by Virna DePaul
Someone is trying to open a portal to Hell, and some others will do anything to stop it.
Or so they say.
Jake Hatcher, lying low in Southern California, isn’t all that surprised when he’s asked to jump back into the battle between salvation and damnation and stop those bent on raising the forces of darkness—it’s just why and by whom that’s unnerving. Especially when it’s put to him as an offer he can’t refuse.
A former nun named Vivian Fall believes that a Hellion has escaped the infernal regions and returned to earth on an unholy mission—to unleash the forces of damnation on an unsuspecting world. Only Hatcher has the experience to track such a being. Only Hatcher has dealt with those who likely to know what what’s really going on. And only Hatcher can get close enough to it—because the Hellion happens to be his own brother.
“Hank Schwaeble has done it again. Diabolical more than lives up to its title – a twisty, turny demonic rollercoaster ride to hell.” –F. Paul Wilson, NY Times Best-Selling author of Fatal Error
“With Diabolical, Hank Schwaeble proves he is the real deal and one of the best new horror writers out there. This is a fast-paced, clever, scary, gripping, page-turning monster of a novel.” –David Liss, Edgar Award-winning author of The Devil’s Company
Recently, I interviewed Mr. Schwaeble and here’s what he had to say about his writing journey, his story, and his upcoming release.
Does your law background play any part in your horror novels? How about your military experience?
A lot of my writing is informed by my experiences as both a lawyer and, previously, a special agent and Air Force officer. When you practice law, you’re forced to develop an intimate understanding of how things relevant to whatever issue you’re dealing with work. Since the law touches virtually every aspect of life, if you represent a variety of clients you learn about a diverse range of occupations and endeavors. But even more than that, law school trains you how to learn and how to research topics. I would certainly be a different type of writer had I not had that education and had I not spent years practicing and representing a broad range of clients.
The military offers a different set of experiences than you learn as a lawyer, but I find myself incorporating that part of my life almost as much. My time on active duty was spent as a special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, so I not only had military training, I also was a member of the intelligence community and conducted a number of criminal and counter-intelligence investigations. It gave me the chance to do and see things not many people get to, and I’ve tried to put that experience to good use in my writing. Even though they’re supernatural thrillers, the protagonist in my first two novels is a former special forces interrogator. I’d like to think that my background lets me bring a degree of authenticity to the characterization.
But there’s another reason I think both my background in law and my military experience have been beneficial to me as a writer, and that is that both fields deal with the management of conflict. Fiction is about characters, and for a story to be interesting, characters have to face conflicts. Internal conflicts, external conflicts—it’s the clashing of goals, the facing of obstacles, the struggles to overcome opposition that make things interesting. Since there are competing interests in every lawsuit (and on each side of every transaction), just as there are threats and challenges presented by rival military forces and hostile nations, I’d like to think the combination of the two has given me a strong platform for creating tense fiction.
You’re a writer and a lawyer. What’s a typical workday like for you?
I’m a sole practitioner, so I don’t have as formal a schedule as most working lawyers do. But all that means is I don’t punch a clock, literally or figuratively. I may not need to bill 2,000 hours a year, but If I don’t bring in and do work I can get paid for, I don’t eat. When I was with a big firm, writing was something I did at night, and whenever I look back I’m sort of amazed I ever got anything written at all. When I left to go out on my own, I carried that habit with me and for a few years I wrote from around 11:00 p.m. until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. These days, I tend to write in the late afternoon or early evening, after I’ve handled whatever legal matters I need to for the day. I have to admit that sometimes finding the time to write can be a challenge. The law, as they say, is a jealous mistress. But when I’m disciplined and on my regimen, I have a 500-word a day minimum that I make sure I hit. Under penalty of harsh self-recrimination.
Your first horror novel, Damnable, won the Bram Stoker Award. Can you explain what that is?
The Bram Stoker Award is the genre’s most prestigious honor, the horror equivalent of an Edgar in mystery or a Nebula in science fiction. It’s given out by the Horror Writers Association, based on a vote of their active membership. Damnable won for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The competition was stiff, as it often is. Joe Hill won the best first novel award for Heart-Shaped Box the prior year, and I knew I was on the ballot with several other outstanding debuts the year I won. It’s the highest recognition the genre gives out, so it was extremely gratifying. It’s a neat trophy, too, a haunted house designed, I believe, by Harlan Ellison; probably the coolest looking one you can have sitting on your shelf.
Can you tell us a bit about your hero, Jake Hatcher, and the Hellion he’s battling in Diabolical?
Diabolical is the sequel to Damnable, which was where Hatcher made his first appearance. He’s a former special forces interrogator who was more or less hung out to dry by the military when public opinion on his specialty–coercive “enhanced” interrogations–began to turn and he found himself sacrificed for expediency. He was an asset the military used to do things most people don’t want to even hear about, and he always assumed that if there was a hell, he was going to be heading there. Yet in Damnable, he found himself in a situation where he realized he was the only chance everyone else had of not sharing the same fate.
Diabolical picks up almost a year after Damnable lets off, and Hatcher is approached by the head of a mysterious paramilitary group and told that someone is trying to open a portal to hell, and that he is uniquely qualified to stop it, because they believe that someone is his deceased brother, whom Hatcher barely knew. It seems his brother has escaped the clutches of damnation and is attempting to unleash hell on Earth. Although he’s reluctant to get involved, especially after what happened in Damnable, Hatcher soon discovers it’s designed to be an offer he can’t refuse.
Hatcher’s a guy who’s seen and done some very bad things in his life, to say the least. He’s used to operating in a brutal world where violence is the norm, and it’s a past he can’t seem to escape, especially considering it’s the only way he knows how to operate in the face of threats. Since being drummed out of the military, he’s been forced to use his skills to battle a different kind of enemy, whether he wants to or not, and he’s never quite sure what is actually real, what he can believe. And whether or not, regardless of the outcome, he’s still going to hell.
Is there a message in your novels you want readers to grasp?
First and foremost, I just want people to enjoy reading them. They’re stories meant to entertain, hopefully ones that readers will find compelling, with characters that intrigue them, but they’re still primarily intended to be entertainment. Yes, there are themes I try to explore, themes involving the nature of what we consider “good,” and whether someone who is “damned” can rise up and still try to do the right thing at what might be a tremendous cost to himself, even if he’s convinced there’s no chance for redemption. But if I’ve done my job and told a good story, the reader shouldn’t have to wonder what the point was. The story’s the boss.
What are you reading now?
I just finished The Good Son by Michael Gruber, and have started Down River by John Hart. Both are excellent writers.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Every bit of it. The moment I think I’ve “mastered” some aspect after finishing a chapter or scene, based on experience I immediately remind myself that tomorrow I’ll be back to thinking what I was so proud of is actually full of subtle (or not-so-subtle) flaws and that I still have a long way to go. Writing is work; it’s a process of constant improvement, a striving for some inarticulable artistic perfection, something you can’t describe, but that you’re confident you simply would know when you see. The thing is, if you’re going to be successful as a writer you also have to understand that you’ll never see it, because perfection is unattainable. So we’re constantly striving for something we’ll never reach, and know we’ll never reach, but we set that as a goal anyway and force ourselves to recognize when we’re not going to get a particular piece of writing much closer to it without wasting unnecessary time and effort, and that’s when we reluctantly prod ourselves to move on to the next thing and hope readers don’t look at it with the same jaded eyes.
Okay, I know some people might think that’s a cop-out answer, since saying everything is the most challenging is the same as saying nothing really is, so I’ll try again. The most challenging thing to me, I’d have to say, is figuring out how to use as many words as necessary to tell the story, without using any more than that. That’s the magic formula: omit needless words. Easy sometimes in the micro, not so easy in the macro.
How has your writing process changed as your career has developed?
I used to write in bursts, hours at a time here and there when I had the chance, and I usually had to be in just the right mood, filled with that feeling that I wanted to attack the keyboard. Start writing on a Saturday around noon, for example, and not leave my computer until late that night. But that was terribly inefficient. It was the product of thinking I didn’t have enough time to write on a regular schedule, combined with a misapprehension about the nature of writing. Writing is not, contrary to what many believe, the product of inspirational surges where the creative juices overflow. Sure, there are occasionally those, but they will tend to be few and far between and won’t result in nearly as much productivity over the long haul. What writing actually is, is work combined with habit, enabled by a modicum of talent. It’s training your mind to be creative, to operate in a creative mode as a matter of course. It’s being creative by process, not by chance or whim, and being productive via a routine that you’ve consciously constructed. If writers were only able to write when inspired, when the spirit or muse moved them, not many novels would get written.
What are your thoughts on marketing and the e-book revolution?
The nature of professional writing has undergone a number of changes in the past century. The appearance of paperback novels created a commercial fiction mass market much larger than anything before it. Things like the GI Bill expanded educational opportunities after world war II and increased both the number of readers and potential writers out there nationwide. But writing a novel back then meant sitting at a typewriter, it meant crumpling up pages and starting over when you made a mistake or decided you needed to change tack, it meant going to a library to do research among dusty stacks. It meant a lot of work and time, more than most were willing to do, and that ensured that demand was generally greater than the supply and consequently a competent writer could make a decent living as a novelist. But as is the way with things, they kept changing. Tax laws that used to make it advantageous to warehouse books were revised in the 80s to where inventory became a liability instead of a deduction, and not coincidentally the average shelf life of novels shrunk considerably. Most significantly, the advent of word processors transformed the way stories migrated from a writer’s brain to the printed page, and by the 1990s, pretty much everybody had a computer, and people who in prior generations may have harbored vague notions about writing a novel someday decided they were actually able to write one. So publishers started getting inundated with submissions, and the glut of novels available, combined with the rise of national book chains with centralized buyers, pretty much destroyed the ability of most midlist writers by the turn of this past century to earn enough to allow writing to be their only source of income. Making a living as a writer if you weren’t a best seller became incredibly difficult compared to decades prior.
We’re undergoing another one of those sea changes in publishing right now with ebooks. It remains to be seen whether ebooks will end up existing alongside print books as merely a sizable percentage of the market or effectively replacing them, but, regardless, these are uncharted waters. One thing seems certain—ebooks aren’t going away, and their existence as a significant and growing percentage of book sales presents some major challenges to publishers and writers. Traditionally, the best way to promote your book was to have it prominently displayed in bookstores, something individual authors really couldn’t make happen. There are other ways, but placement has always been the cornerstone. Publishers pay money to have books displayed in the front of stores and on tower racks so customers can see them and this is considered the most reliable way to generate sales, so it’s treated as a promotional expense. But how to accomplish the same thing with ebooks is something that is still unclear.
Websites have limited visual space to display book covers compared to a store where people walk around, and it’s not quite as convenient to shop for a book online if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. Browsing a bookstore used to be a tradition for literate people, and the source of many sales and the way new authors found and grew their readership. What’s going to replace that? If you’re not a name-brand author, the world of ebooks can be a scary place, a vast ocean of titles in which your book is just one of millions, likely to go unnoticed because it will more or less only appear if someone searches for the title or the author’s name. It’s daunting to think about. In that kind of an environment, marketing becomes paramount, but publishers are becoming less and less likely to be spending money for midlist authors, and it’s being left up to writers to promote themselves. So authors who aren’t household names or who don’t have loyal followings numbering in the tens of thousands are going to need to figure out ways to market themselves that really work and aren’t simply self-congratulatory exercises that appeal primarily to the ego, like book signings.
Some authors have had good success selling their own books at lower prices than print books go for, but I think that was the product of an emerging market eager for content and willing to experiment. As the technology and related markets mature, I don’t think that will last for non-name brand writers who don’t control their own backlist, as the ebook world is going to become awash in self-published junk and readers are eventually going to expect some signifier of quality, like the imprimatur of a recognizable publishing house, before they lay out money for an author they’ve never read. I wish I had some words of wisdom in on the challenges we’re all going to be facing, but I don’t. It’s a Brave New World, and we’re all groping around in the dark to some extent.
Can you tell us a little about the next writing project you’re working on?
I’m finishing up a mainstream thriller right now, and my editor at Penguin has a proposal for a third Jake Hatcher novel I’m pitching them. I’m also writing a short story for the upcoming Zombies vs. Robots anthology, based on the comic book and soon-to-be major motion picture.
Hank Schwaeble is a thriller writer and practicing attorney in Houston, Texas. His debut novel, DAMNABLE, won the Bram Stoker Award (his second) for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The sequel, DIABOLICAL is scheduled for a July 2011 release. He has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award.
A graduate of the University of Florida and Vanderbilt Law School, Hank is also a former Air Force officer and special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He was an editor of the law review at Vanderbilt where he won four American Jurisprudence Awards.
To learn more about Hank, please visit his website.