January 16, 2017

The Rhodes Less Traveled: an interview with J. Kent Messum, author of "Husk"

From award-winning author J. Kent Messum, a serial killer thriller for fans of The Straw Men and The Shining Girls.


For a lucky few, death is merely an inconvenience. With the help of technology the mind can survive long after a body has been laid to rest. This afterlife, however, is far from paradise...


Rhodes is a 'Husk'. It's an illegal, controversial and highly lucrative job - renting out control of his body and mind to the highest bidder. It's a sure way to gain a better life, but some clients go too far. Sometimes, he wakes up with scars.


Then the visions start - terrible sights that haunt his waking hours. They could be dreams, or they could be something far worse - they just might be memories ...

What was the impetus behind Husk?

I think writing Husk was the next logical step for me. My first novel 'Bait' was a gritty piece of pulp(ish) fiction; a fast, nasty little read about stranded heroin addicts. For my second novel I wanted to write something a bit longer that was more intricate and had more depth. Basically, I wanted to better my storytelling on all fronts. Husk was a big idea; speculative fiction that raised a lot of difficult questions and covered a lot of ground. The concept alone spurned me on as I found it increasingly captivating the more I worked on it.

How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

At times the research process gets slow and heavy because I strive to make my stories airtight. I've got a certain inventiveness, which is an asset, but I have to be careful not to slip into simply 'making stuff up' for the sake of the story. Whatever you create fiction, it needs to be based in reality for readers to receive it well. Even the fantastical still has to be supported in ways that are believable and accessible.

The internet, of course, is a godsend for research. But among all that easily accessible information is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news as well. I've learned not take anything at face value. Be discerning and constantly cross-reference your research. There's plenty of false or incomplete data paraded as fact that can make you look like a fool later if you're not careful.

Along with that research, was there anything that stood out as particularly intriguing but couldn't find a place for it in your novel?

There is always the temptation to explore a lot of different avenues in a novel. Unfortunately, there is also a risk of wandering too far from the story. Writers are in constant danger of getting lost, and I'm no exception. You have to pick your path and plan your route. I always have too many ideas that I want to put in a book, but it really depends on whether the story is the right vehicle for them. A lot of cool stuff eventually ends up on the cutting room floor because they're not the right fit contextually.

Was it tricky writing a near-future novel, as far as some aspect of it becoming dated before it's actually published?

It was definitely was. I allowed myself some wiggle room by not actually stating what date the story takes place in (it could be ten years from now, or it could be twenty-five). However, I'm one of those people that believe the more things change the more they stay the same. So, the trick was to strike a balance; create a fictional near-future that was sci-fi enough, while at the same time convincing readers this world could already be here.

With this being your sophomore novel, did you feel any pressure following up your debut novel, Bait?

My intention is to constantly better and better work, so there's always a bit of pressure personally to outdo myself. Exterior pressures are more prevalent though. The publishing game is growing increasingly corporate; book sales and shareholder satisfaction becoming the only priorities, often leaving authors out in the cold. The business is constantly riding on the coattails of trends and fads too. For instance, there's pressure on authors to make trilogies and quadrilogies (even a series that continues indefinitely) all the time now. I'm not that kind of author. My ideas are largely one-offs and I prefer the idea of a good solid stand-alone novel over these series featuring the same characters over and over again.

And there is plenty of pressure to copy what's currently popular. Honestly, the big joke among authors right now is: If you want your book to have a better chance at success, simply put the word 'Girl', 'Bone', or 'Dark' in the title. I think I'll just call my next novel "The Girl Who Got Boned In The Dark".

Who do you count among your writing influences?

I've got a small and selective list of authors I admire and try to emulate. They are, in no particular order, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Thom Jones, Dennis Johnson, Stewart O'Nan, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, and Craig Davidson.

How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Probably not as much as other authors. Personally, I see setting as the canvas used in the creation, maybe even the glue that holds a good story in place. It's largely background to me, a support structure that needs to hold the weight of every page, though that doesn't mean its importance is diminished in the slightest.

What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is a piece of advice I can't stand. There's this current belief that "work" is some kind of dirty word, that pursuing your passion should feel effortless and enjoyable all the time. I believe that's total and utter crap. Even if you love something, making progress with it should still feel like hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears produces the best art in my opinion.

For specific 'writing' advice, I'm sick of hearing about the importance of maintaining a proper writing schedule. Although it's important to clock in the hours, I don't think a regimented schedule is necessary. There is no 'correct method'. Do whatever works for you. Personally, I'm a night owl and often stay up all night to write. Don't think you have to adhere to a system or strategy that someone else deems necessary.

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

I like books with no bullshit. Pacey, compelling storytelling with few words wasted really gets my attention. Generally, I lean toward the dark and gritty, authors who don't shy away from tackling the hard stuff. I'm quite a fan of war stories and any fiction that pushes the envelope. There's a real lack of originality in the majority of publishing these days, and I'm always seeking out that which is new and interesting.

What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

I'm currently wrapping up work on my third and fourth novels. They're both stand-alone books in the thriller genre, but are poles apart in subject matter. One deals with a newly discovered species that becomes an unexpected addiction in Los Angeles, and the other is about a young boy's disturbing relationship with a haunted tree. Hopefully one of them will be out later this year with the other soon to follow. I keep folks posted on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.


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