Saturday, May 31, 2008

Interview Bill Hussey

Bill Hussey is the author of the novel "Through A Glass, Darkly", a novel that will be released on 10th July 2008 by Bloody Books. I really enjoyed the novel and you can read my review of the book here, on my blog. Bill Hussey was very kind to answer my questions for an interview and you can see the result of our conversations in the next lines.

Dark Wolf: Reading your blog I found out about your passion for stories and books, passion inflicted by your grandfathers. But from where comes the passion for writing?
Bill Hussey: This is a tricky one as I can't remember a time when I haven't loved writing, or at least telling a tale. Some of my earliest memories are of drawing little comic books - unashamed rip-offs of Spider-man and the Fantastic Four that had at least some narrative flow - and of writing plays and roping in my family to take their parts. As I've said on my website, from a very early age I remember my grandfathers reading to me and making up their own wonderfully inventive stories. I could see the joy these two very different old men took in telling a tale. There was a light behind their eyes that peeled back the years and showed me a glimpse of the boys they had been. That kind of joy in storytelling is pretty darn infectious. I guess I just wanted to emulate them, to start entertaining with my own stories. I also think that, in my writing, there is a bit of the showmanship of my forebears (my dad comes from a long line of travelling showmen). Showmen have a genetic imperative to tell stories and there isn't much difference between spinning a yarn orally and setting it down on paper. In fact, oral storytelling teaches you a great deal about momentum, pacing and holding a reader's/audience's attention. The only real difference - and a vital one - is editing.

Dark Wolf: From all the stories that you heard or read is horror your favorite genre? Why did you choose this genre for your debut?
Bill Hussey: I wouldn't say horror is my favourite genre as that is a little too specific. I love all tales of the weird and fantastical, be they horror, sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism or government dossiers of mass destruction (actually, that last one is a little too weird and fantastical, even for my liking!).
I think I would put "Through A Glass, Darkly" (TAGD) into the category of "dark fiction" rather than straightforward horror. That is not to say I dislike the label - I get really irritated by those who look down their noses at horror. I only say TAGD is dark fiction because there are fantasy and even romantic themes in the book too. But if others label it horror then I am more than happy to accept that classification. Until recently, horror has had a tough time in the publishing world, and there is certainly a snobbishness about the genre in literary circles. Luckily, I think there are signs that horror's reputation is about to undergo a renaissance similar to that which the crime genre enjoyed a decade or so back...
Sorry, I went off at a bit of a tangent there!
Anyway, I chose to write in this genre area because the idea of the extraordinary (in this case a haunted village, a demonic presence) rubbing shoulders with the rigorously logical (a police investigation) has always appealed to me. As I'll explain later, I find that short step from one world into another a terrifying and captivating concept. There are also great freedoms given to a writer working in this area, but there are restrictions too. For example, you can create a world from scratch but it must be credible within its own mythology and terms of reference. This notion of a genre, in which the limitless bounds of the imagination is curtailed only by the story it conceives, I find to be incredibly exciting. Horror also gives a writer the opportunity to tackle real life issues - loneliness, the price of isolation, fear of aging and death - in a more figurative environment than straight fiction would allow. Not only is this much more fun from a writing perspective, it allows the writer to push his/her characters into the extremes of the human condition, which is always interesting. In a less profound sense, horror also gives me the chance to try to creep myself out - always an enjoyable experience during a 2am editing session!

DW: Can you tell us, please, who are your favorite authors and favorite books?
From the authors and books read anyone in particular influenced your work?
BH: Can I take these questions together? I ask because those writers I love have inevitably had an influence on my writing, and particularly on TAGD...
I know I'm going to miss out a few favourites, and kick myself later, but here goes: Dickens has got to be my favourite author. I was completely miserable when I finished reading "Bleak House"; the thought that I'd never be able to read it again from scratch, without knowing the outcome of Jarndyce & Jarndyce or the machinations of Mr Tulkinghorn was almost painful! Dickens was a writer of such passion and declaratory power that even now, a century and a half later, you can't help being moved to tears by the deaths of (look away now spoiler-phobes!) Sydney Carton in "A Tale of Two Cities" or Jo the crossing sweeper in "Bleak House". In my own way, I wanted to channel a little of that power for the climatic scenes in TAGD.
Other than ol' Charlie boy, let me see... My favourite horror story in Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (my adaptation of J&H for the stage was produced last winter). The image Stevenson dreamed up (literally - his wife woke him from a nightmare in which he witnessed the transformation scene) of one man's physical and moral regression into an underdeveloped but seductive "other self" is such a powerful and chilling one. Here, for really the first time in horror fiction, Man is Monster. When I came to write TAGD, I guess Jekyll & Hyde must have been ticking away at the back of my mind. There is something of a transformation scene in the book, as well as one of the main characters being called "Malahyde". "The demon within" is certainly a theme TAGD shares with Jekyll & Hyde.
At the risk of sounding obsessively Victorian, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were my bedtime reading when I was a kid. As a teacher of pure, narrative drive you can't do better than to read those old Strand Magazine tales. And while we're talking detectives, Agatha Christie seems to get a bad rap these days. Sure, she's no great shakes when it comes to elegant prose, but for plotting and pacing there is none better. I read a great deal of Christie as a young teen - I thought the resolution of "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" to be the cleverest thing in the world! - and I am happy to acknowledge TAGD's debt to her ingenous detective stories. My book is a mystery as much as it is a horror story. The clues are there, fairly placed I hope, for the reader to work out the twist ending before he/she gets there. TAGD owes something to Christie's tuition, both in the sprinkling of clues and pacing.
A contemporary of Christie in the thriller field, but of a different genre slant, is Dennis Wheatley. I absolutely loved his breathless supernatural thrillers. Their fast pace, their occult-heavy overtones - epitomised in "The Devil Rides Out" - are, I think, echoed in my book. I certainly like to think of TAGD in that same mystery-action-horror vein.
Another obvious influence is that grand old master, HP Lovecraft. Jack Trent's demons simply wouldn't exist without the Cthulhu Mythos. One of Lovecraft's central themes is the thinness of the "normal world" and the great weight of terrifying things that lurk behind the veil. Ever since I read "At the Mountains of Madness" that idea has fascinated me and has clearly found a place in TAGD.
In your review, Mihai, you detected traces of Stephen King in the book. Most young horror writers these days would have to admit that they labour under King's shadow! I think what he does especially well - apart from coming up with iconic scenarios and great characters - is exactly what Ian Fleming did in the Bond books: he juxtaposes the everyday with the fantastic. By citing brands of cars, cigarettes and song lyrics etc - essentially the recognisable elements of a shared culture - he grounds the story in the real world. This makes it even more exciting and disturbing when he slips us through the veil and we see the mayhem beyond. It's a great narrative device which, used sparingly, can have a wonderful effect.
I suppose my biggest influence, however, has to be the true master of the ghost story: Montague Rhodes James. MR James stands head and shoulders above any other practitioner in the spine-tingling field because, for him, the extraordinary is so bound up with the dry, the everyday - dare I say it? - the dull. I have taken shamelessly from James in my writing. The most obvious influence he has had on me is that I find the bookish world he creates to be both alluring and terrifying. That is why you will come across libraries, books, incunabula and the pursuit of the scholarly in TAGD.
If I'm allowed a shorlist of other favourite writers off the top of my head: Truman Capote for his wonderful short stories and the detailed and morally difficult "In Cold Blood"; Ian Rankin for the dour brilliance of his Rebus books; GK Chesterton simply for creating Father Brown; Iain Banks for writing "The Wasp Factory", a first novel that shows all other first-timers how it should be done; Shirley Jackson because, as Stephen King said, she never had to raise her voice; Robert Aickman for reminding me that ghost stories can be different; Neil Gaiman for taking me to new worlds, and Ian McEwan, Jorge Luis Borges and Doris Lessing, whose books make me strive to be better and remind me to be humble! As I say, as soon as I finish this interview I know I'm going to remember at least fifty other great scribblers I should have included...

DW: Can you tell us, please, about the journey taken by your novel from the idea until the publishing?
BH: The initial idea behind TAGD came to me from a debate I had with a good friend a few years ago. Our discussion ranged across embryo research, abortion and euthanasia: all pretty heavy-duty stuff, and of no direct relation to the themes eventually pursued in TAGD. We got to a point in the debate in which my friend, a committed Christian, said something along the lines of - "Why is Man so greedy for life? Is there anything he wouldn't do, any boundry he wouldn't cross, in order to survive?". In those words, the germ of an idea took root. I started to think about that primal, ruthless instinct to survive and the lengths to which it could drive a man. TAGD eventually evolved into other thematic avenues but this was the core of the story.
While working as a trainee solicitor in Leeds, I found myself pondering that old moral debate. I was continuing to write throughout this period and had started an outline for what would become TAGD. It centered around a man living an isolated life, plagued by visions of the future. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Law: a career I had fallen into after doubting that I could really make my way as a writer. One lunchtime, while watching the TV in the staff lounge, I saw a news report on a degree in creative writing offered by Sheffield Hallam University. I'm not much of a believer in Fate, but I decided that I had to take this as some sort of sign. That evening I sent off my application to Hallam, together with some sample chapters of the embryonic TAGD. A few weeks later, I found out that I had been accepted on the course. I quit my career in Law the very next day.
Hallam was a joyous and somewhat arduous experience. For the first time, I was mixing with people who actually understood and shared my love of writing. I quickly learned, however, that if I really wanted to be a writer, I would have to work hard. Writing is a craft to be honed and, like any craft, an apprenticeship must be served. With the help of celebrated literary novelist Jane Rogers (of "Mr Wroe's Virgins" fame) I honed my craft, knocking the rough edges off my prose style as I went. At the same time I was passing early drafts of TAGD to my good friend Graeme Hills for his comments. We share a similar geeky sensibility when it comes to horror/sci-fi, and he's always my first invaluable critic when I finish a book. The culmination of this process was the fifth and final draft of TAGD.
The novel was then submitted to the examination board, received favourable comments and earned me my Masters Degree. One of the board markers was literary agent Bill Hamilton of the AM Heath Agency. He was very complimentary about the book and passed it on to a young, energetic agent called Ben Mason. Scince then, Ben has worked tirelessly to get TAGD into print. It eventually found a home with Beautiful Books, under their Bloody Books imprint, and I am overjoyed at the enthusiasm displayed by publisher Simon Petherick and his team. We're now six weeks away from publication (10th July 2008).
The book itself changed very little from the one submitted on the MA to the one being published on 10th. My editor, Jonathan Wooding, has provided invaluable notes which have improved the book immensely, but the structure - the essential story - hasn't really changed. At its core it is still about that ruthless survival instinct. The only other thing of note about the development of the book was the months of research it entailed - a fascinating process of looking through archaic, esoteric texts, during which I pieced together my "ritual of the transmigration of souls"...

DW: On your blog I read that "Through A Glass, Darkly" was inspired by the lonely Fen villages. But did you have any other inspirations for this novel?
BH: I have always found the Fens and their villages an eerie environment. There is an emptiness to them - a beautiful vacuum - that haunts me. To set a horror novel here just seemed so perfect. Other inspirations can be found in the authors I've cited and that moral debate I had with my friend. There were also lots of mini inspirations during those long months of research, the most important of which was my discovery of metempsychosis. One other inspiration - a newspaper report I read many years ago about a man who sold his eldest child into slavery in order to maintain an elevated quality of life for himself and his young wife...

DW: "Through A Glass, Darkly" is a quote from the Corinthians, from the New Testament, and it has inspired many works. What inspired you to give your novel this title?
BH: I'm actually really bad with titles. I'm constantly changing them around to see which one fits. There were many discussions with my agent and publishers about "Through A Glass, Darkly". Eventually, we all come to the conclusion that, although it has been used for many other works of fiction (notably Sheridan Le Fanu's collection of short horror stories - although he used "In" rather than "Through"), there is no better title for this book.
I chose it primarily because it tells us the story of Jack Trent. With his visions, he sees an imperfect picture of the story unraveling around him. He understands that story a little better as he progresses through the book, but his comprehension of the truth is always somewhat askew. That is what the quote means: we, as fallible humans, see God's Truth as if in a mirror, darkly - we understand bits of it, perhaps, but not the complete picture. That is how Jack sees what is happening to him, until the very end of the book when all is revealed...
The lines preceding "through a glass..." in Corinthians talk about being a child and of putting away childish things - a message which has a certain resonance at the end of the tale! There is also the symbolism of the mirror/glass throughout the book - we open with Jack's vision reflected in a mirror, Jack's demons come to him through a window - and this feeds into the Lewis Carroll-Alice references and quotations peppered across TAGD. After all, Jack Trent exists in his own dark Wonderland.

DW: The story has any ideas based on your personal experience too?
BH: Not directly. I did once have quite a remarkable supernatural encounter which, as hard-headed as I am, I just can't explain. That experience, however, doesn't feed directly into the events of TAGD. And yet, perhaps the chill which that memory still evokes helped me in the writing of TAGD's creepier scenes! As I say in my blog, the locations in the book and their atmosphere were inspired by those long walks I used to take with my grandfathers when I was a kid. The bleakness of the Fens just infected me, I guess. But no, I've never met a Jack Trent, Asher Brody or - thank God! - a Dr Mendicant!

DW: Did you settled on the story and the storyline from the beginning or you did some changes when writing the novel?
BH: Some writers will find this absolutely abhorrent, but I do tend to plot out my stories before I start. In my defence, I will say that these are very loose structures, not chapter-by-chapter breakdowns. I find that if I don't have some idea of the progression of the book, I'll get to page 30 and dry up. That isn't to say I stick religiously to that structure. If the characters lead me in another direction, or I feel that the story is taking me down other avenues, I always obey that natural narrative flow. But I must say, I find having an outline very freeing. Knowing that there is a structure to return to if I get lost means that I can go off on flights of fancy whenever I feel like it, and never be afraid of losing the thread. I can understand why some writers think that plotting takes all the thrill out of writing and that the story should be allowed to grow organically. But I think my stories do grow in that organic way, there's just a little trellis framing put up to prevent them sprouting all over the place! If you don't treat the structure like a Bible then it can be very useful. And, sure, in TAGD the plot changed quite a bit during the writing process. For example, in the original, Jack's professional partner was a man and there was no love interest. I felt the book lacked heart and so I turned this character into Dawn Howard, Jack Trent's long-suffering lover. A pretty significant change which altered the dynamic of the story considerably!

DW: When you wrote the novel did you had moments without ideas or when you were blocked?
BH: No, I've never had writer's block. I'm not sure I actually believe in it. Look, most writers - including me - are procrastinators. We sit at the desk in the morning with the best of intentions. But then we decide, instead of writing, we need to count our paperclips or write up our research notes in a neater hand... Anything to avoid the tyranny of the blank page. In reality, we could write something if we put our mind to it but it's easier not to. And so we call it writer's block. I'm not saying writers don't get into problems, such as narrative cul-de-sacs etc, I just mean that we can always put something down on paper. I tend to find that the much maligned loose structure is a big help here - it gives you the freedom to overcome the so-called block.

DW: Jack Trent is a very well build character, one that I enjoyed a lot. Are there any connections with a real person or he is just fictional?
BH: Jack is, for the most part, fictional, but I guess there's a little bit of me in him. A bit of my late grandfather, Len Sanford, too, because he's an honourable man. I'm not at all sure that the honourable part applies to his creator as well, but I do think Jack gets both his light and shade from me. I'm a pretty cheerful guy most of the time, but I do have the odd bout of melancholia, from which Jack suffers. I also identify with his sense of isolation. Most writers will tell you that writing is a brilliant job, but can be an incredibly lonely one. There are no colleagues to distract you, no office banter to take you out of the working day. You're on your own, buddy. So, yeah, I get Jack's loneliness - I get his yearning for the company of others. On a lighter note, I also gave him my love of comic books and old B movies! In many ways, Jack Trent is a contradiction - light and dark, hopeful and despairing, hungry for life but timid and afraid. He's also an optimistic pessimist, just like me!

DW: I also loved the idea with the atemporal library and the sacrifices the library keeper demands from the visitors. From where did this idea came up?
BH: I'm glad you enjoyed Yeager! That ol' metaphysical, trans-dimensional library is one of my favourite babies in the book. It's just so out there as a concept, I wasn't sure it would fit, but that's the benefit of that loose structure - it gave me the freedom to experiment and, you know what, it did fit! Yeager Library is another debt I owe to MR James - the weird and scholarly found their place in TAGD after all.
I'm not entirely sure where the specific idea came from. In a general sense, I've always loved libraries. I spend a huge amount of time in them and consider them to be magical places: all those avenues of knowledge, all that weight of experience pressing around you. And the fact that the treasures they contain come for free.. Or do they? I've sometimes wondered what the bibliophile gives up in exchange for spending so much of his time in libraries. Books contain the wisdom of the ages, but reading about life is no substitute for going out there and really living it. Is that the price the scholarly pay for all theri knowledge, for all their years walled in by paper - Life? I think MR James sometimes thought so, and I often wonder myself. The rules of the Yeager Library reflect this potential danger...
The fact that Yeager moves through time and space is another reflection of the book's title: the Yeager Library houses Truth, but it is a shifting truth which can't be pinned down.

DW: In the future do you plan trying a different genre for your works?
BH: I would love to write an historical crime novel. I have an idea that I think could work very well but not the time, at the moment, to execute it. A lot of research is called for. But I'm no real hurry to leave dark fiction just yet.

DW: Can you tell us something about your future projects?
BH: I'm busy writing a rather nasty short story which I may put up on my website soon.
Other than that, I am on the point of submitting my next horror novel to my agent and publisher. At the moment it's called "The Absence" and I'm blogging about its development on my website. Again, it's set in the Fens, but with a very different plot and tone to TAGD. This novelis centered around the mythology of the Fens themselves, which has hardly, if ever, been touched upon in the genre. It concerns a family breaking apart after a tragic loss. They inherit a house set in the bleak expanse of Fen country, beneath a brooding three-quarter sky. While there, they find that something from the old times - the times of Water and of Marsh - has been left behind...
The second book aside, I think I'm going to be pretty busy throughout July publicising TAGD! Check out my website and that of Beautiful Books for news!
Many thanks to Dark Wolf for this opportunity - I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

Thank you very much Bill Hussey for your time, answers and amability. It has been a pleasure reading your novel and realizing this interview. I'm looking forward for your future works and for the opportunity to talk with you again.


Robert said...

Very nice interview Mihai! I really want to read this book even more now :) Unfortunately, when I contacted Beautiful Books about a review copy, I never received a response :(

Mihai A. said...

I'm glad you liked it Robert. Please let me know if you receive the book :)