Ginger Nuts of Horror
Glen Hirshberg is an award-winning author of spectral fiction. Peter Straub has called him "an amazing writer who makes the materials of horror into what they were supposed to be all along—grandly sweeping, capable of tremendous reach, and open to all aspects of human experience," and theLos Angeles Review of Books recently referred to him as "always one of his generation's finest stylists, its most able student of character." Widespread critical acclaim for his most recent novel, Motherless Child, reprinted in a revised edition by Tor in May of 2014) has included starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Booklist, raves from Locus, The Washington Post,Black Static, Fangoria and Cemetery Dance, and ringing endorsements from Ramsey Campbell, Elizabeth Hand, Christopher Golden, and many others. Of Glen's 2010 novel, The Book of Bunk (Earthling), the late Lucius Shepherd wrote, "It's as if Woody Guthrie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had co-authored a 90,000-word folk song," and Jeff Vandermeer called it "powerful, sad, ecstatic, and above all, a clear sign that the uniquely American novel is alive and well." Glen's 2002 debut, The Snowman's Children (Carroll & Graf), was a Literary Guild Featured Selection and received raves from The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews (starred review), and many other publications.
Glen's prize-winning story collections include:
The Janus Tree (Subterranean, 2011), a Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award finalist. The title novelette, "The Janus Tree," won the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award in 2008.
American Morons (Earthling, 2006), winner of the International Horror Guild Award.
The Two Sams (Carroll & Graf, 2003), winner of the International Horror Guild Award, and including the International Horror Guild Award-winning novelette, "Dancing Men." The Two Sams was also a Publishers' Weekly Best Book of the Year, and features perhaps Glen's best-known story, "Mr. Dark's Carnival," selected by John Pelan for his Century's Best Horror Fictioncollection.
Glen has also been a five-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award.
Hello Glen, how are things with you? Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Hi, Ginger Nuts. Thanks for having me back. Given the length of this interview, I’m thinking prospective readers will learn more than they ever wanted or needed to know just by continuing, so…
We’ll start with some of the easy getting to know you questions. What’s your favourite food?
Don’t I even get a time of day? Nationality? Anything to narrow this down? Proper chocolate cake rates pretty highly. Proper, as in no goop, the right frosting (buttercream yes, whip cream, God no), very little else. Michigan cherries. Fragrant (but not runny) cheese. Tuscan bread soup. Grilled-onion bagels from the Back Door Bakery, which just burned down, but which is coming back. They swear to me they’re coming back.
German board games? Why German board games? I don’t think I have ever played one?
They don’t necessarily have to be German, but I think the Germans started it. There has been a little revolution in board games over the past 25 years or so. The most famous examples would probably be things like Settlers of Cataan or Ticket to Ride (which isn’t German). But the field has seen an explosion of real creativity in terms both of subjects for game play and also game mechanics. With the right friends or family and a long evening, these games are the perfect catalysts for the kind of playful, competitive, laughing, cooperative, fully engaged socializing I like best when I like to socialize. Which, I will admit, is only sometimes…
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
Again, kind of a tricky question. Are you actually asking what my life is like, or what music I love most, or what music best accompanies my days? I love writing to the spectral, brooding landscapes of Richard Skelton or the artic vastness of Tomas Koner. I like blissing out to Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground and the Fuck Buttons and the Digable Plantes. I like imagining trading stories with Guy Clark and Todd Snider and Eileen Rose and Nathan Bell and Thomas Anderson, or revving up with Wire and Sleater-Kinney. I like vanishing off the edge of the Earth to (or with) Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.”
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
Again. Impossible. But you asked about “favorite” as opposed to best or scariest, so that’s what I’ll try and answer. Film: Either the original John Carpenter “The Fog,” which made me fall all the way into lifelong love with ghost story telling, ghost story atmosphere, lighthouses in fog, static-riddled radio in the middle of the night; or else one of the Val Lewtons—I’m thinking “I Walked With a Zombie” or “Cat People”—for pretty much the same reasons.
Novel? The answer might be different if you said collection or book. But novel? Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now would be way up there, for all the reasons mentioned in the film notes above. Ramsey Campbell’s “Incarnate,” which just plain scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t admire The Haunting of Hill House more, think it’s a masterpiece, but it’s too cold to be my favorite. If I’m picking one? I think I’m going Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has all the atmosphere, all the storytelling charm (and how), plus astonishing psychological insight—it’s so much more complicated and beautiful and sophisticated a book than people who haven’t read it think—heart, Aristotelean choices, footsteps on cobbled, echoing streets, lost letters, profound consequences, regrets…it’s got it all.
What was the last great book you read?
Not a phrase I toss around lightly. I’ve read tons of good stuff. But great? I’d probably say Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists, which is full of history, storytelling, arcane lore, and very human, everyday anguish and beauty. And the writing is so consistently lyrical and surprising without ever being soft or fey. Just superb.
In a previous interview you cite Robert Louis Stevenson as one of your literary heroes. What is it about his writing that appeals to you? And what is your favourite story by him?
I think what I love and admire most about Stevenson—other than his generous heart, his huge imagination, his effortlessly elegant and atmospheric descriptive skills--is that he’s in love with storytelling, first and foremost. That is, no matter what genre he’s working in—horror, adventure, straight-up literature, letters home—he’s always hunting or creating paths through the tale. It’s the charm and sincerity and smarts of his company that I love most. Picking one favorite would be so difficult for me. But there’s a favorite moment, and it actually comes in one of his letters home from Samoa, late in his life, when he was very sick. One day, feeling relatively robust, he sets out from his cabin to hack his way through jungle he assumes to be completely unexplored. “And all at once…a strange thing happened. I saw a liana stretch across the bed of the brook about breast-high, swung up my knife to sever it, and—behold, it was a wire! On either hand, it plunged into thick bush; to-morrow, I shall see where it goes and get a guess perhaps of what it means. Today I know no more than—there it is.”
And there it is, for me: the openness to experience; the seeking out of the strange and wondrous; the recognition of the strange and wondrous when he comes across it; the knowing when to pause, and dangle himself (and us) over the precipice of something new and marvelous and bursting with possibility.
You have also mentioned that the influence of your parents can also be seen in your work. How have your parents influenced your writing?
My dad has been an industrial designer, a musician, a painter, and also an author. He is always thinking and perceiving in metaphor. I got exactly none of his formidable skills with a brush or pencil, but his way of looking at and thinking about experiences, and discovering surprising connections between them, has had a huge impact on the way I see and write about the world, I think. My mom was a psychologist, an intuitive and disturbingly deft reader of people, and her clear-eyed compassion instilled a lifelong interest in the ways people evolve into the people they become.
A superhero whale? Now that has got me super intrigued, have you ever considered going back to this childhood story of yours and turning it into a children’s book?
Well, it was a little repetitive. My little brother (then maybe 18 months old) breaks something or wreaks some havoc in the house. And then the minions of my mind—the super whale, the monster garbage truck with the heart of god—come and set things right.
You also teach writing, how far can you train someone to write? Does a good writer have to have some innate ability to write, or can you teach anyone to write a good story?
There are no clear or easy answers to that question. I think what a good writing teacher really does is help student-writers teach themselves how to become better than they currently are. And also recognize that they will be doing that—learning, pushing to get better, never quite getting where they meant to go—for the rest of their lives. Essentially, I try to help every writing student I have discover and maximize whatever it is they’ve got in them.
In the UK there is a constant stream of news reports about the falling standards of basic education, kids not being able to spell even the most basic of words for example. As a teacher have you encountered this?
I actually think the crisis in education is much more serious than this: I think we are in profound danger, in the west, of forgetting what education was supposed to be about in the first place. This may sound naïve, or idealistic, or quaint. But to me, teaching basic skills…that’s easy. Or it should be. All it takes is resources and time and the will to do it. What’s hard is remembering and then facing up to the original, much more difficult task we still sometimes claim we’re setting ourselves: to engender successive generations of creative, compassionate citizens capable of informing themselves, discerning new truths out of constantly shifting and evolving realities, and then leading/educating us.
In the rush for accountability, we’re running the risk of reducing education to the things most easily measured: spelling, basic math skills, etc. And in doing that, we’re not only underestimating and strangling the creativity and joy in learning out of our kids, but we’re very possibly dooming ourselves.
People love labels, how would you describe your writing style?
I’m going to let someone else do that. It’s hard enough just trying to live what I preach, identify what I think I’ve got and then keep getting better at it.
How easy do you find the writing process? Are there elements that you find easier than others?
Writing is the hardest, most satisfying work I have ever known. There’s nothing easy about it, at least for me: not the dreaming up, not the getting it down, not the getting it right. Sometimes, each of those processes surprises me by being easy for a bit. And by “surprises,” what I actually mean is sucker-punches…
Why horror, what is it about the genre that compels you to write it? And what do you think makes for a good horror story?
I honestly wish I knew the answer to either of these. I have loved spooky stories all my life, though I never imagined myself writing spectral tales until my 30s. What I have found is that something seems to happen when I do use horror tropes, and it’s alchemical, and I can’t explain it. Somehow, using the trappings and atmosphere of ghost stories, especially, seems to help me locate and maximize what’s best in my work, which I think is the atmosphere and my sense of character. I never set out to write horror, or any genre. But I do seem to keep coming up with ideas that fall somewhere under that umbrella.
As for what makes a good horror story, I truly believe there’s no one answer. Every good and fresh new story generates its own criteria for evaluation. I try to ask the same questions of my own work that I do of my students’ work: What is this trying to do? Is it doing that well? Is what it’s trying to do worth doing?
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
No, I don’t think so. The only things I would never write are things that don’t interest me. Five years or so ago, I probably would have said vampires. And look where that would have gotten me…
The genre always seems to be full of one fight or another, but one that refuses to die is the constant struggle between those who think the only good horror is literary, and those who think that those who write literary horror are snobs. Where do you stand on this?
I’m so utterly not interested in the fights. I just want to write and read work I love. I will say that I’ve never understood the logic that says a work doesn’t need to be judged on the quality of its writing or characters simply because its genre. On the other hand, I’ve also never understood the logic of excusing a work from the need to tell a story worth telling about people worth knowing simply because the author writes pretty language or has some insights to offer.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
God, there are so many bits of advice that I cling to. I think the one that has most allowed me to be a writer—that is, to just keep writing, to keep publishing wherever I can, to not worry too much about what anyone’s saying at any given moment, to trust my instincts, to not harbor disappointments or perceived slights, to find a way to have a happy, functional life independent of writing, and then sit down, every day, and write until I can’t write anymore.—came from my great friend and mentor, the late M.Z. Ribalow. He told me, really early on: “The world doesn’t owe you a living. Or respect, no matter how good you are. Enjoy it if it comes. If it does come, don’t come to expect it, and don’t trust it. Go back to your desk and write.”
Your debut novel The Snowman’s Children is a genre crossing story concerning a serial killer in Detroit. What are the main themes of the book? Is there a message to it?
I hope there’s no “message.” That is, I’ve always felt that if a book has a “point” that can be summed up in a phrase, there’s not much point in the rest of the book. But as for themes? Again, I’m hesitant to comment critically on my own stuff. That book, though, is pretty clearly about childhood as somewhere inaccessible to us once we leave it. It’s also about the effects of growing up amid violence, even if one is not directly touched by it. And it’s about Detroit, which I still love, and am proud to be from.
When developing the character of the Snowman how did you ensure that the killer was a unique creation rather than just a cookie cutter killer?
Well, the Snowman is based—very loosely—on the monster of my childhood. And he was pretty monstrous. And he has never been caught. And this was before we named our Serial Killers. I just tried to stay true to the myth we all couldn’t help but build for ourselves about that horrific (and all-too-real) human being. The book, in the end, really isn’t about him. It’s about the kids.
The book seems to have split the readers down the middle, looking at the Goodreads reviews readers either love it or hate it. How much importance do you give to the reviews? Have you ever been deeply affected by a review?
Honestly, I try not to look too often. Believe it or not, I have never read down the page of my Goodreads reviews. I will glance at some, from time to time, but that’s it. Something else I picked up early: both good reviews and bad reviews have the dangerous potential to convince you that you did something other than what you did. Don’t get me wrong: I value criticism, especially from my close and trusted circle of readers—most of all, my wife, who is fantastic and ruthless and wise—and it’s not that I think anyone’s review is wrong or stupid. But I think people bring lots of themselves to what they read, which is part of what makes reading so wonderful. Once a book is out in the world, it belongs to the people who read it more than me. They can say what they want. I hope more of them find something memorable and haunting and lasting than don’t. I’ll take comfort in the fact that there are enough readers to have a discussion. That is all a writer can rightfully ask.
How do you decide on what type of story to write, does the idea shape the genre and style or do you decide on the genre and style beforehand and write the story around that?
Always, always, always, the idea shapes the genre. As a matter of fact, I would probably discard genre from the equation entirely. I just try to stay true to the parameters dictated by the story that has bubbled up in me.
You have a number of short story collections, what do you prefer to write, short stories or novels?
I love both.
A lot of your stories have common themes, for example the sense of loss appears in a number of your stories. Is there a reason as to why you come back to this theme time and again?
One way or another, I think that loss and the ways we find to deal with, reel from, and process loss make up a huge portion of who we are. I think that the more you let yourself love your life and the people in it—and I love my life, and the people in mine—the more aware you have to be of what you miss, and what you will miss, one day, if you’re lucky enough to live long enough.
Ghosts also appear a number of times in your work. What makes for a good ghost story?
There’s no one formula or set of criteria I can give you. When I teach, though, especially when I’m teaching the ghost story, I do boil it down to this: the best, most lasting, spookiest ghost stories often grow out of putting appealing or intriguing characters in a situation you would never want to be in, in a place you never want to leave.
I must draw particular attention to your story Struwwelpeter. I haven’t read this story, but I am intrigued by your take on what is, in my opinion, the scariest story off all time. What’s your story about and how closely does it follow the source story?
I’d rather let readers discover than story, as opposed to summarizing it. The original character and story provides a sort of backdrop and key image for my story, but mine is in no way a retelling or updating. It’s its own piece.
Have you written any other stories based on old folk tales?
None of my stories are “based” on old folk-tales. But many of them are informed by myths, history, local legends, stories people tell each other. The ghost story tradition is so rich and long, threaded throughout the history of human storytelling, and so without question, part of the fun now is riffing on these seemingly so-familiar ideas, and rendering them new and scary and fresh and memorable all over again.
You are probably best known for your excellent novel Motherless Child, initially you didn’t want to write this story, and how glad are you that you let the germ of an idea grow?
Is that true? I didn’t know that was the case. Anyway, I’m always happy and grateful to be known at all. I’m delighted that MOTHERLESS CHILD came out the way it did. My resistance came from believing I had nothing new or my own to say about vampires; they just weren’t interesting to me. But Natalie and Sophie, the two main characters of that book, became interesting to me really fast. Once that happened, I was just off and writing, same as always.
The novel evolved out of your short story Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey. How does a story with Tina Fey in the title grow into a vampire story?
There’s a patter that Natalie and Sophie have—a way of being one another’s friend—that just reminded me of some of Tina Fey’s cadences. The notion of combining that with something terrible and menacing…I don’t know. It just happened.
Even at the time of writing vampires books were becoming a bit of a plague, did you purposely sit down and create a vampire that wasn’t your typical vampire?
I really try not to write in relation to whatever I imagine is happening in the market, or in relation to work anyone else is doing. I just write what I want or need to write. When I realized I was writing a vampire book, I tried to make it the best possible Glen Hirshberg vampire book I possible could, and invest it with everything I have to invest it with.
The vampire in the book is a musician, did you base Whistler on any real life musicians?
Nope. Although I do think there’s an idea in there about artists—specifically, the notion that the Whistler’s music is so emotionally wrenching and powerful specifically because he doesn’t actually feel emotion, at least not in the way people do, and therefore has to imagine or approximate it—that I find particularly terrifying, personally.
If you were to create a soundtrack for the book who would be on it?
The book almost has its own soundtrack. There’s so much music specifically referenced in it. I wrote a piece about some of the key songs for the Largehearted Boy blog’s Music Notes column, and if readers are interested, I definitely encourage them to check that out and let me know what they think.
In the book you address one of the biggest plot holes in modern horror stories, the presence of almost universal communications. Whistler uses Twitter to help him track down Sophie and Natalie. Why did you decide to use this plot device, it is normally something that is ignored by horror writers.
I didn’t consciously make a decision about that. But the book is set now, and so it seemed ludicrous not to include Social Media in the world.
How important was the setting in the book?
Setting is always hugely important to me. In this case, the South just infused the narrative, crept through it and swallowed it up like kudzu. So much of reading and writing to me is about being elsewhere, no matter how much I love where I am. This book was no different.
Out of all of the characters that you have written, who is your favourite?
I really am not sure I have one. If I don’t care about (or at least am not fascinated by) the people I’m writing about, I can’t write about them.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
It really depends what you’re looking for. I try not to repeat myself, and my books are pretty different in that way, though I hope (and believe) that whatever it is I have, you can find it in all of them. For classical ghost story telling, I’d probably suggest THE TWO SAMS. Highest fright factor? Probably MOTHERLESS CHILD. For most original concept and complicated characters? Maybe THE BOOK OF BUNK. But I’m hoping all my books deliver on that characters you care about in situations you wouldn’t want to be in in places you don’t want to leave idea.
So what’s next for you? I believe Motherless Child is going to be a trilogy?
Yep. I’m wrapping up GOOD GIRLS, the second book, right now. I’m also well on my way to another collection of ghostly/strange tales.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do?
After this interview? What could possibly be left?! Thanks for the thorough, sometimes uncomfortable, and intriguing questions, and for the interest in my work.
In his powerful novel, Motherless Child, Bram Stoker Award–nominee Glen Hirshberg, author of the International Horror Guild Award–winning American Morons, exposes the fallacy of the Twilight-style romantic vampire while capturing the heart of every reader.
It’s the thrill of a lifetime when Sophie and Natalie, single mothers living in a trailer park in North Carolina, meet their idol, the mysterious musician known only as “the Whistler.” Morning finds them covered with dried blood, their clothing shredded and their memories hazy. Things soon become horrifyingly clear: the Whistler is a vampire and Natalie and Sophie are his latest victims. The young women leave their babies with Natalie’s mother and hit the road, determined not to give in to their unnatural desires.
Hunger and desire make a powerful couple. So do the Whistler and his Mother, who are searching for Sophie and Natalie with the help of Twitter and the musician’s many fans. The violent, emotionally moving showdown between two who should be victims and two who should be monsters will leave readers gasping in fear and delight.
Originally published in a sold-out, limited edition, Motherless Child is an extraordinary Southern horror novel that Tor Books is proud to bring to a wider audience.