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Hornsby Joe Hill
Author Q & A
Q: Ignatius Perrish is a devil, but he's also the hero of Horns. Was it difficult to write a hero who pushes an old lady down a hill in a wheelchair — and make it so the reader could empathize with what Iggy did?
A: Now that you mention it, I guess shoving an old lady in a wheelchair down a hill and into a fence isn't really the sort of behavior that screams "hero." But at least she walks away. Some of the other people who cross Ig don't.
For some probably aberrant reason, I like to build stories around characters who at first seem unsympathetic, and then see if I can't lure the reader into loving them anyway. And it's hard to find anyone more unsympathetic than the devil. He's who we blame for everything bad in the world: wars, disease, cell phones, talk radio. So I thought, okay, he'd be a challenge.
Q: Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, "Talk of the devil, and his horns appear." Had you ever heard that? Is the statement apt in light of Ig's experiences in Horns?
A: The story is really about a guy who has spent his whole life trying to do the right thing, trying to be one of the good guys, praying for the best and coloring in the lines. And then one day everything that matters to him is torn away from him. He loses the person he loves most in the world; he loses his friends; the trust of his family; he loses his reputation, his place in the small town of Gideon, New Hampshire; his whole sense of purpose and self. He's demonized by everyone who knows him, by his whole community, for a sex-murder that he didn't commit. So yeah, in a sense, the village of Gideon talks of the devil, and then his horns appear. More to the point, though, Ig comes to feel that all his work to be good was a waste of his energy. He doesn't want to suffer like a saint anymore. He's had a taste of hell, and now he wants to share. He's ready to be a devil even before he sprouts horns.
Q: Music plays a significant role throughout Horns. Not only are Ig's brother and father talented musicians, but Ig himself has a passion and love for listening to music. As well, it should be noted, Jude Coyne, the hero of your previous novel, Heart-Shaped Box, was a rock musician. How does music influence your writing?
A: It used to be that I couldn't work without it, although in the last few years I've found I have to turn it off when I'm writing dialogue, so I can properly hear the voices in my head. (By the way, the most beautiful thing about being a writer is that I can admit I hear imaginary voices, and people smile at how creative I am, instead of giving each other frightened looks and calling the men in white suits... which would probably be the more reasonable response.)
The first part of Horns is basically a blues: Ig went to the doctor, he went to the priest, he went to his mama, but he couldn't get any peace. Another part of the book is about the inner life of a small-town sociopath, and was supposed to play like one of the cuts off of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. I've always looked to music to help me nail the proper emotional content of a scene. Or maybe it's more right to say that some emotions are radioactive, and the right song can give me a pair of tongs to pick them up and look them over.
Every story I've ever written collected a certain set of songs around them. I'll listen to them over and over until the story is done, and then sometimes I'll never listen to them again; or at the very least I'll retire them for a while. I was listening to a lot of KISS while I worked on Horns. I didn't think about why. It just felt right. But at some point it came to me that KISS is defined by a harmless, comic-book loving Jewish boy from New York who put on greasepaint and black leather and reinvented himself as a rock-and-roll devil. So maybe that's why I listened to "Heaven's on Fire" about eight-thousand times while writing Horns.
Q: Writers often base fictional characters on real people in their lives. Did you have a real-life inspiration for the character in Horns? Is there one character in the book to whom you relate more than the others? Why?
A: Every novelist draws on his or her personal history for material, and you're stuck inside the hermetically sealed capsule of your own head. No one else's perceptions are entirely available to you. But I tend to use characters to try and explore beliefs I may not have myself, and to feel emotions I maybe don't often feel. For example, Heart-Shaped Box was about an angry rock star with a crippling case of survivor's guilt. The closest I've ever been to a rock star was the mosh pit at a Pearl Jam concert. When I create a character, it's not thinly veiled reportage or memoir; it's invention.
That said, the true villain of Horns is a smooth-tongued sociopath, and I built his life story and his impulses around a set of characteristics criminologists refer to as the MacDonald Triad. Basically the triad is bedwetting, viciousness to animals, and a compulsion to want to set fires or blow things up. I learned about them while reading about Dennis Rader, the Bind-Torture-Kill serial murderer, and right away I felt like these traits also had to figure into my bad guy's psychology. So there's one place where the story was informed by real life.
Q: One of Ig's special "talents" in the book is that he is able to know other people's deepest secrets. Which of these secret truths was the most fun to write? Was there a truth that was shocking to you as the author?
A: Ig has all the powers of the devil, and that means he always knows people's ugliest secrets and dirtiest temptations. One of the great challenges of the book was to make all those secrets fresh and interesting, which wasn't always easy. There are just so few interesting ways to sin. There's only seven on the list of mortal no-no's — that's a pretty short list.
I don't know that any one of them stood out as being particularly fun to write. But as I went along through the book, I began to feel people were humanized by their failings, their self-made disasters. Some of them anyway. I think most people are basically good, and sin most grievously against themselves.
I can't answer the second question without dropping an enormous spoiler. I'll just say that there was one hidden truth that very much took me by surprise. It concerns someone close to Ig, and comes at the end of Part One, and I had no idea that this character had such a terrible secret to confess until the moment he coughed it up. For a writer, those are the kinds of moments you live for, and which only come a few times in the course of a story… when a character does something absolutely true and yet absolutely unexpected and unplanned.
Q: The "Tree House of the Mind" is an elusive and magical place that could represent many different things to different people. Where did the idea of the Tree House of the Mind come from? What does it mean to you?
A: Every important scene in the book happens twice. The first time to explore innocence; the second time to examine experience. Ig visits the Tree House of the Mind twice, a place of enormous power, where if you ask you will receive. Just be careful what you ask for. The first time he arrives at the tree, he's the best he will ever be, young and in love. And to me, that first scene in the Tree House of the Mind is that moment everyone has, or imagines they had, when they can look back and feel like they were still clean and full of promise. It's a moment of genuine peace, the last moment, before grown-up life comes surging in and you begin to compromise and screw up and lie to yourself. No one gets to stay in the Garden of Eden forever. Sooner or later the seraphim kicks your ass out and deadbolts the gate behind you.
As for where I got the idea for the Tree House of the Mind, I kind of lifted it from Genesis. It's the Tree of Good and Evil. I can't tell you how it wound up in Gideon, New Hampshire, however. I'm a novelist, not a horticulturalist.
Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from Horns?
A: There's an old 19th-century American woodcut of the devil that I had on my computer the whole time I was working on Horns — he's dancing on his little goaty hooves, with his head thrown back in laughter. At some point about midway through the first draft, it finally hit me that he's laughing at us for pointing the finger at him... for trying to put the blame on him for the trouble we made. The devil is a cop out. We're bad enough without him.
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