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Interview: Kevin Hearne on Still Life, Humor, and Hounded

Born and raised in Arizona, Kevin got hooked on superhero comic books at an early age. He felt that the reading primers about Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, were poorly plotted and featured flat, lifeless characters. Naturally, he wanted to read about heroic people in tights pummeling naughty people in tights—and he wanted them to keep up a steady patter of puns and make lots of references to back issues. Comic books were thirty-five cents back then and he got two dollars for his allowance. Life was awesome.

In later life, Kevin had an idea for a web comic featuring a Druid who could communicate mentally with animals, especially his own hound. Zuda.com was running a contest, and he scripted out eight pages and completed six of them before realizing that if he submitted his work, DC would own a piece of the characters, or maybe own them outright. He didn’t want that, because he liked these characters too much to share with anyone else. So he wrote a novel about Atticus and Oberon instead, and it turned out to be great fun and easier to write than anything else he’d tried before. He finished writing Hounded in eleven months, and still hadn’t heard back from the publisher about his epic fantasy. What the heck, he said, let’s try to get an agent with the urban fantasy.

The result was Hounded and its sequels Hexed and Hammered, all to be released on month after the other beginning in April and collectively called the Iron Druid Chronicles.


John Ottinger: Who is Kevin Hearne, and why should I care?

Kevin Hearne: Kevin Hearne is a man who is deeply uncomfortable writing about himself in third person, because (to paraphrase Master Yoda) once you start down the path to megalomania, forever will it dominate your destiny. So, if you don’t mind the shift to first person, I’m a middle-aged nerd raised on a diet of comic books and Hamburger Helper. I hold annual Star Wars and Lord o’ the Rings marathons and I know my Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart. And honestly you shouldn’t care about me, but I hope you might come to care about my characters. See, I wrote these books, and, um, now I get the feeling I probably should have started with that bit. Damn it, my PR dude is going to flay me with a special whip slathered in Tabasco. In an effort to reduce the number of lashes, let me mention quickly that I wrote three urban fantasy novels in two years and all three of ‘em are coming out back-to-back this year, starting in April with Hounded.

JO: What does Kevin do in the real world, and what is one little known fact about him completely irrelevant to his writer status?

KH: In the real world I teach high school English—at least, that’s what I do when I can get the kids to look up from their cell phones. And what people never suspect about me is my deep, existential fear of cauliflower. I’m sorry, but it looks like brains, and if you put ranch on it then it’s just brains dipped in fat. I see those white, vegetable cerebral cortexes sitting in congress on appetizer trays, and I just know they’re plotting against me.

JO: What’s the deal with the miniature dwarf painting?

KH: Well, I like painting models but I kind of suck at it. So as a signatory member of the Reduction of Unnecessary Suckage Treaty (RUST), I paint dwarfs to reduce the total area of suckage on display. But I also like the delicious redundancy of saying “miniature dwarf.”

JO: Where did the whole idea for Still Life series of blog posts for Writer’s Grove come from?

KH: The impetus for those came from my Art History classes back in college, where we looked at endless slides titled “Still Life with Three Apples” or with Sunflowers or Something Else Completely Boring. And the whole time I was thinking why didn’t anybody ever paint something awesome, like “Still Life with Lizard Skulls” or “Still Life with Jack Daniels and Mary Jane.” So once I started my blog and realized I had a chance to make still lifes a wee bit more fun, I just ran with it.

JO: What is the premise of The Iron Druid Chronicles?

KH: Gods have all the power you give them. (If you follow the many paths forking from that idea, watch out: one of them leads to solipsism.) Plus, sausage is tasty.

JO: What sparked your interest in Celtic myth and legend?

KH: Part of it was interest in my own Irish background, but oddly enough, I blame the largest part of it on Disney. My daughter was really taken in by Disney’s fairies a few years ago, and it drove me nuts to see this race of malevolent, seductive critters turned into benign, sexless airheads with dragonfly wings. I kind of got a bee in my bonnet and started researching it, and realized that much of the original Irish flavor of the Sidhe had been gradually stripped away and bowdlerized by the English or mixed up with other traditions, until we finally got to these tasteless and unrecognizable fairies spawned by a multinational corporation. Basically I wanted to show my kid what real faeries are—“No, the Fae are NOT the cute and unholy issue of an animation studio in California. They’re Irish, they’re powerful, and they’re not your friends.” The most surprising result of all this is that my daughter is a fairly well-adjusted individual.

JO: How much research did you do to make the story mythologically authentic with a modern twist?

KH: I knew I should have kept track. I honestly wish I had, now, just so I could type in a number of hours and say, “There you go.” But much of the material was absorbed over years of reading, and only the bits from the Irish ¬Fenian Cycle and all the juicy stuff about the Tuatha Dé Danann required the deep background.

JO: What are some of the books you would recommend for readers interested in finding out more about druids in particular or Celtic myth in general?

KH: Well, here’s the thing about Druids: they transmitted their teachings orally, and then they died. All historical records of them are therefore written by people who weren’t Druids, and in many cases were their active enemies (like Julius Caesar). This gives people (like me) a golden opportunity to Make Shit Up. But as a writer of fiction, that’s what I’m supposed to do. There are books out there on Druids that are also works of fiction but that pass themselves off as academically legitimate. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend any of them. If you’re looking for books on Druidry as practiced in the UK nowadays, there are plenty out there, but realize that the Druids of today are all Reformed or Reconstructed or Renewed or Whatever, and they readily admit (to their enormous credit) that they’ve invented a spiritual practice based on the few scraps of hard fact that have survived the centuries. I think the real Druids were fascinating (obviously) and I encourage people to learn more about them, but I think people should be extremely critical going in and always question the sources.

In terms of a good Celtic primer, you want this: MacKillop, James. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0192801201. Start there and dig deeper for anything that interests you. I personally would steer away from other Celtic dictionaries or encyclopedias.

JO: What made you think a Celtic druid would translate well into modern day Arizona?

KH: Well…I never really thought about it that way, precisely. Plopping Atticus down in Arizona was partly a matter of convenience for me, since I’m familiar with the area. But it was also a conscious decision because I’m a bit worn out with Seattle, L.A., Chicago and New York. Most urban fantasy that’s set in a real-world location is in one of those cities, and the amount of shit going on there by now is so incredible you almost wonder what happened to all the normal people. That’s part of the appeal of the Sookie Stackhouse novels for me; Louisiana is an exotic locale compared to the big four, which I’ve read about so much that it sometimes feels like going to work instead of escaping.

JO: In your novel, you have non-Celtic werewolves and vampires, and you include other mythologies in your universe as well. But I was wondering, are there analogues for some of the paranormal tropes in Celtic myth?

KH: Whoa. I’m flattered that you think I would know that. I’m really not an expert! But taking a completely uneducated swing at it, I’ve seen plenty of evidence in the belief of shapeshifting, but nothing regarding lycanthropy specifically. And I think most of the vampirism business came out of Eastern Europe and maybe Egypt. Within five minutes of you posting this interview, however, someone will make fun of me in the comments for suggesting such nonsense, and that’s cool, because I really don’t know.

JO: How is Atticus O’Sullivan different from all the other urban fantasy heroes out there?

KH: It’s actually a fairly small field—Butcher’s Harry Dresden, Strout’s Simon Canderous, Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant, um…I know there are a few more male protagonists in UF written by males, but I’m ashamed to say they escape me right now. Somebody’s probably going to tase me for that. But let’s see, the differences! Atticus isn’t involved in any sort of law enforcement; he avoids secret societies; he distrusts witches; he talks to gods; at 2,100, he’s older than any other UF character; and just to prove that it can happen to a male protagonist, he gets laid.

JO: What kinds of villains does Atticus come up against, and was it difficult to write them?

KH: He faces off against witches & demons & some other critters, but the super-baddies in the series are gods. It starts out with the Irish ones, but it expands to the Norse, Greeks, and Romans. They’re all challenging to write, but they’re an amusing sort of challenge.

JO: There are several fight scenes in Hounded (and likely more in the sequels). What do you do to make your fight scenes both realistic and exciting?

KH: This is going to sound strange, but I swear it’s true—ask my editors! First, I pound a couple of beers for courage because I’m a pacifist and even thinking about a fight makes my spleen quail in terror. Then I turn on some speed metal for a jolt of aural adrenaline—usually the same four songs by Dragonforce—and that puts me in a completely different headspace where I’m ready to kill me some [bad guys]. At that point my years of reading comics pays off; I can visualize a fight pretty well thanks to artists like Ernie Chan and John Buscema. I get the basics all blocked in and then I go back and polish it up once I’m sober. I have found that there’s often way too much spittle in the early drafts.

JO: You include a pronunciation guide at the beginning of Hounded, yet also tell readers not to worry about getting the pronunciations right. Why include one at all then?

KH: Irish names and words can destroy an English speaker’s self esteem—it’s happened to me—and I was afraid they might scare some people away. The pronunciation guide was an attempt to make people a bit more comfortable with the world and show them that it’s not so bad if they’d like to give it a try. But at the same time, I want people to know that if they come up to me to talk about the sword Frag-a-RACK instead of Frag-a-RAH, I’m not going to be a dick and correct them. What matters to me is that they enjoy the story, not that they pronounce the words correctly. It’s fiction, for crying out loud, let’s have some fun here. If it’s fun for you to say everything just right, awesome, the guide is for you. If it’s fun for you to wing it, that’s awesome too, I’m going to be thrilled that you read my book no matter how you say “Siodhachan.”

JO: Your books are being released successively, one each month for three months. How is that possible?

KH: I actually wrote Hounded two years ago. Then, once my agent sold it and Del Rey said they’d like to see more, I wrote two sequels in less than a year (Hexed in five months, Hammered in six). It’s been a looong wait to see my first book come out, but I’m going to be going crazy with three out in three months.

JO: Humor seems to just pour out of you, from your blog, to your books, to (I suspect) your personal life. What makes you funny, and why do your incorporate it in your writing?

Oh…shit. I’m not sure where the humor comes from. If this was Rolling Stone I’d probably dredge up family history and explain it all as an elaborate coping mechanism for some kind of childhood trauma. But as far as why I incorporate it into my writing, well, I actually have the opposite problem. When I try to write serious things, people tell me to stop goofing around. I’ll never forget this professor in college who gave me a B minus on a paper because he didn’t like my lighthearted treatment of Aeschylus—he called it “frivolous”—and I was like, “DUDE!” (which endeared me to him no end). “I was totally being serious!” He didn’t believe me. So here we go again. Hounded was (and is) my sincere attempt to write a book that kicks ass, but it wound up being far funnier than I intended—so much so that there was some discussion of marketing it like a humorous fantasy. Most people who have read it tell me first how funny it is—and I’m glad!—but then they don’t say anything else and I wonder if they noticed all the parts where people died and shit got real. I drank a lot of beer and listened to a lot of speed metal to make those parts happen. That was hard work, and I’m searching for some validation here. Luckily, my editor gets me. She says my book is kickass and funny, not funny and kickass.

JO: Prove it. Tell us a joke.

KH: Arrggh. I admire people who can tell jokes well, because I have trouble remembering them and I’ve always bungled the few I’ve tried. But if we sit down and talk for a bit, perhaps I will spontaneously crack wise about something.

JO: Who (or what) are your greatest writerly (and not so writerly) influences?

KH: For me, the giants of American lit are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ken Kesey. I know that the latter isn’t commonly held to be a giant, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not only a brilliant book in my opinion but a truly important one. In terms of influence, I’ve gotta say Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman. Outside of writing, certain music helps me write. Yngwie Malmsteen’s Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar works for me.

JO: What exactly makes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing “unparalleled”?

KH: That would be his diction and the poetic techniques embedded in his prose. “Yellow cocktail music”—I love that. Some of the imagery is so tactile in my head that reading it is like stroking a piece of crushed velvet.

JO: Where can my readers find you online?

KH: The website is www.kevinhearne.com, and the blog, Writer’s Grove, is part of that; there’s a link at the top of the home page. I have an author page on Facebook and you can “like” me there; you can follow me on Twitter @kevinhearne; and I’m also on Goodreads and Shelfari.

JO: Thanks for your time!

KH: Thanks for the great questions!