Slasher in the Rye: Adam Cesare Talks Clown in a Cornfield

Janelle Janson: Hi Adam! Thank you so much for giving us your time. How are you holding up in 2020?

Adam Cesare: It’s, uh, a challenging year. For sure. But I’m in no position to complain. After all, I’m launching my YA debut, living the dream!

JJ: Can you give us a brief description of Clown in a Cornfield?

AC: I’ve had conversations with a lot of people where they see the cover, they see the title, and their first reaction is “Lol, okay Stephen King.” And clearly it invites that comparison, with the choice of font and general stylization, but the book’s not a King pastiche, it’s a slasher.

The irony of working in a subgenre that’s so codified is that, yeah, I probably could be accused of taking heavy inspiration from horror legends, but it’s John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Bob Clark, et al. that I’d be taking from.

Clown in a Cornfield is about a young woman who travels across country with her father to start a new life in the wake of a family tragedy. Quinn, our protagonist, is a city slicker who’s having to adjust to life in the midwest. Which sounds like pretty standard YA angst stuff, I know, but the kicker is that she’s arrived in Kettle Springs, Missouri at the exact same time that a rash of brutal murders has begun. The town’s depression-era mascot, Frendo the Clown, is trying to make the town’s teens pay for some kind of original sin. The first act’s all very traditional slasher tropes, but then things go… a little wild.

JJ: Is there a movie option yet? Because there should be! Where did you draw your inspiration from for the book?

AC: Yes! I’m very fortunate that Temple Hill Entertainment is developing the movie. I hear little snippets of news every few days and MAN is it exciting. But don’t wait for the movie, please. Read the book first! 

And as far as inspiration: there were a ton of ideas swirling around that kind of coalesced into what the book is. Very surface level, I’m sure you remember that kind of viral craze of clowns showing up on people’s Ring doorbells and backyards and stuff? But beyond the superficial, we’re living in–and it sounds terrible to say this–a climate that *feels* full of dread and foreboding. Like, if the world’s perpetually in the first or second act of a horror movie, that felt like a great environment and shorthand to tap into to tell a slasher story. 

JJ: What made you decide to write a YA novel? 

AC: “Making the jump” was an idea I’d been toying with for a while; I’d been reading a lot of contemporary YA horror and was blown away by it, and amazed at how many misconceptions I’d had about the genre before I started doing that reading. And what’s a more teen-focused subgenre of horror than the slasher? So this just seemed like the perfect story to do it with.

JJ: Does your love of horror come from an early age? (Full disclosure: I used to steal horror paperbacks off of my parent’s bookshelves.)

AC: Ha! Did your parents ever catch you?

JJ: Nah, it was the 80s – no one was paying much attention.

AC: I know it sounds like mythmaking but I really cannot remember a time when I didn’t love horror. Even before I could read adult books or sit and watch *real* horror movies, I remember being led past the horror section of the video store, craning my neck to take in all the covers. Freddy, Jason, they had this kind of legendary quality when I was a kid, almost folkloric. So in that way horror movies were my first love, taking a few years of precedence over horror fiction. And for cartoons, I was always partial to Scooby Doo, always wanted it to be a *real* monster one of the times. Before being able to read on my own, I distinctly remember asking my dad to read me Edgar Allan Poe stories and Spawn comics. Which he did. And as soon as I was onto “chapter books,” forget it, I read as much as I could.

JJ: What’s a book you love that isn’t horror?

AC: Recently? I read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and really loved it. I’m sure that doesn’t sound like an “on brand” book for me, but I think it’s important to take trips out of your comfort zone and favorite genres. I mean, not all books *have* to have disembowelings in them. Though most should.

JJ: Wow, what an excellent book to choose! I absolutely loved Clown in a Cornfield, as well as The Summer Job, Video Night, and Tribesmen. What book off your backlist should I pick up next? 

AC: Thank you so much for saying so. I feel like Zero Lives Remaining might be a good companion piece for anyone who’s picked up Clown in a Cornfield? It’s still mostly about young characters but it’s a supernatural thing, a haunted video arcade, so might show some of my “range” as far as scares.

JJ: Do you go out of your way to write books in the 80s cinema style?

AC: I think with my first two books (Tribesmen and Video Night) it was a very deliberate thing, to try and “brand” myself as the horror movie guy, but then something like The Summer Job was “oh no, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a one-trick guy” pivot attempt. I’m proud of all my books, and I’m very passionate about movies, so a lot of my work deals with movies in a very direct way. 

But with Clown in a Cornfield I was very careful not to go that route. It’s *going* to carry that HalloweenFriday the 13th, or Scream vibe, just by virtue of what kind of story it is, but I very much didn’t want the characters to be that kind of fourth-wall-breaking “we’re in a horror movie” meta-spoof thing. The kids of Kettle Springs, if they’ve seen a horror movie, they’re not bringing it up as they’re running for their lives. I wanted to take the subject matter seriously. 

I think teens today have to deal with a lot of insane stressors and threats both emotional and physical, so I didn’t want to belittle that. 

JJ: Indie publishers usually put out your books. Was it a different experience publishing Clown in a Cornfield at a large publishing house?

AC: It was very different in some ways and then exactly the same in others. I really did appreciate the support and encouragement I got at Harper, and the time they spent with the manuscript, challenging me, being like “is this really the best way to approach this sequence?” Which, I’m sure some writers would bristle at that kind of editorial pushback, especially if they’re used to working with little or no feedback beyond copyedits, but I truly do think it resulted in the best work I’ve ever done. We’d mentioned my backlist earlier, and those books are my babies, I love them, but I can say with pretty clear eyes that Clown is better. It’s definitely my best book. I probably have readers who won’t agree, and that’s fine too.

JJ: I really like Quinn and also felt the town of Kettle Springs was its own character in the book! Are any of your characters based on anyone in your life?

AC: Interesting. Never really thought about that. Not consciously! But I definitely take little bits and pieces of people I know, conversations I’ve had. I think it’s just a healthy thing to do, adds a certain amount of verisimilitude. Same thing with the town itself. Kettle Springs isn’t a real place, but I love Americana and I love to travel (or I did), and I often get super deep into the details of a place, the local flavor. Most towns are in the process of having that individuality scrubbed away, little by little, so it’s fun to go to a place and be like “50 years ago it probably didn’t look all that different.” I like the towns that have retained that feel.

JJ: What is your process when writing a new book? Do you typically avoid reading while you write? Do you have a favorite writing snack or beverage?

AC: I do read while I’m drafting, but I do try to make sure my reading isn’t much like my current work in progress. Counter-programming. Now the process on Clown was a little different, because as I was drafting I watched a *ton* of slasher films. It was really all I watched for months. Dozens and dozens of them, all eras and types. But that was more an exercise in “let me try to internalize the structure and archetypes, even if I want to diverge from them, in parts.” 

As far as snacks and beverages, if I say nothing but gas station-brand energy drinks and Doritos as I approach a final draft, do you think I’ll lose readers? I wish it weren’t the truth but it is. 

JJ: Ha! I love your YouTube channel and how you give book/movie pairings. What movie would you pair with Clown in a Cornfield?

AC: Thank you for watching (readers, please go like and subscribe!). Great question! And one I’ve actually been asked a couple of times already, and I’d swore I’d give a different answer every time, but now I’m starting to forget what I’ve suggested? I think I’ve been saying 70s, 80s, and 90s stuff mostly, so let’s go contemporary: I think You’re Next is the best slasher of the decade, or at least one of them. It does a lot of smart things with the genre without fully breaking what makes a slasher a slasher.

JJ: What are you reading now?

AC: Been reading a lot of comics, actually, and was just sent an early copy of The Autumnal, which is coming out from Vault Comics with a script by Daniel Kraus and art by Chris Shehan. Really perfect to usher in Halloween season.

JJ: What book or project are you working on next?

AC: ::looks sheepishly down at his shoes:: I know what’s next but I can’t say! 

Also, it’s not next for sure, but my dream is to write a sequel to Clown in a Cornfield. I’ve been writing and publishing in the small press world for a decade now, and almost as long I’ve had readers asking for a sequel to Video Night. But I like the way that book ends and I’ve never once felt strongly enough about a sequel idea to risk damaging the first book. But Clown is one case where I think I have a really good idea. Not that the book ends on a cliffhanger or anything (it does not!). But my hope is that people like this one enough, and that it sells enough copies, that we can get the publishing band back together for another one.

JJ: Thank you, Adam, for your time and thoughtful responses! It’s always nice to meet not only a great writer but a truly kind person as well. Clown in a Cornfield is a blast to read and perfect for the Halloween season. I highly recommend every horror fan pick it up!

AC: Thank you so much for this, Janelle. Really an honor talking horror with you!


Clown in a Cornfield is on sale now.

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