Interview with Asher CantrellPosted: November 23, 2013
Asher Cantrell has only been writing comedy for about three years, but he’s already made an impression as a freelancer for websites like Cracked, Mental Floss and Film School Rejects. His knack for funny, fact-filled prose has also led to the publication of his first book, The Book of Word Records: A Look at Some of the Strangest, Shortest, Longest, and Overall Most Remarkable Words in the English Language, published through Adams Media. But before he started writing non-fiction comedy, Cantrell had already been a long-time writer of horror stories, and in this capacity, he’s now fundraising for Supplicants to Other Gods, a collection of short stories he hopes to put out in an ebook. You can visit the book’s funding page here to donate. In this interview we discuss creative influences and his writing process, among other things.
Comedy Conglomerate: How did you originally get involved with Cracked? Did you have much writing experience prior to that?
Asher Cantrell: I used to write dumb horror stories when I was a kid and I wanted to do that since I was really young. I had a huge young writer crush on Stephen King. I went to college for writing, but obviously, the gods of literature did not shower me with gifts afterward. Turns out you have to work at it. So I saw that Cracked had an open-door workshop and joined up because I loved the site.
My only real “published” work before that was a blog I kept, Weird Shit Blog, where I’d write 500+ essays on various paranormal and mysterious things that interested me. I also wrote a play in college that ran at a couple of festivals, and that was my first time being paid as a writer.
CC: Most of your work could be classified as humorous. Why do you gravitate towards comedy as a writer?
AC: I actually don’t. It was just a matter of necessity. All of my writing before Cracked was super-serious. I used to (and still do, technically) write these terribly grim horror stories where everyone dies and no one feels anything but emptiness, or whatever. My play was about the use of torture in war time. But I just loved that Cracked tackled subject matter that I enjoyed in an entertaining way, and I’d spent my life collecting bullshit tidbits, so I figured I’d put them to use.
I actually started Weird Shit Blog as practice for Cracked. That was my first attempt at humor writing. I have a sense of humor in person and stuff, but comedy was something I’d never even tried. I didn’t know the first thing about it. Luckily, it’s a skill that you learn as you go. Watch this: Farts. Fucking hilarious, right?
CC: So has being pushed to write comedy effected your more serious fiction in any way? Are your horror stories funnier than they used to be?
AC: Nope, they’re still pretty serious. I do a lot of horror-comedy stuff on my blog now, though. Twice a day I’ll post weird short posts that I’ve dubbed “hexts.” They’re just surreal jokes about the occult and stuff. People seem to like it!
CC: You’ve been very prolific writing for Cracked, FilmSchoolRejects, Mental Floss and a few other places. Looking back over all the articles you’ve freelanced for these sites, do you have a favorite?
AC: Yeah, actually. I know no one ever says yes to those kinds of questions. (Or maybe they do, I don’t know.) My all-time favorite has got to be 8 Creepy Video Game Urban Legends (That Happen to Be True). I wrote that one with Maxwell Yezpitelok and it’s a subject I just love so much. It was my first creepy article, my first video game article (I don’t play games as much anymore, but I still retain so much knowledge about them from when I was a kid), and I didn’t have to do any research for it. I just crapped all of those out of my knowledge banks because they’re stories I already knew. It just flowed out.
CC: I interviewed Kathy Benjamin a few months back, who also has a book out through Adams Media. In her case, Adams came to her with the basic concept for her book. Did they also come to you with the idea for The Book of Word Records?
AC: Actually, Halli Melnitsky, the acquisitions editor on both our books, approached Kathy as she was wrapping up her book, Funerals to Die For, and asked if she knew anyone who would be interested in writing a book on words. For some foolish reason, Kathy recommend me instead of the dozens of other amazing writers she knows.
CC: What appeals to you about writing on the subject of language?
AC: I touched on it a little in the intro for the book, which is the only remotely serious part. Language is basically a really rudimentary form of time travel. Our ancestors figured things out, like “fire bad” and “beer before liquor, never sicker” and they condensed lifetimes of learning down into lessons that they could pass on through words. So, take some brilliant ancient human like Euclid, who spent his life developing the building blocks of our modern system of geometry. Now, you can learn the basics of what he spent decades on in a few months in high school because it’s all written down and passed on through one human lifespan after another. We are consuming Euclid’s brain like the zombies we are.
CC: Did you find that the subject matter for the book lent itself easily to humor, or did you have to work hard to keep it funny?
AC: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I feel like language is an exceptionally dry subject. Linguists aren’t known for throwing wild parties or anything. I had to work pretty hard at keeping it funny, and that’s especially true because I’m not as seasoned as some of my fellow comedy writers. I’m still new at humor. I’ve only been doing it for three years.
CC: The book covers quite a bit of information, some of which seems pretty obscure. What was your research process like? Were you able to do all your research online or did you have to venture into the world of physical books?
AC: I did do a lot of the research online, but I also had to take a trip to the Nashville Public Library to browse their physical copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, the full collection of which is twenty volumes long, plus various and assorted amended materials. That was really cool.
CC: Who are some of your favorite writers (or creators in general)?
AC: I like a lot of stuff. I used to love Stephen King when I was younger and I’ve stuck with it, though I realize now that some of his books can be not-so-fresh. I like all the usual things young white writers like. Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis. If people looked at my bookshelves they’d probably roll their eyes. It’s all popular writers everyone already knows, a bunch of nobody horror writers, and non-fiction BS books about paranormal shit.
CC: Who are some of the biggest creative influences on your work?
AC: I actually get a lot of influence from music, usually more than I do from reading. I love a bunch of music everyone else hates or thinks is hipster garbage, like The Mars Volta or old ’80s industrial music, but it really gets me into this kind of trance where I can be really creative.
CC: So walk me through the use of music in your writing routine? Do you have go-to albums or specific playlists that you play when you’re working? Do you pick music that you think is appropriate to your specific article or story? How does it work?
AC: Actually, I don’t listen to music at all when I’m actually writing. I guess it’s more like a pregame thing. I’ll listen to music to put me in a certain mood, then I write. For non-fiction, it’s usually instrumental stuff. Soundtracks and stuff like that. For fiction, it’s usually specific albums that I know put me into a certain headspace. Usually it’s progressive and experimental stuff. The Mars Volta and HEALTH are two that I’ve just listened to today, plus the soundtrack from Doom 64, the weirder, creepier version of Doom that they made for the Nintendo 64. The name probably gave that away, I guess.
CC: What motivates you to write?
AC: Dreams. I have these crazy dreams with actual plots and twists and detailed settings and characters. Sometimes just the things they’ll talk about will give me an idea for something that turns into an article. I think my dreams would probably drive me insane if I didn’t turn them into something useful.
CC: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
AC: I’ve got a second book in the works, and while it contains words, it isn’t about them. It’s more about weird stuff, urban legends, conspiracies, things like that. I’m also always working on new articles.