I first became aware of the name Jack Ketchum whilst reading On Writing Horror, a collection of essays and articles by everyone who’s anyone in the horror genre. (Previous interviewees Joe Lansdale, Jeanne Cavelos, Ramsey Campbell, and Richard Dansky also have essays in this book.) Jack’s essay, “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror” was one of those that opened my eyes to what good horror fiction is. It’s not just splattering viscera; it’s making the reader care whether a character’s viscera is about to be splattered.
If there is any writing advice that I have completely embraced, it is this quote from film director Akira Kurosawa: “The role of the artist is to not look away.”
This applies to all writing. If you’re going to be a fiction writer, you have to go into that place you find yourself most resisting. This is especially true of horror fiction. It doesn’t necessarily mean putting the darkest splatter directly in the camera lens; it means having the guts to look the blackness square in the face, and forcing the reader to go along with you.
When I got around to reading Jack Ketchum’s novel, The Girl Next Door, I finished it in a single day, and that’s a rare occurrence for me. This book snatched me up and made me look in a way that no book ever had.
I had the good fortune to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and one of the guest lecturers was none other than Jack Ketchum. He said one other thing that I also completely embraced:
“In your writing, examine love always, and binding.”
I’ll leave it to you to chew on that, but don’t crunch the bones.
TH: You’re perhaps best known for being a writer who pulls no punches, both among fans and among other horror writers. Speaking personally, I can count on two or three fingers the horror novels that were like a kick in the gut (and I’ve read a bunch), and The Girl Next Door ranks among those. You had a fairly long run in the publishing industry. Can you give a brief arc of your career as a novelist?
JK: My first novel, OFF SEASON, was published in 1981. Ballantine felt they had something sensational on their hands and took the almost unprecedented step of printing, binding and cover-designing a special edition just for their distributors, creating point-of-purchase displays and banners for a planned first edition of 400,000 copies — all of which went down the toilet when the distributors hated the book almost to a man for its extreme violence. Though the book pretty much sold out by word of mouth alone they really wanted no part of me after that and their second book, HIDE AND SEEK, went out in an edition one-tenth that size. I switched from them to Warner Books and then to Berkley and still couldn’t get out of 40,000-copy hell until Stephen King lent his name and blurb to JOYRIDE aka ROAD KILL (British title) and wrote the introduction to the first hardcover limited edition of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. That was when people really seemed to start noticing me on a wider scale even though Steve told me that horror writers and genre readers had been noticing me ever since the first book — that OFF SEASON and the subsequent novels had been pretty influential. From there on it’s been a slow but steady rise in sales in the small press, then with Leisure in mass-market paperback, and in Europe and Japan. As of this year every one of my major titles will be in print in some form here in the U.S. — with the single exception of THE CROSSINGS, which I hope soon to remedy. This from a guy who couldn’t keep his first half-dozen novels on the shelves for more than three months at a time. I’m pretty pleased.
TH: You quote Akira Kurosawa in your essay in the book On Writing Horror, “The role of the artist is to not look away.” Your novels explore some of the darkest corners of the human existence, so they tend to generate a certain amount of controversy. How do you handle that controversy?
JK: A certain amount of controversy is good — not just in terms of sales but in knowing you’ve stirred the pot, shaken something up, given somebody a dose of hard reality as you see it. I could do without the occasional death-threat. Those I just try to ignore.
TH: You have had death threats? Is it more common among writers who work in horror to have pen names, perhaps because of this?
JK: Most horror writers don’t use pen names. Edward Lee and I are the only ones I know of. Evan Hunter used Ed McBain but I doubt it had anything to do with death threats, and I picked my own before I knew of any hostility out there. And I know the same is true of Lee. Screw death-threats. Somebody shoots me, my books sell better. I win.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JK: Wow, really early on. I was making up stories with my toy soldiers and cowboys and knights and dinosaurs when I was just a little kid. Then I started writing poems and short stories when I was probably about ten or eleven. My mom was my first — and at that point, only — reader. Later I graduated to teachers and teenage girls and a piece in the local paper. By then I was permanently hooked.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
JK: I have a handful of one-act plays, essays and stories that I’ve held on to for some reason. And a longish children’s book called THE SANDCASTLE which got me my first agent and which I still may want to try to publish one day. The only novel I wrote before OFF SEASON was a long autobiographical thing I don’t even recall the name of, which I wrote just after college — I wanted to be Henry Miller but I wasn’t. I was me, but I didn’t know that yet. It deeply sucked. But I must have reworked the damn thing a dozen times. Finally all copies went into the fireplace at my parents’ house. I felt free as a bird.
TH: I review submissions and critique stories for a couple of online venues, and one of the biggest problems I see with inexperienced writers is a lack of understanding of basic drama. Stories have to be dramatic (or at least show an immediate conflict), and I have read dozens that just aren’t. Did you find that your background in theater arts gave you an immediate leg up when you started writing fiction and plays? Or was there an epiphany of some sort later on where everything came together? If so, what was the immediate benefit of theater training in making the jump?
JK: Everything you do in the arts feeds into everything else. You sing a song, you tell a story, there’s an arc to the character. You paint, you get a sense of figure and ground, nuance and shading. So that yes, doing theatre helped. Especially in the writing of dialogue. I’d been in plays by Pinter and Brecht and Peter Wiess and utter dogs by other writers. So I learned the difference between good drama and bad, between a voice that sings and one that just sits there.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact, and you’ve certainly made a name for yourself over the years with a reputation for being on the gouging edge of horror fiction, with various awards and recent films appearing based on your work. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
JK: I’d like to write something that ends war, abolishes poverty, saves the planet, puts an end to organized religion and puts all the sociopathic killers, brokers, bankers, oilmen and crooked politicians behind bars. But I guess there’s not much hope of that.
TH: What are some of the things that have most inspired you recently?
JK: I’ve been reading about ancient Egypt and the Old West. I dare you to connect the two…
TH: A lot of genre writers might be hungry to know more about the process by which you built a readership. You’ve mentioned in the past that you learned everything you need to know about marketing whilst working at the Scott Meredith Agency. Presumably you have applied this knowledge toward marketing to fans, as well as publishers. What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore ?
JK: I didn’t learn much about marketing to readers at Scott Meredith, only marketing to publishers and of course, learning to make a solid contract. I knew nothing about self-promotion when I started and it was only after I’d written three or four novels that at some point Edward Lee said to me, “Hey, there’s this thing called horror conventions out there, we should go to one!” Since then I’ve gone to many, meeting the readers, signing books, doing panel discussions or talks about the books or about writing in general. I think it helps a lot when you’ve got some visibility, when a reader in the New York or Boston or Toronto area or wherever can come see a favorite writer face-to-face. The same with readings — I’m actually doing one tonight as a matter of fact. Then, over the past few years I’ve had an official website at http://jackketchum.net which you can visit to get up to date info on what’s going on with me and my stuff. I comes complete with a message board which I visit about once a week to reply to questions and interact with folks — and over the past year or so I’ve had a MySpace page as well. I can get to over 2,000 “friends” instantly with an announcement. All this helps.
TH: Was there a point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt?
JK: “Making it” for me has really only meant being able to earn a living as a full-time writer. As such it was a gradual thing, the money and recognition accruing slowly. But there are probably three milestones. Number one? When I sold my first piece of fiction — to Swank Magazine — back in 1976. That was a hallelujah moment for sure! I actually threw the check in the air! Second would be the sale of my first novel, OFF SEASON. That phone call from Judy-Lynn del Rey at Ballantine books was memorable as hell. I’d submitted the book as an ex-agent, not as the actual writer. “I have to confess, Judy, Jack Ketchum’s really me,” I said. She didn’t blink an eye. “Good,” she said. “We can make the deal that much easer.” Can you see me grinning at that one? Third — and maybe this is really when I knew I’d arrived — was reading Stephen King’s long introduction to the hardcover limited of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. I couldn’t believe he’d said such wonderful things about the book and about my work in general. When I called to thank him I said, “You know, you’ve made my little niche in history. Even if my own books disappear forever, somebody studying you a hundred years from now is going to say, who the hell is this Jack Ketchum guy? I better look him up.”
TH: How important is it for beginning writers to build a network of relationships with other authors, some possibly more established? Have you formed many close relationships with other authors in general?
JK: I’ve formed a number of close relationships with other writers, but only after doing a whole lot of writing. You want the respect of your peers, you’d better have something to offer. You can’t network your way into respect. So for beginning writers, my advice is to forget about other writers. Make yourself into a good one first. The rest is naturally going to follow.
TH: How long did it take from the first novel sale to self-sufficient writing career?
JK: I had a self-sufficient writing career even before the first novel, writing for the men’s mags and the rock ‘n roll magazines and whatnot. I was lucky. I knew a lot of editors. The money was small but I always got by.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
JK: “Branded commodity.” Makes me think of cattle. If you don’t treat professional writing as a business to some degree you’re gonna find yourself constantly broke or near-broke, because money is in fact changing hands for your stuff and you need to keep an eye on it. On the other hand I don’t want people to run out and buy “another Ketchum book” because they’re expecting more of the same. Chances are they won’t get it. I’m all over the place as a writer and hope to continue same. RED, for instance, is a far cry from OFF SEASON. COVER’S a far cry from THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. And none of these would prepare you for THE TRANSFORMED MOUSE or my next book, a small collection of memoir called BOOK OF SOULS. I like to keep surprising myself with something fresh.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JK: Well, as I said, BOOK OF SOULS will be out soon. Leisure’s next release from me, in June, will be a new longish novella called OLD FLAMES, paired with RIGHT TO LIFE — which has never been released in mass-market before. Right now I’m working on a screenplay and the background story for the launch of a graphic novel, neither of which I’m allowed to talk about yet. Such secrecy!
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JK: Probably it was sitting at a table with Peter Straub and Evan Hunter, among others, at the 2003 National Book Awards — in my first tux since leaving high school — and hearing Stephen King say the following….”There’s another writer here tonight who writes under the name of Jack Ketchum and he has also written what may be the best book of his career, a long novella called The Crossings. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it? And yet Jack Ketchum’s first novel, Off Season, published in 1980, set off a furor in my supposed field, that of horror, that was unequaled until the advent of Clive Barker. It is not too much to say that these two gentlemen remade the face of American popular fiction, and yet very few people here will have an idea of who I’m talking about or have read the work.”
There’s only one word for what I felt hearing that. Stunned. It’s always good to know you’re appreciated, especially by a colleague you respect wholeheartedly, especially if that colleague is someone who has brought you as many hours of reading pleasure as Stephen King has brought to me. I already knew he liked my stuff. But nothing could have prepared me for that sucker-punch! My girlfriend pointed out to me that my mouth was open. I closed it. Peter turned and smiled and said, “that’s Steve.”