very hard question to answer. However, I can remember the exact day I conceived of the idea for this novel. I was working in a bookstore at the time and one of my co-workers mentioned that her mother had called her that morning; she seemed rather upset. She told me that her mother used to make her and her brother play mean tricks on the neighbors. That was it, nothing else. But it was enough to get me thinking. What kind of mean tricks would a mother have her children play on the neighbors and why? I was also in a relationship with a bipolar woman at the time, who was showing her first symptoms, and that was on my mind anyway. I went home that night and wrote the first thirty pages of the novel.
Q) This is your first published novel. To what extent did the process differ from writing poetry or short fiction?
A) Writing a novel is a lot more intense. Writing a poem is like kissing someone at a party. Writing a short story is like going on a date. Writing a novel is like getting married; it's for better or for worse. It's a lot of work physically and emotionally. The Cornstalk Man, however, came much easier than another novel I was working on at the same time. After I wrote the first chapter, I put it away for almost two years. But it was always brewing in the back of my mind. When I brought it out to work on it again, I finished it in three or four months. I just fell in love with the characters--Mamma, Will, Sis, Cynthia, all of them--and they pretty much wrote the novel for me.
Q) You inhabit the mind of an eight year old girl with great insight. Having two young daughters, did they influence you when writing from Sis' perspective at all?
A) When I wrote the first chapter my youngest daughter had just been born. And yes, it did influence my decision to write it from the point of view a young girl. I knew the novel would have a lot of humor, but I also knew there would be something very scary underneath the surface. And I wanted that fear to stay under the surface for as long as possible--not with the reader so much, but with the main character. I think that Sis knows, or realizes during the course of the novel, that her mom isn't stable. But she keeps that knowledge from herself. I mean, it is her mother; she loves her. No one, especially when they are eight, wants to think of their mother as different or possibly even dangerous. To me, that is where a lot of the tension and horror of the book comes from--the symbiotic relationship between Mamma and Sis.
Q) You display a lot of compassion toward all of the characters, even those who act reprehensibly. Is it difficult for a writer not to "take sides"?
A) It probably depends on the kind of piece I'm writing. But usually, no, it's not difficult. I feel compassion for nearly every human being on the face of the planet in some ways. It's just the human condition. And I'm not sure I believe that any of the characters in The Cornstalk Man act reprehensibly. I'm not sure anyone has a choice about how they act. Mamma has a disease; it's not her fault. I've been very, very close to two bipolar people in my life. It can be scary and it can be beautiful, which makes it all the more scary, but it can't be a source of blame. But as I said, I fell in love with these characters from the start. They haunted me in some ways. I couldn't get their voices out of my head. I guess in some ways they still haunt me. If I was so inclined, I'd say it was because each character represents a part of me--and they do--but I don't want to go there.
Q) "The Cornstalk Man" is a very powerful figure. What does the myth of "The Cornstalk Man" mean to you?
A) Originally The Cornstalk Man was a simple ghost story I made up to scare my oldest daughter. She'd have a friend over or something and they'd want me to tell them a scary story. When I was a kid my own brother would tell me scary stories about "Freddy Lump Lump." So, I wanted to pass on the tradition, but make up a story of my own. And it just sort of stuck in our family as an oral tradition. My oldest still remembers the Cornstalk Man stories.
I didn't originally mean for The Cornstalk Man to play such a huge role in the novel. But, as you know, what a writer wants and what the book wants are two different things. As it progressed, the shadow of The Cornstalk Man began to cast a symbolic shadow over the narrative. What he's symbolic of, I'll let you figure out. I'd say it's several different things. He's that thing which eventually takes our childhood away from all of us for sure. What that thing happens to be is different for everyone.