Interview with Brian Hodge (Part One): On These Blackened Shores of Time

Last year I taught two of Brian Hodge‘s stories in my Advanced Creative Writing workshop, online. They were both pretty amazing. One of my students (Ian Vogel) reached out to Brian, and the next thing I knew we were sending him questions, and talking in depth about his stories. This is something I do with my Contemporary Dark Fiction class, but not so much with the ACWW (because our two-hour slots are usually full, and I don’t know all of the authors in the anthologies). But when we had an opening in our schedule, we decided to send him some questions. And we got some amazing answers in return.

I’ve become a huge fan of Brian’s work over the last couple of years, and he has really pushed me to write better—to take chances with my stories. (Note: funny story—my first professional sale, “Stillness,” was to Cemetery Dance for Shivers VI, and I just happened to publish alongside…you guessed it…Brian Hodge. (As well as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Kealan Patrick Burke, Brian Keene and a bunch of other hacks.)

I hope you enjoy the Q&A here.

“On These Blackened Shores of Time” 

(Originally in Children of Lovecraft, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Nine. Both were edited by Ellen Datlow.)

QUESTION ONE: I love how you handle backstory, with the history of coal counties sprinkled in throughout the story. You don’t over describe the protag but give us enough to know him. But the weight of history was masterful. Is there a decision tree you use or a set of “filters” you use to choose meaningful backstory? Such as you might construct something meticulously for specific reasons, whereas some of us stumble into ways of handling backstory. (Speaking only for myself, hah.)

ANSWER ONE: It primarily comes down to what’s relevant, and what’s intrinsically connected over time. You have to know the history of your world, however small it may be, or discover it for yourself. If there’s any filter, it’s answering some form of this question: “If I didn’t include this, or if I pulled this out, would things stop making sense? Would they weaken, or not hang together as well?”

In this piece, it’s two tragedies that are linked over nearly a century, through cause and effect. There’s one timeframe in which competing agendas, and baser emotions like prejudice and anger and greed end up creating one tragedy. Even 90+ years later it’s not completely over and done with…the original tragedy is still unfolding when it breaks through into the modern day and creates another tragedy among people who had no idea about the first one. Then, underneath them both, there’s this mystery that goes back maybe hundreds of millions of years, and exerted its own mechanistic influence.

I think of backstory, a lot of times, as answering fairly simple questions and providing logical motivations. Like, here’s why Character A has this phobia; here’s why Character B hates Character C. It provides context so their actions don’t seem arbitrary. But with this particular novelette, I think the past goes beyond backstory, because it’s more complex, with a lot of different elements that are integrated and interrelated. Anywhere you go on this planet, the same geographical location encompasses vast layers of time, some of which have left a residue. And in this particular spot, they happened to line up and interact with each other not just across decades, but over geological timescales. So that requires a lot of detail.

QUESTION TWO: The ending was heartbreaking. I think most authors would have tried to save the boy and kill the grub-man. You did the opposite. Why did you make those choices?

ANSWER TWO: Oddly enough, perhaps, I don’t consider that a choice I consciously made. I’ve seen written works described as creations that are less constructed from scratch than unearthed like artifacts. That’s what this was like, so where it ultimately went seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. It felt all along like, hey, this is what happened—now, how can I relate it with as much feeling as possible?

A couple of clarifications. The sole surviving miner you call the grub-man…his form has actually become that of a labyrinthodont. That’s a general subclass of amphibians that were some of the more dominant forerunners to the dinosaurs. And nobody’s saving him. He’s asking for death and Trevor is about to deliver, although not out of anger or vengeance, but compassion.

QUESTION THREE: You avoid a lot of tropes with both Lovecraft’s oeuvre and your own backstory and character choices in your stories. How consciously do you make those decisions? This might be one of the most “humane” Lovecraft-inspired stories I’ve read.

ANSWER THREE: It feels less about making conscious decisions than about my fundamental approach. I’m not trying to mimic, or replicate, either in content or style. I’m just trying to be as authentically myself as possible, even when what I’m working on is like coming over to play in someone else’s yard. So that means carrying in my usual fascinations and obsessions and concerns and sense of aesthetics and so on. Several years ago I was hired to write a novel in the Hellboy universe, and after it came out, I remember seeing reactions like, “It feels like one of his other novels,” as if there was some surprise about that. Well, yeah. Because I’m trying to give you the best version of what I’m uniquely capable of, rather than an imitation of someone else that would probably miss the mark.

QUESTION FOUR: You nail some major universal themes in this story: familial loss, loneliness, the primal fear of the dark and the power of nature. Did that happen organically or was it more constructed?

ANSWER FOUR: It’s hard to establish themes upfront, like a checklist. It’s more likely that you recognize them in hindsight, once you have a completed work. In this instance, these themes arose naturally out of taking the core ideas and pursuing them where they led and massaging them into shape.

There was more real-world stuff that fed into this than you might’ve guessed. Five years ago, here in Colorado, we really did have a 1000-year flood. More than a year later, right in front of a friend’s house, the street really did collapse beneath one of his neighbors, as the guy was leaving for work. The entire neighborhood really did have no idea they were living over a mine from the 1920s, and it really had been closed in the shoddiest possible way, and the shaft really was washed out from below by floodwaters. Plus both my grandfathers were miners back in Illinois, and the brother of one of them really was involved in violent riots when scabs were brought in during a strike.

So that was a lot of raw material already, and it was easy to start asking the kind of fruitful questions that take you somewhere: What if Don’s neighbor hadn’t come safely out of the hole? What if the hole was much deeper? What if there was a whole mutant ecosystem down there? What would be the worst-case scenario of losing someone down a shaft like that, and what would it do to everyone involved?

But after you start coming up with answers for yourself, it’s real, thinking, feeling beings that have to embody the experience, and find out these answers for themselves. It becomes a matter of going as deep as you can to weave as strong a tapestry as possible out of all the sorrow and hope and grief and fear and longing and anger that would inherently arise out of such a situation. No matter how fantastical the premise may be, to me, it still has to be grounded in plausible human experiences. Does that part feel genuine? If it does, then I think it goes a long way in selling the rest.

QUESTION FIVE: I wrote in my notes, “Goddamn it, Brian can make mine history tense, how does he do it?” So…do you have any techniques you can share as to how you create tension and build the intensity in your stories?

ANSWER FIVE: The biggest favor you could do for yourself is to Google the concept of “micro-tension” as proposed and expounded upon by Donald Maass, and read whatever you can find that he has to say about it. Or, better yet, get some of his books on fiction writing, because he really does know his stuff. He’s a literary agent, but before that, he was a published author and an editor, so he’s in the unique position of being able to analyze how fiction works, and understand the whole business aspect of it all, from three different professional perspectives.

In a nutshell, micro-tension is the continual infusion of unease within a scene, that will pull the reader along because of the sense that all is not right. It doesn’t have to be anything overt. It can verge on the subliminal. It can be implemented with elements as granular as word choice, observations about the setting or environment, dialogue that implies things that aren’t being said…so many ways of doing it, really, and the beauty of it is that it can be applicable to any genre you happen to be writing in.

So I definitely rely on that, along with a grab bag of other approaches. In this particular piece, there was an escalating sense of what was at stake, and what was waiting to be found at the end of the parents’ search. Throughout, there were layers of mysteries, as things continued to unfold. And I strived to use those techniques to build a mounting sense of dread, that whatever was coming, it couldn’t be good … and then ultimately tried to make it even worse than you might have expected.

You’ll also notice that I broke that extensive mine history into two chunks. I initially wrote it as a single scene, a story-within-a-story, but then it seemed too long, too much at once. So I found a good split point, and put a family scene in between them, which itself ended on a cliffhanger of sorts: “What have you done?” So, as the reader, you keep leapfrogging through.

QUESTION SIX: Picking up on [the previous] questions about universal themes, one thing that really impressed me about this story was how it put the concepts of deep time and old ones into a human context. How did you hit these cosmic notes while at the same time keeping the story focused on the bonds of family and real human emotion? That is something I have not seen much of in cosmic horror. The last line really sealed this as a story about real people.

ANSWER SIX: Characters have always been my top focus. I’ve always considered them Priority One. I consciously made that decision at the very beginning, when I got serious about writing, my first few months out of college. I figured that if the reader was invested in the characters, that’s the thing I could always count on that would pull them through, regardless of what genre I was writing in. It would be universally transferable. So even though I may be hitting those cosmic notes, they’re still seen through the eyes, and challenging the perceptions, of the characters.

QUESTION SEVEN: What prompted some of your choices about the family—the jobs the parents have, the role reversal with the mother, and the ways they handled the situation?

ANSWER SEVEN: Over the past decade, I’ve trained in and practiced Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces. For a couple of more advanced weekend intensives, one of our guest trainers brought in was a body language expert and special squads operator from the California Highway Patrol. Fascinating guy, and the stuff he imparted was riveting. I usually find that with training like that, I want to know more, and one thing leads to something else, and further resources.

So, for these characters, the father’s career path was loosely inspired by a former FBI agent and nonverbal communication specialist named Joe Navarro, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some badass women instructors. Drawing on all that, I thought these two would make an interesting couple, with a promising dynamic, and not a pair you’re likely to have seen before in this context. They could plausibly get shit done, because they wouldn’t be rendered helpless by an overpowering situation. Plus I liked the idea of Ginny, the mother, being the true prime mover here, because, being purely into defense and counter-offense, she actually feels less bound by the law than Trevor, the father. She’d be the one to tell you that it’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six, so for the sake of those you love, always respond accordingly.

QUESTION EIGHT: You do a great job with the inciting incident and narrative hook at the start (both broadly intriguing and appealing, as well as relating to the specific incident, and how it personally resonates) as well as the ending, the climax, resolution, change, and denouement. Do you have any advice on how to connect those elements? What’s your process? (Start with hook, write it later, when it all comes together, plot ending, or organically let it develop?)

ANSWER EIGHT: Really, I can’t improve on the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone broke down the way they approach their scripts for South Park. Instead of “this happened, and this happened, and then this happened,” they think in terms of “this happened, so this happened, and therefore this happened.” Or “this happened, but then this happened, so this happened.” These may look similar, but there’s a vital distinction. Instead of a string of events that you hope connect, it’s that as a storyline progresses, everything emerges as a consequence of the actions and the decisions that have gone before. So there’s a logical through-line, even if it doesn’t seem obvious as you’re first encountering it. Everything else is mainly world-building and being true to the characters.

PART TWO tomorrow: “It’s All the Same Road in the End.” Visit Brian at his WEBSITE or TWITTER or AMAZON.