What Lurks in the Shadows:
In Conversation with Ann Dávila Cardinal

by Ma’ayan D’Antonio

There is nothing boring about Ann Dávila Cardinal, from her well-paced horror story Five Midnights (Tor Teen, 2019), to her extreme love of biking in all four seasons of Vermont, to her amazing pair of glasses—which she said took her two years to find—to her license plate that reads “El Cuco.” ADC spends her days on the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ campus as Director of Recruitment. On this campus she also earned two MFAs in Writing and in Writing for Children, and Y.A. Five Midnights is ADC’s first solo book.

ADC never thought she would be a writer, only starting to write in her forties. “I’ve been an avid reader my whole life but never expected to write,” she said. But it was after she sold her first book idea for Sisters Chicas (New American Library, 2006), that she realized that she wanted to do an MFA. “I didn’t study writing in undergrad, I studied Hispanic Literature. I realized there were things that I needed to learn.” It wasn’t until halfway into her MFA that ADC started calling herself a writer. 

Sisters Chicas, on which ADC collaborated with Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin, who are both poets, she said, “We each wrote our own character. Three alternating voices. They were both much more experienced than I was.” But ADC learned so much from her co-writers “about metaphor and meter and language.” In Sisters Chicas ADC had stumbled blindly with the help of her co-writers, but when the idea for Five Midnights came to ADC she already had one book and two MFAs under her belt. “I felt more confident, though I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely confident, and I think it’s good not to get too comfortable. There’s always something to learn. But I felt like I had more of a sense of what was going on. I also had way more of a support system through my friends from VCFA about how to navigate the world of publishing. Because the first time I published we didn’t have a clue. We really had to figure it out as we were going along and, now, I really have more of an understanding.”

ADC feels that her writing since her first book has absolutely evolved. “[At first] I didn’t even know how to write a metaphor,” she said. Her co-writers, particularly Alvarado, took their time to show ADC how to write a metaphor, “and then anything I wrote had a metaphor,” she went on. “In the MFA I learned that in the revision that’s where the art is. The first draft is storytelling, the revisions are the writing.” ADC says that you need to embrace that and enjoy that process. “It has been a huge difference in terms of the quality of my work.”

So much of the story of Five Midnights is rooted in ADC’s personal story. For her, literature was very important and got her through very difficult times. “When I was a teen, we didn’t have these kinds of stories, Y.A. wasn’t even a term, there were some Judy Blume books, who was a complete renegade, but that came in the middle of my teen years. There wasn’t much out there. Now there are so many incredible Latinx writers, and so many stories that I would have related to when I was a teenager.” ADC believes that when writing Y.A. stories the writer has a responsibility towards their readers. ADC captured her personal experiences in a universal way, which lets more teens to connect to her characters’ stories. “It’s a matter of taking life experiences and fictionalizing them, tweaking them. I wanted to reach kids who had alcoholic parents, or who are half of one heritage and half another. And just reach kids that needed that kind of story.”

In the center of Five Midnights lays the myth of El Cuco. This myth has been mainly passed down through the generations in the oral form. ADC went to Puerto Rico to find out as much as she could about this creature. “I asked people ‘How did it affect your childhood?’ ‘Were you told about El Cuco?’ And 95% of them said, Oh yeah since they were kids.” After that ADC took liberties with the myth. “Nobody could tell me what he looked like. I decided that that was an important piece, that he probably took the shape of whatever it was you were afraid of.” The reason ADC became a writer was that when she was a child her imagination was “so freaking strong, that I could see that monster underneath the basement stairs reaching for my ankles.” 

ADC has definitely managed to play with El Cuco being a non-corporeal creature that represents addiction. She smartly plays with the idea of shadows and how they can feel like they are following you. Those were the places that held the most tension. That, along with the scenes that deal with death and murder, in a way that’s not so explicit, keep the reader guessing who or what the culprit is. ADC’s brother, and an early reader of Five Midnights, is a psychoanalyst. He had told her that he “preferred when El Cuco was more nebulous.” Yet ADC couldn’t resist at times giving El Cuco more physicality. “I think psychologically that works well. But still as somebody who was raised on horror, I liked the idea of having some claws and tentacles and scales. I had fun with that aspect of the writing.”

“Los Cangrejos” are the group of young men that are being hunted by El Cuco, and I couldn’t help but wonder why they were all male. ADC response was, “Wow, that wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s sort of interesting because I said to my editor that I realized that all the people that I kill are men.” She said that it wasn’t intentional. 

We sat talking more about the dynamic where Lupe, the main protagonist, is a strong opinionated female, the very kind of character we see slowly seeping into Y.A. Lupe is nowhere near the trope of “damsel in distress,” but the more we thought about it the more it made sense that Los Cangrejos are male, as they were friends from a very young age where boys are friends with boys, trying to act like grown-ups. In the story we see the group pushing Marisol, the sister of one of the members, aside, not wanting her hanging around with them. Yet as children grow into teens that dynamic starts to shift with the awakening of hormones and the understanding of equality. 

To this ADC said in conclusion, “That’s very interesting. The main thing that I wanted to do was portray addiction in the middle class because I grew up middle class and people always made addicts and junkies homeless and poor and that’s just not true. It affects everyone. In every life situation.” 

In a book review that I read, a writer said, “Though pacing is tight through most of the story arc, the climax drags, trifling with the reader’s willingness to continue to suspend disbelief.” I was curious to know what ADC had to say in response to that statement.     

ADC responded gracefully: “I’m happy to hear any criticism about what they felt. When I first wrote the culminating scene it was very lean, quick, choppy and fast. My editor wanted me to slow it down and make it more evocative.” ADC said that that was the only time she heard this feedback, yet now, as she is working on the sequel, she is concentrating on the action scenes. But this is not the only thing that ADC will be working on to better the next book. Writing Five Midnights has taught her many lessons. “I would definitely outline. I am not an outliner; they have this whole thing about you’re either a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter.’ I was a pantser, I wrote by the seat of my pants and honestly it didn’t serve me. Because I would write novels then have to go back and put in structure.” Because Tor Teen had already purchased the sequel ADC said that she did a narrative plot to show her editor where she was planning on going with the story, and said, “I think I’ll be doing that from now on.” Using that plot outline ADC could flesh it out, adding more or changing it based on her editor’s feedback. “I have a friend (Cori McCarthy, author of Once & Future) who has a plotline that is based on screenplay structure. Using that for Y.A. novels just made sense to me. I used that in the narrative form, and it made the whole process easier.” ADC said that she had learned that letting the story lead itself is not something she would do again, because, as she said, “Sometimes I end up going on tangents.”

ADC is also a huge fan of sensitivity reads. “Particularly if you’re writing about another culture, but even if you’re writing about your own culture. Just to have someone else put their eyes on it and catch things. Mine was incredibly helpful and there were things that I wouldn’t have seen.”

Five Midnights feels well built in terms of plot progress and clues, something that’s very important for a horror/thriller/mystery. I wanted to know how ADC set them up as she worked on the novel. Her response was that she had some of the clues, yet it was an ongoing process that benefited from her readers’ comments about when the clues should come or if they came to soon. “It wasn’t something I got right from the beginning. And that’s where a good editor can really help.”

Aside from the sequel to Five Midnights, ADC is working on four other projects. “I used to have this perception that you can’t, that it was very precious … if my book was with my editor and I was waiting for feedback, I couldn’t work on something else.” Then she realized that if she wanted to build a writing career, she would have to work on more than one project at the same time. “I would like to do a book a year and get into this pattern, then I need to keep working. I’ve watched friends who make a living at this, and they must keep things going.” Yet at times it’s hard to keep the characters straight. “My sensitivity reader in the sequel caught that I called the main character by the name of another character in another book. Once. It does tend to bleed. The big thing that my agent got me to do is being careful not to write the same character again. I wrote a proposal for an adult horror novel and the character was like Lupe when she’s grown up. And my agent said, ‘Do you want to keep writing the same book?’ And I said NO. So, she was like, ‘Let’s talk about how to do that.’ I explored how to come up with different characters, because very often they are based on parts of yourself. But Cori [McCarthy] again said, pick yourself from a different time. Or pick a different aspect of your personality. So, I changed her up, because I didn’t want to write the same book again, or the same characters.”

The buzz around Five Midnights can’t be denied and I was curious about what life was like for ADC after the publication, regarding book tour, readings, promotions. ADC didn’t go on a physical book tour saying that it’s less of a payoff for the writer and their publisher. Instead she did an online book tour that included blog interviews that can also be done internationally. “I’m surprised at this surge that has happened this last month with Halloween, and with Latinx heritage month. I didn’t anticipate that. And I’m having a blast with that. I didn’t go in with the big expectations, I went in thinking ‘This is what I want to do with my life, I don’t care if it’s a bestseller, I just want it to do well enough that I can do the next book’. That has always been my goal. If you go in with realistic expectations, I think it’s a lot easier for everyone.”

ADC is now also focusing on being a strong literary citizen by supporting other writers, promoting their work when they have a new book coming out and helping them spread the word. And reading as much as she possibly can. ADC uses Twitter for two things: talking about her own work and raising up other writers. “It’s a hard enough thing that we do, to put our hearts on paper, we don’t need other people that are doing the same work to put each other down, so I really wanted to make a difference with that.” ADC is also doing Beta readings for other writers that are submitting. “There are these stages of supporting each other that you do and right now if a friend has a manuscript before they send it to their editor and they want to run it by me, we do.” ADC says that she benefited from the advice, “Particularly career advice, of friends and mentors that are generally 20 years younger than me. Because it is a different world out there now.” Now she is helping others that are at the same stages she was in not so long ago.

Right now, on ADC’s nightstand are The Tenth Girl (Imprint, 2019) by Sara Faring. In her words, “It’s just gorgeous.” What We Lost in the Fire (Hogarth Press, 2017) by Mariana Enriquez, as well as Cynthis Pelayo’s Poems of My Night (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2016). “My ‘to be read’ pile is ridiculous. I’m surprised it doesn’t kill me in my sleep, fall over and kill me. I’ve also realized that since the MFA I only make time to write. I was only reading before bed and I can’t, I fall asleep. So now I’m taking an hour to go sit in a chair and read, make an actual date with myself to read. Because I need to keep up on the work that is out there.” 

As writers there is always more than one thing we can’t live without. For ADC, aside from desperately needing a new laptop, she says she cannot live without music. “A lot of people can’t write with music; I have soundtracks for each particular book. Five Midnights had a strictly Reggaeton soundtrack, primarily Daddy Yankee. I can listen to words and I need to set a mood.”

ADC is bi-cultural, and she visits Puerto Rico whenever she can. Here are some things she loves doing when she’s on the island, aside from visiting her family: “Luquillo beach is a spectacular part of the island. I’m in love with it. I always try to go the El Yunque rainforest and shopping in old San Juan. Even if I don’t buy anything, it has this feel of another time. There’s also a place called ‘The Poet’s Passage’ in old San Juan that this particular poet, Lady Lee Andrews—who grew up in old San Juan—owns. It’s where writers sort of gravitate to, there’s readings, open mic on Tuesday nights. It feels like a home base to me in old San Juan.”

And here are her last words of encouragement to young writes, “Don’t give up!!!”

“It is a brutal business. I always say to applicants in the MFA program that ‘if we told you about the business ahead of time, it’s like childbirth, if you really understood what it was like the race would be dead. Because it’s so hard.’ But the thing is that you’re going to get rejections, people who I know that are very accomplished and have won National Book Awards, deal with rejections. You just have to keep going. If you want this bad enough you don’t give up.” ADC had almost given up herself, but it was due to her friends’ encouragements and self-willingness to keep going that got her to where she is today. “Celebrate every single rejection, if you get a nice rejection, if they write a personal note and say submit again, that is a reason to celebrate. Seriously! Celebrate every single small victory.”

 

Ma’ayan D’Antonio grew up in Israel, and has lived in the Gaza Envelope since 2000. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writings have been featured in Wanderlust Journal, Hunger Mountain Online, PoemCity Blog, and The Jerusalem Post.