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J.A.W. McCarthy Interview

This week we get to hear from J.A.W. McCarthy, author of the upcoming Off Limits Press novella Sleep Alone. McCarthy’s novella is set against the backdrop of life on the road for merch girl Ronnie and the band she’s come to know as her family. Always staying on the move is a convenient lifestyle for Ronnie, who also happens to be a succubus. The same goes for the members of the band. But things are starting to come undone. A strange, unknown disease has latched onto Ronnie’s chosen family and matters are complicated further when she meets the mysterious Helene, who has secrets of her own.

Read the full interview below.

What got you interested in telling a succubus story? And which idea came first, the succubi aspect or the band on the road narrative?

That’s a great question. I think the band on the road narrative came about a minute before the succubus aspect. Really, I knew right away I wanted to write about a merch girl, which was partially my opportunity to talk about some things I’ve experienced related to aging and feeling like an outsider. Because I’m me, I also couldn’t imagine the story not being body horror. I liked the idea of a succubus story because they seem like a less popular/lesser known “monster” (It’s strange to call my succubi monsters; I love them too much), so there was room for me to play with the few established rules and rewrite them.

Did working on this novella influence the type of music you were listening to at the time?

I’ll admit I’m pretty boring; I think my musical exploration stopped about ten years ago. I listened to a lot of my favorite music while writing Sleep Alone: Mark Lanegan, PJ Harvey, Concrete Blonde, The Cramps, The Cure, so I feel like I was frozen in my teen years, when I was ridiculously passionate about music and would’ve followed my favorite bands around the world. I’ve seen some of these bands live, so it was a bit like reliving those shows, which was essential to get in the mood of the live music scenes in Sleep Alone. I also listened to a lot of The Veils because they’re one of my favorite bands and I’m always listening to them no matter what I’m writing.

What do you love most about writing a novella instead of something like a short story or a novel? Did you always know Sleep Alone was going to be a novella?

When I started Sleep Alone, I intended it to be a short story. I was working on another long piece at the time, which I knew would be a novella. Sleep Alone came screaming out of me and quickly let me know that it was going to exceed the short story word count. Not at all what I intended, but it was like a train I couldn’t stop; I just had to let it be what it wanted. I’m glad it topped out at novella length, though. That’s the sweet spot for me as a reader, and I think this type of story—with a lot of action taking place over a short period of time—wouldn’t work in longer form. It was exciting to write something so immediate, where I couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

Your work has such a beautiful way of telling brutal stories with such heart and intimacy. What was it like constructing the relationships between Ronnie and the bandmates? Her relationship with each one is so distinct and vivid.

I really appreciate how you describe my work! A lot of it was drawn from personal experience and people I’ve known over the years. None of the band members are literal representations of any one person; they are more pieces of myself and my interactions with others. The band members are both Ronnie’s peers and her children. She sees her own successes and failures in each of them. Any shame or pride she feels towards them is towards herself. Each one is his own person, but also a piece of her that she wants to love, control, punish, nurture and change all at once.

It takes both Ronnie and the reader some time to get to know Helene. Was she difficult to write?

A. She was, at least at first. When I introduced Helene, I didn’t know any more about her than Ronnie does. She’s confident, magnetic, focused. Ronnie sees her as I do, as a person she not only desires but admires. Who is Helene? What does she want? She’s an intimidating mystery. I knew she’d have a backstory that would show how vulnerable and flawed she is, but developing her came about through the process of writing her. Her story unfolded for me the same way it did for Ronnie.

Did you have a favorite character to write dialogue for?

Definitely Cillian—I got to be a little brash and ridiculous with him, which I think provides some levity in an otherwise dark story. As cruel and selfish as he is, he also speaks the truth. He’s the only person who stands up to Ronnie and forces her to confront how selfish and shortsighted she is. He reflects what she’s been unable to accept about herself. They have a fraught relationship because she knows he’s right and he isn’t afraid to poke at the raw, vulnerable parts of her.

Sleep Alone is a nuanced novella with deep emotional intricacy. What were you most concerned with getting right in this story? Which came more naturally, writing the story or revising it?

I wanted to get all of their relationships right, to develop each person as an individual and also portray their interactions authentically. Ronnie’s relationship with Helene is the one I worried over the most because it’s so important to the story in revealing Ronnie’s vulnerabilities and her truth; she goes through the whole range of jaded to skeptical to vulnerable to reckless to a level of trust she’s never had with another person, all in the span of one week. It was important to me to make how they get to know and relate to each other as authentic as I could. Luckily, the process of writing them and this story came naturally to me—I let it pour out with the reassurance that I would edit later. The revision process also went pretty smoothly because my beta readers and editor asked some really great questions that sparked some fresh inspiration for me.

Is there anything you want readers to know going into Sleep Alone that they might not get from the synopsis?

It’s a love story. I mean, it’s definitely a queer body horror story, but at its center is a messy, beating heart made up of family love, motherly love, and romantic love.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I have new short fiction upcoming in The Canterbury Nightmares (Crossroad Press), Monstrous Futures (Dark Matter), The First Five Minutes of the Apocalypse (Hungry Shadow Press), and at least one more that I can’t mention as of this writing because it’s not official yet. I also have a piece of long fiction out on sub now that I’m hoping finds a home in the near future.

Sorry, I can’t help myself. What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

Such Small Hands by Andres Barba! I have to shout about it because I didn’t know it existed until a friend recommended I read it immediately and she was so right. I was absolutely wowed by the unique voice, the prose, how well Barba captures the strange logic of children. It’s a slim, quick read that does a lot with few words, one of those stories I wish I’d written.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Sleep Alone hits shelves on March 18, 2023.

J.A.W. McCarthy is the Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories (Cemetery Gates Media, 2021) and Sleep Alone (Off Limits Press, 2023). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien, PseudoPod, LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). She is Thai American and lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest. You can call her Jen on Twitter @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at

You can preorder Sleep Alone at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or Bookshop.

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