Interview: Edgar Cantero talks his new novel, MEDDLING KIDS

Edgar Cantero’s new book, Meddling Kids (out now in hardback from Doubleday), was described to me as “Scooby-Doo Meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As much as I had enjoyed Cantero’s first book, The Supernatural Enhancements, you would’ve had me at Scooby Doo.

Meddling Kids reminds me of all the Trixie Belden / Three Investigators / Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys books I read as a kid, to say nothing of the Encyclopedia Brown vibes that the movie Mystery Team had. So, yeah: every single thing I enjoy. It tells the story of how The Blyton Summer Detective Club reconvenes after a decade apart, and revisits their final, most diabolical case.

Cantero’s latest is the sort of book which hooks you with its premise, but the execution is what holds you through to the very end. Meddling Kids has a certain appeal to nostalgia, but the real attraction is the way Cantero uses genre tropes of kiddy detective fiction to explore aging, regret, and how his characters navigate a changing world.

Much in the same way Cantero’s debut made copious and clever use of the epistolary format, Meddling Kids utilizes changes in storytelling formats to convey speed, haste, or otherwise give the action a kick in the pants. The Lovecraftian horrors, melded with Generation X angst and ennui, give the characters a gloss of realism beyond the parody of Mystery Team. It’s still fantasy, but the grounding in a universal mid-20s “what am I to do?!” mode of existence really keeps Meddling Kids from being a goof, and lends everything a strong sense of emotional resonance – even with crazy eldritch creatures from beyond.

I spoke with Cantero via Skype about the book and how it came to be.

The way Meddling Kids is put together is rather fascinating, specifically the way you will switch from prose to script for some of the dialogue. What’s the idea behind that?

Edgar Cantero: I know it’s kind of surprising, but that’s actually my usual style of writing. It’s not because this is based on a cartoon or anything – I just noticed that when I’m writing dialogue, and there’s more than two people involved, or it’s two people, but I want to do it really speedy and I want it to have rhythm, the best way to do it is script-like form.

You don’t have to introduce dialogue with “he said,” “she said” kind of thing, you know? I do it only for economy: it works better. I think it works better than regular dialogue. Some people are offput by my switching styles from script-like to normal prose and back and forth, but I think it makes it faster. I like it.

Having read your previous English-language book, The Supernatural Enhancements, I was wondering if the script-like elements were a way of continuing the epistolary form you used in that book.

The thing about The Supernatural Enhancements is that it was not my voice at any point. Since it was an epistolary novel, I had to take the voice of a male character who was fairly close to mine, and then different letters, video transcripts, and so, by the end of the book, nobody had gotten a chance to read my own style.

Meddling Kids is quite closer to the novels that I wrote before The Supernatural Enhancements, which were written in Catalan: Dormir amb Winona Ryder and Vallvi. That’s where that script-like form started, and I think that’s what defines my style right now.

The style of Meddling Kids is very interestingly defined. I was watching a documentary about Lovecraft earlier today, and they made the point that the only emotion in his work was terror. There’s no romance or sexuality.

No, absolutely not. I think that Lovecraft is the artist who fails the Bechdel test more than anybody. I’m surprised, because he’s the only writer, I think, who consistently makes the heroes of his stories 70 year-old males: very old academic professors from Miskatonic University. He’s the only person who can see heroism in that kind of person, really.

That’s a very interesting point. I’d never thought of it like that before, but that kind of makes Meddling Kids‘ subversion of Lovecraftian tropes even better. Given what we know about certain of Lovecraft’s views, making one of your protagonists a gay Latina is certainly something that flips the script.

I know. It’s funny, because the whole concept of the book – my full pitch – was “Enid Blyton meets H.P. Lovecraft,” which are of course two very different authors. But, one thing that they have in common is that they both were incredibly racist. It’s funny to put a female gay Latina in charge of that mix. It’s insulting and redeeming at the same time.

You just touched on it a little bit, but the concept for the book has been pitched in a dozen different ways. What were the literary / cinematic / television influences behind Meddling Kids?

It was very clear in my head from the beginning that the formula was to be The Famous Five – which is Enid Blyton’s series of teen detectives from the 1940s – and Lovecraft. The problem is, when I pitched this to my editors here in the U.S., and said that the book is going to be “Enid Blyon plus Lovecraft,” they both said, “Who is Enid Blyton?”

Enid Blyon is British, and I assumed she was popular in America, but it turns out, she wasn’t. So, instead, in the middle of the pitch, I said, “Instead of The Famous Five, think the Scooby gang,” because it’s pretty much the same thing: two boys, two girls, and a dog. The only difference is that the Scooby gang were old enough to drive, and The Famous Five weren’t, but it pretty much works the same way. That’s when I started pulling in Scooby elements, as well.

Were you a big Scooby Doo fan, growing up?

Oh, absolutely. I am also a cartoonist, and I can remember learning to draw by copying the villains from the two first seasons of Scooby Doo. Those were my favorites: like, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, and Captain Cutler – which was basically a scuba diving suit that glowed in the dark. It had a great influence on me. Absolutely.

Is that why you kind of balance the deeply emotional conversations with some silly action sequences?

I love humor. I love slapstick. I love physical humor. I will have my characters slapping each other at every opportunity. The psychiatric hospital escape looked like a perfect opportunity to do a very good slapstick number, sort of like a circus act. Once I thought of it, I thought, “This is too funny not to do it.” All I did was to come up with ways that the helmet and the straightjacket could protect him, because I knew I was going to do it.

The cover for Meddling Kids is absolutely amazing – like a ’70s velvet black light poster. How much input did you have in its conception?

I had absolutely no input, at all. I remember coming to New York and I was shown the cover art. The designer is the one who did The Supernatural Enhancements‘ cover, too. For that one, we had tried a lot of different designs, but for this one, he came up with the kids and the lake with the tentacles coming out and we said, “That one’s it.”

It’s what I would’ve chosen, too. I like the idea of a teen detective gang and Lovecraft tentacle-y thing lurking around. He caught it without us communicating at all. He got it, and we’re super-happy with it. I didn’t have [a black light], but I tried it at a friend’s house, and it looks amazing.

The book’s been doing really well – getting recommended on NPR, even – but I know most authors are usually halfway through their next book when the new one’s out. What are you working on now?

I am more than halfway through the next – it’s completely unexpected. Of course, there are no deals, so I can’t say if it’s really going to be the next. But, I can tell you that since I had lunch with my editor today, so it’s fresh – what I’m working on now is actually something that I wrote in Spanish that predates Meddling Kids, but shares one character with it. And only one. Very possibly not the character you’re expecting.

Meddling Kids is out now from Doubleday. You can check out more of Edgar Cantero’s stuff at his website, or follow him on Twitter @punkahoy.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek

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