John F.D. Taff is an author with more than 25 years experience in all sorts of writing…public relations, marketing, sales, journalism and creative. He’s a published author with more than 65 short stories and seven novels in print. His writing tends to be categorized as “horror,” though most of it has a weird, pulpy Twilight Zone vibe to it. He also writes fantasy, suspense and some science fiction. Over the years, four of his short stories have been awarded honorable mentions in Datlow & Windling’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.
Hi John, how are things with you?
Things are great, Jim. Could be better, but they're pretty damn good right now.
Could you please give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
Sure. I turn the auspicious age of 50 this year. Yikes. I live outside St. Louis, Missouri, in a very rural area. My house sits on the banks of a small river that, every now and then, likes to flood. Oh well. I have three kids, mostly grown. I recently became engaged to a great lady, Debbie, who is very supportive of my writing and someone who helps me stay grounded. I have three pugs, Sylvia, Sadie and Tovah, who are a handful and fill the house with snoring, grunting and mountains of fur.
I've been writing for a while, having sold my first story back in 1990. I've got more than 70 shorts in print by now, a half dozen honourable mentions in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best anthologies, a well-reviewed short story collection, and two novels—The Bell Witch, just out, and Kill/Off, out soon.
You list cooking, movies, and music as some of your life’s passions. What would be your last supper, movie and the soundtrack to your life?
My last supper would be a dish my grandmother used to make and that I have taken over. It's called beef paprika, and is kind of a tomato-based take on beef Stroganoff. Yum. I may make that this weekend come to think of it. The movie I'd watch last would be Blazing Saddles…I figure it'd be best to go out on a laugh. The music? Hmmm…that's a bit harder. I'd have to say, just for the sake of nostalgia, that my final listen would be Eve by The Alan Parsons Project.
I see you were like me and kept your comic book reading to Marvel, why no DC Comics?
I started reading comics in the early 70s. Just gravitated to Marvel—Spider-Man, Iron Man, Capt. America, Hulk, Thor, The Avengers, The X-Men, Iron Fist. The few DC books I bought always seemed lame—goofy, trying to be funny or ironic or strange. And Marvel always seemed a little more serious, more angsty, more important in tone. Superman, Batman (this is way before he became The Dark Knight)…they were just not as interesting to me. Still aren't.
Why horror, what is it about the genre that holds your appeal?
From comics, I progressed this way: science fiction to fantasy to horror. And it was about this time that I was bitten by the writing bug. So, it seemed natural to start writing horror. Nothing more profound or sinister than that. But, horror still holds my attention because, unlike other genres, horror exists not just to tell a story (and it has to do this, despite what anyone says) but also to arouse some emotion—fear, disgust, unease, dread, etc. Other genres don't have this same emotional underpinning—scifi, fantasy, mystery, western. They don't try to get you to feel anything fundamentally. They tell a story. But with horror, having that emotional foundation…that appeals to me.
And what is it about the genre that you dislike?
Hmm…as with any genre, bad writing. A poor story as an excuse to either disgust or just to say "Hey, mom! Look, I can write horrible shit!" There's a certain repetitious nature to horror; i.e., there's always the "new" monster—zombies, werewolves, vampires. It's always nice when an author stretches beyond the tired tropes of horror and goes for something new and fresh.
If you could give any book to someone who doesn’t read horror, in an attempt to change their mind, what book would you choose, and why?
That's interesting. Do you choose a book that might be less horror but more generally palatable? Or do you choose a book that really represents horror? I'll pick two here, and this will cause some consternation, I'm sure. Both of these were early reads for me, and they affected me deeply. The first is Stephen King's Night Shift. Those stories were scary. Period. And the second would be King's 'Salem's Lot. I don’t think vampires have ever been so scary. But there's a lot of good writing in both of these, great characters and great dialog.
What scares you?
I'm really not a good person for this question. I suppose that there are things that scare me—heights, for instance—but they're not very interesting. As a horror writer—and a person who worked for a year in a haunted house at an amusement park—I don't startle/scare easily. Most horror movies are dumb or just gory, so that doesn't work. I remember being pretty spooked after my original late-night viewing of An American Werewolf in London. But generally, it takes a lot to get me. I do get spooked easily—creeped out by ghost stories or paranormal stuff that has a whiff of truth about it.
And do you think fears are important?
Sure. I mean first and foremost they’re nature's way of protecting us. Fear of fire, fear of heights, fear of snakes. Fear at some level keeps us safe. But fear at a higher level holds us back. Fear of success, of failure, of public speaking, etc. Fear is primal, just like sex, hunger and thirst and sleep, so it's a foundational characteristic for all humans. Being that, fear is fun to play with in fiction, at least more so than hunger, thirst and sleep. I think, in a way, fear shows who a person really is…or more important why a person really is.
This year sees you taking part in the Horror Writers Association’s Halloween Haunts blog tour. What made you decide to do this, and who did you have to kill to get Halloween as your actual day?
I got back involved with the HWA about two years ago, at my fiancée's advice. I'd been involved two decades ago, and the experience wasn’t helpful. But I'm glad I gave it a second chance. It's a very vibrant and different organization now, under Rocky Wood. It's helpful, the people are fantastic, the events are spectacular. And it really does help both authors and readers hook up.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
Wow, that's tough. I'd say people like Peter Straub, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Stephen R. Donaldson, in terms of authors at least. I like a tight, dense narrative with a flow to the lines, almost poetic in nature. My mom has been an important influence, in that she's the one who (inadvertently, at least) got me interested in horror due to her late-night movie-viewing habits.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
I've always had a creative bent—art, theatre, writing. But the desire to tell a story, first by drawing comic books of my own featuring Marvel characters, seems to go back as far as I can remember. That led, naturally, to me beginning to write little short stories, mostly mystery, and then writing scifi pastiches in high school, featuring friends doing cool shit.
And how would you describe your writing style?
Visual. I like to set a scene in as concrete a way as possible, and most people tell me that my work is easy to read, in that it pulls people through. They compare it to watching a movie—vivid and easy to see in your mind's eye. That's a compliment to me, as that's what I strive for. I also have what people have told me is a sort of Twilight Zone vibe to my writing. I don't tend towards the gory or splatterpunk. My stuff tends to be quieter, weirder and more filled with a sense of creeping dread. Some horror readers don't like that. They want flying body parts and gallons of blood, but that's not generally me.
And what aspects of your writing do you think are the strongest and what do you think are the weakest aspects of your writing?
My strengths are that visual style of writing, dialog and a real attention to the meter and flow of a line. Dialog is so important in writing. Bad dialog pulls me out of a story faster than anything. And yet so few people are good at it. You think any human being actually speaks the way characters do in a Hemingway novel? Nope. And the way a line read, its meter, how it relates to the lines before and after, that to me seems important. I want lines to roll through a reader's mind unimpeded, almost like poetry.
What is your ultimate goal with a book; to engage the reader or to leave them wondering what happens next and evidently, longing for more?
Neither. My ultimate goal is to tell a story. Period. I think too many authors lose sight of this. Authors or writers or whatever, we're all just storytellers. And if you can't, at bottom line, tell a good story, then what's the point? All the stylistic crap, the meta-nonsense, the little tricks and frippets and avant-garde stuff some writers revel in? Who cares if the story sucks? I want to show you some believable characters doing and saying some believable stuff. Then I want to show you how they react to unbelievable stuff. I want to kick the shit out of them a little, show how that affects them. And I want to string this all together into a story. Hopefully, it will be entertaining and engaging, but it's always about telling the story. Everything else flows from that…or should in my opinion.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I started as a plotter, but found that to be very restrictive. Rather than using an outline as a series of mile markers, I found myself dictating what I "had" to write. No more. Now I take notes, jot down ideas, scenes, lines, etc. I try to give myself those mile markers at least for a few chapters in advance, but I don't hold myself to anything. I go where the story takes me.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I generally edit as I go along. I might write a chapter or three, then go back and edit them, then proceed. Maybe another three or four chapters, then I go back 7 or eight chapters, reread from there and edit again. When I'm all done, I give it at least one more read from start to finish. But I really get wiggy if I have to make major edits once I'm done. So, I try to contain that as much as possible with continual edits throughout the process. Then, I usually show it to a few people, have them read it for copy edits and larger points.
An often and sometimes misused part of writing of book is the characters names, how do you go about creating names?
Character names are vital. They just have to sound right to me, and usually I go with the first name I think of when I create the character. Too many writers use ridiculous names for people, thinking that Lance Powers or Adrian La Vendt or some other damn stupid name is a good fit. They mistakenly think that an unusual name will set their character apart, but it usually just pulls me out of the story.
Have you ever used a real person’s name in a story?
Yes. In the book I'm working on now, I used a kind of in-crowd joke name my friends and I have been using, something we saw on a road sign a while back.
Unlike a lot of authors you are very forthcoming with the reviews of books, even to the point of posting not so complementary reviews of your work on your blog? Do you think it is important to embrace good with the bad?
Sure. And you know why? It's just one person's opinion. If you accept one person's good opinion, you have to accept one person's bad opinion. And if you're confident about your writing (and not delusional, mind you), what does it hurt? Do you really think everyone is going to like what you write? Or that your work will magically only land in the laps of readers who will like it. Not likely. I learned long ago that not everything I write is for everybody. Just as there will be people who gush about your stories, there will be people (hopefully not many!) who will think that you aren't able to string a coherent sentence together. Oh well. I read it, become momentarily irate (I am human), and then do my best to dismiss it and move on. Working yourself up over bad reviews is counterproductive and ultimately as bad as really, really believing the good ones. My goal is to strike a happy medium.
Your debut collection Little Deaths was released last year, can you tell the readers about this collection?
Sure, I'd been writing for about 20 years and had this large inventory of stories. I'd also taken a break from writing that lasted nearly 6-7 years, which I really regret now. I wanted to get my name back out there and rebuild it. A collection seemed like a great idea, but they're hard sells. Ultimately, I convinced Books of the Dead to produce it, and it's become one of its bestsellers. It's been fantastically reviewed. Gabino Iglesias at HorrorTalk named it as the best collection of 2012. And it made it to the Stoker Recommended Reading List with several recommendations. Ellen Datlow even gave two of the stories honourable mentions in her Year's Best Horror Vol. 5.
Did you write the stories specifically for the collection, or do they represent the best of your writing over the years?
I put in 19 shorts, about half reprints and half new stories. I didn't write them specifically for the collection, but I had them lying about, as it were.
Would you say there is a common theme to the collection?
It's that same creeping dread I mentioned earlier. Weird stories that are meant to evoke an uncomfortable, "let's turn on the lights" kind of feeling.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
Two. The first, "Bolts," is sort of my homage to the Frankenstein movie. It came to me, complete, in a dream after the collection had been assembled. I wrote it quickly, sent it to my publisher, and ended up swapping it in. The other, "Here," is a ghost story I wrote after one of my dogs was killed in a hit-and-run accident. His death really affected me, and the story is raw and emotional.
I love the cover of the book, how much input did you have in the design of it?
That was done by Diego Candia, a great Uruguayan artist who specialize in video game art. I have limited input about covers, which is nice because most publishers don't even ask you. Roy at Books of the Dead produces fantastic books—great covers, great internal layout, very professional and readable. I hate to say it but a lot of small press publishers have great intentions, but produce horrible books—schlocky covers, horrible fonts, unreadable layout. Roy does a fantastic job.
You decided to give the book away on Goodreads, how did the giveaway go? Do you think it brought in some new readers?
I'd never done it before. In fact, I couldn't really find a good use for Goodreads at all, until fellow author Justin Robinson (get your hands on Everyman and The Dollmaker!) told me about the giveaways. I tried, and got more than 1,260 people to participate for Little Deaths. That bowled me over. I'm sure it was effective in bringing new readers to my table, and I'm doing giveaways for both The Bell Witch and Kill/Off, too.
On that subject who do you as writer get yourself noticed in a world gone mad with writers?
It's difficult, that's for sure. But my background, providentially, is in publishing and marketing. I don't have the time for every social media, so I picked two. I have a blog and I am a religious user of Twitter. I loathe Facebook, so I skipped that. But the blog and Twitter really help me stand out. And finding review sites and interview sites like yours where I can spread the word about my work are great. It's all about persistence and being seen in as many places as possible.
Your novel The Bell Witch is based on one of the most well known Poltergeist stories. What made you decide to use this as the basis for your book?
My mother was a great believer in reading, so she hauled me and my brother and sister to the library once a week. We descended like locust onto the section with ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. It was like brain candy, and it fuelled my imagination. The Bell Witch legend caught lodged in my brain because it was truly the first American ghost story I'd come across. Most of the stories I'd read to that point were set in Ye Olde Englande, cool but not really that relatable to a young Midwestern American boy. So that story was always rattling around inside my head, and eventually needed to come out on paper. The Bell Witch is the result of that.
Are you a believer?
Hmmm…you know, I'd like to be. I say that with most paranormal stuff. I keep an open mind, but not, as they say, so open my brain falls out. But I like to believe this stuff is possible. It makes the world more interesting. But I am sceptical. I grew up in a house that was haunted, and I do believe it's possible. All that said, I did visit Adams, Tenn., where the Bell Witch legend occurred, several times for research on the book. There were places, the Bell Witch cave in particular, that were pretty creepy. But, I mean, it was a cave. All caves are kinda creepy.
How much of the story did you take liberty with?
A lot. The legend is sprawling, involving a larger Bell family than I wrote about, a huge cast of peripheral townsfolk and a time frame that spanned many years. I condensed the family and the supporting players, squashed the time frame into a year, and generally just picked and chose what I wanted. My goal, though, was to have the Witch be a character in the book, not just some spook I hauled out every chapter or two to jump out and say "Boo!" or make a cat hiss. That's uninteresting to me. The story, in my mind, was much deeper than that, and I hope I was able to convey that depth in my novel.
And why do you think the Bell Witch has had such a staying power in our minds?
Ultimately, and I guess this is a spoiler if you don’t know the legend, it's really the only ghost story in legend where the ghost actually kills someone. I think that, added to the fact that the Witch really was a character in the legend—she spoke, sang, joked, etc.—makes the story more powerful than just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. There's a sadness, a pathos to it that works beyond just scaring you.
Your latest book Kill/Off is a departure from your usual supernatural / spooky stories?
Yeah, Kill/Off is really a straightforward thriller, no boogiemen or things that go bump in the night.
What made you decide to make this departure?
Really just to see if I could do it. I had the idea, and I thought, what the heck?
Reading the synopsis of the book suggests that there may well be something spooky going on? Are you at liberty to give anything away or will we have to read the book to find out?
Nothing spooky, although I guess there are "spooks" of a kind throughout the book. The general premise is would you kill someone if you knew you could get away with it? A shadowy organization uses this philosophy to recruit ordinary people as assassins to kill other, seemingly ordinary people. But their purpose is a bit more diabolical than that.
Do you have any plans to step even further away from your writing comfort zone?
I like science fiction and fantasy, and have written a little of both. I have a scifi novel started that I'd like to finish. And I have two books of a three-book fantasy series done that I'd like to republish and perhaps eventually write the third. That's the nice thing about where I am now. I can write pretty much what I want. I don't have to be locked into any one genre.
Can you tell us about any future projects?
I've got a bunch of short stories coming out soon, in places like Postscripts to Darkness, Ominous Realities, Horror Library V, Beware the Dark. I'm working with RJ Cavander on a collection of dark speculative novellas that I hope to sell to a publisher for publication next year. And I'm about 1/3 of the way done on a major new, sprawling horror novel. So, I've got a lot of irons in the fire. Stop by johnfdtaff.com or follow me on Twitter @johnfdtaff for more information.
Thanks for popping over for a chat, do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks for thinking of me, Jim. Love to chat with you. I hope readers who like horror or dark fantasy or dark, speculative fiction or whatever will seek me out, read some of my work and hopefully enjoy it!
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