I recently chatted with C.J. Henderson, whose book Central Park Knight, sequel to Brooklyn Knight (which was really fun!) is being released today by Tor. We’ll be giving away a copy to a couple of commenters.
Justin Blazier: Thanks for taking time out to answer some questions for me. Your writing ranges across several genres. You’ve had successes in Horror, Detective, Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi and Fantasy. The Brooklyn Knight series seems to provide a home for all your varied writing interests. Was that the plan?
CJ Henderson: No, not at all. First off, it couldn’t have been because, well… I don’t actually ever have a plan. I make things up as I go along. All I knew when I started was that the character’s name was Piers Knight, and that he was a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, because I had worked that much out with the editor. I also had a fairly good handle on the character of the intern because I had decided to model her after a friend of my daughter’s I thought would be perfect for the part (ironically, I discovered after I made that decision that her friend had just been awarded an internship at the Brooklyn Museum for that summer, so I guess she was even more perfect for the part than I thought).
So, if you make things up as you go along, where did the original idea for The Brooklyn Knight come from?
In a nutshell, it was the idea of the original editor, the late Brian Thompson. He loved matching people to projects, and he was really good at it. He was a Brooklyn boy like myself, and he loved the Brooklyn Museum. He pitched the idea to me to have a curator at the museum get into some kind of urban fantasy mischief. He was an enormous fan of my Teddy London supernatural detective series, knew the work I had done for the Lovecraft estate with their character Inspector Legrasse, and the Zarnak stories I had done for the Lin Carter estate. He also knew I was getting a little bored with doing so many action adventure horror novels and shorts centering around hard-boiled detective types.
He realized (even if I didn’t) that I needed to shift gears. He also knew I was getting into a lot of lighter stuff, and so he put together an idea he thought might be perfect for me. He was right, of course. I took to the idea of Knight immediately. The first novel simply flew out of me. I knew so much about the character before the first chapter was finished, it amazed me. In fact, I still know tons more than the audience does.
I liked Prof. Piers Knight’s character quite a bit. He was simultaneously both frustratingly aloof and charming to those around him. I compared him to Indiana Jones in my review, but I don’t think the two characters would get along if left alone together. In your opinion what sets the professor apart from his relic-hunting peers we see in other works?
Wow… you know what I just said about knowing things the audience doesn’t? Well, I have to be a rummy here and dodge this question. You were sharp enough to notice that Knight is a bit different. That he acts just a bit out of step with others. For once (haha) that’s not bad writing on my part. No, he is different. He does have a secret. And just as there were clues ladled into the first novel, there are more in the second. The secret (first part, anyway) won’t come out until the third.
And yes, Piers would see Jones as an opportunist, as a user of people. Jones succeeded so brilliantly because of his amoral nature. It was great writing. Piers has no problem with making hard choices, but he would have blown up the Ark rather than let it fall into the hands of the Nazis. Indiana Jones is a little boy who has to have what he wants when he wants it. That’s what makes him adorable and why women love him and want to reform him, and why they forgive him when he acts badly. Women are hardwired to forgive children when they act stupid and self-centered. If they weren’t, none of us would survive childhood. But Piers is an adult. He is his own man. There will be no molding of the professor by outside forces any time soon. Adults can’t be forgiven by others. They have to accept responsibility for their actions.
Man, I talk a lot, don’t I? If I don’t curb myself, we’ll be here all day. Next question.
You dabble in the humor business a bit and you’ve even written some humorous fiction. Brooklyn Knight had its fair share of funny moments. How important is it for you to make your readers laugh from time to time, even though the overall tone of the novel is fairly serious?
I wouldn’t say it’s important to me. It’s more that humor just comes to us in real life all the time. Sometimes we see it and sometimes we don’t. Two of my absolute favorite horror movies are Ghostbusters and Tremors. Both of these movies are filled with humor, but one of them is thought of as a comedy and the other as a horror movie. I really do believe it’s only the presence of so many comedians in Ghostbusters that made them promote it as a comedy. The storyline itself is straight horror… and Lovecraftian horror at that.
For instance, none of the KNIGHT short stories have that much humor. I think it’s because novels give me more time to relax and get into character situations, where the shorts have to be story-driven, straight forward, zoom-o kind of things. I love writing humor, my three most recent short story series have all been mostly comedy-driven. But to stop straying all over the place from the question, no, I don’t plan comedy in my novels, look for places to stick it in, or fret if it doesn’t happen. I just let things flow.
Where has all the comedy in speculative fiction gone to? I like to read and write humor and often wonder why I don’t see more of it on the shelves in the SFF genres. With the success of legends such as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, you’d think we’d see more.
I don’t know what to say. I love comedy, as I just said. But, it also took me twenty years of being published before I chanced writing any. I think it takes a great deal of skill to turn out decent comedy. I find myself holding my breath anytime I send one out, waiting to see what the editors say back to me. The problem with comedy is that so much of what is passed off as humor is topical — transitory. Funny today, maybe even tomorrow, but next month? Who knows?
I do stories now about two sailors, Rocky and Noodles, which are sci-fi military musical comedies. Monty Python meets Abbott and Costello kind of stuff. There are a lot of Star Trek references which, if people catch them, will be funny, but I don’t rely on those for the humor, because yes, old farts like me think the sun rises and sets with Classic Trek, but the younger audience, who knows? And, nothing turns off an audience faster than an entertainer so in love with something they find fault with their audience for not getting how “clever” they are.
The CHALLENGE OF THE UNKNOWN series centers around a network news show dedicated to info only on UFOs, haunted houses, witches, werewolves, et cetera. The idea came to me thinking of the old ABC show Sightings, which ran for two years I believe, actually only covering such news. I always wondered, what would happen if these people went into one of these haunted houses and peoples’ heads started spinning, and stories started pouring out. These are much in the Ghostbusters vein, with the humor coming from the absurdity of the situation, and horror based more on the hideous things Hollywood types do to each other rather than buckets of meat and blood being thrown against the wall.
I guess the answer is, humor is tough. Even out of the two examples you gave, I never got into Pratchett, but I chased down every scrap of Douglas Adams. Yeah, humor is subjective, and scary. You have to have iron pants to submit humor.
The new book, Central Park Knight is releasing today. How was the writing of book two? I know, for some authors, book one is sort of a feeling-out process, and book two can be easier or more difficult depending on how you felt about book one.
Book two was a lot harder. Since the clues being hidden were closer to the surface, since essentially the second book is the second act as far as the big reveal is concerned, they took a lot of effort to conceal. I hate authors who write books which don’t end, basically telling the reader, “hey, you want more, you want answers, wait for ’em, or go away. I don’t care enough about you to bother.”
Think back to the original Star Wars. Now, sure, that story doesn’t end. When the first movie is over, the rebels are still in terrible trouble. But, we’re given enough of an ending that we’re all happy. As the old-timers (like myself) in your audience will remember, there was no talk of a sequel. We all thought that what we had seen was all there was going to be.
Well, that’s the way I write my novels and even my short stories. The ending is the ending. Period. I always want whatever I deliver to the public to feel like that’s all they’re getting, and for it to be a satisfactory meal. So, yeah, this one was harder because to achieve that sense of completeness, I had to work a lot harder.
Also, on a more mundane level, the idea of the series is that Piers will have a different intern in each book. Intern is by its definition a transitory position. And, I didn’t just want to bring in a clone of the first intern. Even if the public loved her, it was a cheat. Why bother changing characters if there’s no real change? So, to give myself a challenge, I brought in someone completely different. Different on every level, just to make myself work harder.
And, while I was at it, I thought, why not do that on all levels? You see, another thing that irks me about some series writing is the way the characters do the same things every time. It’s like a female character on a TV show who always wears boots, jeans and a tank top. Does she own no skirts? No suits? No gowns? No sneakers? Anyway, where a lot of writers would have Piers search the museum for mystical weapons suited for the new menace and then dispatch it, I didn’t want things to be that easy. So, as soon as he assembled the weapons in the second book, I pull the rug out from under him so that we can see if he has any worth as a thinker, as a man.
Yeah, I set myself a number of challenges in the second book, and I probably made my editor (the incredibly patient and insightful Kristen Sevick) wonder if the merchant marine might not be a more rewarding career, but I had a good time and was happy with what I accomplished. Now I’m just waiting for the world to return the report card.
How many more of the KNIGHT series can we expect? The Professor has the potential to carry a long-term series. His talents and interests lend themselves to some great stories.
How many we can expect is up to Tor, of course. Hopefully sales will justify their continued faith in the series. I know the third book inside and out. In fact, if folks go to my website, posted right now are the stories “An Excess of Joy,” which is the first few chapters of Central Park Knight, and “Pragmatic,” which I know, and well, I guess now everyone else knows, is what I plan to make the first few chapters of the third novel.
Like I said, there’s going to be a big reveal in the third book (and no, you can’t figure it out by reading “Pragmatic”), but it’s a reveal for the audience only. In the fourth book, I want that reveal to be made to the world at large. The fifth would be Piers dealing with the world having found out his secret. Then, in the sixth, there would be a reveal to Piers about his secret. And then… well… after that trying to tell you what I know without giving anything more away gets impossible. So, let me say that I see the possibility of a lot of books myself.
Now, I only know the actual menace and some of the plot for the third. I know nothing of the stories of the others, just the big moments. Whether it’s vampires, werewolves, bad-ass fairies, killer clowns, I don’t know. Knowing that the menace in the third book is another massive one, I’d like to calm things down in the fourth. Of course, I thought I was going to do that in the second, and well… that didn’t work out, did it?
Wow, well… in no particular order, just as they pop into my pea-sized brain… ah… Stan Lee, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clifford D. Simak, Jack Vance, Rex Stout, Douglas Adams, Alfred Bester, John Brunner… I could probably go on, but how many people can be the “biggest?” Better stop before I water down the honor too far.
Where/when did you get your start writing? Has it always been something you’ve wanted to do?
My earliest memories are of telling stories to the other kids under the street light at night. I have always been a storyteller, and I always will be. The fact that I was able to get my work into print and make my living from writing has been a terrific blessing, but I would have been doing it no matter what. Yeah, it’s what I always wanted to do.
I read your bio on your website. You point out a fact that most readers don’t realize — that more than likely their favorite author has a day job *gasp*. Your list of past jobs is quite extensive. One on the list was “Lounge Lizard.” What exactly is a lounge lizard, and how exactly does one become said lizard of the lounge?
It’s just an old term for someone who sings in a lounge. It’s meant to convey a sense of not the Frank Sinatras and Tony Bennetts, but the guys who are only cheap knock-offs of them. For every Lady GaGa there are ten thousand really sad and awful imitators. Now, hopefully I wasn’t that bad, but I did get into a suit and sing in bars for very little money, knocking out stuff like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for people who were just trying to drink and not be seen by anyone who knew them while they tried to hook up with people who were not their spouses. Oh, my sad, sad past.
Looking back over the years of your writing career and comparing that to what new authors go through now, do you think things are better or worse for aspiring authors?
Yes. Not being a wise-guy, it’s easy to talk about how much harder things were back when, or how hard they are now, depending on how one wants to be viewed by those to whom they’re speaking. But, for new authors, things are as they are. They don’t know what it’s like to have print magazines in every drug store that people actually bought and read, but on the other hand, they don’t have the fear and mistrust of the internet that a lot of older writers have in the back of their minds. They accept the world for what it is, because that’s what it is.
Having had to walk uphill ten miles every day to sell a story when I was young, having grown up in an era when self-publishing was a dirty word, it’s easy to look around and talk about the vast opportunities that folks have today. But, it’s always goddamned hard for people to break into any aspect of training. Look at all the American Idol-like shows. That fierce competition, the fear, the panic and hope and desperate desire, that’s all of us. Dancers, singers, sculptors, photographers, comics, writers — all of us — we all want to make it, get the checks, hear the applauds, feel the love, and we all have to go up against a world full of others who want the same things.
There is always a terribly small and finite amount of reward to spread around amongst the hordes of hopefuls who desire to be recognized for their talent. People write for a lot of different reasons, and they don’t usually know what it is they’re trying to do, or why they’re doing it. They just know they have to do it. And it hurts to be rejected just as much now as it always has. Being told you’re no good, that you need to improve, that you’re services are not required at this time, whatever, hurts just as much now as it always has.
And yeah, I know this isn’t exactly what you asked, but it’s the best I’ve got. Yes, I’ve written some 70 books/novels, had hundreds and hundreds of short stories and comics published, thousands of non-fiction pieces printed, and I’m still scrambling after the next sale. There are a handful of writers who can churn out anything and have it end up in print without worry. For the rest of us, it’s a scary, numbing, humiliating crapbag of a job, with one of the sweetest rewards any human being has ever received, one of the most golden rings ever snagged.
It’s always been hard, and it’s always going to be hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it. And then getting published wouldn’t mean anything. And in a way, getting published doesn’t really mean anything. People with no talent get published all the time. People whose work will not last even unto their own demise get read by millions.
What’s hard is getting published, and getting read, and then getting reread. What’s hard is writing something that will affect the way people think and live their lives. That will touch their souls. That will make them cry. That will make them a better person. That will make them remember you in their prayers.
That’s what’s always going to be hard. And it should be.
I always like to ask authors their opinion on the state of the industry. Some are a bit nervous as things move quickly into unknown territory, with the internet and electronics changing the landscape almost daily. Where do you see SFF publishing in the near future. Is it really all doom and gloom? Or are we on the brink of a renaissance of sorts? Maybe something else entirely?
You’re talking to a guy who’s getting away with writing scifi military musical comedies. Science fiction is in a recession right now because science itself is in a renaissance. Every day, something’s being cloned, or a new app is changing everyone’s perceptions, or a new element is being identified, a new origin for the universe is being uncovered … I mean … I just saw something yesterday on the fact that cars can now parallel park themselves. Are you kidding me? Really? Crap!
Also, genres take turns. A marketplace gets saturated and has to fall to rise again. Fantasy is pretty big right now. Steam-punk is growing, but in both fantasy and sci-fi directions.
I’m not nervous, but I write everything. I miss writing hard-boiled detective stuff, but the market isn’t there. Also, I’m not as angry and crazed as I was thirty years ago when I was knocking those stories out all over the place. Now, I want to laugh, and to make other people laugh, so I do a lot more comedy. I also want to give people hope, and to try and get them to believe in themselves and their ability to accomplish things. That’s a big part of whatever I write, no matter what genre I fold it into.
So, for the SFF marketplace in the near future, all I can say is, it will be doom and gloom for those who don’t give the public what they want, and butterscotch and sunshine for those who do.
Now, of course, figuring out what people want … and when they’re going to want it … well, wow … talk about asking for the philosopher’s stone …
I really enjoyed chatting with C.J. Henderson and will look forward to hunting him down at a local convention this summer. Central Park Knight released today, so be sure to check it out. If you comment below, we’ll enter you into a drawing to win a copy (winners will be announced in the comments, so check the box to subscribe to the comments). You can also find more of C.J.’s work on his website. His site is full of samples and short stories. Personally, I enjoyed the Rocky and Noodles story quite a bit.