For this interview with Brian Hodge about his new novel Mad Dogs, we turned the floor over to a pair of early readers … and a couple of others who managed to slip in questions anyway.
Stephen G.: What is Mad Dogs? How long is it?
Brian Hodge: It’s a 578-page crime novel that features what is probably the biggest, most over-the-top cast of characters that have ever moved in with me. It revolves around a struggling actor named Jamey Sheppard who, on his way from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, AZ, for his wedding, is briefly mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s just played on a crime reenactment show. This sets off multiple chains of events that careen all over the southwest.
Tom Piccirilli: Why are the dogs mad? Why don’t you feed them?
BH: Because, after another couple days, I plan to turn the hungry buggers loose on smart-ass wise guys.
Paul Legerski: The history of the publication of Mad Dogs would be a nice place to begin, no?
BH: Okay, be sure to get those pliers right under the edge of that scab, and rip slowly.
To tell the whole thing would take a chapbook, but the Cliff’s Notes version…? It was the kind of drawn-out sequence of events and circumstances that eventually start you wondering if the whole thing has been cursed.
Mad Dogs was William Morrow & Company’s option book after Wild Horses, but by the time I finished it and we sent it in, there was a totally new infrastructure in place. Morrow had been bought by Rupert Murdoch, and his people conducted a series of firings that cleaned out everybody I’d worked with, and most everybody else I hadn’t. In the editorial department, there was one single survivor. So the editor who really got what I was doing, and fought to win the bidding war for Wild Horses, was gone, and the new personnel just weren’t interested.
Then, to our horrified surprise, my agent couldn’t place it with any of the other houses in New York. For each of the objections it met, you could immediately come up with an example to rebut it, but those wouldn’t apply to me. Because with Wild Horses, I was just getting started in hardcover, in a different genre, with virtually no track record. It was like the six paperback novels before that didn’t count.
Many thought it was too complex. Another problem explained to me was that, in this stratum at least, publishing is increasingly run by female editors buying mainly for female readers, and so they’re looking foremost for central female characters. By those terms, Wild Horses was fine. But Mad Dogs, despite several vital female characters, is still centered on two guys.
Another shock to the system: The type of novel it is … that was an even bigger problem. The New York houses, I was told, had begun to develop an aversion to whacked-out crime novels, in large part because they’re marketing headaches. And mine are even weirder than usual because the mood swings are so extreme. The mordant humor is similar, but the thing that you tend not to see in Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen is the depth of emotion that I’m going after, as well. Plus, in an otherwise good Publishers Weekly review of Wild Horses, they groused that the writing was too lyrical for the story. So, stir all that together … how do you market it? As a gritty crime thriller? A fizzy caper? A literary novel? It’s easier just to say no than try. As a result, this is the second and last of this particular type of novel that I’m likely to do.
A further mishap: One small press publisher I’d already worked with was going to do it, never sounded anything other than eager to do it, told me more than once how much they loved it, and we were working on editorial tweaks … but I could never get them to produce a contract. They dragged things out for almost an entire year before I finally withdrew it. Although that definitely worked out for the better—I’m very happy that it’s ended up with CD.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Besides, any aspiring writers who might be reading this are probably ready to hang themselves, so let’s stop now for humanitarian reasons.
Brian Keene: Mad Dogs and Wild Horses both signaled a shift in style and theme for you. You could see hints of this in earlier works likeThe Darker Saints, but it came to the front with these two later novels. Did you find this “voice” to your liking? And how did long-time readers react to it?
BH: I’ve never thought of it as a shift so much as an expansion. I’ve always admired writers who can roam between various kinds of work and do them all well. Joe Lansdale definitely comes to mind. Like you noted, The Darker Saints, and Nightlife before it, were part crime novels. So it seemed natural to try novels that were nothing but. But I never felt that I was abandoning anything. The Hellboy novel, On Earth As It Is In Hell, and World of Hurt… I think I was able to approach these with a new drawer in the toolbox that I might not have otherwise developed.
And I’m not aware of catching any flak for having branched out. Readers and reviewers who knew me for the Dell/Abyss novels, and the couple before those … from them I heard nothing but enthusiasm for Wild Horses. And if they liked that, then they should feel right at home in Mad Dogs. I don’t know of that many readers who are so dogmatic about horror that that’s all they read.
PL: Mad Dogs kicks off with a mistaken identity scene that escalates into a war for Jamey’s survival. Did every step after this scene that escalates the threat(s) to Jamey’s survival come in the order that is the final version … or did you have all of the scenarios in mind and just put them down in your favored way?
BH: It more or less unfolded for me as it happened. I’d had the basic premise in mind for a long time before I started the novel—a struggling actor is mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s just portrayed on an America’s Most Wanted-type TV show—but that was pretty much it. Then along came a few more characters and a loose concept of the main story arc, but I had no clue where it would all lead.
PL: There is not one “good guy” in Mad Dogs. By that I mean no one is immune to making a few (or in some instances many) mistakes or wrong decisions. In some instances, no one to cheer on. To me that is the brilliance of your characters … all are at least a shade of gray morally … like all of us I might add. Do you feel that is a reason why some editors would not buy the book?
BH: If that was a factor, along with what I already described, nobody said so. I suspect I would’ve heard about it if it were.
Still, I believe Jamey’s a good guy, definitely. Samantha’s very good-hearted, almost to a fault. And although Duncan and Dawn are much more compromised, they’re decent enough at heart. But none of them are perfect. How interesting are perfect people? Give me the impulsive and the screw-ups, any day. Even Cro-Mag, for me, is hard not to pull for, because of his boundless affection for all things four-legged, and his unique form of brain damage—based in reality, by the way, someone I was aware of by two degrees of separation. But Jamey’s the main through-line, and I think most people will be in his corner. He’s not immune to acting on impulse and emotion, but he’s just trying to get through a roller coaster ride he never wanted to be on
PL: The pacing is very step-by-step … by that I mean it is very ordered and not all over the place. It grows from one set of circumstances, then turns into another level of seriousness. Was this an outlined book? If not, what did you want the pacing to be? Did you have a beginning, middle and end?
BH: To me, it’s more like a candelabrum. It starts from a singular event that sets into motion a series of repercussions that branch out in parallel. But then, most of what happens has everything to do with the central characters’ family histories, so it reaches backward, too. Actually, I think it is all over the place … it just doesn’t necessarily feel that way because of how hard I worked to keep the structure and storylines balanced, and how every turn of events emerges out of what everybody’s done a day or two or three earlier. There’s no way I could’ve outlined all that. I’m a terrible outliner. Most of the time, I try to let the characters lead the way. I was just as curious as they were to see how they would get through these situations.
PL: Jamey has had to deal with a physical deformity. To me, it was to show the readers that he overcame much in his youth and foreshadowed how he would deal with later more extreme external abuses. Is this what you were going for?
BH: I don’t know if I put that much thought into it, really. It just arose naturally in the planning stages, as part of his baggage. What probably sheds more light on it is an observation that Robert Bloch made, and while he was talking about writers, I don’t see why it couldn’t apply more broadly. Bloch said something like most writers are broken in some way, and writing is their way of fixing it. OK, so now take this boy who had a very visible physical defect that took years to correct, and who ate a lot of shit because of it. It seems very likely that he would’ve spent a lot of time growing up pretending to be other people, in other bodies. And so he just never stopped.
PL: For me, the flashback scene at the Utah diner when Jamey is with his family as a young boy was very moving and almost poetic and explains so much that is going on inside Jamey. Was this scene from a personal moment of yours or totally fictional, and what did you want to accomplish with that scene?
BH: You’ve already half-answered the latter part of your question. I wanted to show that moment when the magic of movies really opened up to Jamey, in a real-world way that made him think it was within his reach. It was also a handy way to show how far back the tension with his sister goes. Plus the locale sets up something for much later, which I can’t get into for spoiler reasons, but I love it when a thing like that naturally doubles back on itself.
And that scene is almost 100% rooted in experience, although not from childhood. It was about a decade ago, when Doli and I and Beth Massie and a couple other friends were zigzagging along on a cross-country trip and were passing through Utah. Exact same sequence of events: We drove back in along a few miles of dirt road to see some ancient petroglyphs at the edge of the Ute Indian Reservation, then backtracked through this little desert town. Stopped at a diner where a dog and a gray wolf really were hanging around outside. So I’m writing from hands-on experience when Jamey’s petting them and is amazed at how different their coats feel. Then, inside, we learned that a scene from Thelma & Louise had been filmed there. It’s the place where Thelma stops at night to call her husband. It was just a very, very cool afternoon stop, this little gem of an experience that fit perfectly into the novel.
A few years later I was road-tripping through again, by myself, and stopped, but found the diner vacant and locked up, windows coated in dust. That left me sad for miles.
PL: My favorite character scene is when Jamey and his fiancée take a walk after some disturbing news makes its way to Jamey. The conflict he feels toward his fiancée is so real … from an honest hating of her to a somber understanding of the circumstance. Was that an easy scene to write and did that feeling of hate have to be rethought or reedited by you as too harsh for the “common” reader?
BH: It wasn’t hard to write at all, because I knew the characters so well by then. It was more like taking dictation.
But hate is too strong a word, I think. On one level Jamey is angry with Samantha, because she’s done something for pure and selfless reasons, and he recognizes that. It’s just backfired in the worst way possible. But what he’s feeling and trying to tamp down isn’t what really matters here. Counterbalancing that—outweighing it, even—is what else he’s feeling and tells her aloud. It’s probably the most tender, heartfelt expression of one person’s love for another that I’ve ever written. And one reason it was so heartfelt is that I could’ve been saying that in real life and, almost word-for-word, it would’ve fit.
PL: This novel is very hard on the people of Hollywood … nobody with any redeeming values to speak of. Was this from first-hand experience with the entertainment industry? Also, do you think the negative portrayal of the many characters from La-La Land will make this a harder sale to movie or TV producers?
BH: Hey, I thought Petra, the makeup artist, was pretty cool, at least! And the reporter from Variety. Really, to me, it’s more satire than venom. Most of it’s played for laughs. The producer, Mickey Coffman, is loosely based on Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer’s deceased partner, only Mickey’s not particularly self-destructive. And, amazingly enough, going by a biography I read, still not as horrible as Simpson could actually be.
Honestly, I can’t claim that much experience with people who work in film, but some of the ones I have dealt with have turned into good friends, and most of the others were at least pleasant at the time. Yes, some are prone to losing interest and flitting off elsewhere, or it’s obvious they can’t do what they’ve said they can, and either way that’s the last you hear of them. But I’ve only encountered one genuine viper, and had to hire a lawyer to finish contending with her.
I have no clue if anyone would take it personally, in a generic sense. But Hollywood is occasionally very hard on itself. Think of movies likeSwimming With Sharks, or Robert Altman’s The Player. Really, the bottom line is the bottom line: If it were to get to somebody who thinks he or she could make money off it, then not much else would matter.
There’s a great line from film agent John Lesher, originally in a New York Times article. I quoted it in “The Passion of the Beast,” my story for Midnight Premiere, the movie-related anthology that Tom Piccirilli edited for CD: “People here will work with the Antichrist if he’ll put butts in seats.”