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It used to be that comic book writers had a background of working solely in the Comics industry. These days, comic scribes come from a variety of backgrounds outside the industry including film, television, and more and more frequently prose novels. In an effort to expose our readers to prose novels that they might find interesting, CBR News is launching a new, semi regular feature that puts the spotlight on books that might appeal to comic fans and the authors of such books. In this first installment we spoke with current “Moon Knight” writer Charlie Huston about his novels.
When it comes to writing a novel, Huston doesn’t adhere to a strict creative outline and keeps a lot of notebooks around where he jots down his ideas. “There’s usually one novel that’s being actively written and another one that I know I’ll need to start as soon as the other one is done. So, I have a couple of notebooks that I’m working in,” Huston told CBR News. “I have another one that I’m just casually keeping notes in and I’ve also been keeping a notebook for comic book stuff because the way it’s worked out so far is, rather than sitting down and having a lot of free time available to write a complete story arc, if I hit a rough patch on one of the novels or say I’ve got a gap where I’ve turned in a draft to my editor and I’ve got to wait a couple of weeks while he reads it and processes it and gets back to me, that’s when I’ll get in and try to knock out a script or two.
“So, each novel is a little bit different,” Huston continued. “I know where I’m starting and I usually have a handful of characters, situations, some bits of dialogue, some scenes, and I almost always have the end of a book when I start it. I start out with kind of a connect the dots thing. I just try to write myself from dot to dot and I’d say that half the ideas that I start out with and think I’m going to use, they end up not finding a home. Or I use them and I end up having to change them significantly. There are many times where something I thought was set in stone will go out the window.”
One quality that seems set in stone with Huston’s writing, as readers of “Moon Knight” have seen, is that all of his stories so far have been quite dark. “All of my work has a certain element of darkness,” he said. “I knew that I liked dark things, but I didn’t know when I started writing that it would be so pronounced in my work. I like characters that are a little bit broken, they have pieces missing. I think that’s universal of people, but with fiction you try to find ways of making it more pronounced and dramatic.”
Huston’s novels might be drenched in darkness, but they aren’t all doom and gloom. They’re often packed with hilarious, laugh out loud moments of black humor. “It’s not like I sit down and think, ‘Well, I want to write something funny’ or ‘I need some humor in this scene because it’s so dark.’ It’s just more a matter of my sensibility coming out,” Huston explained. “What surprised me was after my editor read ‘Caught Stealing’ [Huston’s first novel] one of the first things he said to me was he really viewed it primarily as a comic novel, a black comedy. That was the thing he really hooked into. So, I don’t sit down trying to write funny it just comes out and there are times when I don’t think that I’m so much trying to be funny as highlighting the absurdity of certain things it’s kind of what my instinct is.”
“Caught Stealing” – where Huston first showed of his literary instincts for the dark and absurd aspects of life – was born out of the opening line, “My feet hurt.” “I had that line and it definitely sounded to me like a hardboiled detective kind of line,” Huston stated. “I initially thought I was sitting down to write a little short story or something. I had written a lot, but I had never written a piece of crime or detective fiction and I thought, ‘well this will be fun.’ I originally had the idea that the character was going to be a neighborhood tough guy or detective. I though it was going to be a more traditional detective book than it ended up being. The character just kind of evolved as I was writing it and turned out to be more just a regular guy who gets caught up in a series of events.
“I think more than any of my other books ‘Caught Stealing’ was the one that really evolved,” Huston continued. “Which is not surprising because it was the first book and I didn’t set out to write a novel. As I recall, it was around page one hundred when I knew that it was definitely a novel and that I was going to set a personal goal to finish it. At that point I didn’t know exactly how things we’re going to turn out, but I knew where the character would be at the end. I had a very clear mental picture of where he would end up and it was just a matter of getting him there.”
“Caught Stealing” was where Huston began shepherding his protagonist, Henry “Hank” Thompson, through a dark, brutal, twistedly funny, and often tragic world. “At the beginning of ‘Caught Stealing,’ he’s pretty much a regular guy who’s in a rut, who is becoming aware that his drinking is not casual and that he’s got a drinking problem,” Huston explained. “He’s just not that happy with his life, but he has no more problems than the average person. He’s just kind of living a life of quiet desperation, which can be life for so many people with no sense of how to break out of it. It’s because he never got over the fact that when he was a teenager he thought he would be a super star athlete and he had an accident and that never happened for him. He’s basically kind of childish, in that he’s never gotten over that and tried to make something of himself despite the fact that he has lots of other gifts.”
In “Caught Stealing,” Hank Thompson had to discover and employ all of his other gifts to survive the nightmarish world of mobsters, crooked cops, and a fortune of ill gotten cash he stumbles into when he reluctantly agrees to cat sit for a neighbor. Things got really bad for Hank in “Caught Stealing,” and his situation gets even worse in his second outing, “Six Bad Things.” “While I think he’s a very likeable and nice guy at the beginning of the first book, I think he’s kind of pathetic and whiny. By the end of ‘Six Bad Things’ he’s got some things to whine about,” Huston stated. “He’s severely depressed. His entire life has been destroyed. He’s facing the future as a person who’s compelled to commit acts that he has no desire to commit in order to save people that he loves. He may have escaped his alcoholism to some extent, but he’s obviously staring down the barrel of a huge pain medication dependency. I would describe his emotional state at the end of ‘Six Bad Things’ as very bad. He’s got truckloads of guilt over all the things that have gone on before and certainly over the fact that he he’s killed his best friend.”
Hank Thompson’s dark journey continues in Huston’s newest novel, “A Dangerous Man” which hits stores September 19th. “When ‘Caught Stealing’ was first sold, I described it to my editor as the first book in a two book deal and the editor who took the books told us up front that he was interested in another Henry Thompson book,” Huston said. “By then I started to kind of see where Henry’s story might go and I knew that it was a three part story. It couldn’t be told in two and it would be no more than three because his life had been so demolished and because I didn’t see him as a guy who I would want to turn into a real tough guy who could endure all these trials forever and ever. I knew that one way or another the story would have to have an ending.”
Hank Thompson’s story comes to an end by going full circle. In “A Dangerous Man,” he returns to the place where his troubles began, New York City. “The idea is to take him back where he started,” Huston explained. “The trilogy starts in new York and in ‘Six Bad Things’ he travels through Mexico and ends up in his hometown and retraces his roots. He ends up in Las Vegas. Then in the last book we’ll take him from Las Vegas back to New York; back to where it all started and revisit some of the things that were going on in ‘Caught Stealing,’ if not necessarily the characters because I think I killed them all.”
When it became clear that the story would be best told in a trilogy, Huston pitched his editor on the idea of a third book by comparing Hank to another famous fictional character who travels a similar road to redemption. “I said it’s a Darth Vader story,” Huston stated. “The nice guy becomes a bad guy and how does he redeem himself? So my idea was to tell the story of how a guy’s life gets out of control in the first book. Then tell a story in the second book of how he’s forced by circumstances to become someone who does things that aren’t really redeemable and then in the third book, ‘A Dangerous Man,’ tell the story of how he tries to redeem himself and how he tries to come out the other side and find out if it’s possible. The reader will ultimately have to make that decision.”
Some writers make careers out of writing about the same character for years, but Huston will retire Hank Thompson with “A Dangerous Man.” “You’ll never see Hank again,” Huston explained. “It’s very important to have an ending at a certain point. I was very lucky. People really responded to the character. After I finished writing ‘Six Bad Things,’ but before it was published, several people asked if I thought I might go beyond a third book. I didn’t have to think about it. I might have thought about it briefly, but it was never really tempting. He’s a character that’s not built for the long haul. He needs to be parked somewhere. As to how he gets parked, I had a couple different ways that I knew the story could end. I picked the one that I thought was the most honest.”
Hank Thompson’s journey might be overm but Huston’s other literary protagonist, Joe Pitt, his story is just beginning. Like Hank Thompson, Pitt has adventures in the corrupt, seedy underbelly of New York but the characters and their rotten Big Apple settings are very different. “Joe Pitt is a vampire in contemporary New York, where there’s a Vampire underworld controlled by a collection of clans,” Huston said, “He operates outside of the clans as kind of a fixer and tough guy private investigator. He’s just a guy trying to keep his freedom and independence and get by day to day.”
Joe Pitt was born as a way for Huston to entertain himself between Hank Thompson books. He didn’t originally intend for the character to become the star of a series of horror-mystery books. “I knew I was thinking about writing about vampires and again this was more just for fun,” Huston said. “‘Caught Stealing’ was done, but I hadn’t even tried to sell it at that point. So, I was just trying to find the next thing that I was going to write to entertain myself. I’m not a huge horror fan. I’ve read relatively little of it, although I’ve seen a ton of horror movies. I just wanted to write something that would be kind of cool and fun, where the stakes would be high, but it wouldn’t end with necessarily the same dark and emotional stuff because it would be less real. I could be a little freer than I was with Henry Thompson in ‘Caught Stealing.’
“So I started to write the first line and it started to evolve into this thing. I knew that Joe Pitt was going to be an outsider in the vampire world that I was building, but I didn’t know that I would go that hard-boiled,” Huston continued. “I was like, ‘Wow this is really starting to go there in ‘hey you mug!’ kind of way.’ Which I love, but I didn’t know then. I stopped trying to avoid it. When I was working on the Henry Thompson books I would consciously avoid reading any other crime fiction because I didn’t want to have somebody else’s voice or style in my head. Not that I was trying to create something wholly original, it was just that however derivative it was I wanted it to be mine. Joe Pitt is very different. I’ve written two of them so far and with both of them I made a point of going out and reading not just noir, but period noir. I’ve read all the Hammett and Chandler novels at this point so I would read slightly more obscure or slightly later authors like Jim Thomson, Eric Ambler and Patricia Highsmith, who isn’t really noir but has a great sense of style for it. I’m not trying to crib their lines, ideas or plot points. I’m just really trying to embrace the style and run with it because these books, while they’re dark, violent and vulgar as hell, they’re really meant to be fun.”
In the dark, vulgar, violent and fun world of Joe Pitt, it appears at first glance that Vampirism is a scientifically based virus “When I first started writing, I didn’t have a plan for the vampirism and then very quickly I liked the idea of basing it on a virus or bacteria and infectious agents,” Huston explained. “I’ve done a fair amount of casual research on viruses and bacteria and those things; just enough to drop some things in there and make it sound kind of cool and real, but I’ve consciously broken the rules of biology several times over, so I wouldn’t want people to read too deeply into that.”
The nature of Vampirism appears scientific but as Joe Pitt discovered in his first appearance, the novel “Already Dead,” the true nature of vampirism is a mystery and might just be more bizarre and arcane than originally believed. The secret of the Vampire Virus is just one of the elements that will develop as the Joe Pitt series progresses. “The plan for these books is for each one to stand on it’s own, but the arc that will go through them will be Joe’s character arc and much of that will be tied to his relationship with his girlfriend Evie,” Huston said. “The mystery that will travel through all five or six books will be the mystery of what the virus actually is. Each of the clans will have a contending theory about this. In the second book you’ll see that Joe’s awareness of what’s going on in the world takes a big step forward and as he becomes aware of these things, he’ll become aware that this mystery is at the heart of his world.”
As the Joe Pitt series progresses, the shape and state of Joe’s world will change and be affected by the events of each book. “I’m not a huge fan of long running series,” Huston stated. “One of the things that I find most frustrating about those is each book, movie, episode, etc ends with just returning the character back to the status quo. That is very frustrating for me. So one of the things I wanted to do in the first book is really establish who Joe is. It takes him on enough of a journey that you can get a sense of him, but by the end of the second book he’s in a different place. It’s not just his awareness of the world that changes, but his place in it. I want to continue that and try to keep it going throughout the whole series. Each book moves him, if not forward, definitely moves him someplace else.
“It will be the same thing with the vampire clans,” Huston continued. “I want the whole world to open up book by book. The biggest trick with that is the more you do that in each book, the harder it becomes to make each book stand alone because there’s more back story to fill in for new readers. So if somebody walks in and picks up book #4, if you really keep the character and the relationships moving and the dynamics between the clans changing, it becomes harder and harder to catch raw readers up on the back story. I already ran into it with book two and I can see where that’s going to be a trick. You just take it on and see if it works.”
It’s work that usually gets Joe Pitt into trouble. The vampire narrowly survived to complete the case he was assigned in his debut appearance in the 2005 novel “Already Dead” and this December a new case gets Pitt into a load of trouble in his second novel, “No Dominion.” “Joe is on the rocks, which is not unusual for him. He’s hard up for blood and money,” Huston explained. “There’s a drug problem in the vampire community downtown and Joe is going to take a job to try and find out what’s going on, what the drug is and why the hell there even is a drug that can get a vampire high.”
“No Dominion” is the second Joe Pitt novel and like the Hank Thompson series, Huston has an ending planned for Joe Pitt as well. “It’s very important to me that stories have endings,” Huston stated. “The Joe Pitt series will be a longer series. It’s projected for 5-6 books. I’m not exactly sure how long it’s going to take me, but it’s also going to be a terminal series. It launches from the ground and comes crashing back into the ground.”
“I understand the appeal of an ongoing character but my experience has been that it’s a hard thing to do,” Huston continued. “Even though I’ve only written the first two Joe Pitt books, I can already see that it’s going to be very hard to keep the energy up for five or six. Also, I think that it’s inevitable that there will be a certain amount of decay. You like what’s familiar and you fall for these characters, not unlike what happens in comic books. Even in novels when it’s the same writer working the same character it’s just hard to sustain. It’s not necessarily that the series degrades continuously so that every book is worse than the one before. There are always high point and low points, but generally speaking the further you get along in the series the lower the lows and the less high the highs.”
Huston also finds long term series somewhat restrictive as a writer. “At some point, the nature of the beast whether its books, comic books, movies or TV shows, you need to sustain your audience,” Huston explained. “You move beyond the point where you are building new audiences and what you really can’t afford to do is alienate the people that are buying the product and are in love with the stories. You can exert a certain amount of energy early on in trying new things, but at a certain point you can’t take too many chances and that’s not something I’m really interested in doing.”
As readers of his work on “Moon Knight” and the recently released “Ultimates Annual” know, one of the things Huston is interested in doing right now is comics. He offered up some comics that fans of his novels might enjoy and fans of these comics might want to check out Huston’s novels. “There are two Warren Ellis titles that I think are pretty relevant,” he said. “Anybody that likes Joe Pitt will probably love ‘Desolation Jones.’ It’s similar in terms of a noir character occupying a noir Los Angeles, in this case, but it’s not a vampire milieu. It’s a milieu of former spies and espionage agents and it’s super cool. Also his title ‘Fell’ which has these great little stand alone stories. Anybody that likes Joe Pitt would really like, ‘The Goon.’ It’s the same thing in that you got this tough guy outside, on his own in this dark, mucky world, but it’s much more a straight up horror world with dark humor and great slapstick humor as well. Another great noir title but it only comes out once very year or two is ‘Hipflask.’ I haven’t read much Ed Brubaker, but when I met him for the first time he gave me one of his older graphic novels, ‘Scene of the Crime.’ That’s something that fans of Henry Thompson would enjoy. Even though the character is a detective, he’s just such a regular Joe kind of guy.”
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