Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Brian Hodge

Meghan: Hi, Brian. It is an honor to have you here on Meghan’s House of Books as part of my annual Halloween Extravaganza. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Brian Hodge: When I did 23andMe, the DNA results showed 12% mountains, 14% being half of a dyad, 8% Maine Coons, 5% coffee, 2% Belgian ale, 6% black metal, 7% Berlin school electronics, 8% ambient, 11% solitude, 6% kettlebells, 4% Odin, 5% Green Man, and 12% trace elements and unidentifiable.

Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?

Brian Hodge: (1) My favorite person from history is Leonardo da Vinci, because I’m fascinated by polymaths. (2) I am, so far, up to a blue belt in Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces (the progression is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black). (3) I once managed the circus feat of projectile vomiting strawberry shortcake into my own underwear. (4) For more than twenty years, I’ve been an investor. (5) My primary childhood doctor told me I have unusually tough connective tissue, which I’ve chosen to interpret as being armor plated.

Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?

Brian Hodge: It would’ve been from the Little Golden Books line for children. I had a couple of Christmas books … The ABC’s of Christmas and the other told the Rudolph story.

Meghan: What are you reading now?

Brian Hodge: The same ones. No, okay … I always have a few going at the same time. Right now, that’s The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie); Inc. Yourself (Judith McQuown, because I’m thinking about doing that); Faster Than Normal (Peter Shankman, about ADHD brains); Ghost Rider (Rush drummer Neil Peart’s memoir about losing his first family); and The Divine Spark (essays on psychedelics).

Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?

Brian Hodge: Can I cheat? I promise, it’s still writing related. I can’t think of a book, but I loved the show Gilmore Girls. Which probably wouldn’t have been something most people familiar with me would think I’d find essential. But a few weeks after its first season debut, I stumbled across this article, headlined something like “The Best-Written Show You Have No Idea Exists.” Okay, then — challenge accepted. And I right away fell in love with it, in part because the dialogue was so sharply written.

Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?

Brian Hodge: Second grade was when I wrote my first story. I was trying novels by sixth. That drive was always there, from even before I’d learned the alphabet, so there was never a conscious decision about it. It was just following the impulse.

Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?

Brian Hodge: My desk, most of the time. It’s this big oak beast with a hutch that I bought right after we moved to Colorado. When I snuff it, I’m thinking the whole thing should be smashed up as the wood for my funeral pyre.

Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?

Brian Hodge: It’s more about how I begin the day overall. For me, writing in the morning is optimal, when I’m freshest and my head is clearest. So I get up about 5:30am, and after a bit of mobility warm-up, I head outside for a cardio workout in a fasted state. It comes down to: “Get up, get out, get moving.” It’s usually either trail running or going to the park we live by for a jump rope regimen with agility and weighted ropes. There are a lot of benefits from this: fresh air, getting the blood flowing, and especially the production of BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Even in the middle of winter, it has to be awfully deadly out to keep me inside. Then I’m back in for a pint of warm water with lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, and I step into a cold shower for a few minutes. This routine leaves me feeling phenomenal — energized but calm, focused, just plain turbocharged. So it’s a great place from which to begin working.

Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?

Brian Hodge: Probably keeping on the right side of perfectionist tendencies, before toppling over onto the other side where they start to become paralyzing.

Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?

Brian Hodge: It’s always the most recent things — the latest novel, The Immaculate Void, and the newest collection, Skidding Into Oblivion. I consider them companion volumes. They started out as a single book, then while writing a capstone piece for the collection I accidentally wrote a novel. And I recently did a piece called “Insanity Among Penguins,” for Final Cuts, an upcoming anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, themed around films. It’s about a lost Werner Herzog documentary, and unnerved the shit out of me more than anything has in a long time.

Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?

Brian Hodge: It was less about individual books than the cumulative effects of bodies of work. There’s no getting away from Stephen King, and encountering Clive Barker was like seeing the bar get raised. John Irving and Shakespeare left their marks. Dylan Thomas, for rhythm, but that came from audio recordings of him. I always like to credit three contemporaries who came along around the same time, Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlín R. Kiernan and Kathe Koja, for making me more aware of language — they all burst out of the gate doing beautiful things with language — and then Kathe turned me onto Cormac McCarthy. Still, that’s scratching the surface. I’m always absorbing something.

Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?

Brian Hodge: Compelling characters in interesting situations. Preferably situations whose resolutions aren’t telegraphed too obviously ahead of time, and ideally in well-realized settings.

Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?

Brian Hodge: Just like loving people in real life, there’s almost no end of reasons, or combinations of reasons, that can bring it about. It could be elements of chemistry and compatibility, like worldview and humor and vulnerabilities. It could be admirable traits, like commitment to a cause or striving to do the right thing no matter how hard it may be.

I found Game of Thrones to be a master class in this. There were so many characters I loved, and for different reasons. But one thing I noticed that I especially responded to were characters who were devoted to protecting, looking out for, whatever, one or more weaker characters — even if they were only weaker in the moment — no matter the cost. It was the selflessness of that.

So in my own work, I’m more conscious of this than I used to be. But then, two or three years ago, I had a similar thing called to my attention in a review. I don’t remember what it was covering specifically, but the reviewer brought up having noticed this thread throughout several things of mine they’d read: of characters having to make really hard choices. I hadn’t consciously realized it, but it made me think: Yeah, I guess that’s right. I love it when characters find it in themselves to make the hardest moral choices of their lives. Okay, then, more of that.

Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?

Brian Hodge: I’d have to go back to my first couple of novels, Oasis and Dark Advent, the main protagonists of those. A few years ago, in an afterword to a new edition of the latter, I mentioned that the reason the central characters of both novels are students is because, at the time, a student was still about all I knew anything about being. They were such early novels…not just early in my overall body of work, but early in my life. I wrote Oasis about a year out of university. So it was like, okay, if I tap all that, high school and college, at least I’ll have that much locked down. So we’re talking most like me at the time of the writing, but not now. You grow, you evolve, you start achieving your Ultimate Form. I wouldn’t want to be either of those lunkheads now.

Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?

Brian Hodge: I should know better, but, yeah, I still can’t help seeing a bad cover as a poor reflection of the contents. As for my own, I’ve occupied every possible station along the continuum: with no input whatsoever and having to take what they give me, total veto power, making suggestions for changes to the basic concept, to designing and compositing my own for some upcoming novella re-releases.

Some of the most satisfying experiences came from projects with Cemetery Dance Publications, and working more closely with the artists. Vincent Chong did the covers for my fourth collection, Picking the Bones, and that new edition of Dark Advent. The most I did was talk about mood, then Vinny knocked them out of the park. He’s glorious. The same with Kim Parkhurst, an artist I got directed to for a novella called I’ll Bring You the Birds From Out of the Sky. With this, it was more than the cover. The story is rooted in cosmic horror, and involves a cache of Appalachian folk art, so I thought it would be cool to have several style-appropriate color plates throughout the book. Kim totally ran with it. All I had to do was sit back and drool over the work-in-progress that she would send me. That little book looks so good I want to lick it.

Meghan: What have you learned creating your books?

Brian Hodge: Years ago I read something that immediately struck me as true, but I’d never considered it before: that each book teaches how you to write that particular book. The implication being that there’s not as much carryover to the next as you might think, because the next presents its own new set of challenges. But through all that, one overarching thing I’ve learned is to simply trust the process. That as long as you keep showing up to do the work, and giving it all you have, the details tend to sort themselves out along the way. What you’re doing that whole time is giving your subconscious mind more and more to work with, and the subconscious is always busy, always solving problems. So many times I’ve had no concrete notion of how something should culminate, but by the time I’m on the final approach, it’s there. So I don’t stress about it like I might’ve early on. I trust the process.

Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?

Brian Hodge: The one that’s always stayed with me as the biggest ordeal is a chapter in my sixth novel, Prototype. One of the central characters is this damaged guy who finds out he has this extremely rare chromosomal abnormality. About two-thirds in, he finally meets another one like him, whom he finds to be in even worse shape, so it’s devastating for him. I wanted to get as deep into this as possible, so I really prepared for it. On the stereo, I set this 20-minute Godflesh track on infinite repeat, like this spiraling black hole of oppressive noise, and wrote the chapter over several hours while tripping on acid. It got the job done, but I was useless the next day.

Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Brian Hodge: Really, I’m the last person who should weigh in on this. About all I can say is that they’re uniquely mine, but that’s going to apply to most anyone with a byline. You’d have to ask readers, and even then, ten different people might give you ten different answers.

Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?

Brian Hodge: They’re vital, but regardless of whether it’s novels or short stories or long fiction or collections, it seems like I either know what the perfect title is very early on, or it eludes me and nothing ever feels quite right. The best times are when I have a title sitting around waiting for the perfect thing to hang beneath it. “Scars In Progress,” a piece in the collection from earlier this year, Skidding Into Oblivion, is a good example of that. One day I was skimming some dull technical material and misread the phrase “scans in progress.” Wait — what was that again? So I knew I had a keeper, even if it had to gather dust a few years for the right story to come along and claim it. Happy accidents like that can come from anywhere, so you have to always leave yourself open to receive the gifts.

Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?

Brian Hodge: I’ve always described novels as being like marriages, while shorter works are passionate flings on the side. So they each have their own rewards. A novel is obviously a bigger accomplishment, but there are times when it’s a bigger pain in the ass, too. So the intrinsic reward ratio is skewed. Let’s say a particular novel is fifteen times the length of a particular short story. Is it fifteen times as fulfilling? I can’t say that it is. I’m just happy to cross another finish line, however long the race. What I most love is the process, and the relationship with the work, however long it lasts.

Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.

Brian Hodge: Every book, whether it’s been horror, crime, or more recently fantasy, has been a product of the time it was written. Five years apart, the same idea might undergo a very different development and execution. So I don’t think in terms of a target audience. That would feel too calculating. The main concern is to do the best job I possibly can with the narrative that has started to undress itself in front of me.

And it doesn’t matter what I might want readers to take away, so I never think of that either. When you release something new into the wild, you may retain ownership of the work itself, but you relinquish control over the experience of reading it. People find their own meanings in things. I’ve seen people align perfectly with what I felt I was putting into a work, and seen other people derive takeaways I never intended. But I would never tell the latter people, “No, you’re wrong,” because it’s their own subjective experience. The first time anyone asked me what I wanted readers to come away with, it was during a convention panel, and all I said was, “A receipt.”

Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?

Brian Hodge: I tend to not work in a way that generates big, solid chunks of extraneous stuff. I’m lazy, I don’t want to do all this work that’s just going to get tossed, so paradoxically I do as much heavy lifting upfront as possible. I’ll have these freeform conversations with myself on a yellow legal pad as a way of brainstorming, to get a good idea of where things might be headed, who the characters are, and so on. With a completed first draft, my metaphor is that it’s like a fighter showing up for training camp — recognizable but out of shape. The subsequent drafts, it’s mainly about losing flab and building more muscle where needed. The final pass-throughs, to get to the optimal fighting weight, we’re down to sweating off ounces — a word here, a few words there.

Meghan: What is in your “trunk”? (Everyone has a book or project, which doesn’t necessarily have to be book related, that they have put aside for a ‘rainy day’ or for when they have extra time. Do you have one?)

Brian Hodge: That’s interesting, the difference in terminology here. To me, “trunk novel” has always meant an early stab at writing a book that didn’t turn out well, so it gets stashed away in this trunk, real or metaphorical, and likely never sees daylight again.

But what you’re talking about, to me it just falls under time- and project management. I have ideas for novels, and am hundreds of pages into one of them, but it’s not their time yet. So they’re idling like airliners on a runway, waiting on the tower to clear them for takeoff. And I like to mess about with music and sound design, in a home studio. By now it seems to have sorted itself out into three stylistically different identities. I can’t accord it the same priority as the writing, but it’s still something I love doing. Photography, too — I like doing photography. The rationalization I came up with for it all is that success in one field of creative endeavor should fund the ongoing abuse of another.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Brian Hodge: If we are what we repeatedly do, as Aristotle said, for more than a year I ceased to be much of a writer. My parents died in April of last year, then I was appointed estate executor. There were so many responsibilities and obligations, that this was my focus for the next year. Then I needed to take some time off from everything. There’s still estate business to tend to now and then, but I pretty much have my life back again, even though it feels slow in getting back up to speed. Like turning an aircraft carrier.

Lately I’ve been putting together my sixth collection. I wrote the main finale for the third and final volume of editor Stephen JonesLovecraft Squad trilogy of mosaic novels. I just did a piece for an anthology called Miscreations. There’s a gritty fantasy novel called A Song of Eagles that’s part of a larger Kickstarter project, and was 50,000 words along when I had to set it aside the day I woke up to the news my mom had died. So now that I’m warmed up, I’ll finish that one, then decide which runway novel to go with next.

Then there are some potential TV and film projects. We’ve just renewed the option for a TV adaptation of a story called “The Same Deep Waters As You,” by a London-based production company. I read their season one treatment recently, and really like what the attached writer, from Sweden, has done with it. A few other things are still in the negotiation or paperwork phase, so it’s too soon to go public with the news.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Brian Hodge: My website has an email link. I’m usually active on Facebook, although a brief sabbatical is occasionally necessary when the whining hits critical mass. I still have an account on Twitter but hesitate to send anyone there. When the family stuff blew up, I didn’t have time for it, and it’s been dormant ever since.

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview?

Brian Hodge: Nah, other than to say thanks very much for having me here.

Called “a writer of spectacularly unflinching gifts” by no less than Peter Straub, Brian Hodge is one of those people who always has to be making something. So far, he’s made thirteen novels, over 130 shorter works, five full-length collections, and one soundtrack album.

His most recent works include the novel The Immaculate Void and the collection Skidding Into Oblivion, companion volumes of cosmic horror. His Lovecraftian novella The Same Deep Waters As You is in the early stages of development as a TV series by a London-based production company. More of everything is in the works.

He lives in Colorado, where he also endeavors to sweat every day like he’s being chased by the police. Connect through his website, or Facebook.

The Immaculate Void

“You wouldn’t think events happening years apart, at points in the solar system hundreds of millions of miles distant, would have anything to do with each other.”

When she was six, Daphne was taken into a neighbor’s toolshed, and came within seconds of never coming out alive. Most of the scars healed. Except for the one that went all the way through.

“You wouldn’t think that the serial murders of children, and the one who got away, would have any connection with the strange fate of one of Jupiter’s moons.”

Two decades later, when Daphne goes missing again, it’s nothing new. As her exes might agree, running is what she does best … so her brother Tanner sets out one more time to find her. Whether in the mountains, or in his own family, search—and—rescue is what he does best.

“But it does. It’s all connected. Everything’s connected.”

Down two different paths, along two different timelines, Daphne and Tanner both find themselves trapped in a savage hunt for the rarest people on earth, by those who would slaughter them on behalf of ravenous entities that lurk outside of time.

“So when things start to unravel, it all starts to unravel.”

But in ominous signs that have traveled light—years to be seen by human eyes, and that plummet from the sky, the ultimate truth is revealed:

There are some things in the cosmos that terrify even the gods.

Skidding Into Oblivion

We each inhabit many worlds, often at the same time. From worlds on the inside, to the world on a cosmic scale. Worlds imposed on us, and worlds of our own making.

In time, though, all worlds will end. Bear witness:

After the death of their grandmother, two cousins return to their family’s rural homestead to find a community rotting from the soul outward, and a secret nobody dreamed their matriarch had been keeping.

The survivors of the 1929 raid on H.P. Lovecraft’s town of Innsmouth hold the key to an anomalous new event in the ocean, if only someone could communicate with them.

The ultimate snow day turns into the ultimate nightmare when it just doesn’t stop.

An extreme metal musician compels his harshest critic to live up to the hyperbole of his trolling.

With the last of a generation of grotesquely selfish city fathers on his deathbed, the residents of the town they doomed exercise their right to self-determination one last time.

As history repeats itself and the world shivers through a volcanic winter, a group gathers around the shore of a mountain lake to once again invoke the magic that created the world’s most famous monster.

With Skidding Into Oblivion, his fifth collection, award-winning author Brian Hodge brings together his most concentrated assortment yet of year’s best picks and awards finalists, with one thing in common:

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and we don’t feel fine at all.

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