Author Spotlight: S.R. Hughes
Joining us for today’s Author Spotlight is S.R. Hughes!
S.R. Hughes inhabits the glittering darkness between dreams but writes from Queens, NY. He’s been published in Sanitarium, the Wild Hunt eZine, and has had stories featured on several podcasts. Find him digitally as @thesrhughes.
Welcome to the Hive, Spencer. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
Wow, where to start… I only very recently put down N. K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘til Black Future Month which was a fantastic collection. It left me hoping there would be an at-least-spiritual connection between her short “The City Born Great” and her upcoming release The City We Became…though even without such a connection, I’ll of course be reading it. I also at long last finished the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan (which puts me only about a decade behind everyone else) and that particular journey remains as terrifyingly prescient as ever.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Oh, a rogue for sure, and my weapon of choice is prudence. ‘Prudence’ is how I refer to my collection of poisonous blowdarts.
Ah you almost had us…
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I’d hesitate to call anything I practice a ‘method,’ but let’s give this a shot anyway!
For the ritual, I need either solitude or a believable facsimile thereof. This turns out to be the most important thing, as I freeze up instantly and cannot write a word if I detect even a stray glance pointed my way. Any wandering eye could transform itself into a judgemental audience (in my head, at least), and any so-perceived audience changes the way I write…sometimes even the very content I’m willing to write about. So the big thing, for me, is solitude. Especially for those first two drafts.
I tend to start with one or two characters and an extreme certainty of how the book will end. With The War Beneath, for example, I knew the entire last third of the book before I started writing page one. While the rest of the book underwent extreme rewrites and revisions, the last third has remained largely untouched since the fourth draft. To put this in perspective: the book as-available is something like the third revision pass of the ninth manuscript draft.
I also tend to rewrite a lot. I don’t keep anything from the first draft; as soon as the first draft is finished, I close the document and never open it again… which is as close as I’m willing to get to just hitting Ctrl+A and then Delete. The second draft receives reference as I write the third draft, but I don’t let myself copy anything over from one to the other. Only after the third draft of a thing is finished do I allow myself to believe that any given sentence, paragraph, or page is worthy of readership.
After that point, it’s all made up. I listen to a lot of music while writing and brainstorming but sometimes I find that I suddenly desperately need silence. I like to plan ahead but I find that when I plan ahead farther than three or four chapters, my characters tend to rebel against the architecture. On the other hand, every time I pretend to be a pantser, the plot rapidly spirals out of my control, and I find myself living in an asylum administrated by the patients. Actually, you know what? I think we may have just figured out why I have to write so many drafts of a thing before it’s any good.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Most of the fantasy I’ve read also ties itself into Crime and Mystery fiction, so of course I’ve read Jim Butcher, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casefiles, Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (from her Personae Non Grata series) as well as her Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef books, etc. I’ve also read a lot of fantasy that ties itself into Horror, like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom or The Changeling, or the graphic novel series Injection. Or Wytches, for that matter… chit, chit, chittt…
I have at some point or another fantasized about working with every author or creator I’ve adored. Oh, the things we could make! In the grand theatre of my mind, I’ve put myself in the same rooms as all the above-mentioned, as well as many others, and have concocted beautiful impossible media for us to work on together… but in reality, I tend to get incredibly awkward near anyone I admire (Amanda Palmer once said “Hello” to me and I stood there wide-eyed for so long that she had to ask if I was okay) and so the idea of having to actually shake hands with any of these virtuosos and get down to work with them seems like a Fantasy novel by itself.
We can certainly relate to getting star-struck!
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I think the last thing I watched on TV might have been The Great British Baking Show in an effort to alleviate the tremendous, paranoiac anxiety attached to the book release… But before that, I back-to-back binge-watched the third seasons of Stranger Things and Dear White People, both of which are tremendous shows and one of which specifically deals with similar genres to my own. Game-wise, I recently enjoyed Remnant: From the Ashes for its reality-shattering apocalypse (I am increasingly interested in fiction where reality itself becomes apocalyptically unstable), and I’m a regular player of Dead by Daylight, an asymmetrical team-based game inspired by decades of horror and slasher films.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I… I don’t know. This notion is so foreign to me, so alien… Usually, any extra time I come upon turns into writing, reading, or video game time, but usually any extra time I come upon is limited to only a handful of hours. What would I do with an entire day?
I guess I’ll just cast a spell. First, I’ll need some time to delve into the underworld, good ol’ Crypt City, where I’ll fetch the bone-dust of a murder victim from one of the innumerable mausoleums stacked one atop the next in tilting off-kilter towers. Next, blood given willingly to me by someone whose forgiveness I’ve sought. Thirdly, I’ll require the standards: salt (pref. kosher), pig iron, devil’s traps, dreamcatchers; these objects, instilled with mysticism and ages of faith, will protect me from interlopers and sinister forces who may want to use my little ritual as a doorway into our realms. Fourthly, I’ll need to develop a sigil, a symbol adapted to my needs, inspired by years of esoteric study, a variation on centuries of esoteric themes. Lastly, an animal’s skull, long skinless, cause of death preferably unknown, which I’ll need to ink with elongated, winding patterns of glyphs and runes. In the center of the skull, between the orbless sockets staring out, I’ll paint our previously developed sigil. All of this done, the hard part will begin…
Oh. Nevermind. I must have lost track of time somewhere in there. It looks like I’ll just have to put all these ingredients into storage until my next day off.
That escalated quickly…
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
Oh, I certainly can! As The War Beneath releases, I’ve already finished a draft for a possible follow-up novel in the same world. As with The War Beneath, it’s a contemporary fantasy novel with flashes of crime and horror genres, but this time with an eye pointed toward the setting’s secretive upper echelons, the movers and shakers whose movements tend to shake other people more than themselves…
I’ve also been working on a couple other projects, one of them yet-another contemporary fantasy novel sculpted out of the notion that our world is merely the dream that our whole species is dreaming together; the other a more self-reflective piece that has proven extremely challenging to address and that more and more seems to want to become a straight horror story.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When every writer tells every other writer to read more, they’re always right. I think I also managed to get it into my head (while reading A Few Short Sentences About Writing) to do my best at choosing, specifically, each individual word in a sentence.
The least helpful advice is any advice that limits my toolbox. Any advice that aims to dissuade me from using certain words, certain punctuation, certain minimalist or maximalist styles… all of that is total garbage. In the rubbled wreckage from whence every story eventually emerges, every tool might matter. Why would I wilfully throw away so many of them?
An excellent point!
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
In the 2005 film Collateral, the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx vehicle possibly adaptable into a stage play, there’s a monologue the hitman delivers to the cab driver about the nature of time and dreams; that is, assuming we’re lucky, we will all one day be very old, and if we never do the things that inspire our passions and haunt our dreams, they will simply never get done. It’s an early 21st-century variation on the species-spanning theme of momento mori. I have that clip bookmarked for easy reference.
So, yeah, whenever I’m struggling with some bit of writing, or staring at a blinking cursor self-paralyzed with anxiety, I just try to remind myself that I’ve only got so many years or decades in me… and anything I don’t create in that time won’t be created. That tends to get the gears moving. Or inspire an existential panic attack. Something will happen besides writer’s block, in any case.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I’d visit hereabouts, around 200 years in the future. I know that’s undermining the question but from a non-linear, wibbly-wobbly perspective, we are already living someone else’s distant history… they just haven’t been born yet. I am also of the more general opinion that life seemed to be pretty miserable for the vast majority of people up until and including about 20 minutes ago.
If I had to pick, I think it might be uncanny and interesting to visit the United States through the 60’s and 70’s, in time for Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions, Jim Morrison, and the emergence of UK and North American punk. And, yes, of course I’d earn a profit by accurately predicting the future. Gamblers drool, dreaming of time travel.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Just one? Hmph.
Well, since I’ve already mentioned a few of my favourite under-appreciated works, I suppose I’ll spend this Q A’ing about a new one. Have you read The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander? Their use of language to create character and setting is incredible. I happened upon their work around the same time as Cassandra Khaw’s, and both authors blew me away with their craft. Just phenomenal use of language, honestly.
There are other reasons to read it aside from pure craft mastery, of course. The Only Harmless Great Thing strands together alternate histories, science fiction, and fantasy, but the roots of the journey find their richest soil in the fact that some of this stuff really happened and we’ve forgotten about it. The way Bolander strings together our real histories with such a very different fictional present created a wonderful tension within me, a sense of loss and hope, a mourning both for those lost in the past and for the present we never built as their memorial. A very touching and increasingly necessary little novella, I highly recommend it.
Thanks for the recommendation!
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Oceanrest rots, the city a beached whale groaning its last breaths along a rocky Maine shore. A vicious cruelty crawls beneath its skin; its tainted flesh breeds monsters like maggots. Desperate ghosts crawl rasping from shallow graves and slavering beasts lurk in the least-examined shadows of everywhere. Beneath a clouded, moonless sky, a man whose smile glimmers like burning corpses points his truck southward. An exhausted apothecary and witch slouches her way into her evening unaware and a drug-addicted medium drunk-drives toward her in search of solace. All three collide in a brutal supernatural conflict, a battle of wills and weapons, wits and reflexes, magic and mayhem. Beneath it all, a war that never ends and a hunger that has no bottom. This is contemporary fantasy like a too-sharp knife, mean and gore-starved, slicing prophecies into flesh: under every tale, there is a truth; at the end of every story, there waits a monster.
Read my book if you like the idea of ghosts being sad, broken, desperate creatures, if you like the idea of Lovecraftian gods intelligently designing humankind to destroy itself, or if you want to read about the violent clash between those who fight to control the world we have and those who fight to midwife a better one into existence.
Is anyone still in this elevator? Hello? Hello? Shoot.
We’re still here! Thanks so much for joining us today!
S.R. Hughes is the author of THE WAR BENEATH, available now.