Marshall Moore’s new book, Inhospitable, published recently from Camphor Press and I had the chance to talk with him about ghost stories, Hong Kong, and various inspirations.
A brief synopsis of the novel before we jump in:
A mysterious windfall upends Lena Haze’s almost-comfortable middle-class American life. Her husband Marcus has inherited some prime Hong Kong real estate, a building in Wan Chai – the bustling, gentrifying heart of the city. It comes with a catch, though: the building must not be sold. With financing from local investors, Lena begins overseeing renovations to convert it into a premier boutique hotel. Alone in Hong Kong and a recent arrival, Lena struggles with culture shock, business obstacles, and malignant ghosts – a part of her life she thought she’d put behind her. Lena’s previous experiences with the spirit world are of little help because she’s dealing with Chinese ghosts this time. Different rules, rituals, and customs apply, and she has no idea what is coming.
Entropy: This is a very unique type of ghost story: “For a moment, she flushed with hatred for this ability of hers, this magnetic knack for attracting ghosts. How had Alice put it all those years ago? Lena had others like her blazed brighter in the gloom.” Can you talk more about how Inhospitable came to be and how you created the rules for the ghosts and spirits?
MM: The story came about because of an interesting confluence of events. It was the creative component of my PhD in creative writing, which I finished a couple of years ago. I was originally going to do the PhD in literature, focusing on the work of Jonathan Carroll, but the professor who was supposed to be my supervisor decided to leave the university. Before she announced her resignation, she advised me to come up with a fast Plan B. Since I already had several books published by then, I decided to be pragmatic, do CW instead of lit, and go from there. I got lucky with Aberystwyth University: they’re one of Britain’s better creative-writing programs but kind of overlooked, off in a remote corner of the country quietly doing their own thing. Inhospitable started life as short fiction: I’d written about 7000 words of it and liked the characters, but I could tell it wanted to be a much longer story. Being from the American South and a fan of horror fiction, I was interested in ghost stories already. Living here in Hong Kong, where ghosts figure very prominently in Chinese culture and literature, there was a natural confluence. I did a ton of reading: Classical Chinese zhiguai ghost tales, the Victorian era’s greatest hits, contemporary horror, plus a gazillion academic books and journal articles.
Entropy: The city of Hong Kong itself plays a big role in the narrative, permeating the nooks and corners with an ambience that is as haunting as the ghosts within. “Hong Kong was once again magnificent. The streets were gleaming black-grass crevasses lit up in violent shades of neon. Down at sidewalk level, the streetlights cast an almost orange glow; stoplights and highlights merged with this like dusk on Mars.” Can you describe how Hong Kong influences the book as well as your writing in general?
MM: Like my fascination with ghosts, having a writing style strongly influenced by place is another one of my Southern quirks. Growing up in North Carolina, I internalized that somehow: it’s part of the culture in that part of the country. As a writer, I’m interested in the ways that setting influences story. My previous novel Bitter Orange was, among other things, a portrait of San Francisco a few years after 9-11, just as it was beginning to devolve into its present state of unliveable, unaffordable tech-bro hell. I’ve lived in Hong Kong a few months shy of a decade, longer than I’ve stayed in any other city in my adult life, and I have permanent residency here. Inhospitable couldn’t have been set anywhere else because the interplay of Chinese and Western influences — the ghost lore, the political backdrop, and the hybrid and multilayered nature of the city in general — cannot be found anywhere else. Hong Kong is an overcrowded and exorbitant — but fascinating! — pressure cooker. There’s really no place like it.
Entropy: What was your approach in writing the relationship between Isaac and Lena? Did you chart it out beforehand or did it evolve naturally?
MM: It evolved naturally. For the most part, I don’t chart things out in advance. When I’m writing, there does come a point where I take some notes and/or keep a running list of what needs to happen in later chapters. Once I know who the characters are, the interactions and relationships come more or less by instinct, organically. That’s what I’m aiming for. It’s disappointing to read a book full of characters that feel as if the author is moving them around like chess pieces without having a clear sense of who they are.
Entropy: The reference to “Moaning Myrtle” made me laugh. What were some of the works, whether in literary or cinematic form, which were influences for Inhospitable?
MM: Given the provenance of this book, that’s an essay question, but I’ll try to be concise (it doesn’t come naturally)! One that people really should track down if they can find it is Yuan Mei’s Censored by Confucius. It’s not nearly as well known as Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (which is also an excellent, fascinating book well worth dipping into), which is unfortunate. It’s weird and creepy and elegant and almost pornographic in places, but there’s a real sophistication and generosity of spirit there. Among the Western influences, Stephen King’s The Shining and Peter Straub’s Julia and Ghost Story are the obvious ones, but Audrey Niffenegger’s underrated second novel Her Fearful Symmetry ended up giving me some ideas that found their way into the story.
Entropy: The title seems like it’s both a play on the apparitions that make hotel within the book “inhospitable”, as well as Lena’s state of mind in the sense of past mystery and uncertainty she finds herself in coming to the foreign city of Hong Kong. And in some sense, you could say the past are like ghosts to us, haunting who we are now. What, thematically, were some of the ideas you were trying to explore through both the creation of the hotel and the haunting by Wing?
MM: I’m glad you picked up on that. There are several layers of meaning in the title, and you’re right, it’s not just about the haunted hotel, but about the city itself and Lena’s experiences as an expatriate here. Hong Kong is hot and crowded, and it’s made worse by narrow, fenced sidewalks and far too many tourists. It’s a brilliant place to visit, but it’s also a hard place to live when there’s no safety net. If something goes wrong (and for Lena, things have gone very horribly wrong), this place can be terrifying. The hotel itself has a certain symbolic value: like a hotel, Hong Kong itself is a very transient place, with expats and locals coming and going. Lots of people left after the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, and there’s another, quieter exodus going on now. Life as an expat definitely carries with it the idea of leaving behind the ghosts of the past. You may think you’ve succeeded, but it’s not always possible, as I’ve learned in my life outside of the US. The ghosts in the story have several functions: they’re characters with their own agendas, but they’re also the symbolic made literal. Everything in the story is based on the idea of the past catching up with people.
Entropy: Obviously, I’ve worked with you when you were my editor for Watering Heaven and you have a wonderful eye for detail. How does your role as an editor and publisher affect you as a writer?
MM: Thanks! I’m glad you think so. That was a really enjoyable book to work on, and I love your use of language. My experience starting and running the press has taught me a lot. You can’t edit that many books without developing a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t. There’s almost a grammar to fiction: certain bits of information are essential for the reader, but certain other details can and sometimes should be withheld. Errors are instructive, too. I’m reading a manuscript now in which the author really hasn’t developed that crucial instinct for knowing what a reader can and can’t reasonably be expected to track with. Characters and foreign words are introduced without context, and there are quite a few scene breaks that make no sense. I keep having to backtrack and reread to figure out what has just happened. (Fortunately, the story itself is interesting and I haven’t given up on it.) As an editor, I need to be able to articulate and explain these technical details. As a writer, being aware of these problems and others means — I hope! — that they don’t appear in my work.
Entropy: Following up on the last part, can you get a little bit into the editing process of the book and how many revisions and drafts Inhospitable went through? Were there any scenes that ultimately didn’t make the final cut that you wished could have stayed in? Any big edits the editor requested?
MM: The way it worked was a little different from what happens with most novels. When I started the PhD program, I went to the UK to meet with my supervisor in person. We talked about what I was proposing to write, what kind of research I expected to go into it, and how we’d work. After that, I basically would write one chapter and send it to him. He’d read it and get back to me with comments and suggestions. I was very lucky in that respect: I thought we had a great working relationship. He appreciated the fact that I was already an experienced writer and editor, and I appreciated the fact that he had a good idea for when something wasn’t working. I also revised and polished earlier chapters as I went, so there weren’t multiple drafts, only the one, but relentlessly tweaked and polished over the two and a half years I spent writing it. The only big change I made along the way was that I originally had Marcus, Lena’s husband, with her in Hong Kong the whole time. In the first few chapters of the story, he wasn’t very useful, and I realized it would be better to put him back in the States so that she’d be alone and more overwhelmed. The idea for the ending (which I won’t spoil) came about fairly late in the process too, now that I’m thinking about it. The original ending fell a bit flat after everything I’d built up. I knew it, too, and when I had the idea for what ultimately went into the book, I rewrote that last chapter. As for changes from the editor, there weren’t any. However, Camphor Press has a very, very thorough copyeditor, and he found a few typos (and one howler) that managed to get past my viva examiners (in American, that would be my dissertation committee).
Entropy: Do you write to music and what would you say the ideal soundtrack of Inhospitable would be?
MM: I used to. Every time I hear Daft Punk’s album Discovery, I think about working on The Concrete Sky, my first novel, back in like 2001. I spent a week in New Orleans in a hotel room revising it and playing really loud French disco. I think the housekeepers thought I was a vampire, or possibly dead. These days, I prefer silence. It’s easier to concentrate when I don’t have to tune something out or cue up another playlist on Apple Music. Besides, I’d rather spend time writing than curating playlists to listen to while I’m writing! My cat meows at me now and then. That’s pretty much all the soundtrack I need, really.