I’m joined by Glen Hirshberg, the author of Motherless Child, a book I really enjoyed. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became a writer?
I’m pretty sure I was born a writer. My parents have a 90 minute cassette of me telling stories—actually, one story, about my just-born little brother (the villain of this particular piece) and a superhero who may or may not be a whale—from when I was two or three years old. I grew up mostly in Detroit. My mother was a psychologist, my father a designer and painter, and I think their influence still resonates through everything I write. I can’t draw a straight line, but I love painting with the language, and what interests me most in stories, even the spooky ones, is the way people respond to and discover one another as their lives unfold or unravel.
What was your inspiration behind Motherless Child?
This is the vampire novel I never expected to write. At its heart are two young single moms who have a terrible encounter, during a rare night out, with a musician known only as the Whistler. Terrified of what they already sense they are becoming as a result, the women leave their children and flee down the back roads of the Deep South. But neither motherhood nor the Whistler (and his Mother) prove so easy to outrun.
This one was inspired by all kinds of things: the profound impression the South left on me during the few years I lived there; the whistling loneliness at the heart of most transcendent American rock-and-roll and soul music; being a father. Most of all, though, the book was inspired by the two women at the heart of it, who just moved into my head one day and wouldn’t shut up until I got them down on paper.
Of all your works, which is your favorite and why?
If I really don’t like something I’ve written—and without question, that happens—I won’t publish it, so everything I’ve put out is something I at least hope and believe is decent. And this is always such a hard question for me to answer. There are books for which I’m grateful—like Motherless Child—because they came so surprisingly easily. There are books for which I’m grateful—The Book of Bunk comes immediately to mind—that I love because they were so hard, and made me fight so fiercely to find my way through them. There are pieces I have affection for because they feel true to me or the me I was at the moment I was writing them (like the story “The Two Sams”), and pieces I appreciate because they feel nothing like me at all (both of the “Book Depositorty” stories I’ve completed so far feature characters whose outlook is about as far from my own as I could imagine at the time).
Mostly, I just keep trying to hold myself to the standard of never publishing anything that I couldn’t imagine being somebody’s favorite, someday.
Who are your favorite authors and which of their books mean the most to you?
This is another one of those questions that I feel like I might answer differently ten minutes from now. I love Kipling, for the sheer virtuosity and range of his storytelling, Shirley Jackson, for the sustained sense of menace and devastating psychological acuity, Ramsey Campbell, for the variety and majesty of his spellcasting. Recently, I’ve been hugely impressed by Tan Twan Eng’s luminous, layered, magisterial Garden of Evening Mists, by Ann-Marie Macdonald’s jaw-dropping ambition and propulsive intensity, by Colin Cotterill’s lightness of touch and enfolding of a very Eastern sense of the supernatural into what seems, at first, like straight-up historical detective fiction. But in the end, I always come back to Robert Louis Stevenson for the charm of his voice and the generosity of his spirit (and his pirates, and those foggy, monstrous streets). And if I had to pick one book by him, it would probably be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is so much more about the nature of identity than it is about good and evil, and so much more nuanced and subtle and scary in its parsing of human behavior than people typically remember or give it credit for. And it’s all of those things while still being a delicious, spooky, fog-bound monster/ghost tale, full of people worth knowing in situations worth remembering.
What is the most disturbing book you’ve read?
There are so many. Again. But for lasting, sleep-gnawing upset, I think I’d probably go with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, less for its (truly horrific) horror sequences or the nuanced tragedy of its ending or even the wistful, doomed relationship at its heart than for its pervasive sense of resignation. Unlike almost every other post-apocalyptic anything I’ve read, that book feels less like a warning or an adolescent fantasy than a sigh. And it’s the nature of that sigh that just keeps getting at me. It’s the sigh that comes not because one knows something is coming, but because one knows that whatever it is has already happened.
What is your favorite horror movie?
So, so many. This is almost an impossible question for me. But you asked about “favorite” rather than best or scariest, so I think I’ll go with either the original John Carpenter “The Fog,” which made me fall all the way into love with ghost story telling, ghost story atmosphere, lighthouses in fog, and static-riddled radio in the middle of the night, or else one of the Val Lewton’s—probably “I Walked With a Zombie” or “Cat People”—for very similar reasons.
What scares you?
Loss and grief. They are probably the most universal experiences of our conscious lives, and the ways we process, deal with, confront, or submerge them exert such a huge influence over who we are and what we think of our days. I hate having lost people I love so deeply. I dread losing more. And I love having known and loved those people. And I keep finding more people whose absence I can’t help dreading. And I suspect I will go on doing that until the day I become someone else’s absence…
Are there any themes or horror sub-genres that you’d like to explore with future stories?
I’m sure there are. But I won’t know them until I get there.
Thanks for the interview, Glen.