Last Thursday, I had the exciting opportunity to interview John Hornor Jacobs, author of Southern Gods, Murder Ballads, and A Lush and Seething Hell. You can watch the video or read the abridged transcript below. I’d definitely recommend the video!
It was a new experience for me, to interview someone for my blog, so please forgive the awkwardness! JHJ didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he did. Oh dear.
Also, please forgive the quality. I don’t make videos or anything like that, so I just have the Zoom recording. Enjoy!
PLM: What influenced you to start writing?
JHJ: I’m going to break this into two parts.
The first part is that my dad started me reading very early. I grew up in the 70s and back then, there were four channels on TV, there were video games but it was like Pong and Atari and shit, there were comics, but mostly – for me – it was reading. I read all the time as a kid. I was in walking distance to the library and bookstores. My parents were also just ecstatic that I liked to read so they encouraged that and I spent a lot of time reading.
The first part of that question, as a person who reads all the time when they’re younger and lives in that kind of interior life, you grow older and continue to read but you start to want to add your voice to the chorus. At least I did. I would read books and think, “this book would have been so much better if they had done this or that” or “I think I could write this better”. That was the first part. It was a momentum that started when I was a kid.
The second part was that I was working for a company as the art director. It was a fine company but creatively, it was lackluster. The people in charge had a tight rein on the direction the company took with its creativity and didn’t allow any kind of play, which is the reason that I got into advertising, so I was frustrated. This was 2007, I was 37 at the time, specifically this was mid-October, and like most Americans do, instead of doing it, I went to the Barnes and Noble and looked for a book about writing.
Even though I’d read thousands of books, I went and looked for a book about how to do it and I found a book called No Plot, No Problem, it was written by the guy who created the National Novel Writing Month, Chris Baty.
I read it in an hour since it was such a slim volume. And being that it was mid-October, I was like “oh, okay, maybe I should try this”. Within those next two weeks, I came up with all the ideas that made my first novel, and cobbled together all the stuff I was interested in at the time, into a plot. Then that November, I wrote the first 50,000 words, and after that the next three or four months, I finished it. Then I workshopped it and started my next book.
So, I mean, it was lifelong momentum but ultimately a dissatisfaction with the creative aspect of my job at the time that caused me to start trying to write.
PLM: On the tail of that, what drew you to the horror genre in particular?
JHJ: I love horror, I read it a lot as a kid. The first two books that really got me were Dracula and Lord of the Rings. Those two books probably had the biggest influence on me.
I would say LotR is not that dissimilar to Dracula in that a lot of horror imagery occurs in LotR. A lot of people associated LotR with elves, armour, and swords but there are barrow-wights, restless spirits, creepy things that come in the night. So as a kid, those were horrific images and those were programmed into me.
Also, at that time, there was the boom of horror in the 80s – Stephen King had just come out with Carrie and Salem’s Lot, and he was making lots of money on it so publishers decided they needed more like Stephen King and so they flooded the market, which then led to the crash. But, at the time, it was a heyday, like the resurgence of horror now.
But I always read horror and fantasy because they both scratched the same itch for me when I was a younger person. When I was older, I went from horror to crime, and of course they are closely related. And then, I started finding other things to read about, but when I was young, horror and fantasy were the two big things for me and it’s what I ended up writing, mostly.
PLM: A lot of your work is similar to cosmic horror, were you a fan of Lovecraft as well?
JHJ: You know, it’s funny. I didn’t become aware of Lovecraft until reading King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, which was his pastiche Lovecraft, De Vermis Mysteriis kind of story. From there I did discover Lovecraft’s stories and I think I read Mountains of Madness and The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. And then I moved onto reading August Derleth and other authors who wrote in the same universe and that I tended to enjoy more. So, I probably discovered Lovecraft in my late teens, and I came through him kind of the back way, through other people talking about him.
PLM: You describe your writing to be southern horror. I wasn’t familiar with that term. Can you describe what southern horror means to you?
JHJ: It’s very much a regional thing. There’s a movement in crime towards a genre called rural noire. So, southern horror isn’t a real genre but being a southern writer and a person of the south whose first book has ‘southern’ in the title, that sort of moniker got hung around me whether I wanted it or not. A lot of my personal experience gets filtered into my stories, so while don’t think of myself as a southern writer, when I evaluated my stories from different points of my career as a body of work, that’s one thing that kept coming back – a southern setting or imagery I never would have used had I not grown up in the South.
PLM: I know when I read Murder Ballads and A Lush and Seething Hell, it felt to me as a reader that the South itself felt like its own character.
JHJ: A lot of authors who are a lot more popular than I am, go for plot-driven scares or they structure it through plots. And plot is the engine which drives fiction, of course, but I tend to focus a lot on atmosphere. Because through atmosphere, style, and tone, is how you establish dread in my opinion. I honestly prefer the sense of dread over actual jump scares, that’s just me.
The reason I bring up dread is that the South is pretty dreadful. The American South is oppressive – not just the heat but also the political environment, the education system, and the poverty. It is very ripe for depicting this dread. I think I have done it to some effect and people like Matt Ruff, who wrote Lovecraft Country, have done it well.
I have a love-hate relationship for where I’m from. I am of my place, Arkansas. There are some things about it – like the people and the land itself – that I love, but there so many things I hate about it too. So whenever I do write stories like My Heart Struck Sorrow in A Lush and Seething Hell and Murder Ballads, a lot of the stuff I am playing with is not just the outward conflict that is overt and usually plot-driven, but there’s always the element of self-destructive nature of the southern experience.
PLM: If you care to share, what keeps you up at night?
JHJ: I mean, the stuff that really scares me is my kids getting sick or injured, or my wife being injured. The real scary stuff, I don’t deal with in fiction. For example, I love horror movies, but I don’t dig slashers, I don’t watch slashers. I like stuff with supernatural things in it because it’s very comforting. It’s a comfort to think, “oh there’s bad things happening but it’s just zombies or ghosts.” The fact that slasher movies are about a lunatic with a knife slipping in windows and killing people, that to me is not interesting. I don’t like that because it’s within the realm of possibility. I tend to avoid those types of things.
But ultimately, and it’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and how it pertains to writing, and maybe one of the reasons I’m an author in search of a wider audience is because when I sit down and construct a story, I don’t think “this is going to scare them, this is the thing that is going to be a really scary thing for the audience.” I usually think, “this fascinates me, this sort of relationship fascinates me, how will it develop, how will the power dynamic play out?”
To me, writing is like picking up something and looking at it from all different angles to describe it in just the right way.
One of the books that scared me the most and it doesn’t have a villain or monster is House of Leaves, when you read it, it’s a mood that continues to deepen and deepen. There’s a greater dread and discomfort. It stretches the reader thin. For me, it had more of a visceral effect.
PLM: Your collection of short fiction, Murder Ballads, which is your first collection of short stories, recently came out in June so I thought we could talk about that. What made you decide to take on this project rather than a novel or novellas. I know you mentioned that you didn’t write many short stories and you didn’t feel you were an expert in that field, so what inspired that collection?
JHJ: There wasn’t any inspiration, rather a deal fell in my lap. I had four back list books that a small press publisher came to my agent and asked to buy the rights to publish as audiobooks. My agent emailed me, and I agreed.
Then my agent came back a couple days later and the press had offered to publish a collection. Short fiction isn’t my strength, I don’t think I’m a bad short story writer, I just mainly write novels. But hey, I’ve been published in Playboy and I’ve probably been paid for that one short story more than what others have made on their short stories.
PLM: Why didn’t you include it in this collection?
JHJ: The Playboy story, which as called the “Domestic Lives of Superheroes”, the thing about that story is that when I signed the contract, I gave away my rights to ever sell it again. I can post it on my website but that’s it. But getting it published in Playboy puts me up there with Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and it’s pretty nice company so I am very proud of that feat.
PLM: In Murder Ballads, do you have a personal favourite?
JHJ: Well, of course, you like all your stories. Some of them I don’t like as much because they were written earlier in my career and now, I know I would do them differently. But the ones that are more recent I probably like a little bit more. I would think my two favourites are The Children of Yig and Single, Singularity.
I put The Children of Yig first because it’s a balls-to-the-wall, real vicious story.
PLM: I really like the character of Grislae.
JHJ: Yeah, so many people write the amoral, anti-hero male characters. I thought, why can’t I do that with a female character who is an anti-hero, who is a brutal murderer with a lot of style? It had to be in a certain situation, so Vikings, and I just went with it. It was a lot of fun to write and I still really like that character.
Back to my other favourite story, Single, Singularity, which was a kind of AI end-of-the-world story. It had lived in my head for a few years, I really like the concept and how it ended. One of the things I strive to do in my short stories is to give it a good ending, an ending where you know it’s ended.
PLM: Well that’s convenient because my next point is about that story and the other sci-fi story you included: Verrata. These two stories seemed to share a theme of technology being corrupted by people, because they both have something to do with human influence on the technology.
JHJ: It’s funny, when people always ask “what’s your favourite sci-fi show,” I always say Star Trek because it offers a hopeful vision of technology – at least the original Star Trek did – but it’s since gotten darker, which makes sense to me because that seems more realistic. Just because you can have amazing healthcare and no one is getting sick or going hungry, and there’s instant communication and travel, that doesn’t really solve all the world’s problems because wherever you go, humans are flawed and terrible creatures. But I do love the hopefulness of Star Trek.
Verrata is one of my earlier stories from when I first started actually trying to write, and that’s really me mashing up a dystopian future with a ghost story. But Single, Singularity — they may have edited this out – but when I was writing it, it was the Facebook AI project that they were trying to improve so that they could better manipulate people. But in the end, it was the people who fell prey to this being they created. Another genre I love to read but wouldn’t write in it because I am not technology-savvy is hard sci-fi – so a lot of that story was influenced by A Fire Upon the Deep, which had a ‘class two perversion’, which was an AI that was a world-sized virus that tried to dominate space. So, this story was my riff on it in a way.
PLM: The star of the collection was your novella Murder Ballads. Like Southern Gods, My Heart Struck Sorrow, Murder Ballads also deals with the theme of music and the power of song. What draws you to this common theme?
JHJ: One, I’m a musician. I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s playing in bands, I live in the South so blues, folk music, and jazz is always around. Where I’m from, and right around the Mississippi delta, is where the blues came from and is a uniquely American music – and a uniquely black music.
So, my experience playing in bands and on the chitlin circuit gave me the ability to talk about it with veracity. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and considering it, living it, so it holds a draw for me, and it always will.
There’s one thing I’ve always struggled with – it’s hard to write about music because music describes itself in ways other than words. It is interesting to try and write about music in a way that elicits the same feel that music itself gives you. Music is hardwired to emotions and the body in a lot of ways, which is also a draw.
The difference in those stories is that My Heart Struck Sorrow is a meta-discussion about folk music and the exploitation of black musicians by white people and the history of music in America. There’s very much a dialogue going on in that book that is much more than just the basic story of it.
On the flipside, Murder Ballads is like a supernatural adventure story with a musician as a protagonist with not really any larger discussion than a critique of race relations in the South in the 60s.
My Heart Struck Sorrow was very much me trying to write something more meaningful about music using horror as the vehicle. But Murder Ballads and Southern Gods for that matter was just me telling stories using that as a set dressing.
PLM: One thing I was personally curious about – you work full time, but you also have a family, and write. One thing I always see across the internet is the advice that you must write everyday or write at least 2000 words a day, and it seems really unrealistic.
As someone who has managed to break into the writing industry while also maintaining the other aspects of your life, how do you do that and what would you recommend?
JHJ: As for anyone, their way of figuring out what works for them is a personal process. Stephen King is not the guy to use as an example. The guy wrote his first bestseller at 22 and that’s all he’s ever done. Most people don’t have a bestselling novel at 22, so they can’t spend the rest of their lives being a literary star. A better example of the way careers hopefully work is George Martin. He had a string of books, some of which succeeded, many others failed. One failed so spectacularly that he quit writing and went to Hollywood to write TV shows. He came back to writing and that was Game of Thrones, his career is a better example to look at for any writer because it’s hard.
This is not to discourage anyone, but in my experience, right now is the easiest time to get published – self-publishing is a valid way to go and traditional publishing have open cattle calls where you don’t even need an agent anymore – but it’s also the hardest time to make money at it because there is an absolute glut of the written word out there.
However you’re going to do it, I would just say is you have to figure out your own way to write and what makes sense for you.
For me, I wrote really fast at the beginning of this year – 30,000 words towards a book I am super excited about. But I decided with my agent to try and sell it beforehand with the first third written because I am also trying to be the illustrator of it. And that may or may not happen.
So, we decided that would be the best way to approach it. Since then, I haven’t written a word, I’ve been working on the art and on my roleplaying games. That’s just the way I did it.
There are people out there who say you must write everyday but I am one of those people who doesn’t feel any guilt taking a day off where I just need to think about it and figure it out. I’ve had books where I’ll write a day and then skip a day so I can think about what’s going to happen next.
The thing is, every writer has to figure out their own process, which is unrelated to publishing. It has to work for them and then be flexible enough that when they go onto their next process, they might have to change that process and not be slavish to it.
As any artist, if you’re not re-evaluating how you’re doing it regularly and looking at it and observing your own process, you’re not improving. Unless you become satisfied with your process, you’ll never get any better at what you’re doing.
PLM: For the last question, you did a recent AMA on Reddit where people asked a lot of questions about writing and how to get published, to end the interview do you have one piece of advice to give to an aspiring writer?
JHJ: Yes. There’s a lot of writing advice out there because it’s really hard to make a living writing so writers are trying to figure out ways to increase their value proposition and make money – if not writing then talking about the art of writing. A lot of times, these people will say things like “you got to start with action” or “ten rules to writing”, so if you are starting out writing, you should go out there and read all that stuff, take it all in, but don’t be afraid to chuck out whatever doesn’t work for you.
Writing is such a weird thing, at a certain point you have to be super humble and know that you’re going to go out and give your writing to people and it’s going to evaluated by people you don’t know. It’s a real ego-killer.
But you also must have enough ego to say, “you know what, I think I know better.”
It must be ego-less and full of ego all at once.
For a concrete example, the people who always say “start with action”, I feel like that’s the worst piece of advice. It’s just poorly phrased. You don’t have to start with action, I think what every editor is looking for is something that grabs early and that can be a voice or style.
There are writers who can talk about going to the store and just grab you simply by the way they say it. People want you to pull the veil back and show them a secret world and that might be done just by the power of your voice, or your style, or an engaging action sequence.
More and more, when I read, I look at the power of language. Every reader, every editor, wants to feel assured on the first page that you are in control and you are a master of what you’re talking about, so that they trust you to fulfil the promise of that first page with a story.
The thing I see when I read unpublished work is that it usually lacks that certainty and that certainty comes from convincing yourself that “I got this”. It’s part of that ego thing and then later you can worry.
So that’s that. Figure out your process and figure out what you’re going to offer on the first page. Convince the reader that they’re in good hands.
Til next time,
x P.L. McMillan