by Joe Howe
Courtesy of Cemetery Dance
Writing is a solitary endeavor. Your favorite authors toil alone to produce the fiction that keeps you going. Here we reward them by … interrupting their precious writing time with a few questions. The first author we will annoy talk with is Rick Hautala.
Since the publication of his first novel, Moondeath, in 1980, Rick has been at the forefront of horror fiction. His latest book is the Cemetery Dance volume Occasional Demons, his first collection of short stories since Bedbugs, which was selected by Barnes & Noble as one of the distinguished horror publications of 2000.
Joe Howe: Everyone is looking forward to your forthcoming book Occasional Demons, your first short story collection since 1999. Tell us a little about the book.
Rick Hautala: At the time I signed the contract, Occasional Demons included every story I had written and published to date that wasn’t in Bedbugs, but since then, I’ve got enough stories for a third collection, which Rich and I are talking about CD doing … What’s unique about this collection is that it includes all the “Little Brothers” short stories and a handful of stories I wrote as collaborations with friends and two of my sons … The artwork by Glenn Chadbourne is, as always, stunning, and I hope the stories don’t disappoint. I have a few personal favorites in the collection, but I won’t say what they are. That’s like trying to pick your favorite child.
JH: The publication dates on the stories in this volume range from 1987 (“Every Mother’s Son”) to 2010 (“The Call”). How has your style changed and evolved over this period?
RH: Well, for one thing, I stopped writing my stories with crayons, so that’s an advance. Seriously, though, I’m not sure how my style has evolved or changed, other than I hopefully have gotten better each time out. Writing is a tough “craft” as well as an “art,” and no one ever really masters it. If they say or act like they have, they’re delusional. Even the simplest advice, like drop the passive voice whenever you can, will hit you with the force of a religious revelation if you’re ready (or need) to hear it. Of course, I have worked to eliminate passive voice, and useless intensifiers (…like “really”), and make the environment more active (…like instead of saying “She heard a dog bark in the night” becomes “A dog barked in the night.”) But overall, I just try to do the best job each time out, and know when I finish something it could always have been better … Resting on laurels or repeating past successes to the point of self parody are the pathways to creative death.
JH: It is the “Who cuts the Barber’s hair?” question, but readers always seem interested in what a writer reads for his own amusement. So, what does Rick Hautala read these days when he wants to kick back and relax?
RH: Sad to say, I don’t read much fiction. After writing fiction all day, I need to blow the stink off, as it were, so I read a lot of non-fiction – history, biography, political books. For fiction, I do a lot of what I call “social reading,” which means I read books written by friends of mine so I can tell them I read their new book and loved it. (Speaking of which: I read Chris Golden and Mike Mignola’s book Baltimore and loved it!) And as I get older, I find myself drifting back to sf, fantasy, and horror I read when I was young. Kind of a nostalgia trip, probably. Of course, I will always read and savor James Lee Burke’s writing. Hands down the best writer working today. And of course there are other writers who, when I read them, make me think I want to do that!
JH: Your career spans from the early days of horror as a separate genre in American publishing, through the horror boom and bust, the rise and fall of the major lines and the growth of the small press. You’ve seen contemporaries come and go, and you’re still standing. To what do you owe your longevity?
RH: The Finns have a word for it: “Sisu.” The positive spin is that a Finn will stand tough and do whatever needs to be done, no matter what, but the negative connotation is that a Finn is too damned stupid to stop doing something even when the odds are stacked against him or her. Look, writing is hard work, and it never gets easier. If anything, it gets harder, and the economy can take a toll. If your sales figures start to flag (and mine have gone up and down), you have to reinvent yourself. I think it was Harlan Ellison who said (this is a close approximation): “Writing is easy; it’s staying a writer that’s hard.” You have to develop your craft and you have to expand your horizons and challenge yourself every time out. (re: my “past success–self parody” remark). And the material has to stay fresh and exciting for you, the writer, otherwise it becomes a drill, a routine which will bore you and your readers.
JH: And finally, Maine is one of the smaller states in terms of population. In the horror fiction field, though, it’s as big as California. Is there something about Maine that lends itself to dark writing? What is in the water up there?
RH: The glib answer is “Stephen King’s success.” Writers who have never visited the state set their stories in Maine and more often than not get it wrong, wrong, wrong! Sure, setting is important to a story, and Maine (and all of New England, being the oldest colonies … if we ignore the Spanish in Mexico and the Caribbean) has its creepy places. But a writer has to write about what he knows. Imagination is only one element. To really get a story, you have to know the bones of the land and the people who live there so your story rings true and – hopefully – will be universal enough to reach readers even in, say, Europe (which has its own share of creepy locales). The only thing in the water is…well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.