Part Two of my group interview with Brian Hodge continues, with his second story in The Best Horror of the Year—quite the accomplishment. Read on!
“It’s All the Same Road in the End”
(Originally in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.)
QUESTION ONE: You begin with a cool, mysterious opening, then you proceed with a lot of backstory about the grandfather. Often, we are advised to not go too far into backstory, but in this case it really worked. Why did you decide to include so much, in a sense risking taking us out of the story? (And presume an editor/teacher would urge us to cut. So feel free to include any decisions you thought might be “breaking the rules.”) I’m wondering how you felt confident that it worked, and why you thought that as well.
ANSWER ONE: I don’t think you risk taking the reader out of the story when the past is so vital to the present that, without it, there wouldn’t be a present at all. It’s all the same story in the end, too. With this one, everything hinges on the events of fifty-odd years ago, so it’s imperative to understand what happened, or as much as the modern characters know of it. The reader has to know what drives them, what haunts them, what pulls at them and repels them. Without that, they’re just going through a set of prescribed motions that aren’t fully motivated. And even though Old Will, the grandfather, isn’t an active character, it felt important that he still be a presence and, ultimately, his voice be heard. History is repeating itself, generationally speaking … it’s just that nobody realizes that until it happens.
So the key is marbling the past throughout the active present, and optimally at the point at which its influence becomes most relevant, rather than front-loading things too heavily. Or trying to show things strictly chronologically. The onion metaphor is good here. You keep peeling those layers back. The past and the present continue to unfold together, and you see the membranes of connective tissue.
QUESTION TWO: How do you manage to make all that backstory interesting and “in the moment” even though it’s all memory? Are there techniques you suggest we try to avoid info-dumps but still feel vital to the story?
ANSWER TWO: I’ve addressed some ways of handling backstory in earlier questions, but another thing that occurs to me is that I try to render it in such a way that, instead of being dry, inert data, it’s more interactive for the characters. Like, it’s provoking some sort of emotional reaction or an intellectual conundrum, or it sets up a conflict in values. Anything like that. Ideally, you make it clear that this past stuff is something that strongly impacts the characters’ lives here and now. When it’s clear that what happened then matters to what happens now, or what happens next, it’s going to be more compelling.
QUESTION THREE: If you don’t mind, how long did this take you to write and edit? Do you plan it all out ahead of time, or pants through? Some writers might dance with a short story for months or more, how did this one unfold for you?
ANSWER THREE: I don’t remember how long it took, exactly. Somewhere between two and three weeks sounds about right. I didn’t plan everything out in advance, but I did have a decent idea of the general arc. With just about everything I tend to fall somewhere between plotting and pantsing. Like, I’ll have a sense of story or character arcs, and have in mind certain milestones, but there’s still room to figure other stuff out and surprise myself along the way, as most everything else develops more organically.
QUESTION FOUR: How much pre-planning and sketching do you do for characters in short stories? Do you give them more, or less, or different treatments than in a novel? For example, one brother starts out kind of a mama’s boy talking to her all the time, and the other seems more independent, yet their roles seem to invert at the end. Did you fully “know” these brothers, or did they evolve as you wrote?
ANSWER FOUR: It varies, but I give them a few paragraphs in my notes, at least, and more for characters in novels than in shorter works. I like to feel I know them well enough to get rolling, and then, as with any relationship, get to know them better as we spend more time together. That way, they have their own autonomy. They’re open to surprising me instead of being puppets that always have to do what I say. Like, with Young Will, the younger brother, I had no idea he was going to stay behind until right before he did.
The ideal place to reach—and it happens more with novels than with shorter stuff, because of the duration and investment of time—is where the characters start meeting you halfway and doing some of the work. I can usually count on it happening around 60 or 80 or 100 pages in. Sit down at the desk in the morning and it’s like calling a team meeting: “What’s everybody up to today? Really, you’re sure? Okay, I can get on board with that.” And off we go. That’s a great place to get to. Everything feels so warm and alive then.
QUESTION FIVE: Regarding planning out a story…do you know you want to leave clues like the photo of the woman, the cattle call of the song as you wrote this, or did you pepper those in later, after a draft or two? We thought those types of clues were the primary reason we found the backstory interesting, little compelling bursts of weird and unsettling clues. Really, really well done.
ANSWER FIVE: None of those were later drop-ins. All of that I knew about before I ever started writing anything. That’s not to say I never go back and weave elements in later. But in general, I like to do as much of the heavy lifting upfront as possible, so that the revision process is more about refinement and pruning and fine-tuning things to as high a degree as I can manage. That’s just the way I work, what works best for me.
QUESTION SIX: Where did the idea of this story come from? And the woman, the hag, or alien, or Baba Yaga, or whatever she was—is that based on a story you heard, legend, myth? Ditto for the calling/culling song.
ANSWER SIX: It came from what turned out to be a Photoshop manipulation of an old picture I found online, tarted up with a caption that it was the last photo taken by some folklorist who went missing. But it was really evocative, and totally sparked my imagination, so I kept it around on my hard drive for a few years until I felt ready to use it as the springboard for something that could go way beyond what the caption suggested.
The cattle call? That’s a real thing…an ancient thing, actually. The Swedish word is kulning. You can find examples of it on YouTube. I first encountered it at the beginning of a compilation CD of Nordic folk music called Wizard Women of the North. And other places since then…like black metal artist Amalie Bruun, who records as Myrkur, did it at the beginning of her 2017 album, Mareridt. It’s a lovely sound, and I would imagine it’s quite haunting at a distance, lilting over the fields and through the trees. I thought it would be an obvious reference point for the descendants of Swedish settlers in the area—they’re hearing something that’s sort of like it, but not really, and they can tell something’s wrong with the woman doing it, because the intensity of it is absolutely terrifying.
QUESTION SEVEN: There were some haunting moments in here that really were dependent on setting and sensory details. This is always important in my work. I’m thinking of how you show Daisy, the meteorite, and how they change after touching it. Is this a conscious choice, and do you consider yourself a maximalist? A choice of genre? Just your style? Or do you pick the moments to unpack and slow down, to immerse your readers? (Or all of the above! LOL). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of setting and sensory detail, especially in horror.
ANSWER SEVEN: A few years ago I began regarding the dichotomy of minimalist and maximalist as personally irrelevant, and started thinking of myself as a muscularist. Yeah, it’s a made-up word. I guess it was in a review, although I don’t remember of what, or where I saw it, and someone used the phrase “tight, muscular prose” to describe whichever work of mine they were covering. And I really liked that. I liked the metaphor of words as muscle tissue. It was also appealing because I’m avid about working out, with an emphasis on things like functional fitness and strength and movement.
If you think about a well-toned body, you recognize that muscle density isn’t the same everywhere. In some places it may be very lean; in other places it may be bigger and bulkier. It’s what it needs to be according to its function within the whole system, and ideally, going from one area to another, it’s all nicely contoured. There’s a visual flow.
So if you apply that metaphor to prose, then you start thinking about the functional fitness of lines and paragraphs. If you have something that’s necessary but easily conveyed, or transitional, you keep it streamlined. But if you need to, say, take the reader inside an intense emotional state, or weave various setting and sensory details that work together to create a mood or atmosphere, which in turn affects the psychological state of the reader, you go heavier, and build up a passage that flexes harder, so it can hit harder.
Ideally, too, whatever the word volume is, it’s tight and compact, not flabby. Even before the muscularist term occurred to me, I was already thinking of the later revision process, looking for more words to cut, as sweating off ounces. My ultimate goal is that, however many words there are, they all survived, and are there, for a reason.