Interview with Illustrated Hen author Scott Charles

Give a brief summary of your life till now and how it led you to write.

I grew up in the Midwest in the 60s, bounced around a bit and ended up coming to California in the 80s to finish up my schooling. I wanted to be a winemaker but ended up as a librarian (as did Book Review Gal). I worked in corporate libraries managing collections of marketing data.

I wouldn’t say my work and artistic life are closely related. I think my childhood is the biggest influence.

When I was a kid I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of movies. I had a large comic book collection. I often thought I wanted to be a writer. In college I took writing classes and got accepted into the Clarion Writers Workshop, a six week program for science fiction writers. But after college it occurred to me I didn’t have anything to say that I thought was important enough to write about. So I didn’t write anything for 30 years or so.

One day I got it into my head I wanted to write a play. So I wrote “Dinners With Augie” which is a short one act play. The play was produced three times (2011, 2015 in Sacramento and 2017 in Tucson.)

I really enjoy the process of writing, developing and staging plays so I kept at it. And I started writing stories again.

What inspired The Illustrated Hen?

There wasn’t a single incident or inspiration. I had a lot of ideas floating around, some mental notes about themes, and some short stories I had written years ago that I had been reviewing. The stories were very different but I thought they might represent parts of a single perspective. After a few weeks it began to feel like a particular character was emerging.

The actual hen character was inspired by an old science fiction story I read (I can’t recall the title or author) about an exotic alien bird that caused hallucinations in whoever held her. I thought that was a neat idea with lots of possibilities and decided to use it.

What prompted you to write The Illustrated Hen as a series of interconnected short stories rather than continuous chapters?

I read an anthology by an author named Clark Ashton Smith, published posthumously, which was edited so that the stories were arranged to give the reader the impression the stories were in chronological order, even though they weren’t written that way. Certain characters, objects, places and themes kept appearing, then disappearing and then reappearing. The stories were loosely related and so there was a linear feel to the book. It wasn’t a novel, but it felt novel-like.

Ray Bradbury (one of my favorite authors) wrote two novels that had a non-linear episodic approach, The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. Both of these novels flipped the idea of linear story telling on it’s head. He did something similar in The October Country and Dandelion Wine, but Martian Chronicles and Illustrated Man really stood out. Particularly Martian Chronicles, because the themes and places were treated as characters.

So both of those books are a collection of different short stories that feel like a novel, even though the stories are not directly connected. And that idea, that a novel could be written that way, really stuck with me.

So I began to think about how I could go about writing a novel with very different stories that was based on a single character. His experience, perceptions, emotional states, including his dreams. I also wanted to explore the idea that consciousness develops over time. The idea that a character can awaken to another reality always interested me.

I decided on a particular incident to tie the stories together, and I wanted to give the character an opportunity to reflect back on his life, so I used a prologue and epilogue to do that.

The Illustrated Hen owes a lot to The Illustrated Man. The difference is that in my novel the main character is central to the plot, and I use time-shifting and flashbacks. The Illustrated Hen has an inside-out approach which is a really different kind of writing.

Tell us about your next project.

I tend to have several projects going at once and work on whichever one is the most interesting at that moment. Right now I’m working on several plays, mostly short 10-15 minute scripts. A couple of them are scheduled to go on the stage soon.

What’s your research process like?

Mostly I use the internet. About 95% of the information I need is online. Sometimes I visit a local library to borrow a book that specializes in some topic I’m working on.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

I have a home office. Sometimes I make notes longhand but mostly everything is done with word processing software (I use Libreoffice.)

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

Sometimes I outline the stories before I get started. Other times I just start writing.

Most of the time I have a clear idea of where I want to go with the story. And I write my ways towards that goal. I try to do this quickly to get everything written and then go back and review, make more notes, and then rewrite.

Somewhere in the middle of the process or towards the end (the final rewrites) the story presents itself clearly, opportunities arise and I make changes based on the current state of the story.

So it’s an iterative process. No matter how I start the story is developed through the writing process.

I wouldn’t say the characters speak to me but I can imagine who they are, how they express themselves (how they talk, how they look), how they relate to their world.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Charles Schulz were my favorites when I was a kid (Schulz was a cartoonist but I thought the content was really good.)

I can’t say that I have favorites anymore. It’s more a question of what I want to read at any given time. I thought Annie Proulx’s Shipping News was a really good novel, as was Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Snail Eating. I thought Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow was a good read. I also liked America Afire by Bernard Weisberger. A poet named Chuck Brickley published a collection of haiku called Earthshine, which was outstanding. Right now I’m reading Gabriel Byrne’s memoir Walking With Ghosts.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

I don’t actually think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a “conversationalist.” I don’t have a particular dislike about writing except that it’s a slow process. What I like is the freedom to create something.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

I don’t like overhead fans, or watching strong winds blow trees around. I don’t like to watch movies where the wind is too strong. I was watching a Sherlock Holmes movie (Robert Downey Jr.) and there was a scene that showed the outside of a castle and there were wall sconces with flames and the wind was whipping those flames back and forth. That really unnerved me.

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