If you’re a fan of horror fiction and haven’t heard the name Jonathan Janz, you’ve probably been living under a Slurpee machine. You also need to rectify that, like now. Like right now. Go grab yourself a copy of The Nightmare Girl or Savage Species and get reading. I’ll wait.
You’re back? Great! See what I mean? Awesome writer. I didn’t think it was possible, but he’s even a cooler dude. He was gracious enough to let me interview him and document our exchange here. I hope you enjoy it. Jonathan gives one hell of an interview and great advice for writers.
TIM MEYER: Firstly, Jonathan – I just finished reading Children of the Dark, and I thought it was absolutely amazing. Fucking brilliant. I didn’t want it to end. So thank you for keeping me up at all hours of the night with the lights on, wanting to finish this beast. My wife hates you.
JONATHAN JANZ: Hey, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel, Tim, though I’m sorry for getting you in trouble with the wife. (smiles)
TM: Let’s start by telling everyone about Children of the Dark. What was the inspirational spark that prompted you to write a coming-of-age horror novel? Was this the book you always wanted to write? Although fiction, segments of the novel seemed very personal, almost autobiographical. Did you amalgamate parts of your youth into the main character, Will Burgess?
JJ: You’re right in saying it’s a very personal story. Though the mom in the book is different than my mom was in real life, and though I didn’t have a little sister, a huge part of Will Burgess’s character is taken directly from me and my experiences. I guess that would be the first impetus, the working-out of my own adolescence. So many young people have to deal with issues far beyond their years, so it’s not like I was alone in that regard, but still…there were quite a few challenges for me back then, and through Children of the Dark I got to examine those issues and express my feelings about them. Though I didn’t approach the book for this reason, the story ultimately became very therapeutic for me.
Also, I love Shadeland, which is one of my own mythical places (my Castle Rock, so to speak), and I’m fascinated by the Wendigo myth. It’s a topic I utilized in Savage Species, and I wanted to go back to that town and that myth again.
TM: This is a prequel to your serialized novel, Savage Species, another kick-ass tale of monster mayhem. Are there plans for another book set in the same universe with recurring characters and villains? And if so, can you talk about it? Or will you have to kill me? Because I’d like to know, but also—you know, living is kinda working out for me.
JJ: Hah! There is indeed another book planned. Late in 2017 I’ll begin working on a sequel to both Children of the Dark and Savage Species. I have some of the plot worked out and know many of the characters. It’ll feature the survivors of both stories plus a new cast as well. Basically, it’ll be my Aliens, in that it’ll be huge, brutal, intense, and unrelenting. I’m amped for it, but I’ve got several other projects in the queue before it.
TM: No one I know writes horror without being influenced by the genre from early on. I grew up in the GOOSEBUMPS era, and I read everything RL STINE put out in the 90’s. What’s the earliest horror book or story you remember reading and how has it impacted your writing today?
JJ: Stephen King was, is, and will always be my main inspiration, but going back to before I discovered him, I can find a handful of instances where my love of horror was formed. One was an audio version (on an album!) of a story by Charles Dickens called “The Signal-Man.” That story, the performance, and the music/sound effects just scared me to death, which made me listen to it again and again.
Another early seed was a marionette version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” I saw in elementary school. Again, the performances, the music, and the creepy visuals moved me in a way few stories had. My mom, who always loved a creepy tale, used to tell me about Edgar Allan Poe stories. I remember her recounting of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I guess these moments really shaped me.
TM: Doesn’t necessarily have to be horror, but what’s your favorite novel(s) to come out in the last few years or so?
JJ: Mmm…good one. Just a few I’ve loved recently: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series, Joe R. Lansdale’s Honkytonk Samurai, Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, Robert McCammon’s Speaks the Nightbird, Brian Keene’s The Complex, and Stephen King’s Bag of Bones.
TM: Authors every aspiring writer should be reading today? Classics and contemporaries.
JJ: The names I mentioned above are must-reads. So are Tennessee Williams, Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Jack Ketchum, Shirley Jackson, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Hunter S. Thompson, Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac, Harry Crews, James Baldwin, J.K. Rowling, Tim Waggoner, Chuck Palahniuk, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Erskine Caldwell, James Herbert, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Austen, Bernard Taylor, Henry Miller, Edward Albee, and Cormac McCarthy.
TM: I’m going to speculate and say horror movies played a significant role in your passion for the genre. Most influential movie of all time? And why?
JJ: They did. Probably the most influential horror film for me was Jaws. Not only is it a thrilling movie that forever made me terrified of swimming in bodies of water in which I can’t see what’s beneath me, but it also taught me about characterization, economy of language, and how to build suspense. Jaws, for me, is a perfect film.
TM: Let’s talk a little bit about the writing process. I used to never outline and shoot the story straight from my hip, which often landed me in troubletown, population ten-thousand plot holes. Since then, I’ve learned an effective way to plot my stories without losing that zest of discovering the story while cranking out the first draft. Are you a plotter? If so, how much of the story do you need to know before starting with chapter one? If not, how do you avoid sinking your manuscript into the nearest plot hole?
JJ: I’ve come to this conclusion: Novels, like children, are all very different. For me, that means that every book needs a unique approach. There are certain things I do while writing all my books, but no two books are alike. Sometimes I plan a great deal. Sometimes I don’t plan at all. For The Sorrows I kept a visual diary of images. For Wolf Land, I watched terrifying werewolf movie scenes over and over. For Savage Species I wrote full-blown biographies for all my characters. Before writing Exorcist Road, I planned about three-quarters of it before writing a single word. In my current novel, I’m re-reading a pair of my favorite horror novels—Lord of the Flies and Peter Straub’s Shadowland—to absorb some of their flavor. Like I said, every book requires a different process.
TM: Do you have any writing routines? Do you prefer to write in the morning? Night? Coffee? Beer? Wine? Music or sweet silence?
JJ: I love writing in the mornings with copious amount of coffee and baroque music. This combination stirs me and sustains me quite effectively.
TM: In my opinion, your writing is flawless. Each word seems carefully chosen. I can’t help but think you craft such engaging prose on the first draft. Does that high-quality writing come natural to you?
JJ: Well, that’s one of the nicest things you could say to me. Thank you, Tim. Truth be told, I’m not a very good first draft writer. Mike Myers (Shrek, Austin Powers) says, “Give yourself permission to suck.” And I do give myself permission. And my first drafts do suck. Or at least I think they do. Where my voice really emerges is in the editing. I edit each book a minimum of eighteen times. Through those edits, I think the prose begins to shine.
TM: I usually write multiple drafts and countless revisions. After that, I usually remain unsatisfied and want to tweak it ’til my fingers fall off. When do you know you’re completely “done” with a manuscript?
JJ: I’m never really done with a book. Even after it’s in print, I find things I love and things I wish I could go back and change. A word choice here, a line of dialogue there. But that’s just how I am. Never completely satisfied.
TM: Have you ever submitted something you weren’t completely happy with?
JJ: I can honestly say I haven’t, though I have sent in books that scared me to death because of what was in them. See, I’m also a teacher, and part of me worries that one of my students will pick up a book and conflate the story with the person. That’s a silly thing to do, of course, but you still worry about it. So while I’ve never sent in substandard work, I’ve certainly been stressed out about it after I’ve sent it.
TM: Books are like children to authors. Gun to your temple, which of your books is a personal favorite? And you can’t say “they’re all my favorites”, because that would make the imaginary gunman very unhappy.
JJ: This is sort of cheating, but I’m going to choose three: Children of the Dark, The Nightmare Girl, and Exorcist Road. Of course, I’m working on a pair of books now that will probably end up being the two best things I’ve ever written, so my answer to this question will likely change by the end of the year. But for now, those three titles will do.
TM: You’re going to be at Scares That Care Weekend in Williamsburg, VA in July. I’ll be there too! As this will be my first convention on the author’s side of the table, any advice?
JJ: Awesome, Tim! It will be a blast talking to you there in person. As far as advice, the best thing I can say is to be yourself. As simple as that sounds, it’s absolutely true, and it takes all the pressure off. I’ve carried that advice into the rest of my life, and it’s made things so much easier and happier for me. I wish I’d learned it earlier.
TM: What’s your favorite thing about being an author?
JJ: I love all of it. Creating something out of thin air, working like crazy on it, polishing it and shaping it, showing it to other people, interacting with readers…I honestly love every bit of it. I’m thankful every day I get to be an author.
TM: Last question – what would your advice be to a new writer, one who has written a novel and has no idea where to go from there?
JJ: Put it away for a month and begin writing another. Pull it out later and edit it ruthlessly, but if it doesn’t sell, don’t get stuck on it, and don’t lose hope. You need to be constantly writing, revising, and learning. Perhaps most importantly, you need to be reading. There are many great books on writing, but none of those will help you as much as studying great writers and their work. One page of a Stephen King book will give you more than a hundred blog posts by snarky people who’d rather dispense advice than study the work of people who do it better.
TM: Thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions! I love your fiction and I know the horror world is better with Jonathan Janz novels in it. You rock!
JJ: Thanks, Tim. That means a lot. I had a blast talking to you, and good luck with your own work!
***You can learn more about Jonathan at www.jonathanjanz.com. You can also find him on Facebook, via @jonathanjanz on Twitter, on Instagram (jonathanjanz) or on his Goodreads and Amazon author pages.***