Interview conducted by Gordon White
Hellnotes is pleased to be John F.D. Taff‘s final stop on his blog tour for The End in All Beginnings (Grey Matter Press), a new collection of five novellas that is drawing rave reviews. John was kind enough to answer our many questions on the peculiarities of the novella form, his literary influences, and even his great and terrible pop culture tastes. Hellnotes is also giving away a copy of The End in All Beginnings below, so don’t forget to enter between now and November 20th!
Hellnotes: First off, you very recently got married. Congratulations! That’s not a question, but still, that’s very exciting. Maybe even more so than a new book.
John F.D. Taff: Thanks for having me here, and thanks for the kind words. Never thought I’d do the marriage thing again. Once was, believe me, waaayyyy more than enough. But along came Deb, and…well…she’s awesome. I thought I’d better tie her up (not literally) for the rest of her life before someone else did.
HL: Your newest book, The End in All Beginnings, is a collection of 5 novellas, but you’ve also written dozens of short stories and have more than a few novels in print. What is it that attracted you to the novella form for this collection? What do you prefer about the other forms?
JFDT: Well, it wasn’t exactly an attraction, it was more kismet than anything else. When I sit down to write a story, the story itself tends to dictate what form and length it will have. It seems to require little or no conscious thought on my part, so I go with the flow. That said, I’ve written pieces that just sort of spilled over from short stories into novellas no matter how much I remind myself that longer pieces are harder to sell.
So, over the last 25 years (urgh), I’ve acquired a handful of these novellas, and there’s been literally almost nothing to do with them. Too long to sell to short story markets and too short to stand alone. But all of a sudden, everyone’s wanting novellas. After meeting the indomitable R.J. Cavender at the World Horror Con in New Orleans back in ’13, we decided a novella thing was a good idea, and violà, here we are.
Novellas are fun because they still impose most of the strictures on an author—brevity, word economy, a certain tightness of focus—that a short story does. But they give you just a little more elbow room to highlight important things, to deepen characters, to give a reader just a little more. I actually really like the novella format, but my first love is the short story. Done well, it’s so much more satisfying and, I think, has more impact than a novel. Novels tend to sprawl (as the one I’m working on now is doing), and though the form has its own charms and strengths, I will always come back to the short story. And now, I guess, the novella.
HL: What was some of the process behind writing The End in All Beginnings? Did you write these novellas with this collection in mind, or have they been growing for a while?
JFDT: No, oh no, you give me way too much credit for advance planning. The stories contained in The End in All Beginnings were written over a 25-year period. The oldest, “Object Permanence,” was written at the very beginning of my writing career and has languished ever since. The newest, “What Becomes God,” was literally finished after R.J. had asked to read all the novellas I had. I hurriedly finished the story, which I had started years earlier, just because I thought I’d better get him another one.
What amazes me, now seeing the book in print and in the order that Tony Rivera, the publisher at the amazing Grey Matter Press, put the stories in, is how connected they really all are. There is a definite flow to them, and I don’t think it’s just some kind of thrashing around on our part to “connect” them in some way. As fate would have it, they are all very much related. I think that’s a testament to the fact that I’ve been wrestling with the same themes in my writing for years.
HL: Flow is such a crucial part of any collection. How did you determine the order of the stories within The End in All Beginnings? What curated reading experience are guiding your readers through?
JFDT: I would love to take credit for this, but Tony at Grey Matter Press really gets the kudos. Originally, we’d sent Grey Matter just four of the stories, withholding “Visitation” because neither R.J. nor I thought it fit into the mix. Tony, far smarter than either of us, saw that “Visitation” was the perfect way to end the collection. He saw the stories as a sort of “Age of Man” motif, with “What Becomes God” representing childhood, progressing through “Object Permanence,” “Love in the Time of Zombies,” and “The Long, Long Breakdown,” all the way to “Visitation.”
What are we trying to do? Again, we didn’t have to really try too hard to do anything. I think the stories walk readers through the various stages of life, love and loss. But what I think it all boils down to, after having thought about it now for a while, is the difference between holding on and letting go, and when in life it’s best to do one or the other.
HL: Everyone has their influences, some closer to the surface than others, but this new book has drawn comparisons to authors from Ramsey Campbell to Philip K. Dick. When you read your own writing, which of your influences do you think is most readily apparent? Conversely, which do you think is the best hidden?
JFDT: I’ve certainly had some flattering comparison made about my work recently—Bradbury, Serling, King, Dick, Campbell. All of them huge writers, and all of them certainly influences on me, particularly Serling’s Twilight Zone.
Personally, I’d like to think that my writing is a little Poe-like, I guess, though perhaps I’m flattering myself. I mean, I strive for an almost poetic feeling to my writing, really laboring over not just word choice in terms of meaning, but also in terms of how it sounds in the line, its meter and rhythm. That’s hugely important to me, and I believe gives my writing a voice that sets it apart.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I am an uber-fan of Peter Straub, and I’d like to think my reading of his work informs my writing at least on some level. For stories like “Visitation,” which has a sci-fi veneer to it, I’m influenced by writers like Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. Also I enjoy the use of what some might call archaic words, if they have the correct meaning and sound, and I’m not afraid to use them. Not to sound all high falutin’ or anything, but, again, to use a word that has a more precise or visual meaning that I’m looking for. And for that, you can blame my love of Stephen R. Donaldson.
I don’t know that I have any real hidden influences, though some of my work has a dark comedic edge, say “Love in the Time of Zombies.” I’m a great fan of snarky travel writer Bill Bryson, so perhaps that seeps in.
HL: As someone who has been steadily producing quality dark fiction for years, what advice would you give to new writers who read your work and think, “I’d like to do that”?
JFDT: Then fucking do it. That’s it. There are no tricks or secrets or backdoors or magic incantations that are going to help. Plant your butt and write. Nothing else works. And be persistent. Perhaps you won’t be the overnight success like King. Perhaps you won’t have the notoriety of Barker. But persistence pays off ultimately and it’s because most people don’t have it.
And read. Read within the genre, sure, but read mostly outside of it so that you can bring different strengths to your writing. How can you be a writer if you’re not a reader?
HL: You’ve developed a deep body of work, but do you have any particular unfinished piece that you love the idea of, or keep returning to, but that you just haven’t been able to finish?
JFDT: I have about 15 short stories that are in some form of being done, a few novels that I think about from time to time, some of them quite fully realized. At the moment, I’m consumed with the novel I’m working on, The Fearing, which has become a sprawling, epic kind of novel. But I always return to the shorts to see if there’s anything calling out to be written. I have a partially finished science fiction novel that bugs me from time to time, and a two-thirds complete series of fantasy novels that I’d like to see in print, and then write the third volume to finish off. I’m considering dipping my toe into the Kickstarter pool sometime next year to see if that might make an interesting project.
HL: Finally, what are you working on now? Meaning both what are you actually writing and what’s floating around the periphery of your mind, waiting to take shape? (We won’t hold you to it, we promise).
JFDT: Oh, that damned novel The Fearing. It’s huge, apocalyptic and features a large cast of characters. It’s eating me alive…but in a good way. I have a novella that continues to resurface, and a few invitations to certain projects that I will have to deal with soon. And I’ve got to rebuild my stable of short stories, because currently I have only about three left to sell. Can’t write them fast enough, it seems. But lots of cool stuff, with an announcement of a new, standalone novella coming from Grey Matter Press very soon.
As an end-of-tour bonus, John also agreed to answer some questions from the “Trick or Treat Bowl” (like a grab bag, but better). Our special thanks to him!
HL: What book is sitting on the top of your To Be Read pile? It doesn’t have to be the one you’ll actually read next, but just physically on top.
JFDT: Right now, the book on my nightstand is Dr. Sleep by King. Sorry, I have just not been able to get into it, despite being very excited about it when announced. Stalled about 3/4s of the way through, and can’t move. I also just bought a nice, cheap hardcover boxed set of Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy, which I am eager to begin.
HL: You have been referred to as the “King of Pain.” Assuming that this is *not* a reference to the Police song of the same name, what is your favorite Police song?
JFDT: Sigh. It’s a little embarrassing, but also kind of cool. I am a huge fan of The Police, as I’m an ’80s kind of guy, at least in my music tastes. So, I’m flattered that Grey Matter promotes me with this moniker…and I think it kinda fits with my work. That said, my favorite Police song…wow…as I said, they’re one of my favorites. I’d guess I’d have to say “Every Breath You Take.” It’s an awesome obsessive love song/paean to stalkers.
HL: What’s the last book/movie/album/show that you loved but every one else seemed to hate? No judgment.
JFDT: No judgment, huh? Sure, you say that now. I don’t know about the “last” of any of these, but I’ll walk you through my Hall of Questionable Taste. I love, LOVE (and am continually harassed about) The Alan Parsons Project. I have no defense. Movies? I’m a pretty hardcore nerd, so I’m all about the Marvel movies. I didn’t like Scott’s Prometheus at first, but after a few viewings, it’s grown on me. I’m interested to see what he’ll do with it next. I watch almost zero TV, so that’s a pass. Books? Can’t think of anything I liked that no one else did. More on the order of hated books others loved. I, for one, wish The Hunger Games would go away. Permanently. (Incidentally, I must be the only living soul on the planet that wishes the entire YA thing would die a quick, convulsive death. Ugh.)
HL: If you could collaborate with any author from the past – but he or she was a zombie – who would it be and what do you foresee the biggest stumbling block being?
JFDT: Oh, Poe. Yeah. I think we’d have the same funky, poetic (pun intended) word sensibility and dark, gloomy outlook. The biggest stumbling block, other than the leaking fluids and stench? He’d probably attract ravens—murders and murders of ravens. What with their pecking and “Nevermores!,” it’d be hard to concentrate and write. But I’d be willing to give it a try.
John. F.D. Taff has been writing dark speculative fiction for 25 years. He has more than 75 stories in publications that include Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Big Pulp, One Buck Horror, Horror Library V, Horror for Good, The Hot Blood Series, Shock Rock II, and two Grey Matter Press anthologies—the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror – Volume One and Ominous Realities: The Anthology of Dark Speculative Horrors. He’ll also be appearing in the upcoming Grey Matter Press anthology Death’s Realm. Six of his short stories have been selected as honorable mentions in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror volumes in the past. His collection of short stories, Little Deaths, was named the “No. 1 Horror Collection of 2012” by HorrorTalk. His historical ghost novel, The Bell Witch, was released in April 2013, and the thriller novel Kill/Off was released in December 2013. The End in All Beginnings, a collection of five novellas of emotional horror, was published by Grey Matter Press in September this year to spectacular reviews. You can learn more about John from his blog at johnfdtaff.com or follow him on Twitter @johnfdtaff.
Twitter: @johnfdtaff, http://www.twitter.com/johnfdtaff
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/John-F.D.-Taff/e/B005C6BZMY/
Enter the Hellnotes Giveaway to Win THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS by John F.D. Taff!
Hellnotes is giving away one paperback copy of John F.D. Taff’s latest collection of emotional horrors, THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS, published by Grey Matter Press. One winner will be selected at random after the close of the sweepstakes (12:01 AM CST on November 21, 2014) and will be announced here at Hellnotes. Register through November 20th to win a copy of the volume that horror icon Jack Ketchum calls “one of the best novella collections I’ve read in years,” John F.D. Taff’s THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS.