We’re the first stop on the blog tour for The Hammerhead Chronicles! Award-winning author Scott Gould shares commentary on an excerpt (p. 79) in which Samuel, a math professor with a penchant for revenge, devises a plan to get back at a pair of racist booksellers. This humorous Southern novel launches in just one week, November 15, 2022!
SG: In The Hammerhead Chronicles, I wanted to give each of the narrators a well-defined conflict, and hopefully, braid their various stories together by the end of the book. At least that was the plan. Samuel’s arc was perhaps the most fun to write. Those authors who whine about how the writing process is so soul-crushing and emotionally scarring maybe need a few more attic rats in their lives. Keeps things interesting. And fun.
I was never sure of the recipe for revenge. I was never sure I desired anything approaching revenge. You could say I’d had my dramatic moment when I ripped the pages out of those books; however, on the revenge meter, that probably didn’t move the needle. Oh, and I had served as the wheel man for an ashes theft, leaving a few new ruts in the gravel on the Dunean parking lot. Again, pretty benign. I knew it was not enough, would perhaps never be enough, and I was nagged by this frustrating, anxious (perhaps, obligatory?) feeling that I needed to do more to disrupt the lives of those twins. They, no doubt, had it coming. I just didn’t know how to deliver it.
Please note, this was not an obsession. I did not waste hours examining my shortcomings as some sort of cultural avenging angel. It was more of an itch I couldn’t reach, and it kept me from falling asleep some nights, me staring at the ceiling, trying to calculate the precise formula for revenge—at least the brand of revenge a man like me could reasonably unleash in the world.
SG: I love writing about revenge. The situation can be complex and multi-layered, but at its core, revenge is pretty simple: somebody done somebody wrong, and somebody wants a pound of flesh. And I like simple. Samuel wants revenge on Wallace and Wade, the owners of a blatantly racist bookstore. He’s had his opportunities in the past (he alludes to that here), but this chapter presents him with a new, bizarre possibility.
I had no solutions until the night I heard the sound.
It was late, one of those mild fall midnights when the air conditioner wasn’t needed and neither was the heat, a night when I had all but convinced myself I was too smart and too busy to worry about a pair of aging racists. In the stillness, I heard something in the ceiling above me, a scratching loud enough to sit me up in bed.
SG: Decades ago, my best friend from high school told me about the creatures that lived above him in his college dormitory. He talked about lying awake at night and hearing these huge rats marching above his head. I’ve never forgotten that story. And usually, when I can’t get stories out of my head, I end up stealing them. Picasso supposedly said, “All art is theft.” I’m good with that.
I don’t believe in signs. I place my faith in research and rationale and numbers that ultimately add up. But I will swear a hundred times—a thousand times—the sound called to me. It had to be a sign, created especially for me. I cocked my head in the dark, shut my eyes, and listened harder.
There it was again. Louder this time, above my head. My sign.
SG: Samuel is a math professor at the local college, so he’s all about logic and common sense and rational thinking, so it was fun to put him in a situation that didn’t really make good sense. I had notes stuck to my computer reminding me to remind the reader that Samuel is a math guy.
I live in an old, old house on a run-down street. Not to say that I live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. I’m surrounded by people like me, people associated with the college—professors and adjuncts and the few graduate students who can afford to lease an entire house. The majority of us have enough money to own or rent but never enough left over to fix the problems that accompany occupancy. I haven’t used my broken dishwasher in two years. My porch cants to the east. My gutters don’t steer the water; they sift it through the rusty holes in the aluminum. In twenty years, my neighborhood will be a hip, shady enclave on the outskirts of campus. But first, those of us living here must give up. And we have not yet reached the point of surrender.
SG: Aren’t there always neighborhoods like this surrounding a college or university, the older, craft-style houses that are kind of falling apart but kind of stylish and cool? That’s what I was imagining as I wrote the scene. Plus, I needed Samuel to live in a house with a dusty, musty attic.
I was already aware the attic of my somewhat dilapidated house served as a halfway home for a variety of creatures. I saw the occasional field mouse or squirrel disappear into the eaves. Once, when I worked up the nerve to poke my head into the attic and shine a flashlight into all the corners of the dark space up there, I didn’t see destruction. Mostly I saw the remnants of nests or dens or whatever they called their homes. I rarely saw a living and moving creature. Once, I caught the tiny, yellow dots of a herd of something gathered against a far joist in the northwest corner, pin-prick eyes shining like a constellation in my bright beam. I let the attic door flop into place, and I said something to the effect of “live and let live.” Plywood and plaster kept our two worlds safely divided. That was enough for me.
SG: There’s no such thing as 100% fiction, right? For their stories, writers always steal from their surroundings or their memories. Years ago, I remember hearing something scurrying in my attic, so I poked my head through the overhead door, and in the dark, lined up on a roof joist, was a family of flying squirrels, their tiny eyes shining in my flashlight beam.
But that night, the borders between those worlds erased themselves. I told myself I was out of ideas, out of energy, ready to let those twins have their snow-white shelves, when something walked loudly above my head as if to say, Have you considered us?
I had not. And a new plan popped into my head.
The next morning, I drove to Simmon’s, one of those old school hardware stores. You know the kind I mean—the messy, unorganized, magical kind. You might discover a toilet plunger next to the displays of S-hooks next to a selection of quasi-illegal herbicides. I assumed Simmon’s Hardware would stock a selection of animal traps, and I was right. Nothing that would harm an animal, but something that would allow me to capture it and keep it in one, healthy piece. I would become a trapper. I felt very eighteenth century.
There was a predominant brand, Havahart. I bought two different sizes: the #1025, to accommodate smaller creatures, and the #1083, to tackle the thing that stalked above my head in what sounded like animal clogs. When whatever it was walked above me and gave me a sign, the signal possessed some audio heft.
SG: I love old hardware stores, the ones that have hunkered down and survived, despite Home Depot and Lowe’s. There’s one on Augusta Road here in Greenville. I had that local place in mind when I described this store. You know the kind. Seems like there’s no rhyme or reason to the placement of things on the shelf, and the guy who runs the store is the only one who knows where stuff is located.
Confession: I am not a big fan of diving down rabbit holes of research, but yes, I did go to the Havahart website and researched the correct model numbers for these traps. I should get a medal of some kind.
First, I had to conquer my fear of setting foot in the attic. I had lived in the house for six years, and the last time I walked—not simply shined a light, actually walked—along the rickety pieces of plywood that spanned the attic space was the week I bought the house. After that, I left the attic and its inhabitants alone. Like I said, live and let live. Luckily for me, there had been no reason to visit the attic—no leaks, no branches puncturing the roof.
I decided broad daylight would be the best time to set my traps, even though the attic had no dormer windows and stayed nearly midnight-black ’round the clock. What did I know? I assumed the animals left during the day, hunting food or whatever animals do when they weren’t pirouetting above me. However, when I cracked the attic door, I swore I heard scurrying somewhere in the dark, and I chased the sound with the beam of my flashlight but saw nothing at the edges of the attic.
SG: When I was a kid, my dad bought a Havahart trap to try and relocate squirrels that were gorging on the seed in his birdfeeder. My dad is 90 years old now and still has that trap in his garage. I took a picture of it for reference, so I could write this scene.
I climbed the ladder and eased into the musty, dank space, and I could immediately tell I had entered animal territory. The smell of feces and fur singed the linings of my nose. Though it was mid-fall, inside the attic was still summer-humid and thick and warm. Once inside, I scanned with my light and spotted scat scattered across the plywood flooring. The more I looked, in the nooks and niches of the roof joists, I discovered more evidence that my attic was indeed some sort of animal condominium complex. Hopefully, all the tenants were away for the afternoon.
SG: Attics are strange spaces. The air inside them is never what you expect. It’s always hotter than you anticipated or more humid than you’d imagined or smellier than you’d hoped. At least mine is.
On one end of the attic, I set up the Havahart #1025, the small one with two tiny doors, so small it was hard to bait the little seesaw tray in the center of the trap. I brought a jar of peanut butter with me, along with a sleeve of crackers. I was no experienced trapper, but I guessed any animal possessing taste buds and a nose would crawl into a Havahart for Skippy on a Ritz. At the other end, I baited the larger #1083 with the same menu.
SG: I have a friend who enjoys spouting this phrase: “Skippy on a Ritz.” (I have no idea why.) I’m not an expert on the snack habits of rats, but this concoction seemed like something a rat would enjoy, something that would lure them into a Havahart.
I was smarter than I thought when it came to luring rodents. I folded up the attic steps and levered the door closed, and before I walked to the other end of my house, I heard a distinctive metal clank over my head. Then, after a pause of a few seconds while I stared at the ceiling, I heard the arrhythmic scraping of metal across the ceiling, more of a banging than anything else. As if that wasn’t enough, I heard another clank, a bigger one, maybe, in the pause between the scrapes.
This was the moment I realized I had not planned what to do if I trapped something in the Havaharts. I knew I needed to capture these things, and I knew what I wanted to do with them. But I’d neglected the middle act, the part that required me to go into the dark attic, among the rodent scat, and retrieve what I trapped.
SG: Since I started the chapter by saying Samuel “was never sure of the recipe for revenge,” it made sense that he would have a half-assed plan about what to do with the rats. (I mean, I knew what he was going to do, but keeping him confused worked with the story.) He was figuring it out as he went, definitely something out of a math professor’s comfort zone.
I waited until the metallic scraping traveled to the point farthest away from the attic door before I opened it and climbed up. I had my flashlight and a broom and no plan. I stuck my head into the opening and aimed the beam into the corner where I’d last heard the banging and scraping. The second the light entered the space, the noise silenced. I searched for my Havaharts with the beam. A little farther right than I’d aimed, I saw the indirect glimmer of a pair of eyes, and I pointed the light that way. There, in the larger of the two traps, the #1083, crouched one of the biggest rats I had ever seen, larger than the ones I’ve watched dive into dumpsters behind my office building on campus. He appeared to be the size of a Chihuahua. Oddly, he was content behind bars, munching on peanut butter and crackers. He wasn’t panicked a bit. He was biding his time. And that scared the breath out of my chest.
SG: I should say, before writing this novel, I had never personally captured a rat in a Havahart trap. And as I mentioned, I’m not a fan of research, so I didn’t seek out some rats and try to trick them with peanut butter inside a Havahart. I decided to simply imagine it and write a little fiction. Tell some lies.
While I stared at him, the now familiar metallic scrape began again, a few feet to my left, and I threw the beam in the direction of the noise. This was the smaller trap, the one I imagined would be perfect for squirrels or some such. The opening was probably six inches tall. In this Havahart, the #1025, no squirrel peered out. Rather, stuffed inside was another rat, maybe a bit smaller than the first one but too large to be in the #1025. His fur pushed through the tiny metal mesh, and enough of his feet extended through the bottom that he could drag himself around the plywood floor. Both doors on the end of the #1025 had somehow—miraculously—closed and latched. His face was pushed against one of them, and I could see his yellow teeth working against the metal as he banged closer to me. He was not a happy rat. There were sounds. Not the squeaks you would expect but more like pissed off grunts and rumbles, the low, brassy notes you might hear from a something bigger and more dangerous.
I was thankful I had the broom with me. The rat squeezed inside the #1025 appeared ready to attack, to exact his revenge on me. He couldn’t maneuver in a straight line, the way he was crammed into the cage, but he managed to weave a drunken path toward the attic door, close enough that I defended myself with the broom. The second I made contact with the metal ribs of the cage, the larger rat, the one that was content to eat and watch, began to rumble as well.
The two of them are communicating, I thought. One was cheering the other on, and I suddenly felt outnumbered by the rats in my attic.
SG: Many years ago, during my I-wanna-be-a-poet days, I was in a class taught by the poet, James Dickey. A student wrote a poem that contained an image of a shark moving through water. Dickey asked us, “Is that how sharks swim?” We kind of mumbled and shook our heads and/or nodded. Then, Dickey bellowed out, “Well, it is now because she wrote it that way!” I thought of Dickey’s statement while I wrote this scene. This may not be the way rats truly react in a cage…but it is now.
Another thought came to me. I was a full-grown man. I could look dangerous if I wanted to, and I wasn’t in a cage! I had a broom. I controlled the light. I owned the goddamn house. I was the rat landlord. I pulled myself into the attic and did something that embarrasses me now, but at the moment made perfect sense: I yelled at a pair of trapped rats.
I screamed at them. I called them names. My voice echoed beneath the low roof of the house and bounced back to me, growing louder on its return. I swear, dust sprinkled down on my head when I hollered and rattled the eaves. Both rats froze where they were, one in the middle of a Ritz Cracker and the other concocting a meandering escape/attack attempt.
SG: I thought it was funny to imagine a grown man crouched in his attic, screaming at rats in a cage.
After my outburst, I felt more in control. Handling my rats became an easier task. With the one jammed in the cage, I simply picked up the Havahart by the handle and carried him down the attic stairs, careful to keep him away from my body. He caused no trouble. He looked almost excited, like someone who had packed for a vacation and was seated happily on the plane. The other situation proved more delicate. He had some room to move in the cage. I was afraid of those teeth, especially on the attic stairs. So, in the dark, I found a thick cardboard box big enough to cover the cage. Once it was safely over the box, I took a piece of equally thick cardboard and slid it under cage and turned the box upside down. Before I folded the box tops over him, he made one last attempt to free himself from his tiny cage, but all he could manage to do was flip the #1083 again and again, smearing Skippy peanut butter all over the bars of his little Havahart prison.
He emptied his tank with that spurt of energy. He eventually quieted, and the expression on his face was complete and utter rat resignation, which amazingly didn’t look all that different from a human being throwing in the towel.
SG: There is a very non-literary, not-so-academic reason I used the phrase “rat resignation” here…I just thought it sounded cool. Come to think of it, it sounds like a good band name. Rat Resignation.
Samuel does, indeed, come up with a very specific, very sinister thing to do with the rats he captures. But I can’t tell you about it here…you’ll have to head over to page 104.
Join us for the rest of the week along The Hammerhead Chronicles book tour:
Tuesday, November 8
UNG Press Blog
Excerpt with author commentary
Wednesday, November 9
The Writing Wall
Thursday, November 10
Spotify playlist inspired by the book
Friday, November 11
Book review by Jon Sokol