A Conversation With John Hornor Jacobs
By Rich Duncan
Today on Ink Heist we’re happy to welcome John Hornor Jacobs with a stellar, exceptionally in-depth conversation about books, writing, music, and his new novella, The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky. John’s breakout debut Southern Gods is one of the best books I’ve read in decades and one I’ll return to regularly going forward, and all his other work, including his new book, is just as engaging and outstanding. If you haven’t read this author, you’re going to want to fix that soon but, in the meantime, I’ll just get the hell out of the way and let Rich Duncan and John take over for the main attraction. Dig.
Ink Heist (IH): For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, how did you first get started in writing and what led you to pursue it professionally?
John Hornor Jacobs (JHJ): I was a bookworm as a kid and of course, like anyone who has a formative experience with literature, discovered a desire to write within myself. I grew up in the late seventies and early eighties in the shadow of the cold war and was terrified of nuclear war due to movies like The Day After and my dad’s often-voiced personal opinions (he was a just shy of crazy doomsday prepper – always kept extra water and canned goods in the basement, gun cabinet and ammo) so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the first story I wrote when I was a kid was about a boy, living in a cave (much like my basement) in the ruins of civilization after a nuclear war and who gets bitten by a radioactive dog.
It was a different time back then. It was possible to see almost every horror, sf, and fantasy movie if you were into them. Now, there’s a surfeit of speculative fiction in every sort of media. But back then, it was not as ubiquitous. Often, I’d see a movie – say Dracula – and then at the library I’d talk to my local librarian and they’d lead me to all sorts of books to read that might scratch that same itch. In this way, movies and books sort of cross-fertilized each other. But now, there’s just way too much visual storytelling available to watch it all and possibly, you don’t get the cross-fertilization with literature.
In college, after I discovered Faulkner, I kind of embraced my Southern-ness and began writing a cycle of stories about two families who raised dogs for pit-fighting. I thought I’d become a real writer but then life got in the way after college. I was in bands, got married, had kids, bought a house, started a business. Years went by. I read a lot. Having young kids calmed me down, domesticated me some. I had a routine, a life that wasn’t so erratic as to preclude writing. A couple of months before my 38th birthday I decided I’d take a crack at writing a novel. Because I always wanted to. And I just to see if I could.
I went to a bookstore and was looking at books about writing, and saw No Plot, No Problem – written by the guy who started NaNoWriMo. Read it and then when November rolled around, I signed up and started writing. By the time that particular November ended, I had about fifty-five thousand words towards Southern Gods, my first novel. I finished it four months later. That was 2007-08. I immediately started writing another book while I was polishing that one – This Dark Earth – joining online critiquing communities, literature minded forums, and attending my first conventions. I immersed myself in learning about the industry. I workshopped Southern Gods at a place called Borderlands Press Boot Camp, which was a good experience. However, because both the instructors and the attendees at the Boot Camp all gave feedback on the first 50 pages of my book – that was around forty sets of notes – it was all too much and I just disregarded almost the whole lot. I found myself thinking, “I think I know as well as these folks what works and doesn’t” and then thought, if any feedback seems true to me, or strikes a nerve, I need to figure out why. There wasn’t a lot of feedback that did. Some folks told me “No prologues!” and others didn’t like the characters and thought my protagonist should be nicer. Etcetera. The great thing about the Boot Camp was that it introduced me to a lot of writers that were at the same stage of their careers and it opened me up to learning about how to trust myself and my own instincts about writing.
IH: What is a typical day of writing like for you? Do you have a set process or is it something that varies depending on the day?
JHJ: I don’t buy into the you have to write every day, advice. I have a busy life – I’m a partner at an ad agency, and I have two teenage daughters and a wife and two dogs and own a house and play guitar and train at martial arts (not very well) – my days are full so finding time to write is sometimes a chore. Because I have a day job and a literary agent who supports my vision of how and what I want to write, I have the luxury of writing whatever I damn well please and (mostly) doing it on my own schedule.
However, not writing is like water pressure building in a hose, eventually it has to be released. At least that’s how it is for me. And, like they say, you’re always writing, even when looking out the window – the fallow times are where you make strange mental connections, brood, think about either what’s to come or what’s to come next. It’s the deep breath before the plunge, in a manner of speaking.
But mostly, I write from 10pm to 11:30 or midnight, after work. When I have time at work, my partners understand that I’ll be writing or doing things like this written interview and they’re fine with that. But I rarely have time at work. Business is booming, which is great for the bottom line but not so great for writing.
I’m very lucky to get to be creative at both my day job and my writing.
IH: Your debut Southern Gods was born out of NaNoWriMo, which happens around this time every year. What was it that spurred you to participate in NaNoWriMo and what are your thoughts on the event? Do you have any tips for those who want to participate?
JHJ: I think NaNoWriMo is great for writers starting out. The pace allows you to write and not worry about flubbed sentences or inconsistences and just bully through fifty-thousand words. Coming out the other side gives you an understanding of how people produce books – determination, diligence, schedule. The months after NaNoWriMo are when you do the real work – first drafts are fun – but the fifth or six time you’ve read through your own work, you don’t have distance enough to be objective other than to be pissed with how previous you phrased a thought and pissed with present you with not being able to think of anything better.
IH: Most of your works mix in elements of various genres and you also experiment a bit with the structure (such as the multiple viewpoints in This Dark Earth). Do you try to take chances with style elements in new stories, or is it more of an organic process? Also, what is it about the melding of genres that appeals to you?
JHJ: As much as books and movies cross-fertilize each other, books are not movies and the audience doesn’t spend as much time with a movie than they will a book, on the whole. But for creators, we have to spend months, sometimes even years, with a project. Which is a looooong gestation period for a piece of art created by one individual. So, for me, I have to have something interesting about the project to engage me beyond simply character and plot. There needs to be something stylistic, or structural, to work with and often the mixed genres – say, like crime noir and cosmic horror of Southern Gods, or the jailbreak plus kids with superpowers elements of my Incarcerado young adult series – provide that creative frisson to keep me interested and engaged. Because if an author isn’t into their own book, then the reader never will be.
The downside of this is that I tend to write books that are more difficult to classify and don’t really scratch the desired itch of some readers. Like my fantasy series The Incorruptibles – weird western meets alternate Roman history meets epic fantasy – when reader pick up a fantasy series, or something sold as one, they expect swords and folks clad in armor and maybe a dragon. They don’t expect Romans toting demon powered six-guns. A lot of the reading audience wants comfort food – mac and cheese – and they don’t really want stories that do not fulfill their expectations. “Hey, I ordered mac and cheese and you brought me mac and cheese with crabmeat and oysters in it! And the cheese isn’t orange!” Don’t get me wrong, I love mac and cheese.
It’s also just a really hard time right now to sell books. Supply outstrips demand.
IH: You’ve written novels for adults, but also have a series of books for young adults. What made you decide to venture into the YA genre and is there anything you do differently when approaching those books?
JHJ: I guess partially it was because it seemed a more vibrant and saleable area of fiction at the time, and I had two kids and writing something that they could read was a motivator. Turns out, my young adult fiction is pretty dark and borderline adult fiction.
I think what I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t ever start a project again saying “This is going to be a young adult novel!” I’ll just write books and then my agent and I will decide what sort of audience it might appeal to more and then tweak and revise accordingly.
IH: In addition to being involved in the arts, you have extensive experience in the advertising field. Lately in the publishing industry, authors that write for both traditional publishers and small presses often need to put in a ton of promotional effort on their own. Does your background in advertising help you? What advice would you give to other writers to help more effectively promote their work?
JHJ: You know, I do a lot of promotional stuff online because, well, I can do it all myself and don’t have to rely on anyone else – graphics, book trailers, animated gifs, what have you – but I don’t think that really does much to move the needle on book sales. It might indicate to publishers that yes, the author is invested in this and that’s good because, for the most part, publishers don’t do a lot to promote debut authors and very little to promote midlist authors. The higher the advance, the more likely an author is to get promoted by the publisher – they have to protect their investment, so throwing more money at something they’ve already thrown money at is how they do it.
Because I am a professional designer, funny things happen. Like with The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky. It’s a weird book deal and I’ve made a chart explaining it (including it in my email). Anyway, because The Sea Dreams was going to come out solely as an ebook first, my publisher told me when we met that they weren’t going to sink a lot of money into doing cover art for the ebook since less than a year later the ebook would be taken down and replaced with a hardback, ebook, and audiobook, and that’s where they’d put their resources. It was very cool, actually, for David Pomerico to tell me that. Managing expectations is a professional courtesy. So, when it came time to talk about the ebook art, David asked me if I had any ideas about how the ebook of The Sea Dreams should look, I took a couple of hours out of my day, bought appropriate stock imagery, did some typesetting, and sent the mock-up to him as a start to the dialogue on cover design. We ended up going with my mock-up design.
But on the whole, the best ways to promote one’s work is to write the best you can. That’s a little vague. Let me restate: so, there’s this thing with writing. Often, when starting a project, I have an abstract ideal of how I picture the story, or novel, or whatever, to be. It will be haunting. Or it will be a cold and desolate book with stark decisions and dire consequences. It will be a sweltering hot and humid look at the underbelly of the south. Whatever. But when I come out the ass end of the project, there’s a moment when I have to evaluate how close execution came to the initial ideal. Sometimes they’re quite far apart from each other. Sometimes, they’re very close. I think this is a universal thing amongst artists. So when I say “write the best you can” I really mean, get as close as you can to the ideal you started with as you are able. Then, at the end, you’ll have a product that you can be proud of and can talk about with some gusto because you know you know it’s been created at the best of your abilities.
The other thing to promote your work is simply join in the larger dialogue about whatever it is you’ve written about. Tweeting over and over “Buy my vampire book!” won’t move shit. But, if you love vampire stories (and who fucking doesn’t, I ask you) then talk about vampires or zombies or werewolves or Lovecraft or whatever online. Follow your favorite authors and filmmakers. Join in the greater discussion. Go to conventions and make acquaintances with other like-minded writers. Don’t play golf. Golf is a monumental waste of time. Save that money you’d spend on the dumbest of hobbies – golf – and save up to go to World Horror Convention or DragonCon or wherever.
My apologies if anyone is a golfer. But you need to get your priorities straight. I guess it’s possible to be a good golfer AND a good writer. But unlikely. Maybe it’s just that all the guys my age around here play golf and I’d personally rather grout tile. Or anything really.
IH: While researching questions for our interview, I saw one of your favorite horror novels was House of Leaves. That’s a novel that has elicited a variety of reactions and has become something of a legendary book. People that read it also seem to take different things from it. Personally, it really unsettled me. What about this book did you enjoy and what creeped you out?
JHJ: First, it’s a sneaky book. It unsettles you through design. Throughout the course of reading it, you have to turn the physical object of the book in different ways to get all of the prose. The fractured narrative is mirrored in the typesetting. The concept is simple and incredible – finding a door where one shouldn’t be that opens up to vast spaces that shouldn’t exist. They say the best fiction are those stories that ask the best questions, not the fiction that tries to answer them. All of that’s debatable. But for me, House of Leaves did what it set out to do, discompose me. And once they entered the door and began exploring the space beyond (no spoilers) the lack of a definable antagonist became agitating and uncomfortable so that when things did happen, however small (and maybe unsatisfactorily to some readers) they really packed a punch. For me at least.
I also really enjoy books that offer a challenge. Reading is different than watching moving images. Reading is collaboration – film is story on an IV drip. So I tend to gravitate toward books I have to work a little to enter because once I DO enter that world, I’m in over my head.
IH: What are some of the challenges when it comes to crafting a short story versus writing a novel?
JHJ: Brevity is the soul of wit. It’s also very very hard. With novella and novels, you have the luxury of slowly revealing character and plot. With short stories, all of that is compressed, and so every word must be considered. This is why short story writers – great short story writers – are the best writers. Because they know how to do so much with very little. It’s like watching a virtuoso guitarist – their hands barely seem to be moving – the economy of motion that years of practice makes.
I will say, I don’t consider myself much of a short story writer. I’m not very good at it, despite having had a story in Playboy. But I’m trying to get better.
IH: You recently released The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky and have talked about a sibling novel My Heart Struck Sorrow. What can you tell readers about that novel and considering they will both be released together under the title A Lush and Seething Hell, are there connective threads that tie the two stories together?
JHJ: They’re both Russian dolls – there are stories within stories. Mise en abyme.
As for My Heart Struck Sorrow, I’ll give you the pitch/synopsis I gave my publisher (note – I suck at synopses) and you’ll be the first other than my editor and agent who has read it:
Robert Cromwell returns to work at the Library of Congress, Folklife Department, after a family tragedy. There he learns that Matilda Parker, the great-grandniece of the infamous Harlan Parker, has died and bequeathed her estate to the Library of Congress. Cromwell travels to southern Missouri to assess the estate and discovers, in a hidden and locked room, a chest full of acetate discs and a field journal written by none other than Harlan Parker himself regarding his ill-fated commission: in 1938 Harlan Parker, contiguous with Alan and John Lomax, is sent to record folk music recordings from West Virginia to the Mississippi River Valley.
Parker, due to a childhood loss of his mother at a Chautauqua, has a lifelong obsession with folk music, particularly the song “Stagger Lee” as it contains some lost verses that have a diabolical connotation. Set against the backdrop of the last years of the depression, he charts the course of his commission from the Library of Congress through West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas as he searches for the lost infernal verses of “Stagger Lee.” He is plagued by strange and seemingly supernatural occurrences that beggar his sanity. His belief in an Ur-version of “Stagger Lee” leads him to discover another song entirely, a song called “Crowned in Scarlet” which becomes something unholy in his mind. He traces this song through the fields and prisons of the south, from incarcerated field hands to Ozark mountain folk. As his health and mental stability deteriorates, he abandons his commission to follow the trail of “Crowned in Scarlet” to the bitter end.
In 1938, Harlan Parker journeys to hear a song that a dead man sings. In the present, Robert Cromwell follows his path, wherever it leads, to madness and beyond.
IH: If you could choose any writer, living or dead, to collaborate or talk about writing with, who would you choose and why?
JHJ: I’d love to sit down with China Miéville and talk about writing. He’s written books that absolutely irritated me, and other books and stories that will live in my head until I die. I’d love to chat with Stephen King, of course, because he’s the master and we’re all just really playing in his sandbox. I’ve already been lucky enough to have had drinks with George R.R. Martin and dinner with Robert McCammon.
As for collaboration, I’ve thought about it, but how could anyone collaborate with, say, Shakespeare? Me: William, I don’t really like how that’s phrased. Him: yo, I’m William fucking Shakespeare. Me: oh, yeah, you right. My bad.
IH: What horror novel had the biggest impact on you as a writer and who are some of your favorite current writers that you recently started reading?
JHJ: Dracula has probably had the most influence on me personally, as it was the first horror novel I read and one I continuously return to. It’s an epistolary novel, people forget, comprised totally of journals and news clippings. Telegrams. It’s a really remarkable work of fiction.
My favorite writer is (and you might be surprised at this) Hilary Mantel. Her Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are books that remain my north star as to what great modern writing can be. I also love Glen Duncan’s panache – The Last Werewolf is a hellacious literary romp with surprising depths and a whole lot of style. Daryl Gregory is a near flawless writer, and when I read Pandemonium (emphasis on demon) and Raising Stony Mayhall, I questioned what the hell I was doing as a writer.
The best book I’ve read this year is Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – such an incredible book – and is followed by All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I think it’s important to read outside of genre.
As far as short stories go, Stephen Graham Jones and Laird Barron are two writers that I’m always in awe of – their concise elegance is matched only by their understanding of the churning of the (in)human condition. Weston Ochse’s short stories also move with terrifying grace. Kelly Link is a master of the short form. And I loved Orrin Grey’s latest collection, Guignol and Other Sardonic Tales. His collection Never Bet the Devil is a must have for horror hounds.
And then I read a shit ton of non-fic because I tend to write historical fiction and have to do a lot of research. The most enjoyable academic book I read recently (as research for My Heart Struck Sorrow) was Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown.
IH: You have a musical background and play guitar. What are some of your favorite types of music and what is one of your fondest memories of performing music live?
JHJ: My musical experience has been based most out of roots music – country, blues, and jazz – all American art forms. I came up playing music in jam bands in the late 80s and 90s, touring around the mid-south into my thirties. The last time I played live in front of a large crowd was in 2011 at the King Biscuit Blues Festival where the 10-piece band I was in opened on the main stage for Buddy Guy. A different band I was in opened up for Little Feat, which was a big deal to me, since I based a lot of my approach to music on Lowell George (except for the dying young part).
There’s no drug that can match the feeling of a well-rehearsed band, playing for an enthusiastic audience. It’s better than any high I’ve ever known, and it’s probably why so many musicians have drug problems – they’re trying to climb back into the performance womb, artificially.
IH: You have mentioned in past interviews that you are creatively restless and that you have plans to dabble in a variety of different genres. But outside of writing you have pursued other creative pursuits including music and graphic design. Do you have any plans to experiment in other art forms or creating a project that utilizes a variety of your artistic talents?
JHJ: I’m playing around with doing some woodcuts to supplement a Dracula related project, but I might not be a good enough artist to pull it off. We’ll see. Mostly, things don’t happen because my interest moves back to things I know I can pull off – creatively playing it safe.
IH: I’m always curious about literary cultures in other parts of the country. What is the literary scene like in Little Rock, Arkansas? Are there any local writing groups or events for writers in the area?
JHJ: In all my years as a professional I’ve been asked to attend the Arkansas Literary Festival twice, and I’ve been invited to speak at a single high-school creative writing class. I’ve spoken with one local book club.
I’d say that for a genre writer, whatever his or her accomplishments, there aren’t a lot of literary opportunities in Arkansas. Arkansas universities, if they have the budget to get writers in, they won’t spend that money on genre authors, or if they do, they’ll bring them in from out of state. Bigger names than me.
It’s just the way it is. It used to irk me, but I like to think I’ve gotten over it. Not enough to refrain from talking about it in interviews, I guess.
My wife and I have entered serious discussions about moving east, or west, or anywhere that I could join in a more literary community than where I am now. But my parents are aging and I still have a couple more years of teens being at home, so all that’s on the back burner for now.
IH: Thanks for joining us at Ink Heist John! Any last thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
JHJ: Thank you for having me. I’d just say that if you want to join in discussion with me on social media, I’m pretty active on Twitter under the username @johnhornor, where I mostly spout off about politics and horror movies and make bad jokes. I try not to barrage you with BUY MY BOOK messaging, but you know how it is.
BUY THE SEA DREAMS IT IS THE SKY by John Hornor Jacobs
About John Hornor Jacobs:
John Hornor Jacobs’ first novel, Southern Gods, was published by Night Shade Books and shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. His second novel, This Dark Earth, was published in J2012 by Simon & Schuster. His young adult series, The Incarcerado Trilogy comprised of The Twelve-Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity, was described by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing as “amazing” and received a starred Booklist review. His Fisk & Shoe fantasy series composed of The Incorruptibles, Foreign Devils, and Infernal Machines has thrice been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Award and was described by Patrick Rothfuss like this: “One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is strange alchemy, a recipe I’ve never seen before. I wish more books were as fresh and brave as this.”
His fiction has appeared in Playboy Magazine, Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine and his essays have been featured on CBS Weekly and Huffington Post. Jacobs resides in the American South and spends his free time when not working on his next book thinking about his next book.Visit him at http://www.johnhornorjacobs.com.