Today, I am very pleased to feature author Michael Hughes from Random House’s Hydra imprint. He is the author of “Blackwater Lights,” which I recently read and fell in love with. You can find my review here in case you missed it. I would like to take a moment and thank Mr. Hughes for agreeing to the interview and providing insight into his creative process. Please welcome him to Readful Things :)
Tell us a little about you and your writing career.
I’ve been writing fiction and poetry ever since I was a kid, and I first attempted a novel when I was seven (about a modern day vampire) but only got through three chapters. I distinctly remember sitting on my bedroom floor pecking at the keys on my typewriter and being startled (and a little freaked out) at how the words I was putting on paper were actually creeping me out. I was scaring myself! That was my first taste of the magic of storytelling. As I got older I drifted into acting and was a theater major in college, and it wasn’t until I was almost forty that I decided to get serious and write a novel. I have to credit Stephen King’s excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft with lighting the fire that made me decide I could, and should, do it. So I gave myself a deadline of my daughter’s birth to finish my first draft. I made it by a few days and celebrated with a glass of champagne. I had actually done it!
But I was all alone when it came to the formidable world of publishing, and didn’t know anyone who had written a book, much less published one. By a lovely stroke of luck, the Borderlands Boot Camp—an intensive writing workshop focused on horror and dark fantasy—was taking place that winter, and was located about fifteen minutes from my home. One of the instructors, bestselling author Thomas F. Monteleone, read my first three chapters and asked me, “What have you published?” “Nothing,” I said. He looked surprised. “Who’s your agent?” he then asked. I told him I didn’t have one. “Well, this is really good stuff. It should be published. Let me introduce you to my agent.” I was in shock. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy.
His agent liked the story (which at that point was titled Cabal), but decided to pass. But Tom hooked me up with another agent, and he immediately loved it and decided to represent me. We revised the hell out of the book, maybe a total of five or six major revisions over the course of a year. A film agent expressed his interest, but wanted to wait for print publication before securing rights. At that point I was fantasizing about quitting my day job and building my lake house writing retreat where I could spend my life cranking out bestsellers. Good thing I didn’t, because soon the rejections started coming. One after another, almost all along the lines of “Great story, very suspenseful, but just not for us.” I got depressed. Then I submitted to tiny publishers, and even tinier publishers, but no one wanted the damn novel. Even my short stories were getting rejected from magazines with horrible names along the lines of Rotting Corpse Review. My agent finally said, “Just write your next book.” Which I started to do, but my heart was still with my firstborn novel. I couldn’t just shove it into a drawer, so I kept sending it out whenever a faint possibility arose.
Then I saw that Random House was starting a new sf/f/h digital imprint. I’d become a massive reader of ebooks after getting one of the very first iPads off the assembly line, so I knew that digital books were going to become more and more important to the industry. So I sent off my first few chapters, expecting the usual rejection. About a month later an email popped up. The editor wanted to read the whole thing. A couple weeks later I got an offer, and to say I was elated would be an incredibly understatement. And my first novel, Blackwater Lights, is now a real book, albeit made of electrons and not paper. And I’m working on two more books in the series.
When did you first know that you were going to write?
I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to read, and ever since I could read I knew I wanted to write stories for other people. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who loves fiction not wanting to create it. I was one of those kids who would always carry a book with me, and when visiting with my relatives I’d find a quiet corner and plop myself down and get lost in the world of my book. Some of my aunts and uncles thought I was being antisocial or rude, but my parents always supported me. They realized that reading is not passive—it’s active engagement, not mindless escape like watching TV. My imagination was always cranking out stories, so I knew at a very early age that I was lucky to have that gift and I should make use of it. My first “published” story appeared in my high school literary magazine. It was a horror short story called “The Catalyst” and I recently found a copy of it and posted it on my blog. And it’s not that bad!
What inspired you to write Blackwater Lights?
A lot of things inspired the book. I’ve always been fascinated by the capital-M Mystery—the big questions about life, death, consciousness, and the often-ignored data that bedevils scientists (and that most of them would rather ignore). Stuff like psychic phenomena, UFOs, near-death experiences, shamanic states of consciousness, psychedelics, and the like. I’ve also been a fan of horror and the macabre since I can remember, and was lucky enough to read Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Shelley, and other classics before I got bowled over by Stephen King in the 70s and discovered that horror can be modern and realistic, and wasn’t relegated to gloomy moors and creaky old mansions. So it only made sense that these subjects would become integral parts of my fiction.
And in 1990 I had a sighting of two extremely fast-moving orange lights in the night sky over the Atlantic Ocean. They were doing things that are impossible for conventional aircraft, and I am still trying to understand what they were. I know what they weren’t but I have no idea what they were. So that incident became the genesis for the mystery lights of Blackwater, West Virginia, where the novel takes place.
Sometimes people neglect to review a book they have read. How important do you find it as an author, for people to share their opinions about your work? Do you take their comments into consideration when planning your next novel?
Reviews have become critical to a book’s success, particularly if the book is digital-only (like mine). So I encourage everyone who reads Blackwater Lights to leave a review—even if they don’t like it. I even send personalized postcards to those who review it online, as a thank you (and as an alternative to signing a book since I don’t have physical copies to sign). But although I love it when a reader posts a positive review—especially when he or she really gets what I was aiming for—I expect there are plenty of people who will not like the book. It’s inevitable. But I would never change my vision or my style to appease a reader based on reviews. I have to go with the stuff the muses offer me. I trust them, and my judgment from years of reading and writing, more than some anonymous person on Amazon or B&N.
Can we expect further works form you in the near future and can you give us any hints about what we might see?
I’m already deep into the as-yet-untitled followup to Blackwater Lights, which should satisfy the many people who have been clamoring for a sequel. I left the book open-ended because it felt like the story should continue, and I’m glad I can watch the characters and their world come alive again. In the sequel, the main characters are on the run in Central America, so the setting has gotten bigger, as have the stakes. And Lily, who everyone loves to hate, is back and nastier than ever. The central elements from the first book—the global conspiracy, battling secret societies, ritual magic, and otherworldly entities—are there in book two, only in a much bigger way. And Ray and Ellen, and Ellen’s son, William are still fighting for their lives against malevolent forces that want to destroy them. This book is much more Ellen’s story, so readers who wanted more of her will get it. The book will arrive, again in digital form, in the summer of 2014.
Has publishing and marketing been different than you expected it to be?
I really didn’t know what to expect from Hydra, my publisher, since the digital imprint was a new concept for one of the Big Five. There was a lot of negativity when the imprint launched because people found the initial contracts too restrictive on authors and too “grabby” when it came to rights. To Random House’s credit they made a number of changes and I found the contract and their new business model (a profit-sharing partnership with authors) to be satisfactory and, in some ways, quite progressive.
One of the reasons I resisted self-publishing was the power a traditional publisher wields in not just name-recognition but in sales and marketing savvy. The team at Hydra have confirmed my choice to wait for a contract from a major publisher, in spite of all the suggestions to go it alone. While every author always wants more PR and marketing than a publisher can or will deliver, I have been impressed with the team’s dedication to my book, and at its peak Blackwater Lights was in the top 25 bestselling books in the Nook store and the top 10 in Kindle horror. I couldn’t have done that myself. I would rather spend my time writing than marketing, so I’m happy to have the professionals doing what they do best.
That said, it is critical for every writer, especially a newly published one, to do as much as possible to boost sales. That means Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and taking every opportunity to get your book and your name circulating online and in the real world. If you’re already established and have sold hundreds of thousands of books, you might, like Jonathan Franzen, be able to avoid pimping your work on social media. But if you’re a new commodity, and you don’t have a base of fans waiting to buy your work, you need to find those fans. And that means tooting your own horn, even if you find it distasteful. You may not like it, but it’s the reality of the world we live in.
Where can we find and your work?
My blog (http://michaelmhughes.com) has a list of all my writing, including my nonfiction. Blackwater Lights is available now from all the major online retailers of ebooks, and the sequel will out in July of 2014. I have a short story coming out in the anthology Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification from Great Old Ones Publishing (http://www.amazon.com/Canopic-Jars-Tales-Mummies-Mummification/dp/0615912028/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383585237&sr=1-1&keywords=canopic+jars), and some other projects in the works. So stop by my blog and sign up for the newsletter if you want to stay updated (and get some exclusive extras like deleted chapters, previews, and more).
Any final thoughts for fans/audience?
I love when readers connect with my vision. It’s dark, and disturbing at times, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But I am a hopeful, optimistic person, and I think that comes through in my writing, even when the stories go to some very creepy places. I’ve been overjoyed that many people who don’t consider themselves horror readers/fans have loved Blackwater Lights. And that’s what I was hoping for. Because I don’t define myself as a horror writer. I am a writer of stories that contain horror and the supernatural, certainly, but they’re also about human beings and their loves, their fears, their quirks, and their triumphs. I don’t like being contained in a genre—genres can become ghettos, and I’m always trying to stretch my boundaries. I think the people who like my books the most are those who don’t want by-the-numbers stories about zombies or vampires and the like, but enjoy supernatural thrills based in a very real and believable world with complex, interesting characters. That’s the stuff I find the most deliciously creepy, and I hope others do, too.