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Monday, January 15, 2018

Interview with John Hornor Jacobs (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy

John Hornor Jacobs is a man of many talents, combining a background in advertising, a love for the written word along with a deep fascination for southern culture in all of its glory, charm and crazy. He has written several different books in several genres. Recently with the release of Infernal Machines (Book III of The Incorruptibles series) John was kind enough to join us for a chat about the series and its underlying themes as well as his future works.

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic, it’s been a while since your last release. How are things with you?
JHJ: All is well. It’s the New Year and I’ve managed to live through 2017. I’ve been very busy this past year, though not as focused on writing as I should be. I am a partner at an advertising agency, where I act as the senior art director, and we’ve had an extraordinarily busy year. So, my day job has taken up a lot of my time. But, I did manage to see one book to print, write two novelettes and two short stories and see them all published. One in Playboy Magazine!

Q] Once you started plotting this trilogy, how much of the entire journey was planned and how much of it evolved organically? Was the ending planned from the very beginning?
JHJ: At the time my agent sold the whole series, I had written The Incorruptibles, and was confident I could continue telling stories in that world, but I only had some loose ideas of what might occur next. During the edit-for-submission phase for The Incorruptibles I realized there were some issues, I hadn’t address in the telling of that tale, especially regarding the true nature of some of the characters and especially the secrets and mystery surrounding the vaettir. So, no, I didn't plan it from the beginning but I had an inkling about the rest. Like standing in the foyer of a house you haven’t been in before but still having a pretty good idea about the layout of the house because, well, houses, like books, set up some expectations. Kitchen there, and of course bedrooms upstairs. Where’s the shitter? Right. Of course it’s there. The pain points in writing are opening the wrong doors when figuring out the layout of the house.

Anyway, I planned The Incorruptibles and figured out the other two books as I went along. I always have some scenes between characters in mind, and a notion as to their arc’s resolution, but nothing cast in stone. The most outlining I do is usually a Roman outline where I’ll go, I. In which Shoe and Fisk go to Passasuego to find Beleth, and so forth, just so I keep the plot straight in my mind. I think when my agent sold The Incorruptibles series, I had the first book in the can, and a paragraph for each of the other two.

When I start a book I need a title – yeah, I’m weird like that, but you know how they say snowflakes grow? Crystallizing around a bit of particulate matter in the air? That’s kind of my relationship with titles. I have to have one in my mind to really get work done on a project. When the project is complete, I’m cool with changing the title, but during the writing, in my mind, the title is fixed.

Q] Now talking about your POV characters, all of them are flawed to a degree. But they are also products of their circumstances. What would you say about them: are they truly heroes or circumstantial ones?

JHJ: I don’t think there are any “true” heroes. All heroes are circumstantial. “True” heroes in fiction occur in either comics or those sorts of fantasies that use prophecies, chosen ones, and that sort of rot as plot devices. I don’t. However, I will say my characters are usually exceptional in some way otherwise, how could I ask a reader to spend the length of a book with them? That’s part of the unspoken contract between authors and readers, at least in genre. Outside of genre, especially in literary work, authors write about “normal, everyday” people to try and understand some aspect of the human condition and that’s great, but most fiction works on the premise that if we’re going to train the lens of our attention on a character, they should merit our focus.

Conversely, by focusing on a character, they become special. At least depending on the author’s raw talent, craftsmanship, and voice. We’ve all read those books about subject and people who you’d think of as humdrum and become enthralled by entering their world. I think readers, on the whole and whatever the genre, want to feel like a veil is pulled away and a new reality is on view, be it thaumaturgy or taxidermy. On the author side, how could I spend months upon months writing about my characters if they were not exceptional? I need to be fascinated and engaged by my characters just as much as my intended audience because I spend a very long time with them.

Q] I want to ask you about your characters and not just the main POV ones but even the ones that only make secondary appearances. What goes through your mind when you create them? How do you make them so complex, tragic & exciting to read about? 

JHJ: I don’t always have a firm grasp on a character but sometimes I need the character to perform an action – give some information, offer some resistance - to move the plot along and during the writing of the character I realize not just what that secondary character is doing but why he or she is in story. As in an existential question regarding that character’s reason for being beyond just helping me as a writer.

For example, in Foreign Devils there’s the priceps of the collegium of engineers in Passasuego - a woman named Sapientia - whom I needed as an authority, and to help with some of the manhunt issues of Shoe and Fisk searching for Beleth. However, by the time we reach the end of Infernal Machines, she’s become a major character and somewhat of an unrequited love interest of Shoe’s. Why did I do that? Some of it is because you don’t want to spend “screen time” with a character that never returns – every scene has a purpose – and sometimes characters just grow because authors reason inductively rather than deductively and the character just feels right.

It’s been said before (and by me many times) but writing stories is like dredging the depths of your own psyche. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you haul up from those dark waters. It can be an old tire. Or it can be a mermaid.

Q] Most fantasy trilogies often focus on the fantastic, you however chose to highlight that aspect but in quite a different way for example your elves are scary, huge and quite alien. The concept of demons is utilized in a much more industrial way and not to mention the ancient empire analogues. What I wanted to ask you was what specifically went into the world building cauldron for these exciting things?

JHJ: I was called some unpleasant things regarding my depiction of the elves in The Incorruptibles because they (and Shoe’s race, the dvergar) were very loose stand-ins for indigenous peoples. But I wanted to create an indigenous people with their natures and response to a colonizing power writ large: the dwarves subjugated, the elves vicious and frightening. I thought that would offer an interesting dynamic, and during the course of the series I could play with, and subvert, those racial expectations. I am pleased with how Shoe, and the dvergar people change, as well as how by the end of the series, how the reader might view the vaettir.

As for the world-building, I really wanted to write about some of the things I loved and the inciting event that drove me to write The Incorruptibles was thinking about spaghetti westerns, and then realizing they were filmed in Italy, and then thinking, what if the western was Roman influenced? And then, I started playing with other ideas (like infernal combustion) and it just grew from there. One of things I see again and again in the reviews I receive is that the world’s premise is hard to explain, shouldn’t work, but it does. And I’m fine with that.

Q] The books start out pretty low key with regards to magic however with each book, the magic quotient is slowly raised. The first book gave us some huge revelations about the nature of the world, second one shone a particular focus on magic. Was this a planned move or do you believe in the Joe Abercrombie approach of keeping magic to minimalistic levels in your books and slowly raising the stakes?

JHJ: I’d be lying if I said that George R. R. Martin wasn’t an influence. A Game of Thrones, and the “low magic” aesthetic he espouses was and remains effective because seeing only a bit of the magical naturally poses a question, “If there’s this small amount of the wondrous in this world, surely, there must be more to be revealed.” That’s a pretty interesting frisson you’re giving the readers at the start. Also, it sets your book in a world not too dissimilar from our own, if one discounts the technological level. I’ve read (or tried to read) fantasy novels that have immediate and intricate magic systems they have to explain, people are flying around, buildings are levitating, there are demons strolling around, etc. and all that just doesn’t work for me. But that’s just my personal preference. Folks love it, it seems, judging by some of these author’s book sales.

Another thing I tend to do is look at any magic, like I have with the summoning of dæmons, and say, “Okay, we know how fantasy usually treats this, but how would people really use it?” I feel, at heart, pragmatism trumps magical. Say, if you have a sorcerer that could enchant things to levitate, yes, you might have a world full of skyships charting courses through the clouds, but more than likely, you’d just have a bunch of wheel-less hovering wagons, and a war between the wheelwright’s guild and local city’s journeymen enchanters who’re ruining the wheelwright trade.

Q] Let’s talk about the covers since Gollancz is so apt at creating magnificent cover art. Your Incorruptibles trilogy covers are on the stark but striking side, did you have input about them?

JHJ: Of all my books, these are my favorite covers (though my young adult series is a close second). They asked my feedback during the design phase, and I loved that, because I’ve had publishers just say, “Here’s your cover” with no input from me. They really knocked it out of the park.

I will add, I’m probably the worst author in the world to design a cover for since that is what I do for a living and I’m a local, regional, and national Addy Award winner and have had my work featured in many advertising journals, including Lürzer’s ARCHIVE.

Q] What are you writing currently and what can your fans expect to read next from you? 

JHJ: Currently, I’m writing a historical novel set in Arkansas. It’s the story of a jazz musician who goes to fight in WWII contrasted story of the man who creates the first large mechanized farm town in the south (who also happens to be a serial killer). It’s been going slow, I’m about sixty thousand words into it. Why is it going slow? Two main reasons – I’ve been trying to focus on the literary quality of my prose, to find my style, and the book could be considered my attempt to write something “literary” if that makes any sense. I wanted to write a story without any of the trappings of genre, and just focus on the human experience. In some ways, I’ve discovered that whatever genre you write in – fantasy, horror, sf, mystery, crime – a lot of conflict is baked in the story from the outset. But if you eschew that, then you’re left with just history and people. I imagine smarter people with me will take exception to that statement, but there it is.

And, when writing historical fiction, there’s not a paragraph that goes by that doesn’t require some sort of research. I don’t want to reveal the title of the work because it’s just a great title and I don’t want anyone to steal it (this has happened to me). But also, I’m not certain if it will get published (it’s a very different sort of book) and if it does get published, I’m not sure if it will be under my name.

But since the book is going slow, I needed to complete something, so I began writing a novella in late November, and I’m going to be done with it soon and hope it will see print in the future. It’s not a sequel to Southern Gods (still my most popular book) but it does occur in the same universe. It’s called The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky and if I could describe it, it would be to say it’s cosmic horror if it had been written by Roberto Bolaño.

Q] You have mentioned this wonderful quote in a previous interview: “Examine conflict, in yourself and others. Examine your fellow humans, figure out why they act as they do. Listen to the way people talk. All in all, become a student of humanity, in all its terrible glory.” 

Considering what goes down in Foreign Devils & Infernal Machines, this quote seems very, very prophetic. What do would you say viv-a-vis the trilogy climax? Can you expound on what you meant in general with that quote?

JHJ: I said that? Well, look at me. I am so very smart.

Humans, as a species, are very much like a person who takes too many selfies. Our favorite subject matter is ourselves. We can’t even interact with the natural world without anthropomorphizing everything. Also, we’re really monstrous. It’s true. Yet, we tell stories many times to convince ourselves that we’re not living on a planet teeming with the hominid monsters, each full of their own desires and drives. We tell stories to convince ourselves we’re not monsters, that we’re actually good. Our that the universe that shat us out isn’t absolutely indifferent to us. That we’re special. That we’re exceptional. Hey, it looks like we’ve come full-circle, back to the first question!

Anywho, fiction is driven by conflict, and humans, being monstrous, are always offering us new ways to be in conflict. So, study them, study yourself. So that not only can you make a better attempt to ascertain truth about the human condition, but also so you can lie in fiction about it convincingly.

Q] Nowadays it’s pretty common to see novels adapted into different formats such as movies, comics, videogames, animation and TV. How would you like for this trilogy to be adapted (if budget was not constrained and it was entirely your choice)? 

JHJ: I appreciate the question, but I try not to think about stuff like that. No one has optioned any of my books, and at this point I doubt they will. My books are problematic, for a variety of reasons. So, if anyone does choose to adapt one of my books, all I want is to get paid handsomely for the honor and maybe visit the set. Beyond that, I have no thoughts or expectations.

Q] Lastly, do you have any words of wisdom for your readers or anything else you’d like to say about your upcoming works? 

JHJ: I hope you enjoy my books, if you read them. I hope I have something in print this year for you to read. Failing that, keep an eye out for me in 2019.


Unknown said...

Nicely done JHJ. You are modest to a pleasant fault, and undoubtedly the most appreciated author on my book shelf.

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