A native of Arlington, Texas, Shaun Hamill holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in the dark woods of Alabama with his wife, his in-laws, and his dog. A Cosmology of Monsters is his first novel.
Interview with Shaun Hamill
Welcome and thanks for this time out of your writing life.
Congratulations on your debut novel A Cosmology of Monsters.
Tell me more about the seed and inspiration behind this tale?
Thank you so much for the congratulations! This tale was inspired by a couple of things—the first was my love of epic family novels, like John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, and the second was my fond memories of visiting haunted houses with friends in my early-to-mid 20s. I’d never read a novel about haunted house attractions, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the lives of the people who work in these places—what haunts the haunters? All the supernatural elements emerged naturally from that first idea, and they seemed to fit, so I was happy to follow them down the rabbit hole.
What do you hope to communicate with this novel?
Lots of things, but I guess the main thing is that monstrousness is often a matter of perspective, and empathy for yourself and others is a worthwhile pursuit.
You have two quotes in the epitaph of your novel.
One by Ray Bradbury and another H.P Lovecraft, why these ones?
The meaning and significance of them?
The Ray Bradbury quote is something I’ve been holding onto since college. I heard it in a film class and it struck close to my heart. With this novel about monstrousness, both our fear of the outsider, and of being the outsider ourselves, I found the perfect home for it. The Lovecraft quote is the quote that inspired me to include Lovecraft as a major reference point in A Cosmology of Monsters. I loved the idea that Cthulhu was communicating with human beings through the dreams of poets and artists—of tying ambition and inspiration to the darker elements of life (since this is primarily a story about a family with an ambition).
“He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them onscreen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”
Upon retiring, he had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror. Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars, and from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound, but which he attempted to render by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters, “Cthulhu fhtagn.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
What does writing mean to you?
That’s a big question! I’ve always been a storyteller—starting with my toys as a little kid and then moving on to writing and drawing comics, then screenplays, and finally finding my happy place with novels. It’s the center of my life. When I’m reading a good book, I’m happy. When I’m writing and it’s going well, I’m very happy. When I’m not writing, or when the writing is going poorly, I’m unhappy. I guess it’s as simple as that.
Harry, one of you characters in novel A Cosmology of Monsters mentions, “I think horror is the most important fiction in the world,” tell me about you and horror fiction in the world and what it means to you?
Fear is our most base, primal emotion, and I think it’s at the core of what drives most of us—we go to work because we’re afraid of not having food, shelter, etc. We’re nice because we’re afraid of how the world will treat us if we’re not. We lie because we’re worried that the truth will make us look bad. We help others because we’re afraid of what we’ll think of ourselves (or what others will think of us) if we don’t. Fear is dominating the American political landscape right now. Most fiction interacts with our fears, but horror fiction interacts in the most blatant way, and when it’s done well, it creates an amazing, cathartic experience for its audience. It allows us to face the dark, look our deepest fears in the eye, and then go on living.
Writing, when, where, and with what do you do it?
I like to write at home, at my desk, with headphones on and the door shut. I like to write by hand when I’m composing, then move to the computer for revisions. When I’m working by hand, I use yellow legal pads and black rollerball pens (fine or extra-fine). I’ve played with fountain pens, but it’s hard to find the right kind for a left-handed person.
I prefer to write in the morning when I can, after I’ve had a cup of coffee and a shower. If it’s the first thing I do, it’s more likely to get done. Unfortunately, I usually have to write in the evenings because I have a day job (but if enough people buy my book, maybe I won’t have to anymore!).
What key writing advice would you share?
Read constantly. Read in your favorite genre, but also outside it! Get familiar with different types of stories. The more you know about fiction, the more tricks you have in your bag.
Write constantly. Be as honest with your reader and yourself as you can in your fiction. Tell the emotional truth, even if you’re telling a story about space zombies—at core, people still want to read about people, and if we believe in and care about your characters, we’ll follow you anywhere.
Join a writer’s group if you can, or take classes at your local community college/university (there are lots of great creative writing teachers out there—it’s how a lot of great writers make their living between books!) If you can, join a reading committee for a literary magazine or literary prize. Most mags are always hungry for readers. Reading submissions by other writers working today will do more for your writing than any class or writing group. You’ll start to see what the current trends and clichés are, and you’ll know how to avoid them in your work.
Your memorable monsters from fiction, and what they taught and mean to you?
Eli, the child vampire from Let the Right One In. This is a story that took me right back to being a kid, and reminded me of what it was like to feel lonely and make a new friend who may not be entirely good for you.
Grover from There’s a Monster at the End of this Book—it was the first time I remember a muppet (besides Cookie Monster) being referred to as a monster, and it definitely re-shaped my idea of what the word could mean as a kid.
The Monster from Frankenstein: A pitiful and pitiable creature with a vengeful streak in his heart. That desire for vengeance is ultimately what makes him monstrous—not his appearance or origin, but the hate in his heart.
Cthulhu from “The Call of Cthulhu”—the perfect example of Lovecraft’s essentially unknowable cosmos, a being terrifying and darkly wondrous. That sense of dark wonder is what I was chasing during the composition of A Cosmology of Monsters.
Thank you for this insightful peak into your writing mind and life.
Thanks so much for having me!