Monday, November 4, 2013

November's Peculiar Person of the Month: Writer Hal Johnson

David Rondinelli

Hal Johsnon Drawn Portrait
I first met Hal Johnson while waiting in line at Midtown Comics, a large comic book retail store in NYC. It is often the playground of sacred space for many nerds and pop culture junkies to congregate for new and old titles. I’ve been familiar with his friendly face while being greeted by him at the register and his ability to always point me to the appropriate shelf where I can find the latest comic releases of the week. It was on one of these weekly excursions that I saw him signing copies of his book Immortal Lycanthropes at the same store. Immortal Lycanthropes is a YA novel that follows Myron Horowitz. Who is a disfigured boy who finds out that he can shape shift into an animal while discovering a world within a world of others that share the same ability. Johnson sat down with me to talk about the book, his writing process, and how he was once bitten by a mountain lion. Perhaps that bite was what put all the bite in his book as Hal Johnson is November’s Peculiar Person of the month.

This Peculiar Life NYC: Your story takes place in PA. Why did you choose this setting? Are you originally from there?

Hal Johnson: This may sound crazy, but I’m always a little suspicious of authors who set all their books in or near their own hometowns. I understand the impulse — you don’t want to get caught out in an absurd error by the locals, dropping mountains in Ohio or trees in New Jersey — but at the same time, I tell you: you can’t let the readers smell your fear. So I try not to set everything, or anything, in Connecticut, where I grew up. Pennsylvania is kind of a cheat; I’ve driven through parts of it, so I assumed I could bluff it enough to fool any hostile Pennsylvanians. No one’s called me out yet!

TPL NYC: Myron Horowitz is disfigured. You make a pretty bold choice in choosing a main character that isn’t considered attractive. I think it is refreshing to have a character that doesn’t look like a lot of the plastic on t.v. Why did you choose to make him disfigured?

HJ: I was doing a presentation at a library last week and a girl raised her hand and demanded to know why I made Myron ugly.

I probably did it partially just to be perverse, you know, because I knew protagonists should be beautiful, for the movie version. And partially because you want life to be hard for your protagonist, and what could be harder than being a runty high school freshman with a grotesque pan? I thought I was so clever.

And then R.J. Palacio came out, the same year I did, with a book about a kid with his face all jacked-up. Everyone in the book’s really supportive of him, and he gets an award at the end. It’s not a bad book, but it’s pretty much the opposite of any book I could possibly write; it has a protagonist who looks like Myron —and everyone love Palacio’s book. I’m serious, it's the toast of the town! Read it, you’ll probably love it too. I almost did.

That book is my nemesis.


TPL NYC:  You also take an interesting approach with the narration and the slow reveal of the other Lycanthropes, was it hard to write a book through that perspective?

HJ: I knew I wanted to start things normal — I mean, in a recognizable “real-world” high school setting — and move slowly into a stranger and more dangerous world. It’s the classic set up for any kind of fantastic narrative, and it has the advantage of letting the reader and the protagonist learn things simultaneously.
The idea of another world under or around this one has held a great fascination for me ever since I saw Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was pretty much a given I was going to write about a journey from this world to that one. And it’s got to be slow, right? One does not simply walk between worlds.
TPL NYC: When it comes to the mechanics of writing, how long does it take you to find the voice and the perspective to tell the story through?
HJ: This was probably the hardest part of the whole book — and I hit upon it as a kind of compromise. I didn’t want to tell the book from a first-person Myron perspective, first of all because I thought it would make Myron less mysterious to come at things from his head but also because I think adventure novels in the first person are kind of lame. I know there are lots of counterexamples, and I love Treasure Island, Warlord of Mars, and Allan Quatermain, but as a reader, I don’t like knowing the hero’s going to survive, and I don’t like him telling me about the dangerous scrapes he gets into — sounds like bragging. So I didn’t want Myron to tell his own story.
But at the same time, I’ve always been uncomfortable writing in third person. I picked a subsidiary character, and let him piece the story together. I figured this’d solve all my problems, and also allow for some dramatic irony, as the narrator is a little delusional.
I’ve been told that the book is just written in my own voice, and that if you know me, Arthur’s speech sounds exactly like my own. But man, that wasn’t intentional.
TPL NYC: How long did it take you to write the book?
HJ: It was about nine months, which I guess is a fair gestation time for my species.
TPL NYC: You also bring in a diverse cast, with the Lycanthropes being so different, are many of the animal counter parts found in many of those countries?
HJ: Yeah, I tried to keep things accurate. Of course, I was trying to match people and animals with where they would have been found 10,000 years ago. I mean, there are no longer any moose in Scotland; but there used to be.

TPL NYC: How did you go about deciding what animal each character was going to turn into?
HJ: I started with a list of animals I wanted in the book, and then worked towards the human. Really I just picked animals I liked. I thought a gorilla would look funny in an old lady’s robe, which is why the gorilla is an old lady. There probably isn’t much connection between the animal and the personality their humans got.
TPL NYC: Often, when readers get the finished manuscript they don’t always know what went into crafting the story. Which part of the book represented the most challenges for you to write?
HJ: Chapter nine, which is really the heart and soul of the book, is the part I had to go over and over to get right. It’s the narrator’s summary of his life and philosophy, and I wanted to let him talk — he’d been offstage for most of the book, this was his only real chance to get a word in — but at the same time I didn’t want the book to devolve into the boring old-man ramblings of a crazed binturong. I’m really happy with how it turned out, but, like a bear cub, it took a lot of shaping.
TPL NYC: On the flip side, what part of the book did you have the most fun writing?
HJ: I really liked writing the con games Gloria ushered Myron through. There used to be a lot more of these, but they got cut for space, which is too bad. I could write a whole book about nothing but a self-righteously amoral gorilla bilking people out of their money and then squandering it on gin. That probably wouldn’t be a kids’ book, I guess.
TPL NYC: Your book is in the Young Adult genre. What is it about this genre that appeals to you?
HJ: One of the most appealing things about YA is that publishers will publish it, and readers will read it. It’s a section of the bookstore that’s actually growing. The only other thing that grows is a bookstore is the despair.
There was one great thing about writing a YA book. It gave me the freedom to imagine a reader who wasn’t jaded and weary. I remembered the books I’d read as a kid, how they were brimming with ideas. It’s because I was young enough to accept and appreciate something new. I could have my mind blown. I wanted to blow someone’s mind, and I hope I did just that.

TPL NYC: Do you like to write in any other mediums?

HJ: I like to write songs. I think it would be a pretty good job, to be a lyricist, except it doesn't exist any more. Now they just put a bunch of cliches into a computer, and it spits out song lyrics.

Comic books take up a large portion of my life, so I wish I could write them, but I find it really hard to. I spend all my time trying to imagine how the panels should go on the page, and it ends up either boring or incoherent.

TPL NYC: Aside from writing, do you have any other interests or hobbies?

HJ: I spend more time reading than writing. I’d like to pretend I’m a writer, but really I’m a reader. I also run some Dungeons and Dragons games that take up a lot of my time. I used to write a lot for the game, ancient texts the players would need to dig up and decipher, scrawled confessions and historical treatises, or codes and riddles. They're getting pretty good at my riddles, but they still haven’t cracked my code. My players complain that I don’t write as much for the game any more, but I only have so much time.

I’d like to meet the man who answers this question “no.” That would be a single-minded man.

TPL NYC: What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals or techniques, or do you just sit down and write?

HJ: A schedule is more important for me than a ritual. When I’ve got enough ideas together that I’m seriously writing a book, and not just daydreaming about it — I find it useful to assign myself a quota every day. Even if it’s just a nominal amount, forcing myself to sit and crank out some words is more productive than slipping back into the daydreaming.

TPL NYC: Are you a self-taught writer, or did you get formal training to be an author?

HJ: Is anyone allowed to be a self-taught writer nowadays? I mean the government frog-marched me at gunpoint to school, where I ostensibly got a rudimentary education in composition.

There’s probably a level of workshopping insidership that would see me as lacking formal training. Of course, most of my theory and practice of writing texts I learned from reading, so you see how it’s all connected.

TPL NYC: What do you do to get a good pacing for something as lengthy as a novel?

HJ: That’s a great question, because the pace of a novel is one of its most defining characteristics, but it rarely gets talked about.

We tend to believe, I think, that plot defines pace, but it’s really the narrative voice. You can tell a plot-heavy story really quickly, like a pulp, or you can drag it out over a great many pages, like Alexandre Dumas. So the question you have to figure out is at what clip does your narration go — and will you have enough room to tell the whole story if it stays at that clip.

I like to write ten or twenty pages “free-style,” just winging it to get an idea of how fast things are moving, before I plot a book out. That way I feel like I have a handle on the narrative speed, and I can make sure that I don’t cram so much into a book that it becomes unwieldy.

The other answer is: if your pacing starts to flag, the editor will just make you cut things out. The editor’s scissors are always there, like an ax outside the chicken coop.

TPL NYC: What do you think is the most effective way to tell a good story and how did you incorporate that into Immortal Lycanthropes?

Some original sketch work by Hal Johnson

HJ: There are as many ways to tell good stories as there are good stories. Borges, always a favorite of mine, invented the method of writing a story by pretending that someone else had already written the story, and then talking about this hypothetical preexisting text. I’m not saying every story should be told that way, but I love “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.”

I only slightly self-consciously tried to work a bunch of different narrative modes into the book. Some people tell their own stories and some people tell other people’s stories, and sometimes the narrator gives a summary of a vast swath of events, and sometimes he tells you all the dirt. Just to keep it interesting.

TPL NYC: You seem to have a special interest in animals. What are some of your favorite animals?

HJ: I love animals, but I want to stress that I don’t have a romantic idea of animals. Nature is red in tooth and claw for a reason, and animals are either constantly scared or constantly killing things — there’s very little middle ground. I know that there’s a pretty bleak picture of humanity painted in chapter 9 of Immortal Lycanthropes, and I’d hate to have anyone think that animals are better in comparison. Animals can’t make moral decisions, and I think it’s clear that if they could, they would, like us, choose evil pretty consistently. A great many insects can’t even reproduce without doing something horrible and disgusting; I mean horrible and disgusting even compared to the horrible and disgusting things humans do. It’s unlikely a girl I fancy is ever going to eat my corpse.

Obviously I love binturongs, and red pandas. I also love most mollusks, especially octopuses and snails, and arthropods, especially praying mantises.

TPL NYC: Do you have any pets?

HJ: I live in New York, so it’s part of my lease that I am forbidden to have any vertebrate pets, but I am apparently obliged to have thousands and thousands of tiny, invertebrate ones.

TPL NYC: If you could turn into an animal, which one would you like to be able to turn into?

HJ: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. There’s a lot of temptation to be an elephant or a lion so you can mess with anyone; but it might be smarter to be something small that can slip away, a weasel or a bat. My answer will change depending on the day, but today I’ll say a cheetah: you’re big enough to fight, but you can also sprint away from danger.

Alternately: as Bart Simpson says, “Nobody suspects the butterfly.”

More original sketch work by Hal Johnson

TPL NYC: Can we expect a sequel to Immortal Lycanthropes? Where would you like to see the story go?

HJ: I think it’s all wrapped up in a neat little package, with nowhere else to go. I guess if everyone wrote into Houghton Mifflin, inundating them with demands for more adventures, I could get corralled into turning this book into the first of a Baby-sitters Club–style series. “You’ve got to do it, Johnson,” my editor would roar, his cigar flying out of his mouth as he pounded his desk. “You’ve got to do it for the fans.” Other scenarios are less likely.

TPL NYC: How about other projects? What are some of the other things we can expect to see from you soon?

HJ: I’ve got several irons in the fire, but I am sworn to secrecy most direly. Anyway, every time I’ve made a prediction about what was coming up, I’ve been wrong. But it’ll be something, soon, and then you’ll see. “Deeds, not words,” as we say in Megaforce.

TPL NYC: This blog is about peculiar things, so what is the most peculiar thing that you have ever seen or been a part of while living in NYC?

HJ: Peculiarity is always a local phenomenon. Any time you leave your comfort zone, which in my case is made up completely of nerds, things get peculiar. I once tried to ride my bicycle from Newark Penn Station to Newark Airport in the middle of the night because my plane was too early for me to catch a bus and I thought it was ridiculous to pay five bucks to travel four miles; the bicycle was an ancient, tiny, one-speed with coaster brakes that squeaked and it drove the feral dogs insane as I got lost in Newark; they chased me. Everyone I asked for directions was clearly under the influence, but was still nice enough to warn me that in the direction I was headed, I was certainly going to be murdered. The point is, Newark at four in the morning was a surreal experience, but for the people I got directions from, or for the feral dogs, it must’ve just seemed like business as usual.

This is what’s beguiling about New York, the feeling it gives you that you can slide between worlds by walking one block in a different direction, or entering a storefront you’ve never gone in; this feeling that there are hundreds of peculiar worlds all around, and the one you happen to live in is only one of many possibilities.

TPL NYC: In the same vein, what is the most peculiar thing that has ever happened to you?

HJ: I was once bitten by a mountain lion. I would prefer not to elaborate.
Hal Johnson will be doing a reading and signing at the Enigma Bookstore (3317 Crescent St., Long Island City, NY 11106) on Novemnber 9th at 7 PM. He will also be doing a "teens only" event at the Queens Public Library, Cambria Heights branch, on November 27th at 3:30 PM.
Check out his website at, and his Facebook page,