Interview with Spencer Rhys Hughes, author of “No Reflection”

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Extremely. Hours of it. Days. Books and websites and e-mails and phone calls and interviews. Making friends with people who know things. Et cetera. Though, sometimes, if the facts throw too large of a monkey wrench into the narrative, I’ll, ahem, “bend” them.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

Kind of. For instance: I know that every Wednesday, from around noon-ish until around nine or ten or eleven at night (or two in the morning), I’m going to be writing-working. I know I’ll have a couple hours on Thursday and a couple hours on Friday and a couple hours on Saturday to do the same. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, though, I never schedule a set time to sit down and work on the stuff…though if something strikes me, I’ll rush to the keyboard tout de suite.

Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

I prefer weekly/monthly/quarterly goals. I don’t shoot for a daily total. But I aim for at least 7,000 weekly. Sometimes I end up with as many as 15,000 weekly…but I’ll still reset the counter to zero for the next week. I like to set weekly goals like “x number of completed scenes,” as well. Monthly goals involve progress check-ins. Quarterly goals tend to look like draft numbers. “Finish Draft 4 of Project X,” “Revise Draft 3 of Project Y” etc.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

Both. I like to develop a skeleton outline, a general shape for the story, and then I like to watch the characters screw it up. Sometimes the story will take on a life of its own, which I often find very disagreeable, but it’s easier to go along with the plot and the setting and the characters on their own terms than it is to try to hammer everything into the shape I want it to be in. It probably wouldn’t even be a very good shape, to be honest. In short: I like a good outline, but the story knows itself better than I’ll ever know it, so when it disagrees with me, I listen.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

Yes. I read a lot. Not as much as an agent’s assistant or an acquisitions editor, probably, but quite a bit compared to most people. As for favorite authors…well, it’s quite a list…I’ve read every single book written by William Gibson, all of Lovecraft’s stuff…I’m a fan of C. V. Hunt’s short stories. The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud; Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins. The more I read, the more I find myself liking individual works as opposed to authors…well, except Mr. Gibson.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

Why choose? I do both. And some industry people usually do me the favor of flipping through things, too. And I always search for feedback from a handful of alpha/beta readers as the drafts pile up. “Writing is rewriting,” as they say.

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

All of them, but with the same degree of enthusiasm I had the first time. I think there’s a natural progression of expertise with art…so that anything one makes looks sad to them just a few years later. Hopefully. Going back through old work becomes an exercise in self-loathing after a while.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

Yes. And the weird thing is: these are the bits I’ve heard people say “I’m not sure this would happen.” – the scene in No Reflection where Nicole wakes up to find someone had been in her apartment? The jokes the police make? This happened to me and a friend of mine. The dialogue between the police officers is virtually verbatim from real life. We slept right through the break-in. And some of the sexually uncomfortable scenes in my books are lifted from the lives of friends, loved ones, and, in one case, my own life. I actually incorporate a substantial amount of reality into my work, I just dress it up with vampires and mysticism and dark creatures skittering in the shadows.

Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

I hope so.  I’m working on a project with an agent now tentatively titled Tongue which will hopefully interest people.  Alternate universe Maine, creepy cults, mysticism, drug use, ritual sacrifice, and a town perched on the edge of the sea, ready to fall in.  And, of course, I’m continuing work on The Furies series.

Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts?

I destroy most of my drafts. Most often, a first draft doesn’t get looked at after it’s done. The second draft is the first “serious” draft. Maybe the first draft is just a sacrificial rite, an offering of an idea up to the muses. “Please, dear goddess, take this poor deformed creature and breathe into it some life!”

Do you reply back to your fans and admirers personally?

I would say…75% of the time. But I also rarely have fans or admirers contact me, so it’s not too demanding. This is something that takes maybe 10 minutes per week…and believe me, I have 10 minutes to spare.

Poets and writers in general, have a reputation of committing suicide; in your opinion, why is that the case?

We’re broke indigents living in squalor crushed beneath the weight of a disinterested and cruel universe? Just kidding! (not really!) — But I think authors and artists in general confront themselves with the world as-is and force themselves under the yoke of its burdens. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that artists are “sensitive people” so much as I would say that we make the decision, whether consciously or subconsciously, to take upon our shoulders a tremendous weight, and to carry it around trying to get people to look at it, and it can be very crushing.

From all that we have been hearing and seeing in the movies, most writers are alcoholics. Your views on that?

Sort of similar to the ‘suicide’ question, I think. We drag ourselves up to the mirror and force ourselves to look for extended periods of time. We put ourselves in the window of the world and gaze out. I, personally, drink more than is healthy. There are reasons. Sometimes a bit of whiskey serves as a numbing agent. Sometimes a couple drinks can do to celebrate good work. Sometimes it feels as if I’m trying to vanish my consciousness, to become insectoid in nature, to subsume my thoughts and feelings into a world of stimulus and response, a primordial world where everything is lawless and simple and the actions of mankind make a kind of primitive sense. Ahem. Well, that got strangely personal, didn’t it?

Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?

Nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.  All the best writers steal bread and lose coins in the holes in the pockets of their pants.  I don’t trust people who haven’t been late on rent.  Charles Bukowski wrote a lovely poem, Aliens, on a related subject.  Read it.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

Sitting still for long periods of time.  Writing is time consuming and I have virulent attention deficit disorder.  And a survival job, and a gym membership, and a social life, and a schedule that makes about as much sense as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

They say books die every time they are turned into a movie; what do you think?

Depends on the book, depends on the movie, depends on the audience. Depends on what you mean by “die.” The Shining, for instance. The movie is a great movie, but it’s an absolutely terrible adaptation. The Shining, the movie, and The Shining, the book, are two extremely different beasts. They’re both very good. They have very little to do with each other. But I’m sure Mr. King saw an uptick in sales when the film was announced (not that he needed it). On the other hand, you have Johnny Mnemonic. Great short story, hilariously bad movie. Mr. Gibson has written a bit on his distaste for Hollywood, since. Or, heaven forbid, could you imagine a Hollywood adaptation of House of Leaves? A terrible sin. But there are some greats: The Mist, Jurassic Park, The Shawshank Redemption, Silence of the Lambs… I guess the truth is that you make the movie, first, and you find out the answer after it’s too late. Like so many other things in life…

Did you ever change sentences more than five times just because it didn’t hit the right notes?

“More than five,” heh. Truly optimistic. The “backspace” key is the most useful tool in my armory. The word is all but smudged off.

Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?

Oh, yes, all the time; and the moon is made of cheese and Santa takes tea with the Easter Bunny every Sunday and unicorns are so hard to find because they all live in Northern Canada.

If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?

This would be a hell of a club. I’d have to grab Poe, Lovecraft, and Shelley, obviously. I’d want Nietzsche but only if Lou Salomé showed up, because I’m eternally drawn to human drama. There’d be T. S. Eliot, Charles Bukowski, and Mary Jo Salter on the poetry front. Hunter S. Thompson for the obvious reasons. On the more contemporary end of the spectrum I’d want C. V. Hunt, Amelia Gray, and Victor LaValle. I’d invite William Gibson but of course there’s no pressure to join us. Given the crowd, I might just sit back and watch, personally. I’d have a lot to learn and not as much to offer. Plus, somehow I have this feeling there’d be some very heated, very entertaining arguments…

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

Fairly.  Music is important.  I like to set the mood.  Every setting and most individual pieces of work have soundtracks tethered to them.  And I have general mood music.  Midnight Syndicate’s The 13th Hour.  Mikolai Stroinski’s soundtrack to the criminally under-popular video game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter etc.

Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?

My room.  I tried to write in cafés for a long time but it was all a state of denial.  They’re too crowded.  I find myself self-censoring if someone sits too close to me.  I find myself thinking “oh my god if someone reads this over my shoulder they’ll think I’m insane, they’ll have me admitted, they’ll call the cops, they’ll think I’m some psychotic loose from Bellevue…” whereas, when alone, I only occasionally think that way about myself.