Interview: Ernest Hogan

By James M. Palmer

Ernest Hogan exploded onto the SF scene in 1990 with his debut novel Cortez on Jupiter, part of Ben Bova's Discovery Series from Tor. Hogan followed that success with High Aztech, also from Tor. He has had one other novel, the recent Smoking Mirror Blues, published by Wordcraft of Oregon, and several short stories published in Science Fiction Age, Amazing Stories, Last Wave, New Pathways, Proud Flesh, The Red Dog Journal, and the Semiotext(e) SF anthology.

James M. Palmer: How did you get started writing?

Ernest Hogan: I'm a freak. My imagination is overactive and way too big -- like a hideous deformity. It cripples me in some ways, but allows me to do a lot of things that most people find difficult or impossible.

Leave me alone and I get ideas. Images form in my brain, then they turn into stories. Since my earliest experiences with such things were from television, movies, and comics rather than fine art and literature, it tends to be funky. One day in junior high they showed us a film about a day in the life of Ray Bradbury, and it looked like a great way of life to me.

JP: How would you describe your writing?

EH: That would depend on what particular piece of writing we're talking about. I am not now, nor have I ever been a card-carrying cyberpunk, but I get mentioned when people make up their c-punk lists. Does anybody really know what magic realism is? Some of my work is considered avant-garde, even if I originally wrote it with very commercial markets in mind. Am I a hard science writer because I've appeared in Analog? And then there's the whole Chicano thing. . . .

I've never been concerned with labels. It's better to let the academics worry about that. I'm too busy soaking up the inspiration that I find all around me and finding interesting things to do with it.

JP: Do you consider yourself primarily a novelist or short story writer?

EH: I've had a lot more luck with short fiction than novels. Just this year I've sold two stories: "Burrito Meltdown" to the Wordcraft/Back Brain Recluse co-production Angel Body and Other Magic For the Soul edited by Chris Reed and David Memmott (order yours today!), and "Coyote Goes Hollywood" to Witpunk, edited by Claude Lalumière and Marty Halpern, which will be out from Four Walls Eight Windows in [April] 2003, but these days I spend more time working on novels.

Too bad it's impossible to make a living writing short stories and damn near impossible to make a living writing novels. I really don't care about length. When in doubt I ask my editors what their limitations are.

JP: Your latest book, Smoking Mirror Blues, was published by Wordcraft of Oregon, while your first two novels were published by Tor. Why did you choose to go with a small press publisher? Are there things that today's writers can get from the small press that they can't get from large publishing houses?

EH: Now the sordid story can be told! I did the proposal for Smoking Mirror Blues shortly after I finished High Aztech. It took the nice folks at Tor a long, long time to get around to saying that even though they loved me, the market for my work, which they described as a "noisy minority," was too small. Suddenly, I had all these New York publishers explaining that my funny, sexy, action-packed, thought-provoking work wasn't "commercial" enough for them -- this was the beginning of the corporate takeover of publishing.

Then, people who wanted Cortez on Jupiter were told it wasn't available while I was being told that no one was buying it. The only people who got review copies of High Aztech had to call and use profane language to get them, but the book still managed to gain an international following. I used to take all this personally, but now I realize that the editors who like my work have to answer to people who think that the only money to be made is in entertaining those folks whose mantra is "I don't like to think when I read." The Nineties were a strange time, but I consider myself lucky. After all, I've satirized religion and politics, and no one has put a price on my head -- yet.

So, what's a vato like me, who finds Corporate Sci-Fi predictable and boring, to do? I kept one foot in the underground. If it weren't for David Memmott and Wordcraft of Oregon, Smoking Mirror Blues would still be unpublished and I'd be depressed and angry.

The small press can work as an alternative to Corporate Sci-Fi, especially if it hooks up with the Internet and other means of connecting with the readers. If the writers and readers can communicate directly, the multinationals will have to follow.

JP: Are you working on getting Cortez on Jupiter and High Aztech back into print?

EH: Yes! Yes! Yes! I managed to get the rights back, now if I can just find a publisher that's interested in selling books to a "noisy minority" that's getting bigger and noisier every day. . . .

JP: At the end of Smoking Mirror Blues, you set the reader up for a sequel. Is there a Feathered Serpent Blues in the works?

EH: I'd like to do a book where Quetzalcoatl takes Beto's body for a spin and deals with what his brother Tezcatlipoca is doing. There are also people who want me to write sequels to my other books. All I need is a publisher who will make it worth my precious time.

JP: Your work has been compared to that of Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, and William Burroughs. Did you take cues from any of these writers while learning your chops?

EH: Alfred Bester was the original master of creating complex, seemingly surrealistic worlds that work because they have the feeling of real life -- it's amazing that there are science fiction writers out there now who are not influenced by him.

Harlan Ellison was a big factor in my adolescence. He was so full of energy, passion, and was always coming up with new things, zooming off into new frontiers. You still never know where his writing will pop up next. I admire that.

William Burroughs heroically wrote about things most people didn't dare talk about, in ways that no one did before. And talk about imagination! Reading him opens up universes in your head, and I like that.

JP: What one writer has had the greatest influence on your work?

EH: The problem is, I just don't think like a monotheist. Everything influences me. Pantheons are more my style. I also don't have a favorite color. Why doesn't anyone ever ask if you have a favorite musical note?

That probably isn't acceptable, so I asked my wife, who is also a writer. She immediately said, "Chester Himes." Not a bad answer. I feel that Chester Himes is better than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Hammett. For those of you who haven't read him, he pioneered the inner city crime story that evolved into blaxploitation, and that dominates rap videos and prime time cop shows these days. High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues owe more to his masterpiece Blind Man with a Pistol than to any science fiction novel. I tend to identify more with the experiences of black writers than white authors, and the sort of people who attend writers' workshops make me feel like a Hell's Angel at a debutantes ball. Himes being black made him absurd, and being Chicano did the same to me. Like Chester, I guess I'm just another bastard son of Western Civilization, treated like an alien by his native land. My wife knows me well.

JP: You use references and characters from the Aztec pantheon in much of your work. Where does your interest in these gods come from?

EH: Like I said, I'm a Chicano, and by that I mean a Mexican American from L.A. My tribe is a subdivision of the new "Latino" identity that includes most of the population of the Western Hemisphere. As a kid in the Sixties, after learning about Greek mythology from Ray Harryhausen and Mario Bava, I was delighted to discover the Aztecs, and realize that they were my heritage.

I'm proud of my cannibal ancestors, and studying them, their culture, and other pre-Columbian cultures, has been a lifelong obsession. I've found that their gods work if I put them in a modern context. I often find myself imagining the evening news hosted by Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. They hold truths about nature, human and cosmic (this includes black holes and galaxies, as well as redwoods and butterflies) that modern people desperately need to remember. I also see a lot of myself in them.

JP: What can we learn from these gods?

EH: They offer a way to look at things from a different perspective. We all need to do that about a lot of things, especially religion, in this new age of holy wars. Funny, every day the world gets more like one of my stories. . . .

JP: Describe your work habits.

EH: I work full-time at a Borders. So does my wife. In fact, in the last couple of years a lot of published writers I know have come to work for, or at least have applied for jobs there. Be nice to the bookstore clerk -- he or she may be your favorite author. Which all means I'm a rather gonzo, on-the-run writer, scribbling in a notebook during my lunch hours, typing it into the computer and trying to make sense out of it at home. It's not easy, but slugging it out in the real world keeps the ideas coming. For me, peace and quiet have never been good for creativity. Keep the stimulation coming, and I'm inspired. Sure, I could use more time to get it all done, but life is like that. Ask any Aztec god.

JP: You are also an artist. Have you ever wanted to bridge the two art forms in your work and do your own covers or illustrate your books?

EH: Like a lot of writers of my generation, I started out wanting to be a cartoonist. Teachers don't like that kind of ambition. I caught a lot of flak for that: "Don't draw on your manuscript! Don't write on your drawing!" Think of all the great comics we'd have if the educational system weren't maiming us.

Sure, I'd love to do my own covers and illustrations. I've run into a knee-jerk reaction among "professionals" that this shouldn't be done. "How can anybody possibly write and draw?" Maybe some small press will let me do it some day.

JP: If you had to pick one thing, art or writing, to do for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

EH: I'm a writer because my attempts to make money through art have been disastrous. I won't go into any details -- it's all just too ugly and painful. If I go too long without drawing, or creating something visual, I get depressed. It's something else that I don't have any say in -- it's the way I am, the kinks in my brain.

JP: Where do you see your career headed in the future?

EH: I've got a "mainstream" novel that's taken shape and is coming to life -- I hope to finish it next year. I'd like to do a short story collection. Ben Bova wants me to write more about the universe of "Paco Cohen and the Mariachis of Mars." Then there's my unfinished horror novel about body modification. Oh yeah, and all those bizarro space opera ideas, and the things that my wife and I would like to collaborate on. My brainpan runneth over. It may all see print, too. At work, I keep hearing rumblings of dissatisfaction from the readers: seems that the Twilight of the Franchises is upon us, Corporate Sci-Fi's days are numbered. It's a new century; new kinds of entertainment are needed. We all better get to work on that.

 

Copyright © 2003 James M. Palmer

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James Palmer's work has appeared in such online venues as the defunct SciFiNow and RevolutionSF. He lives in Murrayville, Georgia with his wife Kelley. While recovering from his comic book addiction, James is vigorously plotting a novel about motherhood and faeries.