markgunnells (markgunnells) wrote,

Brian Hodge Interview

I've been a fan of Brian Hodge's work for many years now. Recently I read his excellent Cemetery Dance novella I'll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky and was reminded that he is one of the most talented wordsmiths working today. I asked him if he'd let me interview him for my blog and I was delighted that he said yes.

MAG: Was there a particular book or author that inspired you in your youth to want to become a writer?

BH: Not really, no. It was ingrained from such an early age that I had trouble imagining any other primary path. I itched to write as a preschooler, even before I’d been taught the alphabet.

MAG: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, what can you tell us about it?

BH: That would’ve been in second grade, when I wrote this piece about a rowboat of guys shipwrecked on an island, then they’re all eaten by monsters. Monsters that were probably inspired by dinosaurs. When you’re in second grade, you have to illustrate your stories, you know. It’s all about the drawings. The red crayon really took a beating that day.

MAG: What was your first story sale?

BH: If you don’t count prizewinners in high school and college literary magazines, that was “Oasis,” to David B. Silva’s magazine The Horror Show. That was the first sale of a manuscript I’d shipped off to a stranger across the country.

MAG: I believe you sold your very first novel. How did that come about?

BH: Also named Oasis, because it grew directly out of the story. I’d gone to this weeklong intensive in Boston called the New England Writers Conference. For our workshops and nightly homework, I did additional exercises with the story’s characters, and found I wasn’t ready to turn loose of them yet. My workshop leader was a Harvard professor and writer and former editor, and she met one-on-one with everybody in her group. As luck would have it, she met with me the final morning, so she’d had all week to gauge what I was doing. Over our breakfast meeting, she said, “You’re ready to be doing novels now.” My reaction was, “Are you serious? I’m just out of college.” But she was so adamant that she gave me a list of literary agents she was acquainted with, as a place to start once I had something to show them. She only did that for three of us out of twenty-some people. The agent who sold the novel to Tor was on that list.

MAG: I first became aware of you during the Dell Abyss days. Specifically I picked up your novel The Darker Saints, which remains one of my favorite novels with one of the most emotionally raw and authentic endings I’ve ever read. I thought Abyss was a line that really put out a lot of quality work. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences there?

BH: It was the right thing at the right time, and I loved being a part of it, and was fortunate to be there from the start. To this day I adore our editor there, Jeanne Cavelos, and always will, for being a friend as well as an editor, and for what I learned from working with her and what she instilled in me. This was early enough that I still needed some of the ego beaten out of me, and Jeanne was great about doing that in a gentle, diplomatic, stealth way. She was one of those editors who really brought out the best in you, and I always got the sense that she cared deeply about all her authors, whether they were onboard for one book or four. The convention panels and signings and other events she would organize were always fun, too. So it created a real shared experience that I’ve found to have had permanent benefits.

MAG: The Darker Saints, while not a direct sequel to your novel Nightlife, does feature the same two main characters in a new adventure. When you were writing Nightlife, did you know you were going to revisit those characters, or how did the idea for The Darker Saints come about?

BH: While writing Nightlife, I always considered it self-contained. I thought Justin and April would be left standing under the St. Pete end of the Tampa Bay bridge forever, and it was up to you to decide whether they shot each other or forgave one another their transgressions.

Next was Deathgrip, and then I started developing the core idea for The Darker Saints. I knew it was going to be more like Nightlife, a hybrid of crime and horror. I knew it was going to involve an organized crime mob in New Orleans that took a page from Haiti’s Tonton Macoute, in that they used voodoo as a weapon of terror and coercion. As I started fleshing out the factions and their conflicts, the story eventually opened up and invited Justin and April in. In hindsight, it made perfect sense, and I loved going back to them, even if it broke my heart by the end.

MAG: One of the protagonists of this novel works in the advertising field, and I actually found the bits with him coming up with a new coffee campaign rather interesting in their own right. Did you do much research into advertising?

BH: I didn’t have to. It was my background. Advertising was my major at the University of Illinois. At the time, at least, it was one of the top programs in the country for that particular academic track. The coffee thing was an extrapolation of a smaller project my senior year. I was writing these novels close enough to my college years that I cannibalized a lot of things from them. Same as how I used the Amazonian Yanomamö tribe as a central part of Nightlife. I knew about them from an extended study in my sophomore year anthropology course.

MAG: Last Darker Saints question, I swear, but there was a bit with a cat and a guy’s nose that was the kind of thing that one isn’t likely to forget. Where in your deep and fertile imagination did that come from?

BH: Half crime novel, remember? I was reading a lot of whacked-out crime novels at the time — Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, Joe Lansdale, and so on — and it was fun to inject a bit of that flavor into The Darker Saints. With that scene I was actually solving a tonal challenge: Justin needs some fast answers, and the colleague he needs them from isn’t talking, but the guy’s really just a weasel who’s in over his head, and doesn’t deserve to be harmed. So how do you subject him to enhanced interrogation to get him talking, without completely losing sympathy for Justin? That was my solution. Take this cat in heat and drape her over the guy’s face. Play it for sick laughs.

MAG: Your final Dell book was called Prototype. I really liked this one, particularly when your character spoke of his youth and the pain he went through during that time of his life. I related to that on a very personal level. I also recall that you had some lesbian characters featured in this one, and I’ve read some short stories where you’ve used gay male characters. You were actually one of the earliest straight male authors I remember utilizing LGBT characters, and I commend you for that. Was this an intentional decision or just something that came naturally to you? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

BH: It was never an intentional approach, at least in the sense of something like a quota system. It’s always been more about being true to characters as they materialize and show up for work, and this seems to be who they are. Either that, or it’s something baked in from the start by the idea itself, or the milieu. Something like “Little Holocausts,” that couldn’t be about anyone else but gay men. Either way, I’m not going to turn them away any more than I would in 3-D life. To me, characters are first and foremost human beings before they’re ever a part of a demographic.

MAG: Another thing that has always impressed me about you is that you write a lot of short stories. I’m a short story lover, and I believe you are one of the best short story writers working today. Some writers, once they start publishing novels, turn away from the short form. What is it about short fiction that keeps you coming back?

BH: Loads of reasons. Bottom line, I like the form. Beyond that? Editors keep asking me to do them. I like being a part of good anthologies, books I’d want to read anyway even if I wasn’t contributing to them. Maybe an invitation to this project or that sparks an idea I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so now there’s a responsibility to that idea to bring it into fruition. Not every idea warrants a novel-length exploration, and I don’t discriminate, or think, oh, this isn’t worth the time. Short story, novelette, novella, novel … it doesn’t matter. I love them all. Mostly I want to do justice to the ideas, bring them to form and let them fill whatever space they need.

Plus I’ve come to think of shorter fiction as playing an ambassadorial role. Readers who’ve never heard of you might encounter you in short form, audition you for a half-hour, then decide to move on to your novels and collections. I know that happens, because people tell me about it.

And, finally, you never know what’s going to click in the right place at the right time. A few years ago, I did a piece called “The Same Deep Waters As You,” for the third and final volume of editor Stephen Jones’ trilogy of anthologies involving Lovecraft’s town of Innsmouth. I was just stoked to be a part of the project itself. But then the story was printed and reprinted four times within about a year, in multiple formats, so it alone has brought in more income than a lot of people see from a novel. Now it’s been optioned for development as a TV series by a London-based production company. You just never know. All I can do is go all-in on the project at hand, and whatever happens, happens.

MAG: While we’re on the topic of short stories, I have to ask about your story “Asleep at the Wheel” from the anthology Freddy Krueger’s Seven Sweetest Dreams. As a huge fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, I ate this anthology up, and “Asleep at the Wheel”, which wove in rock’n’roll and Nancy Thompson’s house, was a favorite of mine. How did you come to take part in this project?

BH: Somehow, really early on, I fell into the good graces of the editor, Martin H. Greenberg. The best description I ever heard of him was that he was a human book factory. He edited or co-edited or compiled nearly 1300 anthologies. Marty had asked me into a few projects, and I never said no, and gave him 100% of what I was capable of generating at any given time. So when the Nightmare on Elm Street book came along, he must’ve trusted me enough to pull it off under bonkers conditions. From invitation to delivery was ten days.

Weirdly enough, it turned into one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I’ve ever had. I spent the first few days planning, bingeing all the movies that were out at the time, and making notes. What worked for me? What didn’t? One thing that gnawed at me, at least with the later movies, was their Breakfast Club approach to characters. I’d be thinking, hmm, it’s a stretch that these people would ever voluntarily hang out together. That was how I gravitated toward a more unified cast of characters, this ethereal goth-rock band, so they’d have various creative and personal dynamics going on, all within their overarching collective dream.

So, five days planning, then I went on an overnight campout next to a lake with friends, and blew my brains out with tequila. Got up the next morning, chugged a bottle of Gatorade, and went home and got to work. I lived and breathed and ate it for five days, and finished with an all-nighter. After I sent it off, I took my pistol and some cans out to a remote spot and blew through two boxes of ammunition, to vent off steam, then came home and slept for about 20 hours. It was an amazing experience.

MAG: In 2010, you released a digital short called “Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls” which subsequently got reprinted in a few Best Of anthologies as well as made into an audio story which is still available on Pseudopod ( It is an emotionally affecting tale of troubled children seeking escape. Where did you get the inspiration for that one?

BH: It came out of something I almost never do. I never write disembodied fragments that don’t belong to some larger context. Except this time I did. I’d reread Thomas Ligotti’s first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and it was like there was some residue left behind that needed an outlet of expression. So out popped that narrative of the boy’s imaginary magic show, where he sawed people into pieces and recombined them to the delight of his audience. The imagery and feel seemed very Ligotti to me. Then it sat hibernating on the hard drive for two or three years before I went back to it. It was probably necessary to give the initial connection to Ligotti time to fade, because I didn’t want to mimic him the whole time. I had to get back to approaching it as myself again. That upstairs room, that was my room for a time. That park was the park I grew up next to. That was my fingernail scratching the frost off the inside of the glass of the dormer windows.

MAG: A novel of yours I absolutely love is Wild Horses. It’s a fun and exciting caper type novel with a lot of humor in it. I thought you handled it expertly, delivering an engaging and satisfying read. At the time it was considered a bit of a departure for you. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for that one, and was it as much fun for you to write as it was for us to read?

BH: The first seed was a one-off line in an article I’d read, that mentioned two women in a bar fight in this desert town. For whatever reason, that stuck in my filter. I kept wondering, who are these women? Why are they fighting? How did they end up in this dusty little dead-end town? I wrote it up as a novelette, and awhile later Doli and I were with some friends on a cross-country road trip. My friend Amy read it along the way and put the idea in my head that the story could keep going.

It was the ideal time to hear that. This was right after I finished Prototype. Back then, I didn’t know how to do something like those Dell Abyss novels other than living them on the inside, sort of like method acting, and experiencing the characters’ traumas as if they were my own. I’d live like that for months. Each book got darker, and each one required a longer recovery period. Doli was to the point of thinking, “I don’t think I can go through this with him again,” which was a terrible position for me to have put her in.

So it was just as much a move of self-preservation. I was afraid if I kept going the way I had been, either the next novel would turn into a self-parody, or I would self-destruct. Take your pick. OK, then, time for something completely different. I’ve been reading a lot of whacked-out crime novels? Let me try writing a whacked-out crime novel.

And yeah, it was a load of fun. I’ve never had characters take over to any greater degree than this crew did. It was like every morning they would throw me in the trunk of a car and we’d get a little farther down the road.

MAG: Your most recent release is the novel The Immaculate Void, out through ChiZine. If I’m remembering correctly, originally this was going to be the name of a short story collection. Could you tell me how it evolved into a full-fledged novel?

BH: It was an accident. I’d contracted with Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi, of ChiZine Publications, for my fifth collection. The master plan was to return to the approach I used with the first two. The Convulsion Factory and Falling Idols were both thematic collections that concluded with a chunky new novella that resynthesized and echoed a lot of the themes of the foregoing stories.

I’ve been prone to going through phases, and over the past several years I’ve been big into a cosmic horror phase, so this new collection would reflect this. I had the title, The Immaculate Void, and for the concluding novella I was using the Latin translation, “Vacuum Immaculatum.”

Then I got to work on it, and it just kept going. It kept not ending. It finally came in about three times the length I thought it might be. When I turned in the full manuscript, I didn’t feel right about it. The balance was off. As a book, it was now this lopsided mutant. What I wasn’t ready to admit to myself was that it was a story collection bolted onto the front of a novel, and each half robbed the other of some of its identity and impact.

After a few days, Brett asked me, “How long is this new piece?” When I told him, he came back with, “That’s a novel!” To my enduring gratitude, he and Sandra decided the best solution was to make two books out of it, so each component could stand as its own thing. I had a new novelette called “One Last Year Without a Summer” that was perfect to bat cleanup for the reconfigured collection, which got a new title, Skidding Into Oblivion, and was rescheduled for next February. Everything is all the better for handling it that way.

MAG: Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for The Immaculate Void?

BH: Before I even had a story, the underlying aim was to grapple with an inner conflict I was feeling. If cosmic horror has a central tenet, it’s the meaningless of life and human existence. But it’s not just on the page … some of the key writers mining this vein, and readers, really hold that view. This was part of H.P. Lovecraft’s makeup, and as much as I respect his work, I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with Thomas Ligotti where I didn’t come away feeling miserable.

But that’s never been my own outlook. I’ve just found it useful sometimes to work as-if. A lot of what I’ve done involves characters who find the meaning in the events they’re caught up in, or create their own meaning. In early preparation, I read some anti-natalist stuff — the philosophy that it’s better to have never been born. I develop ideas by having conversations with myself on yellow legal pads, and the first thing I wrote when I started making notes was “anti-anti-natalist.”

Then while I was first trawling for ideas, I came across one of the phrases allegedly back-masked into “Stairway to Heaven”: There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer. Again, caught in the filters. The rest of what people think they hear in backwards “Stairway” I find silly, but that phrase creeps the shit out of me.

So I got to thinking, okay, suppose you have this little girl, she comes within moments of being murdered in this archetypal toolshed. Are you going to tell her, her brother, her family, that it’s objectively meaningless whether she came out alive or not? Are you going to tell the families of the earlier kids who didn’t make it that it doesn’t matter? Are you going to maintain that with people who had no connection to any of it, but were horrified and appalled simply because they’re fellow, feeling human beings? Then I got to thinking in terms of meaning playing out on a timescale that makes even the age of our universe a blip. It unfurled from there.

MAG: How long did it take you to complete the first draft of The Immaculate Void? Did you do much revision and editing after, or did you do that as you went along?

BH: I’m not sure … it took a lot of months, not including a break in the middle to work on other obligations. But none of the usual norms applied here. I started developing the idea and writing shortly after I had an accident that ripped up my left patellar tendon. I spent months having to work at the dining room table because, in the leg brace, I couldn’t fit at my desk.

Worse than that was the loss of energy and focus. I’m used to working out pretty avidly, and at the time was training for my brown belt test in Krav Maga. When you’re abruptly cut off from that level of activity, you go through what’s essentially a neurological withdrawal. Your brain chemistry changes. So everything took longer, and wore me out easier, and I was already doing therapy exercises three times a day. I had to swim against that for roughly the latter half of 2016.

But once the draft was done, it was mostly done. I tend to do all the heavy lifting upfront, to get as much right the first time as I can. After that, it’s mainly repeated tweaking and pruning and polishing, and later on, Sandra helped bring it the final yards with a few good editorial pointers.

MAG: What was your writing process like for this one? Did you have a set schedule?

BH: While I started out hobbled, by the end, I was more or less back at my usual methodology, and it was some of the reading I did while laid up that helped me refine it further. I’m totally sold on the power of a great morning routine. I get up around 5:30 and head outside, usually, for a run or a session with the jump rope. This summer, I’ve stepped that up to the Tough Mudder training regimen. Then I’m back inside for a green drink and a cold shower. It all leaves me feeling turbocharged. Doli’s made the coffee during that time, and then I get after the day’s word count. That’s the ideal, anyway. Everything got rocked again after I lost both my parents in April — the day The Immaculate Void was published, I woke up to the news that my mom had just died. So as the executor of their estate, I’m still contending with the responsibilities of that. It’ll be a while yet before life is entirely back to normal.

MAG: Brian, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your work.

BH: I’m happy to do it. It’s a lot more fun than chatting with insurance companies and the IRS.

If you haven't read Brian Hodge yet, you need to. You can find his work here:
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