Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Hank Schwaeble

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124x200Hank Schwaeble is a thriller writer and practicing attorney in Houston, Texas.

His debut novel, DAMNABLE (Berkley/Jove 2009), won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The sequel, DIABOLICAL is scheduled for a July 2011 release.

Prior to his first novel, he was also the recipient of a previous Bram Stoker Award and a World Fantasy Award nomination.

He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about law and Melville.

How has your experience as a practising attorney influenced your writing?

Law school teaches you to read carefully, and to be precise with your wording. It also forces you to identify and explore issues from a variety of angles. Even more importantly, just like fiction, the law deals with conflicts, and practicing law gives you a ringside seat–sometimes even a better view than that–to all forms of it. Sometimes the conflicts are direct, as in cases of litigation, sometimes they’re less overt, like in a business transaction. And one way or another, the resolution of those conflicts comes down to how persuasive a story a given lawyer can tell, and how well that lawyer can write. Many people probably don’t realize that most lawyers spend a large percentage of their time writing, nor do they understand how much care and consideration lawyers have to put into each writing, even when it’s something as simple as a letter. In light of all that, I can’t think of many professions that could do a better job of honing an aspiring writer’s skills.

When it comes to my writing in particular, my experience as a lawyer has certainly had a pervasive influence. It’s simultaneously refined and expanded my understanding of both government and business, and exposed me to a range of career fields and lifestyles, and the various challenges people face when dealing with them. That, coupled with my military experience, accounts for a lot of what I’d like to think of as my ability to create an authentic framework for the events in my novels.

Do you think that the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?

One of the things I find so intriguing about noir and hard-boiled detective stories is the way the memorable ones explore the Janusian qualities of the characters. Good fiction relies on tension to keep the reader gripped, and few types of conflicts create more tension than those that involve internal struggles. When a protagonist has a criminal shadow, as you put it, you not only infuse him or her with a dark aspect, but you also create opportunities for redemption, as well as pre-existing obstacles that have to be surmounted in that character’s quest to achieve his or her goals.

I’ve always found it interesting that the psychological profile of the average police officer is not all that dissimilar to that of the average criminal. They are, in many ways, like two sides of the same coin, and I think readers instinctively suspect as much, just as we all understand that few, if any, people out there are entirely good or entirely bad. When you take a detective–be it a police officer, private investigator, or a person simply trying to solve a mystery–and you force them to face up to this duality, this contradiction, you present readers with one of the primal conflicts we all face–the struggle between different aspects of ourselves: the person we are trying to be or want to be versus the person we fear we may revert to.

Tell us about ‘Diabolical’.

Diabolical is my second novel, the sequel to Damnable. It picks up almost a year after Damnable lets off, following Jake Hatcher as he’s attempting to start a life in California, on the opposite side of the country from what he endured in Manhattan. He’s approached by a retired General and asked to help track down and stop a Hellion, a soul that’s escaped damnation. The General believes the Hellion has crossed over as part of a plan to open a pathway to Hell, and he also believes the Hellion is Jake’s brother. Because there are aspects that make the request an offer he can’t refuse, Hatcher is drawn back into the underground world of Carnates, demonic creatures, and freaky sociopaths.

For those unfamiliar with Damnable, Hatcher is a character trailed by one of those long shadows we were just talking about. He’s a former special forces interrogator, an expert in coercive interrogation techniques, who was disgraced and imprisoned as a political sacrifice after doing what he thought he had to–and exactly what what was expected of him. He’s a man who always believed in his heart he was going to Hell for the things he’s done, if there was such a place, and who seemed to get confirmation of it after stopping the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy that would have ended the reign of Heaven.

To what extent does religion inform your writing?

While there certainly are some religious underpinnings to the mythos of my Jake Hatcher novels, involving demons and demonic elements as they do, they don’t necessarily have a spiritual or theological message. The idea of damnation, of eternal punishment, is a powerful one, and while it definitely has a religious basis, it’s primal in our society, appearing throughout works of literature, movies and television on a recurring basis. Hatcher is a skeptic, not an atheist per se, but not what anyone would consider a person of faith, either, and he has to reconcile his worldly skepticism with the creatures and events he’s faced with, and the possibility that there really is a Heaven and there is an actual Hell, and what that implies.

What I’m really trying to explore is the human condition; specifically, what motivates certain people to do certain things. The question that I was tossing out there with Damnable was, what does it mean to be damned? Surveys show that most people have at least a vague expectation that there may be a just reward waiting after this life, and concerns over what happens to our “immortal soul” have occupied mankind’s thoughts for millennia. Given that, what formed my idea for Hatcher more than anything was the question of whether someone who considers himself damned for the things he’s done–damned in every sense of the word–would be willing to risk everything, at least, everything he has left to lose, to make sure others don’t share that fate, even if there may not be any reward in it for him. What makes a good person do bad things? What makes a “bad” person do good things? These are powerful questions with extensive—if not existential—relevance in our society.

Of course, first and foremost, these books are intended to be thrillers, supernatural suspense with a real-world edge that delivers horror and action. The themes presented are subordinate, I hope, to the characters and the story. More than anything I really just want to entertain my readers and to give them exciting, intriguing–and perhaps thought-provoking–stories.

Who are your literary influences?

First and foremost I’d have to say Edgar Allan Poe. He was my first introduction to horror literature, and the writer I remember more than most that made me want to read, and then want to write. Herman Melville had a big impact on me for the powerful themes he tackled in not just Moby Dick, but lesser known works like Billy Budd. No author with even the slightest connection to horror from my generation could not include Stephen King on a list of influences, and I can vividly remember greedily devouring Night Shift as a kid, and thoroughly enjoying Salem’s Lot when I was just starting high school. Clive Barker also made a huge impression on me with his Books of Blood. Flannery O’Connor did, too, with her brilliant short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Ayn Rand deserves a mention, as does Donald Hamilton with his Matt Helm novels.

It’s funny, but as I get further into my writing career I’ve started to notice some authors that I hadn’t realized influenced me actually had. Orwell, for example, and Hammett.  I’ve recalled The Maltese Falcon more often than I ever expected to when I first read it, and reminders of 1984 and its warnings seem subtly to bombard us every day. I also find myself remembering lines and scenes from Dickens I never anticipated I would. I should also mention that I’ve grown to appreciate Richard Matheson many years after I had initially thought of his work as enjoyable pulp. Yet at the same time, numerous others I thought significant when I read them seem to have faded and diminished in my regard over time. The great ones really do stick with you, I suppose. Even if you don’t expect them to.

Do you think Melville’s portrait of Claggart in ‘Billy Budd’ is one of evil?

Yes, in some respects. But I think he was more meant to represent a mundane, almost banal source of injustice. He embodies everything we loathe; pettiness, jealousy, deviousness, vindictiveness, abuse of power. These are characteristics we have to deal with routinely in people, and they often cause us endless headaches and sometimes outrageous unfairness, and it’s common for us to shake our heads in befuddlement at how some people can be the way they are. Consistent with that, there’s no backstory given regarding Claggart. He’s just “there,” depicted almost as a force of nature that it would be pointless to try to understand or reason with. We’re never told why he hates Billy Budd or what possessed him to falsely accuse the man, simply that he did. But what Melville was showing was that what makes people like this tick is not the real question we have to deal with. Claggart, after all, is rather easily and summarily dispatched by Billy Budd, so it’s not that such a man is untouchable or invulnerable. Instead, it’s the collateral effects and aftermath of “evil” like this rearing its head that Melville is concerned with. Actions have consequences, even if morally justifiable, and what you have in a situation like the one presented by Billy Budd is a story about a conflict between two differing sides of good, rather than a battle between good and evil. On the one hand you have Billy Budd, who represents innocence of heart and, you might say, the individual soul, and on the other you have Captain Vere, who represents order and the rules of a civilized society and who is concerned with the larger picture. There’s no right answer, no easy choice. Billy Budd didn’t deserve any of what he got, but if allowing him to escape punishment creates an atmosphere of mutiny on the high seas, certain to lead to many more deaths and unrest, where do you come down if, rather than having the luxury of reading about it on a sofa or in bed, you’re actually in a position of authority and responsible for what may result? I think we all instinctively side with Billy Budd and would say let the chips fall where they may, but even Billy Budd understands Vere is only doing his job and, more importantly, his duty. Both men die with each other’s name on their lips, and Billy Budd’s execution obviously haunts Vere for the rest of his life. I think what Melville is saying is, good versus evil is not the conflict that shapes who we are, it’s where we side when the fight is one version of good pitted against another, competing version of it that reveals our true nature, and that it’s an eternal question with no objective answer. It’s the stuff that makes us human, this ongoing process of revelation and introspection we undertake through things like literature.

To what extent do you think crime and horror fiction overlap?

I think they navigate a lot of the same terrain. They both tend to highlight the darker side of human nature, and they both frequently expose a cause-and-effect relationship between doing something bad and having bad things happen. I’ve always seen the two as being closely linked. Kindred spirits, if you would.

Commercial fiction–and I don’t think of that term as a pejorative–relies on tension to infuse it with a page-turning quality, a compulsive vibe. Both crime fiction and horror fiction implicitly promise readers even higher levels of tension than normal just by presenting themselves as being one or the other (as opposed to, say, a cozy mystery), and that can be difficult to sustain. So they also share a lot of the same challenges.

I think the key is that with either, a good story focuses on the characters’ reactions to the events as they unfold. In the end, it’s not a story about a casino being robbed or a demon being raised, it’s about the people involved. It’s the human element that we identify with, whether or not we’re reading about an over-the-hill crew of losers trying to pull off a bank swindle, or a band of overmatched teenagers trying to slay a monster.

Graham Greene once said that all writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?

There’s definitely some truth to that. You have to be merciless to your characters. One problem that many aspiring writers have is that they bleed the tension out of their stories by avoiding scenes of emotional conflict. I don’t mean scenes where the good guy fights the bad guy, I’m talking about scenes where their protagonist who can’t afford to lose her job has to face her boss after missing the entire morning because of her involvement in something she swore she wouldn’t divulge, or having the main character have to make a gut-wrenching choice between saving one person or another. It’s only natural as a human being for things like that to make you uncomfortable when you care about your characters. But that’s exactly what fiction is, placing characters that you (and, just as importantly, the reader) care about in awful situations, so you can follow their reactions and experience how it affects them. It’s what makes readers want to turn the page and read into the wee hours of the morning. But it can also be difficult for a writer who hasn’t mastered the art of ruthless detachment.

Being a writer means you have to create fascinating characters that you care deeply about, and then do absolutely horrific things to them. It’s the nature of the beast.

How much do you think the average reader likes to be frightened and why?

It’s going to vary depending on the individual, but overall I’d say people generally like to be frightened a good deal, just like they like to be thrilled. Modern life is all about the avoidance of risk, and advanced societies are set up to minimize danger as much as possible. Yet our minds and nervous systems are wired in a primal, almost atavistic, ways to deal with threatening situations. What fiction and movies and television allow us to do is to indulge this aspect of our nature in safe way, to give us the life-affirming feel of our nerves being charged and our adrenaline surging, without actually being in peril. Books provide opportunities for deep and intimate immersion into worlds of vicarious excitement without the reader having to endure even the slightest inconvenience. It’s a welcome respite from the stresses of everyday life, which are more psychological and emotional–not to mention far less easily conquered–than those our ancestors faced back when forests sheltered fierce, predatory creatures in the dark just a few dozen yards away, when the oceans concealed kraken and who knew what else, and when simple things like travelling from one place to another could be a death-defying adventure that presented myriad types of threats.

While I think most people truly enjoy a good, safe scare, what I find interesting is how many of those same people have a completely inaccurate sense of what horror fiction is. For some reason, most likely because of an association they make with cheap horror movies that started getting churned out for teen audiences in the 80s, many people think horror is all blood and guts. But that’s really splatter, not horror, and its something that crosses genres. True horror tries to inspire a feeling of dread and fear, for sure, but it really isn’t all that different from other genres in the sense that its the characters and the tension that make a given novel feel alive in your hands. Even people who say they don’t like scary books or movies still tend to like thrillers, which deliver the same type of excitement. They just don’t employ haunting imagery or creepy, ofttimes disturbing scenarios when they do.

What three authors do you think have influenced modern horror literature the most?

I would say Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. Although it’s true that some would give the credit to others, Poe arguably wrote both the first modern horror story as well as the first modern detective story, each remarkable achievements in their own right (and, I would note, the first modern detective story that Poe gave us was also a horror story). What’s absolutely amazing to me is how fresh some of his work reads to this day. “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are both studies in tension and pacing that are just as powerful now as they were in the 1840s. It’s hard to believe they were written over a century and a half ago. Richard Matheson built on Poe’s legacy and shaped the modern horror novel as we know it, bringing a lean, professional prose-style and a Hemingway-like exploration of issues. What struck me when I read I Am Legend was how obviously ahead of its time it was, and how profound the ending (that gave the title its meaning) was. King single-handedly brought horror into the mainstream and changed the face of it forever with his re-imagining and modernizing of classic tropes and his invention of countless new ones. What’s incredible about him is how he’s topped the best-seller list in every way imaginable. He’s done it with numerous stand-alone novels (like Carrie and Salem’s Lot among dozens of others) as well as with a series (The Dark Tower), he’s done it with supernatural premises and with completely real-world, psychological horror. He’s done it under a pseudonym in addition to under his real name. He’s been successful at it in all the ways one can conceive of, and that’s not something just anyone could have done.

Thank you Hank for giving a perceptive and engaging interview.

200x228Find everything Hank Schwaeble at his website here.

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