Axel Howerton Interview
Axel Howerton is a former entertainment journalist, and the Arthur Ellis Award nominated author of the detective caper Hot Sinatra; the modern gothic fairytale Furr; the zombie novella Living Dead at Zigfreid & Roy; and the noir fable Con Morte. His forthcoming “Wolf & Devil” 5-book Urban Fantasy series for Canada’s Tyche Books kicks off with Demon Days in February 2018. Axel’s short fiction, poetry and non-fiction works have appeared the world over in no fewer than five languages.
When he’s not on-duty as a “purveyor of literary badassery” and “hometown anti-hero”, Axel wanders the foothills of Southern Alberta with his two brilliant sons, and a wife that is way out of his league.
Visit Axel online at http://www.axelhow.com or seek him out on social media as #AxelHow
What was your motivation for the main character, Finn?
I wanted to write a kind of modern fairytale, in Urban Fantasy style, without making it an overt copy of some other story. I didn’t want to see another lazy “Cinderella in the city” or “Beauty and the Best with inner city teens”, let alone write one. I wanted to do something new and organic, but still based in historical myth. Those stories usually start (as most stories do) with an unsuspecting average person, who becomes somehow entangled in otherworldly weirdness. Being mostly known as a crime writer, I decided to take a classic noir protagonist – the devolving mind character (someone slowly losing their grasp on reality during their spiraling self-destruction) – and turn it on its head by having that spiral be the gateway to the other world, rather than the road to his doom. So, Jimmy Finn was born out of that. A timid, confused, self-doubting nobody who thinks he’s going crazy, but really ends up finding himself on his journey through the wilderness.
You described the setting beautifully and clearly. What is your process for developing the location where your story takes place?
Setting, to me, is one of the best places for poetry. Especially when it’s somewhere as beautiful as the Rocky Mountains. A lot of this book takes my personal feelings and experiences and twists them to my needs. I spent a formative part of my childhood in little mountain towns throughout the Kootenays. I remember vague details, like the ice cream shop in Rossland, BC. Like the glacial moraine lakes, the strange little side-roads that led up to tiny cabins hiding in the trees, the smell of mouldering leaves on the ground after the first little bit of snow in the autumn. I always try to infuse description with those details that I’ve actually experienced, the things that I can close my eyes and taste, smell and see. The more genuine I can make it in my mind, the more engaging it tends to be on the page.
As I mentioned in speaking about trying to marry noir crime and urban fantasy, I wanted to use a devolving mind character to lead the way through the doorway to the magical world of what became Bensonhall. It occurred to me that, werewolves, while frequently used as these powerful, ancient creatures, or as savage beasts and villains, are almost always fully-formed. There’s precious few books or movies that really explore what kind of psychological damage a transformation like that must wreak. One of my favorite werewolf stories is An American Werewolf in London, which I first saw when I was 7 or 8 years old, which probably explains some things. I’ve always been most drawn to that one because it doesn’t gloss over the destruction of the man as he becomes the monster. He thinks he’s going crazy. Everyone else thinks he’s going crazy. Of course, they do. Who the hell turns into a giant wolf under the full moon? And if it really happened, if you slowly began to feel new things, have your senses suddenly amped up to eleven, have your humanity itself come into question after a lifetime of being sure about who and what you were… if one day you woke up and you weren’t you any more, and you found yourself acting like that savage animal… what in the hell would that do to your mind?
It’s also because werewolves are just plain awesome. And the mythology that I was researching proves that humans turning into wolves is a worldwide mythology. Every culture has those stories. It’s a universal fear, built into us since the dawn of time. That’s always the best stuff to use when exploring the human condition.
For Furr, and other books/stories if applicable, did you create a family tree for your characters before writing, or did the family relationships develop as you wrote?
Usually, I do not. I will do a lot of basic character sketching, a lot of research to make sure that the characters make sense, but I haven’t really had to do anything as intensive as this before. It became complicated, by design, because I was basing the whole premise of the family on a two-thousand-year-old folk tale. When the Roman Catholics were trying to convert the Celts, and they sent Saint Patrick to “drive the snakes out of Ireland”, he was also converting or slaughtering the Celts throughout the UK. One of the legends is that when he faced a particularly unruly band in Wales, who laughed Patrick out of their village, the beloved saint cursed the whole clan to turn into wolves for seven years. It’s an amalgam of a lot of earlier stories and has been corrupted by the church and the nature of the oral tradition, but it’s still an interesting myth. I decided to take that one and flip it on its head as well. The result was having to figure out the genealogy of an Irish tribe over two millennia, and plotting out their escape from the Romans, all the way up to creating a new home for themselves in the Rocky Mountains in the twentieth century.
What is your self-editing process? Do you edit as you go or complete a draft first?
Generally, I write in spurts. Some days I’ll do eight hours straight, on-a-roll and striking lightning with every page. Other days it’s torturous to get a few paragraphs down. The one thing that always seems to be a constant though is that, before I can get into the flow with new words, I spend hours digging through what I had last written. Sometimes that means the first quarter or half of the book has been reworked fifteen times. The nice part is, by the time I get to the last third, the rest of the book is nailed down. By the time I finish, I only have a few chapters to really pore over, and everything else is already on a fifth draft. Of course, that also means it takes me three times longer to write than I ever budget myself for, and I’m consistently a month behind. Editors love me. Publishers hate me.
Should readers of Furr expect similar stories from your publishing house, Coffin Hop Press?
Furr is actually published by Tyche Books, one of the best Canadian small presses for sci-fi, fantasy and genre stuff – especially Urban Fantasy, and female-centric fiction – I love Tyche so much, and I’m so glad they gave me this opportunity to spread my wings. They loved the book so much that we were immediately talking about a sequel featuring the damaged genius drug dealer and the angry werewolf stripper (now you have to read the book!). That has now expanded into a series called Wolf & Devil, which continues in February 2018 with my next book Demon Days. There should be a new Wolf & Devil at least once a year, for four to five more books.
Coffin Hop Press, on the other hand, is my own small press, which focuses entirely on dark crime and weird fiction. CHP has published some of my work, including a mini-collection of stories that tie into my first novel, and the upcoming noir novel Con Morte. Coffin Hop does a lot of short story anthologies, like our Alberta crime book AB Negative, and our weird western collection Tall Tales of the Weird West. We’ve recently picked up books from great Canadian authors like Robert Bose (Fishing with the Devil), and before the end of this year we’ll have a crazy English crime thriller called Manchester Vice, by the inimitable Jack Strange, and a weird holiday collection featuring some amazing writers like Jessica McHugh, Sarah L. Johnson and Will “The Thrill” Viharo called It’s A Weird Winter Wonderland. Next year is already chock full of releases from the 50’s set noir Rocket Ryder and Little Putt-Putt Go Down Swinging by Timothy Friend, to an all-female Best of Canadian Crime collection and a dark crime holiday book featuring S.A. Cosby, Rob Brunet and more!
What other writing projects are you currently working on?
Beside all the publishing stuff, and the five Wolf & Devil books? Which ramp up the mythology of Furr into a Twin Peaks-ian multi-dimensional apocalypse saga.
Con Morte comes out September 28. It actually has a lot in common with the first half of Furr, as it also follows a devolving mind character, but it is decidedly not Urban Fantasy. Most of my stuff tends to be a kind of Genre-Lit that uses the conventions and settings of genre stories, but focuses on character and subtext much more than just plot. I’m also slowly putting together a collection of my own short stories to shop around, and working on two sequels to my first novel Hot Sinatra, which was a hardboiled detective caper and Arthur Ellis Award nominee. It’s a pastiche/parody/homage to Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, that features a handsome, intelligent Mary Sue kind-of guy, but he’s too wracked with self-doubt to notice. I also have a couple more novellas that I’m contracted for with CHP’s Noirvellas line, and then I have a few novel projects that have been waiting for me to get my act together. One is my twisted version of a not-quite-steampunk sci-fi post-apocalypse odyssey, that happens to revolve around the friendship of three men in the British colonial army in the 1870’s. One of them may (or may not) be my great-great grandfather, and one of them becomes David Bowie. The other book is a little like Furr, in that it’s a fable-ized retelling of the early days of Alberta. A “Historical Farcefable”? Call it The Sister Brothers meets American Gods. That’ll get me some calls from agents. Look for those ones… someday?
Ellen is a freelance fiction editor, book reviewer, research assistant for Simon Fraser University, marketing coordinator for WCSFA, and member volunteer for Editors’ Association of Canada. As of September 2017, she will also be a master’s student of publishing at SFU. You can contact her via ellenmichelle.com for any editing queries and at firstname.lastname@example.org for book review queries.