Interview: Charlie Huston
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Gumshoe Review *Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTCharlieHusto
Date: 01 October 2008
Gumshoe: In prepping to find interview questions I looked at some of your previous interviews, and when asked about outlining you said you didn't, you just let the story happen. I'm astonished and intrigued. In the Joe Pitt Casebooks, the plots are so intricate and multi-leveled with red herrings and misdirection all over the place -- how do you manage to keep all those balls up in the air without an outline and have them all come together in the end so seamlessly?
Charlie Huston: I think that misdirection is the key word there. I throw a lot at the wall in these books and do it at a rapid pace. The velocity of the books, and density of action and information, hides any number of plot holes. All the same, while I don't work from an outline, I do have notes that I make in advance of starting a new book. Those notes are continuously revised and expanded as I go along. The bulk of the storytelling process in the Pitt books is usually dictated by a single question: What's the coolest thing that could happen here? If it contradicts previous events, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad idea, it just means I may have to go back and alter a few things.
Gumshoe: You mentioned that a friend's enactment of the Lord of the Rings got you interested in fantasy and science fiction. What other books do you think were critical in shaping or inspiring you as a writer?
CH: John Christopher's Prince in Waiting trilogy, Lovecraft, William Gibson, Bukowski, James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, Chandler, Hammett, Heinlein, Douglas Adams. An endless list, really.
Gumshoe: In other interviews you talked about how sometimes constraints can help stir creativity. Do you feel that setting terminations on your series helps to constrain your writing so that you work to that termination point with an overall arc for the books? Do you ever put artificial constraints on yourself to have something to work against?
CH: I work far more efficiently within set parameters. Rules and limitations force you to make hard choices, often bolder choices than you might otherwise make. Knowing that the story is going to end, that you can't just repeat the same story over and over with minor variations, forces you to advance not just the plot, but the characters as well. That means upping the stakes in each book so that whatever the outcome the characters will be pushed in new directions. One of the key conflicts in the Pitt books is whether or not Joe will infect his girlfriend and make her into a vampire. In an open series you could play will-he/won't-he forever with something like that, setting myself a limit of five books forced me to not only have that choice made, but show it by the mid-point of the story. Something that key, you have to have time to see the results. I felt like Joe needed to shit or get off the pot in the third book so the reader would get to see the consequences through the fourth and fifth.
As far as imposing artificial constraints, I can't think of anything in particular.
Gumshoe: Even though you consider yourself a pulp writer, your characters have the feel of that noir anti-hero, alone and looking for justice or his next meal. Do you ever think you'll write a happy-go-lucky guy who just bumbles into a crime or plot device to become a protagonist? Just how do you feel about "happy every after" endings?
CH: First, I love a good happy ending. But I mean that literally, a "good" happy ending. Happy endings grafted onto stories that have been tragedies up to that point drive me around the bend. My own personal sensibility tends toward the bittersweet. As much as I like a happy ending, I also enjoy having my heart broken. Most of my books, over the top though they may be, are intended to break someone's heart. Mine, I guess.
My next crime book The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is my stab at lightening up. The protagonist had more than his share of baggage, but rather than being a book about a guy stuck in the shit and learning how to survive in it, it's a book about a guy stuck in the shit and trying to find a way out of it. Trying to be a better person. Easily the least violent of my books, the lightest in tone.
Gumshoe: I'm intrigued by your vampyres. While the setup and culture is a really different twist on the trope, why is it that all vampyres seem to end up being all about politics and control? Did you plan to have internal vampyre politics be such a key factor in your plots?
CH: No, I didn't. Not to the extent it has reached. I don't think it's a function of vampire books as much as I think it's a function of an ongoing series which has a world-building component. Part of the writer/reader interest in a fantasy-based series in which a new or newish world has been created is the world itself. I think it's very common for a series over three books in length to become more and more invested in the workings of the world's politics, science, magic, and what have you. I always think of the Conan books. Dude starts as a barbarian, becomes a warlord, ends up an emperor. Along the way he hack and slashes and lays the maidens, but the scope of the stories broaden, and the motivations become more political and less about survival or treasure.
Gumshoe: How has having a child effected your writing schedule? Is it harder now to maintain that two books a year goal? What's a typical writing day like for you?
CH: Two books a year was never a goal of mine, it was a necessity. I was lucky enough to have a publisher interested in both my crime books and the Pitt books, which gave me the opportunity to quit my day job and write full time, but it also required that I quit my day job and write full time. If you get me.
Having a kid is like having an unpredictability generator installed in your office. Some of the surprises are wonderful, some are difficult, pretty much all of them require major adjustments. I don't have as many hours in the day in which to work, but that mostly means I don't play hooky and sneak out to a movie or to grab an afternoon beer like I used to on slow days. Now I have to capitalize on every minute I have available. I also get distracted because sometimes in my office (which is also her bedroom) I pine for her and can't help but run out to play with her for a few minutes.
Gumshoe: What does the future hold for you? What's in the pipe now? What can you tell us about?
CH: The fourth Pitt book, Every Last Drop is out on the 30th. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: A Novel, my somewhat lighter crime novel about a trauma scene cleaner will be out in January of 2009. Currently I'm working on a stand alone crime novel with a speculative bent that will out January of 2010. As soon as I finish that I'll start the last Pitt book for release in fall of next year.
Somewhere in there I'm finishing an unannounced sci-fi/horror mini-series for marvel Comics, and looking at jumping onto one of their monthly titles sometime next spring.
Gumshoe: Thanks for your time.