John Hornor Jacobs: Five Things I Learned Writing A Lush And Seething Hell

Bringing together his acclaimed novella The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky and an all-new short novel My Heart Struck Sorrow, John Hornor Jacobs turns his fertile imagination to the evil that breeds within the human soul.

A brilliant mix of the psychological and supernatural, blending the acute insight of Roberto Bolaño and the eerie imagination of H. P. Lovecraft, The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky examines life in a South American dictatorship. Centered on the journal of a poet-in-exile and his failed attempts at translating a maddening text, it is told by a young woman trying to come to grips with a country that nearly devoured itself.

In My Heart Struck Sorrow, a librarian discovers a recording from the Deep South―which may be the musical stylings of the Devil himself.

Breathtaking and haunting, A Lush and Seething Hell is a terrifying and exhilarating journey into the darkness, an odyssey into the deepest reaches of ourselves that compels us to confront secrets best left hidden.

Readers Will Follow You Wherever You Want to Go

I don’t give a lot of writing advice, mostly because I still feel very much when writing like a man fumbling around in a darkened house with a shitty flashlight trying to find the exit. Everyone writes in different ways, and a big part of every novel (or project) is figuring out what your process is for that particular work. That being said, I think one of the most important aspects of writing that isn’t talked about enough is auctorial voice.

There are writers with a voice so strong and individual, it conveys upon their fiction an air of certainty. Veracity. Physically, I have a big voice, and when I used to bellow at the park at my kids who might be running rampant, my wife would call that timbre “the voice of Moses.” You kind have to have that, as an author. I don’t really buy the “start with action” writing advice that goes around, but you do have to start with something. Voice. An interesting premise. A challenging statement. A riddle of character. An observation of human nature told in a way only you can say it. A description of something in an arresting style. In the first paragraph of By Gaslight by Stephen Price, the author describes a protagonist’s eyes as dark “as a twist of a man’s intestines” and with that phrase alone he reassures the reader that he is in command and to rest easy, he will guide you through the story with a firm hand.

Having done that, you can play. You can go where you want to go. In both of the stories in A Lush and Seething Hell, at a certain point I cease trying to tell linear stories and begin a technique I think of as prose cascades where I throw loosely related imagery and phrasing at the reader to discompose and indicate the mental states of the protagonists. It shouldn’t work, but if the reviews are to be taken seriously, it does. It’s like a free form atonal solo in a rock song – it shouldn’t work, but it can (though it may not always as with prose). Only because you’ve established the key, rhythm, structure of the song to start is the audience willing to follow you to this prog rock indulgence.

I learned (and maybe I should’ve known this five, six books ago) that readers want to follow you wherever you want to take them. But you have to lay the groundwork first, prove yourself a good guide, and once you do… it’s improvisation time!

*air guitar shredding*

I’m A Good Sieve of History

I’m sure a lot of authors are this way, but I’ve found over the course of ten books that I have an uncommon, though not unique, ability to read a lot of non-fiction books on a subject, sift through them and pull the appropriate details for verisimilitude. I am the sieve through which all the research passes and what we’re left with is a rich if limited array of detail in perspective that works toward the greater whole. I am a literary kidney, a liver. I am a grandiloquent oyster clutching a pearl.

I’ve also learned that I’m inspired by historical non-fiction books and enjoy the process of bringing the important bits to the page. This might sound grandiose and self-congratulatory; I don’t intend it to be. Just something that really came into focus when writing these stories.

Nothing happens alone, though. In writing My Heart Struck Sorrow, about a man loosely based on the very real historical figure and writer Alan Lomax, I reached out to Todd Harvey, head of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress and he was very helpful to me, providing references and “deep cuts” as it were and details about Lomax’s – both John and Alan’s – journeys that I probably would not have found otherwise.

If there’s any lesson I learned here it’s this: experts on subjects are experts for a reason. It’s because they’re passionate about their field of expertise. And passion always wants to be shared. Reach out to people more knowledgeable than you. You’ll be surprised at how excited they get regarding your interest.

Sensitivity Readers Aren’t Just Necessary, They Make Our Books Stronger

I write quite a bit of historical fiction and if there was anything I regret about my first novel, Southern Gods, it’s that instead of trying to simply depict the nature of race relations in 1950s American south realistically, I wish I had found a way to make more of a statement about it. In both of the short novels contained in A Lush and Seething Hell, I try to make some statements about a few things – American imperialism, national identity, the fallacy of white male “genius” artists, race relations in the pre-WWII south and how that’s mirrored in our current era, socialism. The list goes on and on.

Because I try and deal with these thorny issues in a more direct manner – I’m shooting higher, I guess, with a greater chance of failure: I don’t want to moralize but I did want to shine a light on some less remarked upon things while still telling a good story – both my publisher and I felt it would be good to have sensitivity readers. For The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky (which took a lot of inspiration and direction from Pinochet’s regime in Chile) it was important to have South American readers who could help with verisimilitude (of course) but also make sure that I was not being exploitative of real people and their very real traumatic history. One of the sensitivity readers suggested that instead of having the story take place in Chile (as it had in an early draft) that possibly I should tap into a long and venerated South American tradition of creating a new fictitious South American country where I would not be as rigorously bound to dates and history and cultural detail. This was a welcome suggestion, and as a writer who had written a secondary world fantasy, these were muscles I could flex easily enough. It allowed me to obey the spirit if not letter of the law, as it were.

But I found, once Chile was replaced with Magera, that the novella became richer, lusher (if I may be spared for that indulgence) and began to take on an almost mythic quality which then informed the writing and the tone of the work. In all ways, that one suggestion made the story stronger.

For My Heart Struck Sorrow, my sensitivity readers helped navigate the waters of race relations in the deep American South of the 30s. I was nervous about this, especially crafting a realistic depiction of the cadences of language and colloquialisms without having my characters fall into stereotypical African American dialects. It was needle I had to thread carefully and I’m comfortable, happy even, with the balances struck there. I could not have achieved that, I think, without Kwame Mbalia’s generous and detailed notes.

Side note: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward was a very good starting point and helped me immensely.

Writing Shorter Works that Inter-Relate Was Rewarding

I just came off writing three fantasy novels that, in essence, were one big, gigantic, ginormous story. I started a very ambitious Big Haunted Southern Historical Novel (that’s how I’m thinking of it, capitalization implied) and I was about 60k words into BHSHN when I realized it was going to take me years to write and because I’m always afraid I’ll be forgotten if no one sees or hears from me for five minutes (one of the by-blows of being a child left alone for long tracts of time) I decided I would write a novella. I had been reading a lot of Tor.com’s novellas by Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, Cass Khaw, and Jeffrey Ford and was quite enamored of the form (and those authors! Check ‘em out!). So I set out to write my own novella, and do it quickly.

I wrote The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky in around twenty-five days. It is 39,700 words, just three hundred words beneath the cutoff for novella mark. I had to struggle to fit everything I wanted to say in that space. In the course of writing it, it was as though my mind was pregnant with the story and I just needed to get it out as quickly as possible. Writing that way allowed me to tap into parts of my creative brain that maybe I wouldn’t have access to with a more deliberate and measured style. You can be the judge of if I was successful.

After we sold The Sea Dreams, and I was on the hook to write another novella, I wrote it slower though still pretty fast for me, and it allowed me to find and tether these two stories together in myriad ways that might not be obvious at first glance. They’re written to interlock and possibly I’ll write a separate blog to expound upon all the ways the two stories fit together. That story ended up being technically novel length, ending up around 65,000 words. None of that matters except when it comes to awards requirements. Both stories feel about the same in length.

But I learned that I really enjoyed writing shorter works and in doing so, I gain a sort of internal velocity writing them. I’m going to eventually return to writing longer books – BHSHN is still waiting in the wings – but it might be fun to crank out a couple of 60 to 70k word books. I don’t know. Everything is up in the air right now.

I Now Understand Why Stephen King Wrote So Many Books About Writers

Time was, my big pet peeve was when writers wrote about writers. I thought writers as protagonists were, as a choice of character, very indulgent and unimaginative. I no longer feel that way. Why?

Because I’ve done it. And that makes it okay.

Kidding.

After writing six books in first person from characters of wisdom if not raw intelligence, I was eager to write something more literate. I had been reading quite a bit of Bolaño and his characters inhabit academia, they are students and professors, and are familiar with myth, and classic literature, and Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian, Kristevan psychology and related symbology. They have expansive vocabularies and quip in second languages. They are rich in language.

I wanted to write something like that, where I’d be unfettered by character education. So I chose poets and academics, folklorists and ethnomusicologist and librarians. Smart people, in essence, with firm commands of language. And that made it exciting and fun for me write.

I’ve been a published writer for nine years now – a professional, as it were. And in that time I’ve learned that deep inside every reader is a writer. So, creating characters that are also writers is simply a good choice for the audience. Readers can see themselves in writers as protagonists. I just didn’t get that for the longest time. I was wrong but now I understand.

See? People can change their opinions.

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John Hornor Jacobs’ first novel, Southern Gods, was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. His young adult series, The Incarcerado Trilogy comprised of The Twelve-Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity, was described by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing as “amazing” and received a starred Booklist review. His Fisk & Shoe fantasy series composed of The Incorruptibles, Foreign Devils, and Infernal Machines has thrice been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Award and was described by Patrick Rothfuss like so: “One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is strange alchemy, a recipe I’ve never seen before. I wish more books were as fresh and brave as this.” His fiction has appeared in Playboy Magazine, Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @johnhornor.

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