Jonathan Janz had a much different road leading to his first published book, The Sorrows, than his fellow Samhain novelist Elena Hearty, author of Donor. While Hearty just needed to get the voices from her head to print, Janz dedicated himself to perfecting his craft for more than a decade. Luckily for Janz, all his hard work has paid off in his first published novel and the promise of a darkly horrific future at Samhain.
I ask Janz about his influences, his favorite authors, the arduous path to publication and his next projects beyond the break. Enjoy!
DREADFUL TALES: Hello again, Jon! Thanks for taking the time to talk to Dreadful Tales. We’re celebrating the Samhain line this week and I’m excited to get to know one of my new Samhain favorites. Hopefully your shoe size and eyebrow grooming habits will finally be revealed here for the first time. True journalism!
Before we get to that, can you tell us a bit about how you started writing? You’ve written a couple novellas and several short stories, so what was the process like transitioning into a full blown novel?
JONATHAN JANZ: I started to write an answer to this that took things way back to my childhood, but I’ll save all that stuff for another time. To answer your question more succinctly, I started with novellas and short stories because I suspected I didn’t have the skills and confidence to write a novel. That isn’t to say that short stories and novellas are easier–they’re not. But novel-writing does require more endurance and a better grasp of the larger picture, and both those traits take time to develop.
The reason I knew I didn’t have those characteristics (in my twenties and early thirties) is that I attempted to write a novel about twelve years ago (the novel that would become House of Skin). I actually wrote a fragment of HOS during college, and though the execution wasn’t great, the basic idea still intrigued me. So one summer (I was 26 at the time) I went to a graveyard every day to write out the novel longhand. The book was called Starlight at that point. It was awful. I wrote probably a hundred thousand words before I literally threw the notebooks away (at least I think I threw them away; it’s possible my wife–my girlfriend at the time–salvaged them). I repeated that process several times in the coming years (then calling the book Her Eyes Were Wild), and though I didn’t write the book to my satisfaction, I did slowly get better as a writer. I also started doing a few smaller pieces and a couple novellas, which gave me some much-needed confidence.
Finally, I devoted myself to The Sorrows and House of Skin (and now about three other novels). And while I’m constantly striving to improve, the difference between the book I scribbled at age twenty-six in no way resembles House of Skin. And that’s a very good thing.
DT: You wrote longhand, as in with pen and actual paper!? In a graveyard even? Hard to believe that wasn’t enough to evoke greatness. So in your case, would you say practice was key to get where you are now?
JJ: I’d say that practice has had an awful lot to do with what I’ve accomplished so far. There are many other factors, but unwavering dedication is probably the main one. This gig will give you many, many chances to quit. Most do quit, I suspect. I’m not the most talented writer in the world, nor do I have an inflated ego the way many writers do. But I’m persistent. I never, ever give up on anything. If I played Lebron James in a game of one-on-one, I’d lose 100-to-nothing, but I’d battle him until the very end. I take that attitude into my writing, and whatever success I have, it’s largely because of my unwavering commitment. Or my outrageous stubbornness.
DT: Well, your persistence has paid off!
Can you tell us how Don D’Auria found you and how you became a member of the Samhain family (besides being wicked awesome, of course)? Also, tell the truth, when you found out you would be published alongside the likes of Ramsey Campbell did you “SQUEE~!”?
JJ: I don’t know if I’m physically capable of squeeing. But if I were, I’d have done that a dozen times since Don said “yes” to The Sorrows.
I badly wanted to work with Don when he was back with Dorchester. As most folks know, Dorchester imploded, and Don eventually ended up at Samhain Publishing. They’d been rocking the romance and erotica worlds and were ready to branch out into a new genre. Don’s expertise made him the ideal person to start a new line–Samhain Horror. I submitted The Sorrows to Don shortly after he started at Samhain, and pretty quickly he accepted my novel. A few months later I sent him House of Skin, and he accepted that too.
A quick word about Don…
He’s a legendary editor and a wonderful guy. I’ve dreamed of working with him since the early 2000s, and thus far the experience has surpassed even my lofty expectations.
And how does it feel to be published alongside Ramsey Campbell? Absolutely surreal. He is, without question, one of the finest practitioners of horror in the history of the genre. I’ve learned an incredible amount from reading and studying his books and feel blessed and honored to be part of the same company that’s publishing his work.
DT: Back in the early 2000s, when you were still dreaming of working with Don D’Auria, who were some of the authors in the genre that influenced you, authors you aspired to be like? Have your horror literary influences changed? And how so?
JJ: I had many, many influences from many different eras and literary bents, but at the time you’re alluding to, the primary Leisure guys for me were Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. Both of them continue to be major influences on my work (and my life). Ketchum cuts deeper than any writer I know. He’s insightful and unflinching and incredibly powerful. Frankly, I’m in awe of him.
Concerning Laymon…I just love reading his work. Occasionally, I’ll get the sense that some think his stuff isn’t on par with other masters, but I’d adamantly disagree. People take him for granted because he was so prolific, and his work was–gasp–fun, but the fact is, Laymon’s stuff moves. It’s almost like folks hold that against him. I love literature of all kinds, and I can appreciate anything if it’s done well. But as a writer I always try to remember how much fun I have when I read Laymon. Part of that fun is how breakneck the pace is. Part of it’s his consistent inhabiting of his POV character. I appreciated then and even moreso now how he handled interior monologue/dialogue. Another part of it is…ah, I could go forever, so I’ll just say I love Ketchum and Laymon and leave it at that.
Some other writers: Stephen King (my favorite), Joe R. Lansdale (tied with Ketchum for my second-favorite), Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Larry McMurtry, Roald Dahl, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, Robert Bloch, Elmore Leonard, John Farris, Ira Levin, Ian McEwan, Ruth Rendell, and don’t even get me started on the pre-1950s writers. The aforementioned authors represent a great deal of what I love in fiction, but I’m already feeling guilty about the names I’ve left off…
DT: You can tell from our namesake that we absolutely love Laymon here at Dreadful Tales. When I first read THE SORROWS I was reminded of Laymon specifically because of your pacing, but there was also an element of Richard Matheson a la HELLHOUSE. Matheson has a talent for creating atmosphere without slowing down the pace if the story and I felt you accomplished that with THE SORROWS.
How did you develop the story for THE SORROWS? You mentioned that HOUSE OF SKINS has been a long time coming (since late twenties). Was that the case for THE SORROWS as well?
JJ: Thank you so much for your kind words about The Sorrows! I’ll take any comparison or connection to Richard Matheson I can get because he’s influenced me just as much as Laymon. And it’s funny you mention Hell House…that was one of my formative reads back when I was still a teenager. I absolutely loved that book (and still love it). The combination of dread, dark eroticism, and shocking violence really appealed to me as a reader, so I would think that some of that adoration would permeate my writing.
As far as The Sorrows and how far back its origins go…
I remember over a decade ago hearing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor (link here) for the first time and feeling absolutely transported. I was jarred, too, by the abrupt beginning of the song. As music often does to me, the song made me imagine a tower with a solitary pianist inside. The player was tortured, enslaved even. He was a prisoner of the tower, but he was a powerful force, too. His song promised retribution for his captors, an unholy fury unleashed. That image and succession of thoughts–all spawned by Rachmaninoff–became the basis for The Sorrows.
DT: It’s obvious from reading THE SORROWS and hearing about the inspiration behind the story that you have an interest in music. Do you have any background in music?
JJ: I have a ton of interest in music but very little skill at it. I think this is part of why I’m so fascinated by it–especially the act of creation. And because I’m an obsessive movie lover, it makes perfect sense that I’d be enthralled by the concept of how movie music comes to be. I blogged about a moment in How to Train Your Dragon in which the composer John Powell creates something so transcendent that it brings me to tears. That notes on a page can do that, can bring about such a powerful and consuming emotion, is amazing to me. Hence my novel about two composers trying to score a horror film.
DT: So, we’ve talked a bit about THE SORROWS. Can you tell us about what is next for Jonathan Janz? What’s coming out next and what are you currently working on?
JJ: My next novel out is House of Skin. It releases in June in ebook and in October in trade paperback (similar to the launch structure of The Sorrows). House of Skin is a standalone horror novel (written in the fast-paced-yet-Gothic style of The Sorrows), but it does connect to The Sorrows in a profound way. House of Skin was the movie my composers were scoring in The Sorrows; since I knew the plot of House of Skin through-and-through, I thought giving it a fictional cinematic score would be fun and logical. But other than that, there’s no connection between the novels, so if you haven’t read the first one (though you should!), you can pick up House of Skin without worrying about being in the dark.
I think readers are going to love House of Skin, by the way. Of course, every writer thinks that about his work, but I really do feel affection toward this novel. The way it all fits together…the blending of Laymonesque horror with a ghost story that’s tonally much more in line with early Peter Straub. I love it and hope audiences do, too.
DT: You were at the HorrorHound Convention in Columbus recently and I believe you will be in Indianapolis (my home town!) this fall as well. What other events – book signing, conventions, etc – will you be attending that fans should know about?
JJ: Those two are the only ones etched in stone for now, but there are a couple other possibilities I’m looking into. When one has a wife, three kids under the age of six (including an incredibly active one-year-old daughter), two full-time professions (I’m a teacher and a writer), and several other commitments, it’s challenging to cordon off a whole weekend without disrupting too many lives. But my experience at HorrorHound was just amazing (thanks to the wonderful fans and the awesome people at Samhain Publishing). It made me look harder at how I might include my family in future conventions (as in, taking them to a nearby hotel and then running back and forth–I don’t think my kids are quite ready for the levels of carnage and cleavage present at most horror cons).
DT: Last question – Vincent Price has invited you to the House on Haunted Hill and he wants you to pick the other 4 guests. Who do you choose and why?
JJ: I could say my family and be all sappy, but instead I’ll say Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, and Peter Jackson. I love all four of those guys and in some way model myself (not just my career, but a lot of my behaviors and philosophies) off of their examples. In addition to being genuinely cool guys (and I can personally vouch for Ketchum, who has been incredibly nice to me even though he’s never even met me), they’re all four obviously supremely talented storytellers. Can you imagine how phenomenal and terrifying it would be to listen to those dudes tell stories all night in an eerie venue?