After having recently read the marvellous yet terrifying futuristic thriller HUSK, I decided to put a few questions to the book’s author, J. Kent Messum. Read about the ideas behind HUSK, the method of writing a book and what’s next for J. Kent Messum in our exclusive interview.
HCF: How did you get into writing?
J. Kent Messum: I’ve always had a fertile imagination. When I was a kid, my father used to invent these ongoing tales of witches and ghosts that would have me both terrified and enraptured. In grade school I started writing down my own ideas, and they were always kind of on the dark side. When I was in high school a short story I’d written for a class assignment got me sent to the guidance counsellor’s office where I was questioned repeatedly about my home life (apparently the story was convincing enough for my teachers to think I was being abused, which I wasn’t). That experience unnerved me enough to stop writing for a few years. When I got to University I became less concerned about what people might think about my work and got back into it. I’ve been honing my craft ever since.
What inspired you to come up with the storyline for HUSK?
I’d been thinking a lot about life/death/afterlife in the information age and beyond. That led to me transhumanism (human advancement through technology) and how I didn’t believe it would turn out the way a lot of transhumanists envision it. This was just after Occupy Wall Street too and the declining economy, loss of jobs, widening wealth gap, and the increasing desperation of people was on my mind. At some point there’s a real risk of humans finding themselves irrelevant as our world becomes more automated and technological. I’m sure it may seem farfetched right now, but eventually the only thing a person may have left to sell or rent is their own body and brain. Husk grew out of that idea.
Are any of the characters in HUSK based on people you know?
Loosely, yes. I’ve known people associated with escorting and the like. The lifestyle can be hard, but very lucrative. It’s also something people get into thinking they can easily walk away from whenever they want; only to discover the opposite is true. I envisioned Husking as the evolution of prostitution. Instead of hiring someone to have sex with, you hire someone’s body to use as if it were your own and indulge however you wish.
In HUSK, we see futuristic technology used in a time where the divide between rich and poor is at its largest. Ordinary people are struggling to survive whilst the rich have unrestricted access to luxuries that most people don’t know exist. What made you decide to set the storyline of HUSK against this backdrop of society?
To be honest, I think we’re almost there (if not already in many respects), so plotting the story against that backdrop seemed natural. The world’s wealthiest have access to unprecedented luxury that the vast majority of us do not. But there is a tendency for people to believe technology is somehow the great equalizer. I might think to myself “Well, I only make a tiny fraction of what my CEO makes… but we still own the same model smartphone, right?” I don’t understand that mentality. The rich have private jets and limousines, while the rest of us are flying coach class and riding our bicycles to work… who’s to say they don’t have substantially better and more advanced technology as well? If anyone has access to the cutting edge, it’s undoubtedly the 1%… and I’m not so sure they’d be interested in sharing it with the general public.
HUSK is often frightening and violent but leaves a lot to the imagination. Do you prefer this approach as a reader yourself?
I do prefer reading gritty and hard-hitting stuff, but with some heart and soul too. I like books that shake me up and get my brain working. When I write, my objective is to make a reader consider things they maybe don’t, or don’t want to, think about. Ideally, I’d like my stories to play on your mind long after you’ve put them down. I always give my audience a lot of credit, and put some faith in their imagination as well.
Why the Eldridge knot?
The Eldridge knot is complicated, yet refined. It’s upper echelon, a step above something as formal as a Windsor knot. It represents an attention to detail that would be particular to a certain type of ego and attitude.
I noticed a few references to martial arts in HUSK, particularly the kimura arm lock. Do you train yourself?
I used to box when I was younger; training, sparring, that kind of thing. Mixed Martial Arts has really boomed in recent years. I don’t train in MMA myself, but I had a keen interest in it a few years ago. It’s a sport that requires peak physical condition, something I think a lot of Husks (with their dangerous lifestyles and fitness regimes) would train in to achieve the needed physique and stamina for the job.
HUSK rounded off in such a brilliant way, and when reading books, the ending is where I find some authors tend to struggle. Had you always intended to end HUSK like you have and how hard is it to write a conclusion to a novel?
Concluding a novel is very hard, because in effect you’re saying goodbye. Novels take months, sometimes years, to write. You’re immersed in the story, attached to the characters. After such a long and involved process, letting go is a strange mix of dismay and relief. You’re happy it’s finally finished, but also sad to see it go. Husk was written as a stand-alone novel, so the ending was very intentional. But there were also some loose ends in the book, and lately I’ve been having an awful lot of ideas for a sequel, not to mention many requests for one…
If you had control of another person’s body for the day, who would you choose and what would you get up to?
That’s a tough one. I think I’d like to be in control of someone high up the chain of command in the government or military, someone with top secret clearance. Then I could have all the ‘for your eyes only’ dossiers brought to me and have a peek at some of the big secrets being kept from the public. I wouldn’t mind perusing the files on Area 51 or The Philadelphia Experiment for example.
How far away do you think we are from the advanced technology mentioned in HUSK, including that of the surveillance and security technology at Occupy Central Park?
Again, I believe we’re almost there. Various drones are currently being deployed in military and police applications. Computer companies are now unveiling holographic technology. The major cities of the West have damn near become miniature surveillance states. Going through airport security involves x-ray and retinal scanners. We’ve got Google Glass, tablets, and smartphones that are getting smarter every year… the future is already here. Husk just exaggerated it by about a decade or two.
It was recently publicised that HUSK has been optioned for film/TV. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Rights for a returnable international TV series were acquired by Warp Films, a fantastic UK production company (Their long list of great TV & film include ’71, Southcliffe, This Is England, & Berberian Sound Studio). It’s all really incredible, and my head is still spinning from the news! Warp loved Husk’s concept and universe and they see lots of potential for expansion along multiple storylines. Warp executive producer Robin Gutch had this to say about it: “J. Kent Messums’s visceral vision and uncompromising story telling offer an exciting foundation for a provocative drama series set in a chilling yet compelling near future”.
For a TV adaptation, Husk couldn’t be in better hands. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and how do you deal with it?
Luckily, I don’t suffer much writer’s block. I tend to have more than one project on the go, so if I get stuck with a work in progress I can simply move to another. I’m always coming up with ideas for stories and constantly making notes as a buffer against the possibility of future writer’s block. I also don’t write linearly, that is I don’t start from the beginning and write to the end. I write the parts that feel like being written; maybe I work on the fourth chapter first, then I skip to the tenth, and then go back to the prologue. A book is meant to be read from front to back, but it doesn’t have to be created that way.
Have you any other stories already in the works and which genre/direction will you head in next?
I’m currently working on a couple new novels at the moment. One is a paranormal thriller with a southern gothic feel. The other is a book about a new fad that surfaces unexpectedly and becomes an addiction problem in the Western World, something that people would likely latch onto in a heartbeat if it was an actuality. Personally, I like to stick with the ‘Thriller’ genre, because I feel there is more wiggle room. I aim to be as original as possible with my stories, and hate being pigeon-holed. Genres and labels can often be constricting, and my ideas tend to be all over the map. What they all have in common, however, is an acute sense of darkness. My first novel ‘Bait’ is far different from Husk (Bait is about six drug addicts stranded and tormented on a deserted island in the Florida Keys) but both books can be cruel and unforgiving in their storytelling.
Who’s your favourite author and what’s your favourite book?
I’m a real Cormac McCarthy fan. He’s my go-to author, one who never fails to inspire and impress. Personally, my favourite book (certainly the one I’ve reread the most) is ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. It’s a modern classic, and a novel that set the bar for the thriller genre nice and high. The character of Hannibal Lecter still fascinates and scares me, a serial killer of high intellect and frightening pathology.
What’s your favourite book to movie adaption?
Oh, another tough one. I think it’s a tie between David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’, and the Cohen Brothers adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’. Both were brilliantly done.
Thank you very much for your time.
J. Kent Messum is an author & speaker who always bets on the underdog. He lives in Toronto with his wife, dog, and trio of cats. His first novel BAIT (August 2013, Penguin Books) won the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for ‘Best First Novel.’ His second novel HUSK (July 2015, Penguin Books) was recently optioned for an international TV show by Warp Films in the UK.