Part 1: Interview with Jonathan Janz

Jonathan Janz Author Photo BWJonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories. His work has been championed by authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, and Brian Keene; he has also been lauded by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. His ghost story The Siren and the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novel Children of the Dark was chosen by Booklist as a Top Ten Horror Book of the Year. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children. You can sign up for his newsletter and you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.

What follows is the first part of my epic two-part interview with Jonathan Janz. I tried to veer a little bit outside the box with some of the questions I asked. Without further ado, I hope you will all enjoy this first part, and please do stay tuned for part two to be posted soon after!

AS: A few reviewers (present company included) have been calling 2019 the Year of the Janz. You built up a lot of steam last year and your momentum seems to be like mercury rising, which is amazing to see, because you are one of the hardest working and most generous authors in the horror genre. You have the new title,The Dark Game, (forthcoming in April), as well as several re-issues of your former Samhain titles that Flame Tree Press, one of your current publishers, has started putting out since January. You’ve also got several new projects on the horizon, including a hotly-anticipated sequel to Children of the Dark. Inspired by this, I myself joked to Flame Tree on social media that they should release a supplemental catalogue for their sales and marketing teams that focuses just on Jonathan Janz titles, and it seems like all joking aside, they may actually do that 😉 How does it feel to be seeing these titles finding new readers and being available once again? Do you have a favourite backlist title you’re particularly glad to see again?

JJ: Thank you so much for your kind words and your support. Being a writer yourself, you know how lonely and solitary the profession can be, and it means a lot to me as a writer and person that you’re so supportive and enthusiastic about my work. 

The “Year of Janz” idea makes me all kinds of self-conscious, but it’s also very gratifying that folks are aware of all the stuff I have coming out. As you mentioned, that’s because of Flame Tree Press, so I’m indebted to them for the work they’re putting into these books and into promoting them. 

In addition to the titles that have been released (THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER, THE SORROWS, and SAVAGE SPECIES), there are also seven more on the way (THE NIGHTMARE GIRL, WOLF LAND, THE DARK GAME, HOUSE OF SKIN, DUST DEVILS, CASTLE OF SORROWS, and THE DARKEST LULLABY). In addition to those books, I have another novel coming this year, as well as a couple new stories in anthologies, and maybe a novella with a dream publisher. 

To finally answer your question, it feels wonderful to have these books re-released (THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER and THE DARK GAME are new; the other titles are backlist). This will be a cop-out, but I’m excited about all of them. Having said that, a couple I can’t wait for folks to experience are THE NIGHTMARE GIRL and WOLF LAND

Wolf Land Flame Tree press Cover ReissueThe Nightmare Girl Flame Tree Press Cover

AS: The Dark Game (forthcoming in April) focuses on a writers’ retreat gone bad (which is putting it mildly). Now, for writers, retreats are meant to be a safe haven and a place where we can all get away to gain the space and time we need, hopefully without the distractions and pressures of our daily lives, but also to be in an immersive environment with other creatives who share similar goals, and to create an overall good synergy going. Sadly for your characters, this situation ends up being more like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games for writers mixed with the creepiest and most invasive aspects of reality television shows. What interested you in writing a book about writers and putting them in these “survival of the fittest” situations with all of the egos involved? Did something in particular inspire you to write about this?

JJ: The genesis of this situation was probably my love of the book Lord of the Flies. There are moments in that story that feature a voice speaking to Simon, a boy who sees the truth of the situation before the other kids do. What the voice says relates directly to the plot of The Dark Game, but so too does the voice’s attitude. In the book, Simon hears the voice coming from a pig’s head, but I wondered what a human would look and sound like if he had that same mindset. This, along with the “mentor” in Peter Straub’s wonderful book Shadowland, was where the earliest versions of my character Roderick Wells came from.

Shadowland Straub

Your question was specifically about writers and what horrible things they endure in the book. Honestly, that felt like a natural combination—writers and suffering. Writers are fascinating creatures. They can be noble and generous one moment; the next they can be vain and egocentric. Some possess endless supplies of empathy; others don’t know the meaning of the word. Placing writers in this situation was a fascinating way for me to strip away these characters’ defenses and examine what thoughts and emotions bubble beneath.

Just a note here, but one curiosity about the book—and folks might not believe this—is that I wrote it before reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Not that the novels are exactly alike, of course, but there’s definitely a kinship. My agent pointed it out to me after she read the book, so that was when I read Christie’s novel (and loved it).

And Then There Were None Agatha Christie Book Cover
Please note I could not in good conscience use the horrific and offensive book cover that refers to the original title for this novel

AS: In the case of The Dark Game, the standard writing advice of “write what you know” definitely seems like it would be the most appropriate, given that you’re a writer and know better than anyone all of the trappings and inner workings of our tortured minds 😉 Given this insider’s knowledge, you expertly poke and prod at all of the insecurities, foibles, and things that make each of these individual writers tick throughout the novel. Was there anything in particular that made you want to explore some of these issues?

JJ: The creative impulse is a tricky one to figure out, even with the benefit of hindsight. Some aspects of the story—here I’m thinking of some of the book’s villains—are pure imagination. Other facets of the story, however, do stem from what I’ve experienced and observed about writers. In my own life, I’ve endured rejection, self-doubt, frustration, loneliness—a gigantic stew of negative emotions. In others I’ve seen destructive competitiveness, a win-at-all-costs viciousness, and as alluded to above, a lack of empathy for others. Many of these feelings and attitudes—both my own and those belonging to others—must have been bothering me, because they sure did flow out onto the page. That’s often a catalyst for my fiction—what’s bothering me at the time. Often, I’m not even aware I’m bothered by something until I write about it, and there it is, my soul laid bare, for everyone to see.

AS: As to your writing process, you’ve spoken before about applying the principles of method acting to writing, which is something that has gained a lot of traction in the past few years with other proponents of it coming out and sharing they also partake in this methodology. Can you explain how you set about organizing this before you write and while you’re writing? There are some folks who find this immersive experience to be incredibly authentic and cathartic, but there’s also the danger of getting too much into the mind of twisted characters with the very real concern of how it affects our loved ones, colleagues, and friends. How do you strike a balance between getting under the skin of your characters and portraying their darkest desires, while also remaining a normal, generally well-functioning human being?

JJ: Awesome question. And that’s the real trick—not carrying it with you into your relationships. But what you describe is exactly what I do: I become these characters (emotionally and psychologically) and try to capture their spirits while writing from their points-of-view. This frequently means venturing into some extremely bleak places. I remember when I wrote a scene in Wolf Land (for those of you who’ve read it, it’s Melody’s revenge scene), the scene was so dark and depraved that I had to sit there in my writing room for a good half hour after I’d finished. Not surfing the Internet, not reading, not doing anything but trying to steady my breathing and escape from that dread mental space.

The more deeply you burrow into your characters, the better the writing is, but the harder it is to claw your way out. I know I sound overly dramatic to some, but if you approach it like I do, you understand. I’d never do anything unhealthy or jeopardize any of my relationships, but when I hear of an actor or artist succumbing to or suffering from his/her process, I completely understand. You really must go there in order to unearth the truth of the character. And then you’ve got to be aware of how that’s affected you so you don’t mistreat others in any way (and here I’m mainly talking about being irritable or too introverted around those you love).

AS: You’ve mentioned that you like to listen to Baroque music in particular when you write. I know some writers who don’t mind words and music blaring in the background, while others find they work best with instrumental music or melodies without words because the words can be distracting to the writing process. Have you always listened to Baroque music while you write? Do you have favourite composers or a playlist you use?

JJ: I started listening to Baroque about seven or eight years ago, but once I discovered that genre/period, I’ve never changed and likely never will. There’s mystery in Baroque music. Boundless energy. Each time I hear it, I enter a creative zone. I think it’s the combination of wonderful artistry and rich diversity that appeals to me. While some Baroque music is recognizable, many songs defy description and wouldn’t be quickly identified as Baroque by the layperson. I’m a layperson and no music expert, but I know what I love, and in this case, I know what inspires me. Just a few artists I enjoy (frequently played by Yo-Yo Ma) are Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, and Corelli.

Concert Hall Baroque Panini
A large instrumental ensemble’s performance in the lavish Teatro Argentina, as depicted by Panini (1747) (Source: Wikipedia)

AS: Stephen King’s work is of particular inspiration to you, as you’ve mentioned on many occasions, but you also cite Joe R. Lansdale and Elmore Leonard as major influences. Tell us a bit more about what attracted you to their works and stories, and if there are particular aspects of things you think they do amazingly well.

JJ: Let me start with Leonard. It will surprise no one that I love his dialogue. I also love how he shows character and trusts his audience. There’s always this sense of a reader-writer pact when you read Leonard’s work. We get it, and he knows we get it, and we know that he knows that we get it, and we’re all cool together. That’s fun and special.

Hap and Leonard

With Joe R. Lansdale, I could go on for days, but for now I’ll try to focus on a few elements of his writing that I appreciate. Firstly, I admire his versatility. Joe is one of the best-read writers there is, and that shows in his work. He can swing from horror to western to sci-fi to surreal, sometimes within the same story. He incorporates social commentary as well as any writer I know. His fiction acts as a legitimate change agent in the world, and very few writers can make that claim. Joe is funny. Honestly, authentically funny. No one makes me laugh like he does (occasionally Larry McMurtry comes close). Joe’s books have texture. There are fight scenes, there’s sensuality. There are moments of heartbreak, followed by moments of hope and joy. When you nestle in with a Lansdale book, you’re getting an experience. Again, very few writers can make that claim. I could go on and on, but for now I’ll say this: Lansdale is a true original and an American treasure. Everyone should be reading him.

AS: You’ve also spoken about how your mother was instrumental in sparking your interest in horror fiction, telling you about stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the experience of other mythical tales you encountered at a young age, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (based on the short story by Washington Irving). Tell us more about how these early formative experiences planted the seed in you to want to explore your fears.

Ichabod Crane 1849
“Ichabod Crane pursued by the Headless Horseman”, by F.O.C. Darley, 1849 (Source: Wikipedia)

JJ: Well, as I look back on my life, I can see how often I’ve been afraid. And maybe that’s part of the attraction of the stories that molded me. When you watch them or read them, it’s okay to be afraid. You’re supposed to be afraid. So, in a way, what could be perceived as an act of weakness (being afraid) is transformed into an act of empathy (being afraid for someone else). In this way, reading and watching horror is a type of therapy and a means of self-improvement. The more we care for and worry about others, the less time we have to be suffocated by our own anxieties and insecurities. Or so I’ve found.

AS: Following up to this, one of the formative experiences you’ve spoken about in the past is a terrible car accident you suffered through as a teen and how during your recovery, writing and reading became vital things for you. Was it during this time that you had an “a-ha” moment of a bolt of lightning hitting you, and realizing the revelation that you want to be a storyteller, or was it something you felt had been building for years and then manifested during this time?

JJ: The latter, though it was also an a-ha moment. But I think, subconsciously, I’d wanted to write for a long time. As a little kid, I spent a lot of time thinking up movie plots and designing posters for those films. On the occasions when my English classes provided opportunities to write stories or narrative poems, I always went wild with them, often writing quadruple the required word count. This was notable because, back then, I wasn’t exactly an above-and-beyond kind of student, so the difference between how I responded to storytelling exercises versus, say, algebra assignments was an indication that there was something deep inside me percolating, seething, awaiting the chance to erupt. That car accident could have ended my life. Instead, it began a new kind of life, one I can’t imagine living without.

AS: Is there a particular horror author, contemporary or from the past, that you feel strongly that more people should be reading? And if so, why?

JJ: Oooh…that’s a really tough one. I feel like I should avoid mentioning the authors folks are already reading frequently (contemporary masters like Jack Ketchum, Robert McCammon, and Brian Keene), as well as the writers from the past that are still read (like Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson). Let me choose one who has taught me a great deal, but one whose name I don’t hear enough lately: John Farris. Books like SACRIFICE, SON OF THE ENDLESS NIGHT, WHEN MICHAEL CALLS, and ALL HEADS TURN WHEN THE HUNT GOES BY were influential in my growth as a writer. Farris is a true original that deserves to be read as long as books exist.  

AS: You’ve mentioned that rather than identifying completely as a plotter or pantser, that you have tried writing both ways. Additionally, you’ve mentioned that each novel requires a different approach. This is something I grapple with on a regular basis, and I imagine other writers do, as well, with the fact that just because writing one book happened one way, it doesn’t always mean that the experience is something that can be replicated the way that a non-fiction document can, such as a query letter or a press release, in the sense that they have the same sections each time, and they follow a specific pattern, and so they’re easier to control in that sense. No so with novels. Is there anything you do to counteract this unpredictable process, or do you use the unpredictability as fuel?

JJ: You said all that so well, and I think you got to the heart of the matter: the unpredictable nature of stories. At their best, they take on lives of their own and refuse to conform to artificially-imposed measures. So I just try to remember that. When I feel a story tugging in a certain direction, I might resist a little bit, and occasionally that resistance can be a positive urge, but far more frequently I find that a tug like that occurs for a reason, and if I allow the story to move in that direction, the story is better off because of it. 

I think this is what’s hardest about this part of the process. We’re all control freaks, and writers sometimes revel (consciously or unconsciously) in the role of god. We’re creating worlds and characters and scenarios out of our imaginations, so it’s natural to feel like you’re in control of that. The truth is, however, you’re not. Stephen King calls them “the boys in the basement,” but whatever you want to call the forces that are really in control, they aren’t the author. Therefore, writing is a process of ceding control to your characters. You have to listen rather than speak, follow those voices rather impose your own will. That’s difficult, and that’s scary, but I think that’s what good writing is. A loss of control. I think only when we relinquish control can we allow the mad conductors of our unfettered imaginations create beautiful music.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview coming up soon!

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