Interview with Glen Hirshberg

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of the novel Motherless Child and its forthcoming sequel Good Girls.

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of Motherless Child and Good Girls.

It is likely no secret to PstD’s readers that we are admirers of Glen Hirshberg’s fiction. After all, our project’s title itself is a nod to the Rolling Darkness Revue, the theatrical terror-tale troupe that he co-founded with Peter Atkins and Dennis Etchison, and Hirshberg was among the authors interviewed in our inaugural issue following the RDR’s one and only (so far) stint in Canada. Hirshberg ranks among the most accomplished living writers of psychologically incisive dark fiction. His work coils, quiet and insistent, in the interstice between the strange stories of Robert Aickman and the humane grotesques of Flannery O’Connor.

So, given the high esteem in which we hold Hirshberg’s fiction, August 2014 was a singularly fortuitous month, largely because it brought founding editor Sean Moreland two, count them, opportunities to hear him read (first at ReaderCon in Boston, then during his ChiSeries Toronto engagement), and to benefit from some of the loping, capacious, deeply sympathetic and startlingly insightful conversations that we have come to expect from him. His readings included excerpts from Good Girls, the forthcoming sequel to his penetrating second novel, Motherless Child. These excerpts in part answered the question gnawing at us since absorbing the stark and potent conclusion to that novel: how the hell is Hirshberg going to bring forth a sequel from an ending like that?

This interview was conducted via email in late October 2014. It’s included here alongside a reprint of Hirshberg’s short story “Like Lick ‘Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” first published in the Rolling Darkness Revue’s 2008 chapbook. This story is the germ from which Motherless Child grew, and appears in an altered form as the eleventh chapter in that novel. As you’ll see, while Glen does offer a number of those startling insights mentioned earlier, he doesn’t give much away as far as what readers can expect from Good Girls. Still, no doubt they can expect to be swept up, unsettled, and surprised.

SM: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for us, Glen. While I’m sure most of our readers will be familiar with you and your work, I’m nonetheless going to ask you to start by telling us a little about yourself, your life, your writing and how the two interact?

GH: It’s hard to know where to start. I’m pretty sure I’ve been writing since I was two (or maybe before that; I just started having enough language to get the stories out around two). Part of the trick with being a writer is always finding a way to have some sort of life while you’re at it, and I’ve been lucky. I have a solid marriage, great kids, and after a few years as an arts and rock music critic, I stumbled into teaching, found I love that, and have had a pretty satisfying second professional life while hammering away at my first.

SM: You’ve had a lot of interesting things to say in earlier interviews and conversations about the label “horror,” especially where your fiction is concerned. What are your thoughts on this now that you’ve got a three-book deal with Tor, and are becoming more popularly visible? Are you more, or less, concerned about being pigeonholed as a “horror writer”?

GH: I’ve pretty much decided that whatever concerns I might have had, they’re irrelevant. Let me be read by enough people and become enough a part of the conversation that pigeonholing becomes a problem. Because I genuinely enjoy my teaching life and have made a passable living that way, I do not have to write anything I don’t want to. So I try not to do that, and I try to put out nothing that isn’t up to my own standards for my own work. Everything else feels like something I can’t—and am increasingly uninterested in trying to—control.

SM: As you might recall, it was your and Peter Atkin’s visit to Ottawa way back in 2010 as the Rolling Darkness Revue, and a short story competition we organized as part of that, which was the impetus for PstD’s creation. Can you talk a little about how the RDR has changed and developed in recent years? Is there a 2014 iteration? Can you tell us a little about it? Any writers you have plans to, or a strong desire to, tour with in the near future?

motherlesscoverGH: The biggest change in RDR over the years has been the evolution of the framing story. In the first few years, that was pretty minimal, a sketch of a situation intended solely to create an atmosphere for the readings. But in the last five years or so, the framing play has become a full-on play, absolutely central to the experience. Key in the development of that has been Pete’s and my creation of our alter-egos, Algy and Arty, a sort of cheerfully and obliviously damned Laurel and Hardy pair, who die at the end of the show pretty much every year and then come back for more the next year. Pete and I have come to enjoy imagining their deaths and creating their banter almost as much as we do writing our own pieces every year. The other key change involves our ongoing negotiations with the estate of Thomas St. John Bartlett, the lost Edwardian near-genius, which has allowed us to reintroduce (or, in some cases, debut) one story per year by this exceptionally gifted and all but forgotten artist as part of the show. The new Bartlett story is usually performed by our longtime partner, the fine actor Kevin Gregg. As a result, we have featured fewer guest stars in the past few years. In 2014, we decided to take a one-year hiatus, mostly because I am working feverishly trying to hit a deadline for Good Girls, the sequel to Motherless Child, which will be published by Tor in 2015. But we fully expect (and already have plans in motion for) the 10th anniversary show next fall. As for touring, we love to do that, and will be happy to explore possibilities with any group or organization willing to help us explore ways to fund the trip.

SM: We are thrilled to be able to reprint “Like Lick ‘Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey” here on the site for our readers, many of whom may not have previously read it. Can you tell us a little about the origins and history of the story?

GH: The editor Ellen Datlow asked me if I could write a vampire story for an anthology she was compiling. I responded with a snooty e-mail saying, “I don’t write vampire stories.” A week later, I woke up with Natalie and Sophie—the two young women at the heart of this story and of the Motherless Children trilogy—chattering in my head. They haven’t shut up since.

SM:  Can you tell us a little about the process whereby “Lick ‘Em Sticks” grew into the novel? When did you start getting the sense that this short piece wanted to become something longer? What was it that drew you back to Natalie and Sophie’s fictional world? Did you find your sense of, or relationship to, the characters had changed in the intervening period?

GH: After I finished “Lick ‘Em Sticks,” I wrote Ellen and told her apparently I did write vampire stories. She wrote back to say that was great, but the anthology wasn’t happening anymore, so good luck with that. Eventually, I used the piece as a Rolling Darkness Revue story. About a year later, I stirred from a daydream realizing I knew what happened five minutes after the end of the story, and also five minutes before the story started. Really, there was just something about these women and their relationship to each other and the world—and to monsters—that really compelled me. I started writing about them again. Motherless Child poured out pretty quickly from there. Once again, I thought I’d finished with Natalie and Sophie after that. When Tor bought the reprint rights, they asked if I wanted to do a trilogy. I told them I didn’t do vampire trilogies. This time, it took Natalie and Sophie all of 24 hours to inform me otherwise.

SM: When I heard you read “Lick ‘Em Sticks” for the first time during a Dusty Owl Reading Series engagement in Ottawa in (I believe it was) the spring of 2009, you wryly commented that this is the vampire story “you never expected to write.” Can you tell us about your initial reticence to dip your pen into the ink of literary vampirism? What was it that changed your mind?

GH: They just frankly never interested me much. The only archetypal monster that interests me less is zombies (and I’m fairly sure that I really don’t do zombie stories). My reticence had mostly to do with my own sense that I had nothing to add to the canon, rather than any market reasoning. The truth is, all stories are overdone, until someone comes up with a way of telling them that feels new or fresh or just emotionally and intellectually compelling and necessary, at which point they’re rendered new again. Natalie and Sophie changed my mind about vampires. I loved their voices, felt their world fall into place around me. After that, I wasn’t reticent anymore.

SM: Whistler, Mother and their kind are compelling, and quite original, vampires. Can you tell us about how your conception of vampirism in this fictional world evolved? Some of the fictions and ideas that most influenced it?

GH: If I was going to write a vampire story, I wanted to make the vampires monstrous, threatening, nothing you could fight. I tried actively not to be influenced by or respond to any previous conceptions. Instead, I tried to focus on what meeting—and also being—one of these things might actually be like. In the end, that led me to my monsters, who I certainly hope are original, but hope even more are terrifying, alluring, and occasionally weirdly sympathetic even in their monstrousness.

SM: What are your favourite literary and cinematic fictions of vampirism? What is it about them that most impressed you?

snowmanGH: Well, as I said, it really isn’t my favourite archetype. But I love good storytelling and art-making wherever I find it. In film, I love some of the Hammers—Brides of Dracula, especially, with its rampant atmosphere and sensuality—and Near Dark for its grit and Nosferatu for its flickery menace and Vampyr for its relentless, suffocating ambiance and astonishing visuals and Let the Right One In for pretty much all of the above. On the page, Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” remains the gold standard for me, at once mesmerizing and sensualized and weirdly touching. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is one of his most perfect marriages of that nostalgia/childhood thing he does so well and vicious, monstrous menace (and I thought both tv versions were pretty good, too, for different reasons). Most recently, Nathan Ballingrud has a fantastically nasty, bleak little story called “Sunbleached” that boasts the most irredeemably rotten vampire in recent memory.

SM: Music is of central importance to much of your fiction. Asked about your favourite music in an earlier interview with GingerNuts of Horror, you replied:

I love writing to the spectral, brooding landscapes of Richard Skelton or the arctic vastness of Tomas Koner. I like blissing out to Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground and the Fuck Buttons and the Digable Planets. I like imagining trading stories with Guy Clark and Todd Snider and Eileen Rose and Nathan Bell and Thomas Anderson, or revving up with Wire and Sleater-Kinney. I like vanishing off the edge of the Earth to (or with) Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” 

Can you tell us a little more about the role music plays in your writing (process and product alike) in general?

GH: I’m honestly not sure what else I can add. I have always written to music—usually something hypnotic and emotionally evocative that helps drop me into that half-conscious writing state that is most productive for me. Come to think of it, I pretty much live to music. I’m a pretty ordered thinker. Music shakes the order out of me and transports me to healthier, stranger places.

SM: More specifically, can you speak to the way music informs and shapes Motherless Child and its characters (for example, why the title itself is derived from a Bob Dylan tune, why Natalie’s point of view is suffused with rock and blues references, and how the Pied Piper-like Whistler’s vampirism is intrinsically tied to his musicality?)

GH: The title isn’t derived from a Bob Dylan tune, but from the old Negro spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” For the vampires, and especially for the Whistler, music is the closest they can get to approximating feelings and relationships they long for, possibly even remember, but can’t quite feel, at least not in the way they did while they were living. I was also gnawing away at something that has always frightened me, frankly, something about the way being an artist detaches you not from feeling but from the immediacy of feeling. There’s a line in a Thomas Mann story about how the artist gives up almost nothing of himself in the pursuit of his career, except the ability to share any experience he is having with other human beings at the moment the experience is happening. That line always scared the shit out of me, and so I guess I wasn’t surprised to find it surfacing here. As for Natalie and Sophie, they just each find different ways to colour and enhance their lives with music, as opposed to living vicariously through it.

SM: Do you have an imagined “soundtrack” to the novel? If so, what would be on it?

GH: At one point not long after the book first came out, I started a blog project through which I was going to write about every song referenced in Motherless Child. I got maybe six or seven posts in, hadn’t even gotten close to the end of chapter 1, realized there are at least 200 songs referenced in the book, and gave up. I did, however, have a blast writing a Book Notes column for the Largeheartedboy blog about the use of music in the novel and some of the key songs, and anything else I could say on the subject would just be repeating. If anyone’s interested, you can find that piece here.

SM: The sequel to Motherless Child, Good Girls, is to be released from Tor Books shortly. Can you give our readers a sense of what to expect from the novel, and from the subsequent conclusion to the trilogy?

GH: All I’ll say at this point is that I’m not one to write the same book twice, and that I wasn’t going to undermine the ending of Motherless Child. Good Girls continues the story, intertwines it with a few new ones, gives a richer sense of where my vampires might have come from, and does a fair bit of exploring of just what a “good girl” might be and who gets to say. I’m about to turn it in. About a month ago, I started feeling pretty excited about it. That feeling hasn’t left me since. Sometimes—most times—that’s been a good sign, for me…

Sean Moreland is founder and fiction editor at Postscripts to Darkness, and a part-time English professor at the University of Ottawa.

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