David Niall Wilson interviews Rick Hautala (2010)

Rick Hautala has more than twenty-five published books, including the million-copy, international best-seller Nightstone, as well as Twilight Time, Little Brothers, Cold Whisper, Impulse, Four Octobers, and The Mountain King. He also has had four books published under the pseudonym A. J. Matthews, including The White Room, Looking Glass, Follow, and Unbroken. Over fifty of his short stories have appeared in national and international anthologies and magazines.

Forthcoming books include The Wildman from Full Moon Press. His new short story collection, Occasional Demons, is due soon from CD Publications. Lovecraft’s Pillow, a short film he co-wrote with Mark Steensland, showed at Cannes Film Festival in the Summer of 2006. Other short films include The Ugly File, based on a short story by Ed Gorman, Peekers, based on the story by Kealan Patrick Burke, and Abed, based on the Beth Massie short story. He just finished the feature film adaptation of James Newman’s Animosity.

A graduate of the University of Maine in Orono with a Master of Art in English Literature, he has three grown sons and lives in southern Maine where he is at work on several book and film projects.

DNW: You’ve been working in and around the writing business for a long time. You have novels, short stories, limited editions, and some screenwriting behind you. Here’s my first question. What is it that keeps you excited and sharp? What is it that you think about when you are probably behind on other deadlines, or daydreaming over a beer? What—currently—is the passion, and why?

RH: What keeps me excited and sharp (as sharp as I can be at my advance age <g>) is the knowledge that I am still learning. Always learning. I love to read and write and read some more. At times, even some of the basics of writing a story…even simple things like word choice and POV seem like a sudden revelation to me, like I’ve never really understood them before. There are always new stories and ideas floating around. Trying to snag them and hone them and develop them is the fun part—the exciting part.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of work involved, too… The worst time for me is trying to nail down the first pass of the outline. Once I have that down…maybe ten to fifteen pages, I feel better. Writing is a lot more fun when I’m peeling back the layers of the basic story idea, and the characters come alive and start making it all tick.

I think about stories all the time. Even the most inconsequential things can add to a story. It’s what I call the ‘information filter.’ Once I have an idea about what the story is and where it’s going, everything I experience ‘in life, in reading, and in dreams’ is grist for the mill. I always ask: ‘How can I use this?’ Even in the most horrible situations…like a few years ago, when I witnessed a car accident and was the first person on the scene. I thought the young woman (who had tried to commit suicide by speeding up and running into a telephone pole) was dying in my arms. There was blood everywhere, and all I kept thinking was: ‘I gotta remember the details so I can use them in a story.’ Even when her car started smoking, and I had the very vivid thought that it might blow up and take me out, too.

My current passion is writing screenplays. Mark Steensland and I have collaborated on several short films, including scripts I wrote based on stories by Ed Gorman, Beth Massie, and Kealan Patrick Burke. We’re also developing a feature film, based on James Newman’s novel Animosity. Script writing is fun for me. It doesn’t have the heavy lifting all the description a novel demands. I enjoy dealing with short, punchy scenes.

DNW: You’ve known a lot of publishers and editors, is there one publishing project, story, or person that sticks with you? One of each is fine, in case…what are the defining, memorable moments for you so far, and why?

RH: This is a sticky subject because, as well and as poorly as my books have sold, they’ve always been mixed blessings. Even when Nightstone sold over a million copies nationwide, I wasn’t all that happy about it, and I certainly didn’t enjoy whatever level of ‘success’ I attained because of a lot of things that didn’t happen to the book and, hence, to me. Look, I was at the University of Maine in Orono during the same years Steve King was there. We were English majors together. Once he sold Carrie, he was the only model I had as a flesh and blood author, so after I sold my first novel, I think—no, I know I was expecting to have mountains of reviews (all positive) and movies made of my books, and I’d become a best-selling author and a household name like Steve. It took years—a decade or more—before I finally realized I was in the niche I was in, and that was it, so I had to accept it and learn to like it. And I do—now…

But in all those years and after working with all the editors and publishers I’ve dealt with, I’d have to say Rich Chizmar at CD Publications has been the best to deal with. Rich and I have been through a lot, personally and professionally, over the years, and I consider him one of the absolute best people on the planet, in or out of the business. But there are so many other people…professionals I’ve met who are great to work with and hang around. Too many writers to name other than Matt Costello, Tom Monteleone, Joe Lansdale, Bentley Little, Chris Golden. As for editors—Leslie Gelbman, when she edited me at Zebra, was absolute tops. She’s now a bigwig at Berkley. And speaking of Berkley, my editor there Ginjer Buchannan who has edited four A. J. Matthews novels is great to work with. She takes my raw material and does wonders with it. The best editors make you jump through hoops to get the story that’s there better. The worst are ones who try to edit you the way they would have written the book it they were the author. I’ve had a few editors like that, too… Thankfully, I can’t even remember their names, so I can’t tell you who they are—or were.

DNW: You write a lot of your novels inside the heads of your characters, delving into their insecurities. Is this something you do consciously, or are you exploring the character as you go? How do you discover your characters? Are they plot-mandated, or do they control the plot? Where do you find them? Any tips for younger writers on believable characterization—or comments on this particularly difficult facet of the writing game?

RH: This may be a chicken/egg question, but I think—I’m really not sure, but I think—I come up with a general plot idea first and then start thinking about characters who would fit with it and make it tick. The problem is, story is so much a function of character and vice versa that it’s almost impossible to say—for me, anyway—which comes first or which is most important.

Other writers may have a clearer idea of what it is they do. I certainly don’t. This ain’t changing the oil in your car or setting the timer on your VCR (remember VCRS? I still use one!)

But I think it all starts with: Hey! Wouldn’t it be cool if ‘such and such.’ And then I think about what kind of person would be challenged by that situation. I delve deeply into my characters’ heads because I tend to ruminate…a lot… Just ask Chris Golden… He’ll tell yah. I tend to stew on things, and most of the things I stew on aren’t all that pleasant or positive. I’m simply not a bright sunshiny guy. Most Finns aren’t. (Opps. That’s not a racial slur, is it?)

I’m always mistrustful of authors who say they let their characters take over and decide what’s going to happen next. Sounds more like schizophrenia to me. I never forget that I’m in control of the story. I’m playing God here. Sure. I’ll get to a point in a story where I’ve outlined a scene and then realize the character wouldn’t react that way or say what I thought he or she would say. But I think it’s an ‘artsy pose,’ not ‘real’ writing, to say your characters take over the story. Open up your subconscious and let your imagination flow. Sure. But never, never give up control of your story.

DNW: Setting plays a large part in your work, particularly in your upcoming novel The Wildman. The island they visit is built from memories, nightmares, and vivid descriptions throughout the novel. How clearly do you picture settings as you write? How important are they to the story, in your opinion? Do they come from— as I asked about characters—the plot, or does the plot evolve around the setting? In The Wildman the forest and the island almost serve as extra characters’is it based on personal memories of summer camp, or did you build it from ‘whole cloth,’ as they say?

RH: The Wildman came about in a strange way. I have, on occasion, felt constrained by the limits my editor and I put on the A. J. Matthews novels. I was in the middle of what I thought would be the next A. J. book (It may be…I’m not sure still.) And I began to feel frustrated. Hemmed in. The story was…let’s say it was yielding its treasures reluctantly.

Also around that time I attended my high school reunion. (I won’t say what year I graduated—it was too long ago!) It blew my mind to be at the reunion and see all these people. Just because we went to high school together, I didn’t really ‘know’ any of them any more. Being the writer that I am, I began to ruminate on all the years that had passed since my classmates and I were young and full of the promise they always speak about at graduations.

Anyway, I started to think back on my own youth and the years I spent first as a camper and then as a counselor at a summer camp in New Hampshire. Good times’great times tainted only by my immaturity and insecurities, both real and imagined. You still with me? So while The Wildman is set in a deserted camp on an island on a lake in Maine, its ‘skeleton’ is the camp in New Hampshire that I worked at when I was in college. None of the characters are based on any one individual. Even the protagonist isn’t really ‘me’—except, sort of he is.

I believe ‘time and place’ or ‘setting’ are crucial to a story, so I work my damnest to make the locales seem real. But like character, I think my initial concept for setting comes after I get an initial idea for a story. Once I start working on the outline, the interactions of plot, character, and setting all get so involved and tangled for me I don’t even want to try to sort them out. I’m too busy telling the story. In the end, it doesn’t matter. They all affect each other, and as I build a story, they all evolve and develop.

But’yes. In The Wildman I wanted the place to be an important part of the story, and I wanted to focus on how that place and the memories—good and bad and horrifying!—have affected my characters…especially the protagonist.

DNW: Standard interview question: You have one day to come up with the inspiration for a new novel, story, or film. You can spend it in a library with access to all the world’s books, in a studio with access to all the world’s music, or you can be transported anywhere in the world for the day. Which do you choose, and why? If it’s the last…the place…where and why?

RH: While I’m tempted to say: ‘Wisk me off to St. Kitts where I can sit under some palm trees by the sea, sipping a rum punch,’ the truth is, I’d plunk my ass down at my desk and sift through my computer files of notes for stories and ideas, and I’d think…and think…and think…or ‘ruminate,’ as Chris Golden would say.

Research comes after the basic ideas. It’s the filler—the nine-tenths of the iceberg below the waterline. I have to work in total silence. That’s why, even before I had kids, I worked late at night. After kids, even though they’re grown and moved out, I keep more of a ‘business day’ schedule because that when they were in school. The key’for me, anyway’is writing down the ideas when they come. Like recording dreams, I often look back at notes I made and wonder where the hell they came from. On two occasions, I’ve even found whole outlines for novels I don’t remember writing. The Wildman came from an idea I had a long time ago. It was only my class reunion that started me thinking about it again. But I look at my notes and ideas, and if they’or even parts of them’are good, I’ll throw them into the mix.

So in the best of all possible worlds, I’d be with my laptop and a fine cigar under a palm tree in St. Kitts because then…if the ideas didn’t come, I wouldn’t care… By evening, I’d be drunk on rum punch anyway!

DNW: Thanks Rick!