This week I have been talking to Charlie Huston, a writer who has already established himself in the US with his powerful crime novels featuring Henry Thompson, such as Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man. From there Charlie has moved into a new series based around a character called Joe Pitt, a rough anti-hero struggling to survive in New York. Oh, did I mention Pitt is a vampire? The first book, Already Dead, came out in the US a while ago and is set for its UK debut in February from the good folks at Orbit. I’ve been lucky enough to get an advance copy and I can tell you it’s good. In fact it is damned good. It isn’t easy to break new ground in the vampire genre, but Charlie has created a very noiresque tale which mixes elements of modernised vampire lore with hardboiled detective noir and that extra ingredient that is New York itself, like vampire meets Raymond Chandler meets Mean Streets. The second in the series, No Dominion has just come out in the US and should be out later on in the UK from Orbit. Charlie has also been a busy boy making his comics debut for Marvel with the revamped Moon Knight which has gone down well with fans and critics alike. Reading these it seemed to me that it would be a good time to ask Charlie about his comics work and his books, so that’s just what I did…
FPI: Hi, Charlie and thanks for taking some time to talk to us. I know you’ve been published in the US for some time with your Henry Thompson crime books, but with the hardback of your first Moon Knight series for Marvel just hitting shelves and Already Dead about to make its British debut via Orbit your name might be relatively new to many UK readers, so perhaps you could tell us a little bit about who you are and how you got into writing?
CH: I was a late bloomer as a reader. By that I mean I didn’t learn to read ‘till I was around 7. But once I got rolling I became one of those kids you see walking down the street with his face stuck in an open book. Writing followed hard on the reading. As soon as I figured out that I could put words on paper and tell my own stories I was doing it. Most of my adult life I spent working, or, more aptly, seeking work, as an actor, but I was always scribbling something. My first novel, “Caught Stealing”, was started as a means of entertaining myself and staying busy when I was losing steam as an actor. What began as idea I thought might be a short story kept getting longer, until I knew it could be a novel. At that point it became urgent to me that I finish it. Once it was done, it went into a drawer. Years later an odd set of circumstances led to it being published and to me finding myself in a position where I could get paid to write a sequel. Since then I’ve simply been doing what comes naturally, which is to say I’ve been working as hard as I can to maintain employment that doesn’t involve mixing cocktails or pouring beers.
FPI: I’ve got a fair old collection of vampire books on my shelves and it’s always a struggle to find someone who can do something fresh with the genre – Joe Pitt and his world struck me as very different; certainly the first time I had read a book where the character is vampirised in the toilet of CBGB’s (although probably not the most outlandish thing to happen there, perhaps) and I loved the different vamp groups who have staked turfs in New York – how did you come up with this approach? Were you already thinking that you wanted to do something with the vampire genre, or did it start as a crime novel first with different gangs and then mutate into a noir-ish vampire tale?
CH: I definitely set out to write a noir crime novel with a vampire protagonist. The details of the world Joe inhabits evolved in the writing. For example, The Coalition, the most powerful of the vampire clans in the books was originally meant to be the only clan. I had started out with the idea of a single group that pulled the strings in the vampire demi monde, it was only as I started writing about some of the odds and ends of the world that I thought it would be more fun and interesting to have competing power bases with individual agendas.
FPI: It certainly adds more to the dramatic tension, I think. Already Dead worked really well for me as a single book, but the background such as the Clans, his relationships with others (vampire boy and HIV positive girl was a particularly cool touch I thought) and the nature of the vyrus itself are all begging to be expanded and explored more. You do outline some of this on your site as part of your Joe Pitt writing bible (spoiler warning – best not to read too much of the bible if you haven’t read the book yet) – can we expect to learn more about the world around him in future instalments? While the story and characters are the main hooks for a reader that detailing is always a great way of putting the reader into the character’s world more effectively (at least for me). I believe the second volume is just out in the US and hopefully lined up for the UK at some point in the near future too?
CH: Yeah, absolutely, a big part of the series for me is going deeper into Joe’s world. And into Joe, for that matter. The plan right now is for a total of five books. Each one should stand on its own with a self contained Pitt adventure, but I don’t want Joe or his world to just return to a comfortable stasis at the end of each book. Already Dead is meant to kick off Joe’s penetration into the deeper secrets and workings of a life he’s become, if not comfortable, then, at least, accustomed to. Each book will bring changes. The series as a whole is intended to have two major arcs. One will unravel the secret of what the Vyrus that causes vampirism actually is, and the other will tell the love story between Joe and his girl Evie.
The second book is on sale in the US as “No Dominion”, and my understanding is that Orbit will bring it out in the UK next year.
FPI: I sometimes found myself thinking about Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca when reading Already Dead; just as Rick tries to walk a line between the Vichy authorities, the Nazis and Resistance Joe Pitt is trying to remain a solo operator on his own terms but having to deal with these opposing Clans. That kind of setup, not unusual to noir books and films, must generate a lot of potential conflict that a writer can mine for dramatic effect?
CH: To me the Pitt books are, first and foremost, old school noir adventures. The voice, the structure, the style, the plotting, all are self consciously modelled on classic noir; particularly Chandler. The horror aspects are more the costumes, props and sets for this particular interpretation. They make it fun and cool for me in a way that skews from the straight-up crime novels I write. That man in the middle thing is a hallmark of noir. Chandler lays it out in the final paragraphs of his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” when he defines the traits of the classic noir anti-hero. Joe bends and breaks many of Chandler’s rules, but adheres to enough to make him recognizable as part of that tradition. He’s the guy who walks his own line, makes his own code, and lives by it. Governments, the police, gangsters, clans, all can be corrupted and all are eventually compromised by power, but the man alone has nothing to lose and can risk everything. I don’t necessarily think that kind of value system functions in real life, but it makes great fiction.
FPI: Come to think of it, having Joe break some of Chandler’s rules to suit his own code is in itself a hallmark of the noir anti-hero! Despite the pain and suffering he goes through (especially later in Already Dead) and despite being a killer (although not a psychotic murderer type, it has to be said) Pitt, like many a fine gumshoe before him, does have some redeeming qualities, not least feeling compelled to protect a young innocent – was it important to you that whatever life – or unlife – had thrown at him he still had this central core underneath all the surface chips and scratches and dents?
CH: Well, Chandler would say your hero has to be driven to protect the innocent whatever his other vices. Me, I wanted Joe to be as unsympathetic as possible. I was kind of disappointed when I realized that the story was going in a direction where Joe was looking out for a little girl lost. But by then things had a momentum and I didn’t want to fight it. That said, it was important to me that Joe not really recognize this trait in himself. There’s a moment near the end of the book where someone points out how predictable Joe is in his protective instincts toward young people, but I wanted that bit of exposure to come as something as a shock to Joe. I’m not sure it comes across, but I always picture him in that moment opening his mouth to say, The fuck I do, and then closing his mouth as he realizes that he certainly fucking does.
FPI: There are some nods to more ‘traditional’ vampire literature, such as the allergy to sunlight, but Already Dead, although undeniably vampire, seems to me to stand out from a lot of the genre – I really couldn’t see Joe Pitt hanging around with Anne Rice’s whining vampires, for example (although I could see him hitting them with a baseball bat). Were there any vampiric influences from other writers of movies that you were conscious of and wanted to either incorporate or avoid?
CH: There wasn’t anything I was consciously looking to incorporate, but in retrospect I realized that I’d copped the idea of a vampire virus from Richard Matheson and his novel I Am Legend. What I was looking for was to give the book a feeling of verisimilitude. Having the agency of vampirism be biological in nature helped with that. That was also the drive behind making these vampires less powerful and much more vulnerable than traditional vampires. As for things I was trying to avoid; well, sentimentality, more than anything else, irritates the hell out of me in a story about killers. I work in my fair share of pathos, but I hope it’s not sentimental in nature. I wanted Joe to be a true bastard, a thing that is arguably a sociopathic serial killer.
FPI: I Am Legend is one of the most fascinating modern interpretations of the myth (mostly because it de-mythologises much of the Gothic clutter) as well as being one of the best ‘last man in the world’ tales ever written – perhaps something else Pitt has in common with Matheson’s protagonist, as both are, in their own ways, isolated with powerful and none-too-friendly forces all around them.
You’ve become one of a select number of novelists, like Orson Scott Card or Richard Morgan, who have crossed over into writing comics in recent years, kicking off with a revamped Moon Knight for Marvel. How did you get into comics writing? Was Moon Knight the character offered to you to work with or was it your choice? He is a pretty dark character in a violent world, so from the likes of your Already Dead he does look like a character who would be ripe for your special attentions.
CH: Marvel has started actively looking for writers outside the comics field in the last few years and I happened to get caught in their net as they were trawling for bigger fish. After a fair amount of preliminary ass-sniffing, Moon Knight was one of the first characters they mentioned. As it happened, I’d been a Moon Knight fan back in my prime early teen comic reading days. I was a real fan of the original run written by Doug Moench. So there was a definite feeling of kismet. And yeah, I’d been writing about two characters, Joe Pitt and Henry Thompson, both of whom exist on the fringes of hyper violent underworlds; which is one way of looking at the entire Marvel Universe.
FPI: Marc Spector/Moon Knight is a 70s comics character (originally created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin as you said) who had largely dropped out of the comics for a good while before this rebirth, so quite a few readers might know the name but not much about the character. I know he has been compared to the Batman a few times, although the motivations behind the two are quite different (not least since Marc is a killer) and I’ve heard you don’t really agree with comparing the two of them too much. Could you tell readers a bit about how you saw the character and how you thought you could make him relevant to a contemporary audience again, especially after his previous appearance in Avengers Disassembled?
CH: My take on Marc Spector involved doing a slight reboot on his story by assuming he’d been knocked out of commission and that now, at nearly 40, he was looking to get back in the business of kicking asses. Violence being the medium through which he tries to redeem himself for his violent past as a mercenary. An irony he’s not at all self-aware enough to register. And not likely to dig into over much as it would force him to think about just how much he enjoys hurting people.
The Batman comparisons I understand, I just think they’re pointless. There are maybe a half-dozen (some would say two) models for superheroes, so what you have out there are about six pretty original heroes, and a few thousand rip-offs. Really, who gives a fuck? As far as making Moon Knight relevant, that wasn’t necessarily what I was trying to do. He was always a visceral character to me, and I wanted to try and share that feeling with other readers. Violence, drug abuse, mental illness, moon copters, these are all visceral elements. I wanted Marc Spector to be a shambling mess of a human being who only comes alive, who only understands the world when he puts on a cowl and a cape and jumps out of a helicopter and lands knuckles first in someone’s fucking face.
FPI: Doug Moench is a highly respected fan-favourite among comics readers, it must have been a bit nerve-wracking following in his footsteps, especially having been a reader of it yourself (you can see Doug’s work in the recent Essential Moon Knight Volume 1)– have you been pleased with the pretty positive reaction from critics and readers to the series? I take it you were pretty happy when it was moved from mini-series to an ongoing project since that status change marks a pretty big seal of approval?
CH: Yeah, I was very conscious of walking on Doug’s turf. I was particularly nervous when he dropped me a line after I got the gig. Needlessly so. Doug was a true gentleman and made it clear that, while he was disappointed that Marvel hadn’t asked him to do the job himself, he had no problem with me doing it. I particularly loved it when he told me he would not be reading the book. As I recall he said, if it sucks I’ll hate you, and if it’s great I’ll hate you. I understand that sentiment utterly, and I actually found it a great relief to know he wouldn’t be reading my interpretation of his character.
It was great news when Marvel decided to take the book monthly. For me it meant getting a shot at completing the reintroduction I wanted to do from the start, and for long suffering Moon Knight fans it indicated a commitment to keeping him around. More than anything, I’m really fucking proud of that, of having played a roll in bringing Doug and Perlin’s creation back into the mainstream. Hopefully the second arc I’ve written won’t fuck anything up and he’ll be around for a good long while.
FPI: Well, judging by the critical and popular fan response you’re hitting the right buttons to keep us all interested, I’d say. Moon Knight, like many comics characters, has a pretty tangled history, involving different levels of powers and abilities and so on – did you decide to simplify this complex (and sometimes competing) past for the initial six-issue mini-series to let new readers introduce themselves more easily to the character? How does the new Moon Knight stand in comparison to the continuity from the Doug Moench days?
CH: In my mind, all Moon Knight’s continuity is in play. It’s not all addressed in the first new arc, but if you do some reading between the lines, and take a close look at the art, you’ll see many tips of the hat to various interpretations of Moon Knight over the years. As the arc was meant primarily to bring new readers to the character, as opposed to being aimed at long time fans, I felt like I needed to focus on the essential backstory. For me that meant adhering as close as possible to the origin Doug set up.
The first major break I made was in updating his roots from mercenary conflicts in the Sudan during the 80s to the first Gulf War in the early 90s. The second break I made in continuity was in creating a scenario that saw him getting seriously injured two years previous to the beginning of the arc. Beyond that, the bulk of the details come straight from Moench’s run. That said, how I use those details is interpretive. I try not to spit in the face of continuity, but I have to tell the story in a way that makes sense to me. And that’s not always going to gibe with everyone out there. Just the nature of the beast.
FPI: Doug worked with several artists, but most notably the damned fine Bill Sienkiewicz; you’ve been teamed with another top notch illustrator, David Finch, for the start of Moon Knight – how did you find working with David? Were you aware of his work with the likes of Brian Michael Bendis on Ultimate X-Men before you started?
CH: I’d seen some of Dave’s work on Avengers, but I wasn’t aware of just how well established he is, and what a following he has, until I was told he was doing the book and I did some research. Dave played a huge roll in getting Moon Knight launched not just successfully, but on a scale that encouraged Marvel to put quite a bit of marketing behind the book. His talent and his name drew God knows how many readers to a book that would never have bothered with an obscure character written by an even more obscure crime writer.
His style is, obviously, the polar opposite to the work Sienkiewicz is known for, but he’s put a stamp on the current look of the book that won’t be changing any time soon. In fact, when a new opportunity came along for Dave and he decided to move on to another project (after issue #8) it was vital to my editor, Axel Alonso, that he find someone with a style compatible with Dave’s. The new artist on the book is Mico Suayan. He’s a newbie at Marvel who has done a great deal of commercial artwork and indie comics work. His hand is quite different from Dave’s, but still lives in that hyper detailed, near photo-realistic, style.
FPI: You’ve now gone on to do some work on the Ultimates for Marvel – can we look forward to any more comics output from your pen? Would you ever consider adapting some of your own work to the comics medium? Will we see a short Tomb of Dracula Versus Joe Pitt one-shot for next Halloween??! Okay, maybe not the last one…
CH: I’ve tinkered with the idea of a Joe Pitt graphic novel. But if I were to do something like that, I’d be inclined to commission an artist to draw the entire book and then take it to a publisher as a finished piece. And I don’t know when that’s likely to happen. I did write a Man-Thing story for Marvel’s new “Legion of Monsters” title. That was cool.
FPI: So, are you planning to continue the comics writing alongside the novel work? Are there any characters you’d especially like to have a crack at writing if the chance came along?
CH: It’s most likely that I’ll be taking a hiatus from comics work. I love it, and I intend on doing more in the future, but this is going to be a very busy year for me, and I doubt I’ll be able to keep up with a monthly schedule. That said, I have several Moon Knight scripts in the bag with Marvel, and those will all publish this year.
FPI: That’s good to hear, means we get to see our comics cake and eat our book pie at the same time. How do you balance the demands of novel and comic writing? How do you find it dealing with the regular deadline demands of a monthly series as compared to working on a novel?
CH: The novels are always at the forefront. Those are my bread and butter. And, as much as I dig the comics, they’re also where I get the most satisfaction. I’ve found there tend to be natural breaks in the process of writing a novel, places where you need to take a deep breath, or where the book needs to be put aside before it kills you; writing comics has fitted nicely into those breaks for me. I never really had to deal with comics deadlines because we started as a mini. That arc was finished well before issue one even published. But time has passed, and the deadlines are catching up with my lead time. And I have no interest in fighting a monthly deadline. For me, anxiety does not produce good work.
FPI: Quite understandable – I often wonder how many comics creators do keep up with that schedule. Before we finish up can I ask which books and comics are you reading at the moment?
CH: I recently finished Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. Amazing book, the best I’ve read in years. Horrifying in the truest sense. Also beautiful. Now I’m lightening up with an Alan Furst espionage novel, “Dark Voyage”. Furst has this lean and poetic style that reads so fucking gracefully it makes me want to cry. And every book feels like the source material for a lost Howard Hawks or John Huston noir masterpiece.
In comics: I’m loving the new JLA, it’s a great intro to DC for a guy like me whose always been a Marvel reader; I just picked up the second volume of “Skyscrapers of the Midwest” I wish there were more than two; The Goon is great stuff; likewise Fell; Scott Pilgrim needs to come out every month, please; Casanova makes me want to take hard drugs; Astonishing X-Men is X-Men as I remember them from being a kid; and I look at my copies of Blacksad at least once a month.
FPI: Oh, that’s a nice list, sure you have more than a few folks nodding in agreement there. Already Dead is published in the UK by Orbit in February (highly recommended) and the first hardback collection of Charlie’s take on Moon Knight: the Bottom was released by Marvel a few weeks ago and is available now (and again comes highly recommended); you can keep up with Charlie and find out more about his books on his official site Pulpnoir. It only remains to say, Charlie Huston, thanks very much for taking some time to chat to us.