It sounds like a cookbook. Maybe by some nice who lives in the suburbs of New England. But it’s not. Instead, Catherynne M. Valente’s new novella Comfort Me With Apples (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) is actually a romantic horror story. In the following email interview about it, Valente discusses what inspired and influenced this story…but does so in what she implies is an appropriately cryptic way.
I’d like to start with a plot overview: What is Comfort Me With Apples about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s actually nearly impossible for me to tell you. That’s been the major challenge of this book: getting people to read it without telling them what it’s about. There’s a massive, juicy, Sixth Sense-level twist in Apples, and telling you too much about the plot would give it away.
What I can say is that it’s about a woman named Sophia who lives in a severely gated community under the rules of an extraordinarily repressive HOA agreement. She is the perfect housewife, the perfect host, the perfect woman, everyone agrees on that much — and one day, while her husband is away on one of his long work trips, she finds a desiccated human fingertip buried in the bottom of her knife block.
It’s a sleek, furious murder mystery that never stops for a second. And yes, it is speculative fiction, but I can’t make a peep about the specific way it’s a fantastical story. It has shades of The Stepford Wives, of your favorite murder show / podcast, of Spinning Silver and Gone Girl. But it is none of those things. You’ll have to read it to find out.
I dunno, I think you did a good job explaining what it’s about. So, where did you get the idea for Comfort Me With Apples, what inspired it?
Arrgh, this is why marketing this book is so hard! Even telling you that would be a spoiler!
Suffice it to say I came across a bit of folklore in my research for another book that I’d never heard anywhere before (rare enough these days!) and made a cynical joke about it to an empty room…and that joke became this book.
It sounds like Comfort Me With Apples is a romantic horror story, in that it’s a horror story about a romance, not a romance with some scary stuff going on. Is that how you’d describe it?
I think that’s fair. The book centers around Sophia’s marriage, but it is not primarily a romance. They’re together as the book begins, and have been for some time. It definitely aims to say a lot of things about love, romance, heteronormative relationships, community, commitment, secrets and desires and expectations both thwarted and met. It’s about the systems we are born into, what we can and most importantly, what we cannot do to change them…and one of those systems is love.
The horror of Comfort Me With Apples finds its root in the secrets buried in Sophia’s house, but also in her community, the inherent prison-like nature of gated communities and HOAs, the pressure to be perfect, to satisfy everyone else, the crush of expectations of service and self-denial put on women’s shoulders and rarely, if ever, lifted.
You’ve written nearly four dozen books — including novels, novellas, and short story collections — across multiple genres. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Comfort Me With Apples but not on anything else you’ve written?
This will be by 43rd book. It seems like madness, even to me.
I grew up devouring murder mysteries and thrillers and horror as well as science fiction and fantasy. All the women in my family were hardcore murderbook readers, and I plowed through them at, really, far too young an age for such content. But no one could ever stop me reading, not for a second. I think there is a lot of inspiration in Apples from those books; Christie and Sayers, obviously, but also John Saul, Stephen King, and Peter Straub, a dash of V.C. Andrews and a generous helping of Shirley Jackson — but Jackson has always been an inspiration.
In many ways this is the first book I would classify as horror without reservation. It’s a horror fantasy, to be sure, but its backbone lies in those thrillers I read under the covers with a flashlight and my heart in my throat, hoping no one would catch me, not because I was reading, but because of what I was reading.
How about non-literary influences; was Comfort Me With Apples influenced by any movies, TV shows, and games? Because it sounds like it could be a good and freaky episode of Law & Order: SVU or maybe even a Lifetime movie.
I think Apples could be a very slick, cool series or movie, though you’d have to be horrendously careful to pull off onscreen what I do in the book. It’s easier to hide things in text than on film. But I think it could be done.
The movie Pleasantville has been a favorite of mine since it came out in the late ’90s, and there’s absolutely some DNA transfer going on with the saturated ’50s suburban utopia showing its underbelly as it slowly falls apart. Blue Velvet as well, with its first iconic shot panning down from the blue sky and picket fence and tulips to show the beetles gnawing at the roots of American suburbia. There’s also Big Little Lies, with its community of wealthy women each covering up their own secrets and histories. I think the onslaught of slick, beautifully shot slow-burn murder shows that have come out recently make a kind of family of which Apples is a very strange cousin. After all, if I was going to do one of those, it was always going to be wildly fantastical.
I mentioned your other books a moment ago, and within them you have some stand-alone stories as well as books that are part of larger sagas, including the Fairyland novels and The Orphan’s Tales series. What is Comfort Me With Apples?
It’s a one-off, for sure. Unlike The Past Is Red, which came out earlier this year, or many of my other books, this is a complete story to which I can’t really even see a way to build a sequel. You’ll understand when you read it! It could be expanded internally, for a TV series or something similar to what you mentioned before, but the end is the end, it is brutally final, and I’m very happy with Comfort Me With Apples as it is.
Speaking of The Past Is Red, it just came out a few months ago. What is that novella about, and when and where does it take place?
The Past Is Red is a climate change dystopia that takes place long after the sea levels have risen and most of the leftovers of humanity live on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, much increased in size and density, and named Garbagetown. But it’s about the most hopeful and cheerful dystopia you’re likely to find this side of the apocalypse. Tetley Abednego is an extraordinary voice. She loves this ruined world with all her heart; it is her home, she knows nothing else. She looks back on us with contempt, and forward to the future with a smile. She navigates her little universe of trash with joy and enthusiasm despite the unrelenting grimness of its actual reality. But she is also a criminal, hounded and hunted by the other remnants of civilization, and in The Past Is Red she discovers two awful secrets that could change everything — if she lets them.
As you said, The Past Is Red is a climate change dystopia. Did you set out to write something environmental and this is what you came up with, or did you come up with the plot and then realize it needed the environmental aspects?
Red began as a short story (included in the volume) in a climate change anthology called Drowned Worlds, which was explicitly meant to be about sea-level catastrophes and the world afterward.
I had recently read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (unfortunately a very real thing) and knew I had to write this story, so my brain started stitching ideas together — but honestly Tetley and her voice just kind of arrived in my head with the very first line, and I simply followed her to her story.
You also just said that, unlike The Past Is Red, Comfort Me With Apples is, “a complete story to which I can’t really even see a way to build a sequel.” Does that mean Red is the first book in a series?
All I’ll tell you is that it’s possible Tetley might have more to say.
Uh…huh. Anyway, did you write The Past Is Red and Comfort Me With Apples at the same time or back-to-back?
You know, I actually did write them back-to-back: The Past Is Red in December of 2019 and Comfort Me With Apples in January of 2020. But Apples was never meant to be a book. I submitted it to Tor.com as a short story, and they loved it so much they asked me to expand it a little (very little, the “short” story had already gotten terribly long) and publish it with them as a stand-alone book. As I’ve never in my life sold a book this way, I was delighted and honored that the team believed so whole-heartedly in this story.
The Past Is Red and Comfort Me With Apples sound like they’re very different kinds of stories. Do you think someone who enjoys Red will like Apples as well?
As you say, they’re very different, even aside from one being science fiction and one being fantasy. Red is funnier and more hopeful, Apples aims for a more direct gut-punch. But I suppose they both engage heavily in present-day issues, and follow a single female protagonist through the dissolution of their innocence and their world.
I think if someone likes my work in the first place, they’ll probably like both.
You said earlier that you thought Comfort Me With Apples could be a movie or TV show. If that was going to happen, who would you want them to cast as Sophia, her hubby, and the main characters?
Florence Pugh [Black Widow] would be a fantastic Sophia, but Selena Gomez has really impressed me in Only Murders In the Building, and I think she could pull it off, too. Sophia is very wide-eyed and innocent at the beginning of her journey, it’s a delicate balance of naivete and experience at her core. I could also see Jurnee Smollett [Lovecraft Country] crushing it.
For her husband, [Avengers: Endgame‘s] Chris Hemsworth comes to mind (there should be something of an age gap between them for…spoilery reasons). I’d be looking for that privileged frat boy aesthetic. They’d need to be physically imposing, charismatic, but capable of real menace. DiCaprio is pretty busy these days, but he also has the right combination of boyish charm and potential for nastiness right under the surface.
For Mrs. Lyon I think no one could be more perfect than Robin Wright [Blade Runner 2049], unless it was Hannah Waddingham [Ted Lasso]. For her circle and the other neighbors / players I’d love to see some of the great character actresses like Alison Janney, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, Octavia Spencer, Shirley Henderson — maybe even Karis Campbell, who narrated the audiobook.
For Cascavel, I’d love to see [Lost‘s] Daniel Dae-Kim bite into that role! Or perhaps [Doctor Who‘s] David Tennant or Miguel Angel Silvestre from Sense8. Someone beautiful and a little cruel, but with a wicked smile behind it all.
But for all of these, it would also be nice to give an unknown a shot. The cast would need to be very diverse and of many different ages as well.
And do you think it would work better as an episode of SVU or as a Lifetime movie?
Because it is ultimately a work of speculative fiction, it probably wouldn’t fit into the SVU universe. Lifetime, maybe.
Finally, if someone enjoys Comfort Me With Apples, they’ll probably go out and get The Past Is Red. But once they’ve done that, which of your other novellas would you suggest they read next?
Perhaps Six-Gun Snow White. It has a similar folkloric spine with a very unique and central character voice — and very easy to pitch, in contrast to Apples. It’s a Western retelling of Snow White that goes in wildly confrontational directions.