[Interview] Harry Hughes, author of ‘The Bait Shack’


Harry Hughes is an award winning song writer, a professor of psychology and an author.

His first novel, The Bait Shack was published by BeWrite Books in October 2008.

Hughes is also the subject of the National Book Critics Circle Award nominated book, Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America (Harper Collins Press, 1992), by Donald Katz.

In this email interview, Harry Hughes talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

In 7th grade, at the age of 12, I was struck by a desire to both read and write fiction. The book that started it all for me was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. But the writer who really grabbed me and refused to let go was Edgar Allan Poe.

My father had bought me an LP record on the Vanguard label of Nelson Olmstead reading six highly abridged stories by Poe. I played it so many times that my parents were on the verge of breaking it over my head.

I then staring reading Poe’s works at full-throttle. Still 12 years old, I started writing short stories in dreadful penmanship on school notebook paper. Of course, they were terrible. They were speciously derivative of Poe, filled with gore but totally lacking in any sense of poetic prose. Yet, I persisted.

How would you describe the writing you are doing now?

Currently, I’m in a modern noir kind of groove that relies heavily on what I call the two eyes, irony and irreverence. But that could change.

I don’t write to a particular audience. But because I am of the so-called “baby-boomer” generation in the USA, the many references to that cohort’s culture in my works probably invite people of my age to be drawn to my fiction. But I certainly hope, that is not strictly the case. I, like most writers, would appreciate a wide readership.

What motivated you to write in this genre?

If I said that I wasn’t necessarily motivated to write in any genre, that would only be partly true. My personal experiences and favorite authors drew me to a style of writing that is best expressed in that genre, but I hope to expand.

Who influenced you most?

Almost everything I write derives from some personal experience, even if not directly. I believe firmly in the old adage, “Write what you know about.” When I violate that principle, I sense a palpable fakery in my work.

Without doubt, the two living authors who have most influenced me are Thomas McGuane and Don DeLillo, and other writers of the same generation who seem eager to shed the overly introspective style of the past’s great authors and instead pursue crisp narratives whose most salient feature is an underlying sense of irony and brooding menace. These authors seemed to be saying more with less words. And, I feel as though they are speaking directly to me.

My early Poe obsession did not carry over into my adult writing.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Quite honestly, my main concern is for my books to sell by the busload. Having said that, however, when my readers finish one of my works, I would like them to feel that the time spent doing so was well worth the effort.

No doubt, the biggest challenge is recruiting a loyal following in an age when cut and paste, word processing devices allow anybody, talented or not, to cobble a farrago of paragraphs that might qualify as a “novel” in the loosest interpretation of that word.

How do you deal with this?

There is only one way of dealing with that challenge that I can think of. Just keep plugging away. Try to make each book or story better than the last one.

Even if one spends a year writing something that turns out to be less than what one’s standards dictate, don’t try to get it published. Dump it or rewrite the thing.

Do you write everyday?

My ability to write fiction arrives in spurts. When I’m on a roll, then yes, I’m tapping away on the keyboard every day. But I cannot force inspiration. It needs to develop naturally, usually from an interesting event or idea that sort of pours through me instantly. Then I become a man possessed.

Books or stories need to end themselves. I once started a novel that I felt others would find very funny, but I couldn’t stretch the tale into a whole novel without diluting the humor, so the work became an 81-page novella. If I had pushed it beyond its natural ending, the result would have amounted to an exercise in contrivance.

How many books have you written so far?

Before I seriously turned to writing fiction, I was a scientist (now I’m a college professor). So, I had been published only in hard-core science journals.

In 1998, Barbara Stone, editor of a monthly volume of short stories titled Hampton Shorts was looking for new material. I submitted “A River too Distant” and it was accepted for publication along with works by Joseph Heller and Albert Albee in Hampton Shorts, Volume 3, 1998.

My debut novel, The Bait Shack was published by BeWrite Books in October 2008.

How long did it take you to write The Bait Shack?

The first draft of The Bait Shack took nine weeks to complete. But multiple drafts of the manuscript followed until I felt it was publishable. Writing these subsequent drafts consumed much more time than the nine weeks of the first draft.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

I signed a contract with BeWrite Books on February 21, 2008.

BeWrite had been favorably referred to me by a very dear and close individual who had already published a novel with them. I find the BeWrite team to be amazingly supportive and have yet to come upon any regrets for signing with them.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book was most difficult?

As a first-time, unknown author, the most difficult aspect of the whole writing process was to find an agent even willing to consider the manuscript.

My spirits were lifted temporarily when a literary agency in Dallas, Texas (Karen Lewis & Company) liked the manuscript enough to take me on as a client. But, they couldn’t find a publisher for me.

Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised. I knew that the book still needed some serious revisions. After making those revisions, and knowing that I now had something of value to submit, I considered an e-publisher for the reasons stated above so as not to undergo the whole agent excavation project again.

What did you enjoy most?

The most enjoyable part of the writing process was creating a circuit that began with ideas, then choosing the right words to express them, then watching the words appear on the screen as I typed, then having these words feed back into my mind, which lastly created a visual “movie” of the book in my head as it went along. If you know you are on to something good, then the circuit I’ve just described results in a feeling like no other.

What will your next book be about?

My next book is already finished and ready to go. The title is Horseshoes, which is the novella that I spoke of above. With it are five (long) short stories, one of which is “A River Too Distant” that was published by Hampton Shorts as noted above.

Horseshoes is a comic novella about an aeronautical engineer’s mid-life crisis precipitated by one too many trips to the drawing board. His irrational fugue state carries him from East Hampton to Dallas to New York City with relentless irony shredding the seat of his pants.

How would you describe the other short stories in the collection?

In “Swoop”, two U.S. Marine combat veterans concoct an outrageous plan to keep a young surfer from being shipped to Viet Nam.

In “A Dollar Twenty-Five Per Mile”, a Long Island night-shift hacker eyes the beautiful day driver Althea from an immeasurable distance. One morning, he cashes in and drops to the back seat of her taxi. “California,” he tells her.

“A River Too Distant” is about an African-American repo man who reclaims the Honda Civic of a white southerner abruptly fired from his job at the lumberyard. But Duck and his chainsaw are ready for him.

“Hector’s Drunken Buddha” tells the story of an aimless, underachieving Latino who rediscovers his self-worth following a nightmarish weekend of migraine headaches, prescription drug abuse and the death of two close friends.

And in “Fry Cook”, a North Carolinian woman named Marnee tells the story of her otherwise gentle husband’s grotesque plan for revenge and its inevitable execution, an act that is both unnerving yet strangely reasonable.

More at Conversations with Writers.

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