Examining Aliens: An Interview with Stephen Hundley

Black and white author photo

As we near launch day for Stephen Hundley’s debut Southern fiction short story collection, The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First, our assistant managing editor, Ariana Adams, is excited to sit down with Stephen and discuss what the writing process looked like for this unique title. Before we do that, though, a little about our esteemed author and guest.

Stephen Hundley is a current writer and editor with a former life as a high school science teacher. Besides The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First, Stephen is also writing his first novel, Bomb Island, which will be coming out with Hub City Press in spring 2024. Stephen is the winner of the 2019 Larry Brown Short Story award and has published work in top-quality literary journals like Prairie Schooner, Cutbank, Carve, The Greensboro Review, and others. While working toward his MFA, Stephen was also a Richard Ford Fellow at the University of Mississippi. He currently works as the fiction editor at The Swamp and Driftwood Press.

Ariana Adams (AA): Welcome, Stephen! We’re so grateful to you for sitting down with us to explore what went on while writing Aliens. If you’re ready, let’s jump right in. Under what conditions did you write these stories? What did your writing environment look like?

Stephen Hundley (SH): I was in transition while writing nearly all of these stories. I had just moved from Seoul to Clemson, from a metropolis with subways and skyscrapers to a small town in Upstate South Carolina. I had also entered a graduate program in English. I was reading a lot of new-old books. New to me, but old to the fiction game. A lot of stuff from the ‘50s and ‘80s that favored short, tight-lipped sentences. I was moving a lot, being exposed to a lot of new people and responsibilities and ideas.  I took summer jobs in Upstate New York and Maine. I was encouraged to widen my reading, and I came to love Toni Morrison and Aimee Bender and Stephanie Vaughn and ZZ Packer. Halfway through assembling this collection, I joined the MFA program at the University of Mississippi and worked with some fantastic people.

I was initially worried about compiling all these stories—so many of them written in different places while I was obsessed with different books and different artistic priorities—but in editing the collection I was comforted to find that there are still plenty of lines that cross between the old and new stories: compassion and bewilderment and disaster, to name a few.

AA: Speaking of disaster, what’s with all the dead animals (or animals that wind up dead) in the collection?

SH: I wish they all could live. Really. So much of what I’d like this collection to be about is love, belonging, and responsibility. Animals—whether wild, domestic, or feral—are useful in illustrating those values because they often function in the role of dependents. That is to say, they’re often at the whim of the story’s humans, and so they’re indicators of those human character’s values. It’s a very sympathetic position. Ultimately, animals are actors, and they provide material or “work” for authors and stakes for stories. When an animal is present there is, immediately, something precious to be lost or learned.

AA: Based on some of these reoccurring themes, would you say that the stories in the collection are linked?

SH: Some of the stories are set in the same place—namely, “Settled,” and “The Aliens Will Come to Georgia First”—but none of them were intentionally written as sequels or prequels or overtly linked. Of course, there are lots of commonalities between the pieces, but I would attribute this more to my own nagging fascinations and fears.

AA: Author Dan Leach (Floods and Fires, University of North Georgia Press, 2017) has remarked on your fascination with “proximity to power.” Can you speak to that?

SH: Right. Dan’s a good friend and a sharp reader. He’s read almost everything I’ve written, and he’s keen to point out trends and themes. He loves that stuff.

Proximity to power is that unnerving, freaky-deaky feeling you get when you’re in deep, dark water, maybe bobbing in the Atlantic, and suddenly, you feel a force near you. You feel something large passing you by. You feel the invisible swell of that unseen thing’s power translated through the water and into your dangling foot. You had a brush with something totally at home in a place where you are, relatively speaking, little more than a flailing meatball.

It’s terrifying and exhilarating, and it doesn’t have to just be a passing fish. I’ve come by this feeling at churches when I was small, puzzling against omnipotence. I’ve felt it during car crashes and thunderstorms. I came by a wonderful book of John Muir’s writing and he, famously, climbed a tall tree in the middle of a storm, had it swing him all around while he shouted and prayed. I think proximity to power is what he was risking his life for.

It’s the feeling of being out of control, and what comes with the feeling is well, a lot, but for me it offers a fresh perspective of my relevance and efficacy—circumstantially significant and universally miniscule. These kinds of experiences breed humility and reverence and even worship. I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person, but I have definitely learned to love reverence, and so when I reach for some worthwhile, maybe even beautiful, thing to put in the chest of one of my characters—something for them to respond to or seek out, something worth putting themselves at great risk for—proximity to power is often what I try to illustrate.

AA: So digging into that inspirational element a little more, are there any other authors, pieces of art, or places that have influenced this collection?

SH: Certainly travel has impacted these stories. In the years I’ve spent writing this collection, I’ve been able to explore many national parks and forests, places where awe comes easy.

I also love to surround myself with talented and amazing people—many of whom aren’t writers. Some of my friends paint and draw, and I like to listen to them talk about their craft and projects. We’ll go on long YouTube binges of some era or master, usually ending with me purchasing an introductory textbook on Color Theory or some such. I’m all about cross pollination.

I also like my stories, no matter how strange, to be rooted in reality, and work is reality. People spend their whole lives doing, sometimes, a very specific thing every week day. Maybe this thing isn’t, say, their passion, but I’ve found that people populate these jobs, even the mundane ones, with drama. The little ups and downs and the emotional or pragmatic underpinnings that drive these dramas. I come from a family of hard workers, and I try to bring that same fortitude and drive to my writing. I may even work another job myself one day.

AA: You seem to draw inspiration from a lot of diverse topics and environments, and I’ve noticed some of that diversity echoing through the many different points of view you’ve included in the collection. How did you choose which points of view would be used in each story?

SH: I spend a fair amount of time trying to find “the voice” of a piece. By that, I usually mean who is telling the story. Sometimes the narrative sticks close to one character, and if I find that character sounds particularly unique or interesting—if their fascinations and motivations are loud enough to make them memorable—I may choose the I-Me of first person. With that comes a lot of interiority. Letting the reader know exactly what the character is thinking or planning or dreaming. That said, first person can be limiting. There are always exceptions, but (dramatic irony aside) first person readers know what the character knows, and they learn at the pace of that character too. I may find it difficult to provide scope to the greater plot or introduce as many moving parts and dynamic characters if I’m living in just one person’s head.

Other times, the voice of the story might be my own. I’m usually infatuated with a given premise—two nude models fighting a mock civil war or some wild thing—and need the flexibility of third person’s They-Them language to better highlight whatever situation I’ve come up with, and to more easily maintain the illusion that the reader is viewing this situation as an outsider. And, of course, omniscience can be convenient with third person.

Every story is different and becomes even more so when point of view is considered. I wrote a novel portion in first person, then in third, then again in first. Every draft revealed more information, but only in first person could I make real the complicated feelings I imagined racing around my character’s skull—deeply weird and personal and spectral things that couldn’t stand up in the open air of third person.

AA: Besides points of view, this seems to be a collection very interested in place. How did you choose which places you would explore?

SH: Ever heard Weezer’s “Heart Songs”? It’s the same deal for the stories. These are places I’ve either spent a lot of time in—particularly during my youth in coastal Georgia—or else places of inherent power or wonder. The shoreline. The marsh. The Smoky Mountains.

I’m guilty of being an armchair scientist. I keep a healthy shelf of non-fiction books on geology, hydrology, and ecology. Any ology, really. I love to learn, and so often some small piece of wonder that I’ve come by will be the “place” I want to go. Like, alright, here’s what the soil in middle Georgia looks like, or here’s what the American South looked like in pre-history. Here are the animals that used to live here. Now, how can I draw a connection between these fascinations and the humans walking around and living here now? How can I have one thing highlight the other? Anytime I can make an emotional connection between my human characters and my setting, it gratifies me. I guess because I’m always looking to fall in love with the places I visit and live. Falling in love means being hungry for more, and I want to bring that hungry love to my stories.

AA: So with all these elements in mind, how did The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First become the book’s title?

SH: The short answer is that my mom liked it. My mom and my editors at University of North Georgia Press. I won’t pretend to know how to market books like a pro, but I think the bizarre action—The Aliens Will Come—alongside the specificity of place—Georgia—and the added pressure of a timeline—Will Come to Georgia First—all bring a sort of intrigue and tension that we thought was 1. Fun and 2. Might make someone want to pick up the book.

Of course, the title also speaks to the visitation of strange and otherworldly conflicts upon normal folks, and that’s a big part of the book. A man communing with his bomb god, or a kid working out how to right a murder. I hope the title nods towards that—to brushes with power that’s outside of your control and yet, compels you to respond and react. I also thought the cover art for a book titled like this one would be rad.

AA: Hehe, we are fond of that title around here. Now that we’re so close to launching the collection, how would you say you’re growing as an author?

SH: Outward. I’m ballooning, trying to read and listen as much as I can. I’m always looking for something fresh. Some new place to go and illustrate with prose. We’ve lived through a global pandemic. More than ever, I’m looking for new ideas and new voices.

AA: And what are you working on now while conducting that search?

SH: I’m currently editing my first novel, a psychedelic thriller set on a barrier island of Georgia and featuring a cast of hippies, wanna-be tattoo artists, glass-bottom boats, nuclear weapons, and a feral tiger. It’s been a ride. A lot of writing and re-writing. But I’m excited by the project. It’s been a huge challenge, but I do think it’s producing some of my best work yet.

I’ve also been, slowly, assembling a poetry collection over the years. The poems take on a lot of the same places and conflicts as my stories, but with a certain license and flexibility and indulgence that, I think, allows me to be much more specific. When I’m not restrained by the demands of narrative structure and plot; emotions, memories, and sentiments can reign unchecked.

Cover for The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First

It’s been a pleasure speaking with Stephen about his new collection, The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First. If you’re interested in learning more about this otherworldly piece, you can find Stephen at M. Judson Bookseller’s on August 23rd for an In-Conversation event with fellow UNG Press author Scott Gould. The Aliens Will Come To Georgia First is also now available for preorders, so head on over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble to snag your copy before the book invasion (AKA: launch day) on August 15th!

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