Charlie Huston is one of the most intriguing and creative fiction writers around right now. He is so good that I broke a promise for him: When I left journalism as a career I vowed I would never again do a telephone interview because those are much more work for a writer than an email interview. Usually when I tell a publicist I will only do an email interview they come around but Huston (or his publicist) would not.
While I had interviewed Charlie before for the Shotgun Rule I was so fascinated by his two latest novels I decided to make an exception just for him.
I spoke to him by phone about two weeks ago. The following is the result of that conversation.
I asked him to explain how he came up with the concept and story lines for his two most recent books.
He said the idea for Sleepless, a work of speculative fiction, came partly from reading The Family That Couldn't Sleep. He took this real life problem and exaggerated and played with it and the result is this bizarre but fascinating work. While the medical ailment that caused that family was true he made up a worse form of sleeplessness for the book.
Publisher's Weekly describes the book this way :"In Huston's impressive, challenging thriller set in a postapocalyptic Los Angeles, a devastating illness renders the afflicted unable to sleep. In about a year, those with SLP (as the sleepless illness is known) deteriorate and die. Amid the city's rampant violence and lawlessness, LAPD cop Parker Park Haas tries to persuade himself that a future exists for his newborn daughter. As the outside world becomes increasingly dangerous, Park pursues an undercover investigation that takes him deep into the milieu of an online game called Chasm Tide, into which many people have retreated. As in the author's Joe Pitt vampire series (My Dead Body, etc.), this book has at its heart a love story: Park's wife is dying from SLP, and Park begins to fear he may be getting it, too."
As with the protagonist Huston is a proud papa. I asked which came first: Making the protagonist a father or becoming a "real life" father. Also, the book is dedicating to "my darling Clementine." He confirmed that Clementine is his daughter's name. He had decided the book's main character, Park, would be a father before he himself found out he would become a father.
Why did he want the protagonist to be a father?
"I wanted him to everything to lose. I wanted him to be invested wtih a child, and the world continuing, someone for whom the end of civilization" - something possible in the book - just could not occur, Huston said.
He prefers to call the book speculative fiction rather than science fiction. Either way he admitted it was sometimes weird to be driving around Los Angeles, where he lives, and see sites that are in the book but in radically different.
Whether you call it science fiction or speculative fiction is a vast - but intriguing - departure from his prior books. He decided for his prior book to try for something more comic. He was thinking it'd be a funny cop drama along the lines of the great Rockford Files television series. And he succeeded - it IT damn funny - but boy is it dark at times.
Huston said he was thinking the protagonist would be a funny private eye but then he learned about the people who clean up crime scenes and the result was this amazing novel.
Stephen King praised this book in a review you can read here.
Mystic Arts is described this way by Publisher's Weekly: Noir master Huston (The Shotgun Rule) should win himself a whole new audience with this bizarre and utterly grotesque stand-alone, told mostly through dialogue that highlights the author's uncanny ear for the spoken word. Former Los Angeles grade school teacher Web Goodhue, now a full-time slacker suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, falls into a job on a crime scene cleanup crew, scrubbing up the remains of the recently deceased. After the crew has finished cleaning up a messy suicide scene in Malibu, Web gets a phone call from the dead man's daughter, Soledad. She and her thug half-brother have another big mess on their hands that needs cleaning, on the QT. Unable to resist the beautiful Soledad, Web soon finds himself in way over his head. Huston, one of his generation's finest and hippest talents, shows in grisly detail what cleaning up after the dead entails. This one should appeal to Chuck Palahniuk fans as well as hard-boiled crime readers
The book is being adapted into a HBO series with Alan Ball of Six Feet Under executive producing. What's that like? Is it hard to imagine your books as tv shows and movies?
He said it is great "writing under his tutelage." He is able to use Ball's contacts and helps as he is "godfathering the project" and providing lots of helpful feedback. There is no timetable or timeline for the project.
We talked about some of Huston's other projects which include writing the graphic novels Moon Knight. He enjoys the different writing style and regimen for graphic novels compared with that of "regular" novels.
We talked about what it is like to see books you have written turned in to television series or movies. His book, Already Dead, was optioned but not turned into a movie. I mentioned that another L.A.-based crime writer I like, Robert Crais, told me he takes steps to ensure his books are not made into movies.
Crais told me:
Scott: Is it true you have taken steps to prevent Elvis Cole or Joe Pike from being portrayed in movies? How? Why?
No fancy steps here—studios, producers, actors, whoever, they make offers to buy Elvis and Joe, I say, no thanks. It would take me six pages to write out why, so here's the short version: I want to save the characters for me and my readers.
Huston has a different attitude.
"I wrote the book and nothing anyone does after that will change it," he said. He would prefer, of course, that the book is not made by someone incompetent.
Since he has what he described as "modest readership" he is "lessy fussy" about the possibility of turning one of his books into a movie. He figures he has less at stake, he said.
I usually close my interviews by asking authors what they are working on next. In Huston's case, since he has his hands full, including writing the pilot for a television series about which he was not allowed to provide details, I decided on a different approach. When I interviewed him for the Shotgun Rule I asked him a question I think writers like to be asked, namely, "What question do you wish you would get asked more often." He said he wished he was asking more sports questions. Since he has moved from New York To L.A. (where I grew up, incidentally, well, in Riverside) I asked if he roots for New York or L.A. teams.
He said he cheers for the same teams he always did, the San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors and the Miami Dolphins.
"I hate Los Angeles teams," he said. This from a guy who lives close to Dodger Stadium might seem odd but then the L.A. he describes in Sleepless is so disturbing that maybe the Dodgers should be glad he's not a fan.