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Interview With an Author: Shaun Hamill

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Shaun Hamill and his first novel, A Cosmology of Monsters

Shaun Hamill is a native of Arlington, Texas. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in the dark woods of Alabama with his wife, his in-laws, and his dog. A Cosmology of Monsters is his first novel and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Cosmology of Monsters?

I’d always wanted to write a novel about a family running a business, and I’d spent a lot of time in my 20s going to haunted houses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (always with friends—I could never go alone!). In the fall of 2014, when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, terribly homesick for Texas and trying to come up with an idea for my thesis project, my long-gestating family tale joined hands with my happy haunted house memories, and I envisioned a novel that I hadn’t read before—something brand-new, a tale that could speak to real issues; mental illness, family bonds, poverty, etc, but also my deep love of genre storytelling (monsters, generational curses, supernatural events).

Are Noah, Harry, Margaret, Sydney, Eunice, or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Noah and I are the same age, and share a lot of the same specifics—we both grew up in a suburb of Fort Worth, lived in a house full of women, were weird little kids obsessed with costumes, etc.—but we’re not the same person by any stretch. The other characters are all assembled piecemeal—some bits I took from life, and other bits were shaped by the needs of the story. Considering how dark the story gets, and how flawed the characters are, I needed the freedom not to worry what a real-life counterpart might think of any given moment in the story.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The novel was originally meant to be a more traditional family saga, like the novels of John Irving or Meg Wolitzer—a tragicomic epic spanning generations. It was meant to be a love letter to horror without containing any supernatural elements, but as I wrote the story, the monsters started scratching at the windows and walls, and I thought it best to let them in and make them comfortable.

My first draft was a door stopper at 220,000 words (for comparison, the published version is 100,000 words). It was a much more detailed, slower-paced story. The mythology in that draft was a lot more explicit and spelled out, and Noah was a somewhat darker, less sympathetic character. My agent didn’t think an epic horror novel from a debut writer would be an easy sell, so he and I worked to winnow the narrative down to a more manageable, propulsive length. After we sold the book, my editors and I also had a lot of conversations about the mythology of the book, how much to explain and how much to leave mysterious. I’m very happy with the end results—I think the story moves at a good clip and hopefully creates an air of dread without getting bogged down in worldbuilding. So while I did excise things I loved during the revision and editing process, I wouldn’t say I miss them, per se. The way I see it, I have material for a sequel, should the book prove successful!

As becomes clear in your novel, Haunted Houses/Mazes can vary in terms of both subject matter and quality. What is the best Haunted House/Maze you’ve ever experienced? The worst or most disappointing? How did those experiences influence A Cosmology of Monsters?

The best haunted experience I ever had was a “zombie run” I participated in at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. The organizers turned the local stadium into an obstacle course full of actors in zombie makeup and you had to try and get through the whole thing without getting “infected” (i.e. touched by a zombie). Even though the event it took place in broad daylight, it was an intense experience. Even now, typing this, I’m shocked at how real it felt.

As for the worst, I remember visiting an attraction that was going for more of a trippy Alice in Wonderland vibe. Everything was neon and blacklights. I loved the idea of trying to recreate a psychedelic experience for a general audience, but the end result just didn’t work. It was gaudy and boring instead of vivid and unsettling.

I think both experiences shaped A Cosmology of Monsters, because they’re excellent examples of how ideas can translate to the real world. I think both ideas—zombie run and psychedelic maze—are perfectly good, but one worked in execution and the other didn’t. It sort of showed me the gamut and informed the ethos of the Turner family as their own haunted house evolved.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison: A collection of horror stories recommended by Stephen King way back in the 1980s. It was out of print for a while, but it’s available as an ebook now, and I’m digging it quite a bit!

Head-Broken and Heartbroken by Eddie Generous: Eddie is the editor of Unnerving magazine and the host of the Unnerving Podcast. This is a collection of some of his short stories, and is a lot of fun so far.

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter: I’ve been listening to this audiobook on my commute and at the gym. It’s sort of a mash-up of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy, a western about three criminals hired to rescue a young boy from a cult—and how they run into something much worse than they bargained for.

The Return by Rachel Harrison: I recently scored an ARC of this debut novel, and I think it’s going to be a big deal when it hits shelves next March. It tells the story of four college friends who reunite for a girls’ weekend at a remote hotel in the Catskills—only to find out that one of their numbers is no longer the person they knew. I’ve been unfocused and scatterbrained getting ready for Cosmology’s release, and all I really want is some peace and quiet to sit down and finish this wonderful read.

Ghost Summer by Tananarive Rue: A haunting, beautiful collection by one of the best, most underrated horror writers working today. This is the one I plan to read over Halloween itself.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell (the whole series was on constant rotation in my grade school reading).

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

A Cosmology of Monsters. I’ve managed to keep it from them so far, but I think they might be onto me now. Do me a favor—if they stop by, you never saw me.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Stephen King mixes incredible character work with page-turning suspense. I’ve read IT at least 4 times and I’m still amazed by its heart and sophistication. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the King renaissance in the last few years, and finding out that pretty much everyone my age has loved him from childhood on forward.

Anne Rice has a gift for narrating from a villain’s point of view, making reprehensible behavior sympathetic. Her Vampire Chronicles and Lives of the Mayfair Witches are great studies in moral complexity, and did a lot to shape me as a young thinker and theologian.

John Irving builds entire worlds. I love his intimate, tragicomic epics, charting his characters across a lifetime. His work taught me how to paint on a canvas at once large and small.

Lorrie Moore’s short stories were given to me by my favorite creative writing teacher in college and taught me how to pay attention to the big implications of small moments. Not every story needs bombast. Sometimes the most heartbreaking moments in life are pretty low-key, and nobody captures this better than Lorrie Moore.

Michael Chabon’s novels are undeniably fun. I wanted to go to an MFA program because I hoped it would be a manic adventure like Wonder Boys. It wasn’t, but it's his sense of literary play that I chase whenever I sit down to write.

What is a book you've faked reading?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I have conquered other Faulkner novels in the meantime, so I hope to give it another try someday, when not pressed by deadlines and exams.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. A lonesome highway beneath a stormy sky. A bolt of lightning on the horizon. That simple, declarative title. It’s a cover that makes an incredible promise of something mythic and modern. Luckily the story behind the cover keeps the promise, but it would have been worthwhile for the cover alone.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti. A couple of years ago Penguin put together an omnibus of Ligotti’s first two short story collections, and reading it in the summer of 2016 helped me find my way to the end of my own novel. Ligotti gives you the feeling of peering into forbidden texts and dark dimensions, finding the true world beyond the veil. It’s creepy, weird fiction at its finest. I read this book about once or twice a year now.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

My friend Claire Lombardo just published a novel called The Most Fun We Ever Had, a family saga that does exactly what I originally set out to do with, Cosmology. It’s a big, beautiful, funny page-turner, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

That’s tricky, because most books I love are rooted to specific moments in my life, and I wouldn’t want to lose those memories. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind forgetting my original experience reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I brought with me to a series of unpleasant dentist trips in early 2009. It would be wonderful to read that book for the first time without hearing the whine of a drill or feeling fat-mouthed after a novocaine injection.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My perfect day is pretty tame—I’d wake up mid-morning and the weather would be awful (lots of snow or rain and thunder). The house would already be stocked with plenty of coffee and hot chocolate and good things to eat. I’d make coffee, drink it, write for a couple of hours, and then hang out with my wife. We’d read all day, curled up under blankets on the couch, and then binge-watch TV shows and play video games all night. We’d touch our phones less than half a dozen times each.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Q: What’s a discontinued Halloween food product do you wish they would bring back?

A: I love the monster cereals—Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry—but I wish they’d bring back Frute Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy. General Mills did a limited revival of the latter two in 2013, but they haven’t done it again.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the early stages with a new novel. I can’t say much, because it’s still new and amorphous, but I’m excited about it. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share sooner rather than later!