John, perhaps one of the things that interested me most when I first perused your website is how far back your writing credits date – to 1994 – and how much time passed before your first novel, almost ten years. Was this intentional, or just the way things worked out?
A little of both. I didn’t really start writing fiction with the intention of becoming a novelist. I loved the short form (still do!) and I published dozens and dozens of short stories in the ‘90s in all sorts of tiny magazines and anthologies.
In high school and college I wrote a lot of short fiction and poetry while I worked towards becoming a journalist. I started publishing some of the horror stories I wrote in college sort of accidentally. I was working at a music magazine in 1992-93, and each month, there were a few days where I had some down time. My job was desktop publishing and I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to use that skill to compile all that old stuff I wrote years ago into a small chapbook?”
The idea was to put together this little hand-stapled collection of my work for myself, and maybe a few friends. As I did that and re-read my old work (I hadn’t written fiction in a couple years at that point), I started coming up with new story ideas, so I worked on them. Then I thought, “Hey, why not try to send some of these pieces to magazines?” I went to the library and looked up Writers Market magazine and found some places to submit to and garnered my first rejection slips… but I didn’t give up… and that’s how I started publishing horror fiction.
In the mid-‘90s, after I’d been publishing fiction for a couple years, someone gave me a newspaper clipping about the most popular suicide spot in England (a cliff with a bar at the top) which generated the idea that became Covenant. I spent several years tinkering with that book, putting it aside as I wrote more short stories, and then dragging it out again.
I sent the first finished draft out to editors in 2000, seven years after I first started submitting short fiction. And a couple years later, when I had gotten no “bites” on the manuscript, I did a large re-write on the novel and sent it around again. Still, nobody bought the book. Ultimately, I gave up on ever getting it a mass market release, and sent it to Delirium Books, who had already published my first short fiction collection.
Covenant first came out at the end of 2004. I continued to publish short fiction, but three years later Sacrifice, the sequel, came out, also with Delirium. And right after that, also in 2007, I signed the deal with Leisure Books to re-release both novels in paperback. That same year my third short fiction collection, Needles & Sins came out from Necro, just as I began to focus almost exclusively on writing novels, thanks to the Leisure deal. 2007 was a big year for me! But the change from short fiction to novels was a somewhat unintentional, but organic transition. I’ve since written very little short fiction, though I’ve produced more “words” of fiction per year in the past two years than ever before, since I produced new novels in 2008 and 2009.
Chart your path to publication for us. Is a writing career something you've always wanted to pursue, or did it develop later in life? When was your big “breakthrough” moment?
I've always been a writer in some form, and never really considered a career outside of writing. I wrote my first short story in grade school and published my first vignette in my high school newspaper. I was a reporter, editor and columnist for my high school and college newspapers, but I always leaned towards the creative “features” writing side more than news, which I never much cared about. I got my journalism degree from the University of Illinois and went on to be a beat reporter and music columnist for a local newspaper before finding a place at a monthly music magazine, Illinois Entertainer. And that’s when I first began submitting and focusing on developing my fiction.
I don’t know if I can peg a singular “breakthrough” moment. It’s been more like a series of small victories, each building on the last. There were lots of small moments in the ‘90s, when I cracked several markets I’d wanted to publish in, and got short stories accepted by Grue, Terminal Fright, Dead of Night, Bloodsongs and more.
The first big break would probably be the publication of Cage of Bones & Other Deadly Obsessions, my first short story book-length collection, which Delirium Books released in 2000. And then the first publication of Covenant in 2004. And then the Bram Stoker Award for that book a few months later in 2005. And then… the day I signed a two-book deal with Leisure for the mass market publication of Covenant and Sacrifice in 2007. And then the actual mass market publication of Covenant, when I was finally able to reach more than a couple hundred readers with my work. And then when I sold The 13th directly to Leisure in 2008. I had been really worried that I’d only get to do the “reprint” books with them and that would be it, so it was a big moment for me to sell a “new,” previously unpublished book directly to Leisure.
Going through your old online journal archives, I see you've served as an editor for Dark Regions magazine, a columnist for Talebones and also did some copy-editing, for both Necro Publications and Delirium Books. Which came first; publishing fiction or editing gigs...or did they develop organically at the same time?
The fiction came first because that’s what introduced me to the editors I ended up doing other work for. But copy-editing, web design, book layout…they all sort of organically followed. Because of my newspaper background and chatting about it on AOL, I ended up helping out on copy-editing Paula Guran’s Bones of the Children and Wetbones magazines. And Dave Barnett asked if I wanted to help proof Into the Darkness, his short-lived magazine in the early ‘90s.
When he retired ITD and started publishing books as Necro Publications, he asked me to continue proofing those – so I’ve worked on most of the books he’s released in the past 15 years – which means at this point I’ve gotten to work on a good chunk of Edward Lee’s catalog, since Necro has issued most of Lee’s hardcover editions. Because of my music critic background (I wrote Pop Stops, a weekly Chicago area newspaper column for The Star Newspapers for almost 20 years), I wrote “dark music” columns for Paula and Dave (when he briefly edited Bloodsongs). Those columns led to me to take on the Talebones “Bug Music” music column for a couple years.
The Dark Regions fiction editor slot came after I met Joe Morey, the publisher, at World Fantasy Con in 1997. We got along and a few months later he asked if I wanted to help read the slush-pile for DR with him and Ken Wisman, so I did that for a couple years until the magazine went on hiatus.
Basically, when I get involved with a press, I tend to pitch in wherever I can. My editing history, music critic track record and web design and graphic design background have led me to do a lot of things in the small press that surround the fiction, as well as writing it. When I first started working with Delirium on my collection, Shane Ryan Staley asked me to do some proofing for him since I had a history of doing it for Necro, so I worked on a lot of Delirium’s early titles, including the original version of Brian Keene’s The Rising. I also designed a couple iterations of Delirium’s websites, and created a website that Delirium gifted to Brian Keene (the banner I created for that old site is still in use on Keene’s current site, though the rest of the design is gone).
I got involved in the early 2000s with a local press, Twilight Tales, where I also did proofing, as well as book layout and cover design… and because of that work I started doing book covers for Delirium. I’ve since done a book cover for Bad Moon Books, as well as my own small press, Dark Arts Books, and I’ve copy-edited novels and short story collections for Earthling, Camelot and Cemetery Dance.
When did you really start hitting the convention trail? Before or after your fiction sales started to take off?
World Fantasy 1997 was the first big convention I attended, mainly because it was just down the street from my day job. That weekend paid off because it’s where I first met Neil Gaiman (not that he’d remember!) and where I met Joe Morey of Dark Regions and P.D. Cacek, who I asked a couple years later to introduce my Cage of Bones collection.
The first time I traveled to a convention was for World Horror Convention 2000, in Denver, and I went to that because Cage of Bones was going to be released later that year, so I thought I should try to promote it a little. After that, I became a regular at every World Horror Con (except for 2009), as well as attending a couple other major cons like Horrorfind and World Fantasy Con when it came to Madison, WI, a couple hours away.
I read one of your journal entries from 2000 detailing your surprise at having sat next to Brian Keene, not knowing who he was at the time. What's that like to look back and think, “Remember when I sat next to so-and-so and didn't even recognize them?”
Well, at that time, Brian was still just a short story writer, just like me. We’d published in a lot of the same places, but neither of us had broken through to novels yet. So my surprise then was not so much that I’d sat next to “Brian Keene” but that I’d sat next to a guy who wrote a really good blog about the con. “Brian Keene” means a lot more now then it did then! But we’ve since crossed paths many times over the years – and a couple years ago he handed over the mantle of editing the In Delirium II anthology to me (he conceived and created the original edition).
My real “wow, I sat next to…” moment did occur at that 2000 WHC though, and I didn’t really realize the wow factor until much later. While I was sitting on the bed in a hotel room with GAK and Dave Barnett and others at the Borderlands Books party, Richard Laymon was sitting in a chair next to us. I remember him being really nice and easygoing… but I had no idea who he was. His catalog hadn’t started being reissued like mad here in the states yet, and I’d never read any of his work up to that point. So there was no starstruck response from me… I had no idea. I wish I had – it was just a year or two later that he died, and only after that that I discovered The Cellar.