08 August 2015

"Pretty Enough for You" by Cliff Hudder: INTERVIEW & GIVEAWAY!

Lovelies, I present to you a mystery, a thriller/suspense you'll not soon forget!  :-)  
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by Cliff Hudder

You have a knack for blending history and fiction.  Does history play a large role in your development of story ideas, or do they come from other sources?

I think my ideas come from all over.  My first book, a novella called Splinterville, rose out of a specific line in a Civil War letter I found while researching the Battle of Chickamauga: “This, sir, was the point in which my day began to take on complexions of the bizarre.”  A narrator and a narrative line suggested itself just from that sentence, so if I have knack it could be for blending voice and fiction.  That manuscript ballooned to six hundred pages, then ended up being about seventy: like growing a redwood tree in order to whittle a toothpick.  My recent novel, Pretty Enough for You, is a present-day tale of bad behavior and law-firm shenanigans inspired by the Texas Department of Transportation’s practice of confiscating private land to build highways.  So I will take any idea I can grab, anywhere I can find it.  It helps me if there is a personal connection.  Splinterville is, at bottom, a book about friendship, and I’ve had very strong friendships that mean a lot to me.   Pretty Enough for You is about heartbreak and self-destructive tendencies.  Like many, I’ve got experience with that stuff, too.      

Have you always been a storyteller?  What are your earliest memories of telling stories?

I was—and am—an only child and remember entertaining myself for whole days with elaborate narrative adventures that took place on the high seas or in the air, accompanied by amazing feats performed by the model boats, submarines and planes I built from kits.  Sometimes I’d combine the kits and build sub-planes or rocket-cars.  I’d get into some fantastic scenarios.  I don’t think these tales were inspired by fumes from the glue, but could be wrong.  What I didn’t do was share any of these with an audience—they were for my own edification.  I think my storytelling is still pretty much for that.   

Were you an avid reader as a child and/teen?  What were some of your favorites?

My parents, my mom especially, provided me with a lot of books as a child, and I feel like I would “read” them even before I knew how to—just turn the pages and come up with words to go along with the pictures.  I was asked recently about early influences and thought about it honestly: the truth is comic books were huge for me.  The usual DC classics like Batman, Superman, and The Flash were my favorites.  At one time in my life I worked in industrial filmmaking and film editing which I enjoyed a lot, and I believe my comfort with visual storytelling came from exposure to so many of those graphic tales.  I read other things, too, but the first “grown up” author I fell in love with was Kurt Vonnegut.  I distinctly remember going to B. Dalton’s when I was thirteen and taking Slaughterhouse Five up to the counter, thinking they weren’t going to sell it to me because I was a kid—it was like trying to sneak cigarettes or condoms or something.  I felt so subversive and smart escaping into the mall with that book.  Vonnegut isn’t doing well in academic circles these days, but I think from him I got a sense early on of the deadly seriousness of humor.   

About the MFA, how do you think obtaining this degree has helped you in creating a better story?

I believe most people with MFAs have trouble putting their finger on just how the grad school experience did or didn’t affect their writing.  To me an important part was fairly intangible: just the experience of joining a community of people who took writing seriously.  Writing is solitary and it’s difficult to find like-minded folks who see it as a calling, something to pour your life into.  So that was powerful.  In some ways the literature courses I took for my degree influenced me as much as the writing courses—the MFA broadened my reading 1000%, and gave me a deeper way of reading that it would have taken me decades to stumble across on my own.  I’m presently back in grad school working on a PhD in American Literature.

What do you consider the most important part of the writing process?  What do you consider the most difficult?

All parts of it are difficult, or they are for me.  To return to Vonnegut again, he famously disliked the actual sitting down and writing part of writing, to the point that his agent sent him a letter: “Dear Kurt—I have never known a blacksmith who was in love with his anvil.”  That made him feel better and makes me feel better, too.  For myself the most difficult aspect might also be the most important: surviving the first draft.  Once I’ve accomplished a beginning, middle and end—an arc that at least approximates a “story”—I can get down to real writing, but without that, any minor disaster can derail the whole enterprise.  Pretty Enough for You had a first draft that was a two hundred and fifty page rant with a completely different ending from the finished book, but once I had it I knew I could cut, polish and cajole it into a novel sooner or later.

What advice do you give to students or new writers about beginning their writing journey?

Any of my students will tell you I am full of advice, but one important consideration might be putting aside ego in the interest of story.  Partly to me this means that you want readers to fall in love with a narrative or a character, not readers who will declare “Wow, what a writer!  Grace Paley in a story says “Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.”  That means a lot of things, but I’ve always taken it as a reminder that writers exist to introduce characters to possibilities: characters aren’t here to serve writers.  But a whole other aspect of ego abatement just concerns opening yourself up to taking advice, especially when offered by people you trust.  Because I’m presently chipping away at that PhD at Texas A&M I was fortunate to be able to take a fiction workshop with Angie Cruz there in the Spring of 2012 and—even though I’d been telling my own students this for nearly two decades—I had to make an effort to drop my defenses and listen when my classmate/colleagues explained how my aforementioned two hundred and fifty pages contained a whole lot of energy, but also made very little sense.  I did listen, worked it over for three years, and turned it into Pretty Enough for You.   

Who would you say had the greatest influence on your writing? 

Aside from the great writers that I love to read, and plenty of friends I rely on to give me feedback on my drafts, I have to mention my mentor at the University of Houston, the late Daniel Stern.  I took several workshops with him.  He emphasized craft in fiction writing, especially how important it is to understand the conventions of storytelling.  In fact, those were not negotiable.  He called them “Stern’s Laws.”  Eventually I realized that a sound understanding of the conventions—the rules—becomes most vital when veering away from those rules, so it was really about building a foundation to insure confidence, freedom and versatility in storytelling.  These days I have come up with my own “Hudder’s Laws” that I force upon my students.  (Example: Hudder’s Law #176: Bad choices make good stories.)  I hear Daniel Stern’s voice in my ear whenever I write. 

What is next in the writing life of Cliff Hudder? 

Cliff Hudder is going to be working on his dissertation, which is a non-fiction, scholarly, critical examination of four Houston fiction writers as read through the lens of region, geography, and place.  I think of it as a book rather than a dissertation as I believe that helps my sanity.  I have another box of material heading towards a Pretty Enough for You sequel, but I’ll have to see about that.   

Where did you get your motivation/idea for PRETTY ENOUGH FOR YOU?

It’s funny, because a lot of the idea seeds for the book seem to have little to do with its ultimate form.  A Texas Monthly article by Jan Reid had me thinking about eminent domain as a very loaded thematic issue for several years, but I didn’t have a story or structure to hang that on. Then, because I commuted to Texas A&M once a week, I decided I’d use my time in the car to experience Great Works on audio—catch up on my reading of the classics.  I now think this isn’t such a great way to absorb them, but, anyway . . . I had The Scarlet Letter going, and began to get the perverse and hubristic notion that the story would be a lot better if it took place in the twenty-first century.  Maybe as part of a modern day work-place situation.  Why not at a law-firm?  I could have a triangle with a passionate young Hester figure, a cowardly Dimmesdalian object of her affections, and a manipulative jerk who pulls their strings for his own dysfunctional pleasure.  So, I see it as a retelling—or even mis-telling—of Hawthorn’s novel, set as a contemporary office romance.  To top it all off, why not let the Chillingworth figure narrate it?  I borrowed a “hot mess” narrator from a short story of mine called “Inappropriate Love,” and I was off.  The story changed so extensively in the drafts that I don’t think much of what I just mentioned is noticeable in the finished product, except that the heroine does have a certain letter prominently displayed on her tramp stamp.  And that’s kind of the thing: now that I think about it, all of the above is a “MacGuffin”—an excuse to wind up the narrator, Harrison Bent, and let him loose on the world to encounter his “open destiny of life.”  He doesn’t handle his encounter all that well, either.             

Was the road to publication what you imagined it would be?  Easier? More difficult? Why?

Well, I’ve been publishing stories and articles—sporadically—since the early 90’s, so have kind of gotten used to the cycle of frequent rejection interspersed with occasional acceptance.  Seeking publication in general involves developing a thick skin and keeping at the submission process: then polishing, then submitting again.  But I’ve been lucky to have Paul Ruffin at Texas Review Press—the Sam Houston State University literary press—as a publisher for both of my books.  I appreciate his faith in me.  He was especially kind to me with this last novel as I had some last minute changes I felt just had to be in there.  There is also a very good designer the press works with, Nancy Parsons, so I love the way the book looks.  While publication has its obstacles, to me there is more frustration involved in publicizing—getting the finished product out into the hands of readers.  Every writer I know seems to fret about this, including friends who have books with big commercial houses.  The book world is chaotic these days: it’s like going to a Rolling Stones concert and trying to get Keith’s attention from the back of the stadium.  But the whole “road to publication and beyond” concept ultimately has to be put aside or it creates too much of a distraction from writing.  It becomes a time consuming, non-paying job all in itself, and a novelist already has one of those.  I write articles about regional and Texas literature and in those I have several responsibilities like proper citation and accuracy, and I have several responsibilities as an educator, plus several each as a husband, then as a father, then as a friend.  The beautiful thing is that as a fiction writer I ultimately have only one responsibility.  Unfortunately, I don’t exactly know what that is, but I believe it has something to do with honesty: calling things the way I see them even if I have to lie to do so.  It’s not always easy, but I try to focus on figuring that one out, not on publication.           

Ne’er-do-well immigration attorney Harrison Bent can’t imagine why the wealthy and mysterious Maggie Leudecke wants him to solve her eminent domain problem.  If he didn’t have an angry wife to placate, an inscrutable stalker to identify, an obsessed girlfriend to escape, and a murder to solve, a successful outcome to the Leudecke case might revive his career, pay for his autistic son’s special school, and—most important of all—help convince his young paralegal, Chloe, that the afternoon she spent with him in a cheap motel wasn’t an error in judgment, but the beginning of something profound.

If only he had some clue as to what he was doing ...  


"I can think of no one writing today who has so beautifully put into vital relationship officious history and literary fiction with such provocative and thoroughly entertaining results. This is a stunning debut by a master storyteller."  — Wendell Mayo, author of Centaur of the North, In Lithuanian Wood, and B Horror and Other Stories

"I don't recall many historical novellas or novels abounding in comedy. Another distinctive technique is the pseudo-footnotes. They remind me of Nabokov's footnotes in Pale Fire." — Robert Phillips, author of Spinach Days, News About People You Know.

From the book: I know myself. That’s the good news. That’s also the bad news. For example, I knew I was not equipped to deal with the Leudecke case. I also knew I wouldn’t turn it down or hand it off to somebody better suited. But, seriously, what background did I have in eminent domain?  Or with Mexican drug dealers?  Or dead Mexican drug dealers?  None. And I knew it.

CLIFF HUDDER earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Houston. His work has received the Barthelme and Michener Awards, the Peden Prize, and the Short Story Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.  His novella, Splinterville, won the 2007 Texas Review Fiction Award.  He teaches English at Lone Star College-Montgomery and lives in Conroe, Texas.

Buy Links: 
Texas A&M Press
Texas Review Press Catalog

Author Website: www.cliffhudder.com


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