John Palisano is well known to readers of Horror Library, Darkness On The Edge, Lovecraft eZine, Phobophobia, Lovecraft eZine, Harvest Hill, Halloween Spirits, the Bram Stoker nominated Midnight Walk, and many other publications. NERVES is his latest novel.
"Available Light" was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award® in 2013.
John's had a colorful history. He began writing at an early age, with his first publications in college fanzines and newspapers at Emerson in Boston. He's worked for over a decade in Hollywood for people like Ridley Scott and Marcus Nispel. He's recently been working as a screenwriter and has seen much success with over a dozen short story sales and his novel NERVES gaining critical and reader acclaim. There's more where that all came from. Lots more.
You can visit him at
Hi John , how are things with you?
Thank you for asking. Things are going very well for me these days. I’m finding myself extremely busy.
Can you please give the readers a little bit of background information on your good self?
Sure. My passion for creativity began at a young age. I was inspired by my father, who was a fine artist, and who was one of the first computer graphics artists in the country. He encouraged my creativity along several paths. I wanted to be a writer, then a special effects make-up guy like Tom Savini, then a rock musician, then a filmmaker, and now I’m using many of those same disciplines today. As long as I’m making something, I feel equalized and sane. Otherwise, watch out. When my mind isn’t engaged it’s trouble for me.
Your passion for the genre was kick started like many with watching classic horror movies, when they really should have been in bed. However unlike us poor souls in the UK, we didn’t have the pleasure of the Drive in. How would describe the magic of the Drive In, to those of us who haven’t experienced it?
We drove up to the local Drive In with what we affectionately called The Bomb. It was an old station wagon, but we loved it. Me and my brother would lie down in the back and watch the movies. There was a small swingset under the screen that we used to run up and play on. There was a food house near the back, and I remember the big popcorn machine. It was very cool. We saw “Grease” there, and I came home with my first crush on Olivia Newton John. Now, this is important, because one summer, everything changed. I mean, there was “Grease” and there was “Star Wars”, which we saw umpteen times, and were pretty safe. Then I distinctly remember seeing “Demon Seed” at that Drive In. At the end, when the baby comes out of the computer, I was so intrigued and fascinated. It was a much different story than anything I’d encountered before it. The energy of the Drive In was much different than a movie theatre. You could lie down with a blanket. You could get up and run around a little bit. There was a lot of people watching. Lots of things to see other than the movie, you know? I really wish they’d find a resurgence somehow. I think it’d be a great time in history for them to come back. How fun would that be to see the new crop of films at a Drive In? Great question.
It seems that you were slightly traumatised by these movies, so why did you stick with the genre? Did you enjoy getting scared? (For the record folks the first time I watched Dracula, I had to have a crucifix in each corner of my bed, for month. Not that it would have helped against the killer nun that lived under my bed)
Because there was a feeling being experienced I wasn’t getting from any other art form. Most of the rest was pretty safe and fun, but didn’t fire my imagination quite as much. I was intrigued with dying…with the ‘other’ side…that there is something more than just what we see and normally experience.
I was having a “discussion” with my partner about our son playing horror games on the X-box, my argument was that I never did me any harm, and that horror is just the next step on from stuff like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As someone who has had a pretty similar experience with discover horror, what’s your view on this?
My son Leo is 5, almost 6. He is absolutely fascinated with Halloween, Jack Skellington, skulls, skeletons, ghosts, vampires, and monsters of all kinds. I’m not sure where he developed this from. Me and his mother have kept things pretty safe for him, but he’s drawn to it. He makes the most complex, amazing drawings, and now he’s started telling me stories he makes up. Is this a bad thing just because it’s kind of creepy? Absolutey not. It’s engaging his imagination. Also, Leo spent some time in the hospital over the past few years, and I have a suspicion a lot of what he’s thinking of is his way of dealing with what he faced. Perfectly healthy.
Your love for horror was further cemented by you father’s collection of Horror Comics, you Americans seem to have it all. I don’t think horror comics were ever that big in the UK, certainly not on my little town. What was it about these comics that gripped your imagination so much?
He had stacks of those things. Many were ruined in a flood about ten years ago, but I salvaged what I could and still have them. They were simply amazing. I loved the artwork. It’s so neat to see these horrible things rendered so gorgeously. Many of them were so imaginative and interesting. I’m a sucker for monsters, so seeing these creatures really floated my boat. I often fantasized that I could bring the monsters to school with me, and that they’d protect me from the bullies. Maybe that had a lot to do with it.
You even started producing your own fanzine, do you still have any copies of these floating around?
I sure do. It was called “Castle Gore”, which was based on a wooden castle liquor-holder my parents had. I used to concoct stories of what went on it that little castle. It was mostly about horror movies. I was extremely young, so the writing is what you’d expect, but it was a great learning experience. I figured out how to produce them, market them, and sell them. Not easy for a kid in middle school. I had a tiny, but loyal, readership. Pretty fun.
And by the age of 13 you had written your first novella. Have you ever considered going back and knocking it into shape?
Nah. That thing suffered from a really convoluted idea, and I barely knew how to write. It’s a great curiosity to still have, but it’s best kept that way.
When you left school you entered the world of music, you said you open for many national acts, can you tell us who some of these were?
Gosh. This is going to stretch my memory. My various bands opened for The Misfits, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Love/Hate, one of the guitarists from Aerosmith…I know there were others, but I’m drawing a blank. I’ve played in front of two people, to packed houses, and everywhere in between. I love it. Playing in a band counters the introverted, writer side of me. It’s such a rush. Nothing like it.
How is your latest band Lemonball going? What style of music do you play?
Lemonball is the best band I’ve ever been in, bar none. The four of us go way back, and have played with one another in various bands over the years. We decided to put all our best material forward, and it’s been very complimentary. All four of us can sing and lead a band, but we switch off that role. It gives us a wide range of material to play. Often in rehearsal, one of us will begin a riff, and the others jump in, and Boom! We’ve got another cover in our repertoire. It’s a very easy band to be in. We’re a rock & roll band, and we play hard rock like Zeppelin, to Neil Young, to AC/DC, to Rolling Stones, to…well…you get the idea. I’d say we’re a really good bar band. We do half originals and half covers, usually.
How did a boy who was so scared of Alien, that he wouldn’t walk past the attic door, react when he ends up working for Ridley Scott?
It was a dream come true. Ridley is one of my favourite filmmakers, so to be involved with his company, even in some small way, was life changing. I learned so much from that time. Lots of little things, lots of life lessons, you know? One thing I loved was how diverse and accepting he was of different people in the company. It was actually encouraged. Another thing I found, which I had in common with a lot of people there, was attention to detail. One of my duties was to go out and rake the gravel driveway in the mornings. I loved that. Don’t know why. I took to using a fork to ‘rake’ the cigarette dishes along the side so they’d match. I’m a neat freak and it bothered me that they were messy while the drive was perfect. Some of my peers thought I was a bit nuts, but that’s the way I am with things. What can I say? To answer your question: it certainly was not lost on me how influential his work had been to both myself and countless others. I treated everyday with as much respect as I could.
So what was he like?
We had only brief interactions. He was kind, very intelligent, and didn’t seem to miss anything, even if he didn’t immediately speak it. He and his staff treated everyone so wonderfully.
Did you ever hum, or hear anyone else hum Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in his presence? (For those not in the know, this was used in the advert for Hovis Bread, which was Ridley's big break)
What films did you work on?
With Ridley Scott? Well, there were a lot of projects in development. The big one at the time was “Gladiator”. I got to work on, in differing aspects, lots of music videos (Dave Mathews, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt, etc.) and commercials. He’s got a few divisions, all raking in money! The other thing that was unbelievable about his company is that he has other directors working there. It’s not just Ridley. I met and worked with some great filmmakers, some of whom have now gone on to their own big Hollywood careers. Very inspiring environment.
And did you ever take a girl on a date to one of the films, and go "look that’s me" when the credits rolled?
What lessons did you learn from your time in the film business?
Use your contacts while you have them, because people move on so quickly. Don’t be a jerk. It’s a very small community, and you spend a lot of time with people. Take it seriously. Don’t take it seriously. We’re just making movies here. It’s not brain surgery, after all.
Would you ever go back to filmmaking?
I’ve never left. Lately I’ve been making book trailers, using my training to spread the word for horror fiction! I also often work in production or post-production as a day job. It’s a very sporadic market, but I love it.
So let’s talk about books now. Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
My father. He’s always been my biggest supporter, and my toughest critic. He’s the first to tell me when something I’ve done isn’t so hot, and I listen. He doesn’t pull any punches. When I do get something right, I know I’ve really gotten something right!
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?
“I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson. That book scares me still. It’s the template for a million imitations, yet, it still very easily holds its own. There is also a depth to Neville and his situation that goes beyond what one would expect from horror.
Do you think you would have taken up writing, if you hadn’t fallen in love with horror? Could you imagine becoming say a fantasy author?
Sure. I think my bottom line is creating and making things from nothing. I love horror, truly, but I’ve also made art in many aspects and mediums outside the genre. My first feature film was a musical comedy, for God’s sake!
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 often begin with an image. These are usually transcribed into extremely primitive drawings. The drawings are then expanded into words. From there I spend some time trying to figure out who the characters are. For me, when I have a solid grasp of who is in the story, the rest falls into place. Just my way. I used to outline, but I don’t do a physical outline as much anymore. Why? I’m not just letting it go where it wants, but rather: I know story structure so well at this point that it seems extra busy work. There are exceptions!
How do you develop your stories, would you say the character develops the plot, or the plot develops the character?
For me, in most cases, my characters come first, and that forms the plot for me.
How do you come up with character names?
If they don’t immediately pop into my head, I’ll do some research, or steal a friend’s name!
And have you ever based a character on someone you really disliked, then gave them the most humiliating death you could imagine?
Many, many times. But I can’t give details, obviously! Hah!
Pen and paper, or computer for the first draft?
Mostly computer these days. I used to write it out long hand. I just found several bound volumes of hand drawn first drafts, but I don’t do that anymore.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write?
I have to remind myself to focus these days, so when I go to write, I say, “John? Just focus. Don’t get distracted. Forget Facebook and the internet until you’ve hit your goal. Just do it.”
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I edit a little while I write. If something is very wrong, and I stop and am thinking about the next line, I might do some repair on earlier lines while I’m there in order to keep moving. Generally, though, I like to get to the end of the story, save it, and then file it away for a bit before the editing and revising starts.
You have said that you had hundreds of rejections before you started to get your short stories placed. How did you deal with this? Did you ever feel like giving it all up?
Oh! It was horrible. There were many close calls, where a story was held onto for months, and then, boom! Shot down. Still happens to this day, of course, but it no longer bugs me. After my third year, I was so discouraged. I can’t thank Lisa Morton and my writing group for getting me through that moment. She and they always believed in me, which meant the world to me. Still does.
So how do you feel now, when you get a rejection letter, did the hard time you had initially make it easier to deal with now?
Absolutely. They usually don’t bug me, but there are exceptions. I hate when a story is ties up forever and I get a form rejection. I also hate when I get a response back a little too quickly. Make me think they barely gave the story a chance, which isn’t fair. I’ve made some great progress, but I have my eyes on getting into markets and books with more exposure over the next few years. I’ll get there!
And how did you feel when your first story was accepted?
Funny! It was almost anti-climactic. It was like, “Now what?” A few people said “congratulations” online, but it was still like any other day in the end, which was weird. Very strange.
I first came across your writing in M is for Monster, can you tell us what the inspiration for Xyx was?
I began with a realistic incident: a man completely distraught after he is left by his wife. He attempts suicide by shooting himself in the head, only, it does not succeed in the fashion he thinks. I was thinking: what if someone tries to shoot themselves, and instead of their flesh being killed, it is separated and has a life of its own? And what if it becomes its own entity…and begins acting on his deepest, darkest desires. It’s a riff I explore in much more detail in what I’d refer to as a ‘sideways’ sequel to NERVES called SPICES. By that I mean, it’s not a true sequel, but rather, has several overlapping characters and locations, and explains some of the events in the latter, but is truly its own standalone story.
If you could write about any classic monster, which monster would you choose and why?
I’d love to do something about The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He was my favourite Universal Monster, by far.
I also really enjoyed you story O is for Osmophobia in Dean M Drinkel’s Phobophobia? In it the protagonist has a fear of smells. Is this a real phobia?
Thank you for reading that one. Yes: Osmophobia is most certainly a real phobia. It was fun to research and bring that one to life. One of the things I love most about fiction is how you can bring in other senses. With film, you’re limited to sight and sound (not counting gimmicks!), so it was fun to explore.
The protagonist is also obsessed with death, and what lies beyond. What do you think lies beyond?
I am a man of Christian Faith, so my personal belief lies there. That being said: I am a very inclusive and inquisitive person. I am fascinated by people. I love our differences. In addition to film and writing, I studied theology at College for two semesters. It was fascinating learning about the world’s religions and beliefs. There are more similarities than differences. So interesting. I hate how there is so much division amongst mankind when it comes to matters of faith. One of my favourite places is the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles. There is the most beautiful lake there, and there are stones and stations celebrating many of the world’s religions. It’s very cool.
Other than Nerves, I already have that in my review pile, what would you suggest, as the next thing by John Palisano I should read?
My story “The Haven” is premiering as I write this as an audio reading on Christopher Boyle’s BizarroCast as I write this. That’s a good one. I’ve also got one of my favourite short stories, “Available Light”, that will be premiering in the H.P. Lovecraft Ezine any moment.
So let’s talk about Nerves. This is your debut novel, how long have you been working on it?
The first draft was completed over several months. Then it was workshopped and rewritten extensively until it came out just how I wanted. Note: NERVES isn’t actually my true debut. That honor would belong to a book called either “Amanda” or “Journey Through Time”, which came out when I was just out of college. I was selected as pilot author from Xlibris, meaning I didn’t pay them anything. They needed product, so I signed up. I ended up making some pretty good checks from them, believe it or not. The book is okay. It was the product of a very young mind and soul, and I was still learning how to be concise and how to tell a coherent story.
Was it easier to find a publisher for your debut novel, than it was for your short stories?
I found it equally as difficult, for different reasons. I think every major agent and house got a copy of NERVES at one point or another. It was often rejected for not fitting easily into one category. “I love this, the writing’s good, but I just can’t sell this thing.” I heard similar responses often. I realize it’s a strange book, but I thought it’d be recognized on its merits. It wasn’t. Not until Michael Louis Calvillo introduced me to Roy and Liz at Bad Moon. I was so pleased they decided to go for it. Their books are gorgeous creations. Let’s hope readers find it and enjoy the story. I’m anxiously awaiting people’s thoughts.
What was the inspiration for the story?
The image of a man sitting at a table, waiting for someone to come through the door, popped into my head one day. I saw him raise his hands, and his nerves shoot out from his fingertips, and tear into the man. That was the original first chapter, but I changed it in the finished story for dramatic purposes, and to clearly setup the conflict of the story right from the get go. Ultimately, NERVES is about creation and destruction, and how we have those powers, literally, at the ends of our fingertips.
You say that “Josiah and Horace and the wicked Ogam are a true part of me”, can you expand on that?
I felt them near me. I smelled them. I heard their footfalls. I dreamt of them. I heard the cadence in their voices. Everyone in the book felt real to me. It was very bizarre. They would talk to me…guide me. It was as though I were a reporter transcribing what they were showing me. I learned a lot about myself by being a willing participant in their journey, so writing NERVES changed me. I feel I grew a lot from the experience.
There is a feeling of duality in the book, with one brother being able to bring the dead back to life, and the other brother being able to kill just by being there. Is duality a major part of your life?
Absolutely! I’m a twin, and if you’re into astrology, I’m also a Gemini, so the constant yin/yang has always been of interest. I thought it would be neat to have that conflicting power working against each other in the story.
Is there a message to the book?
You can change. The world can change. You can change it, though, right back!
The book is being classed as more of a dark fantasy / horror fantasy; do you ever get concerned about labels?
Sure do. Everything is classified and quantified. I want to make sure my stories reach the readers who would like to read them. I’d hate to be sent toward those who aren’t interested, you know? That’s a big fear. Labels also help readers to discover new stories within a genre or field they already like.
How well has the book been received?
So far I haven’t heard anything from any one yet. Still waiting.
You are also editing an anthology based on the Jackalope, what made you decide to do this?
I was looking through listings of anthologies to submit to, and became very discouraged. There was so much that had been before countless times. I really didn’t have anything new to add to most of those venues, which got me thinking. What haven’t I seen that I’d like to see? When I was small I was fascinated by the jackalope stories in the western United States. Of course, they’re based on tall tales. But it is so interesting how something like a campfire story turned into something greater. I thought a good many creative minds could be exercised and come up with some really interesting ideas. The submissions have been pretty wild so far, so it’s already paying off. I wasn’t thinking of doing a project like this: I just wanted to write the next book. But I’ve never done anything like this before, so I figured…let’s go!
Is it limited to Jackalopes, would you allow a story about a Basselope?
I think Berkley Breathed would probably sue me if we did that!
Can you tell us about any future projects?
Well, I’m writing away on a new novella, doing a re-write of SPICES, and shopping other novels and screenplays. It’s very busy at Camp Palisano lately, that’s for sure.
And do you have any final words for the readers?
This may seem hokey, but it’s how I feel. Always stay real and true. I find that whenever I listen to my gut or instinct, I do all right. It’s when I don’t that I get in trouble. That’s just me. There are obviously plently of people out there who are great at playing characters and being larger than life, but that’s just not me. I’m a salt of the earth kind of man, although my imagination takes me far away from my roots. I am sure grateful for those who have read my work and stuck with me, because that’s the bottom line for me. If these stories are connecting with people, and they’re enjoying them, than that’s just the most amazing feeling.
You can find out more about John by clicking the link to John's website
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