On Reality, Body Horror and the Hustle of the Publishing Game, a Conversation with Jeremy Robert Johnson
* artwork by the talented Erik Wilson *
Last winter, Jeremy Robert Johnson's Entropy in Bloom made an early run at my year-end's best of lists with its throwback approach to storytelling that reminded me of everything that was great about growing up in the nineties and raiding the video store armed with a twenty dollar bill every Friday. I wanted to know more about the book and where it came from, so I contacted Jeremy last month to gauge his interest for a conversation. We had a difficult time making our schedules work (to be honest, I had a hard time with my schedule in May period), but here is the fruit of out efforts!
I strongly encourage you guys to pick up Entropy in Bloom here or from your local bookstore. There are copies in Montreal, so there should be some everywhere. It's one of the best books you'll read in 2017. And don't be a dick, leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads afterwards.
Now, without further ado...
Ben: You're widely considered to be a cult author. Serious readers know who you are and can name at least one of your books even if they perhaps haven't read you before. What is the biggest misconception about being cult author Jeremy Robert Johnson?
Jeremy: The biggest misconception would be when people think I’m not very slowly and subliminally using fractal text to create a death cult meant to eradicate our human pestilence from the face of the Earth.
Second biggest misconception would be that I am not ticklish. I am very ticklish, especially around the ribs. And once you get me going, giggles for days.
Ben: Is it where you want to be, career-wise? Would you say it's a success? I'm asking because there's a perception that authors who prioritize their creative integrity like you or Joe Lansdale for example are the real success stories.
Jeremy: There are times, especially around 3am in the morning, where I think about my writing career as more than an abstract, and I have regrets—missed opportunities, misspent energy, those kinds of things. But for the most part I don’t look at my writing as a career. It’s just something I choose to do because I often enjoy the process, and it helps me express my existential dread so I don’t internalize it and turn it into ulcers or criminal behavior.
I’m definitely a happier, healthier human when I’m creating. Becoming a dad has had this funny effect where I now feel very motivated and inspired to write, but at the same time being a good father means my opportunities to write are now radically reduced. There’s a tension there, and it helps me appreciate the times when I am engaged in this bizarre, lonely creative activity.
I guess where I always want to be career-wise is in a position where I can look back and say that I wrote what I wanted to write without compromising. And it doesn’t hurt if that work connects with other human beings. That’s great, actually! This genre-jumping choice is a hard row to hoe, though…requires discipline and the ability to not become jealous when you see somebody making bank off boilerplate Romero zombie rip off books. And as a career path it’s frustrating to publishers—my last book was classified as Literary/Horror/Occult/Crime/Fantasy (and then Barnes and Noble stuck it in Sci-Fi next to space operas). Tough to do the old “targeted marketing.” Word of mouth becomes very important.
Ben: Coping with reality is a recurring theme in your latest book Entropy in Bloom, the majority of protagonists cope with difficult realities in their own way, which causes them to disconnect with it: the protagonist of When Sussurus Stirs is embracing his relationship to a parasite, the main character of Persistence Hunting starts breaking and entering into people's house to help him cope with rejection, etc. Where do you think is the point where reality starts collapsing for someone and why is this an important subject to you?
Jeremy: Part of this is just my hacky desire to grab readers and plunge them into the story, which means I often start in media res, right as someone’s world begins to crumble.
Another part of it stems from my constant anxiety about being a natural creature and yet having to observe and respect and engage in the complex veneer of society and culture which humans have created. More than a moment’s thought about the “human” world around us and it all starts to seem so artificial and bizarrely arbitrary. And yet I’m terrified by the idea of a purely animal world.
I think reality starts collapsing for people the moment that they decide their existing reality is insufficient, but they lack the self-awareness or reason or will to change it (so they just act).
Ben: The human body is another recurring theme in the collection. There are body horror stories, sure but it doesn't seem like it's what you're REALLY interested in. Am I wrong? A story like The League of Zeroes is more about corporeal boundaries, where does that fascination with the human body originate?
Jeremy: Well, I live in one of these things, so it’s inherently fascinating/revolting, and I’ve been obsessed with medical science since I can remember. My dad worked in the ER and he used to bring home diseased lungs and brain drills (the hand-crank kind used to relieve cranial pressure, minus the diamond bit) and strange articles from medical journals. And he would tell these hideous stories about accidents people had while changing emphysema drainage buckets, or about someone’s liquefied frontal cortex coming out of their nose. So my interest was stoked from a young age.
Your body can be a gift or a curse at any given second of the day, and whether you perceive yourself as a cognitive virus or a reasoning human intellect in a meat machine, your body is the one true thing about you. The body asserts itself over you, and it’s hard to fight. So it seems crazy to me to not write about that.
Ben: Your work challenges the very notion of genre fiction. There are elements of many genres in it: speculative fiction, sci-fi, horror but the end result is always 100% original. What is your opinion of genre fiction? Horror movies, detective novels, action-adventure stuff, is it inspiration for you? Are you bored with it?
Jeremy: I can’t remember whether it was Junot Diaz or Colson Whitehead who said it, but one of those guys, after getting a similar question, said something like, “I’d rather put a shotgun in my mouth than answer one more question about genre.” So that made me laugh, and it’s definitely one take on things. On the flipside, both Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman have written wonderfully about the intersecting roads of genre, and people’s changing tastes in reading over time, and I really enjoyed their patient, thoughtful approach to genre.
So part of the time I feel like, “Fuck genre. Write the work you HAVE TO write, put it out in the world, and maybe figure out the marketing on the back end if you want to.” And the other part of the time I kind of revere genre, and appreciate the familiarity and comfort of each genre’s tropes, and I totally understand the readers desire to be able to say, “I like work that fits in this little box so give me more of that.” It’s a hard life--I don’t sweat anybody for whom art is purely escape. I get that.
I was an 80’s paperback kid, so I grew up worshipping in the church of genre, and those works are absolutely an inspiration to me. However, these days I’m seeking the thrill and shock of the new, so I hope work I’m reading in any genre subverts the old tropes and does things in a fresh way (or even creates a psychological response I’ve never had before).
Ben: Your novel Skullcrack City was as big of a success as anything released by an indie press over the last couple years. What did the success of the book teach you about the publishing business? Did it change your outlook on anything?
Jeremy: Lesson 1: My assumptions about how a book will perform and be received are generally wrong. I thought Skullcrack was going to be this highly divisive avant-garde title and it ended up being a break-out crowd-pleaser. Three top words in reviews for the thing were “fun,” “entertaining,” and “crazy.” And I was sitting there with my little stuffy writer hat on thinking, “What about the skewering of modern literary archetypes and the hero’s journey? What about my attempts to satirize the nihilistic, anti-human ideology driving so much of noir and cosmic horror? Did anyone get the Philip Roth jokes?”
Lesson 2: All the stuff you want to cut from a book are the things that people will love the most. So honestly there’s a bunch of goofy turtle stuff and dick jokes I probably should have left in.
Lesson 3: The reviews game is high-effort/low-yield, but one or two reviews at very large venues make a world of difference.
Lesson 4: New York presses won’t take risks, so you have to prove commercial viability in the small press first. You get lucky and pull that off, NY comes running over asking, “What’s next?” (And when you don’t say Skullcrack City 2 they get kind of frowny, because like I said, not big fans of risk.) But when it comes time to negotiate, it’s great to have some idea of your value. Running Swallowdown Press showed me what I can achieve through the indie model, and knowing what I could do without anybody’s help was really valuable when the next contracts came through.
Lesson 5: People mostly want fucking novels. Unless you’re Saunders or Hempel, your odds of making short stories a (financially viable) career are somewhat marginal.
Regarding my outlook, not much change there, aside from being happy that I now have a chance to experiment with traditional publishing and see what I might be able to achieve working with the old system. I know there are way more people out there who dig this kind of weird shit, and I’m excited to see if we can reach them.
Ben: As a reviewer, I see indie publishers putting out TREMENDOUS material that goes absolutely nowhere every year. They put insane amount of efforts into bringing a book up to publishing date and then LOTS of it falls of a cliff after then. You've been perhaps one of the most proactive and easygoing authors I've ever dealt with in regards to getting review copies. What do you think are your responsibilities as an author towards your book after publishing?
Jeremy: Writer’s main responsibility is to write the best book they know how to write. Period
.That being said, if they want people to actually know their book exists then there are a lot more responsibilities. I’m going to paraphrase Tom Piccirilli for the hundredth time, because he once gave me this career-changing advice: It doesn’t matter if you’re on the smallest press on Earth, or working with the Big 5 with a world-class publicist—you have to act like you are literally the only person who gives a fuck that your book exists, and act accordingly.
So yeah—you made a gorgeous novel and then left it all up to the publisher to notify the readership and sell them on the thing? Good fucking luck, bud. Maybe your book will be that one-in-a-million word-of-mouth miracle that survives on its genius alone. Maybe. But that organic shit is unpredictable/uncontrollable, especially if you’re writing stuff that doesn’t have built-in mainstream appeal.
When I decided to go with Lazy Fascist for Skullcrack City, I did that knowing they had no money, no time, and no support staff. I just loved their editorial taste and wanted to be part of that crew, and went in knowing that the success of the book would depend on my hustle. Compared to the publisher I spent seven times more money and twenty times more actual hours pushing that book, and I’m happy I did. You can grump or you can grind, and if you want people to know your book exists then you’d be well-advised to do the latter.
Ben: What is the craziest project you've ever worked on that you never dared shopping because you figured it would be unsellable. Can you pitch it to me in a paragraph or two?
Jeremy: The craziness of the work has never been an inhibiting factor for me. I did once pitch a book called Rudy, Boner Champion of the World about a sentient erection with Olympic dreams, but I did it mostly in jest.
Mostly. Now that I think about it, it could make a pretty good Tingler.
Ben: What were the latest things you've read/seen that made you want to get behind the keyboard and do some work?
Jeremy: Most recent direct inspirations were Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses and Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. I wanted to find a way to combine that kind of Evensonian “soft reality” and ambiguity and dread with Tremblay’s literary suburban horror and familial anxiety. So those were definitely touchpoints going into writing The Sleep of Judges (the brand new novella which closes out Entropy in Bloom). That happens with a lot of books—I read it first and take it in as an emotional experience, and then I go back like a nerd and start highlighting and reverse engineering and try to figure out how each author’s magic might work. And I never crack their codes, but in the process I build these mutant tools that I do my best to use writing the next thing. If the work comes out slavish to my inspirations then I cringe and cut and try to push things through my very specific filters and neuroses and syntax. I got better about doing that somewhere around We Live Inside You. But if I go back to Angel Dust Apocalypse I think it’s pretty transparent that I was saying, “Is this how a Stephen King story works? How about a Bradbury story? What if I took Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares and filtered it through my own stupid youth?” I think it’s good to be honest about that—that your work is the sum of your experiences and the art you’ve absorbed, and what makes it original is mostly how you flip it.
Ben: Thanks for doing this, Jeremy! It was a lot of fun!