Transcript: Joe Hill and Attica Locke

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Joe Hill, discussing Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill:

JOE HILL:
It’s just such an incredibly rich book about, do you need to be flesh to be human? What makes something human? Is it having a conscience? Is it having memories? Is it being able to make moral choices?

JENN:

And Attica Locke, who picked Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel by Jane Smiley:

ATTICA LOCKE:

It’s really a philosophical contemplation about what makes the novel special. But along the way, she says things like literally you’re just putting one sentence in front of the other. Literally, the only way you can fail at a first draft is if you don’t complete it. Those words are like gold to somebody who’s trying to figure it out for the first time.

JENN:

Joe Hill is the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of The Fireman, NOS4A2, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns (which was made into a feature film starring Daniel Radcliffe). His book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, won the Bram Stoker Award and British Fantasy Award for Best Collection, and he earned the Eisner Award for Best Writer for his long-running comic book series, Locke & Key. His new book, Strange Weather, collects four short horror novels that expose the darkness lying just beneath the surface of everyday life.

HILL:

My name is Joe Hill, and Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill is my recommended.

So Cargill and I share an editor at William Morrow. We both work with Jennifer Brehl who’s spectacular. She’s also Neil Gaiman’s editor, one of the secret stars of the industry.

I had read Cargill’s first novel, which was called Dreams and Shadows. It’s almost a Neil Gaiman like story if Neil Gaiman had grown up in Austin, Texas instead of part of the United Kingdom. It is this weird, ultra bloody Texan riff on Peter Pan. I thought it was tremendous. So I was asked to look at his new book, which is a Science Fiction thing called Sea of Rust. And as good as I thought Cargill’s early work was, this is something on a completely different level, something that takes his work into the stratosphere.

There have been a lot of novels about the end of the world. This is one of the first times I’ve ever read a book about what happens after the end of the world. It is about a robot named Brittle in a world populated only by dying robots, and various warring artificial intelligences, which when they can, take over the individual robots and use them as mindless soldiers in their armies in their various wars.

It’s just such an incredibly rich book about, do you need to be flesh to be human? What makes something human? Is it having a conscience? Is it having memories? Is it being able to make moral choices? So it gets into some really deep stuff about regret and also about memory.

That’s the amazing thing, is we’re all gone. You feel like, “How could you tell a story where there’s just none of us in it?” Even in something like Watership Down, you’re aware of humanity. There is humanity there even if the focal characters are rabbits. But in this, we’ve been completely wiped out. That’s another one of the issues that the book wrestles with, which was, are we more deserving of this planet than the robots who replace us? Were we, in any way, morally superior to them? Were we emotionally superior? That’s a fascinating and chilling question. The kind of question that only someone who’s done some work in horror fiction would come up with. Although, this is not horror fiction. This is not horror fiction.

It’s an incredibly grim book. You fall in love with different robots only to watch them get blown into piles of burnt circuit boards. And your favorites come and go, and fall throughout the book. The heroes suffer tremendous losses and terrific pain. I’d say they suffer heartache if they had hearts, but they don’t. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. It strangely made me feel okay about the thought of a planet with none of us on it, which is sort of a weird thing to say.

When I got an advance readers’ copy of it, I was in London for a week with my mom and my three sons. I have three teenage boys. The book raced through the family like flu. I read it in three days. And then my mom took it. My mom read it in 24 hours. And then my 14 year old took it. He read it in 48 hours. It was just amazing the way it galloped through the family. It became this thing that we shared on the road, and was an instant addiction. So I would say, generally, when I’ve been passing it on to people, I haven’t been getting too many people coming back disappointed.

Cargill himself is quite a Texan wit, quite amusing. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the last, oh I want to say, over the last year and a half. He’s very funny. He got his start writing reviews under a pen name for Ain’t it Cool News. He has a very wry, mischievous take on pop culture. The movies he celebrates, the books he celebrates, the art he celebrates often is so out of left field. Bizarre videos from the ’80s that no one watched that he’s seen dozens of times. All of that informs the gumbo of his novels, which are these stews of influences.

In some ways, he’s a little bit of a literary Quentin Tarantino. You know Tarantino’s films seem to be stitched together in part, out of the influences of all these other films that he watched when he was famously a video store clerk for 10 years. And he watched all the exploitation films. There’s some of that to Cargill as well. You have a feeling of someone who has seen every apocalyptic film ever made, and every western ever made, and every film about droids ever made. And has stirred them together and invented something completely new.

There seems to be this thing where all of us, right now the apocalypse is very hot. There’s a real cultural fascination with how it might all end. Now, you have these nuclear tensions in North Korea. And you have these super hurricanes lashing Houston. And at the time of this recording, there’s one brewing off the coast of Florida. Sometimes I think, with all this happening, do people really want to face a worst case scenario where we’re all almost wiped out?

But then, there are other times when I think this is exactly what fiction is supposed to do. For us humans, there are subjects that are so upsetting and stressful, we almost can’t face them head on, like what would it be like to have a fatal illness? What would it be like to feel my life draining away on a daily basis? It’s such a terrible subject. But, you can read a book about a vampire, a person being attacked by a vampire, which is a metaphor for whatever you want it to be a metaphor. It can be a metaphor for cancer if you want. It can be a metaphor for any debilitating illness sapping you of your resources. In the safe playground of fiction, that becomes fun and interesting to explore. You can begin to shape your feelings about what it would be like. You’re never going to be attacked by a vampire, but what would it be like to wake up feeling weak? To have a consciousness that you’re facing a real threat to your own life?

Fiction helps us shape our feelings and ideas about dire scenarios. And in terms of the apocalypse, I’m pretty optimistic about the longterm survival of human beings. But everyone faces an end of the world scenario eventually, because eventually everyone dies. That’s the end of the world for you. So I think when we read stories about the end of the world like Sea of Rust, that gives us a safe space, a safe fear to explore feelings and ideas, which are stressful, emotionally stressful. But when converted to fiction, can become terrific entertainment and a sort of joyful way to explore subjects that are far from joyful. So that’s my take on apocalyptic fiction.

JENN:

Thanks again to Joe Hill for joining us and recommending Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill. His new collection Strange Weather, published by William Morrow and Company, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at joe_hill.

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JENN:

Attica Locke is a bestselling author and winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. A former fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmaker’s Lab, Locke has worked as a screenwriter as well. Most recently, she was a writer and producer on the Fox drama, Empire. Her new novel, Bluebird Bluebird, is a rural noir that follows Texas Ranger Darren Mathews as he tries to solve two murders before long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.

LOCKE:

My name is Attica Locke, and Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is my recommended.

The reason why it means so much to me is it came into my life as I was writing my first book. I just have since begun to feel like this book is like a kind of novel bible for me, and I return to it every time I’m writing a book all the time. And I think the reason why it meant so much to me is that the book starts with this introduction from Jane Smiley. It was written in 2005. She was talking about where she was in her life after the September 11th attacks, and how discombobulated she was and how disconnected she felt from her work as a novelist and actually had those doubts I think we heard from lots of artists about what does this really matter in the grand scheme of things when the nation is grieving in this big, big way. So she gave herself permission to walk away from the book she was writing at the time in order to read 100 novels in a row. And to contemplate the novel.

What comes out of it in this book is a love letter to the novel. There’s some how-to stuff in there. She shares personal experiences about some of her books, and just her way of describing everything is so, not just humble, but a sense of making the novel writing seem possible. She talks about it being like such a democratic art form and it’s cheap and it doesn’t take anything but paper and a pencil, and that you can learn so much just from the library, which is great. When I read that as a young … I couldn’t even call myself a novelist at the time. When I read that, she just made me feel like “Oh my God, this is possible. I think I can actually pull this off.”

I cannot remember if I literally saw it on a shelf or I read a review of it.

But either way, some part of me reached out to it because I was trying to look for some kind of guidance about this huge undertaking that I was doing.

It’s really a philosophical contemplation about what makes the novel special. But along the way, she says things like literally you’re just putting one sentence in front of the other. Literally, the only way you can fail at a first draft is if you don’t complete it. Those words are like gold to somebody who’s trying to figure it out for the first time. It has a tone of possibility.

It kind of taught me that in the work that I’m doing, how I feel about the work when I’m doing it is not indicative of its quality. And I think before I really thought about that, heard that through her book, I thought if I was writing a book and parts of it were dragging, clearly the book was a piece of crap. But now I understand better that I think our feelings as writers about the work that we’re doing is informed by a lot of things, and it doesn’t really tell you how it will land with an audience.

What’s also cool about it is that in the back of the book, even though she said she starts it saying that she went on this journey to read 100 novels to contemplate the novel, at the back of the book, she has these own personal observations about 100 books going all the way back to like Middlemarch or like the first novel that was ever recorded in history. And she has these synopses about the book and where the book lands in our larger culture, so that’s kind of fun to read those, too.

I revisit it before I start every book.

I think the things that really matter to me about that book, I’ve deeply incorporated. I just want a refresher. I don’t know how to explain it. I love this book so much that I just … It’s like a bible for me, and just as if you would go back to read old Bible verses that you already know because it kind of lifts you up, I literally feel that way about this book and the novel.

I’m trying to think how she puts it, but she describes it in the book in one little section as a big wheel, and she calls it like a clock. All along this clock, she has different types of things that books can be. They can be a romance, they can be a travelog, they can be a polemic, they can be a tall tale, they can be a biography. And she encourages you, when you think about your book, to think about which parts of these things are in your book so that you know if you’re writing something that is a humor book, you have to have humor in it. If you think you’re writing something that’s about a travelog or that it’s something that’s meant to take you to a different place and time, you have to make sure that your book has those things. If your book has elements of biography, then you have to make sure.
So in my copy of this book, on this page with the big wheel, for every one of my novels, I put the initials of the novel next to the parts of this wheel that I think my book incorporates. So I still do that to this day.

I am a proselyte. I proselytize all the time about this book. In fact, I feel like I’ve embarrassed myself the couple of times I’ve been around Jane Smiley. I’ve actually met her at events. I’m like an actual little puppy at her feet. First of all, she’s like eight feet tall, and I’m five feet tall. I really don’t know how tall she is, but she’s very tall and I’m very short. When I’ve met her, I’ve looked up there and I just, “Your book, your book, your book. It just changed my life.” I kind of cringe every now and then when I remember times I did that. How goofy I acted. But I do bring it up to people a lot, and I bring it up to people who are experiencing it, who are going through an experience that I was going through when I read it, which is you are trying to do this big new thing of writing a novel, and I just bring it up to people because I think it might offer them a sense of support.

JENN:

Thanks again to Attica Locke for joining us and recommending Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel by Jane Smiley. You can find Locke’s newest thriller, Bluebird Bluebird, published by Mulholland Books, wherever books are sold. You can also follow her on twitter at atticalocke.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Ally by Anna Banks. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, one of our guests contemplates a book she’s been rereading since high school:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

It’s one that I revisit usually at the holidays, it’s such a depressing book to revisit at the holidays, but it’s also such like an engrossing read that you kind of want to sit down on a snowy day and read. Because it says a lot about society, and about women, and about New York at the turn of the century. But it also is a real page-turner. You just want to know what’s going to happen, even if you already know.