JEDI does the ’small town, coming-of-age’ scenario better than most, only rivalled in my opinion by Stephen Graham Jones’ MONGRELS. What do you think makes ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘horror’ blend so well?
I think honesty. You can write as much nostalgia as you want — place as many products of the period around — a Rubik's cube on the dresser or a Lita Ford poster on the wall, but if the characters don't read real and the story or tone isn't honest, it's just a commercial for the era. It's easy to suffocate the arc under the nostalgia. I tried very hard to keep JEDI minimal. I wanted it to be about the brothers and how they, especially Johnny, is seeing his world. Through the bi-focals of that odd time when you're both a child and an adult-almost. I think no matter how old we are, we never truly forget our childhoods, good or bad, and when you read a 'Coming-of-Age' piece, it calls to that. It's like walking into a thrift store and seeing a favorite VHS from your childhood or maybe some old action figures, your immediate response is usually “no fucking way, I had that when I was a kid!” We all think we cornered the market on childhood.
When you were a kid, you infamously wrote to Stephen King - and got a reply. Did his response spur you to continue in the field, and who else were you reading at that time? Did you ever consider a different genre, or has horror always been the main draw?
It did and he still does. There are a lot of the ones who initially inspired me that I'm still encouraged by. I'm quite fortunate to be able to call several of them friends. I honestly never really considered writing anything but what I like. I'm one of those shits that reads pretty much exclusively horror. I don't seek out much other than what I like. When I first started writing (the first time) it was straight up pulpy horror and not at all good. After a twenty year break and returning to it, I had decades to read lots more stuff to draw inspiration from and what I wrote was something different. I now, almost have my own tiny niche carved out for sad and strange stories.
You’re a rock guy, much like myself. Has the temptation to ever do a novel involving the music world ever struck, and what other hobbies lend themselves to your process?
I actually have. But I haven't because I'm just a fan. A music nut. I have no musical talents. I really don't have a lot of hobbies. I collect CDs and books and horror movies (to ridiculous degrees) and I write. I like to spend time with my wife and sons (although being the teenagers they are the time spent is usually just counted as "time we're all in the house at once." I suppose if I came up with a neato idea I'd definitely love to write a music-based thing.
SPUNGUNION takes us on the road with Deke, a trucker suffering great loss. What was the attraction to the open road and a character such as himself?
I've always loved the open road. Road trips. Trucker culture. I started this after a few years of big losses to me. My father passed in 2011. And two years later my Uncle Jim and then an Aunt and then in 2015, my friend Jim Boyer died. I was just sitting on so much anger and grief at all of these people, that I had hoped would be here forever and now they weren't that I was making myself sick. I couldn't go a day without crying at some point over one or all of them. I wanted to purge the feelings so I made Deke. And I threw an extra nod to my dear pal, Jim by naming a character after him in SPUNGUNION. He was such a supportive friend and a good guy to me.
Yourself and Rachel Autumn Deering build very authentic ’folksy’ worlds, but being a fan of the likes of Keene and other Leisure writers, have you ever had the urge to write a graphic, straight-up horror, or would the idea of an all-out gorefest not sit right after establishing a certain style?
I think you write what you know. Rachel and I have chatted on that in the past. Both coming from rural roots. It leads to an accuracy that you can't fake. And as to the second part. The next idea I intend to tackle is just that, a nod to those over-the-top 80's pulp horror books. I'll let you know how it goes.
Themes of grief and loss feature prominently in your stories, handled with an authentic and careful touch. Readers can smell when an author phones it in, and you’ve clearly never done that. When did you first understand the importance of authentic character building, was there a particular story or writer who sparked the notion?
When Shock Totem started back in 2009. I was thrilled to get to interview John Skipp (one of my favorite authors of ever!) and we did it old school — a four hour phone call that I then listened to and transcribed. At one point, during one of our off topic tangents he said something like, "write honest or don't bother," and it stuck with me. I think for me, it really came to me after I wrote the story TINSEL for a special issue of Shock Totem. It's a sad story of a widower. From that moment on, I occupied my main characters to the point where I could deliver them in a honest and realistic manner, or do my damnedest, anyway. I'm an emotional guy. I cry at MASH re-runs and Charlie Brown specials. I worry almost always about things I can change, things I can't. I just try and re-direct all of that.
What’s to follow SPUNGUNION?
I'm entering the home stretch of what I've been calling my weird western, WALK THE DARKNESS DOWN. It's far from a traditional approach to that kind of story. Very quiet with touches of the unsettling and surreal and more than a drizzle of brutality. After that, I have some collaborative projects lined up, around three or four different ones, and I want to start on that 80's pulpy thing. The idea I have is not the most original but it will be fun and gooey. I'm not a huge planner, I just kind of write what I can, when I can. It means the world to me that folks actually read it and like it. Thanks for taking the time to have me on here, and I can't wait until next summer when we can sit and talk music again.
SPUNGUNION is available here.