What’s scarier than horror movies? Growing up. Or are they two sides of the same coin?
Fear is at the heart of Mike Cavaliere’s debut memoir, “The Humorist,” intertwining life lessons from his adventures in adulting, with tongue-in-cheek lessons learned from horror movies.
Cavaliere, a former editor at the Palm Coast and Ormond Beach Observer newspapers, is also the author of “Tracks in the Sand” and won awards at every step of the way. He is currently director of news and media relations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Cavaliere spoke with me via Zoom about his motivations for creating, and what follows is a transcript of our interview, edited for clarity and length.
Where did you get the idea for this book, Mike?
It's been brewing for a while. While we worked together at the paper, I was writing a weekly humor column about my trials and tribulations of being a 20-something. This is sort of the next chapter, about life in my 30s, when you're in a new phase of life, and you're dealing with different problems having to do with marriage and being a parent and trying to figure out do I want to have a baby, and death of loved ones being diagnosed with rare diseases. Tying that into my lifelong obsession with horror movies felt like a good fit because I think that when you're growing up, the common thread throughout all the strongest memories of your life is fear, in one way or another, whether that's the fear of change, or the unknown.
Can you tell me about your book cover?
It’s a parody of “The Exorcist” movie poster, where you have the priest in his trench coat and his fedora holding a briefcase and looking very ominously toward a window, where the little girl who's possessed by the devil lives, and he's going to try to exorcise your demons. In my version, it's a dude with one of those rainbow pinwheel hats and holding a rubber chicken instead of a briefcase, because he's having kind of a hard time dealing with what it means to be a grownup.
You studied creative nonfiction as an undergrad. How do you define it?
In the simplest terms, it's stories just like fiction, just like a novel, except they're based off your own life. So you're trying to find themes and stories that have a certain narrative punch to them, and you're connecting a lot of various threads to try to learn something about yourself or the world.
Your first line of dialogue reads like this: “‘Mom!’ I probably yelled.” And on Page 17, your step daughter has a hilarious line of dialogue, using the word “salacious” and other unrealistic vocabulary for a 4-year-old. What are you trying to teach us early on about how to read this book?
Ideally, I want it to be crystal clear and obvious when I'm taking liberties and exaggerating for comic effect, and when I'm being sincere. I think that you do that through little cues, but usually, I think you do that with tone. It is kind of a tight wire to walk, because you can't make it so obvious where you're holding up direction signs, like, “This part is exaggerated, this part is not real.” There is a lot of flipping and flopping in this book between, silly, funny sections, and kind of sad and serious sections.
One of those early sincere passages goes like this: “Scary movies weave themselves into our genes. They persist because no matter how old we get, we never outgrow fear. It's the one constant through line in each of our coming of age stories. It's a drug, and I've been chasing it's high … for as long as I can remember.” What have you learned about fear from writing the story?
Fear is this endlessly fascinating thing, because on the one hand, it's everywhere in our culture, even in weird ways. Look back at our fairy tales. Even “Sesame Street” had a vampire teaching us how to count. It permeates our growing up and teaches us these morals, so it's everywhere on the one hand; but then, on the other hand, we are ashamed of fear in certain ways. We don't actively try to face something if it makes us uncomfortable or afraid. We tell ourselves certain stories to kind of navigate around that, like “I’m over it.” We tell ourselves we’ve moved past whatever traumatic thing that's happened in the past.
I think horror movies are the most visceral art form that we have. When you watch a horror movie, you feel all of these different sensations, and you jump in your seat, and your heart rate goes up, and you might get a little clammy and sweaty. And for someone like me, who has always been an overthinker, there's something great about the reminder that horror movies give you that there's more going on in the world. It puts you more in touch with your body. It’s a reminder that you should pay as much attention to external stimuli, your physical body, as your intellectual one.
Writing this book, was basically an exercise in overthinking, trying to find every scrap of significance in little tiny details of your life. What was it like to revisit your life with such a microscope?
It's a process that feeds itself. The more that I went back, and I thought about these formative moments in my life, and the clearest memories that I had, the more I found all of these examples of escaping through screens, or through imagination, or through defenses of other kinds, whether it be film criticism, or writing or reporting, where you're sort of involved in your life, but then you find a you find a certain way to detach from the realness and the bigness of it, by just observing and reviewing your experiences rather than actively being a part of them. And by going through all of these memories, it forces you to see patterns in your own behavior, and then confront why you are this way, why you do these things. One of the driving forces behind committing to this project was the desire to break that wall of protection down.
You’ve said “The Blair Witch Project” is one of your favorite horror movies, and part of the reason it’s so compelling is the do-it-yourself style. That’s one thing I admire about your book as well, the idea that you decided to do it, set your own deadlines and put this piece of art out into the world. But how do you handle the self-doubt and the thought that, in the end, maybe no one will care?
I think that you hit a point where that self doubt hits you like a ton of bricks. And you have to ask yourself why you're doing it in the first place. And if you're doing it for other people's approval, or to make a million dollars and to be famous, then you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons. And so early in the process, I just had to tell myself that if nobody reads this, who cares? I'm writing this because I feel like I've spent all my personal time writing about things that I care about, but kind of tucking it away. I’ve written 2,500 movie reviews, and they’re on Letterboxd now, but for the first 10 years that I did them, I would hand write them in a little notebooks and put them aside in my room and tell no one that I did them. It was just this secret little journal. And this book was about breaking that cycle. I wanted to stop feeling like I was hiding my ambitions or my creativity or a fear of failure.
I decided, whatever happens happens; I'm going to put it out hopefully people like it, but I don't have expectations of it blowing up because that seems like the quickest path to disappointment.
At one point you’re asking yourself why you were tipping Port-a-Potties as a teenager, and then you weave that story into one about your daughter, and you’re asking why she is stealing snacks from the pantry. What did you discover?
I think that the generational divide is interesting, because holds a mirror up and forces us to recognize patterns that not only we carry through our own lives, but are maybe universal to everyone who is growing up. And I noticed that there's this primal urge that kids have to break the rules, and to just do stupid things, for no real reason, and not even think about the consequences. What I came to is, we do this as a way to be seen. We go out in the darkness and make a mess, because this leaves our mark, and we feel like when we drive by in the morning, and we see that Port-a-Potty on the street, we know that we did it. I think that it was the same with my daughter: She would get a certain amount of attention, negative or otherwise, from us from doing these things. And it was just such a clear reflection of my own nighttime debauchery in action, just sort of this directionless, smashing up of structure.
Search “Mike Cavaliere The Humorist” to find it on Amazon. Audiobook available soon.