Interview with Cynthia Pelayo

The Horror Club chats with Bram Stoker Award nominated poet and author, Cynthia Pelayo, about horror, the Latin influence in her work, writing poetry, journalism and its connection to her work and much more.

Hi Cynthia, thanks for having a chat! Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo. Cina is what my mother calls me and what my friends call me, so you can call me either or. I’m a Puerto Rican born writer who was raised in Chicago. I write fiction and poetry across genres.

I’ve written two young adult horror novels, Santa Muerte and The Missing. My short story collection is titled Loteria. Both The Missing and Loteria will be re-released soon. I have also written two poetry collections, Poems of My Night and Into The Forest And All The Way Through. My most recent novel is a genre bending adult horror story titled Children of Chicago.

I have a lot of college degrees; a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, a Master of Science, Master of Fine Arts in Writing, and I’m working on my dissertation for a PhD in Business Psychology.

I currently live in Chicago with my husband, children, and three dogs.

You have two works released, LOTERIA and SANTA MUERTE, that deal with Latin America. Can you tell me about those? What interests you about that region?

My earlier works were an exploration into Latin American folklore, legend and myth. I wrote Santa Muerte, The Missing and Loteria over ten years ago now I believe, and back then there were very few stories dealing with Latin American folklore. Loteria was my thesis for my MFA in Writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Latinx communities are rich in folklore, superstition, and legends, and we really are diverse. For example, I’m Puerto Rican and my husband is Mexican. While we both grew up in Chicago, minutes from one another, and went to the same schools, our lived experiences are very different. His culture is very different from mine and it’s been wonderful merging our backgrounds and raising children, telling them stories about my island and him telling them stories about his community in Mexico.

So ultimately, I just wanted to be able to have the opportunity at that time to tell stories I felt were not being told at that time. There has been a significant growth in Latinx writers writing across genres and that definitely brings me a lot of joy, because there are just so many stories that need to be told.

While many of my stories do include a diverse cast of characters today, I don’t think my recent stories are centered on Latin American folklore, legend and myth anymore, and I think that’s fine. I think I should have the flexibility and opportunity to explore different stories and I’m very pleased with how I’ve grown as a writer and the new stories that I am aiming to tell.

Your latest collection INTO THE FOREST AND ALL THE WAY THROUGH, deals with true crime. Can you tell me a bit about the collection?

Into The Forest And All The Way Through is a collection of true crime poetry that deals with the murder and disappearances of over one hundred women in the United States. I wrote several introductory poems and several poems for the conclusion, but the collection is really centered on the poems I wrote per woman.

I wrote a poem for at least two women per U.S. state and the island of Puerto Rico. Each poem also includes demographic information as well as the investigating agency telephone number in the event anyone reading any of the poems has any clues or details I encourage them to call those in, because any little bit helps in helping to close these cold cases and bring these women justice.  

What interests you about true crime?

The real monster is us, humans. I think monster movies or novels about possession or haunted houses are just fun. That’s entertainment, but true crime is an exploration into deviancy that we cannot, in many instances, contain nor truly understand. There are people that kill people for a variety of reasons, including for thrill and pleasure. That is truly terrifying to me.

What also interests me about true crime is how so many of these cases have gone ignored because of the socio-economic background of these individuals. We would be lying if we said there wasn’t a different level of urgency or interest in solving a crime that occurs in a wealthy community than a poorer community. For example, what is the percentage of missing person’s cases in communities that have extreme wealth and gated communities?

There are some serious issues with regard to humanity that are at play when we think of true crime, mainly that certain crime not only occurs in greater percentages in some communities but goes largely ignored. It’s a societal problem, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere, and sometimes I feel like we are just out here floating in space and there’s really no real protections for regular people like myself. That is truly terrifying.

Why did you feel that the subject matter of the collect would be a good fit?

I had thought about writing this for such a long time, that I just said I had to do it. With the pandemic and continuing injustice I just said I didn’t care what the reaction was going to be to it, that it needed to get out there. Honestly, I thought that either people were not going to read it or that people would hate it and say how dare I take this position and think that it was acceptable to write about these cases. I didn’t want the collection to come off as exploitative at all. I wanted to create the opposite effect given I thought so much of true crime media is spectacle and exploitive.

It was just time. I got so sick of reading about stories of women gone missing and women who were murdered and the suspects were clear as day to me but authorities would just throw up their hands during press conferences and say they had no clue who committed the crime or why. I was just tired and needed to say that these awful things happen to women every day and we should not be okay with these horrible things happening in our communities. What does that say about us as humans that we are okay with little girls and women being snatched off the street each day? We should be outraged that people go missing, that women are picked up and murdered off the street simply for living, for doing something as simple as walking home.

How has your journalism background helped you with the collection?

Yes, I think everything I do is heavily researched from poetry to short stories to novels. I’m not the type of writer that will sit down, outline from an idea and just write. Those writers are wonderful, but that’s not how my brain works. When I write something it has to be grounded in some sort of truth, otherwise to me at least it does not seem important enough to write. Ultimately, I am writing for myself each and every time I sit down to write. For Into the Forest And All The Way Through, for example, a single poem could take me eight hours or more to write because I would research the case, reading through newspaper accounts, searching through the FBI website and so on.

If you’re reading one of my poetry collections or novels I can guarantee you it’s taken hundreds if not thousands of hours of research in order to compile. Everything has a meaning, a layer, and there are references in Into the Forest and other works that people may never get, but I know they are there.

Why do you think we can bring real life situations into works such as short stories and poetry?

Again, I want to stress that when I write, I’m writing for myself first. I personally cannot really emotionally connect with a work unless its grounded in some type of truth. I of course will read works and value them for what they are, but for me to be emotionally connected I need to know that I am reading a story either inspired by real life events somehow or involving something that is fairly plausible. Whether those events are about a serial killer that stalked and killed people, that is an adaptation of a group of travellers that crossed the United States years ago and died tragically, or about the destruction of humanity because we were reckless with technology. I mean, all of those things have some basis in some type of reality, serial killers exist, people travel across the country all of the time and die tragically, and we are always pushing the boundaries of technology.

I am naturally drawn to fiction that is going to teach me something.

I’m a journalist at heart. I want truth with my fiction. As a writer and poet, when you come to my writing that is what you are going to get. We all have a right to like what we like, but history and real life situations will always be at the forefront of what I write as long as I can write, because that’s what I care about. I care about history. I care about these fascinating details, because ultimately what I’m trying to do with my writing is reflect back on our history and contrast it with the present. What happened before? What is happening now? Are they related? How? Why?

For me, I want fiction and poetry that is going to teach me something and make me think. In turn, in my fiction and poetry I am going to teach you something. You can choose to engage with it or not, but I personally will always connect with works more that are going to include a bit of truth with the make believe.

Your novel, CHILDREN OF CHICAGO, is a retelling of the Pied Piper. Why did you think he would be a good basis for the story?

Children of Chicago is a genre bending novel, and there are a few themes that I play with, including the cycle of violence. Chicago is founded on a massacre site. We have a history of violence and loss starting with our founding, through the Chicago fire, Al Capone, serial killers, displacement, segregation, and more. I wanted to make a commentary that Chicago is stuck in this cycle of violence, and really much of the United States, because we have not come to terms with our violent history.

Additionally, I wanted to highlight that children are killing children in this city. We have failed as a society when children turn to violence because they feel there is no way out.

So, in thinking about the original story of the Pied Piper and how he led the children of Hamelin away, I wanted to use the Pied Piper as a device and say well, what if there was a supernatural being that was encouraging children to fall into this cycle of violence, leading them away in that regard.

Ultimately, Children of Chicago is a fairy tale. It’s a nod to the brothers Grimm fairy tales, particularly those darker fairy tales. It’s also a nod to the tradition of hardboiled crime fiction and crime noir where no one can be redeemed and nothing ends well for anyone, and when I thought of some of the darker Grimm’s fairy tales, combining them with crime noir felt natural, because like in crime noir in some of these disturbing Grimm’s fairy tales, nothing ends well. 

Why was Chicago used for the setting of the story?

I was born in Puerto Rico, but I was raised in Chicago where I still live. Chicago has a fascinating past, and present. I think it’s the perfect place for a dark fairy tale to unfold, and I wanted to highlight that.

Your work has been nominated for several different awards. How did it feel when you first found out?

It’s always a surprise that people even read my work. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that, that there are people that read my fiction and poetry and sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t. That’s just incredible to me to think, that there are people that will read the words I have strung together across weeks, months and years in the middle of the night. 

I am grateful and completely honored for any and all positive recognition my writing gets, but my focus is always on my writing. I want to be able to create a body of work that I am proud of, that one day my children can look at when I am no longer here and say ‘Our mother was trying to communicate something with her work.’ The focus of my recent work has been on loss, mourning, cycles of violence and trying to find meaning in life.

So to think that my work is being recognized by writing peers and those I look up to as mentors is truly wonderful.   

What are the main differences when working on prose and poetry?

At least for me, my prose tends to be more calculated at times, as if I’m trying to work out a mathematical problem, or making sure that I am working towards the logic outlined that will drive me to my conclusion. With poetry, I feel as though I have more freedom. I am able to strip away most conventions and focus on the emotion I am seeking to convey.

Why do you think horror is so popular?

I think horror is intrinsically tied to our greatest fear, and our greatest fear is death. It’s the ultimate unknown. Many of us move throughout life, ignoring the inevitable, that one day we are not going to be here and what does that mean?

If we sat down and thought about it more maybe we would live differently, and appreciate our time here more and each other. But I think people are just so scared of death. They are scared to talk about it, to imagine a world without them in it.

Additionally, I think people are scared to think about what comes next, is there something after death? Is there nothing?

In most horror novels and poems and movies what happens? People die, sometimes again and again. Death is always the star of horror and it’s been what humans have been ultimately scared of since we were created. Because of that, horror will always be popular, because beyond the actual process of death, there are still so many unknowns, what is above us in the stars, what is below us in the depths of the seas that have yet been explored?

We are so obsessed with bickering over trivial things and creating unnecessary strife for ourselves through injustice and inequality, that we just continue to create more ways to terrorize ourselves, and more horrors. Horror will always vary in what we see and the devices used – giant monsters, aliens, zombies, but ultimately there will always be another device used to communicate our fears of death and the unknown.

Do you have any tips for working on dark poetry?

I would recommend first starting out with reading some great horror poets, Sara Tantlinger, Stephanie Wytovich, Linda Addison, John Lawson, and see what it is that they did, both structurally and emotionally with the words. What story did they tell with those lines?

Then, start thinking about what it is you want to convey. Don’t worry so much in the beginning about how it should look on the page. Get the words right. Read the poem out loud to yourself at least twice. I think it’s important to read poetry out loud. Listen to how the words merge together. Poetry, to me, is music. How do the words sound? How does it make you feel?

Are you currently working on anything at the moment?

Yes, I am working on a few things. I’m working on a few commissioned short stories, book two in the Chicago saga – which is not a sequel to Children of Chicago, per se, but it is another Chicago story, with a new monster focused on a new aspect of the city’s history, and a novella.

Follow Cynthia on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.

Purchase Children of Chicago here.

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