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John Hornor Jacobs Interview

2014 SEP John Hornor JacobsJohn Hornor Jacobs, author of Southern Gods and The Twelve-Fingered Boy, recently debuted the first book in his first fantasy series, The Incorruptibles. In-between his busy release, con attendances, and of course work on the next book in the series, he was nice enough to answer a few questions about his worlds, his writing, and his characters.

So without further ado, on with the interview!

So, The Incorruptibles came out in the UK on the 14th August. It’s a while ago that I read it (the privileges of having the same editor), but one of the first things I remember thinking was the prose was unusually lean and polished for a debut. The other stories you’ve written have been horror, am I right? And Southern Gods was the first, and nominated for an award? What do you want to tell everyone over here about that?

It’s funny, The Incorruptibles is my third “debut”. My first published novel was Southern Gods, back in 2011, and was nominated for a Bram Stoker award. SG is a crime noir meets southern gothic meets cosmic horror novel. My second debut (after This Dark Earth, Simon & Schuster 2012) was in the young adult arena with The Twelve-Fingered Boy series. Earlier this year saw the release of the second book in that series, The Shibboleth.

And now my third debut is here – The Incorruptibles – and it’s a debut either because it’s my first fantasy or my first novel from a large publisher in the UK. I don’t know.

Was there anything before Southern Gods (shorts and the like)? What inspired you to write it?

2014 SEP John Hornor Jacobs - Southern Gods (cover)I wrote a very Faulknerian series of crime short stories set in and around men who raised dogs for fighting back in the early 90s when I was in college, but that’s about it for early works. And a few other stories, here and there, but nothing, really, I’d want people to know about.

As far as Southern Gods goes, I was inspired by Chamber’s The King in Yellow, and fascinated by pirate radio stations and the strange intersections of A&R agents, payola, the chitlin circuit of the 50s, and the radio culture of that same time. It all came together as a messy gumbo, if you’ll forgive the bonhomie of that phrase, but that really was the stew out of which Southern Gods emerged.

You’ve seen True Detective, right?

I don’t have HBO at the moment but I did manage to watch the first four episodes of it at a friend’s house. I found it very good – especially McConaghey’s acting. There were a lot of similarities between it and my first novel, Southern Gods, and indeed, the show runner originally set the series in Arkansas and attended the state university in Fayetteville. It’s possible I may have met him one weekend when I went to Fayetteville to attend a reading by Tom Franklin and Scott Phillips. After the reading, we all went to a professor’s house, drank wine and shot the shit. There were some graduate students there, and Pizzolato might’ve been one, but I was more amazed at meeting William Harrison, author of Burton & Speke (later retitled Mountains of the Moon) and Rollerball. So I might have met Pizzolato there – though I don’t recall. Anyway, from what I saw of the show, it was really well written, well acted, well done. At some point I’ll catch the rest of it.

Back to The Incorruptibles. I have to ask – are you a Deadwood fan? The Incorruptibles, with its demon-powered steamboat and six-shooters, reads as much a western as it does fantasy – what can you tell us about the influences that came from outside the traditional fantasy genre?

I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Deadwood, and just had to refrain from calling you cocksucker. It’s funny, The Incorruptibles could be said to be influenced by two HBO shows – Deadwood and Rome – but that wouldn’t cover it. Really, the idea for The Incorruptibles came from when I was reading a Louis L’Amour novel, and I was struck by how florid and magical his language was, how the plot was very much painted in shades of good versus evil. L’Amour read to me like some fantasy. I became a little entranced by that idea, that L’Amour was a fantasy author (turns out he started, late in life, a medieval epic, so I wasn’t too far off). At the time, the only westerns I’d read before that were Elmore Leonard’s westerns and they were more like crime novels with horses than what I thought of as westerns. So, in that strange way that novel ideas come to me, I thought, “What if Elmore Leonard wrote a fantasy?” In the worldbuilding, I worked away from that premise some, but you can see some of those bones still there, in the dirt.

The other clear flavour riding through the story – despite the technology – is a Roman one, and there was a clear reference to China as well. So is this an alternate history or an alternate Earth (without giving any secrets away)? In the same vein, most of the action is set on or around a river. WHICH RIVER IS IT JOHN? Because you have no idea how much it bugged me trying to work that out. Is it the Volga?

John Hornor Jacobs - The Incorruptibles (cover)It’s not really an alternate Earth. It’s an analogous Earth, loosely analogous. I just wanted to pull aspects of certain cultures – much in the same way Guy Gavriel Kay does – without being slavish to them or rigorously bound to any history or divergence point, as you see in some alternate histories. If that makes any sense. I’ve often described this technique thus: this world is ours, but take three steps back, three steps to the side, dress it up in a Halloween costume and get it slightly drunk. Squint.

It’s not the Volga. It’s the Big Rill, man. Existing purely in my imagination. Like the Mammon River.

I guess one of the things that drew me to the Roman aspects of the story is the simplicity of names – Roman names are (kind of) foreign, yet ear-sweet. I didn’t want clunky, ridiculous fantasy names. I wanted names that made sense and were pragmatic, and earthy, like the characters. So, there’s Shoe, Fisk, Banty, Livia, Carnelia, Secundus. Likewise with the rivers and towns. Big Rill, the Green, the Mammon; New Damnation, Harbor Town, Hot Springs – these names are pragmatic. As opposed to Bla’anth or Ridder’maketh Ridges. Or whatever. Froofy fantasy names.

I’m kinda weird about names. I recycle them. There’s a Fisk in Southern Gods. I have to know what my book’s title is before I can begin. Names are important.

I can relate to that. I need to know how the end feels – I can’t really put it any better than that – before I start or else I’m paralysed. Is there anything else you need to know before you set into on chapter one? Do you do much planning and outlining or are you more in the vein of let-it-go-and-see-what-happens?

I am, by nature, a pantser. However, with deadlines I’ve come to rely upon outlines. When I start a novel, I’ll labour over the first line. If I had world enough, and time, I’d let the whole book grow organically and explore every rabbit hole. But I don’t have that luxury anymore. So, outlines. But I don’t do extensive outlines because I don’t want to take away the joy of telling the story before actually writing it. For me, even as the author, writing a book is a journey of discovery so I don’t want to rob myself of that pleasure.

You tantalise with glimpses of a world that’s both similar and very different to our own, and I hope we’ll see a little more of its history in the future (please feel free to comment on this). However, the meat of the story are the two central characters, Fisk and Shoestring, two characters with quite different stories yet with a strong bond between them. Where did they come from?

The Twelve-Fingered Boy (cover)In Foreign Devils, I do explore more of the history, and cultures – we witness Rume and Kithai first hand, we meet Tamberlaine himself – but, another thing I kind of rail against with most fantasy books is the preponderance of ancient events having a bearing on the events of the story. That’s from the Tolkien tradition, of course, and works fine. I just like books that don’t rely upon the ancient history stuff. Maybe that’s my crime writing background coming to the fore.

Shoe, my narrator, is dvergar which is the native race of Occidentalia and the Hardscrabble Territories. Because dvergar are long lived (they are, essentially, what you’d think of as dwarves, maybe with a little hobbit thrown in, with hints of native American) Shoe has an interesting and engaging voice – he’s lived a long time and seen many things and since he is one of the lower classes – yes, there is race stratification in Occidentalia – his perspective is very earthy. I liked that about him.

Fisk is a broken man, having lived hard and suffered tragedy. He’s much like the Man With No Name, except, um, he’s got a name and there’s some humanity there, under the scruff.

Shoe and Fisk, when the story begins, are auxiliaries in the Ruman legions, riding scout.

Also, are the stretchers secretly elves?

They’re not secretly elves; they’re referred to outright as elves by Cornelius. But in the same way that there’s this idea of fairies and then there’s a darker version, the fairies that steal away children, the vaettir are the vicious, frightening aspect of elves. They’re elves as orcs might view them.

But they’re less than elves and more than elves, all at once. You’ll discover quite a bit more about them in Foreign Devils.

Between dvergar and vaettir – dwarves and stretchers (this is a fantasy after all) – they are loose stand-ins for Native Americans. I will state here, unequivocally, that I did not intend any statement on the history or character of Native Americans. Simply was drawing loose parallels for dramatic effect.

While we’re on dwarves and elves, you have a gaming past, right (find me a fantasy author under the age of fifty who didn’t play some D&D)? Was that a passion or a passing thing? Is that something you still indulge? Do you think it had much influence on you as a writer?

I did play D&D back in the early 80s, that and a post-apocalyptic game called Aftermath. By the time I was a sophomore in high-school, I had abandoned RPGs for electric guitar and spent most of my energies there. It’s only been since I’ve started attending SFF convention have I gotten back into gaming as an adult. It started with board and RPG-lite games. More recently I’ve been asked, and I accepted, to join a weekly game session where we play Hârn, which is super detailed and often I have trouble grasping all the intricacies of the rules, history, and world.

I don’t know how much of it influenced me as a writer – I’m sure it did, I just couldn’t point to any aspect of my writing where that is discernible.

I’m not going to ask much about Fisk, although I want to, but Shoe has quite a philosophical take on the world on account of his age and his race. What drew you to him as a narrator for this story?

The Incorruptibles (detail)You know, I don’t know what I was thinking, really, when I first started writing The Incorruptibles. I wanted a strong, humble but poetic voice. Shoestring is who came out of that. For much of the book, he works as a foil to the characters around him – either his gentleness in comparison to Fisk’s brutality or his caste in comparison to the patrician (and human) Cornelian clan.

It’s funny, even though Shoestring is my creation, he’s much wiser than I am.

I guess the story doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger that absolutely demands a sequel, but this is the first of three, is it? What can you tell us about what’s to follow?

I’ve finished Foreign Devils, the sequel to The Incorruptibles, and should be starting on the last book in this cycle – Infernal Machines. In Foreign Devils, we see more of the world, learn more of everyone’s personal histories, encounter a whole slew of interesting infernal devices and machines, and we learn more about the Autumn Lords, the Medierans, and the stretchers, themselves.

The Incorruptibles was published by Gollancz on the 14th August. If readers want to get in touch or follow the progress of Foreign Devils and Infernal Machines, how can they do that?

Readers can follow my online shenanigans on Twitter, and I intermittently post news on my website. I have an account on Facebook, and most other social media outlets, but I’m most active on the Twitters. Holler at me there.

And Steve, thank you so much for this opportunity to chat. I really appreciate it.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar algon 33 says:

    Aw man, I thought it said John Hodor Jacobs. Ah well, I guess this guy’s ok…

  2. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Enjoyed Southern Gods, sort of Jack Reacher meets Stephen King. Got The Incorruptibles but haven’t started it yet. Nice interview….

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