Jason Bovberg is an editor/journalist/occasional publisher (his Dark Highway Press is currently on hiatus). Blood Red, his second novel, is set to hit the shelves later this month, and it’s a hell of a ride. I was happy to have the opportunity to chat with Jason about the book, the zombie genre, and the craft of writing, among other things. But that’s more than enough preamble. Here’s the interview.
(interview conducted by Josh Black)
Hellnotes: Hi Jason. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today!
Jason Bovberg: Totally my pleasure! I’m honored to be here.
HN: I’d like to start this off with some background information. Just general stuff, for those as yet unacquainted with you and your work. Is there anything you’d like to share?
JB: Well, let’s see. I live with my mountain-climber wife in northern Colorado. I’m a father of two feisty girls (perhaps an inspiration for Blood Red?). I have a rabid poodle named Cujo. By day, I’m an editor/journalist for a computer magazine, and by night I write horror stories.
I’ve been writing in the horror genre for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I wanted to write for The Twilight Zone, even though the show hadn’t been produced in over 20 years. So that was out. Then I decided I wanted to write for Twilight Zone Magazine. I tried. Failed. Then I just started throwing stories anywhere they might stick. They stuck in a few places, but nothing amazing. The life of a short story writer can be disheartening.
It took me until my thirties to make a real attempt at a novel, and it was outside the horror genre. I was going through a long pulp-noir phase around the time Hard Case Crime came on the scene, and I wrote a novel specifically for that line. It was called The Naked Dame (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004UVQS7O?ie=UTF8&tag=loud-writers-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B004UVQS7O). I tried to sell that to HCC publisher Charles Ardai, and although he passed on it, he sent me an incredibly encouraging rejection letter. Unfortunately, no one else was buying that kind of novel, so I ended up self-publishing it.
The big thing about The Naked Dame—beside the fact that it’s a damn cool little piece of throwback noir, if I do say so myself—is that it got me beyond short stories and into novel-length fiction. It was as if I had to break that barrier to feel comfortable at the longer word length. After that, it just felt right to return to my roots, dive back into horror, and write a kick-ass apocalyptic-horror novel. And actually, a little-known fact about Blood Red is that it started as a short story I wrote 15 years ago.
HN: Has writing always been a big thing in your life?
JB: Yeah, I got that from my dear ol’ dad. He was a US History teacher with a passion for the written word. I’ve always felt that he used his gift with words as a force for good, and I—well, you know. But writing … effective, succinct, grammatically sound writing … was always an important part of my childhood. One of my biggest regrets is that my dad didn’t live long enough to see the publication of Blood Red (which he was already championing to anyone who would listen), but at least I could dedicate it to him.
HN: You’re a journalist as well as a fiction writer. Are there any skills or techniques from one trade that you find to be useful for the other?
JB: That’s an interesting question. I’m used to being asked about being a writer who has a long work history as an editor. That’s how I started out at my day job: as a copy editor. At first, that was difficult. Beyond the fact that I would sometimes be on the computer ALL DAY, there was the double-whammy of working with words for all that time. But the key distinction is that whereas editing is a deconstructive endeavor, creative writing—at least in that first pure rush—is a constructive process. The editing capability helps me out later. Sometimes that editor side of my brain can hold me back from simply bleeding words onto the page, but that’s the only way I know.
As for the journalism, I think it’s actually my creative-writing instincts that have affected my day-job nonfiction—and that’s a good thing, bringing personality to some otherwise dry material. I don’t see as much evidence that the journalism is affecting my fiction, except for a need I always feel to be succinct … but that really started with my dad.
HN: You’ve said that Permuted Press was your first choice for Blood Red. Did you shop the manuscript around at all? It’s a rare feat, having contracts for two books right away like that, particularly with such a distinguished publisher.
JB: Interestingly, although I had Permuted Press in mind while writing Blood Red (http://www.jasonbovberg.com/blood-red/permuted-press-buys-blood-red-and-in-progress-sequel), it wasn’t the first place I went with the book. One reason was that Permuted’s submission portal was closed when I was putting the finishing touches on the book. And another reason—I won’t lie to you—was that I wanted to aim for the stratosphere first. I wanted to see my book as a hardcover from Random House. Why not? So, sure, I shopped it around to about thirty agents, and although several showed interest, they eventually passed, the book lost momentum, and I grew weary of researching horror-friendly agents. I was on the verge of self-publishing my weird tale.
Right about that time, (former) Permuted Press editor/publisher Jacob Kier opened up a brand-new submission portal at Permuted, and he sent out a note asking for testers. It seemed like kismet. I had a manuscript, perfectly edited and formatted, just sitting on my computer’s hard disk, and so I just dropped it into the portal. And you know what? At that moment, I felt a confidence that I’ve rarely felt as a writer. The book was obviously a good fit: In my mind, Blood Red was a unique addition to the apocalyptic-horror genre in its methods, its structure, and its particulars, and I also knew that Permuted was looking for “something new” beyond the typical zombie tropes. So, I felt strangely confident I’d get a call. And I did!
At the time of the acceptance, I was already at work on a sequel, and I was writing about my plans for it on my blog. Remember, at the time, I was ready to self-publish Blood Red, and I was also thinking about publishing the sequel one chapter at a time on the site, in the form of fictional blog entries from the point of view of a different character. (I won’t tell you which character, because that would spoil a big surprise!) Jacob, having read these plans, said, “I want the sequel, but forget about the blog format, mmmkay?” or something to that effect. And I eagerly acquiesced. I was over the moon not only to have a finished book accepted but also its hardly-begun sequel. Truly one of the great moments of my writing life. I have Jacob Kier to thank for that, and yet I never really had the opportunity to do so because he sold the company not long after our deal.
HN: What personally draws you to the horror genre?
JB: There’s a great Ramsey Campbell quote that has resonated with me for a few years: “An old saw states that horror and pornography are the only kinds of fiction that seek to produce a physical reaction. Presumably whoever originated this twaddle was never made to laugh or weep by fiction. I think there’s nothing at all wrong with art that causes us to feel, but I maintain that horror fiction can address the intellect, as well. I don’t want to scare people out of their wits; I’d rather scare them in.”
You’ve read Blood Red, so you know I love the edgy outrageousness that can characterize balls-out horror fiction. I strive for the rollercoaster thrill. There’s a gorgeous catharsis to be had with a piece of fiction that can actually induce a nightmare state. It doesn’t happen often, that adrenaline rush. But when it does, I will set the book down at the end of a truly horrific scene, stand up, and applaud. I’ll giggle like a school girl. But perhaps more important is that aforementioned beating heart: There’s something elemental and redemptive about a well-rounded, intelligent, flawed character weathering the storm of a chilling horror tale and coming out changed on the other side. That’s what it’s all about.
HN: You’ve written on your blog about the oversaturation of the zombie genre and the proliferation of books that are merely parody or paint-by-number approaches. With Blood Red, you’ve tossed aside or twisted a lot of conventions to change something rotting into something fresh (sorry, couldn’t resist). I know this was a conscious decision, and I’m wondering how the writing process worked in this regard. I’m assuming you didn’t just take particular genre staples and think of good replacements for them. Almost everything about your “zombies” and their potential mythos feels altogether alien, at least as far as this genre goes.
JB: In “The Sameness at the End of the World” (http://www.jasonbovberg.com/blood-red/the-sameness-at-the-end-of-the-world), I lamented what I was seeing every time I visited my local Barnes & Noble. For a long time, right in the middle of the center aisle, there was a table full of zombie books, and all of them—I mean all of them—were silly. Romance mashups and satires and goofy picture books and humor knockoffs. And admittedly, some of those are fun and high-quality (I’m thinking of Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide), but they all said one thing to me: The genre is fast on its way to becoming a joke. Frankly, most of the zombie fiction I was seeing on those shelves was just as silly in its own way.
So my sole motivating objective with Blood Red was nothing short of redefining the genre! (To the best of my modest abilities, anyway.) I wanted to bring mystery back to the proceedings—the sheer “What the hell is going on?” hysteria in the wake of an apocalyptic event. I wanted to do something different from the usual Romero-inspired rotting-flesh shuffler, or even the zombie sprinter. In general, I wanted to amp up everything and try to turn expected genre archetypes on their heads and transform them into unexpected twists. (You might even consider the antagonists of Blood Red, and the way they move, to be a metaphor of this very idea.) I wanted to write something unexpected. In the end, it’s like they always say: “Write the book you want to read.” That’s what I did.
And most important was to give the story a beating heart. It needed to have a very human, redemptive story at its center. All the genre redefining in the world wouldn’t mean squat without that.
HN: I agree with that sentiment. The sheer mystery of it was probably what drew me in the most. The redemptive, character-driven aspect of the story makes it that much more suspenseful (and terrifying, when things get crazy). Rachel is certainly put through the wringer, both physically and emotionally.
JB: I have a teenaged daughter who sometimes gives me all I can handle, and I often think Blood Red is my way of dealing with her teen angst. I mean, whatever she’s going through, and whatever she’s dishing out to me as her dad, it can’t possibly be as bad as the end of the world. Right? Please?
HN: There’s obviously a lot of death in the novel, and clearly you’re not afraid to kill off main characters. Were there any scenes that were hard to write because of this, or are you the kind of author that finds this kind of thing fun? I’m picturing you sitting at a keyboard now, maniacal laughter and all.
JB: I do like to envision myself as a cruel, maniacal god at the keyboard, a crazy trickster word-deity who sometimes has a heart. Yes, I write those death scenes with a certain amount of dark glee. I like pulling the rug out from a character or a situation, and then determining where to go from there. As I said, I value the unexpected. Sometimes, even though I’m following a general outline, that cruel god inside me will decide that the fist of doom needs to come down on the head of a certain character, and I have no choice but to write that scene and then re-route the outline. Come to think of it, if there is an actual god looking over us, that’s the kind of god I’d imagine him or her to be.
HN: I want to go back to the originality thing for a moment. The “zombies” in particular were brilliantly described. I felt a strong Silent Hill vibe at times, some Japanese horror films as well. That’s not to say that they’re derivative, because as a whole they’re quite unlike anything I can recall. They’re as much animal or insect as they are dead person. Was there anything in particular that inspired you, as far as the anatomy of the things?
JB: Thanks for that! I don’t want to give too much of the mystery away, because I think the fun of Blood Red—and even Draw Blood, the just-finished sequel—is seeing what those things become. Suffice it to say, there were myriad influences, but overall, I just wanted to go weird. I wanted readers to exclaim, “What in the everlovin’ FUCK?” I thought about the archetypal “zombie” and told myself that I wanted to go as far as possible away from that image. I also wanted to work against the whole “bite-leads-to-infection” staple and introduce something completely new. I want readers to start this story and think they know where it’s headed but eventually find themselves completely unmoored from the usual genre conventions. I tried to do that in the cause of the event, the form of the “zombie,” the particulars of the “infection,” and even the structure and pace of the story. I hope it’s successful.
HN: Blood Red stands on its own as a novel, but it’s also a bit of a teaser. Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from the rest of the series?
JB: The ending of Blood Red is very special to me, and I’m curious to see how readers respond to it. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but my intention was to conclude my apocalyptic tale on a twist, and—more important—a big emotional note, while setting up the sequel. It was something of a juggling act, trying to give the reader a satisfying punch of a conclusion while exploring a tone and structure in the denouement that you don’t see very often. I’m proud of the ending, but I would also understand if some readers have a different reaction. As with almost everything in Blood Red, I wanted to provide the unexpected.
I just finished Draw Blood, the second part of this projected Blood trilogy, and the most interesting part for me is that I’ve told the story from the perspective of a different character. It would be a spoiler to say which one, so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that doing so broadened the story’s universe in an interesting way. The inspiration for this approach came from what I gather was the original intention of the apocalyptic film Cloverfield, to have sequels that told the story of the same invasion from different viewpoints throughout the city. Different handheld cameras, different characters, different point of view. That’s not to say Draw Blood tells the exact same story of Blood Red—no, it’s an altogether new story, with mostly the same cast—but the different perspective gives me an opportunity to have new flashbacks that show what happened at the moment the world changed.
Book three, which I’ve begun, is told from the perspective of a third character, a character essential to the climax of Draw Blood. And it’s from this character that we’ll gain an all-new understanding of the apocalyptic riddle these characters have found themselves facing. I can’t wait.
HN: Thanks again, Jason. It’s been great talking with you. Maybe we can do it again for Draw Blood.
JB: Thanks for the opportunity!
Jason (and the links to his social media profiles) can be found online at his website: www.jasonbovberg.com