I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Hal Johnson for more than a dozen years. I believe I first met him in Hoboken, of all places, when the Columbia University Science Fiction Society (mine) started hanging out with the NYU Science Fiction Society (his). He’s one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at the parties of mutual friends, and he also sold me many a comic book at Midtown Comics in New York. It was always nice to run into him and chat for a little while, usually about whatever he was reading, but I also faced these moments with a bit of panic because while talking to Hal, I often felt like I needed to read more books, better books, different books from what I was reading at the time. I imagined him silently judging my pathetic comic book selections and worried that at any moment, he would expose me as a fraud and send me packing to a library to straighten my life out.
I also knew that Hal wrote, because his D&D campaigns were legendary. By all accounts, he put more research and imagination into his epic quests than many authors apply to their multi-tome fantasy series, which was almost enough to convince me to start gaming. I’d heard rumors that he had a novel long before I started writing books of my own, and I was surprised and thrilled to find out last year that he had sold a middle grade book to Clarion Books. I’m very excited that we can all read it very soon now; Immortal Lycanthropes comes out this September–in only two short weeks! Hal was gracious enough to share some details about him and his work with my legions of readers. (Hey, mom.)
ETA: Check out the two giveaways for copies of Immortal Lycanthropes after the interview!
Hi, Hal. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. So first of all: Explain yourself! Who are you, and what is this book about?
Thanks, Eugene! I’m Hal, and I wrote a book called Immortal Lycanthropes that Eugene is kind enough to talk to me about. I don’t really have an elevator pitch for this book, in part because I live in a walk up, and have no place to practice it, but it’s an adventure novel with people who turn into animals, and secret societies, and nihilistic agony. I sometimes pitch it as Highlander meets The Da Vinci Code with werewolves. I hope that sounds enticing.
I’ve been looking forward to your debut for a while. Even if we weren’t already friends, the title definitely would have caught my attention. Was Immortal Lycanthropes always the title? Did you and your editor discuss any alternatives?
Immortal Lycanthropes was the working title, and the first one I came up with, but I tried pretty hard to think of something punchier. For a while I was leaning towards “We Are All Equal Here in the Greenwood,” which is a quote from Howard Pyle, and ties in to some of the book’s themes of anarchism and primitivism—but in the end I decided it was too long and too vague. I mean, at least Immortal Lycanthropes lets you know what the book is about. There’s truth in advertising here. Anyone reading this book will not have a hard time finding the immortal lycanthropes in it.
What really sold me on the title was its pulpiness. It sounds like an exploitation movie, doesn’t it? The book’s narrator is a pulp-fiction kind of guy, and it sounds like a title he would come up with, even if it doesn’t sound, to me, like a title I would have come up with.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I spent a lot of my childhood conjuring up ideas for books, drawing the covers and plotting them in my head, and pretty much doing as much as you can without actually writing anything down. But I can’t really say that I wanted to be a writer at the time. I mean, I spent a lot of time pretending I was Davy Crockett, too, it’s not like I realistically wanted to be Davy Crockett. It was an idle fantasy. I’d write things occasionally, but I don’t think I took it very seriously. If I acted the writer more than Davy Crockett, it’s because there were more books around me at any given moment than there were woods.
Reading Jorge Luis Borges in college changed all that. Something about Borges’s fiction flipped a switch in my brain. I’d always read a lot, and with other writers I could see the infrastructure of their plots—that’s why I had no problem making up stories—but I never had much impetus to turn these vague huge ideas into actual paragraphs
Somehow when I read Borges I could see the infrastructure of his writing. This is kind of weird, since I read Borges in translations, some of them not very good. I think his best translator is Ruth Simms, and she only translated his non-fiction. So I can’t justify it, but it happened. After I read Borges I started writing.
I’m still more of a reader than a writer, really, and I think Borges saw himself the same way. Maybe that came across in his stories? I’m not really a writer, I’m a reader who spilled.
I won’t ask where your ideas come from (I bet we get the same catalogs), but can you tell me a little about the genesis of this book and your writing process?
The idea behind the book actually goes back to when I was a kid and making up those books I would never write. I was reading a book about different members of the weasel family—badgers and otters and the wolverine. They all seemed so distinct to me, I couldn’t help but imagine them with human personalities, and I started making up a story about a clan of people who could turn into weasels, and how they had to fight other people, who could turn into larger animals, like wolves or bears. But the problem is that of course in any kind of “realistic” story no were-animals would ever fight hand to hand, they’d just shoot at each other from a distance; which would make sense, but would be as lame as if you had a story about werewolves fighting vampires, and they just shot at each other with silver bullets and ultraviolet bullets. That would be a dumb story. So as a narrative convenience, I made up the stipulation that these guys could not be hurt by mere bullets, but could only be killed by the claws or teeth of each other.
That whole idea got tabled, as all my old ideas used to, but it stayed in the back of my head. Immortal Lycanthropes has almost nothing to do with this theoretical weasel story, very little of which I still remember, but I dragged out the old high concept of were-animals forced to fight with their native horns and fangs. Everything else came from trying to imagine what kind of world could people like that live in. A ridiculous, paranoid world of secret societies and underground wisdom.
Frankly, an embarrassing amount of scenes from the book are cannibalized from things I first made up decades ago. If someone were to ask me where my ideas come from, I might have to admit they were stolen from my past self.
Getting a book deal with a traditional publisher feels like a minor miracle these days. So how did this wondrous thing happen for you? What has the publishing experience been like so far?
Everything good that’s ever happened to me, other than being born into a first-world country, has happened because I work at a comic store and have met lots of great people who shop or work there. One of them worked for an editor at Houghton Mifflin and passed my stuff along to her. Later on he became my editor. With everything I have accomplished, I’ve been mooching off the shoulders of giants.
Houghton Mifflin, and specifically my editor, Daniel Nayeri, have been real dolls throughout the whole thing, by which I mean they let me get away with a lot. My only complaint about the publication process is that it seems glacially slow. I’m used to writing for magazines and newspapers, and switching to book publishing is like talking to Treebeard.
I know it’s always exciting for me to see my words translated into images. Teagan White created the stunning cover for your book, as well as beautiful illustrations throughout. Did you work with her and your editor on these drawings? Did you have them in mind when you wrote the book?
The art is totally amazing, and I would suggest that even someone who hates me and my writing could buy and treasure this book for all the gorgeous illustrations. It’s kind of humbling that people who pick up the book always flip right to the pictures, and look at these exclusively. “This is beautiful!” they say. Dude, I had nothing to do with those!
In a way, I think seeing these characters drawn out is less traumatic or revelatory for me than it ordinarily would be. I mean, I don’t want to sound racist, but all moose kind of look alike. Teagan White’s moose looks like a moose, and looks like an awesome moose, but any picture of a moose would be right. I imagine pictures of the characters in human form would be more controversial; I mean, I might be more likely to object to one or say it’s not like I imagined it.
Although: I always doodle out pictures of my characters while I write, and I pretty much exclusively drew these guys in animal form. Maybe I don’t even know what they look like as people. They’re not humans who can become animals, they’re animals who can become humans.
You are probably the most widely-read person I’ve ever met: contemporary fiction, classic literature, nonfiction, books for adults and young adults, and comic books. What authors and books have influenced you and your writing most, and this book in particular? If you had to recommend one book you didn’t write to someone, what would it be?
Everything I’ve learned in life I’ve learned from books, which might not be the best way to live; but it’s probably a fine way to learn how to write, right? Borges I’ve already mentioned, although I’m not sure of any of his influence is going to be recognizable in this book.
Immortal Lycanthropes owes a lot to nineteenth-century boys’ adventure books, especially the ones I read as a kid, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson and R.M. Ballantyne. I hadn’t realized, until I was finished, how much I’d ripped off from Treasure Island. The real heart of Treasure Island is the relationship between Jim Hawkins and the wily, untrustworthy, seductive Long John Silver, and without really meaning to I threw four Long John Silvers into the book. I must’ve thought subconsciously if one was good, four would be four times as good; eight times as good if you count legs, or more, really, since some of these guys are quadrupeds.
It’s hard to recommend a book blindly, since I don’t know who’s going to be reading it. I love the book A Confederacy of Dunces, but half the people I’ve gotten to read it hated it.
Lord Macaulay once said that it’s dangerous for a man with a good memory to read too much, and he could quote several authors backing him up on this, but that would be falling into the trap. The point is, I love to read more than just about anything else, but if Macaulay can see a problem with it, maybe we should all take heed before we go overboard. Not that I’ve ever listened.
In addition to being a brilliant writer, you’re also a talented musician. How do you fit music and writing in your busy life, and do they inform each other? Can you talk about how the Immortal Lycanthropes soundtrack came to be?
I sometimes worry that I poisoned the well when I started pretending to be a musician. I handed out a lot of band fliers for musical performances, and anyone who went would see that at best I may have been funny or charming, but I was scarcely competent. Hey it’s punk, who needs to know a fourth chord, right? Then I had to hand out book fliers to a lot of the same people; I kept wanting to say to them, “Honest, I’m a better writer than I am a guitarist.” I mean, this is a real book, with paragraphs and semicolons and the works. It’s not a blurry mimeograph from prison with a Tony Alamo sermon, which is what I assume the literary equivalent of my musicianship is. Don’t hold it against me that I love music more than she loves me!
But I do love music, and I’ve been having a blast putting together a soundtrack of songs “from and inspired by” Immortal Lycanthropes. They’re available for free on Bandcamp, and I’ll put more up as I get the chance to record them. Very minor spoilers, I guess.
Do you have any advice for writers, musicians, or people with other creative aspirations?
I guess somewhere along the line I absorbed some kind of line about how what matters is the production of the creative work, and not so much the publication for general consumption. So most of what I’ve produced, I’ve produced for myself exclusively, like Emily Dickinson or Henry Darger. But such an extreme position reckoned without how much fun it is to get a book published and distributed, something I never would have known about if I hadn’t fallen bass-ackwards into publication.
So I guess my advice is: Trim your sails! Take some kind of middle road! That’s probably always the best advice about everything. Write for yourself, but pass it around.
I happen to know that you almost always carry a book in your pocket. What are you reading now?
William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru. This is a great book! The Pizarros are such amoral jerks, but they manage to conquer a huge empire with such a tiny handful of soldiers; and Prescott is really snide about it. Actually, based on my limited experience with old historians—Macaulay and Gibbon—snideness seems to be an occupational feature. I’d highly recommend this book, and it’s available free on the internets, since it was written a century and a half ago.
What other novels or creative projects can we expect from you in the near or far future?
Attention publishers! If you were looking to publish an 800-page postmodern novel about insomnia, I may just have one ready for you. If anyone bites, that’ll be my next book.
Other than that, I’m working on another YA novel. I think of Immortal Lycanthropes as my “boy” book, and the next one will be my “girl” book; insofar as one is a ripoff of Robert Louis Stevenson and the other is a ripoff of Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Kate Greenaway.
And the inevitable question: If you were an immortal lycanthrope, what animal would you become?
The smartest pick would probably be something like a housecat: you get pampered all the time, and there’s always enough food, and if you get neutered, they’ll just grow back.
But I’d probably rather be some kind of mongoose anyway.
What didn’t I ask you that I should have?
I wish you’d asked me about the Westermarck effect, since it’s fascinating and I just learned about it, but it’s too late now.
Little known fact: Wikipedia was invented for all the people who don’t get to hang out with Hal Johnson, and it provides a passable, but admittedly snark-free description of the Westermarck effect–and it is fascinating.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Hal! If Immortal Lycanthropes is even half as interesting as he is, it’ll be at least twice as good as it sounds. As a reward for reading all the way to the end of this interview, you have two chances to win a free copy of Hal’s book, which is due out on September 4:
Enter Hal’s Goodreads giveaway to win a free signed copy with an exclusive drawing from the author
I’m also giving away a copy of Immortal Lycanthropes! You can collect up to 4 entries by completing one or all of the following steps:
- Leave a comment below telling us what “immortal lycanthrope” you would be! (+1 entry)
- Add Immortal Lycanthropes to your shelf on Goodreads. (+1)
- Like the Immortal Lycanthropes Facebook page. (+1)
- Tweet or blog a link to this post. (+1)
Leave a comment below telling me which of the above you do, along with any relevant links, so I can tally up your entries correctly. (Don’t forget to include your contact e-mail.) I’ll use some randomizer-thingey to select the winners from the total number of entries.
This giveaway will be open until Tuesday, September 4 at midnight EST.