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The Outhouse Interview: Charlie Huston

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Friday, November 06 2009 and posted in Features
charliehuston_crop.jpg Royal Nonesuch speaks to author and comic book writer Charlie Huston. It wasn't too long ago that Charlie Huston was working as a bartender in New York City, but since his debut novel Caught Stealing was published in 2005, he has become one of the most prolific crime writers out there today.  With his terse writing style and vibrant characterization, Huston has received praise not only from reviewers and readers, but also from his contemporaries (Stephen King referred to him as "[o]ne of the most remarkable prose stylists to emerge from the noir tradition in this century.")  In 2006, Huston made his comics debut, when he was tasked with a revival of Marvel Comics' Moon Knight character.  Originally slated to run as a six-issue limited series, Moon Knight vol. 3 was eventually expanded into an ongoing series.  His most recent novel is My Dead Body, the finale of the five-volume Joe Pitt Casebooks, which combine vampire folklore with hard-boiled crime.  His forthcoming works include a new novel, entitled Sleepless, and a Deathlok story for Marvel.

Would you say you accomplished all you were planning to with your MOON KNIGHT run?
At one point I had a vision of being with the title for a very long run, but my schedule made working a monthly unrealistic. I still have some regrets about not being able to tell the stories I had queued up, but I'm mostly happy with how the run turned out.
While your novels have your own singular vision, you've had to incorporate outside factors into your Marvel work (ie the post-Civil War Marvel Universe and the Registration Act in MOON KNIGHT). Looking back, would you say you were prepared for that difference between the two industries?
Sure. It would take a very naive writer to get involved with Marvel and not realize there are certain restrictions and responsibilities associated with using someone else's property. But it's not like anyone shoved Civil War or the Initiative down my throat. From my point of view those events offered great story telling opportunities and I took advantage of them.

How exactly did you get accustomed to the comic book form, having come in from the realm of prose writing?  Was that difficult?  What role did your editors and/or artists play in helping you with the transition?
It's still difficult. Novels offer a vast unstructured canvas that the writer can define as he or she wishes. A comic book script is a very rigid format. You can do a great deal with it, but you have any number of considerations that just don't apply to prose. First and foremost, you have responsibility to write something that can be carried visually. It should be good to look at, which means you sometimes have to fight your nature and just use fewer fucking words. I think the best practical tip I got came from Axel Alonso when he told me to use six panel pages as my base and try to limit the pages that use more than six. I was scripting 6-12 panel pages. Which is just impossible for the artist. Even if each panel is focused on a tiny fragment of detail, hand for example, it's still a tremendous amount of work, and there's little or no room for text. Now I try to use five panels as my base, but I'm still a panel heavy writer.

You co-wrote your last few issues of MOON KNIGHT with Mike Benson.  How did that collaboration work? 
As a relationship it was great. Mike and I would hang out, kick story around, he'd go write it, let me peek at the script, I'd maybe suggest a change or two, and he'd do his thing. But creatively I think it was a mixed bag. Everything Mike has written on his own is better than the work we did together on MK. That's just a fact. Bottom line: we worked well together, but I'm not sure the mix of ideas played on the page.
You wrote an ULTIMATES Annual during your Moon Knight run.  Was it another transition to go from serialized comics to a single issue, or do you think you had a handle on the medium by then? 

The hard thing about the ULTIMATES Annual was that it had two artists and each was under contract for a specific number of pages. I was writing a story in present day and in WWII, but I didn't have the liberty of skipping back and forth at will. Because one artist handled the present, and one the past, I had to make sure the action in each time period totaled the number of pages each artist was being paid for. That was a strange exercise. I like the final product, but I would have written it very differently if I'd not had to worry about the split.

You wrote two series of books, The Hank Thompson Trilogy and the now-concluded Joe Pitt Casebooks as well as two stand-alone novels.  Would it be accurate to say that writing serialized comics has a lot in common with writing serialized novels? 

Not particularly. Yes it's an ongoing story line, but one is told in big chunks that develop over fairly large periods of time, while the other is told in bites that get snapped one after the other. And then there's the whole artwork thing.  Writing a standalone novel has far more in common with writing a series novel than a series novel has with a monthly comic.

Having already written stories for MOON KNIGHT, SHANG-CHI and MAN-THING, your next project for Marvel is DEATHLOK.  What is it about the 70's characters in particular that appeal to you?  Do you have any desire to work with Marvel's 60's era characters?
I do love those characters, although SHANG-CHI was new to me, but it's really just coincidence that I ended up writing those titles. All of them were offered to me by Marvel. And it wasn't like they identified me as a 70s guy, it really just happened in a random kind of way. Someone, usually Axel, would say, "Hey, you want to do blank?" and I'd say, "Hey, I love blank." And I'd pitch an idea.

36_deathlok_2.jpgWhat tone is the DEATHLOK story going to strike?                                                    
Distopic black satire adventure.

You recently moved from New York to Los Angeles.  What effect does a writer's environment have on his or her writing? 
For me, tons. I fell for LA in a way I never expected to. As a result I wrote two novels set here: last year's THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH and my January release SLEEPLESS.  I have a rather feeble imagination, so having a real environment in which to anchor my stories is all but essential.

Did you always have a set ending in mind for the Joe Pitt Casebooks?  If so, did it stay consistent throughout the process, or did it change at some point along the way?

I knew how Joe's personal story would end for some time, but there were other aspects that moved a bit.

Do you have any plans to do another series along the lines of the Hank Thompson Trilogy or Joe Pitt Casebooks, or will you be focusing primarily on stand alone novels for the foreseeable future?

MYSTIC ARTS was written as the first in a planned ongoing series. I want to pick up those characters from time to time and see where they are, but other than that I have no series plans.

The settings for your novels are interesting in that the character's environment is as important to the reader as the character himself.  The cities are, in a way, another character.  As a result, the books are as much travelogues as they are character studies.  Was this a deliberate technique for world building, or was it incidental in the writing process? 

Incidental. As I mentioned before, a specific sense of place helps me to ground my writing. It makes it easier for me to visualize people and action if I can see where they live. That the locations have some life of their own is more a function of my enthusiasm for the places. I can't imagine writing about some place that I didn't love or hate. Why set a story in a town that makes you shrug?

th_0345501136.jpgYour next novel, SLEEPLESS, is due out in January.  It appears to be a more political story than what you've written thus far, and the apparent sci-fi tone is also a departure.  In what ways are you trying to grow as a writer?  What are important areas you need to focus on as you expand your repertoire?
I don't think it's political at all. In fact, I know it's not. DEATHLOK will probably end up being the most political thing I've written so far. Or at least the story that most consciously comments on how we live today. As far as growing as a writer, I don't have specific goals. It's more that I have interests that I want to poke at. And I want to be excited by what I'm writing and how I'm writing it. That means trying new things. I think the core of my stories and my style have stayed pretty constant. It's hard to truly break new ground, but I'm hopeful I'll write something someday that will utterly depart from what's   come before. Just to try it.

What else should we know about SLEEPLESS?
Essentially a Los Angeles cop story set in an alternate 2010 while the world is in the grips of a plague of sleeplessness.

Your Twitter feed is interesting.  You appear to have been writing the story one Tweet at a time, effectively using Twitter itself as your storytelling medium.  It's a fascinating way to utilize new media in order to showcase your abilities.  How much of the Twitter story was planned out in advance? Did you have an ending in mind before starting the project?  Do you have any plans to collect it in a print edition? 
No plans. It was an exercise in spontaneous brevity. The two stories I ended up writing started somewhat grounded, but became very stream of consciousness. I was less interested in plot than I was in trying to get tiny bursts of plot out in a very small space. It was a nice little education on how little you need to express some bits of story, and how some ideas just require breadth.

Anything else you'd like to tell us?  This is the place to lay everything out. 

Any websites, blogs, etc. where we can learn more about you and your work?
It's all at , but the place is kind of desolate right now as I'm very busy.

Note: Outhouse community members amlah6 and Punchy also contributed questions to this interview. 


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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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