Part 1 of 2
Hey people! I hope you all are well today and I hope you’re in the mood for something fun and SUPER insightful. Anyone who’s followed me for a while likely knows I’m a huge fan of John C. Foster and Rich is no different, but for being maybe a little more emphatic about his fandom than I. He’s young, I’m old, that’s why. Simple.
Anyway, where was I? Oh. Over the years, John and I have developed something of a rapport and I believe that’s true of Rich and him but I can’t confirm for sure. They may hate each other. But Foster and I like each other and we have become comfortable in our friendship and in conversation so it was an easy choice when Rich and I first brainstormed this somewhat unorthodox method of doing an interview. We needed a gullible victim. John was just such a target, and we’re eternally grateful to him for falling into our trap. I know you’re going to dig this so stick around.
I’m’ going to tell you briefly what we did here, and then we’ll get on with it. We wanted to do a live interview but we have neither video or audio capabilities so we decided to improvise. Using a Google Hangout, we did this “semi-live” interview in real time, firing questions and answers back and forth and having a blast doing it. Below is the transcription of Part 1 of our somewhat lengthy conversation and we hope you have as much fun with it as the three of us did.
Legend: J = John, R = Rich, S = Shane
S: John, I want to start by doing something that will seem strange. Please humor me.
S: I want you to very quickly–not so quickly that you give yourself whiplash, turn and look at the first shelf you can see from your desk. Then without pausing or taking time to peruse, immediately turn back.
S: Okay, in that brief glance, what book or books stood out to you immediately?
J: Stephen King & Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties
S: Interesting. What about it do you think makes it stand out to you? (keeping in mind this thread might go nowhere, haha).
J: It’s the biggest thing on that particular shelf – and I didn’t really manage to read all of it, but I knew by recognizing SK’s name and that it was a hardback on that TBR shelf it had to be Sleeping Beauties
S: TBR Shelf? Do tell. How many shelves do you have and do they all have different purposes?
J: I have two TBR bookcases in my office, but it’s not well organized so I’ve also got reference books and copies of my own books in there. Out in the living room we have our main ‘wall of books.’
S: Okay, let’s talk about a bit more about your bookshelves. You’re an eclectic reader and I’m going to imagine your shelves reflect that. Which of those books do you think you’ve read that most helped to prepare you to write a book like The Isle, which is largely different from anything you’ve written?
J: Hmmm, good question
S: I don’t mean a single one. I guess, “which collection of books” is a better term.
J: Certainly King is a big help. I’ve read most of his books and he usually uses a New England setting, as I did with The Isle. He also likes to introduce a large cast of characters and shift POV, as I did. That being said, when I looked for the gothic/supernatural elements I was informed more by the work of MR James, I suspect…and then some of the mythology – like the references to Old Man Atlantic – came more from reading works of fantasy…Zelazny and the like. A bit of the weird creeps into the story as well and that comes from reading Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, Laird Barron and the like.
Oh – and Hawthorne certainly lurked beneath the entire process of writing The Isle, though I’m no great reader of classics.
R: That was one of the things that stuck out to me about The Isle, it almost had a bit of a mosiac approach. There was the main narrative, flashbacks to Bones past and also sections on the history of The Isle. Did you know from the outset you wanted to have these different threads or did it happen organically?
Was it difficult keeping them linked to move the main story?
J: It wasn’t difficult to keep those flashbacks to Bone linked to the main story, because they were informing his character in the present…he feels XX about a situation because YY happened back home…that sort of thing. Setting aside plot and setting, this story is all about Bone – who has gone very much astray from the kind of man he wishes he was – find a path back to being someone he himself can respect (although he doesn’t set out intentionally to do that). So as I watched that arc evolving, tying past and present together was fairly simple. Weaving the tone together from different threads was a more complex endeavor and I spent a lot of time honing the qualities of the culture and people of the Isle, developing the roots of their isolation and the internal struggle in the community, why they react as they do to an outsider, etc…
And then another large chunk of the work was treating the island itself as a vital character in the book – an embodiment of everything they were, like an elemental or a genius loci
S: Oh. You just hit a nerve.
S: Let’s talk about New England, The Isle, and psychogeography, a new favorite subject of mine. You visit NE a lot, and you talk about it a fair bit and have written settings there in the past. Are you from NE?
J: I was born in Sleepy Hollow but grew up in New Hampshire from my earliest memories until I left for Boston after high school.
Sleepy Hollow NY
S: So it’s the Boston connection that links you. You’re basically New York born and bred. Why the fuckin’ Patriots, Foster? Yeesh.
Seriously though. When I think of the people of a place and how they actually relate to, interact with, and embed themselves in the environs they live in, i always find myself thinking, in the case of well written stories, that the setting is as much of a character as any other. What sorts of difficulties did you find making a place like the Island spring to life.
J: My dad’s only religion was the Patriots, so blame him!
I have a huge emotional connection to places…or rather, I should say that I need to have a positive connection to a place. Despite living in LA for almost 20 years, I never felt that connection, and must have moved at least five times within the city itself. Looking back, I suspect I was seeking some kind of connection. My connection to New England is not entirely healthy – I feel a sense of tribal welcoming when I go back, but the place also smothers me. I never felt entirely comfortable there, even in Boston (though that works best for me)…and I should say that when I left New England for California I was fleeing what left like a dead end at the age of 20. New York City, on the other hand, has always had a magnetic pull on my soul. Like a fucking tractor beam. I used to manipulate business trips so I could handle the New York end of things because I just loved how I felt walking on the sidewalks. All of this is a long way of saying that I exploit psychogeography in a lot of my writing, using it to shape the characters as well as generate tone by bouncing my own feelings about a place off the page.
I wouldn’t say I had difficulty in bringing that sense of life to the Isle…rather, that it was a long process of discovery, almost archaeology to which I added my own strong sense memories of New England – the smell of the Atlantic, the cold wind off the water cutting through my coat and tossing my hair about, the beautiful harshness. A reviewer called The Isle a “November book” and I was thrilled, because I was really trying to bring that seasonal sense to life. An early beta reader who had gone to school in Maine asked me if the Isle was a real place, which thrilled me, because it’s entirely fictional.
BTW – let me know if I’m bloviating too much
S: No, this is fucking perfect. We crave detailed answers.
R: I think that’s really interesting point and I think using your own memories is what makes the setting such a gripping sense of atmosphere to the book. That was onenof my favorite parts of the book as it brought the book to life. I also think it’s interesting that while totally unique, those same sort of setting hallmarks (a sort of cold, somber feeling) appear in Mister White too.
J: Yeah, I definitely went to the same places to bring that small NH town to life in Mister White
I’m glad it worked!
S: Okay, John, word association time. Dogs.
J: (Just shifted from Earth, Wind and Fire to The Clash as background music)
J: “me” was the word association
S: Caught that. I’ve always wanted to ask you this totally irrelevant question.
S: Have you ever written a story with a dog or other animal as the main character?
J: My dog is snoring on her dog bed in my office as I type
S: LOL, I love Coraline.
(Thanks – me too)
Though the German Shepherd Etienne was a very important character for me in Mister White
There are a bunch of dogs in the book I’m still revising now All the Teeth in the World…but not as main characters.
S: Aside: you’ll note we’ve been mentioning Mister White throughout the conversation. That’s because you people reading this should also read that fucking book. It’s amazing.
S: Important. If I were a total stranger and I walked up to you and said I loved The Isle and asked what books like it you’d recommend, what would you say? Because I’ve been thinking about this thing I’ve been calling Folk Horror Noir and talking some with Rich about it and the mixture seems at least semi-unique to me.
Well, I think I’d definitely aim them towards books like Salem’s Lot, maybe Shutter Island…The Isle really is kind of a weird combination isn’t it? I guess I’d want to know what it was about the book that they liked. Most of the folk horror I think of is either Appalachian or UK based, so if that’s what drew them, I could point them in those directions (Tom Piccirilli wrote some brilliant folk horror, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Kelin). Laird Barron has been working noir and hardboiled elements into his own brand of weird horror for some time, so I’d shove them towards the letter B on the bookshelf. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg has noir and horror without the folk…so it really depends on what part of the book spoke to them.
(I’m having fun)
S: (I’m having a blast, too!)
R: (Same, this is awesome!)
That’s a great answer and sure to fill not only our shelves with new books, but other readers as well! A lot of your books blend genres together in a seamless way that makes for some unique combinations. I know a lot of horror incorporates other genres, but what about it appeals to you. Both as a reader and a writer? What is one combination you wish there was more of in the genre?
J: Good question…hmmm…well, i’ve never been good at coloring inside the lines, so the blending of genres comes naturally to me. I also didn’t start out as a reader by immersing myself in horror. I was a sword and sorcery guy and a sci fi guy early on, though that was eventually supplanted by horror. Espionage thrillers were a huge part of my teen years and reading crime stories kind of emerged from that. I didn’t dive into noir – Chandler and the like – until I was in my twenties and I felt in love with the language and tone – the fallibility of the characters. I think it’s this last element that allows noir to blend so easily with horror. Science fiction works brilliantly with horror and I’d love to see more of that in books and movies. I’ve played with that in short stories and they fit together like a hand in a glove.
At this point, we are also going to hit pause and continue on tomorrow. Do return for that. There’s all kinds of great stuff in Part 2 so make sure you come back next Tuesday for that one. The booze is flowing and we’re just getting started!
About John C. Foster
John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, NY, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. A writer of thrillers and dark fiction, Foster lives in New York City with the actress Linda Jones and their dog, Coraline. Dead Men was released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing on July 22, 2015 and Mister White by Grey Matter Press on April 5, 2016. Mister White the Short Story was included in the anthology Dark Visions Vol. 2 in 2013, also by Grey Matter Press. For more information, please visit http://www.johnfosterfiction.com.