Charles Tan Interviews Brian Hodge

Brian Hodge’s novella Whom the Gods Would Destroy is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges in writing Whom the Gods Would Destroy?

Brian Hodge: Pretty much the same challenges that apply, in one mix or another, to anything I might write — anything speculative, at least. There’s this core idea, and a lot of doing it justice comes down to getting the proper balance of the various aspects necessary to best convey it. How to fully explore something outlandish and push it to its extremes, yet make it seem plausible. How to weave in the research without letting it get too dense. How to work around some fairly heady topics, but keep an intimate focus on the characters. How to maintain a strong emotional center without overdoing it, letting it get overwrought. I try to stay aware of all that, and navigate the whole thing with a sense of balance.

Charles Tan: How did it develop its own soundtrack? What was your involvement in the process?

Brian Hodge: My involvement was total — composition, playing, recording, mixing, mastering. I got started in music while in gradeschool, so I’ve nearly always been into keyboards … piano first, then synthesizers and samplers. Later, the didgeridoo, which you could think of as an organic synthesizer. And it seems that synth geeks tend to naturally take to the recording process, because synths already demand more of a tech focus. So I’m totally into the home studio thing. A lot of hardware, a lot of software.

Now, like many writers, I put music on while I write. Mostly abstract, textural stuff, because lyrics are usually distracting. With Whom the Gods Would Destroy, I listened to a lot of space music, especially Jonn Serrie, who started out doing music for planetarium shows. It was ideal, and helped a lot, but it wasn’t the usual sort of stuff I cue up, and so maybe because of this atypical backdrop, I ended up relating to the work sonically in a stronger way. It gave me a compulsion to pick several key scenes and try to convey the same senses of wonder and terror, tenderness and longing, and so on, through music and sound design. Plus I’ve always loved the soundtrack work of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. So I dove in and did an album, too, for the fun of it.

Charles Tan: What made you consider including elements of science fiction into horror (or vice versa)?

Brian Hodge: That was just the way the project developed in the idea phase, and I tend to follow where things lead. It was the nature of the beast. If you deal with intelligences and life forms that aren’t endemic to this planet, you’re by default venturing into s-f territory. And because it felt both natural and necessary to make the central character a grad student in astronomy, that had to be his world, his frame of reference. He had to look at life and his own place in the cosmos through, both figuratively and literally, that lens. He had to feel as credible in that role as I could make him.

So all that made it necessary to bring in a certain amount of orthodox science, as well as play around with more controversial and outré theories. The panspermia theory may not be universally agreed on, but even Neil deGrasse Tyson gives that one credence. The bits about certain viruses and the like sifting down through the atmosphere, though, that’s pretty out there in the fringe realms, but it was fun to play with in the context of DNA being the perfect interstellar probe.

Charles Tan Interviews Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell’s novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: We’ve had several fiction tomes in literature such as The Necronomicon, and the case of your story, The Revalations of Gla’aki. What’s the appeal of such concepts or tropes?

Ramsey Campbell: I think the primary function of such books is to preserve their mystery – to suggest something larger than is shown. I confess that when I invented the Revelations all those years ago – I was sixteen – I didn’t do too well in that regard. At least I had the character who quoted it in my early story pretty well apologise for the unimpressiveness of the quote. I felt I got so many things wrong in the original tale (“The Inhabitant of the Lake”) that I wanted to give it another try, and attempt to conjure up a little more awe. I hope I succeeded better on the second bid.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges in writing The Last Revelation of Gla’aki?

Ramsey Campbell: Some of my favourite tales in the field – Blackwood’s “The Willows”, Machen’s “The White People”, Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” – seem to reach for awe, almost for the numinous. I’ve often tried to achieve it myself and at best managed to produce a few honourable failures. Well, this was my latest shot. I must admit I was afraid that folk who liked my old stuff would feel this was too radical a development, while readers who like my newer mode would think this was a reversion. Happily, none of this seems to have happened, though I was genuinely amazed to find the tale on the list for this award.

Charles Tan: At what point during the process did you know it was going to be a novella?

Ramsey Campbell: It was always meant to be one. My old friend Pete Crowther at PS Publishing asked me to write a Northern English supernatural novella using the kind of coastal town we both live in or near, and here it is. It grew quite a bit, though – maybe half as long again as I anticipated, throwing my schedule out rather. Still, i believe a story can only be as long as that story ought to be.



Charles Tan Interviews Nicole Cushing

Nicole Cushing’s novella Children of No One is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee. 

Charles Tan: What kind of research did you have to do for Children of No One?

Nicole Cushing: I spent time researching postmodern magick and the occult.  I don’t believe in the supernatural, but still like for my representations of the supernatural to have a sense of believability about them.  A friend referred me to a gentleman named Nathan Drake Schoonover, who has appeared on television programs and is something of an authority on the subject.  I chatted with Nathan on Facebook and he gave me some ideas about the sort of magick my character (Mr. No One) would likely use to achieve his goal.

Charles Tan: What was the experience like, writing your first novella? How different is it from writing short stories?

Nicole Cushing: When I started writing Children of No One, I assumed it was just going to be another short story.  Generally speaking, my natural inclination is toward brevity.  By the time I started writing Children of No One, I had arrived at a place in my career where I just assumed I would end up as a short story writer.

So, as I continued to write Children of No One and saw the word count increasing beyond that of a short story, and then beyond that of a novelette, I was incredulous.  But also a bit giddy.  It was validating, to see that my skill set could expand.

Now I’ll get to the second part of your question.  Having stumbled into writing a novella, I wasn’t aware – at the time – of the differences between it and a short story.  But I think I can look back and sort it out, now.

The novella is fiction’s middle child.  It’s there to accommodate stories that have at least one or two elements that need a little breathing room.  In the case of Children of No One, the cast of characters is simply too large and complicated to fit easily into a short story. Also, I was exploring themes that required some space to develop.  Those were the elements that needed breathing room.

However, the story didn’t sprawl in terms of the length of time it depicts (if I recall correctly, everything happens in less than twenty-four hours).  Likewise, the story takes place in and around a single setting.  If the story took place over weeks or months (or grew beyond its single setting), then I would have needed to expand it further.  Perhaps, into a novel.

So there’s this lovely, odd sense of simultaneous expansion and brevity in a novella.  It’s a literary contradiction.  That’s probably why I enjoy the form so much.  It’s a way for an author to selectively expand only those aspects of storytelling that need expanding (even if that selection process occurs subconsciously, as it did for me).

Charles Tan: What was the most challenging and rewarding part of writing Children of No One?

Nicole Cushing: The most challenging part was the ending. I felt confident in the strength of the first two-thirds of the novella.  As I wrote those first two-thirds, I was absorbed in a sense of playfulness with the story, the characters, and the themes.  But I lost that sense of playfulness as I approached the ending.  I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.  I was scared of setting up something with potential, but failing to live up to that potential.  I think the fact that we’re having this conversation suggests I didn’t blow it.

The most rewarding part was simply the euphoria I felt during the writing process.  Children of No One was written on spec.  I was occasionally nagged by thoughts that I was wasting my time with a project that wouldn’t sell.  But the euphoria pulled me through the doubt.  I decided to persevere with it because I was enjoying it too much to quit.

Charles Tan Interviews Veronica Schanoes

Veronica Schanoes’ novella Burning Girls and her novelette “Phosphorus” are 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominees.

Charles Tan: Both Burning Girls and “Phosphorus” required some space for build-up and development. For you, what’s the appeal of the novelette and novella format?

Veronica Schanoes: Honestly, I just write the story, and then cut all the unnecessary bits, and it ends up being the length it has to be.  As long as it holds the reader through to the end, I’m happy!

Charles Tan: What made you decide to focus on the working class and immigrants as the central characters for your stories?

Veronica Schanoes: There are the specific reasons with respect to these stories, and then there is the general reason.  My parents are leftists–my father is actually a Marxist–and I was raised with a strong sense of leftist values and understanding of history.  I learned early on how many people suffered and died–and are still suffering and dying–in order to make comfortable lives for the few.  And people in power depend on those stories being hidden, forgotten, made unimportant, in order to justify their continued power and status.  So I was taught to remember those stories and honor the people who work and fight for justice and human happiness.

With respect to these particular stories…I wrote “Phosphorus” in large part as a reaction against the glamorization of the nineteenth century that I see everywhere I look these days–corsets and clockwork and steam-power and tea and suitors and suchlike.  The nineteenth century was a horrible time to be alive for most people in England (to say nothing of, for example, slaves in the US and the many people across the world subject to imperialist oppression and exploitation).  Industrialization required the immiseration and exploitation of so many people.  I wanted to work with something that would highlight that aspect of the nineteenth century, which is really its most dominant quality to me, and nothing, I think, makes that clearer than phossy jaw.  And who got phossy jaw?  Well, the women (and men) who worked in match factories.  And the 1888 Matchgirls’s Strike was really the beginning of industrial unionism in the UK.  So, there was the story.

“Burning Girls” began with a single idea, which was that someone should write a revision of “Rumplestiltzkin” set in the sweatshops and factories of the Lower East Side around the (second most recent) turn of the century.  For many of us well-versed in labor history, in the history of New York City (and I am a lifelong New Yorker with a real love for the city), that era pivots around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  And these factories and sweatshops, like the match factories of London, were filled with immigrant workers.

It’s kind of a weird question to me, I guess.  I wanted to write about phossy jaw and I wanted to write a story set in the garment factories of the Lower East Side–so of course those are stories about immigrant factory workers…because that’s who was there.  So I guess the answer is…because those are the ideas I had.  But I had those ideas because of the interests I have, the reading I’ve done, the values I hold, and ultimately because of the politics and morality I was raised with.

Charles Tan: Were there any difficulties in the research you had to do for Burning Girls and “Phosphorus”, especially since they’re both period pieces?

Veronica Schanoes: Hell, yes.  I always used to say that I wouldn’t write historical fiction because I had to do enough research as is in my academic career.  Famous last words, right?  I did more research for “Burning Girls” than I’ve done for most academic articles I’ve written, and it literally took me years.  I studied a number of different aspects–the Jewish magic tradition, the late 19th and early 20th-century Eastern European pogroms, the experience of immigration for Jewish women at that time (Irving Howe called it “The World of Our Fathers,” but our mothers were there too, and made that world as much if not more so), and I already had significant background knowledge regarding the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration 1880-1920 and the Triangle fire.

In contrast, the research for “Phosphorus” was a breeze.  I used an amazing book by Louise Raw called Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History.  I special-ordered it from the UK.  It’s absolutely brilliant, and Raw did absolutely amazingly resourceful research in the face of a dual marginalization–labor historians wanted the 1889 Dockworkers’ strike to be the genesis of the New Unionism in the UK (because the match workers were girls and women) and feminist historians wanted to give all the credit to Annie Besant, a middle-class Fabian socialist who became a theosophist–nobody was willing to accept that working-class women and girls had agency of their own, took control of their own fates, and stood strong and militant.  And won.  Anyway, I read that book, and I already had some background knowledge about the Irish Potato Famine, and that story came together remarkably quickly.

The scary part–or perhaps the predictable part, given that I am an academic after all, is that despite what I always said about how I would avoid writing historical fiction, it turns out that I really enjoy the research.  I’ve got a couple of projects I’m amassing the books for right now, actually.

Charles Tan Interviews Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe’s novel Wild Fell is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges in writing Wild Fell?

Michael Rowe: I think the challenges in writing Wild Fell are the challenges a writer would face writing any supernatural novel. To wit, engaging enough suspension of disbelief in the reader that he or she will happily follow you into the deepest, darkest part of Georgian Bay, to an island that exists only in the mind of the author, populated by entities that one is relieved exist only in the mind of the author. Ghost stories aren’t exactly an unexplored literary country, so coming up with a new or original mythology was a challenge, as was honoring the classic tropes of the classic ghost story—which Wild Fell is a deliberate and unambiguous nod to—while simultaneously updating them for a 2014 audience of readers. All too often, writers working in genre announce that they’re doing a modernized version of this or that, and the reader soon discovers that the writer has no fundamental understanding of the genre they’re “updating.” This often results in work that reads as tinny and derivative. No writer wants to elicit that reaction in a reader.

Charles Tan: What made you decide to visit The Corran and how did it influence your setting?

Michael Rowe: The Corran was a 19th century mansion deep in the heart of rural Ontario owned by Alexander MacNeil, a political figure of the era. In its day, the house, built in 1882 on the edge of the town of Wiarton, was renowned as one of the most beautiful of its kind, and high-society visitors from all over Canada, the United States, and Britain came to visit it. It’s described as having been rich with tapestries and oriental rugs, with oil paintings, and with beautiful furniture. It took 15 servants to run it. The gardens were likewise described as exquisite, and featured a special “black rose,” allegedly grown from cuttings from the gardens where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. The Corran eventually fell into disrepair when the family died off, and was permanently destroyed by a fire in the late 1960s. I’d come across a reference to the ruins when I was making notes for Wild Fell.

I visited the ruins during the winter. It was hard to find, initially, because of the snow, but we found the spot off the highway and hiked in through the drifts, and eventually found it. It’s a cliché to say that the ruins were “haunting,” but that’s really the best word to describe it. The silence was almost absolute, broken only by the odd crack of a tree branch, and the ruins themselves were stark and etched in snow. The impression the scene made on me was quite indelible, and the image of it—particularly its remoteness, and its actual sense of being remote—very specifically informed the house in the novel. The cliff upon which the house in the novel is built was inspired by the small but deadly cliff leading down into Colpoys Bay that we found at the edge of the property. The library in the town of Alvina was inspired by the town library in Wiarton where we stopped to do a bit of local research before driving up the highway in search of the ruins. And another small but amusing anecdote from the trip that made its way into the novel is the fact that the grandfather of one of the shopkeepers we visited on the way out of Wiarton had played chess with the butler at the Corran.

Charles Tan: You’ve written nonfiction and edited anthologies. How different or similar is your process when it comes to novel writing?

Michael Rowe: It’s completely different.

With an anthology, you’re curating the best work of other writers in the service of the vision of an anthology you’ve conceived. With nonfiction, you’re bound by facts, and your responsibility is to illuminate those facts for the reader in a way that communicates them clearly. With novel writing, you’re not bound by facts, except inasmuch as you’re using actual facts in your fiction, but instead of being bound by facts, you’re responsible for creating a universe of facts of your own, then abiding by them.

In terms of my process, the sitting down to write part is the same, but the length and intensity of the writing sessions when I’m working on a novel is very different than when I’m writing nonfiction. I don’t want to get “lost” in nonfiction writing, because, as I said, I’m accountable to facts.

When I’m working on fiction, specifically a novel, I want to get lost. I want to become so immersed in the universe of the people I’m writing about that the world I see in my mind is the world I’m describing on paper, and the voices of the characters are so strong that I’m taking dictation instead of thinking in any measured way about what a character would say, or do, next. I call it the “sweet spot,” and it’s the closest thing to nirvana that I expect to attain, short of transcendent sex or transcendent love. It’s like communicating with the dead, except you’re not communicating with the dead at all—you’re communicating with people who’ve never existed.