Issue 041 Author Interview: Nicole Crucial and “The Anatomy of Spines”

It’s Tuesday, which means another Issue 041 author interview! Meet Nicole Crucial as she chats with us about her story “The Anatomy of Spines.”

LSQ: Werewolf stories aren’t seen too often, at least in my experience. What do you like best about them?

Nicole: I think werewolf stories call to the angsty little part of my heart that lives on from my preteen and teenage years—the years where I began writing. (It probably helps that the Twilight werewolves were among my first fictional exposures to werewolves—plenty of angst there. Most of the literary werewolves I’ve encountered have been in YA fiction/coming-of-age stories overall, although that’s probably because I read a lot of it.) Werewolves represent the darker, animal side in all of us. In my story and in many other stories, werewolves’ transformations are triggered by anger, upset, or other intense negative emotions, mirroring the way we sometimes unleash the worst parts of ourselves when we experience those emotions. Especially as a teenager, it can feel like that side of you is a separate species, something you don’t recognize. You’re not yourself: you’re some creature consumed by an emotion. I don’t miss much about being a teenager, but one thing I sometimes wax nostalgic about is how intensely you seem to feel things so deeply in that time of life.

Werewolves also have an interesting power dynamic at play. In most stories, and in mine, werewolves gain a lot of physical power, strength, and sometimes other abilities when they transform. But it comes at a cost—your humanity, your sense of reason, your self-control. Werewolf stories so often cast the condition as a disease or a curse. The Harry Potter series, for one—it’s literally a curse. In the show The Magicians, lycanthropy is an STI. But I like stories where lycanthropy is a negotiation of power, and what the characters have to give up to access that power. Stories about monsters are never really about monsters, after all.

LSQ: This story has a strong will-she-won’t-she vibe that played out very well. What advice do you have for writers who want to effectively build tension?

Nicole: Tension builds when two or more forces exert opposite wills. In the case of “The Anatomy of Spines,” it’s Rosco’s will against the wills of his mother, girlfriend, and Pack. But force can come from non-person entities: institutions, cultural norms, etc. I think what made the tension so strong in my story is that I knew the characters well and knew that both sides truly believed they were right, and each character wanted what they wanted intensely. Every piece of fiction is driven by character desire. These characters desired exact opposite things, whereas in some stories, characters/entities just want different things.

If you have a story about a couple and one wants to travel a lot and the other wants to start a business, there’s certain to be some tension because what comes along with each of those goals will cause conflict. (It’s hard to travel when someone is consumed 24/7 by building a business, and it’s hard to build a business if you’re spending money and time traveling and not staying in one spot.) Still, with an issue like that, characters can still get creative in their problem-solving and try to find alternate solutions. When character desires are dead opposite each other, though, that’s a really easy way to ramp up tension. And when the issue is literally life-or-death, it’s hard for characters to think about anything else.

LSQ: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story and why? What do you like best about this story and why?

Nicole: This story was actually a novel. I wrote 80,000 words of this story, with a much more complex plot and more characters and a big external conflict taking up the space, and a much different outcome for certain characters. I decided to try to condense it and interpret it as a short story, focusing on the development of tension and the crafting of language, as an exercise for myself. (In a short story, you can get really into the weeds with poetic language—you can’t do that easily in a novel because it will be exhausting to read.)

In some senses, having written Rosco and Lorelei’s story at length before made it easier to write briefly—I knew who they were, much more intimately than I usually know a character in a short story. However, it was really challenging to distill a whole novel’s worth of plot and world and character into 3,500 words that still captured the atmosphere, conflict, and story I was going for. Honestly, I think I failed—this story is much different than the novel, as it had to be. But the failure isn’t a bad thing because I’m also really happy with how this separate iteration turned out.

My favorite thing about the story is how it feels a little haunted from the beginning. I think you know how it ends from the first scene, although perhaps the means is a little different. I’m also very proud of a lot of the dialogue, as well as how I was able to portray the many complicated relationships succinctly. There’s a certain beauty in using subtext for storytelling, using what isn’t said—I don’t think I was always subtle in this piece, but it’s something I’m always working on, and I think there are some great moments of subtext in “The Anatomy of Spines.”