Wow. What to say about this amazing fucking piece from John F.D. Taff? Well, probably the best thing would be to not say much at all and just welcome you to the show. John’s amazing collection Little Black Spots releases on September 18 from Grey Matter Press and his epic apocalypse novel The Fearing releases in the spring of 2019, also from Grey Matter press. So if you haven’t already, go pre-order the new collection, it’s amazing. If you want further confirmation of that, you can read Rich Duncan’s review here. In the meantime, while we’re waiting breathlessly for those two books to release, check out John’s insightful and remarkably candid essay on the creation and evolution of those books and the hurdles he had to overcome in the process of making them happen.
John F.D. Taff Talks About Little Black Spots and His Epic Novel, The Fearing
Shane and Rich asked me to write a little something to promote the release of my latest collection of short stories, Little Black Spots. This book—which features fifteen of my shorts (some new, some previously published) and an introduction from Bram Stoker Award-winning editor Doug Murano—came together pretty easily, as these things generally do. I mean, I’ve been writing for nearly 30 years now, so I’ve amassed a fairly healthy stable of shorts.
The challenge here is picking which ones seem to go together, if such can be said for disparate collection of stories. Then arranging them. Josh Malerman has said that arranging stories in a collection of an anthology is analogous to selecting and ordering the tracks on an album, and I agree with this assessment.
But in the writing of these stories, no, it wasn’t difficult. None of the stories posed any particular problems in setting them down. None, at least, that I can remember. Oh, there might have been some pauses as I considered word choice or whether to go left or right at a particular moment. How to start and how to end each of them. But nothing particularly troublesome.
Then, there was The Fearing.
This epic, apocalyptic thriller will be published by Grey Matter Press in the spring of 2019. It’s a tome—more than 500 pages, with an enormous cast of characters and a setting that covers the entire United States. It’s massive, and the central idea behind it is massive, too. Profound.
What if humanity’s fears accumulate over time in its collective unconscious?
What if that bowl of fear is filled to the brim and must be emptied to reset the system?
What if that fear is released onto the earth?
All the fears. All at once.
The Fearing represented a big thing for me. It was a big idea, born of my reading of Carl Jung and his idea of our collective unconscious, of archetypes and the stuff behind our reality. But it was even bigger than that, at least for me. Let me explain.
Before I started writing The Fearing, I had come off having published Little Deaths, Kill-Off, and The Bell Witch. More importantly, I had just worked with Grey Matter Press to publish The End in All Beginnings, my Stoker Award-nominated novella collection. That book, more than any other, put me on the horror map. But up to that point, I had made my name with short stories, published here, there and everywhere. I hadn’t written a novel in, wow, probably nearly 10 years.
In around the year 2000, I’d made a fateful decision to stop writing. Yeah, stop as in full stop, not just submitting or publishing, I mean no writing, as in smash the presses, close the laptop, snap the pencils in half.
Why? Well, hard to explain, even to myself. Lots of personal stuff, to be sure, but also professional woes. The usual stuff. I’d managed to snag a well-known New York agent, the kind who you have expensive, tony New York lunches with when you’re in town. He was a great guy, very supportive, but, well, it just didn’t work. Lots of reasons. I look back now and see that I wasn’t ready. The writing wasn’t good enough. But also publishing at that time was falling apart, changing, transitioning. It probably still is. Maybe always is. Whatever.
Anyway, I got frustrated and threw in the towel. Enough. I was done spending so much on this indulgence. Time taken away from my family and from other endeavors. And for what? Nothing I could see or appreciate at the time.
So I stopped. For seven years.
What a horrible seven years that was.
Did things get better when I stopped writing? Nope.
Did I feel better about myself? Nope.
Did stopping have any positive effects for me? Nope.
Did it have any negative effects? Oh yeah…
At about the nadir of all this, I adopted a pug, a puppy I named Hector. I already had my darling Sylvia. We lived out off a dusty gravel lane in the middle of nowhere, and we were happy. Until, that is, the evening I let them out for a pee, and a hit-and-run driver ran over Hector.
He was only 18 months old. I called a few of my friends, and they came over and buried my dog for me, out in the yard. I am not ashamed to tell you that I grieved harder for that dog than I have ever, and I mean ever, grieved for another soul. I realize now that he represented so much more to me, and that is not for a moment meant to belittle his value to me as a member of my family. But I think in grieving Hector, I was grieving the loss of my own life—the previous life I had.
To deal with that, I turned to the one thing I’d turned my back on. Writing. In a blaze of nine weeks, I wrote eleven short stories. More than one a week. They poured out of me as if I’d struck a well buried deep inside. And the first story was called “Here,” collected in Little Deaths: The Definitive Collection. Go and read it. I’m still inordinately proud of that story. Read it in private. Best not to burst into tears in public. I still have difficulties reading that story, and could never do a public reading of it. I’d break down and ugly cry.
Anyway, I realized that writing was part of who I am. It’s how I process stuff. Not doing it for those seven years clogged up the cogs and gears inside, and Hector’s death acted like Drain-O for my soul. Probably not the most respectful comparison, sorry Heck. But it was like that, the acid of that grief cutting through, dissolving all of the shit that had been accumulating inside me for years and years.
Great, Taff. What’s this all got to do with The Fearing?
So, no writing for seven years. Then, a spurt of creativity that resulted in a torrent of short stories and the novellas that would become The End in All Beginnings.
Then, I realized that I needed to write a novel, needed to immerse myself in something big, grandiose, sprawling. I hadn’t written a novel in a while, this seemed like the time. It seemed like a great idea.
But the damn thing scared the hell out of me.
Not in the wow, this idea is really scary kind of way, but in the more profound gee, can I really write this? Can I really write a novel anymore?
I started the book in the early days of my relationship with Deb, now my beautiful wife. I talked to her about it relentlessly, discussed the Jungian underpinnings of it, the huge palette I was planning to paint on.
Go write it, she said.
And so I did…slowly. I think I wrote about 30 pages in the first year, and there it sat.
Deb encouraged me, urged me to keep at it.
One year turned to two, then to three. I tinkered with it, going over what I’d written, rearranging things, obsessing over details. Three years turned to four. I think I had maybe 100 pages written.
In January 2016, I went to Tom Monteleone’s Borderlands Boot Camp, a wonderful writer’s workshop. I brought the first 40 or so pages of The Fearing, which is what I was now calling it. (I have Tony Rivera at Grey Matter to thank for the title. I was calling the book, simply, The End.) Anyway, it did well there, and I schlepped back home with plenty of critical suggestions, which I made.
For whatever reason—Deb’s exhortations, it being “the right time,” whatever—I began writing. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. Four years became five, and I finally finished the sucker. Yay me. Now, next spring (in what I guess is technically year eight!), this behemoth of a book will be published.
Eight years from inception to publication. I tell you all this not to impress you or anything like that. I tell you to encourage you. Don’t throw in the towel. Don’t push back from the desk (or worse, your career as a writer!) because of some difficulty in your life. Sure, life takes precedence, and sometimes you have to step away for a while, but come back, always come back.
If you’re not a writer, this same advice applies to just about everything in life. Don’t give up on yourself. Stick with whatever your dream is and see it through.
The next novel, He Left, was written with what I’d learned from my long, hard slog through The Fearing right up front. Instead of a big, sprawling novel, I wanted a smaller, more intimate book. Instead of five years, I wanted to finish the book in two months. I did that by keeping a calendar on my desk, which I ticked off each day I wrote.
Some days I wrote next to nothing. Some days I wrote 8,000 words. I didn’t end up finishing He Left in two months. I finished in three. Still, that means I wrote over 90,000 words in three months; 30,000 words a month. The calendar on my desk kept me honest, kept me sitting in my desk chair typing so as not to log a “0” there. Oh, sure, there were a few zeroes logged, but not many. And those zeroes spurred me to write more in the following days to make up for it glaring back at me.
So what’s the point here? Really, I think it’s that writing is sometimes easy, sometimes hard. And it rewards you, I think, if you stick with it during the hard times. Sticking through the easy times is…whelp…easy. Sometimes you have to muscle through and get it done. Not just with writing, with life.
Anyway, so The Fearing will be out sometime next spring. He Left? Well, who knows? I gotta find a publisher for that first. Until then, I’ve got a few things up my sleeves, can’t talk about them yet, but my work will be out there, around. And I’ll be down in my basement office, with my books, pugs, tiny Star Trek ships and Marvel action figures, writing something.
I’m sure you’ll read whatever it is soon.