Imitating Order – An Interview with John Hornor Jacobs

This interview was one of those “pinch me I’m dreaming” kind of moments. John Hornor Jacobs is one of my favorite writers who isn’t dead, and he’s been steadily producing some of the coolest contemporary horror and speculative fiction out there for a while. I’m thrilled he agreed to this interview. So, without further ado, here’s the thing.

Matt: One of the things all your stories have in common, regardless of theme or genre, is an immersive sense of place and being. Your world building is fascinating, and even when only delivered in bits and pieces, is believable. Where do you draw that inspiration from? More than just creating a functional world for the story to exist in, your stories have a sense of happening. How do you approach world — and I suppose story — building?

John: I’m very much a writer of historical fiction. Or, maybe a writer of faux-historical fiction, when it comes to The Incorruptibles series. But, often, my ideas for setting and the details for those worlds comes from being interested in an era, a historical event, or a type of person that could only exist in another time, and I do copious amounts of research and non-fiction reading around that subject, taking lots of notes of detail, and then uses those details to place flesh on my monster.

My forthcoming book, A LUSH AND SEETHING HELL has two novels (well, a novel and a short novel) contained within it, and the first, The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky, derives a lot of details from Pinochet’s regime in Chile, and the other, My Heart Struck Sorrow, deals with the depression era south and the ethnomusicological endeavors of John and Alan Lomax, so my reading lists for these two books were pretty large.

But, how do I get my ideas? For me, ideas always come when I’m ingesting information andspring from the same place as other folk’s ideas, I guess. From asking questions like “what if?”and “wouldn’t it be cool if?” and “what would happen if I changed this one thing?”

M: You dabble a lot in horror. You certainly have a particular penchant for smashing various genres over the head with it. Fantasy, western, cosmic and historical horror are no strangers to you. Where does that fascination with the dark come from, and how has horror become the preferred vehicle for your narratives? What perspectives does horror allow us to explore?

J: I said this in various places but horror seems the UR-genre, and I think most writers stray into this territory at some point. But all that aside, I was introduced to horror young by my father – Dracula and Frankenstein and late night picture shows and all that – and that had a formative effect on my sensibilities and writing. I write fantasy and crime and horror and they all share some DNA.

Why do I write it? Partly because conflict is baked into horror and conflict is the gas upon which plot runs. Horror tends to be a crucible in which all of the dross of character is sloughed away and by the end you’re left with the essence of each protagonist.

M: Is it safe to say music is a big part of your life? And I seem to remember something about an orchestra, or a symphony, and a typewriter? Does your appreciation and experience with music, as a musician, impact or influence your writing?

J: Sure. I have written about music in the past, and incorporated it in books, and have sold books involving it that are forthcoming. I spent most of my adolescence and a good portion of adulthood thinking I was going to be a songwriter or professional musician, so it seems silly not to use that experience to my own ends. Also, I like writing about it because like most things I end up writing books about, it’s a mental fascination – my mind worrying at a problem like a terrier at a rat hole – and music still casts some of that mesmerizing glamour on me.

I’ve had authors – authors I like and respect – say that I work with cadences and rhythms in my fiction and that sounds nice but it’s not entirely true. I don’t try to be musical in my prose. I just try to pick the best ways to depict what I want to depict, or say it in a way only I can say it, since that’s the only real value I can add to most stories. A personal style, a unique viewpoint.

However, I tend to have soundtracks for books to help establish the mood as I write – I think this is pretty much standard for most writers.

M: Let’s play the “What if?” game. What if you were given the opportunity to write any licensed property? Any book, movie, show, whatever you want. What would you choose?

J: The only two licensed IPs I’d want to write for off the top of my head both have the word “Star” in the title. Star Wars and Star Trek. There might be others but I can’t think of any right off the top of my head. However, I don’t know if I have the discipline or breadth knowledge of those properties required to do a job like that. And I have a lot of demands on my time as a business owner, a father, and a writer. That kind of work is on tight deadlines. And my agent tells me those sorts of works don’t pay as much as you’d think. So, I’d probably only want to do Star Wars, and the queue to write for them is quite long and I’m not anyone they’d truly consider.

But, Star Wars folks, I’m game if you are.

In my experience, the rights holders to properties like Star Wars either choose writers who’ve written work very similar to their IP (which I haven’t) or they choose big name authors (which I’m not) for the draw and novelty of it.

I think I could effectively write for a show like The Walking Dead, or any sort of supernatural horror television, but I imagine I’m in the wrong locale for that to be feasible and I have no connections in that industry. Geographically, I’m at the edge of the map.

So, I’ll just stick to writing what I do best – weird, off-center, historically tinged dark-as-fuck novels that aren’t easily classified. Maybe someday they’ll find a larger audience and I’ll get more opportunities for stuff like that.

M: Similarly in the realm of fantasy: you’re stranded on a tropical but very deserted island. You won’t be able to be “rescued” for a week, but have no fear. Food and shelter are on the island and the climate is perfect. You get one backpack’s worth of things to keep you busy for a week. What’s in the bag, and how do you spend your time until rescue?

J: Since I’m on deadline, I’d have to take a few notebooks for writing. As for reading, the top of my TBR stack right now is Richard Kadrey’s forthcoming THE GRAND DARK, and I’m looking forward to John Langan’s new collection, SEFIRA AND OTHER BETRAYALS, but I don’t have that one as an ARC but since we’re just wishing, that’s what I’d like. Chuck Wendig’s WANDERERS would be nice, and I’ve got a copy ordered.

If we’re just talking about great writers, if I could read anything I’d want, it would be the third book in the Cromwell series by Hillary Mantel. She’s my favorite author right now, and that’s my favorite series, starting with WOLF HALL and followed by BRING UP THE BODIES.

M: So to wind it all up I’d like to give you a little platform to do two things. First, plug yourself and your work. Something coming up, something you’re proud of. Whatever you want.

J: As I mentioned earlier, I have a hardback forthcoming from HarperVoyager called A LUSH AND SEETHING HELL that contains the novella THE SEA DREAMS IT IS THE SKY and a short novel titled MY HEART STRUCK SORROW. Slated for release in late October 2019. I’m excited that both of those will be released into the world in physical form. We sold THE SEA DREAMS as a novella first and it was released in ebook and it’s been hard on me that it hasn’t been available to hold in folk’s hands. A LUSH AND SEETHING HELL will also be released in ebook and audiobook, world English. Cover by the outstanding Jeffrey Alan Love.

I also have a collection of short fiction coming from JournalStone, MURDER BALLADS AND OTHER HORRIFIC TALES, which is a mixture of horror and crime stuff I’ve written over the years, plus a new titular novella. No idea on the release date on that one, but probably in either very late 2019 or more likely 2020. Might also have a cover by Jeffrey Alan Love.

M: Secondly, plug something else. A book you read, movie you saw, window display you passed by at the mall that was just really well done. Whatever takes you.

J: It’s not available yet, but I just read a very good novella by Fábio Fernandez called THE DHARMA FREAKS and it’s not published yet but it needs to be if any publishers are out there listening – in short, it’s about a Buddhist initiate monk teaching post-singularity AIs to meditate and really asks big questions about humanity and the nature of consciousness. While also being a great story. As always, if you see a Daryl Gregory novel, buy it. The guy is sickeningly good. Like, he’s never written a bad book. SPOONBENDERS is just… enviably sublime. I don’t know him (which is weird because since I’ve been doing this professionally now going on a decade and I feel like I should’ve met everyone at this point) but Brian Evenson’s work is amazing, and he’s got a new collection coming out called SONG FOR THE UNRAVELLING OF THE WORLD I’m very excited for. If just want a quick shot of his genius, click here.

I just bought a collection of the stories of E.L. Doctorow on the recommendation of Jaye Wells, whose HIGH LONESOME SOUND is fantastic.

There are so many good books and so little time.

I’m watching WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS television show, natch. Why would you not?

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