Craig A. Hart is the award-winning author of over two books. I kid, I kid. He’s written several novels, including his debut, Becoming Moon, and his current adventure-thriller Shelby Alexander series, of which the third book, Serenity Avenged was released on April 28.
I’ve featured his work on this blog previously, but I recently was able to wrangle him into doing an interview. [Ed. note: people don’t wrangle enough anymore.]
It is with considerable guilty pleasure that I present the interview in its entirety.
Interview With Craig A. Hart – So-Called Writer
S.J. Varengo: I’d like to begin by thanking Mr. Hart for agreeing to this interview, as it will really class up the place, and it will be nice to talk with a writer whose books people actually read. So, Craig. I thought we’d start with some current events, then move to a few questions about writing in general, before concluding with a full, 100-question medieval agrarian history.
Craig Hart: Awesome! Because I just happen to have recently read a three-volume set on that very subject by famed historian A. Grarian. I took a lot of notes, just in case you gave a quiz today. My wife thought I was wasting my time. Ha! This will show her.SJV: You’ve just released your third book in the Serenity series, Serenity Avenged. Congratulations! Tell us a little about what’s happening to Shelby Alexander this time.
CH: He joins a circus and gets eaten by a monkey. Okay, so that was in the rough draft. In the published version, Shelby travels downstate (Michigan) to be with his daughter during a pregnancy crisis. While there, he discovers his ex-wife, who won’t go the hell away, has gotten herself entangled with a local crime boss. Lots of bullets fly, folks get shot up, Shelby gets up to some fun heroics, and then joins a circus and gets eaten by a monkey.
SJV: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s asked you this, but what’s up with the town of Serenity, MI? For a small town, it seems to be the crime capital of the Milky Way.
CH: It is literally the crime capital of the Milky Way. It’s on the welcome sign as you drive into town, so visitors can’t say they weren’t warned. But yeah. I’ve thought the same thing about pretty much every crime series—book or TV—that has a recurring character. “What are the odds all these things happen to the same person in a (relatively) short span of time?” I think that’s what some lecturer somewhere might call “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
SJV: Yeah, I always thought Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 was just about the unluckiest bastard who ever lived until I met Shelby. In Serenity Avenged you moved the action out of Serenity itself to the city of Grand Rapids. Did that give you a sense, as a writer, of being able to spread your wings a little?
CH: I suppose it did, and I didn’t care for it. I like being in Serenity, although the life expectancy there is rather low on the average. It was set in Grand Rapids for a couple of different reasons. First, there was the pregnancy crisis, which no med center in Serenity would be able to handle. The closest high-grade facility to Serenity is in GR. (I think their NICU is Level 4.) So the story containing the pregnancy took place there by necessity. The second reason is because I grew up in GR and wanted to set at least one Serenity book there.
SJV: I have to be honest. I’m a huge fan of the character Mack. He’s totally badass, but you’ve made him vulnerable as well. I guess there’s no question there. God! I suck at this! Maybe I can come back… I know. Tell us more about Mack.
CH: Mack is pretty much me. Totally based on me. Well, I did add in a few things, such as being heroic, good with firearms, tough, and a reliable friend. Otherwise, totally me. Mack serves as a friendly foil to Shelby. He keeps him honest. I left him out of book two and readers seemed to really miss him. I know I did, anyway. My favorite parts of the books to write are the interactions between Shelby and Mack because they sound a lot like conversations I might have with my own real-life versions of Mack.
SJV: You’re getting ready to start work on the fourth book in the series. In advance of that, you sent your mailing list an opportunity to take a survey and offer some opinions about what might happen. Anything you can tell us about the sort of feedback you’ve gotten?
CH: I did get this one great response that said, “These are the best books ever written. And I’m not just saying this because I’m your mom. Signed, Your Mom.”
SJV: Kinda warms your heart.
CH: But there were some other good ones too. I can tell you one thing: there is one character people want dead, like, yesterday. I can’t say who, because it would give away something in the next book.
SJV: Speaking of that, one of the questions you asked in the survey was if someone was killed in the upcoming book, who should it be? Since “absolutely everybody” wasn’t an option, I’m sure you’ve gotten some interesting responses. But that’s not my question. Since Mack was one of the options, would you send me the home address of anyone who selects him, so that I can “re-educate” them?
CH: Two people did select Mack, but they were in the vast minority. I will be happy to send you their address and you’re welcome to have at them as soon as Frankie and the boys get done. If there’s anything left. [Ed. note: refer to picture above.]
SJV: You also have a story featured in a new collection of short fiction called The Murder Files. In my personal experience, I’ve found murdering with files to be extremely difficult, no matter how raspy, so hat’s off right away. Can we get a teaser about the story?
CH: Murdering with files is tedious work. Also, it’s difficult to get the victim to stand still long enough to be filed to death. They always have things to do and people to see. Not that I have personally filed anyone to death, of course, although if you happen to know of a good file wholesaler, pass my info along, would ya? The story is about a guy who has tried to go straight, but gets drawn back in by an “offer he can’t refuse.” Yeah, I know. It’s been done. But there’s a twist at the end that I think makes it interesting.
SJV: Alright, let’s move to some slightly broader questions. Many of the folks who follow my blog are writers, and I’m sure they’d be interested in hearing some of your thoughts on the craft itself. Let’s start with a fun topic: writing locations. Having followed you on Facebook for several years, I know that you often write in locations other than home, coffee houses, cafés, even the occasional library, (which is where much of my work gets done). Where is your favorite place to write?
CH: I do most of my writing in libraries, especially libraries with study rooms. Study rooms are great, because it keeps the plebes away. And I get fewer angry looks when I burst into loud guffaws at some particularly clever scene I just wrote.
SJV: If you get one with windows they can gawk at you, and enterprising librarians can put a sign outside that says: “American Author: Endangered Species.” Do you have a ritual you go through to prepare for a writing session? In my case I usually crack open a beer, put some jazz on the stereo, and if I’m feeling particularly frisky I light some incense to get the juices flowing. How about you?
CH: I don’t really have a ritual. And here’s why: I don’t always like the act of writing. Sometimes I do, but just as often I don’t. And I can ALWAYS find something else to do. The weight of “knowing” that I am going to write for 3-4 hours is often too heavy a burden for me, so I end up having to trick myself into writing. “Oh,” I tell myself, “I’m just going to open my laptop and check Facebook, maybe play a game.” Then I ease open Microsoft Word and before my mind can catch on, I dive into the manuscript. Having a ritual would tip off my brain that it’s going to be asked to do some actual work.
SJV: I know writers on both sides of this next question. Do you map out your books in detail before sitting down to actually write? Do you know everything that’s going to happen, or do you sometimes let yourself be surprised by the direction that a story takes?
CH: I pretty much always let myself be surprised. I’m not good at outlining full books in advance, although I wish I could because I think it would make the first draft a little easier to write. I sometimes outline two or three chapters ahead just to work out a plot twist, but that’s as far as it goes. I do, however, outline what I’ve already written. This helps me keep my place in the narrative, giving me a bird’s eye view of the work-in-progress so far and keeping me firmly within the timeline.
SJV: I’m a “let’s see what happens” writer also. It’s made for some genuinely fun surprises. Here’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while but was just too shy. In your award-winning first novel Becoming Moon, your main character remains unnamed throughout the book. Tell us your mindset there.
CH: It’s tough to answer that fully without giving away a key point. But I’ll try to answer without answering. In most books, the main character is, well, the main character. But in Becoming Moon, he’s not the story. Sure, things focus around him, but he’s more of a catalyst, more of a metaphor than an actual character (although he is real). Secondly, I didn’t want to name him because he goes through something of a transformation and, in a way, becomes somebody else. (If any of you have read the book, you probably know what I’m talking about.) And, finally, I didn’t feel it was important to name him. In Moon, I tried to strip things down as far as I could. I don’t believe there is a single scene I could remove without scarring the landscape of the narrative; they all mean something. By not naming the character, I hoped to remove any distraction that might provide, while at the same time allowing him to stand in for a broad reading populace. In other words, this unnamed character could be anyone: you, me…anyone.
SJV: There’s a young writer in my local writer’s group who is very focused on character names. When I began reading my first novel A Dark Clock to the group he frequently asked questions like “Why did you choose that name,” or “Does that name mean something?” How do you feel about naming your characters? Do you put a lot of thought into it?
CH: It depends on the character. If it’s a throwaway character, then, no. I don’t put a lot of thought into it. With Shelby, I did spend more time mulling over name combinations. I try not to get too symbolic with names, because it can quickly become tedious. For main characters, I like choosing good, solid names, sometimes with a twist. An exception is the villain in Serenity Avenged: Darkmore. But mostly, I like to keep things basic. Two reasons. First, this series is firmly rooted in reality, so outrageous names would be difficult to pull off. Second, when I use a more unusual name, I want it to stand out. Which it wouldn’t if everyone had an equally goofy name. Now, in other genres this might work differently. Fantasy, for example, is known for its character names. You might not be able to just name someone Bob and be done with it. (Although I think that would be hilarious and awesome.) I will say this: once I hit on a name, it often will “feel” right. I won’t be able to explain why—it just does. So I go with my gut.
SJV: Totally introducing a Bob into my next Quadar book! And yeah, I dug the name Darkmore. It worked perfectly. Now, we’ve discussed this before privately, but I’d like for the readers to hear your explanation. In the first Shelby Alexander book, Serenity there was a character named Scott, who spends the entire book in prison. Have you realized how huge a mistake this was? Obviously with a name like that he should have been a far more central figure. Just sayin’.
CH: Yeah, so, you’re totally the guy in prison. Named him after you, waited to see if you’d notice. You noticed. And, yes. I now see it was a horrid mistake. I should have named this the Scott Varengo series and coughed up the royalties. Or maybe I could have named it the Scoot Varongee series and skated by on legal thin ice. Ah, well. It’s out in the great big world now. Too late!
SJV: You’re a stay-at-home father of twin toddler boys, and yet you still speak in coherent sentences. Kudos, and how has being a dad affected your writing?
CH: I don’t speak in coherent sentences, but so far I still write in semi-coherent sentences. Being a dad has been both the best and the worst thing for my writing. It has severely limited my writing time, not to mention my ability to focus on, well, anything more than episodes of old sitcoms. On the other hand, it has forced me to prioritize and ratchet up the efficiency in terms of how I use the time I have. The tough times have, I think, made me a better and more effective writer, but I still resent it.
SJV: You and I are both huge fans of the noir detective genre, and a while back you and our mutual “friend” Paul Brand wrote a very funny satirical take on the genre called A Stark and Stormy Night, a copy of which you guys were kind enough to sign and send to me, and which I probably still have somewhere. Any plans to explore that world again?
CH: Maybe! We’ve discussed it. The issue is that each project takes a good deal of effort and some hard, cold cash to get out into the world. And the market for Stark was small. Which is a positive spin on the fact that it didn’t sell very well. I’m proud of the project and would love to go in on another, but it has fallen down the ladder of priorities for now.
SJV: Related, any plans to work with Paul again, despite your deep, abiding hatred for one another?
CH: I plan to work very hard on continuing to hate Paul. And, yeah! I love working with Paul, because he is one of the rare people one can work with and not go Stark Raving mad (see what I did there?). I’ll work with Paul anytime, anywhere, anyhow, anyone, anyhoo. And, yes, he’s a horrid, horrid man. God, I hope he reads this.
SJV: Iffy. Pretty sure the only thing of mine he reads are the praise-heaping comments I add to his Facebook posts. I’m not going to ask you who your favorite current author is because I’d have to blush when you reveal that it’s me, so who’s your all-time favorite? Oh, wait. That’s me too. How can I frame this question so that the answer isn’t me? I know! Who’s your SECOND favorite author of all time?
CH: It’s still you, because you’re just that great. If we were to assume (shudder) that you did not exist in the writing world, however, I…well, I don’t know. I’m not sure I have a favorite author anymore. I love several for different reasons. I love Hemingway (I know, such a cliché) because he was the first to begin teaching me how to pare things down to their essence. I love Alistair MacLean because he wrote kickass books that were also clever and amusing. I love Jim Harrison because he beautifully wrote about Michigan and provided the basis for my character Nigel Moon. And there are a ton more.
SJV: Alright, it’s time to get to the issue we discussed when I asked you to do this interview, which is your being a person of interest in several sexual assault cases involving dolphins. I guess the burning question is where in Iowa are you finding all these dolphins?
CH: I realize I was going to use this forum to come clean on this issue, but on advice of my lawyers, I have decided to deny these defamatory charges. Oh, and I have the dolphins shipped in from the coast.
SJV: [sighs] Fine! In that case, let me ask a serious question about Iowa. Why do you think the Iowa City area is such a hotbed for excellent writers, (Erik Therme and M.L. Williams to name just two)? You guys have signing events where the number of writers rivals the number of attendees! What’s the secret? Is it something in the water? Dolphins maybe? Alright, the question got less serious just then, but really, why so many great writers in, frankly, such an unlikely place?
CH: Iowa City has a long literary history, due mostly to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a graduate level program at the University of Iowa, which is world-famous in both its students and instructors. Folks who have attended or taught at the Writers’ Workshop include Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, John Irving, John Gardner, Flannery O’Connor, and a ton of others. Iowa City is currently the only city in North America to be designated a City of Literature by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). As a result, it ends up being something of a flame to writer-moths.
SJV: Let’s wrap this up with three questions about the future.
#1: How far do you see the Serenity series going?
CH: As long as people keep reading them!
#2: Any other ideas percolating in that famously shiny head of yours? (For those of you who don’t know, Craig shaved his head on St. Baldrick’s day to benefit children’s cancer research).
CH: Oh, tons. But only a few are legal.
#3: And the question I always ask when discussing the future: Where the hell are our hoverboards? The real ones, I mean, not the burst-in-flames-and-consume-you-in-fire ones that they’re calling hoverboards.
CH: Paul ate them.
SJV: Knew it! Finally, the floor is yours. Any closing remarks for our readers? (And please don’t literally take the floor, as we’ll fall through into who knows what dark passage.)
CH: I feel I should have something profound to offer anyone who made it all the way to the end of this trainwreck, but I got nothin. Except, thanks for reading this interview, and go read Scott’s stuff!
.[Ed. note: I did not have to pay Craig to say that. Well, let me clarify: I didn’t have to pay any extra. It was covered in his stardard $10,000 interview fee.]