THE STRAIN, a collaborative reworking of the vampire mythos for today's times by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, might be the purest example of entertainment for entertainment's sake I've read in quite some time. In a lot of ways it reminded me of DRAG ME TO HELL - their common aim is to tell a good story, keep up rollercoaster-esque relentless momentum, and leave the reader/moviegoer with flushed cheeks and in a state of near-hyperventilation.
Since today is THE STRAIN's publication day, it's hardly surprising there's a plethora of coverage about the book already. I suspect there will be a lot of airport sales and ebook downloads as well in the days and weeks to come. But most of the coverage naturally centers around Del Toro - what with PAN'S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY and BLADE 2 to past credit and THE HOBBIT in the immediate future - while Hogan, the Hammett-award winning author of crime novels like THE STANDOFF, PRINCE OF THIEVES (about to shoot in Boston with Ben Affleck at the directorial helm) and THE KILLING MOON, gets the undercard. And being curious about the level of collaboration involved and how a writer accustomed to telling certain kinds of stories had to switch gears, I emailed some questions to Hogan, based in the Boston area, earlier this week to find out more along those lines.
Sarah Weinman: The first I heard of THE STRAIN was during the preliminary hearing of a lawsuit launched by ICM against Richard Abate, who quit to join Endeavor*. He'd mentioned in open court that the project was in the works and it would be shopped around to various publishers. Obviously, it was, and landed at William Morrow, but how did it get there, and how did you get attached as co-writer?
Chuck Hogan: So Richard calls me one Friday afternoon from LAX. He had just come out of some kind of
agency meeting with Guillermo Del Toro. I'm like, "HELLBOY
- right?" (This was early Autumn, 2006. PAN'S LABYRINTH
was a good four months away.) He said GDT has this project he
was considering doing as a novel, and was I interested? Sure, let me
see it. (This is the first and only time Richard has ever called me with
such a proposal.) He emailed me a 12-page double-spaced outline - and
I got a page and a half in before calling Richard back and essentially
telling him that I would do anything to be involved. It was all right
there. Richard cautioned me that he wasn't sure if GDT was looking
for a ghost writer or what. (Richard is my literary agent, but I also
have a manager, this fourteen-year-old kid who lives inside of me, a dork
supreme with impeccable taste, who did middle school book reports on NIGHT SHIFT
and THE SHINING. He said to go for it, no matter what.) Then I guess
Guillermo read my novels and informed Richard he wanted us to do this as
What no one knows is, GDT and I then worked on the book together (via email) for a full year - on just a handshake. (Actually more of a bro-hug.) No publishing deal, no contract between us. It was all about the writing. (If this seems professionally or legally foolish, let me reassure you that my manager was not concerned.) When it was ready, and we knew we had something, that's when Richard swooped back in and did what he does, selling it to Morrow.
Even then, we continued to work in secret (except for that meddling Nancy Drew crime blogger). The book wasn't formally announced until months after we'd finished it.
In a recent interview Del Toro described some of the collaboration process, like you had created one of the characters (the exterminator Fet) when he wasn't in the original bible for the trilogy. How much freedom did you have to deviate from the proposed outline, and aside from the mechanics of working with someone else, what major differences were there creatively from writing novels on your own?
I had total freedom. This seems incredible, and yet GDT completely opened up his story to me. This gave me an enormous amount of confidence - and anxiety - and really forced me to up my game. (The New York setting, the genre - all unfamiliar territory to me.) But this is not to say that everything I put in stayed in - not at all. We were rigorous in the editing, but in the writing, completely free. So, in that respect, I have to say that the process, both creatively and mechanically, was not dissimilar from the way I usually work - except that I knew I would be getting immediate feedback from a god of the genre. But - no pressure.
This is also the first time you've worked on linked novels, so what were the challenges of making sure each book stands alone while leaving enough of an arc to carry over three books?
That is proving to be more of a challenge with the second book, THE FALL. THE STRAIN contained so many introductory elements - and of course, anyone who's ever tried to write anything knows that beginnings are always the easiest. So many projects (TV series especially, it seems to me) start fast, then reach a certain point where you get the sense that the creators are figuring out things as they go. This is one problem we won't have.
You're one of a handful of crime writers who have, in a way, reinvented their careers by working with someone of greater fame - thinking of Michael Ledwidge and James Patterson, LEVEL 26, the upcoming "digi-novel" by CSI creator Anthony Zuiker with Duane Swierczynski, and Dale Peck's upcoming trilogy co-written with Tim Kring. Do you think we're going to see more of these kinds of collaborative efforts, especially with the way things are in publishing right now?
I have no idea. If it's a trend, I'm only glad to be the first. Guillermo himself has said that a career is what happens while you keep working. My two key things are following my passion and working with the best people I can. Career-wise, writing THE STRAIN could raise my profile; it could confuse booksellers and readers; or it could have little or no effect. Lev Grossman's review headline in Time Magazine read: "Guillermo Del Toro's and Some Other Guy's THE STRAIN." Lev Grossman keeps me grounded.
At the end of this, all I really know is that I'll have sixty new books on my shelf (one trilogy times twenty territories worldwide) and a great working experience with a true creative force. Win, win.
P.S. Patterson has co-writers???!?
What's the status of your next novel, which I last heard was coming out from Scribner sometime this year, and what kind of balancing act must you maintain working on the trilogy with your own work - especially with regards to voice, tone, characterization, etc.?
SUGAR BANDITS is due out from Scribner in Summer 2010 and I can't wait. The only real balancing act was in terms of delivery dates. They are very different books, so I had no problem jumping back and forth when I had to. Two different stack of papers and ideas.
In her review of THE STRAIN, Salon's Laura Miller ended with a curious comment: "Since "The Strain" is the first book in a projected trilogy, I'd like to take this moment to have a word with Messrs. del Toro and Hogan: Gentlemen, I won't speculate about whose divorce-settlement baggage found its way into "The Strain," but in the future, leave the score settling with your ex and her toolish new boyfriend at home. We don't want that in our vampire novel! When it comes to blood sports, please stick to the strictly fictional kind." As far as I know, Goodweather's marital status bears 0% relation to yours or del Toro's, but care to respond for the record?
I thought that was a really good review that captured some of the spirit and flavor of the book, which not all reviewers can do. I'll take that ending comment as a triumph of verisimilitude. I remain married. Guillermo remains married. And we remain married to each other, at least for two more books.
It's too early to tell at this stage, but do you think THE STRAIN will have an impact on your backlist? I know HarperCollins reissued THE BLOOD ARTISTS in mass market to coincide with the publication of THE STRAIN, but should people be surprised if they pick up, say, PRINCE OF THIEVES and look for ways in which it might be similar or different?
No idea. I certainly hope so. I just want readers. But I was very, very pleased that Avon reissued THE BLOOD ARTISTS. In retrospect, following an uber-thriller like THE STANDOFF with a three-years-in-the-making detective-horror hybrid might not have been the savviest career move. (Please see "Careers" # 4 above.) Yet, without it, I might not have gotten to work on THE STRAIN. See? My manager works in mysterious ways.
*Abate left Endeavor in the wake of the company's recent merger with William Morris and is now expected to set up his own shop.