Ginger Nuts of Horror
Jeff is a Toronto-based writer (and grade 2 teacher), with new middle-grade comedic horror coming out from Star Crossed Press this fall (October 15, 2016) Sheldon Unger Vs. The Dentures of Doom
“Dentures” is the story of 8th grade student Sheldon Unger, who unwittingly unleashes hellish forces locked up in his cranky grandmother's wooden trunk. He begrudgingly takes up the mantle as a demon-hunting tooth fairy, while simultaneously trying to win the heart of his school crush and keep himself from getting pummeled by the grade 8 alpha male. Of course, he must also keep from getting pummeled by the Tenebrion, a shadow demon from another realm intent on destroying our own.
Jeff has been published extensively with Maple Tree Press and Owlkids in Canada, including nonfiction m/g titles such as Fear This Book (finalist, 2008 Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award), and Gross Universe (2005, IPPY Finalist, Juvenile category and a pick for YALSA's Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). HE also dabbles in educational writing (Nelson Publishing), and am a regular contributor for Rue Morgue Magazine. Recent books include the Kirkus-reviewed humorous horror novel Evil Eye (Star Crossed Press, 2012 , and X Marks The Spot (Orca, 2015).
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m a Toronto-based writer who juggles his time between a full time gig as a classroom teacher, father of twin 4 year-olds, and husband. In other words, busy. I’ve just published my latest middle grade horror novel for 9 – 13 year-olds, Sheldon Unger Vs. The Dentures of Doom. It will scare your teeth out!
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I enjoy running, and movies, and at times will combine the two (don’t worry – I bring a change of clothes when sitting in the theatre). There’s not a lot of time for anything else.
What have been the biggest influences on your writing?
I’m most influenced by movies and music, and consume both rabidly. Horror films, Classic Doctor Who, heavy metal, orchestral soundtracks, jazz records – they all get crammed into my head and ferment into a brew that triggers stories. I listened to a lot of Iron Maiden when writing Sheldon Unger Vs. The Dentures of Doom, trying to capture the grandeur of their music, and the vibe that always has me cranking the stereo to full blast and pumping my fists. If I could capture a sense of the energy in a track like “Aces High” or “Powerslave,” then I’ve done my job.
How do you feel about the whole YA branding, and in particular age certifications on books?
That kind of branding was in its infancy when I was in high school, but by then I was already dabbling with authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Nancy A. Collins, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. Today there are so many books in print or available again as e-books that at the very least, these categories can help to steer some readers in the right direction amidst the sheer volume of product out there.
But these categories are limiting in the same way. It was a challenge getting a book like Dentures of Doom off the ground, because the horrific elements are more adult than some middle grade stories, and the tone was also too silly to fall under the YA branding. At least one publisher liked the book but didn’t know how to move forward with it. In the end, the strongest stories will resonate and find their audiences regardless of how they’re marketed.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
His personal politics aside, I was always a massive Roald Dahl fan – his prose is deliriously grotesque and he writes with real gusto. I love the tales of Richard Matheson, too, particularly the way he writes spare, lean horror. Douglas Adams is another favorite – I admire his ability simultaneously construct and deconstruct the universe.
If you could erase one YA cliché what would it be?
The idea that these young people discover that they have powers and abilities that have remained latent for their entire lives, or that there’s a secret society of like-powered/minded folk who finally induct them to help save the world. I miss stories with more realistic lunkheads, like the duo from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or Chainsaw and Dave from Summer School. Even a movie like Weird Science, which may not be the most well-regarded of the John Hughes movies, feels real to me in ways that The Breakfast Club doesn’t.
How would you inspire children to read?
As a teacher, this is one of my daily goals – not just helping young people get past the business of decoding and making meaning of words, but to want them to seek out books for information and pleasure. In my own writing, I use a lot of classroom situations that happen in our day-to-day. What’s important in the lives of students is reflected in these stories.
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
Horror always needs to be doing something new and find novel ways to scare people, and so it’s got to be one of the most progressive genres out there. What’s changed over the years is how much more accepted horror has become by the mainstream.
How would you describe your writing style?
I’m the product of film school, and as a consequence I tend to rely on sound and image to paint a story. Every so often I’ll remember that in prose, you can get away with tricks that don’t work in movies, or vice versa.
My style tends to veer from being very silly, with bad jokes for the sake of having bad jokes, to what I hope is a more nuanced and rhythmic kind of horror. I derive a lot of pleasure from stories that bridge the gap between horror and comedy – both genres have similar rhythms and pacing, and feel alive to me in ways that others don’t.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
I remember one review about my first book, Gross Universe, in which it was suggested the book might inspire kids to become proctologists. Nothing’s ever equaled that.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Sustaining a coherent story over the marathon length of time that it takes to write it. It’s even more challenging with my full time job, and then coming home to my 4 year-old twins. Right now, just finding the time and using it in a productive manner (like completing this interview) is a victory of sorts.
Is there one subject you would never write about? What is it?
I’m not sure. I’ve written everything from graphic novels to educational materials to television scripts to adapting a bestselling parenting book into an instructional video. If someone is willing to pay me for it, it’s usually game on.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
It’s a little bit of both. My wife and co-author Danielle Saint-Onge and I have penned several early reader chapter books together. We try to create fictional classrooms that reflect the cultural diversity we see in our daily teaching in Toronto. There’s intention behind the names and faces that appear in those books, so that children with different cultural backgrounds can see themselves reflected in the stories.
I’ll sometimes pilfer names of colleagues and friends, or even pay homage to artists I’ve always admired and respected. In Dentures of Doom, the character of Jeremy Skilleter is named after a close friend, with a surname that was a tip of the hat to Andrew Skilleter, an artist who painted many Doctor Who book and video covers over the years. Those two names fused together and proved very hard to get out of my head, so they stayed in the book.
I was jazzed when I came up with the Tenebrion, the shadow demon in Dentures. I wanted a name that sounded (and looked) cool in print, but had an etymology that hinted at something ancient. I was inspired by the Dario Argento film Tenebre, and in researching the title, I saw that it meant “shadow” and “darkness.” A play on the word was perfect for the book.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I think I’m developing more faith in my instincts, regardless of whether they’re commercially viable or not. This is how I ended up with a picture book manuscript about a seasick pirate called “Barfbeard.” I’m still trying to find a publisher for that one!
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
A good pair of running shoes. I can sit all day long at the computer screen, but my best ideas either come in the shower, or when I’m out for a run or jog. I’ve taken to keeping a small notebook on hand. (I also find coffee extremely helpful.)
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
I’m constantly receiving good advice. Reading your work out loud is the best way to edit, and find the rhythm and flow of your work.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
That’s always a bit of a challenge, as I don’t work in one specific genre, and they’re not necessarily complimentary. On the one hand, I write humorous early reader chapter books. But I’m also writing weird horror novels for middle grade readers, and contribute regularly to Rue Morgue Magazine, an adult horror publication.
Dentures of Doom is being published by Star Crossed Press, which is very small publisher, so I’m doing a lot of the marketing myself. It helps that I used to work in media before shifting to teaching, and I’m able to get help from various friends and colleagues still in the industry. But with a small book like this, we don’t have a large presence in the bookstores, if at all. Aside from getting librarians interested and excited about the book, it means hitting the digital pavement and trying to rouse the interest of our market – in this case, middle grade/YA readers, as well as the horror market.
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
I love goofy sidekicks. In Dentures of Doom, it’s Jeremy Skilleter, who gets all the best jokes, and challenges Sheldon, the protagonist, through his rude asides.
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
In earlier drafts of the story, the grandmother character was really over-the-top. She was closer to the hyperbolic grandmother in Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine, and although I loved her jokes, she was way too acerbic. I worked hard to tone her down, because the story really hinges on this relationship between grandmother and grandson – two very unlikely allies with extremely different world views. Much of what’s driving the action is Sheldon’s unwillingness to listen to his grandmother, or take her advice seriously, as it seems so far-fetched. Over the course of the story, he develops a real appreciation for her, and vice versa.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
Right now, it’s Dentures. It was a long road to get it published, and there’s a real feeling of satisfaction now that it’s a tangible object I can hold in my hands. But I don’t know that any one project stands out. Reaching the finish line on any project usually leaves me feeling elated.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
Either Dentures of Doom or Evil Eye. They’re the closest I’ve come to capturing what it is that pushes me forward as a writer. But if you can track them down, it’s worth looking at my nonfiction work for children like Gross Universe or Fear This Book.
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
This spring sees the release of a new early reader chapter book called Wild Cards from Orca Books. It’s about what happens when the Pokemon-style cards the kids at school are obsessed with get banned. I’m also working on a new scary novel about an impossible skull.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
I read Ernest Cline’s two novels, Ready Player One, and Armada, back to back this summer. I loved the former, but was less than wowed by the way Armada played out. It has some nice twists and turns, and is a fun throwback to movies that inspired me as a kid, like The Last Starfighter. Perhaps not disappointment then. I just yearned for the same manic glee that Ready Player One left me with.
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you chose and how would they die?
Kill? Nah, I’d try to make some kind of peace. It’s the teacher in me.
What do you think makes a good story?
I like stories that go to unexpected places, with characters we want to grow with. I also like protagonists with a sense of humor, or who at least hang around with funny people.
If you could live in any fictional world where would you choose to live?
Danny McBride had it pretty good at the end of the Land of the Lost feature film. Otherwise, I’d take a TARDIS.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
If I tell you, I’ll have to answer it. And if I answer it, the universe will implode.