One of my favorite books of 2009 was Arthur Slade’s THE HUNCHBACK ASSIGNMENTS
, so when Shelley Souza interviewed Arthur, I asked if she’d mind sharing their conversation here to spread the word. We need more books like these. Books where the protagonist isn’t perfect. Books where his greatest gift (the ability to change his shape into any form) is also the protagonist’s greatest challenge, in this case because Modo can only hold an assumed shape for a limited time before he returns to his deformed self.
Shelley: A recent interview said that The Hunchback Assignments is inspired by Victor Hugo’s Huchbank of Notre Dame, and that the second book in this seven-part series found inspiration from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Was that your aim, to reinterpret classics that fit with the growing movement of steampunk in fashion, literature and art?
Arthur Slade: Originally, my intention was to take elements from these classics and use them as leaping points for a new set of stories. I didn’t set out to write a “steampunk” novel, but as I began to explore the Victorian world I discovered that I didn’t want to be limited by “real” history or even “real” science so began to find myself pushing the boundaries of what science was able to do at that time. I wanted to make the world as real as possible, though. So Queen Victoria is queen during the book. The streets are the real streets. I just add elements that are quasi-fantastical–like a character who can change his shape. But this is a perfectly logical ability within the context of the novel because all the other characters see it as an “adaptive transformation”–or part of evolution. I guess I’m drawing from Verne and H.G. Wells who could make some of the most scientifically unsound stories appear real by explaining the “logic” of the science behind them.
Shelley: What kind of books attracted you as a teenager? I read somewhere
that you had comic book heroes. Did you also have literature heroes
AS: I wanted to be Paul Atreides from Dune. I loved that book from the first time I read it at thirteen. There was something about the prince who must become a man and a messiah that spoke to my young heart. I read every Ray Bradbury book I could get my hands on, especially loved The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes. And I was (and am) a Roger Zelazny fan, particularly Nine Princes in Amber. I also discovered Guy Gavriel Kay in my later teen years. And Stephen King lurked at my bedside table, of course.
Q: The influence of Notre Dame is fairly obvious, but I’m wondering what role the classical story of Beauty and the Beast played in shaping Modo and Olivia’s characters?
AS: That story is certainly in the background of the novel. Modo’s extreme disfigurement and his ability to escape it for a few hours at a time by shape shifting are certainly one of the cornerstones of his story. What does it mean to be handicapped? What does the beast feel like? And what if the beast could change his shape? Is that ability going to be more of a curse than a blessing for Modo?
Q: I also read that you wanted to be a horror fiction writer and fancied yourself as the Stephen King of the Canadian Prairies. Is that still a dream of yours, or have your tastes as a writer (and
perhaps a reader?) changed?
AS: I don’t read or write true horror fiction as much as I used to (though The Hunchback Assignments certainly has some horror influenced scenes). Part of the reason for me stepping away slightly is that I’m doing so much historical research for the series. I’ve always been a reader whose tastes wander around the fantasy/horror/sci-fi realm though. So in many ways The Hunchback Assignments is my way of infusing all three of those influences together. Of my fourteen books 7 are straight out horror novels and the remainder go from fantastical to historical to modern day, so obviously I have a “horror” bent.
Q: How did you make the mental shift from Stephen King to Jules Vernes? Or was the attraction to “steampunk” literature there from childhood? Do you think it’s your “geekness” that attracted you to this kind of literature? Or do you think the literature made you consciousness that you had a geeky side?
AS: My attraction to science fiction has always been there since I first started reading novels. My geekness certainly attacted me to this type of literature. I think “steampunk” fulfills two roles for me–I’ve always wanted to write fantasy and science fiction. I was never smart enough to extrapolate on modern science. But by concentrating on Victorian era science I can combine the scientific principles of the time with the fantasy side of my imagination.
Q: When a fellow writer suggested in a critique group that your story would make good young adult fiction, how did you react?
AS: I sent my novel at the time (the 6th unpublished book I’d written) to
a critiquing service offered by a provincial writer’s guild. When the
suggestion came back that I was writing young adult fiction I was
offended. I was 28 at the time and felt I was writing with more
“adult” themes. It seems silly now. I didn’t understand how difficult
young adult fiction could be to write and how much depth there was
(and is) to it. Once I turned my mind to writing for a younger
audience it unlocked a real joy in reading and adventure that I hadn’t
felt in the fiction I had been writing or reading for years.
Q: What are the best things about current young adult literature that didn’t exist when you were a teenager?
AS: The authors are actually alive! When I was younger it seemed like everyone I read was dead or old. Not that there’s anything wrong with being old, but as a teen it was harder to identify. Now writing for young adults certainly is a much wider path, you can find everything under the sun within the spectrum of young adult literature–science fiction, fantasy, historical, modern tales. And they all seem to be given equal weight.
Q: You seem to be fairly sunny character yourself. Yet you are drawn
to the macabre. Why do you think that is?
AS: I like to think I have a sense of humour, but as a writer, and as a human, I don’t think I should look away from the “dark side” of humanity. There is also a “release” side to writing and reading macabre stories that I find satisfying. A good horror story is like riding a rollercoaster, you get scared, your get exhilarated, but in the end you step off feeling alive and lucky that you’ve survived.
Q: I’m curious what drew you to the Hobbit when your teacher in 4th grade read it to your class and how you reconciled that with your love of Iron Maiden’s heavy metal?
AS: I see them as being on the same continuum. The Hobbit was fantasy and many of Iron Maiden’s songs are based in fantasy or science fiction. Obviously the primitive beats and the complicated muscianship drew me towards them, but the fact that they had songs about Dune, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner were very affirming to me. It meant I wasn’t the only human being out there liking this fantasy fiction. Of course Iron Maiden never wrote about hobbits. I supposed that’s because they’re too cute for heavy metal.
Q: Given your ability to take a character like Modo and transform him into a hero, what advice would you give to your young readers who have disabilities and may be seen as misfits in society?
It’s always been my opinion that no one is normal. Humanity would be so boring if we all were the same. So sometimes what separates you from your classmates and society is also what makes you stronger and more interesting. This isn’t a pie in the sky answer because many disabilities are hard to overcome. In many ways we are in a golden age of understanding disabilities–I know that there are all sorts of negative attitudes you can point towards–but as a society I do feel we are becoming more accepting of those with differences from the norm.
Q: What would you say to young (or old) writers who aspire to be novelists when they grow up?
: I, personally, feel extremely lucky to be writing novels for a living. So on one level I’d highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in writing. That said I know that the market is extremely tough to get into and it’s also very hard to become a writer full time. My best advice is that if you truly love it you should write a little bit every day. You’ll be surprised how quickly a novel or short story will come together.
For more information about Arthur, visit his website at www.arthurslade.com