JONATHAN JANZ INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Jonathan Lees
Jonathan Janz is one of those guys that you want to root for. Each book that comes out is another exploration of the genre and feels catered to its fans. His newest novel, Children of the Dark, does more than deliver the pace quickening, bloodletting goods, but Janz also knows how important believable, fully formed characters, good or evil, are to elevating the proceedings beyond genre into a captivating story well-told.
Jonathan Lees: Let's just start with saying Children of the Dark is a lot of fun... as much fun as you can have with children being savaged.
Jonathan Janz: [laughs] Well said!
JL: Let's get your elevator pitch for Children of the Dark. You teach film studies, so I think you can handle this. This could be made into a movie, so you should be ready for those investors.
JJ: Wow that's rough. Children of the Dark is a story of Will Burgess and how his already difficult life becomes much worse when an escaped convict named 'The Moonlight Killer' starts to head towards his town, but there's still something lurking that's even more vicious, ancient and violent in the forest around his house. So Will is going to have to deal with the school bullies, with a drug addicted mother, with a serial killer and with these unspeakable creatures, because everything he loves is going to be threatened. How's that? [laughs]
JL: That's good! I do love the kids in the book and, with you being a father, how much of the children's relationships are informed by what your kids are going through now in comparison to your own upbringing?
JJ: That's a good question. Will, the protagonist, a lot of what surrounds him [in] the situation of being the poor kid in a small town... you know there's always these hierarchies that are ridiculous and hurtful. I can relate to that a lot. I wasn't part of the affluent crowd and was really looked down upon. I was very self-conscious, very keenly aware of that disparity and so a lot of what he goes through I went through. Kids can be mean to each other, but a lot of their good traits are in the book too.
JL: Yes. Will does have positive influences in his life. I think the thing that hooked me right away was the dynamic between Will, Barley and Chris hanging out in their club house... which was pure jealousy because growing up, my clubhouse was in a neighbor's dirty garage with a rusted broken down truck bed that smelled like piss...
JJ: [laughs] I can picture that!
JL: Did you have a club house growing up?
JJ: Everything in that book, setting wise, was real except for the tree house, so that's a little bit of fantasy for me. But the woods, the house, the graveyard, the layout are all exactly as described. We did have a rusty beaten up car that was one of our hangouts. We constructed these little lean-tos with leaves and brush, but they were just ground level, which made me a little envious of Chris, Will and Barley. We never had that clubhouse. We talked about it but didn't have the know-how or the materials to do it, so I finally got to build it in the book.
JL: I love the whole adventurous and mischievous nature of the kids in the book. What kind of trouble did you get into as a kid?
JJ: There were a couple times I got into trouble. I mean nothing egregious. I was a pretty good kid for the most part. I was raised by a single mom and my grandma and grandpa. I had a really solid family structure, but I still got up to mischief. There was one [time] where... we call them puffballs. They're some type of fungus. These big white mushroom type things and they're the size of volleyballs or bigger. If they were fresh, they were really spongy, like giant marshmallows you could throw at each other. Once they got a little older, they rotted and they were green and slimy. Well, we had a puffball fight in the graveyard. We were just slamming each other with all this gross stuff and it was landing all over the grave stones and all the flowers that people brought for their loved ones and we didn't think about how disrespectful it was and the police came and man.... when you see the police at age nine or ten, that's a scary thing They said, "Do you think this is respectful. Would you want this on your Great-Grandmother's grave?" and we were all crying and so, yeah, we cleaned it up.
JL: So that tells me that your bio is accurate. You DID grow up between a forest and a graveyard. I thought you were just playing.
JJ: No that was it. I grew up in that setting. It was terrifying. My playgrounds were the graveyard and the woods. During the day it was fun, but at night it was just absolutely spooky. My Mom, she was a [Indiana] Pacers cheerleader right before she had me. When I was ten, she was thirty; young and beautiful, and these men... You know small towns can be real patriarchal, like brutally patriarchal. Like a throwback to another time. She would tell the police, "Look. These guys are trespassing, they're being really lewd. They're peeping toms." I remember many times looking through the windows at night and there'd be a face looking back at me.
JL: That's frightening.
JJ: I'm still scared to look out a window at night for fear of seeing a bearded face leering and panting. She would tell the police and nothing would happen. They'd act like, "Well, boys'll be boys. It's OK." So, even though I've never had bad experiences with the police unless you count the puffball incident, the police in the novel aren't the most glorified characters, and that's because no one listened to my Mom when these things were happening.
JL: That was really troubling in the scene where the police let Will walk home alone at night after the killer had struck. I was like, "Would they do that? Would they REALLY do that?" and I thought of some cops back in my home town and I'm like... yeah, they probably would. [laughs]
Reading this book sparked a lot of memories I had of growing up, and if I look at my shelf and start compiling the books that have really resonated with me over the years, it's almost always the coming-of-age tale. For me, this book ran right up alongside, them and I can tell you're just as much of a fan of that sub-genre as I am. Why do you think the coming-of-age tale resonates with a lot of readers?
JJ: I am a reader, first and foremost. I think one of the first coming-of-age books I read was Stephen King's The Body and then IT. King has his detractors like everybody else, but he will always be forever my favorite author. He made me a writer. He made me a reader. I'll forever be indebted to him and those two stories I read when I was pretty young and just loved them both. There are other great ones as well, but those are the first two for me. Horror gets such a bad rap. I don't know of any genre more dismissed unfairly then horror. There's nothing wrong with visceral horror... obviously this novel has some blood and guts...
JL: Ha! Yes it does!
JJ: ...but I think that's all that people see. They think everything in the genre is just callous and nihilistic and you and I both know it's the opposite of that. I think there's just as much "heart" in horror as in any genre and often more. And I think the coming-of-age tale...when we're in our adolescence, that's when we're not equipped to deal with anything, but it's when we're faced with all these harsh truths... all these adult themes we have to come to terms with, but we're not really emotionally ready to do so. That leads to a lot of turmoil and angst. For me, those were the toughest years of my life. We have to try and work through that as kids and then we work through that again on the page. It recalls all those emotions and it creates that incredible bond, that identification between reader and character. I think it helps you to heal.
JL: You do have a seriously violent story, but you crack open the things we loved as kids; serial killers, monsters, mischievous adventure, you know, strip away the brutal killings and this could be The Goonies.
JJ: [laughs] Yeah!
JL: Your characters have a very good sense of wanting to be out of their environment and exploring their territory. So, because it plays with all those things we loved as kids and our fears as well... how much fun was this book to write?
JJ: It was a blast. Honestly, it's hard sometimes as an author, but there is so much fun, so much joy that lies in the process. It was a blast to go back and think of the way I would have spoken, how I would have joked with my friends. I'm not suggesting that kids are all crude, but we can make fun of each other a little bit. But I think the cruder I made Will and Chris' comments to each other... I mean they're both intelligent kids and it shows in their behaviors and overall speech pattern, but the more I let them relax around each other and mock each other, the more natural it felt. The more fun it became for me. I do think that if an author has fun when writing, it can often shine through on the page.
JL: You definitely have an "athletic" approach to fiction. After you nicely setup your characters, the last half of the book is really a fucking race. The pace barely lets up. You get a couple moments to catch your breath and then it's like run, run, RUN. How do you keep up with your own pacing when you write?
JJ: I don't know if it's me or the way some writer's write, but there is something "athletic". I think I try to make it muscular. Not without thought or feeling, but I think there shouldn't be fat on the novel. It needs to be lean and in motion and, yeah, I think the second half of the book is like that. There are little tiny lulls. I found myself diminishing those. When I first wrote it, it was around 113,000 - 115,000 words and it ended up at about 99,000 words. Those words that I trimmed mostly were not action. They were from the second half of the book. The conversations and buildup were longer. I found the more I diminished those... here's another film analogy... sometimes in a really tension filled dialogue scene, they'll take the air out of the soundscape where the character's lines are on top of each other. I tried to edit it that way. I wanted it to be grueling and exhausting. When the survivors are trying to get away for the last time, I want the audience to feel their fatigue. I want them to feel their desperation and hopefully it does that.
There were stretches where I'd write for sixteen days in a row, three thousand words a day, so for me it was an act of endurance as well.
JL: Your first novel that sold was The Sorrows in 2012. It is only 2016 and you are on your ninth book, not to mention the novellas and short stories. Are you doping? Are you and Sharapova hanging out on the sidelines? How many novels had you written prior to your first sale?
JJ: (laughs) I think it's my tenth counting Bloodshot : Kingdom Of Shadows, this other novel I wrote on the side for Amazon. The Sorrows was actually the third book I had written. I wrote House of Skin first. Between 2012 and now, there have been ten novels and several novellas and some short stories, and when you say it like that, it sounds like I'm either insane or very productive, but the fact is, I was mercilessly rejected for a long time. I would say at least half a decade of nothing but rejection.
The House of Skin... I rewrote that book eight times and not just editing it; I rewrote it. I threw it out seven times. Which was just stupid. I made every mistake you can make. I'm a slow learner and eventually I learned, "Hey, why don't you write another book?" The second one I wrote was called Garden of Snakes and it was really weird, man. My second favorite author [after King] is Elmore Leonard. After that, you have Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum and Brian Keene, but I just love Elmore Leonard and I had been reading a lot of his stuff, so I decided... and again this is stupid... my horror novel House of Skin isn't getting me an agent, so I'm going to write a different genre. There's nothing wrong with writing a different genre, but that was a dumb reason. The reason why House of Skin wasn't selling was it wasn't good enough, but you know you don't want to admit that because that shows you have a lot longer to go than you think you do. I thought genre was the problem, not my writing. So Garden of Snakes is still in the trunk. Someday I think I'll go back to it, but it is a horror novel as though written by Elmore Leonard, but not with his skill and his way with dialogue [laughs], but it has that feel. It's really, really bizarre. I think if I ever go back to it I can make it my own and make it work.
JL: Sounds cool! I think you should continue with it. Truthfully, horror, for me, doesn't have to be a genre. You can have horror in a romantic comedy. You can have horror in a detective thriller. It works on so many different levels and situations, and to each his own. We all have different ways of interpreting horror.
JJ: What you just said about horror that needs to be put on a meme or on a billboard. Saying that we park our cars in the same garage in that regard isn't going far enough. Basically, that's what is holding horror back. Being exclusive rather than inclusive. We need to embrace the fact that horror is an emotion. It can be found anywhere. There are so many books I consider horror that if I said it nine out of ten readers would cock their eyebrows at me and scoff. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, that's a horror novel.
JJ: It's a literary novel and a post-apocalyptic novel but it's a horror novel. There's true horror in that book. Gillian Flynn, yeah she's writing thrillers and suspense, but that's horror too.
JL: Dark Places is definitely horror.
JJ: You can't read Dark Places and not see horror in there. We, as horror fans and horror writers and readers, we need to embrace that and champion that. Don't we want more readers? Don't we want people to love our books and see what we see? So often, and I see this in all walks of life, people try to put up boundaries and walls for some strange idea of preserving the purity. I don't even know what it is. To try to whittle down or diminish the definition of horror...why? What you just said there is the key to the genre's health, the genre's growth and the genre's future. Spread the word.
JL: Thanks, and that's how I've always felt. It's not even always authors, it can be the publishers pigeonholing the genre. And interpretation... if you put Children of the Dark, which has a great cover, next to Wolf Land, based on people's assumptions of horror, the Wolf Land cover might be too literal. To other people's eyes, it might be corny.
JJ: The magic word is crossover. Everybody wants something that has crossover appeal so you can transcend the boundaries, but honestly they are arbitrary boundaries. They are put there by some editors, some publishers, some readers, whatever, but they don't have to exist. You're talking about the cover to Children of the Dark. The art by Matthew Revert is really beautiful. It looks like a movie poster. I do think that's something we need to be cognizant of. Making sure we don't limit ourselves before people even pick up the book.
JL: You've talked a bit about some bad writing habits you've killed. What are some of the greater writing habits you've picked up along the way?
JJ: Some quick things I've learned that really work for me: One is don't fill your head with "don't". The world is filled with "Don't do this. Don't do that." People are very free with criticism and they love to tell you what doesn't work and "Don't you ever do this" and if you do that you're a terrible writer. You'll find very little "to do". I think the reason is very few people know what to do. They can look at stuff and say, "Yeah, that's a great book," but do they really know why? I made this mistake of thinking everyone knows more than I do and, I'm not saying I'm a genius or anything like that, the vast majority of people who give advice have no idea what the hell they're talking about. They love to put their words out there as gospel. It's good to know the rules, but to me there are no real rules, there are just guidelines. The only rules are A) Don't bore the reader and B) If It works, it's right. Don't fill your head with "Don't". Fill your head with "Do". The best instructor for me is a great writer.
HorrorTalk would like to thank Jonathan Janz for inviting us to be part of his promotional tour. Make sure to pick up his latest novel, Children of the Dark, by clicking on one of the links below, and follow along the tour with these hashtags on Twitter: #ChildrenoftheDark #StandwithWill #JonathanJanz #SinisterGrinPress
Jonathan Janz grew up between a dark forest and a graveyard, and in a way, that explains everything. Brian Keene named his debut novel The Sorrows "the best horror novel of 2012." The Library Journal deemed his follow-up, House of Skin, "reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Peter Straub's Ghost Story."
His primary interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children, and though he realizes that every author's wife and children are wonderful and amazing, in this case the cliché happens to be true. You can learn more about Jonathan at www.jonathanjanz.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, or on his Goodreads and Amazon author pages.
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