This week on Smash Dragons I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and chat with horror writer Hank Schwaeble. Hank is someone I've only recently discovered as a reader, but in that short amount of time he has left a deep impression on me with his incredible stories and wonderfully kind nature.
If you haven't read any of his work then I implore you all to go out and buy some now. You won't regret it.
Read on, and enjoy!
Hank Schwaeble, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thank you! Always happy to sit down with a fellow enthusiast of horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy.
First up, tell me a little about yourself and your career as a writer so far.
Well, by day I’m a colorful, two-fisted real estate attorney. By night, I like to tell stories. Before I went to law school, I was an Air Force officer and Special Agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. I dabbled in writing for many years—creative writing, that is—and decided one day I had to start actually doing it instead of playing at it. It’s too easy to keep telling yourself, “someday,” especially when you have a life and career and responsibilities. But I always knew it was something I wanted to do, so a little over a decade ago I resolved to put more time and planning into it. I sold a story to a mass-market anthology, then did a project with some established authors where we each contributed several stories, and right after that I sold my first novel. Since then, I’ve published a number of short stories, a collection, and another novel with a third soon to be released.
Did you always want to be a writer? Can you remember the first piece of writing you tried to have published? What was it about?
I certainly thought about it from a relatively young age. What I wasn’t anxious to be was a starving artist. But it was always a goal. The first piece of fiction I ever tried to sell was a story about a young boy about six years old who is being interviewed by a guidance counsellor along with his mother about his behavioural problems. He tried to tell them that it wasn’t his fault, that he had this thing called a Bogey that tagged along with him and always caused all the trouble. I sent it to one magazine, got an encouraging rejection letter that said it wasn’t quite their style, and to submit another. Then I sort of forgot about it. Where that floppy disk ended up, I have no idea. But the idea and character from that formed the basis around 15 years later for my story, “Midnight Bogey Blues,” where I basically tell the story of what happened when that little boy grew up.
You also practice law, and have served in the military? How have both of those things helped shape you as a writer?
The military in general was certainly a great experience on which to expand my understanding of how things really work, and being a special agent, specifically, gave me a tremendous amount of insight into both investigative and forensic procedure as well as the workings of the intelligence community. It’s not often a twenty-three year-old gets to direct major criminal and counterintelligence investigations, but that’s what I was doing at that age.
Being a lawyer, likewise, has been a tremendous benefit to my writing. The law is a very sophisticating pursuit. It forces you to refine arguments, pay attention to detail. And it forces you to be very clean and clear in your writing. Not to mention exposing me to the machinations of various government arms and processes. It also gives you a ringside seat to the power core of fiction—conflict.
What is it about horror and dark fiction that appeals to you the most?
The peek behind the curtain. Not necessarily a peek at something real, but a peek at the sort of things that we might wonder about that we don’t understand. Few of us believe there really are goblins in the shadows, but what if there were? That’s the nature of shadows—you don’t really know what’s in there. What we do know, however, is that there is a dark side to life, to human nature. Horrors and atrocities are real, so exploring them in fictional ways allows us to deal with them intellectually and philosophically. I don’t believe it’s just morbid curiosity, either. Our brains are wired to sense things about the world, about our environment. We are driven to explore, to discover, to learn. We enjoy so many creature comforts, so many sources of entertainment, so many colors and sights and recreations, I think many of us are drawn to seek out the opposite as a way of reminding ourselves of how good things can be. It’s like listening to the blues. People don’t play Muddy Waters to be depressed, they listen to him to be reminded of struggles, of adversity, of our common humanity. People like me, I believe, like dark fiction because a part of ourselves like to swim in deep waters, to be reminded that we can be afraid, intrigued, mystified. When we lift ourselves from the pages, the world seems a much brighter place.
The other thing that appeals to me about it is the ability it affords me as a writer to explore themes that don’t lend themselves to genres that aren’t so dark. Aspects of human nature and questions of existence that would be out of place in a crime novel. In the end, horror, supernatural thrillers, dark fantasy—they’re not about the creatures or the magic or even the darkness; they’re about how we respond to those things, and what that says about who we are.
American Nocturne is probably one of my favourite reads ever. What was the motivation behind bringing a lot of your short fiction together in one collection? How did you pick what to include, and how did you hook up with Cohesion Press?
Thank you. That’s kind of you to say. About a year ago or so, I took stock of the fact I had published a good number of short stories and realized I had enough unpublished ones to put together a book of them, especially if I wrote a few new ones. So I gathered ones I thought would fit, including a few that I had never submitted anywhere, and I saw that they all had a common thread of darkness that one might say was “Noir.” Now, these are horror stories, don’t get me wrong. But they had a noir-ish sensibility to them. I once read that Dennis Lehane said that in Shakespeare, characters fall from thrones; in noir, characters fall from the gutter. His point was that noir is not about falling short of something lofty, but plummeting to new depths. Once I saw this common element to my stories, the title of the collection came to me. And once that title popped into my head, I immediately sat down and wrote the title story. When I was done, I looked over all of what I had and decided I was on to something.
Cohesion has been great to work with. Getting with them was a matter of timing. Right about the time I had the core collection in place, I noticed a few of Cohesion’s releases, names of authors I knew and admired, so I reached out. This was just before I was about to send it to my agent, which I was sort of dreading, since collections are not usually easy sales and I thought she might not be thrilled at shopping one. Fortunately, she didn’t have to. It turns out Cohesion’s publisher had read Damnable and had really liked it, so he was very receptive to the idea. Hooking up with them was really just a matter of an informal query, then sending over the stories. They seemed as enthusiastic about the stories as I was. Once we started talking, the deal fell into place quickly.
The impression that I get of you is that you are very comfortable exploring the dark shadows of our world. I’m curious… is there anything that actually scares you?
Oh, sure. The thought of eternity, of mortality, of existing forever in some state of nothing, or not existing at all. Those prospects are terrifying, and we all face them. But, I have faith that there is more to this whole thing called life than the self-organized perpetuation of information through reproductive biology. There has got to be a “why,” and I hope the answer to it awaits us all.
In the meantime, I shine my literary flashlight into the alleyways and crevices, because, well, who doesn’t want to know what’s in there? Or, to put it more accurately, who wouldn’t like to imagine what might be in there? The idea that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies is what makes life so interesting on an intellectual level.
One of the things that I adored about American Nocturne was your ability to weave twists and turns into each and every story. Is that something you consciously set out to do or does it just come naturally to you when writing?
Well, yes, and yes. I consciously do it, but I would say it also comes naturally. It’s how my mind works. Whenever I sit down to write a story, I take the idea I have, tease it out and look at the plot, at the direction and/or character motivation, and then I flip it to see what it would look like from the opposite angle. From such a different vantage point, I usually can then find a way to take the flipped angle and turn it sideways. Or I strive to, anyway. The idea is not to have a trick, but to have the story go in a direction that isn’t always telegraphed from the outset.
Where do you get your ideas? Can you give me an example of the genesis of one of your stories from American Nocturne?
There’s a store I frequent that sells them in bulk. I have a discount card.
Seriously, there is no “where.” Creativity in fiction is simply work. Sure, it takes some imagination. Some might call it talent. But I’d say at least 90 percent of it is perspiration, rather than inspiration.
Usually, I start with a kernel of something interesting. Let’s say a scary creature that seems original. This would go something like, hey, wouldn’t it be creepy if when you opened X, creature Y came out and Z’ed people to death? The point isn’t the original thought, it’s what you do with it. I tug it and stretch it and toy with it in my head, until it becomes what you might call (and what I’m sure others have called) a useful premise. Once I have a premise, then I usually will sit down and write a scene, focusing on character, something to put texture and flesh to it. Once I have a character or two in a scene, I then plot out where I want to go.
In American Nocturne, one of the stories came from an article I read about rampant fraud in published sociology studies. I started thinking, what would happen if someone was desperate to prove their side was right in the nature/nurture debate? How far might someone go? That was the genesis of my story, “Nurture.”
I’m a hybrid. Writing needs direction and focus, so I strongly advise against “pantsing.” While organic writing is much more indulgent, and therefore creatively appealing, it is usually not very productive and the result is often meandering and desultory. So I always try to know what I’m going to write that day when I sit down.
But plotting too much can be constraining. Characters need to have room to breathe and act on their own. You have to give them the space to be real, and that means to resist having them be puppeted around by you, forced into stiff action because you have to follow the outline. My outlines consist of major plot points which I call milestones and a climax. I have those in mind, so I knew the general direction and where I’m headed at the moment. It’s like driving from Florida to California. I know where I want to end up, and I have a few states I’ve marked as wanting to drive through, but other than that I try to keep the route open.
I should note that the beauty of the short story for a writer is, you can be much more organic with the form. So I do violate this rule when writing short fiction, sometimes. I’ll pants it once in a while. But I’ll never tell you which ones.
Do you prefer to write short stories or novels?
I can’t answer that question. They scratch different itches. But I guess I can say that for me, short stories are more fun, novels are more satisfying.
Where do you like to write? Some authors prefer quiet places, others busy cafes filled with people and noise. What's your preference?
I like the quiet. I can write at coffee shops if necessary, but I prefer minimal distractions. My wife (fellow author Rhodi Hawk) contends that wherever I start to write something, such as in our gameroom, on a big couch with my laptop resting on an oversized pillow on my lap and my feet on the ottoman, that’s where I insist on writing the whole thing, every day until I’m done, but that’s only a preference, not a requirement. One thing you have to train yourself to be able to do as a commercial writer is to write anywhere. You can’t be a slave to a routine, because any sort of travel, vacation, work emergency or unexpected contingency will become a reason—then an excuse—not to write. You have to muscle through it and resist the whole prima-donna-artist thing.
As well as being an accomplished short fiction writer, you also have also published an award-winning novel in Damnable and it’s sequel Diabolical. Can you tell me more about these books, and your protagonist Jake Hatcher?
Jake Hatcher is a disgraced ex-special forces interrogator, someone not only skilled in combatants, but also highly trained as a coercive interrogation tactician. He figures he’s going to hell for all the horrible things he’s done, and in Damnable he finds himself in the position of possibly being the only one who can keep the rest of humanity from joining him. In Diabolical, he finds out the forces of the demonic underworld aren’t done with him yet.
You also have another Jake Hatcher book coming up, entitled The Angel of the Abyss (Cohesion Press). In one line, tell us what we should expect from it?
The only chance Hatcher may have to undo events he’s set in motion is to stop the hostile takeover of hell by someone apparently determined to assume the throne as its new King.
Who are your literary influences? If you could meet one past writer (dead or alive) to shoot the breeze with one lazy Saturday who would it be and why?
Edgar Allan Poe. No question about it. His writing was so far ahead of its time it’s stunning. To read “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and realize he was writing that kind of prose, those kinds of sentences, those kinds of stories, in the 1840’s blows my mind whenever I think about it.
Like any horror writer of my generation, Stephen King’s influence is impossible to ignore and was large. Clive Barker was also very much an influence. Flannery O’Connor, too. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is, in my opinion, the best short story of its time and—when you realize what she did with it, the powerful use of literary device in the climax--very possibly the best short story ever.
What's your take on the current state of the horror genre right now? Do you think we are heading in a good direction?
It’s not bad. But I think it will have to overcome the challenges that all genres face, which is really a publishing industry problem. Many people think it’s fantastic that the gatekeeper function of publishing houses has been diminished to a large extent by the rise of ebooks and self-publishing, but I’m not sure having fifty-thousand horror writers making $1,000.00 a year through self-publishing means a better future for the genre than one thousand horror writers making $50,000.00. Best-sellers will always hold the potential for big paydays, but it’s the midlist that has been wiped out. The problem won’t be a dearth of quality fiction—though there is a threat of that, for the same reasons many people worry the music industry is suffering a talent-deficit—but rather that there will be such a glut of amateur works continuing to flood the market that discoverability for most good authors who don’t get picked to have a major release by a large publisher will be almost impossible. We would like to think the cream rises to the top, but that presupposes a critical mass of readers for each work. If not enough people read a work, it will float in obscurity forever, regardless of how good it is. There’s no easy answer. Indie-publishing isn’t the devil or anything. It’s only that those who have cheered the tearing down of what they thought were unfair barriers may not be seeing the whole picture. Regardless, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle, so writers and industry professionals will just have to deal.
Best horror convention experience?
My wife and I met at a convention, so that will always be extra special to me. But other than that, I’d have to say the World Horror Convention in 2010. It was in Brighton, and that was the year I won the Bram Stoker Award for Damnable. Neil Gaiman happened to be a surprise guest and attended the awards banquet. After it was over and photos of the winners were finished, I happened to walk with him to the planned after-banquet mixer at one of the hotel’s bars, and he and I had a drink together. He was affable and polite the whole time, but I remember his eyes really lit up when I told him I had just finished his novel Anansi Boys and that I liked the way it was funny, but still serious. He leaned into the conversation and said, “Yes! That’s exactly what I was going for! Seriously funny!” It was quite an evening, to win an award and cap it off with a conversation over drinks with him.
I saw six incredibly bright lights in the sky late one night driving home from Austin on a very lonely stretch of highway, maybe ten or twelve years ago. They just seemed to suspend there, extremely high, and so bright they were hard to look at, stretching in a straight line toward the southern horizon. I eventually lost sight of them as I drove. The next morning, I did a few searches to see if anyone else had reported anything, but couldn’t find a word about it. So I called a couple of local news stations, and they hadn’t heard anything, either. I even called the closest Air Force and Air National Guard bases around to see if anyone was doing training maneuvers, using high-altitude flares I’d never seen before or something, but each of them denied it. I went so far as to have one of the base PR officers look into it and call me back. She said no one knew of any training or drills being conducted that night, or even anytime recently.
I still have no idea what it was I saw.
Craziest thing a fan has ever said to you?
I was at a book-signing at a well-known independent bookstore shortly after Damnable was released, and while I was signing for people a guy came up to me and told me he had read the book twice. I told him I hoped that meant he liked it, and he said the second time was to make “corrections.” I kept signing for people and he walked off, but when I was finished I realized he had left a well-used copy of the book on the table near me. When I looked inside, I saw he had done a page-by-page, virtually line-by-line, commentary in the margins, lots of underlining and exclamations points, mostly angry denunciations based on philosophical objections, religious objections, political objections, you name it.
One of the employees at the store mentioned this person, and I told her about what he’d done. She looked at the book and was so creeped out she asked—beseeched, might be the right word--if she could keep it, and then told me she threw it away because it gave her the willies. I’m not sure the guy was psycho, but it sure as hell was weird.
Best habit as a writer? Worst?
Best habit is, I like to paint vivid descriptions with words. Worst habit is, I like to paint vivid descriptions with words. It’s all a matter of the right amount.
What’s your favourite book in your library? Why?
Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. Why? Because it’s Poe, and he was the one who tickled my brain as a child and made me think of horror as both fun and literary.
Can you tell me about any horror writers who may have slipped under our radars that we should definitely check out?
Sara Gran wrote a great little horror novel called, Come Closer. On the non-horror side, she also wrote a wonderful piece of noir titled, Dope. I highly recommend both.
What's your spirit animal? Why?
A Raven. Because I like to fly—I’m a pilot—and I like Poe.
Best writing tip you've ever received.
My first creative writing teacher in college often told me that writing was rewriting. It’s more work than it is anything else. Words don’t magically appear on the paper (or screen) or flow through the fingertips due to the inspiration of Muses. I think as long as writers remember that, they can avoid a lot of frustration.
And finally, when will you visit Australia? I need to get a signed book!
As soon as one of my books becomes a Number 1 bestseller Down Under, I’ll book tickets. Promise.
Hank Schwaeble, thanks for stopping by!
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
You can find out more about Hank's work by clicking on the following links:
Also, keep an eye out for pre-order details for The Angel of the Abyss by following Cohesion Press on their Facebook or Twitter. You can also visit Hank's site for news.
Again, I implore you all to go out now and buy Hank's work. It is truly brilliant.
Until next time... be nice to each other, and keep on reading.