HELLNOTES: What can you tell us about your upcoming novel The Wilderness Within? What was your inspiration for this novel about a sentient forest where reality is slippery, to say the least, and what was your process like in writing it?
JOHN CLAUDE SMITH: Thank you for having me.
As with much of my fiction, the inspiration comes from a few diverse elements that gel as one idea, one theme, and I run with it; there are layers within the context, but they all point toward a means to an end with the central idea. I had an image (that I cannot say here, as it’s a key surprise moment in the novel), and knew I wanted to build a story that incorporated the image. The path the story took thereafter was left to the characters, and often to lifelong obsessions and current interests in my life. For example, conversations between writer Derek Gray and musician Alethea veer down philosophical avenues, as infused with the creation of music in an environment that might seem at odds with that process, the environment being nature. I am forever fascinated by both subjects. To go along with these, I have a keen interest in all facets of “reality,” and how we all perceive things in different ways, no matter how in-sync we might feel with others. And in nature, in the forest, reality is mutable, shaped by the forest’s inherent curiosity, in a way—at least within the novel, of course. (There’s points made where it’s firmly established that nature is not evil, it simply is, without provocation toward good or evil.) Add to this human connections, also on many levels, and you’ve got the foundation for much exploration.
HN: You also have a long-running website called “The Wilderness Within,” where readers can catch up on your news and blog postings. Which came first, the blog name or the idea for the novel? What is it about this phrase or image that captures your attention?
JCS: The original version of the novel was completed in 2009. Yes, 8 years ago! But over time, it’s gone through edits and tweaks and such, and even undertook a stronger layout last year, before I sent it to Trepidatio/JournalStone. (No, it did not take that long for me to finally submit the novel, I had over the years since it was completed.) My blog started up a year or two later, at some point before my first collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me, was published, as a means of both promoting my work, while also talking about other aspects of dark creativity, including music, art and, of course, other writers and books.
In the novel, the phrase is stated once as such: “I thought, with what he had claimed to have done (confessed), there would never be any way he could leave his own mental prison, the wilderness within.” This is the potential negative side, which was necessary for the novel, but I like to think of it in broader terms. The wilderness within means to tap into the imagination with no inhibitions, no restrictions, nothing to hold back the possibilities. Also, the gist of something atavistic, of something primal, can also be incorporated into the phrase, especially when dealing with a sentient forest…There are many conceivable meanings, all of which are valid, depending on my mood…or yours.
HN: Having written short stories, chapbooks, and novels, what do you find the difference to be between these different forms (other than the length)? When you have an idea, does it come to you proclaiming “I am a short story!” or does it require more working out? Have you ever been surprised by an idea turning out to be shorter or longer than you’d originally thought?
JCS: The difference is scope, along with the potentialities of the initial idea. Short stories come in many forms, but in a large percentage of them, the idea and/or an image is clear, the path is laid out, and it’s up to me to get from point A to point Z, without many frills. Now, though, as I (hope I) have advanced as a writer, many of the short tales bring more depth, a stronger concentration of complexities, which means I find them lengthening into novelettes or, as with the latest WIP, a novella…at the very least, though it started with an idea worthy of a novelette, but the point is made concrete: my tendency is to go longer if at all possible, yet with a leaner, perhaps more refined quality to the prose.
The latest WIP is one that’s surprised me because it was born with a single image, but I knew it would take a lot of story to get to that image, give it real potency—not the image itself, which is the single weirdest image I’ve ever attempted to put down in words, but the thrust of the tale. Right now, it’s a novella, no matter what, and veering toward being a short novel, primarily because the ideas keep birthing more elements to add to the mix. I find myself more apt to want to explore more than the obvious (this is my writing modus operandi), so layers happen. I like layers. ?
HN: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in writing The Wilderness Within, be it a specific character, scene, or piece of research? On the other hand, what part was your favorite to write? Were there places that you already had enough background or understanding that they just came (comparatively) easy?
JCS: The opening of the second section was both the biggest challenge and my favorite part to write…along with the rest of the second section, the telepathic crossing of minds and unique perspectives and unrestrained rat-a-tat-tat rock ‘n’ roll riffing of the rhythmic drive, even dashing off lyrics on the fly. The purposeful stream-of-consciousness opening section required two things: deep research on the components involved (again, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s hopefully obvious when you read it), and the structure itself, every word meticulously plucked out, set in line, yet with the intent of making it all seem so free-flowing. That was real work. I wrote it out stream-of-consciousness, but then had to whittle and sharpen everything for clarity.
I used to write music journalism, specializing in industrial, metal, gothic, experimental, and all the fringe genres, as well as have played guitar, so I have a feel for music and working some of those elements into the text, not only as noted above, but in earlier chapters, in conversations between two of our main characters, Derek Gray and Alethea, I feel I have a grasp of how to convey the diverse properties of sound and music, so I felt pretty good about how they turned out
HN: Do you have a favorite line or passage from The Wilderness Within that you feel either captures its tone or will pique readers’ curiosity to the point where they can’t help clicking here to pre-order it?
JCS: This one’s too hard for me to answer. I want to say, read the whole thing. I want to say, leap into the second section and hold on for dear life. I want to say, wait until you get to the finale! But I will step away and note the first review for the novel, courtesy of Char’s Horror Corner, pointed out something she found appealing, so I’ll put it here. She wrote: “My favorite parts happened in the forest—the first time Derek and Frank take a walk in the woods together is truly creepy. “I sensed in my mind, something picking through my thoughts, as if my skull had been opened up and something was looking for whatever special thoughts, memories and imagination that it fed on, and was diligently feeding: beetles picking the carcass clean.””
HN: Where do you see your influences – not just for this book, but in general? Who are some of your literary forebears? Beyond that, however, who (or what) are your influences/preoccupations/etc. from the larger world?
JCS: My major influence writer-wise is J.G. Ballard, which I know might surprise people, because I don’t write in any way that would seem to relate to his writing, but that’s because that’s not why I say he’s the major influence. It’s a matter of perspective, and how one looks at the world. If you were to get ten writers in a room and point out a story idea, 8 would approach it from a similar angle. One might veer a little bit more from that. Ballard would spin the story idea on its head, approaching it in such a way I am always astonished by where it ends up. I used to try to do this, and now it’s a natural part of my writing toolbox. Give me an idea, I might start in a familiar place (but usually don’t), but I’m inevitably bound to deviate down unexpected avenues. The Wilderness Within does this perhaps three times. If you think you know where it’s going, let me pull the chair out from beneath you. Other writers who have had a huge impact on me would include Clive Barker (a more obvious influence, for sure), Kathe Koja, with her early horror novels, Charlee Jacob, and Joe R. Lansdale. I could go on.
In the larger world (besides being ever-observant of the world around me), music is big for me and often enters into my stories. Art as well. But in each case, it’s from an outsider perspective, but with a nose toward keeping it all within a place where the average person can connect with whatever I’m trying to do with words, if that makes sense. The outsider mindset can be on full display during the experimental beginning of the second section and every phase of that section as it plays out. But I hope the reader will be willing to strap in and go for the ride, trusting me to get them through it all in one piece. Maybe changed, not the same as before they started the ride, but still in one piece.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? Not just what’s coming out next, but also what ideas are you playing with that maybe haven’t been worked out yet – give us something concrete and something abstract to anticipate.
JCS: I have a few tales slated for upcoming appearances in anthologies, and have worked up a new collection, so we’ll see where that leads. The current WIP is the tale mentioned above, tentatively called, The Great God Pollock, though I expect that will probably end up being a chapter or section title. It deals with language/communication, art, three characters, two of which would be considered as “other,” and much more. I have another novel, Rusted Chainsaw Symphonies (“A gender-bending tale of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll…and CICADAS!”), that’s about 90% completed. I’d like both of these long pieces to be finished by the end of the year, so I have a lot of work to do. Short stories will happen while writing these two tales as a break, or just because they insist on barging in to disrupt the flow…
John Claude Smith has had two collections (The Dark is Light Enough for Me & Autumn in the Abyss), three limited edition chapbooks (Dandelions, Vox Terrae, The Anti-Everything), and one regular chapbook (The Wrath of Concrete and Steel) published. His debut novel, Riding the Centipede, was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The Wilderness Within is his second novel. “The forest is alive…”
Expect the unexpected.
He splits his time between the East Bay of northern California, across from San Francisco, and Rome, Italy, where his heart resides always.
The Wilderness Within JournalStone link: http://journalstone.com/bookstore/the-wilderness-within/
The Wilderness Within Amazon link: https://smile.amazon.com/Wilderness-Within-John-Claude-Smith/dp/1945373938/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Goodreads Author page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2929888.John_Claude_Smith
Also, since I mention Char’s Horror Corner in the interview, you might want to hyperlink the website. Either way, here’s the link if you want to add it above or here. http://charlene.booklikes.com/post/1602677/the-wilderness-within-by-john-claude-smith