It’s no secret that I absolutely adored Hidden Things, by Doyce Testerman, so when he agreed to answer a few of my questions, I was thrilled! Also, thanks to Harper Voyager, I’ve got 2 copies of Hidden Things up for grabs, so check out the giveaway details at the bottom of the post!
Please welcome Doyce to the blog!
Doyce, you’ve been a writer for over a decade now, and your first novel, the wonderful Hidden Things, just came out! What was your inspiration for Hidden Things?
Honestly? It was a dare.
Several of my writerly, readerly friends were sitting around discussing our favorite and not-so-favorite books, and one of them mentioned how disappointing it was that there was no weird, magical, fantasy stuff set in the Midwest.
Then she blamed me for this, and told me that my next story needed to rectify this terrible oversight.
I protested, but she dared me.
She dared me.
After that, it was all over.
I’d been toying with the idea of someone whose best friend dies and then calls to ask her for help, but nothing had really gelled up to the point. Once I put it in the context of this other challenge, it became a story about grief and reluctant homecomings. Hidden Things seemed like a good name for creatures that lurk just out of sight, as well as all those little secrets you tuck away and try to forget.
That was basically my outline. After that, I just started writing.
How long did Hidden Things take you to write from start to finish?
Or… ten years.
I wrote the first draft, start to finish, in November of 2002. Revision followed, as it must, then another. Then finding an agent and working through the book with them. Then finding an editor and working through the book with them (twice)… and so on. Each of those editing passes were oases in a vast desert of Waiting Patiently For Replies. (I was, in retrospect, too patient, and have since learned the art of a good email nudge to keep things moving.)
(In the meantime, I wrote three other stories, and incorporated what I’d learned from those stories back into Hidden Things, so it wasn’t a total loss.)
Anyway: 30 days. Plus revisions.
What do you love most about writing fantasy?
I love what it lets us say about ourselves. A good story is about true things, even if it’s not about real things. Hidden Things is a good old road trip fantasy adventure, and you can read it that way and be done with it.
But it’s also about family, dealing with (or rejecting) change, losing those you love (via death or lots of other things that are almost worse), taking risks, and what you’re willing to give up of yourself to stay safe – at what point that crosses a line and you’re not you anymore. (Heck, at some annoyingly intellectual meta level, it’s even about Magical Realism in writing.)
I write fantasy – well, any genre, really – because I love the trappings; I love the wonder and whimsy of it. But at the same time I have to ground the story in real people with real lives, because otherwise wonder and whimsy is all it is, and ultimately that’s not enough.
(Then again, real people with real lives isn’t enough for me, either – without all the weird stuff, I’d get awfully bored.)
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Tolkien led me over to the SF/F section of my library. Then he showed me how world building was properly done (as he has for so many authors).
Ray Bradbury (in Farenheit 451), helped me understand that I wanted to write, and why. (I wrote about that, once.)
Roger Zelazny’s spare writing style and his no-nonsense writer’s work ethic had a profound effect on me (and, I hope, continues to do so).
Stephen King is my personal gold-standard for characterization, realistic dialogue, and (of course) writing anything genuinely creepy.
Neil Gaiman showed me you could write about magic without explaining every damned thing. He has a marvelously light touch, and everything he writes is a joy to read aloud – that’s not empty praise, as I consider a book’s ability to be read aloud the final quality test.
There are more (so many more), but those are the big ones.
Hidden Things certainly has plenty of magical components to it, and for me, invoked childlike wonder many times! What were some of your favorite books or authors as a child?
Shel Silverstein wrote a few books that I found when I was first really getting into reading, and have kept close at hand ever since – I don’t think you outgrow those.
The same can be said for A.A. Milne, especially some of the unintentionally creepier poems in Now We Are Six.
(Bonus Trivia: There were snippets of both Silverstein and Milne poems in early drafts of Hidden Things, but they unfortunately had to be sacrificed to the gods of copyright.)
What would be your elevator pitch for Hidden Things?
Oh, I was so bad at the elevator pitch for this book. Now, though, I’ve had some time to think about it, and I would say:
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, lost on a blacktop highway, with a Midwestern sunburn.
That’s a bit pat and easy, and certainly not what I set out to write, but I don’t think anyone who built their expectations from that pitch would be very disappointed.
If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
I get to cheat on this one and say The Hobbit, because I’m currently reading it with my seven-year-old daughter. It’s my (I think) eleventh time through, but if I let myself look at things through her eyes, it’s very like my first.
(This is, in my opinion, one of the many great rewards of having children.)
Hidden Things has a gorgeous cover! I couldn’t help but thinking you must have appeased the cover gods Have you ever bought a book just for the cover?
Thank you! Harper Collins actually asked for my input on the cover before they began work on it, and the designer managed something amazing in incorporating every one of my ideas while completely surpassing my wildest hopes.
I put a lot of stock in that, because I have absolutely picked up books based on a good cover design. The most recent was probably Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, all of which are gorgeously tactile.
What makes you want to toss aside a book in frustration?
I really can’t stand it when a protagonist is dropped into a strange situation (magic, horror, time travel, whatever) and refuses to accept it. It drives me mad. A bit of disbelief and denial is absolutely natural and sane, but the second (maybe third) time something genuinely weird happens, with witnesses, maybe it’s time to let go of your binky and deal with it. I’m supposed to identify with a character with their head buried in the sand? No thank you.
I imagine juggling writing and a family keeps you busy, but when you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I am an unapologetic gaming nerd! Board games, pen and paper roleplaying games, computer games, you name it, and I’m probably trying (and often failing) to find time for it. Lucky for me, my wife is cut from similar (albeit finer) cloth (we actually met online, playing an MMO), and our kids are heading that way as well – my daughter got Catan Junior for her birthday, which is really a gift for all of us.
Obviously, there’s also a lot of reading going on. My wife and I are both reading A Song of Ice and Fire, trying to keep up with each other (she’s currently ahead a few chapters) so we can talk about without spoiling it for each other. Lucky for us we have a good backyard and good weather for reading. (Colorado is a wonderful place to live. In Denver, the weather is often great for a bike ride almost year-round, and we’re getting to the point where it’s easier and easier to do that as a family, now that my oldest daughter is off her training wheels and getting proper knee scrapes.)
I guess I stay busy:)
What’s next for you? Can we expect to see more of Calliope Jenkins?
Right now, I’m working on a pretty big story called Adrift, which is really two stories: one is hard science fiction set on a moon-sized junkyard/Tortuga of abandoned star ships, the other is a series of bedtime stories complete with talking animals and a magical forest; the narrative switches back and forth between the two, so it’s a bit like alternating between Blade Runner and Redwall.
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