In the first three paragraphs of “Beacon 23,” you establish the voice, setting, and tenor of the story with exquisite detail. Where did you find inspiration for this tale?
This year has been a tough one for me. I lost the love of my life, my partner for the last thirteen years, after screwing up our relationship. Since then, I’ve lived on the road, alone, mostly despondent, in a constant state of shell shock. “Beacon 23” became a source of catharsis for me. The story gets darker as it goes on, and even the levity has a sinister cast. It felt great to write the work, and very easy to find the voice of someone who feels rattled and unstable. This was one of those works that seemed to write itself.
The use of sensory input throughout the story is stunning, becoming a character unto itself: “a nightmarish clatter of nerve-jangling assholes”; a steel marble dropped from a height of two inches onto concrete; whirrings, hissings, pingings, skitterings; darkness you can chew. They serve to heighten the tension in the story and provide insight into the possible question of narrative reliability of the main character. When you set out to write “Beacon 23,” did you intend for the sensory impressions to have such weight and engagement for the reader, or did that come later as the character developed?
Absolutely. This is a story about desolation. About emptiness. And the way to highlight that is to make every little sound and every nagging thought as loud as thunder. Absolute silence isn’t that interesting; anyone can plug their ears. What’s interesting is a world where your full senses are alert, but there is very little there to tickle them. It’s also the challenge as a writer to make a very constrained set come alive. You don’t have weather and traffic and wildlife to paint your world with. This means highlighting what little you do have.
This story deals with the personal horrors of war, and the twin hells of loneliness and the need to be alone. What sort of research did you do to help you prepare for the narrative?
I drew on my new singledom, my PTSD from being at ground zero on 9/11 and what I saw that day, and also my time at sea on my small sailboat nearly twenty years ago. There was a week in the Bahamas where I didn’t see another living soul. I was down in the Exumas, well into hurricane season, and most cruisers had gone home. For a week, I snorkeled and tinkered on the boat and went about my daily routine without seeing anyone. The only voice was the vocals from some CDs I had. After a few days, I realized I hadn’t talked except to sing some lyrics, so I stopped doing even that, just to see what it would feel like. After a few days of not talking, I got weirded out by the whole thing. The first time you talk after that long without talking is strange. It takes a force of will. Like the air has blocked up in your lungs. Or maybe it was because I’d resisted so long that it was hard to convince myself to break the streak. It’s not something I ever want to try again. It’s also something I’ll never forget.
This story made me twitch in some of the best ways possible, stirring both physical and emotional reactions in sympathy to the character’s plight. As a writer, what is it about the challenge of reaching out to readers on a visceral level that appeals to you?
I can’t write unless I’m writing about something that has deep meaning to me. That’s what motivates me to write every day. I want to express something, not just tell a story. Describing a series of events, just a plot, would bore me and make it difficult to sit down and write the next scene. So I need to be saying something, the bigger or deeper or more controversial the better. By the fifth part of “Beacon 23,” I’m writing about a decision that makes me cringe right now, even to think about it. I can’t believe I had a character I love make such a decision. I didn’t want to even write it. And that’s the kind of place I want to go with my writing. I want to be uncomfortable. I want to feel something I haven’t felt before. I want to be left thinking about the plot weeks, months, years later. Maybe I can’t pull that off, but it’s what I’m after.
Do you feel that a writer has as much an obligation to educate readers as he does to entertain them?
I think a writer has an obligation to educate themselves with their writing. They should learn something new, push through the folds of their brains and stumble upon a new thought, an original thought. Original to them, at least. We shouldn’t just dispense what we know; we should discover, and share that discovery. If we do, there’s a chance we’ll touch a reader or two in some significant way.
On your website (hughhowey.com) you talk about your childhood dreams of writing a novel and sailing around the world. With seven novels under your belt, you’re now hard at work on fulfilling your second dream. Tell us about the Wayfinder and your hopes of the high seas.
I’m sitting in a marina with the boat right now, using WiFi from a friend’s restaurant. Wayfinder is a fifty-foot catamaran I had built here in South Africa. In a few weeks, I’ll be sailing it back to the Caribbean. She’s my only home. I no longer have a house or a car or many possessions. Just what fits on the boat. I’ve lived like this for most of my life. The domestic thing and the writing came much later. It feels good to get back to this. Right. My goal now is to go see the world, meet lots of interesting people, read and learn as much as I can, write as often as possible, and challenge myself to live off the grid once again, in direct communion with nature and with those around me.
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