February 12, 2013

A House of Skin from the Ground Up: an interview with Jonathan Janz

Jonathan Janz wrote one of my favorite novels from 2012, The Sorrows, and followed it up with a strong sophomore showing in House of Skin, which I reviewed just last week. As a followup to that review, I had the chance to ask Jonathan a few questions to get his thoughts on not just the subject matter, but also the trajectory his career has taken so far. Enjoy.

Gef: House of Skin was technically the first novel you ever wrote, but it didn't find its way to publication with Samhain until after The Sorrows. Is there a special consideration in your mind in seeing this first novel finally on shelves, or do you just focus primarily on the next novel?

Jonathan: Well, at first the thrill of seeing my novel on shelves was overwhelming. I won’t lie—I went into two different stores and bought The Sorrows a total of three times. Pathetic? Perhaps. But I’m genuinely grateful to be published by a company I respect, to be edited by a man like Don D’Auria (more on him later), and especially, to be read. So the fact that people are now reading my books feels wonderful. When I saw House of Skin on shelves, my excitement was no less powerful. And yes, I bought that one too.

But with that excitement comes a realistic determination. For me it isn’t about the thrill of being published or about calling myself an author. For me it’s about building a career. So while I do, occasionally take moments like the ones above to celebrate whatever successes I enjoy, the vast majority of my mental energy is spent on working on the next novel (or thinking about the one after that). I want to constantly improve, and that won’t happen by sighing contentedly and reflecting on my accomplishments.

Gef: The Sorrows and House of Skin vary in a few key ways, one of them being the progression and tempo of each book. Are you conscious of these things as you're writing, or is it something that comes to you during the revision process?

Jonathan: I agree with most of what Stephen King says about writing. One of his best ideas is that books are “found objects,” very much akin to fossils unearthed by archeologists. And like an archeologist, my job is to uncover this preexisting, completely-formed object from my subconscious while doing as little damage to the object as possible. So to answer your question, though this sounds insane to most people, The Sorrows and House of Skin already existed in my head despite the fact that my conscious self had no idea of what they’d be about; I just excavated them, dusted them off, and polished them up to be as intact and authentic as they could be. Or perhaps my subconscious was forming the narratives through the growth of the characters, but the end result is still the same: it never feels like I’m telling a story. I always feel like I’m recording the story, much the same way that Paul Carver, the protagonist of House of Skin, records the stories he is sent by the tenant of a desecrated grave.

As far as progression and tempo, I think those are elements based on feel and intuition. When I’m writing a scene, the characters are in control, and I’m just transcribing what’s occurring between them. So the characters determine the progression of story. And with tempo, I think that’s an intuitive process. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that after reading and watching so many books and movies, the cadences of action scenes are ingrained in my mind or the rhythms of dialogue scenes are so thoroughly absorbed by my subconscious that the different gears in my books occur in a manner that feels natural and unforced. Of course, as you point out at the tail end of your question, the revision process does help clarify the effect I’m trying to achieve. 

Gef: How have you found the working relationship with Samhain Publishing thus far? Any pleasant surprises or small revelations regarding the business end of writing you've learned in your time with them?

Jonathan: The biggest and most wonderful revelation has been Don D’Auria. I had very high—perhaps unreasonably high—expectations of him when I signed on with Samhain. I’d known his name for a decade and had wanted to work with him more than any other editor.

The fact is that Don D’Auria is even better as an editor than I had assumed he would be. I mean, this is the guy who helped introduce me to Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, and Brian Keene. This is a guy I consider a legend in horror. And he’s absolutely unaffected and unerringly kind. Don encourages me to be honest with him. When he sees something that needs to be altered, he tells me. I always feel like a collaborator rather than an employee. And that’s incredibly rewarding.

Working with the cover artist has also been incredible. Angie Waters has designed all my covers thus far and just does a fabulous job. She really gets my sensibility, even when that sensibility is varied in nature. She listens to my ideas and often uses my input, and what she ultimately puts together invariably surpasses my expectations.

The rest of the Samhain experience has been equally rewarding. People like Dawn Martin, Amanda Brashears, and Amanda Hicks have been amazing to me. It’s a very successful company, and it’s run by hard-working, intelligent people. But they’re nice people too, and that’s been a continual and pleasant revelation.

Gef: While House of Skin might not strictly be a haunted house novel, it has the two key ingredients (the haunting and the house). Is it a genre that you're fond of? What inspirations and influences can you point to from other people's work?

Jonathan: I do love haunted house stories, though my tastes are spread across many genres and eras. Some of my favorite horror novels are ghost stories. A few that come to mind are Peter Straub’s Julia, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. But probably the two that influenced this book the most were Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Straub’s Ghost Story (which is my favorite horror novel of any kind). Much of the evil in House of Skin is suggested rather than explicitly depicted—at least not until the end of the book. Like Hill House and Ghost Story, I wanted my book to possess an atmosphere of dread and of a diabolical revenant hungry to inflict violence on those in the present.

In the Gothic construct, the past becomes as important as the present, and this is why I learned so much from Straub. In Ghost Story old men tell horrible stories of the past. Those stories, of course, end up dictating or influencing the present. In House of Skin, there is a storyteller who is unwittingly breathing life into a long-dormant evil; there’s also the history of the house, which is told in flashback chapters. So clearly Straub’s Ghost Story taught me a great deal. When the Library Journal gave House of Skin a very favorable review, the critic mentioned both Hill House and Ghost Story. I’m not saying my book is on par with those towering classics, but to hear those titles uttered in the same breath as my novel was very gratifying. 

Gef: House of Skin makes a cameo of sorts in your first Samhain novel, The Sorrows, as the protagonist in that book is working on the score for the film adaptation of House of Skin. Is that kind of wink-and-nod approach something you hope to keep up through your career, or perhaps a Castle Rock style of universe for your stories?

Jonathan: Since Stephen King is my primary authorial influence, it’s inevitable that the things he does in his books sometimes permeate my work. As you alluded to in your question, he is fond of creating these worlds and realms in which characters from one work will interact with characters from another work. I love that. So yes, I did that with these two books and will likely continue to make connections between works when they’re not forced connections. That’s the key. I’ll never compromise what’s right for a story in order to shoehorn some allusion to another one of my works into a book. That would be bad archeology.

Gef: What's next on the horizon for Jonathan Janz and where can readers catch up on your antics?

Jonathan: 2013 looks like it’s going to be a big year. The Sorrows and House of Skin are still growing in popularity, which is a great sign. I have a reworked short novella/long short story called The Clearing of Travis Coble coming from a publisher called Untreed Reads in March. Untreed Reads published a novella of mine called Old Order. I’m very proud of that story, and it has sold extremely well. Like Old Order, Travis Coble is a dark, dark story with a shattering ending. I’m hoping audiences respond to it the way they responded to Old Order.  

My third novel (The Darkest Lullaby) is being published by Samhain Horror in April. Of my three novels, it’s the darkest one I’ve written and in many ways the one that comes closest to what Poe called the “unity of effect.” Again, I’m not likening myself to Poe, but I do try to learn from him. The Darkest Lullaby is like a gradually unfolding nightmare. It fuses the worlds of ghosts, demons, vampires, and even malevolent nature (like Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows). There’s a bit of The Shining in the book, a dash of Rosemary’s Baby, and some Paranormal Activity as well. I really think readers are going to enjoy it (or at least be affected by it).

When June arrives, there’s something even bigger on the horizon, but unfortunately I’m not supposed to talk about it yet. All I can say is that it will be horror, and it will involve Samhain Publishing. But sharing more than that would give too much away, so I’ll just say that I’m more excited about this upcoming summer project than I’ve been about any other writing endeavor.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Gef, and thanks for the awesome questions!     

And thank you, Jonathan. If anyone would care to check out Jonathan's work, you can visit his Amazon page, head on over to Samhain's onlinestore, or go to Jonathan's blog.

1 comment:

  1. Gef, Good interview with one of my fave people ever. :)