Alex Hughes: The Terribleminds Interview

When you hear a book is a cross between Blade Runner and Chinatown, you can’t help but lift your brow and give the story a second glance. Such is the case of Alex Hughes’ novel, Clean — and here, Alex sits down to be subjected to the scalpels and drills of the terribleminds interview. You can find Alex at her website or on Twitter @ahugheswriter.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Once there was a hedgehog named Obion. Obion was a smart hedgehog, much smarter than all the other hedgies in his class in school, and they were jealous. So one day they cornered him in the laundry area of the school (puffy sweaters were popular that year) and pushed him into the trans-dimensional portal in the dryer that normally eats socks.

Obion fell through time and space in a swirling maelstrom of terror and joy. He landed on a busy interstate outside of El Paso, TX, right in front of a huge semi-truck of migrant workers, which fortunately was stopped. A small boy named Manuel stopped to look at him.

“What are you?” the boy said.

“I am a hedgehog!” Obion growled, and much to the surprise of both, the boy nodded.

“I am a boy,” he said. “And we are going to California to pick the avocados. Do you want to go along?”

Obion the hedgehog thought about it. He was so disoriented and he wanted more than anything to go home. But this sounded like a grand adventure, and all the other hedgehogs had told him he was not very brave. So he agreed, and found he did not like avocados at all.

The boy grew up into a man, and over the years they had many adventures together. Obion told the boy what to do, and the boy – now a man – did it. But soon the man fell in love, and the woman did not approve of a talking hedgehog, much less one that gave orders.

So Obion found himself on the street again, an old hedgehog with painful joints, still unable to get home. He found a little spot in a soup can in an alley behind a Chinese restaurant. He looked at the stars that night, and wondered if any of the other hedgies would ever remember him.

He met a raccoon that night, but that is another story.

Why do you tell stories?

There is nothing in the world like falling completely into a story. It’s nubby velvet and rich chocolate, the sting of fear and the bitterness of lemon peel all rolled into one. It’s the chance to live a hundred lives outside your own, and come back to your own warm bed. It’s joy.

Writing your own story is living in that moment a long time, and being the architect of all of those feelings in other people. When it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful, and when it’s hard, there’s nothing quite so hard in all the world. But I keep coming back to that feeling I love – of the world falling away and the story taking over. That feeling, that joy, is why I write.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Never give up. Never, never, never, never, never give up. And never get complacent. Keep getting better, keep getting the words on the page or the stories in the air, and eventually you’ll find your genius.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

All stories must have three acts, which must be outlined in advance with no more than three major characters. Poppycock. The messy, crazy, complex stories of the world are sometimes the very best. Learn the “rules,” then break them shamelessly and without apology when it suits your purpose.

What goes into writing a great character? Bonus round: give an example.

A great character is someone who wants something very badly and can’t have it. The more specific and difficult the better, whether it’s a flying unicorn with a red spot the character saw in the next kingdom (her dad the king is too poor to buy it), or justice for a tortured eighteen-year-old victim whose killer left no clues. Then you fill in the rest of the world in terms of the character. Real people are messy and complicated, with crazy likes and dislikes and opinions about everything. Spend the time to have your character react to the world around him or her and give them hobbies and opinions to the point it seems excessive.  Give him or her quirks; steal shamelessly from the people around you.

Example: You’re going to laugh at me for using the Archie McNally books as an example, but I adore Lawrence Sander’s main character. I haven’t read one of the books in years, but to this day I still remember Archie going out to the seashore every day to swim for an hour in ridiculous swim trunks. He said he “did the breaststroke because it sounded so nice.” That tells you practically everything you need to know about the character in one sentence – and it made me laugh. Genius.

Give us the 140-Character Twitter Pitch For Your Novel, Clean:

Recovering addict telepath helps the police in future Atlanta track down killers. The latest is a serial killer who kills with the mind.

Where does this story come from?

I’ve always been a *huge* fan of TV cop dramas; I used to watch them with my family growing up, and I still watch 2-3 a week. In college, I’d just read this book called Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge about a tortured telepath trying to make his way in the world, and loved it. I decided I’d try to write a tortured telepath too, only mine would be a detective like the ones I loved from TV. When I sat down to write it, a friend of mine was struggling to recover from anorexia, and I knew I wanted to talk about her story somehow in fiction that year–so I asked, would this fit with this story? And I thought, for this story, I’d need an addiction a little easier to understand. It took multiple drafts to get the story to its present form, but that’s where it started.

How is this a book only you could’ve written?

I end up putting bits of myself and my obsessions into every story I write. For this one, it’s my love of physics and neuroscience, the struggle of my friend and the research I’ve done along the way. But ultimately, this is the story I had to tell because Adam showed up and started talking to me, specifically. It’s not always an easy conversation, but it’s a story I have to tell.

Your bio lists you as a bit of a foodie: what’s one food you wish more people would eat?

This one changes depending on the day you ask me. Today, I’m going to say bruschetta. The good stuff, with homemade just-toasted baguette, aged balsamic vinegar reduction, fresh heirloom or roasted cherry tomatoes sliced with care and love, and a dusting of perfect cheese. Goat cheese, perhaps, the mildest you can find, in little clouds on the top. Or fine aged parmesean, just grated. Bring out the right red wine, and you have an entire perfect meal. Yes, today I’m going to say bruschetta.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Lately I’ve been recommending Phone Booth, a movie that apparently nobody saw but has an amazing story. The writing on this one is crazy good. I mean really, who in the world can trap a character alone in a phone booth for most of the movie and have me on the edge of my seat the whole time? Plus huge suspense, a genuine character arc, and what Aristotle calls the “unity of time and place,” something no modern screenwriter does. Plus Colin Farrell kicks ass at acting in it.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Indubitably. It just makes you sound smart, plus you get all the play of “whatever.” Curse word? Hmm. There are several lovely ones out there! Personally, I like shit. Nice hard sound with a great visual, particularly if there’s a turning fan involved. My series character Adam, though, likes damn, so lately that’s been sneaking into my speech pretty often.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I love a really good red wine, especially a California blend or a complex Malbec from Argentina. I’m also a fan of flavored rum with white grape/peach juice, but I’m told that’s hopelessly girly of me. It is rather overwhelmingly sweet J

What skills do you bring to help us win the inevitable war against the robots?

Networking, a phone, and excellent coordination skills. I have many friends with machetes, swords, and automatic weapons stockpiled (not always in the same house). I also have several engineering friends, and one guy who works with robots for a living. The plan is, I start dialing, we assemble a small army of overly confident Southern guys with weapons to hold off the robots while the geeks reverse-engineer the operating code and Trojan the heck out of the survivors. I figure, forty-eight hours and we’ll have a small army of robots working for us to help me make an Italian feast for the folks who showed up to help. I’ll supervise.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

The future is unknown – but that’s the fun.

I have nine books sketched out for the Mindspace Investigations series, so I imagine those will keep me busy. But I’d also like to branch out into other worlds, other stories and other characters. I love stories and I’d like to get my hands in lots of them.

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