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Author Hiron Ennes & agent Alexander Cochran on Leech

BY Katie Smart
3rd Feb 2021

Hiron Ennes (pictured left) was a student on our six-month Writing Your Novel course in 2017. Hiron used their time on the course to work on a fascinating science fiction novel unlike anything we'd ever seen. After the course they gained representation from C&W's Alexander Cochran (pictured right). We were delighted to start 2021 with the news that Alexander had sold Leech to Tor, with publication set for autumn 2022.

We caught up with Hiron and Alexander to talk about the process of writing, editing and selling this wonderfully weird book, as well as the inspiration that birthed Leech and its protagonist the Institute – a parasite here to help humanity...

Hiron, you were a student on our six-month Writing Your Novel course back in 2017. What were the biggest lessons that you took away from studying with us?

Hiron: One of the biggest lessons I took away from the CBC workshop is how to approach feedback with appropriate flexibility and firmness. I had a diverse workshop group with respect to genre and style, so of course their critiques came from, and suggested my writing go to, myriad and opposing directions. I learned you really need to know your writing, and your own intent, in order to choose which feedback to incorporate and which to (respectfully) disregard. Feedback from readers who weren’t necessarily interested in my chosen genre allowed me to look at my writing from many different angles. It was almost like an abstract lesson in vector addition—you have to decide which critiques are strongest from which coordinates, and at which magnitudes, and incorporate them to give your novel a direction that truly suits it. This lesson is particularly pertinent to a genre-confused story like Leech, whose vectors all at once fanned out toward sci-fi, horror, manners fantasy, and the Brontë sisters, for some reason.

Oh, also I learned to write a good synopsis and a letter to an agent. Apparently it worked!

What was the best piece of advice you received from your tutor?

Hiron: I think that Suzannah Dunn was instrumental in facilitating the previous lesson—to trust yourself to filter what your story does and doesn’t need, consider every piece of feedback, and also consider if it would truly take your book the direction it should go. She also encouraged all of us to keep going—first, of course, in the sense not to let rejection discourage you from continuing your work. As a writer you have to learn to eat rejection for breakfast, that much is known the world over. But she also encouraged us to keep going in a second sense—to acknowledge that your first draft will be an awful mess, but you have to keep going. You’ll hate it (or come to hate it), but there will be no salvageable parts of a first draft if there is no first draft. Embrace the sloppy copy. It’s probably trash, but it’s your trash.

After studying with us you gained representation from C&W’s Alexander Cochran. Now your debut Leechwill be published by Tor. Can you talk us through how it felt when Alexander delivered the news that you were going to be published?

Hiron: I felt elated, credulous, and extremely lucky. It was a sudden, almost shocking confluence of privilege and fortuity—privilege because I had enough money and time to pay rent and write with only a part-time job, a luxury most people don’t have. Fortuity because I would not have been published had I not found an agent, I would not have found an agent had I not taken the CBC course, I would not have taken the course had I not lived the basement of a literature professor who forwarded me an email about it, I wouldn’t have been in her basement had it not been for a Craigslist-induced roommate fiasco and several subsequent robberies. So actually I would like to thank my former roommate Mick, UFO enthusiast and avid indoor smoker, who set off a Rube-Goldberg-esque series of events that led to my publication.

Alexander, what first struck you about Hiron’s writing and made you want to read on?

Alexander: I was pulled into a completely original and captivating world from the first scene, and it was clear Hiron was fully in charge of every single word on the page. That, combined with a really unique protagonist and a combination of different influences and genres that almost shouldn’t work, but in Hiron’s hands felt effortless, made me want to keep reading.

Hiron,Leechis a post-apocalyptic tale that encompasses science fiction and gothic elements. Can you tell us a bit more about your debut and the inspiration behind it?

Hiron: Leech has been a novel in the making since I was probably in my early teens, hiking in the Canadian Rockies and fantasizing about something horrifying happening against a serene, alpine backdrop. My first attempt to portray that was a half-baked zombie romp, then an alien invasion, then a boring and uninspired cautionary tale about techno-fascism (boring and uninspired compared to the insidious techno-fascism whose nascency we are currently witnessing). Over the years, while most people matured emotionally and learned useful skills, I instead cultivated a better idea of what horrible things I would like to happen against a beautiful mountain scene. Droplets of inspiration accumulated from different sources: a lecture from the biophysicists in the lab next to mine about emergent behaviour of slime moulds and starlings, a dream of a physician shuffling in the dark halls of a decrepit castle, a dogsledding escapade. Leech wasn’t quite born of inspiration, rather it congealed over time, half-sentient, borrowing and dropping fragments of inspiration as it saw fit.

How does your work as a student of medicine with an interest in infectious diseases and pathology help inform your fiction?

Hiron: I love medicine. Every day I learn something terrifying. A new way to die, a new strain of a familiar pathogen, a new mutation, a new insight into our own vulnerability, our almost inhuman existence as a collective of mindless cells. I think that’s what I like about histopathology—the constant reminder that you are comprised of disparate and interdependent populations of tiny cells with different habits, genetic expressions, vulnerabilities and strengths. And half of you isn’t even you, it’s an ecosystem of microbiota, fungi and protists, at once protective and potentially devastating. Any microscopic invader or wayward cell can compromise the body’s state of balance, its internal regulation, its neurology, its agency, its personality. I find this both inspiring and existentially horrifying.

But I think it’s a mutual relationship—while medical science inspires a lot of my fiction, fiction also inspired a lot of my interest in medical science. I have always been fascinated with illness, death and mental fragility. In elementary school I carried around a tome of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, in high school I graduated to French transgressivism and body horror, then after college, textbooks of parasitology and forensic pathology. Like fiction, medicine is heavy with drama, intrigue, rage, betrayal, anguish, relief, astonishment. It has been a burden and a privilege to experience the sheer emotion of that profession, to capture the curious tranquillity of an autopsy or the hair-raising chaos of a birth. It has also been delightful to take medicine to its fictional extremes, to meld the science and the surrealism, to write about diseases, cures, injuries, impairments and genetic mutations that have no possible medical basis. Yet.

Alexander, without giving too much away, which parts of Leechare you most excited for readers to experience?

Alexander: There are so many brilliant ideas and scenes in the novel that it’s really hard to pick one, but there’s a scene fairly early on the novel involving an autopsy that left me reeling…

The relationship between author and agent is a special one. Was there any point before signing the client agreement where things ‘clicked’, and you knew you had to work together?

Hiron: I can’t lie—Leech is weird. It’s uncomfortable. Not to brag, but it’s a bit of a noxious fever dream. When I spoke with Alexander, he found many of these elements compelling rather than off-putting, and he seemed to understand and encourage my authorial intent. “Disgusting” was used as a favorable descriptor. It was refreshing to hear his suggestions for making the weirder elements stronger and smoother, to iron out the patchwork where genres clashed. Also he liked the same books I did, which is the proper basis for any professional relationship.

Alexander: Hiron had created something so unusual I was desperate to work with them, but for me the most important thing in any author/agent relationship isn’t just that I like an author’s work, but that we understand what each other want from the book, and share some kind of vision for the work. Our first call was mainly me telling Hiron how much I loved the world they’d built, but we also talked about some of my (fairly minor) editorial comments, and I think at that point it became clear we were on the same page when it came to both the direction edits should take, and the core message of the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you did together on Leech before sending the book out to editors?

Hiron: There was actually a fair amount of work done on Leech before we sent it out—as mentioned before, smoothing some of the more incongruous genre elements, and a fair amount of worldbuilding. Good news for me—I love worldbuilding, and there were a thousand notes about the world just lying in a document somewhere, unincorporated. Somehow my second draft didn’t turn out to be the post-apocalypse Silmarillion, but there’s always next time.

Alexander: To memory, I think we did a few editorial run throughs, addressing some of the worldbuilding and reining in one or two things that felt like they interrupted the flow of the novel a bit too much. Hiron had a brilliant vision of the novel from the get go, so it was far more fine tuning than anything more substantial.