An interview with the late Rick Hautala

Yesterday the world lost not one of it’s most talented writers but one it’s most kind and compassionate souls with the passing of Rick Hautala. With the permission of his wife Holly I am reposting this interview as my way of paying of respects. My hearts goes out to his friends, family, and loved ones during this very trying time.  I would also like to take this time to invite his peers to leave a comment or memory if they should wish in our comments section. ~Tina

All photos by Holly Newstein-Hautala

All photos by Holly Newstein-Hautala

Rick Hautala is without a doubt one of the best known names in the horror and speculative fiction genres. He has written over 30 novels and numerous short stories (with some of the stories appearing under the name A.J. Matthews). He graduated from the University of Maine with a Master’s degree in art in English literature. Rick is also a screenwriter. He was also a trustee and vice president of the Horror Writer’s Association. The book Occasional Demons, out now from CD Publications, features a collection of his short stories, enhanced by the artwork of Glenn Chadbourne.

You chose writing as way to vent your artistic cravings for art. Do you ever think you might try your hand as an artist? Why do you think you enjoy the work of N.C Wyeth as much as you do? What others artists appeal to you?

I like to make a distinction between being an “illustrator” or an “artist” the same way I distinguish between being a “writer” or an “author.” Writers and illustrators are the blue collar types who treat their art like a job.  They don’t wait for inspiration. They don’t like having written (or painted).They roll up their sleeves and get to work, assuming that when inspiration comes, it won’t do them any good if they’re not at the keyboard or easel.

So I have always been drawn to illustrators like Wyeth and Frazetta and Krenkel and so many others artists who tell a story in their painting or drawing, who have life and energy and flow. Sure, a still life or something surrealistic can be interesting and attractive, but I look for story everywhere. And I started writing when I realized that I could do with words what I struggled to do with paints.

I dabble in art from time to time, but I don’t see myself painting or drawing seriously in the near future. Sure. If someone pays a million dollars for a screenplay or something, I might take some time to paint, but until then, I’m more than satisfied working in the medium of words.

What was it like to write the screenplay for The Ugly File which was based on a short story by Ed Gorman? Are you a fan of his work?

I’ve known Ed for going on thirty years, now, and consider him one of my best friends in or out of the writing business. And yes, I’m a huge fan of his work. He’s a versatile writer who can slide smoothly between genres or mix genres without mucking things up. Anyone who hasn’t discovered his work is missing out on some of the best writing being done today. When Mark optioned the story The Ugly File, I was at first intimidated. I didn’t want to screw with Ed’s work, but the demands of screenplay writing were such that I had to change things around some. I was (understandably) nervous about Ed’s reaction, but Ed’s a pro and understands that book and script are two different media, and they have their own demands. He was totally accepting of the changes I made to the story, and I’m proud to have my name associated with him.

You also write short stories. Is there any one of them that stands out most in your mind? Would you rather write those or novels?

Given a choice, I would rather write screenplays. I don’t know what it is about them, but they seem to roll out of my mind a lot easier than a short story or novel. All writing takes effort. Don’t misunderstand. But we’re also “playing” when we write. If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. If you don’t have fun writing, how can you expect your readers to have fun reading your work?

When ideas come, it’s usually because I’ve been thinking, Okay, now I have to come up with a new idea for a book or story or movie. I use short stories to exercise my voice and style (whatever that means!). I take more chances in short stories first, so then maybe I can use what I learned in a novel. Does that make sense?

I’ll always write stories, novels, and scripts. It’s what I thrive on.

Why do you think you do most of your writing in the horror and speculative fiction genres?

My mind tends toward the dark side of things. I’m not sure why. Just the way I am, I guess. Some people regard me as cynical and depressed, but I don’t see myself that way. I honestly don’t. I think, if anything, I’m a frustrated romantic who really does want to see the best of life, the positive aspects of people, but the world and nighttime prove me wrong all the time.

The light casts shadows, and I’ve always been drawn to the shadows, the things at the edges of our awareness.

Did you have a favorite scary tale as a child?

I used to scare myself silly, reading stories and seeing movies I probably shouldn’t have seen. One movie that scared the be-jezus out of me was Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Don’t laugh until you see it as an adult. The whole banshee thing, and the ride in the Death Coach were too intense for me, and I loved it! Of course, now that I write it’s like a magician who can see how another magician is doing the tricks. It takes a lot of skill to draw me into a story so much I shut off my critical thinking. I get frustrated that I read like a writer now, analyzing story and character and style as I go. It’s sad, to me, that I don’t get lost in the story the way I did as a child. I haven’t lost my sense of wonder, but it takes a helluva writer, like James Lee Burke or Harry Shannon, to make me forget I’m holding a book and reading. I love slipping into someone else’s world, but more often than not, I’m busy creating my own worlds for readers to slip into.

All photos by Holly Newstein-Hautala

You have said when you finished writing Over the Top and read it you cried because it made you feel and remember. Can you elaborate on that? What is it like to write a story that just gets to you?

Well, after I had written Over the Top, I knew it was a cool enough story, but it took a friend of mine, Chris Golden, to read it and tell me it was clearly about my empty nest feelings when Matti, my youngest, first went off to college. The story deals with having to let go of the thing you love the most, knowing it will never be the same when (and if!) it comes back to you. When it comes to raising kids, there’s a point where you have to let go. And that’s hard. You spend your adult life, trying to protect and nurture your kids, and then they grow up and you can’t do that anymore. You can be there for them, but you can’t protect them from this son-of-a-bitch of a world. So Over the Top dealt with that in, I hope, an effective way, but when I wrote it, I honestly didn’t know what I was writing about. I thought I was just telling a story.

What made you decide to use a holographic cover for Night Stone? Was it nice at the time to have one of the first holographic covers grace your work?

The hologram wasn’t my idea. It was marketing at the publishing house that decided to do that. It was nice, in the sense that the gimmick sold a ton of books, over a million copies. (I wish I had those numbers with my other books!) So yeah, it was cool, but my publisher began to treat Night Stone like it was only the cover that was important, that people were buying the book because of the cover, not my story. So (like all of life to me) the experience was bittersweet. When Little Brothers, the follow-up book without a hologram, didn’t sell anywhere near as well, the publisher lost interest in promoting my work, and things started going downhill after that.

Where does your inspiration come from do you think?

Inspiration comes from everywhere, but the key is asking the old chestnut question “What if?” Of course, I pay attention to my dreams, and I spitball all the time, tossing ideas around in my head and talking  to people, but ideas aren’t so hard to get. They’re everywhere. It’s developing them enough and letting them grow so you know you will have enough for a story or a novel or a screenplay that’s the trick. I read a lot, too, of course. All writers and aspiring writers should. But I’ve been told that I have a wild imagination. I don’t see it. I feel creatively inferior to writers like Chris Golden and Matt Costello and Stephen King and so many others. I consider myself someone who’s simply plodding (plotting) along.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with that?

I used to joke that I couldn’t afford to suffer from writer’s block. That’s what authors do. Writers say to hell with writer’s block and write! That’s what I try to do, too. Sure, there are days when the words don’t flow, but I stay with the computer (I work on a lap desk with a laptop in a Morris chair in the living room) until I get my quota (2,000 words) for the day. If it takes two hours, cool. I can go outside and smoke a cigar and read. If it takes eight hours, that’s fine, too. That’s what I’m there for, to do my damned job.

Also, I have so many ideas cooking at various stages of development that it usually becomes a simple matter of deciding what to do next and diving in.

Simple truth: Writers write. I can’t stand writers who hate writing but like having written. I enjoy the process. If anything, I suffer some postpartum depression after I finish a book or scripts.

What can your readers expect from the book Occasional Demons? Why did you decide to feature the artwork of Glenn Chadbourne in that?

Glenn’s the best artist going, and it wouldn’t be a story collection or novella from me if it didn’t have Glenn’s artwork. I joke with Glenn that my stories are included simply so there’s something separating the illustrations because no one could handle the intensity of seeing that much amazing artwork all at once. I gave Glenn his start with CD Publications when he illustrated Bedbugs, and I’m sticking with him. Don’t misunderstand. I think there are plenty of great artists working today. Cortney Skinner, Alan Clark, Keith Minnion, so many others, but Glenn seem to capture an essence of my stories that I dig seeing, so I’m sticking with him.

The book is a collection of stories ranging from my second published story to the most recent as of the delivery date. There’s a wide range of subjects and styles. Mostly, it’s me playing with idea and words.

Where did you come up with the idea for that title? Do you believe in Demons in any form?

I stole the title from the Jethro Tull song of the same title. The verse goes, “All kinds of animals come in here, occasional demons, too.” I like it because it hints at something subtle and sinister.

Do I believe in demons? No. Not literally. But I think there are psychological demons haunting us all. We’re equally devils and angels, each one of us. And my hope is, as a species, we listen to the angels more than the demons. I’m doing this interview a few days after the terrible shootings in Tucson, so well, you can imagine that my hopes for us are at a high point.

You have worked with or met a lot of great authors. What is the best advice any of them ever gave you? And who was it from?

There are so many things I’ve learned from so many people I hate to start listing them because 1) I’ll probably forget key ones and 2) this interview will turn into a book (if it hasn’t already, I gab so). Here are a few, but while I’ll attribute the author but paraphrase:

Kurt Vonnegut: Start as close to the end of the story as you possibly can

F. Paul Wilson: Have a terrific beginning and a great ending, and have them as close together as possible.

Harlan Ellison: Becoming a writer is easy. It’s staying a writer that’s hard.

William Relling: Always have your characters disagree, and have them answer a question with another question to keep the tension high.

Henry David Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Is that enough? Everyone has to find their own way with their writing. There is a lot of great advice out there, but there is a lot of harmful advice, too. Some writers, especially after they achieve success doing things their way, then treat their way of writing as the only way to write. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. Do what works for you and gets the story finished and into readers’ hands.

What advice would you offer aspiring writers in today’s tough market?

I’d give the same advice I gave when I was interviewed after my first novel was published. Work to develop a thick skin and sense of humor because you will need both. Learn basic vocabulary. If you don’t know the seven rules of comma usage, learn them; understand them. It amazes me that some writers don’t know what the four basic sentence types are and don’t know how to write and punctuate correctly. We have grammar for a reason, folks, to communicate.

See? There, I did it. I may have given some advice that may be as harmful as it is helpful, but bottom line, don’t be ignorant. Stupid can’t be helped. Ignorant can!

Ultimately, I’d like to write a ghost story where the ghost doesn’t appear, like The Haunting of Hill House, a story where the “haunting” is all inside the character’s head, or is it?

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to smoke a good cigar on my deck in the afternoon (yes, even in February if the sun’s out). I like to drink a good, hand-crafted beer (no more than one with supper). I enjoy making bread. I love drinking rum under a palm tree in the Caribbean (when can I retire to St. Kitts?). And I enjoy board and video games, but mostly I enjoy reading. I could read a book a day and not read everything I want to read. Fiction and non-fiction alike sweep me into other worlds, and I love it.

What one thing would most people be surprised to learn about you?

Wow! That’s a helluva question. Probably that I am a lot more sentimental than I appear. I cry or at least mist up easily. I think it’s from raising children and hoping they fare well in this nasty/beautiful world of ours. I cried when Lassie came home. I cried when Old Yeller had to be shot. I cried when Bambi’s mother was shot, at the end of Cujo and when I finished Beth Massie’s book Sineater. And I cry whenever there’s news about innocent people being killed or exploited by the vicious, evil people in the world. Yeah , I’m a romantic, sentimental (with emphasis on the mental) kind of guy.

You have a lot of projects on your plate right now. Which of them would you most like to tell your readers about at this time?

Mark Steensland and I were hired by Paradox entertainment to write a script of the Robert E. Howard story Pigeons from Hell. (Yeah, the guy who created Conan the Barbarian.) We’ve delivered the second draft, and I have fingers and toes crossed that this film will actually go into production. I think it would be a hit. Seriously. So if anyone has any influence on the production company, come on. Let’s make it happen.

For books, I have a mainstream novel titled The Cove which has not found a home after two years of circulating. It’s not genre. As I told my agent, it’s just a novel. People who read it say ten years ago, there would have been a bidding war for it, but now, all people want are James Patterson novels or franchise books. A lot of my memories of growing up in a small seacoast town went into the book, and it pains me no end that it hasn’t found a publisher. I’m not the most objective person when it comes to this book, but I think it would gather a large readership, given publication and the right kind of push, we’ll see.

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13 thoughts on “An interview with the late Rick Hautala

  1. […] Tina Hall: An Interview with the late Rick Hautala […]

  2. Angelabsurdist says:

    This is an excellent and lovely interview which captures Rick Hautala’s gentle soul. His comment that “writers and illustrators are blue collar types who treat their art like job” resonates with me. I’ve only read a couple of his books and I’m going to read more of his work. The photo is great. Thanks.

  3. Felt just like talking to Rick…great interview.

  4. Ian Ayres says:

    Rick Hautala is now truly “like a magician who can see how another magician is doing the tricks.” He has created many worlds for readers to slip into, and through these worlds he remains with us. In dark silence, his ghost light appears near the night stone — as cold whispers morph into mist, beyond the shroud, and he is missed — the wild man of winter wake, beckoning us to become moon walkers at twilight time.

    • Tina Hall says:

      Just a wonderful way to put it Ian. Thank you. Thank you all for taking the time to post your condolences. I am sure he would have loved to hear all of them:) Rest in peace Rick.

  5. Tina Hall says:

    For any of you who would like to offer help to Holly during this trying time you can find out how on Christopher Golden’s site at: http://christophergolden.blogspot.com/2013/03/if-you-want-to-help-holly-newstein.htm

  6. Love the baseball bat in the pic…we played,….until we couldn’t.

  7. Robert Brouhard says:

    I’m glad “The Cove” (now known as “Rough Winds”) finally found a home with Necon eBooks. One of his latest books, “Indian Summer,” really impressed me and I’m very happy that Glenn Chadbourne illustrated it. I’ve been dwelling too much in Rick’s death these last few days, and I’m really going to miss his stories and online presence.

  8. Paul Waters says:

    I feel like I’ve missed out on something phenomenal with Rick’s life and art and now want to seek it out. He sounds so brilliant, gentle, over flowing with creativity and with so much still untapped, a sad thing to think about now that he’s gone. Fantastic interview, Tina, and another great talent whose life and legacy you’ve introduced me to. God bless and give peace to Rick’s family, friends and fans around the world. RIP.

  9. Jack Jeffers says:

    Well done, Rick. Well done, Tina.

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