The countdown begins…The ebook version of Rob Hood’s Creeping in Reptile Flesh will be launched tomorrow!!!!
For a taste of what’s to come, please see the following interview (done by Morrigan’s Kari Wolfe):
Robert, I want to thank you for participating in this interview today. I’m rather excited to talk to you. I’ve just finished your collection Creeping in Reptile Flesh and, honestly, this is my first time reading your work. And, wow. I love your writing.
The first thing I’d like to ask you is about ideas. Everyone always wants to know where an author comes up with their ideas–do you dream about your stories (well, more like nightmare, in your case 😉 )? Do you start out with the seed of an idea and then, in putting the words to the page, the story just naturally flows?
RH: Thanks for the kind words, Kari. The way I write stories is mostly the latter — seed of an idea then the story develops on the page as I write. Very rarely do I have a story completely constructed in my head or on paper before I start writing it. Novels need more preparation and pre-development, of course, but short stories tend to grow. Having said that, some stories — more and more as I get older — require research ahead of the game. This, too, often happens as the story progresses, beyond any initial knowledge of What It’s About. It’s all rather organic and intuitive. This method means that lots of re-writing takes place, as an initial stab at a story veers off somewhere unexpectedly interesting and I have to go back and tweak or completely re-work what came before. Of course, sometimes I have the ending, but have to find out how to get to it.
The seed of the idea can come from many places. Dreams are very rare. I find they never make sense once I start to question them, even if they seemed detailed and coherent when I was in the midst of them. Of the stories in Creeping in Reptile Flesh, there was a wide variety of “origins/inspirations”. The title story came from 20 years ago when I was a research assistant for a Professor of History, and was reading old newspapers for him, searching for answers to whatever questions he was asking about the events of the time. While looking for what Labor candidates were saying, I’d come across snippets of weird or just interesting news. One that I ended up following was an account of the brutal murder of a young girl in Melbourne in the 1920s. There were strange aspects to the developing account, and more strange revelations as it went to trial. That — and the business of being a research assistant to a Professor writing a book about NSW political history — lay an the heart of the eventual story. But though I began the story maybe two decades ago, it was only when I started putting the collection together that I went back to it and it grew. The eccentric behaviour of politicians, feral animals and various other bits and pieces all fed into it. The title, which is a quote from a William Blake poem, also helped to give it form, thematically.
Other stories came together in different ways. ‘The Black Lake’s Fatal Flood’ came from idly imagining reaching into a shallow pool of water on a floor, only to find it to be very very deep indeed. ‘Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge’ was inspired by the underground “space-rock” band Hawkwind and the idea of random synchronicity. Joining the two caused it to get weirder and weirder and I simply ran with it. ‘Getting Rid of Mother’ started out as a murder mystery set in Camden, where I’d lived for nearly a decade, but it turned into a ghost tale as it went along because the supernatural seemed to be there even when it wasn’t. ‘The Slimelight, And How To Step Into It’ came from years of working with an amateur theatre group — and grew out of the first line. ‘Casual Visitors’ came from several experiences — a guy I came across while working as a journalist who was building a full-size flying saucer in his backyard, plus the first SF convention I ever went to, where Harlan Ellison was a guest. Being “mistaken” for Ellison in a lift really happened, even though I didn’t look anything like him. So the issue of “true” identity entered the story. You get the picture. Lots of things feed into stories and that’s how they grow.
The thing is, though, an idea isn’t a story. When you get a good idea, you then have to find the story that goes with it. That’s the tricky bit.
The title of the collection is a quotation from William Blake’s visionary poem Milton. In what way does Blake encapsulate the whole collection?
RH: I’ve had a very close acquaintance with Blake’s work for a long time, as it was the subject of my postgraduate thesis. His attitude to Life, the Universe and Everything affected me profoundly. Blake as mystic looked beyond — above and below — the world as we mundanely experience it, and saw a vast, symbolic structure that we all to easily lose sight of. For him, Imagination creates Reality. They are inseparable. All the stories in Creeping in Reptile Flesh, in different ways, are about the relationship between surface appearance and essential reality — and the passions that drive us to create the world. We can be slave to past tyrannies, or Imagination can free us. We have to open our eyes to possibility and make the act of seeing an active rather than a passive experience. Apart from anything else, it’s why Art in all its forms is so important.
How long have you been writing and when did you know, without a doubt, that you wanted to be an author?
RH: The first story I remember writing (and therefore it probably wasn’t the first I did write) wasn’t at all conspicuous — it was a page-long, jokey thing that was the result of a primary school creative writing exercise when I was about 9 or 10. The title was ‘Bully for You’ and it was about a boy getting trapped in a paddock with a grumpy bull. I remember thinking I was inordinately clever and funny because of the pun in the title. Children are easily amused.
In high school, my class creative writing stories started to get long — and all of them were what we now call “speculative fiction”. I remember two significant occasions. One was a story written as part of an exam. It had reached 8 pages when I ran out of time and therefore it remained unfinished. The teacher later berated me for getting so carried away with it — not because I’d neglected proper exam procedure but because she desperately wanted to know what happened in the end. I had to finish it off for her.
The other occasion is one that had an effect that lasted a long time and probably helped form the passion that is needed to grab onto this business (fiction writing) and stick with it for a lifetime. We’d had to write a story for class. I wrote one about an astronaut circling the globe, listening to the escalating political showdown between nations taking place below. Finally nuclear war breaks out (the 60s was a peak time for nuclear paranoia) and from his distant “safety” the astronaut watches the bombs going off. Communications with Cape Kennedy cease — and after a while all there is coming over his radio is silence. The story ends with him still circling the silent world, knowing he may be the last surviving human and waiting for his orbit to decay. The teacher came in a few mornings after the class exercise had been due and made me get up and read the story to the class. That was embarrassing enough, but then she praised the story, particularly its emotional impact, and with a genuinely wistful look on her face added: “I’ve always wanted to be able to write a story like that.”
Teachers can have a profound influence on us, for good or ill. That moment didn’t create my passion for writing, but it gave my already rampant desire to write stories a strong shove. Being able to move people in such a way is not something to be taken lightly.
In his work, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King compares finding the story to go along with the idea to excavating fossils from deep within the earth. He seems to have a very similar idea to yours–write what you’re thinking and worry about the story development later. As you said, the method probably does require a number of rewrites to get a story you’re happy with.
There are a few writers who also believe in planning and plotting most of the big twists and turns in advance–not necessarily a “formula” so to say, but I know some writers feel that they need an outline before they are going to write anything and that anyone who decides to “write by the seat of their pants” is wrong.
What would you recommend to writers just starting out regarding both of these stances? Do you ever outline your work beforehand? Is there a method you use when writing that helps you in the rewriting process?
RH: As I get older, I find that some sort of preparation and planning becomes more and more helpful, but essentially, yes, I generally think it’s more important to start writing than it is to have a detailed grasp of the plot, characters and the structure beforehand. Attempts at pre-planning, for me, usually result in a loss of interest in the story because it’s simply not functioning as an experiential “event”. Even if I do plan, I never stick to it. Inevitably the process of composition and immediate imaginative involvement stimulates thoughts and approaches and possibilities that are more interesting than the ones generated in a vacuum before the writing has begun. For me, the stuff put on “paper” (virtual or otherwise) — words, sentence structures, tonal variance — are intricately bound to the other elements of story creation, such as theme, character, plot, narrative structure. They don’t exist apart from each other, but are born in conjunction. As a consequence a “story” developed in outline form is a sterile, unimaginative thing that bears little relation to the finished product. It might work as a jumping-off point, but that’s all — and of course if that works for you to do that, fine. Do it. I don’t find it very productive myself. It’s simply not organic enough. Outlines don’t stimulate the sort of imaginative involvement that I need.
In a way, though, even using the organic method, planning takes place at some point — and on some level. When I’m writing a story, I may not have outlined it beforehand, but I do develop an outline nevertheless, only it takes place while I’m writing the story. And it will change as I go, as I add things to the construct and have to re-think where it’s going and where it needed to come from. More often than not, I end up completely abandoning the beginning of stories I’ve started writing.
Just the other day, while developing a design template for a newsletter, I realised that I have to remove a major scene in a story I’m halfway through because I suddenly thought of an approach that makes a lot more sense and brings the prospect of a satisfying resolution much closer. The scene in question is a good one, but it belongs in a different story. It’ll have to go. I made a few notes so I wouldn’t forget and went back to the salaried job. That sort of thing happens all the time.
King’s analogy from excavating fossils is a common one in discussing artistic creation. As a sculptor, Michelangelo said that for him it was a process of finding the form of the sculpture within the marble, chipping away the excess material until it reveals itself. But a work of fiction is more like an aggregation than an excavation. You start with a bare idea or a character or an image or a theme and then proceed to build on it. At least up to second draft stage, you add things rather than take them away, put things together to see what sort of imaginative chemical reaction takes place and where it leads. What might happen if your character does this rather than that? If you want a story to end somewhere pre-ordained, then what images, plot events, motivations do I have to add to the initiating moment in order to get there? And if I then find that it leads the story somewhere unexpected, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Crime writer Raymond Chandler once said that if a story he was writing got stale and he was getting nowhere with it, he’d have someone kick down the door and rush in, guns blazing. Taken metaphorically (or even literally sometimes), that’s good advice. Do something unexpected, just to see if it stimulates your imagination. If it works it might change the story’s destination and require you to go back and re-write everything that came before, but you may very well end up with a much more exciting story. Some of my most dynamic characters and startling fictional moments were ones that initially crashed into the story and then took over.
I think it’s important to realise that whichever approach you take — outline or organic development — you’re going to have to work at it. A story is something you create, not something that already exists (unless you’re simply plagiarising someone else’s creation). Too many beginning writers think that first drafts are good enough. Believe me, they never are (well, very rarely — I think I’ve written one in my lifetime that didn’t need extensive revision.) And I don’t mean just tinkering with the language. You have to hack and slash and build and re-think until the story has an excitement that grabs you. Because if you as writer aren’t excited and involved, then your readers sure won’t be.
So what method should new writers use to create stories? Whatever stimulates their imagination.
And one last question: What is your favorite story from this collection? Is there one that stands out for you, the most inspired, the one that you’re most eager to share with your readers?
RH: Well, they’re all my babies and I love them all for different reasons, even when in hindsight I see the flaws. I have a great affection for ‘The Slimelight, and How to Step into It’, for example, for its bizarre and somewhat gooey humour, its origins in my experiences in amateur theatre and its rather naive romanticism — something I don’t do all that much. I love ‘Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge’ for its surreal extravagance, the way it creates meaning on a level beyond plot and how, in order to “get” it, readers need to grasp its oddball absurdity — in which lies, I think, the underlying nature of human existence. I love the creepiness of many of the stories, from the gross-out of ‘Heartless’ and the Cthulhan tentacle horror of ‘The Black Lake’s Fatal Flood’ to the subtle eeriness of ‘You’re A Sick Man, Mr Antwhistle’, and the unexpected menace of the last two paragraphs of ‘Getting Rid of Mother’ (which, of course, only work because of what comes before). I love the dark introversion of ‘Groundswell’, the quirky pessimism of ‘Rotten Times’ and the wistful melancholy of ‘Casual Visitors’. ‘Dreams of Death’ is classic Hitchcockian noir — a sub-genre I adore.
But the stand-out for me is the title story, ‘Creeping in Reptile Flesh’. It’s a long story and one that took me a long time to get right. I think its complexity, in terms of both plot and thematic impact, represents some of the most successful writing I’ve ever done. I don’t think it’s an easy read, not if you want to get full value out of it. It demands attention at a level we don’t always give to works within the genre, yet it has all the right ingredients: horror, suspense, humour, politics, interesting characters, startling imagery, symbolic layering — even a zombie or two — and a plot with some hopefully unexpected turns, all forming a theme that I as author find profound and compelling. It’s about Australia in a way that may not be obvious, exploring how ferality becomes an indigenous reality of its own — and its about the transcendent bestiality of human nature. It’s also fun. It was fun to write — and reading it now, I still find it wildly entertaining.
But maybe that’s just me.