Back in June I had the pleasure of reviewing the book Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff. From there, my fascination with the author grew and I had the pleasure of interviewing him via e-mail to find out what he's working on now, what inspires him to write and what advice he has for people wanting to follow in his footsteps.
REI : Why did you want to become a writer and more importantly, what attracted to the horror genre?
JOHN: I sort of drifted into writing as a kid. I used to write little mystery stories when I was in fifth or sixth grade here in the states, then wrote Star Wars pastiches with my high school friends as starring characters. When I was in college, I started writing actual short stories, and from there it just sort of caught on. I sold my first short story in 1990, and with some stops and starts, have been pretty much at it since then.
Horror? Well, my reading progression started with comics books when I was young. All Marvel, never DC. Then, scifi paperbacks--Heinlein, Anthony, Clarke, Asimov. Then I went to fantasy--Tolkien, Zelazny, Donaldson, Silverberg. Only then was it horror--King, Straub, Poe, Barker, Rice. But I fell in love with horror earlier, through films. My dad was a St. Louis city cop and worked odd hours, leaving my young mother and me, my brother and sister home alone a lot. My mom liked to watch old horror movies--Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, old 60s Hammer films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. But she didn't like to stay up alone and watch them, so she kept us up with her to keep her company. And she made three horror fans of us.
REI : Who are some of your favorite authors?
JOHN: In horror, definitely the trinity of King, Straub and Barker. King is strong in dialog and story. I love, adore Peter Straub who has a definite way with words. The way he handles language is amazing. His novel, The Throat, is hands down my favorite piece of literature. And Barker is visceral and moving. In fantasy, my favorites are Stephen R. Donaldson, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny and Robert Silverberg...and Tolkien. I also love travel writer Bill Bryson.
REI : When writing a story, what is the hardest part for you to write; the beginning or the end, and why?
JOHN: Hmmm...they're all hard in different ways. Sometimes the beginning is hard, just knowing where and how to open a story. Sometimes the guts are hard...in fact, yeah, I think the middle is hardest, really. Organically opening a story and closing a story seem natural most of the time. But the stuff in the middle? How much? How much is too much? That's usually the part that's hardest now that I think of it. It's always how much of the story needs to be told before you wrap it up. That's where editing always helps.
REI : What inspires you to write?
JOHN: Everything. As a writer, it's always amazing what filters through my brain and sticks with me...and then I'm able to use it in a story. I think, as humans (not just writers), we carry away pieces of everyone we meet, good or bad. Writers, smart ones anyway, hang on to these and use them in characters. I've noticed that a lot of characters I "create" are actually amalgams of people I know; a characteristic here, a personality trait there.
But I think, ultimately, what inspires me is...and this sounds distressingly pretentious...is just the human condition. What people do, what happens to them, how life shapes them, changes them. Especially in speculative fiction like horror, I think the important thing, the vital thing to ground people in the unusual, sometimes unbelievable things that happen, is to show how these events, as farfetched as they might be, might really, actually affect someone were they to occur. Showing that and making readers care about the character and what happens to them, that's really what inspires me.
Also, and I'm not sure this is "inspiration," but I tend to work out a lot of emotions and stress in my writing. When my dog was killed by a hit and run driver, I went through a period of pretty intense grief. What helped was sitting down and writing the story that became "Here," which is in Little Deaths. It's a story that I'm immensely proud of, and it definitely inspired me to write more.
REI : What is your ultimate goal with a book; to engage the reader or to leave them wondering what happens next and evidently, longing for more?
JOHN: My ultimate goal is simple. It's the goal I think every writer should have, and I think it's such a simple, overlooked thing...such a basic thing...that many writers overlook it in their rush to make a point. It's this: tell a story. That's my goal. Tell a great story. Something that has a beginning, middle and a satisfying end. Something that has characters you care about, engaged in situations that are interesting. Writers are (or should be) storytellers. Period. Everything else is window dressing. Fancy words, interesting images, linguistic slights of hand, all of those are great, but unless they're part of a great story...I mean, who cares? If you can't tell an engaging story, what exactly are you offering readers? Possible future entries in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations? Ugh. All that artsy-fartsy, pretentious bullshit is just that. When I open a book, I want to read a great story. When people read my stuff, that's what I shoot for...what I hope for. I don't need an author trying to convince me he can write. I'm assuming that the physical book proves that. Prove to me that you can tell a story. That's the trick. So many, many writers fall down right here.
REI : Are you your own worst critic?
JOHN: Oh yeah...very much so. If you're not, as a writer, you're delusional. You've got to be tough on what you create, to make sure it's the best it can be. Because people will tear you up, regardless. So you've got to be comfortable with what you've created.
REI : What are some novels that you value as essential reading for others?
JOHN: Great question, because if you're a writer, you HAVE to be a voracious reader. I know a lot of "writers" who don't feel as if they have to read. Huh? That's ridiculous, unthinkable to me.
I think Moby Dick is an absolute read. It's almost biblical in its construction and its characters are powerfully iconic. Shakespeare is a given. I mean, come on. For a horror writer, I think Poe is essential...any of his short stories. I think Straub's The Throat is a revelation. It is a seriously nuanced, multi-layered story that takes the unreliable narrator motif to its apex. There's so much going on in that novel, so many threads, and they're all so expertly handled that it literally leaves me breathless. I read it every couple of years, and I'm always amazed by how Straub handles the story, the characters, the multiple levels of narrative. It's amazing.
I'm also a strong believer in non fiction. I read a lot of history--the American Civil War, Egyptian, Mayan, etc. I read travel books, paranormal stuff...just a lot to keep my brain working.
REI : What are you currently working on?
JOHN: I was working on a science fiction novel, but I stopped it because of the success of Little Deaths. I thought following up a horror collection with a scifi novel didn't make sense. So, I'm working on a couple of new ideas for a horror novel, as well as substantially rewriting two older novels--one a fictional account of a poltergeist appearance that happened here in the States in the 1820s, the other a modern-day horror retelling of the Pied Piper story. But I have a few other ideas I'm toying with, too. And always the short stories...have to keep a nice stable of these so I always have a few to submit. Plus, I have more than enough stories to do a second collection. Who knows when that might appear?
REI : Do you compare your writing now to your writing 5 years ago?
JOHN: Night and day. I think that writing is like any talent, any muscle. The more you work it, the more you learn and the better it becomes. And reading, reading, reading is also a necessary way to hone your own writing. I think I've developed a style that's my own, that people recognize. I love language, love to make sure that the writing has a rhythm, a meter that makes it almost poetic when you read it. That's become increasingly important to me.
REI : Is there a story you would like to revisit and add to or change in anyway?
JOHN: Hah! Always. I've gone back and re-edited or even rewritten short stories that I'm not pleased with. Some get just a tweak here and there; others get put through the wringer.
REI : As a writer, do you feel one should read an actual book, or are E-readers the way of the future?
JOHN: I don't look at this from a writer standpoint. As far as me as a writer, I just want people to read my stuff. E-books, printed books, or me just mailing out my stories handwritten in crayon. I just want to be read.
Now, as a reader, I love to read and I am a major lover of printed books, hardcovers in particular. I love the feel of them, the smell of them. I love looking at them on my bookshelf. Books are really, when you think of it, magical things. A bunch of pages glued together with ink flecks on them that, when read, transports the reader to different times and places. That said, you can't beat the portability, the absolute convenience of an e-reader. I love them, too, just for different things. If I LOVE a book, I buy the print version. If I don't know or I'm taking a chance, an e-book is a great way to go.
REI : Is there any story that fans really love that surprised you?
JOHN: For me, my stories are like kids. I'm never surprised when someone loves a story, because I love them all. Some more than others, but there it is. What does fascinate me is how different people feel about different stories. That's always interesting, and I think, says a lot about the reader, rather than the story. That's pretty cool.
REI : Last, but not least, do you have any advice for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
JOHN: Simply put: Don't. It's agonizing, often thankless, cruel, filled with large amounts of time when you're waiting for someone else to make a decision about something into which you have lavished large amounts of time, passion and talent. It's mostly a penniless endeavor, fraught with rejection, and guaranteed to whittle years off your life.
If you don't absolutely have to write, don't. But if you have to, if it wakes you up at night, if it depresses you when you don't do it, if it calms you when you do, then do it. It's not a question really, at least for me. If you have to write, you write. If you're saying to yourself, 'I should be a writer,' you're not. Simple.
I would like to say a huge thank you to John for giving me a few moments of his time to conduct this interview. I really appreciated it and it was fun to pick the brain of such a talented author.
Now, to all the readers of this, do yourselves a favour and pick up a copy of Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff. It's worth the read and you can thank me once the chills begin creeping down your spine.