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DarkEcho Horror
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Interview
Brian Hodge: Vital Tenacity
by Paula Guran

First version appeared in DarkEcho: 12.03.98 [V.5 #48]
Another version appeared in GC Magazine March 1999
This version is an amalgam of the two (April 2002)

(A more recent interview with Brian Hodge, Coming Back Stronger, from January 2003, is also published on site.)

Brian Hodge was best known, until now, as a horror writer. Although in the last dozen years or so his more than seventy short stories and novellas veered into crime, humor, and the mainstream -- most of them, as well as his six novels (DARK ADVENT, OASIS, NIGHTLIFE, DEATHGRIP, THE DARKER SAINTS, and PROTOTYPE) -- were classifiable as horror. He's been nominated for the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award on several occasions as well as the International Horror Guild Award and the World Fantasy Award.

But these days he's earning acclaim and popular notice by venturing outside the horror genre. His new novel, WILD HORSES (see review), is a departure from his earlier books. He describes it as a crime/road novel that falls somewhere between Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy.

"On the surface," he explains, "it's a crime novel, but then it has these wildly careening shifts in tone, from very grim and serious to very funny There are also aspects you might not expect. Crime novels, suspense novels, are not typically known for characters who are fully realized and three-dimensional. I think my characters are -- with understandable flaws and vulnerabilities as well as strengths and their relationships are explored in depth. Maybe in a crime novel you wouldn't expect to find the way I use language in some of the more descriptive passages -- it's evocative, even lyrical. I put everything I had into it and made it as multifaceted as I could. It's part crime novel, part western, part literary novel, part comedy. And what I wanted to accomplish with it was to present as broad a spectrum of life as possible, in all its wonderfully diverse absurdity -- violence and betrayal, warmth and tenderness, laughter and damnation and redemption."

cover Hodge's first two novels sold when he was twenty-six, enabling him to quit the day job he'd held his first five years out of college, working for the advertising department of a newspaper. He opted for a very flexible part-time night job for the next three years, and, since then, he's been a full-time writer.

"Nobody sustains any kind of longevity without accumulating contusions," he says, "but if you're smart you'll turn them into lessons while you're hanging in there waiting for your turn. It's the tenacity that's vital. Whenever I've been down, I've always eventually come back stronger."

Such a "lesson" happened early on for Hodge with Tor, "I was one of a lot of first-timers who didn't get their option books renewed because Tor tightened up; they'd had a financial siphoning after their parent company lost a lot of money in real estate speculation, is the story that I heard. Things over which you have absolutely no control can have such an impact on your career. But that goes both directions. An editor at Dell brought NIGHTLIFE to Jeanne Cavelos to see what she thought of it the very day Jeanne had sent off a letter asking if I had anything to send her, because she'd read a short story and liked what I was doing. I look back on the Dell/Abyss period with fondness in general, because it was a very exciting time and I made some career strides and new friends and learned a lot. And then, yes, it derailed. It didn't have the internal support it should've, they were printing too many mediocre books to meet a monthly schedule, and in the height of gutlessness this professed purveyor of the cutting edge shit their collective pants when Poppy turned in EXQUISITE CORPSE. But you know? It was still a great time, and the way it ended doesn't change that. I even, this autumn, caught Dell sitting on foreign rights money they should've sent me years ago, and I collected what was due, because I WILL go after people."

"The post-Dell period was brutally rough," he admits, "and it took everything I had to fight with, but I simply refused to be beaten. Hardly anybody knows this, but when I was first writing WILD HORSES, a lot of it was written over a winter I spent without heat, the last winter before I moved in with my girlfriend. I still HAD heat, I just left it turned off, partly to save money, but also to test and strengthen my resolve. I'd write shrouded in two afghans with a candle to warm my hands. Live like that for a winter, and before long the most amazing thing happens. When the air around you is cold, you're totally in the moment. Little things take on greater significance. The taste of an egg sandwich -- exquisite. Coffee -- nectar. Music you like -- rapturous. Every single thing is heightened. I learned to appreciate things so much more. It was a wonderful and instructive period, and I was actually really upbeat because I was doing work I believed in, that I knew was going to change my life because I was so in love with the story."

And a few months later, after he finished it, the book still went nowhere. "The agent I had representing it -- who's a fine agent, nothing against him -- couldn't sell it to save his life, and finally he rolled over and gave up. But I refused to, so I fired him. We'd never developed a rapport, anyway. I still knew I had something good here, it's just that all the right elements weren't in place yet, it wasn't getting to the right people and neither had I. So I found another agent who's everything an agent should be, with whom the chemistry was spot-on right, and the difference it made rocketed off the charts. It only took him five or six weeks to do what the other guy couldn't do in a year and a half or more, and on a scale I didn't expect. At the auction, half the publishers bidding had already turned it down once before. You can't ask for more vindication than that."

Brian Hodge Hodge thinks what helped him get to that point was that he's "never differentiated between the work that I do. I've always treated everything with equal significance. Whether it's a novel I have huge hopes for, or a little story that hardly anybody's going to see, or nonfiction, I'm equally obsessive over them, to make each the best that I can possibly make it. It's got my name on it, I want to be proud of it. I always felt that that attitude would be rewarded, and strongly sensed that it was coming. Nobody could tell me otherwise. I just KNEW that I was approaching that point that does seem to happen for some writers who've paid their dues, that breakthrough point when suddenly it's all been worth it, and I wanted to be ready to make the most of it when it happened. Because I really felt that I'd earned it, but I wanted to have earned it for all the right reasons."

Writing has always been a compulsion for Hodge. "I was writing as soon as I was able, just about. Literally, it was something that I itched to do as a preschooler, before I even knew the alphabet. To this day there are probably attempts at graffiti lingering on the inside of my mother's womb. I credit her a lot, actually. She got me into books very early, in a big way, and was always taking me to the library. So in that sense, there's never been an actual "starting" point, more a continual path of evolution. After I'd won different contests and awards in high school and college, and had gotten all this positive feedback and encouragement -- even back-handed encouragement by having a teacher suspect at first that I was really plagiarizing from work that was already in print -- it seemed the most natural thing in the world to pursue it to its zenith."

Not that there haven't been days when he's felt like giving it up. "But just individual days, nothing extended. I'm sure that EVERYONE, regardless of what they do, gets so fed up with it that sometimes they feel like chucking it all and walking away. I've always awakened the next day feeling like I had to keep going no matter how great the obstacles seemed the day before. Because the one constant throughout the years and even the worst of times has been this total, unshakable faith in myself. I've always known that I'm smarter and more determined, with more natural gifts, than anyone who says it cannot be done. Tell me that about something that's important to me, and I'll devote my existence to making you eat your words. Hit me in the face, and I'll just grin blood at you and come at you that much harder, until I've gone through you or over you. Which may sound like a monstrous ego talking, but that's not it -- I know full well how lucky I've been, and my gratitude is immense -- it just emerges from self-knowledge, having been confident of who I am and what I want to do, and from the belief that the moment you give up on a deeply held dream, you've begun to slowly kill yourself inside. There's this splendid quote from Roald Dahl that I've had on my bulletin board for about fifteen years now, the only thing that's been pinned up there for that entire duration: 'A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.' To which I just say amen."

Cover Hodge -- particularly after reading several stories published in the context of his new collection, FALLING IDOLS see review -- frequently deals with the spiritual in his fiction, but not in a traditional "good vs. evil" sense. "One way or another, the spiritual -- and the religious, which isn't necessarily the same thing at all -- is the single biggest component of our lives, whether or not we realize it or even admit it. You can be a complete atheist, but still can't deny that western society has been shaped in countless ways by centuries of Christianity. Most people aren't atheists, though, so that predicates at least some level of spiritual consciousness, and thus both internal and external influences on our lives. In a lot of the work of mine that you're talking about, as its author I tend to play the role of the antichrist, not because I think that there was anything wrong with what Jesus himself had to say, or probably said, but because so much of what has since been wrought in his name has been an abomination. The Pauline version of Christianity. Forget all the wars, the slaughters of heretics, the burnings....all that is obvious, it's an easy historical criticism to level, and such atrocities have never been the exclusive province of Christianity. In what I'm doing, I'm just as much or more concerned with its less obvious impacts. It's a very inhibiting mindset to fall into, at least at the fundamentalist level, unhealthily guilt-drenched, encouraging sheeplike behavior and blind obedience, and discouraging anyone from questioning anything about it. It closes off so many options and opportunities because by its very nature, everyone else has to be not only wrong, but destined for eternal punishment for having no use for it. And because Christianity has had such a pervasive influence throughout our culture, I feel it's had and continues to have a limiting effect on the growth of our souls. Its grip is weakening, but it's not going without a fight. But I like a fight. So. I like to hammer away at it, do my little bit to help expand the horizons. Obviously, by the career route I've just delineated for you, I'm not the sort of person who's content with the status quo. Personally I come from a pagan outlook, and while I don't necessarily want to push that on anyone, it does please me to know -- and I get the mail to prove it -- that now and again someone really has read my stuff in the way I've intended, and been challenged to look at the West's spiritual default setting in a new light."

Hodge recognizes the "advice for fledgling writers" question as one that is almost de rigeur in an interview [originally for the audience of DarkEcho] like this, and admits, "I vacillate in how I answer it. Sometimes I try to be encouraging and other times I'm brutally realistic. Right now I'm feeling candid. If you have the least tendency to get discouraged, you'll never make it past the spawning ground of the small press. I shouldn't be, but I'm still amazed at the people I run across who think all they have to do is toss off an idea and they've got it made. But most of them are all talk, anyway. A few may actually write a novel and even send it out into the world, but only one in thousands will see it end up anywhere besides the bottom drawer of their file cabinet. The rest will be overwhelmed by discouragement soon after they confront the realities of the publishing world. Now, I'll freely admit that I began with more than my share of youthful ignorance, but I'd still done enough homework to have a sense of how stacked the odds were against me. I knew the statistics, knew that chances for success were anorexically slim. I knew all that. I just developed the outlook that it didn't apply to me. I rejected it."

"You can get the basics of how to present yourself like a professional to editors out of any how-to manual," he continues, "and of course that's crucial. Anybody can tell you to write what's important to you. So what would I, personally, advise? Honest, adamant soul searching. If you want an audience that's greater than the audience you can reach handing out photocopied manuscripts, first get a realistic picture of what the odds really are for the level of success that you want to achieve, then do some serious soul-searching as to whether or not you have the inner fortitude to commit the next five or ten or fifteen years to making that happen, and fighting uphill all the way. Or better yet, disregard every single thing I've just said. The ones most likely to make it are the ones already telling me to piss off, because none of this applies to them either. You know who you are."

Right now, Hodge's main priority has to be his next novel. "It seems to want to be called MAD DOGS. It's another hyper-Cuisinart crime/suspense novel. This one is about old familial bitterness and sibling rivalry, and the psychological and sociological appeal of outlawry, among other things. I can't tell you the hook that kicks things off, but I can honestly say I've never run across it before."

Hodge and companion Dolly Nickel moved Colorado early last year. "We went out to find someplace to live in late January and everything clicked into place at amazing speed. Especially for someplace like Boulder. I figured our main advantage was timing: How many other people are crazy enough to be looking for someplace to live in Colorado in January? But still, you know, once you totally commit to something it's as though the circumstances around you accede to your will. Very Jungian concept, that. The afternoon we found our condo, just a few hours earlier, that morning, I spoke with my new agent on the phone, from the motel, to get his decision on representing WILD HORSES and me, and we verbally shook hands. Those two things happening in tandem like that, it felt as though everything was charmed, and a few weeks later was the auction, which was like the stamp of approval on everything. It was 100% the right decision, we love it here."


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Copyright © 1999-2003 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.