John Hornor Jacobs may be classified by some as an “overnight success story” – he published the first novel he wrote, Southern Gods, and saw it shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award, then landed deals for another book plus a three-book series for young readers – but the truth is he’s been preparing for a career as a novelist for quite some time. For fifteen years he’s sharpened his artistic sensibilities through stints as an advertising writer and musician, and now he (and we) are enjoying the rewards of his hard work. Recently Jacobs visited October Country to answer a few questions about his career and his latest novel, This Dark Earth.
OC: Take us back to the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer. What was the catalyst? How did you go about pursuing the dream to make it a reality?
JHJ: Children dream of being many things. I dreamt of being an artist, a doctor, a police officer, an astronaut, a rock-star. But the moment I decided I wanted to be a novelist was after I finished reading The Hobbit when I was a boy. It transported me to another world, made me love the characters, and when it ended I wanted to remain in the world the author created, which, to me, is the mark of a great book. I was amazed when my father presented me with three more books set in the same world.
Southern Gods was my first novel written and first published. I started writing seriously during the November 2007 National Novel Writing Month. Southern Gods was that project.
What did you learn about the process of writing and publishing through Southern Gods that has helped you in writing and publishing This Dark Earth?
There’s a few things that help me become a better writer, if not storyteller: first, with every sentence written, you tend to gain more confidence and begin to know how you can play with the rules to heighten your style as a writer. It’s my contention that the tone and style of a writer is usually overlooked, often for character and plot and action. Sometimes those last three can become ploys to engage the reader. But the longer I write and the more I read, I’m coming to realize that an author’s mastery of tone and style-individuality go a long way of engaging the reader’s trust, convincing them that the author really knows what he or she’s doing. Much of that comes from precise word choice and the originality of a phrase, more than just a active-voice recitation of events. As an author, I try to establish a tone and theme and style of writing very quickly in a work to establish a “control” over the reader. Sometimes they need a firm hand.
I come from a career in advertising and there I learned that collaboration – albeit limited collaboration – often produces better results than one person going it alone. And so, when I come into the house of editing and working with my editors, I try to be humble. Our goals are to make the best book we can and not be precious about our words. I’ve been lucky to work with very good editors – my agent being the first, having being an editor as Farrar Strauss Giroux. By going through story edits, line edits, copy edits, I’ve seen where I need sharpening and some of my weaknesses, in story construction and in the pure mechanics of writing itself and with each book, I learn more and become a stronger novelist.
Or so I hope.
This Dark Earth was the fruit of my ruminations about the Romero zombie apocalypse. Yeah, I know. Silly thing to spend a lot of time pondering. Because I live in the South, I was always skeptical that when the shamblers begin shambling, we wouldn’t just wipe them out immediately, at least where I live. In big population centers, it’s a different story, but in Arkansas where we have a low population density and a burgeoning gun-culture, the dead coming back wouldn’t pose much of a threat. I did a long essay about the subject at SUVUDU and you can go see my thought process there in all its glory.
You’ve also got a Young Adult series, “The Incarcerado Trilogy,” on the horizon. What’s it about?
The first book in “The Incarcerado Trilogy” is called The Twelve-Fingered Boy and it’s my take on superheroes. It’s about a kid incarcerated in the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center who discovers that his cellmate has post-axial symmetrical polydactylism. That’s having an extra finger on each hand to the folks in the peanut gallery. Enter our villain, Mr. Quincrux, who says he’s from the Department of Health and Human services but when he possesses and mind-rapes the boys, they know that they’re both in terrible danger and will have to escape from juvie to avoid his nefarious plans.
How does your approach to writing YA books differ when compared to writing your adult novels?
My natural inclination is toward seriousness, brooding on dark things. My fiction is often dark, very dark. In my YA novels, I try to have more levity. From a technical standpoint, young adult novels need to be told not from a remove of years – like a reminiscence – but having the protagonist being “in the shit” from the very beginning. Also, when writing for teens, I try to be as honest as I can because most teenagers seriously on the alert for bullshit. The pain and awkwardness of adolescence, its absurdities and profoundness, zits, masturbation, thwarted (and fulfilled) sex-drives, alienation and the realization we’re all living incarcerado in cages society has built for us and those we create for ourselves, coming to understand our core values, learning the strength of our bodies and our wills, finding our place in the world – these are all the raw stuff of emotion and development I like to play with when I’m writing, all elements I try to dredge up from my experiences and contain within an exciting storyline.
You’ve got quite the varied skillset, including graphic design and writing advertising copy. How do these other skills influence your work as a novelist?
I worked as a part-time regional-touring musician for a while in the ’90s. I’m an adept, if not masterful, guitarist. Those things influence both the content and cadences of my writing, I think. It’s inarguable that Southern Gods was seriously influenced by my love of music.
How does your southern upbringing and surroundings influence your work? Do you want to be considered a “Southern writer,” or is that too restrictive?
Well, I am a Southern writer, whether I wish it or no. And I don’t mind it at all. When I write, I pull from my experience and most of my experience with people has been in the South and so, definitely, the Southern experience effects me. I love Southern music – blues, jazz, country – and I’m proud of my state and fiercely protective of it, but I’m aware of the hideous things lurking behind the scrub-brush in the South and my state as well. We have a culture of generosity and kindness, of giving and community support, but there’s also racism and class struggle, abject poverty and ignorance.
On the other hand, in my latest books, my state and Southern-ness has taken less of a role – plot and theme derive no sustenance from my locale. So it’s possible that I’m growing away from self-identifying as a Southern writer. But you know what they say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.