Interview with the Wolfman: Hal Johnson

In my earliest memory of Hal Johnson, the author of the new young adult novel Immortal Lycanthropes, he’s screaming at me to go to sleep. In the mid-’90s, Hal was my counselor at one of those camps for the kid who’s always getting beaned reading Philip K. Dick in the outfield. I took the camp’s cartooning course; Hal, a comics aficionado who has worked at Midtown Comics Times Square for twelve years, introduced me to everything from Winsor McCay and George Herriman to Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge to Chick tracts and Tijuana bibles.

I styled myself as Hal Johnson’s Boswell, ever at his elbow, recording and recycling his mots, even offering to “edit” his fiction, which he miraculously allowed me to read. (If I knew who Boswell was at that age, I have Hal to thank.) When my interests shifted from comics to literature, Hal was there to make recs, risking his job to tell a twelve-year-old why The Rachel Papers is preferable to The Catcher in the Rye. His instinct for mentorship led me to the Amises, Barthelme, Borges, Calvino, Eco, Percy, Pynchon, John Kennedy Toole, Arthurian legends, and Icelandic sagas, long before any was “appropriate.”

Which brings us to Lycanthropes. The line on this book, courtesy of some panic-stricken Internet critics, is that it contains “inappropriate” content. Apparently, the nostrum “as long as they’re reading” only applies if they’re reading well below grade level or intellectual capacity, never if they’re being challenged. This anxiety may account for why many kids can’t really read, why they’ll enter college calling Twilight a “guilty pleasure” despite never having read anything harder. Hal’s debut results from, and embodies, a promiscuous love of reading that never once paused to ask a guidance counselor’s permission. It encourages reading not only by being a terrific book but also by showing what the imagination of a lifelong book lover can look like.

Disregard its overly literal title (should Robin Hood have been called Populist Bandits?). Immortal Lycanthropes has nothing in common with other popular vampires ‘n’ werewolves offerings. Its hero is a disfigured orphan, Myron Horowitz, who discovers that he’s an undying were-animal after a schoolyard bully brings out the beast in him. This attracts the attention of a lot of folks — furry ones — who either want Myron in their corner or smell his blood. Myron’s is both a quest for self-discovery (what am I? Which animal am I?) and a quest for survival.

I recently spent an afternoon with my old friend, in his native habitats — the bargain stalls outside the Strand near Union Square; Hal’s book-stuffed apartment in Astoria, Queens (which looks a bit like the Collyer brothers live there); and the Dungeons & Dragons campaign he runs each week in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Here are some insights, opinions, and reminiscences from the guy who made me love books — and who will, I believe, have the same effect on hordes of kids.  – Stefan Beck

The Barnes & Noble Review: Describe the world of Immortal Lycanthropes.

Hal Johnson [self-portrait at left]: Immortal Lycanthropes takes place in a world where there live among us, secretly, humans who can turn into animals — or animals who can turn into humans. There is one representative for each species of mammal, and they’re pretty much immortal. Only under the claws or teeth or tusks of another immortal can they die. Young Myron Horowitz does not believe he can turn into an animal, nor does he believe he is immortal and several millennia old, but a lot of other people believe it, and many of them want Myron dead. Or they want to use him for their own nefarious ends. Or they see in him a ray of hope in their horrible lives.

So, in true adventure fashion, Myron is forced to flee, alone, across the country, seeking in vain someone who will help him understand what’s going on, and who he is. Along the way he meets various animals in the shape of people — an alcoholic anarchist gorilla, a paranoid survivalist moose, a dashing bearcat who wants to be Myron’s biographer — and a host of secret societies, which have their own agendas.

BNR: When I think of myself at the age this is targeted at, this would be the book I’d want to read. This is Illuminatus! for kids.

HJ: I deliberately set out to write a book I’d think was awesome at a certain age. There’s a continuum for a certain kind of person, where you read Pinkwater, and eventually you move on to Vonnegut or Illuminatus! and then Pynchon or something. But there’s a gap between Pinkwater and Vonnegut, and I wanted to fill that gap. That was my audience — the ones who read Pinkwater and said, “What else do I read?” because everything else has too many dirty parts for them. You shouldn’t put this in, but when we were at camp and Barry picked up my Illuminatus!

BNR: The copy with one missing page?

HJ: He ripped the page when he dropped it.

BNR: He dropped it in shock.

HJ: A piece tore out, which made it look like I’d marked it. It’s an 800-page novel! You don’t know you’re going to get that one [sex] scene!

BNR: There’s nothing like that in Immortal Lycanthropes. People have complained about violence to some extent, and also — well, a tiny thing at the beginning. I mean, right on cue, my mom asked me, “Can they really put that in a kids’ book?” But I won’t spoil it.

HJ: Immortal Lycanthropes is not dirty, but it’s kind of seedy, and so people react to the seediness. Because every time Myron walks down a street in New York it’s all hopheads and perverts. It’s not very explicit, but a little bit of that and they start to worry. But, look at Myron — I think it’s reasonable for someone who comes from a small town and has to spend the night on the street in New York to see everything as — as Homer Simpson would say — pimps and CHUDs.

BNR: But they didn’t let you keep everything in there, did they?

HJ: I took out stuff. They were very good to me. I think if I had fought for anything really hard I could have kept it in. I had to fight for the scene where the tapeworm comes out of the frog’s cloaca. But they let me keep it. And they’re like, “This is really gross.” And I’m like, “No, this is the best.”

BNR: Are you concerned at all about the title? That people will just look at it and say, “Oh, he’s jumping on the supernatural schlock bandwagon”?

HJ: It kind of worries me, because at a certain point this book is out there — and everyone who comments on it or is interested in it is someone who’s interested in vampire or werewolf books, and I think they’ll be extremely disappointed. I think they’ll be very angry that this book — it wasn’t my goal to deceive them. It wasn’t like I wrote this book and called it Blood-Drenched Gothic Vampire Love. If a whole bunch of Twilight people pick it up by mistake, I guess that’s good.

BNR: It might change them, change their taste. That’s my interest in — I don’t read YA, but I have a sense of what some of it is like, when I go into a bookstore and I see they have a whole section of Teen Paranormal Romance.

HJ: Paranormal romance — which I guess I’ve never read, except for Bram Stoker or something — was for several years the only growth market in books. This was the thing that was getting bigger after manga tanked, so God bless them. As long as they’re reading something, am I right?

BNR: You know that’s my bête noire, of course, the person who says, “At least they’re reading.” The expectations of what they’re able to read, or deserve to read, are so low…

HJ: Well, you read an old book, and often the main character might be a novel reader, and her father will be like, “Why are you wasting your time with those novels? You should be reading Thucydides!” The idea that any kind of reading is good for you is really a fairly recent one. On the other hand, I read a lot, and a lot of what I read is comfortable. It’s obviously more fun to read something you’re comfortable reading. If you read an academic book, and it’s outside of your discipline, you get lost really quickly.

When I was a kid, my father had kind of an idea of what kids should read. This was kind of where I got this nineteenth-century boyhood knowledge, because it was all Stevenson, Verne, and Twain. When I was in first grade, I read a lot of Stevenson, Verne, and Twain. And then by the time you hit second or third grade — this was discouraged. Even as late as sixth grade I had a teacher say that we couldn’t read Huck Finn, because no kid in sixth grade can understand Huck Finn.

Now, it’s true there are things in Huck Finn I couldn’t understand. I read it when I was in first grade and I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I loved it. It changed my life. It wasn’t because I understood every single part of it; it was because I understood the part that I had to understand. I’ve read it many times since then. It’s not like in first grade I understood anything about race relations, but I understood the part about being free and floating down a river on a raft and how this was what you couldn’t do as a child, and how this was exactly what I wanted to do as a child.

BNR: This idea that you can’t have anything before you’re ready for it — it makes no sense. Having something that you’re not ready for stretches you, obviously. It’s like exercise.

HJ: On the other hand, if you have something that’s too far ahead of you, it’s like exercise in that if you can’t lift the barbell at all, you’re not going to get stronger.

BNR: But there are very few things that you can’t understand period.

HJ: Years ago I got Moby-Dick from the library, and it was an edition for kids. It wasn’t expurgated. It was all the text of Moby-Dick, just with awesome pictures. The idea was that this is an adventure novel! You read Treasure Island, you read The Count of Monte Cristo, and then you read Moby-Dick! The idea that this would be a kids’ novel at one point in history . . . I have two [Thomas Babington] Macaulay editions, and they’re pitched for probably like ninth grade, and they’re his essays. They have a pretty good introduction, and footnotes and stuff to help you. I love these things. I pick them up when I can. I have one of [Edmund] Burke’s Speech on Conciliation, and it’s kind of sad because in the beginning it mentions how [nasal Poindexter voice] “This has been a staple of high school reading for centuries, and it looks like it’s in no danger of disappearing!” [Laughter.]

BNR: This is the truth swept under the rug whenever people talk about what’s right for kids. A scant hundred years ago they were expected to read and understand things that you’re not expected to read and understand in college, for that matter. But it’s not like you have any specific pedagogical intention with this book.

HJ: When Arthur Hong [a were-binturong] is narrating the history of what he was doing in Cambodia in the prehistoric days, some of the tribes he talks about are real, old, pre-Khmer Cambodian tribes, and some of them are from, like, Edgar Rice Burroughs books. It doesn’t matter. This is not your chance to learn about Cambodia. I could just be making this stuff up. So, in a way it’s a reference, but if you don’t follow this reference up, it’s no big deal.

BNR: But when you see a lot of things like that, it suggests, “This person writing this knows about all these other things, hence, there are all these other things to know about.” It’s just sort of curiosity-inducing. You may find out that it’s not real at all; you may find out that it is real and then go down that path of exploration. A book like The Hunger Games doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself. It doesn’t compel you to do any further reading about anything.

HJ: It makes you want to read Battle Royale.

BNR: Speaking of kid-on-kid violence, your book opens with a scene of intense, physical violence-style bullying. Was that just necessary, plotwise, or was that something you wanted to address explicitly?

HJ: I’m surprised you didn’t ask me, “Was that a mercenary cash-in on a hot topic?” No, part of the point is that Myron is persecuted everywhere he goes.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to you that I don’t really like school. School is just institutionalized violence. When you’re writing a book, you tend to present institutionalized events in the most visceral way. Having him be ground down by the factory-education state would be more tedious to read, whereas having him beaten up would be more fun to read? That sounded wrong. But it’s hard for me to think of childhood without violence.

BNR: Describe your experience with that.

HJ: I certainly knew kids who got it much worse than I did. I don’t want to pitch myself as a bullying victim but rather as someone who got in fights a lot. Sometimes there were more people on the other side of the fight than on mine, so that’s a little bully-ish. When I was in school I considered violence to be dramatically different from anything like, you know, teasing. Teasing was what you get, it’s freedom of speech, who cares? But I resented being stolen from, pushed down stairs, or hit with lacrosse sticks.

BNR: This is why I consider you a success story. Rather than saying, “Well, I went through puberty and everything was okay, and I stopped doing these things that people find odd, and I became cool — instead, the success story is in continuing to do exactly what you’ve always been doing, whether it’s D&D, or comics, or reading constantly, and not giving an inch, and making a success specifically by virtue of that.

HJ: Regardless of whether one is a success or not, if you persist in something, it becomes more acceptable.

BNR: Can you prepare me a little for this Dungeons & Dragons game tonight? And since I’m giving you a soapbox to make D&D more acceptable, can you describe any ways in which it fed your literary process?

HJ: The game takes place in A.D. 989 in the real world, or the real world as they believed it to be in 989 — so just over the hills, in the forest, there are probably giants and dragons and an enchanted castle with demons in it. The party is concerned that the world might end in the year 1000, and they’ve been laboring for years to seek out the ancient wisdom to save it. Today they’re traveling from the ruined city of Ctesiphon, in present-day Iraq, hundreds of miles to a lake in present-day Iran known as the Throne of Solomon, to seek, underwater, secret lore from the only still-burning sacred fire of Zoroastrianism, the Atur Gushnasp.

Before I started running this game, some fifteen years or so ago, I knew nothing about history. But with the game set in the real world, or a facsimile of the real world, I had to read a lot and do a lot of research, or my players would catch me out in an error. It’s really amazing; everywhere you go, it seems, there’s a local legend of a dungeon or a monster or a mystic place, and I have to be ready for wherever the players want to go next. Consensus holds that Albania has the most disgusting monsters (the Kuçedra is especially unpopular), but India the most dangerous.

I hate when novels parade their research before you, so it’s not like my book has so many references to the tenth century. But the idea that everywhere you go, there’s something weird and interesting, certainly influenced my way of imagining a picaresque novel.

BNR: You’ve said that boys’ adventure novels, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, were a big influence on Immortal Lycanthropes. Can you recommend some good books for boys and girls today, not necessarily from that era?

HJ: Sure! Daniel Pinkwater’s Bushman Lives!, John Christopher’s The Guardians, Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur, Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co., Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, E. C. Myers’s Fair Coin, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Barbara Chapman’s Escape from the Nuisances, and Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy.

BNR: So, the book is out now. Is there anything you wish you could change?

HJ: My girlfriend complained there was not enough emotion in the book, but I don’t know what she’s talking about. There’s anger, there’s nostalgia, there’s self-pity. If there’s a fourth emotion, I’d like to hear about it.