Interview with Jeremy Robert Johnson
Jeremy Robert Johnson is quick, funny, and lethal when given kid's toys that emulate any kind of weapon. Prior to the release of his debut novel, his fiction appeared internationally in numerous anthologies and magazines, and in 2008, he worked with The Mars Volta to tell the story behind their Grammy Winning album The Bedlam in Goliath. He's been blurbed by Jack Ketchum, Chuck Palahniuk, John Skipp, and David Wong (just to name a few). He's a man of many accomplishments, and I am honored to be able to share this interview you today. Ladies and gents, say hello to Jeremy Robert Johnson.
Tiffany Scandal: Skullcrack City is your first novel. Prior to that, you had a few short story collections published. How long did it take you to write your novel and what was the process like for you?
Jeremy Robert Johnson: I was plugging Skullcrack in Cemetery Dance magazine all the way back in 2006, and I even included an ad for the novel in the back of the print edition of my novella Extinction Journals, so it was a long time coming. My goal back then was to produce a book per year, but after the unexpected success of Angel Dust Apocalypse I kind of choked and got sidetracked taking these big steps into domesticity. Corporate gig, house, dog, kid, pants that fit, all that. So the original ideas and outline I had for Skullcrack went into cryo-stasis and little pieces got cannibalized into other works and other parts were identified as rotten and fell off, but I never stopped wanting to write the thing.
Much later I got an email from a publisher who had noticed my book We Live Inside You was selling alongside their most popular books, and they asked me if I had anything longer to send their way. So I said sure and signed a contract and within around 24 months I had a much larger, crazier novel than I’d ever planned. The first draft was written in fits and bursts, with the work being done whenever I wasn’t slammed by my primary and totally unpredictable role as a stay-at-home dad.
Process-wise, it wasn’t too glorious—a lot of time sitting in my office or hotel room chairs typing while in a fugue state, or wondering what my family and friends were doing, trying to remember what the sun looked like, realizing how batshit insane the book was, saving the Word file, and then drinking myself to sleep wondering how to make all the disparate elements of the book fit together as one big story.
Sometimes I had pizza and donuts. But not enough of the times.
TS: Skullcrack was originally slated to be released on a much larger press. But after some things fell through, it ended up finding a home through Indie Lit powerhouse Lazy Fascist Press. What are your views on small presses versus large presses? Any advice to writers contemplating where to sub their work?
JRJ: The first publisher I was working with had a flashy salesman who convinced me they were much larger than they really were, that they were headed into big box distribution and working with film reps in L.A. and all that, but when the curtain was drawn back it turned out I’d have been better off just self-publishing. And I feel very lucky that I was able to extricate my book from that situation.
So I guess I don’t have enough real large press experience to be able to pin down the differences, but I do know that on the publishing front it’s helpful to be pragmatic about the nature of your book and its potential audience. I had a very smart friend in NY who read Skullcrack and told me, “We sell squares and circles here, and you sent me an octagon. The Big Five publishers won’t know what to do with this. The book’s going to do well, but you have to go indie.”
I think it’s wise to take a serious look at each of your works and say, “Who publishes this kind of thing? Who’s their general audience? Do they treat their authors well with respect to the work itself, royalty rates, and publicity? Do I love this publisher and read multiple books from their press? Does their distribution mode match what I believe this book can accomplish in the marketplace?” All of which sounds a bit cold and sociopathic, but when you talk about publishing itself, that’s a business. They’re not benefactors of the arts. They’re selling product. There are obviously a lot of indie presses in it for more than that, running in the red for work they believe in, but I wouldn’t say that’s the predominate mode. So you should always be checking off more positive fields than just, “Willing to Publish My Book.” And I was very excited about what I’d seen Lazy Fascist do with books from Sam Pink and Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Allen Carr, so I was over the moon about working with them, and they’ve been totally cool. They even gave my son a ridiculous armless dinosaur doll for Christmas. Lazy Fascist is great.
TS: Skullcrack City has made it onto a lot of very impressive Best of 2015 lists and is up for quite a few awards. Has all of this positive recognition sunk in yet? Is it adding any pressure to future work?
JRJ: I know I’m supposed to go into Artiste Mode here and say, “I don’t give a fuck about the audience and awards will always be a sham until Ellen Burstyn gets her Oscar for Requiem for a Dream!” But honestly, it’s been really fun and gratifying. I’m glad people are feeling Skullcrack and I appreciate the recognition. I put a lot of time and energy and heart into that book, and it’s always so hard to reach any kind of audience in publishing, so, yeah…it’s been cool.
The pressure has arrived behind the scenes. It turns out that after an indie title does well, the NY publishers start thinking they might be able to sell one of your octagons. So there have been some really great opportunities and I’ve taken a few of them and there are signed contracts and delivery dates I have to honor now. The pressure is significant.
TS: I hear that Skullcrack City has been optioned for film. Are you able to share any details about that?
JRJ: Nope, not at the moment. My friend Robert Brockway reminded me I was messing with the mojo by talking about it. I’ve had my heart broken with this kind of thing before. One adaptation had a great script and vision behind it and then the director broke up with the producer and things fell apart. Another time we were two weeks out from the first production meeting on a feature-length Hollywood adaptation, with the star, director and producer attached and stoked on the project, and then the director got picked for a dream gig directing an adaptation of a NY Times Bestseller. That film made over $300 million dollars and now the director is attached to not one, but three major studio adaptations, which is to say that the odds of him coming back around and making this smaller, edgier film from my work is about nil. So no more news from me on a Skullcrack movie until some film company makes an official announcement.
I can say that we’re only about two months out on the completion of the Pandemic Pictures adaptation of my short story “When Susurrus Stirs” and that the director (Anthony Cousins) and effects master (Ryan Schaddelee) are doing amazing work on that project.
TS: When scrolling through the internet, your name and book pop up regularly on suggested feeds. How much time do you put in getting yourself out there?
JRJ: Not as much time as I should. My blogging game is non-existent, my Tweets disappear into some kind of digital vacuum, and on Facebook I mainly talk about beer and weird shit my kid says. If I’ve done anything right it’s that I’ve said yes to a lot of print and podcast interviews since 2005, and I’ve spent a lot of my own capital getting copies of my books out to cool reviewers. Other than that, it feels like I’ve been very lucky on the Amazon algorithm front—them tying Angel Dust Apocalypse to House of Leaves and We Live Inside You to John Dies at the End probably brought me more readers than anything I’ve ever done.
TS: Did the transition from publisher to writer in any way shape your views on the writing/publishing industry?
JRJ: Absolutely. I have much more respect for the challenges and frustration publishers face, and that empathy keeps me from being fussy about anybody I work with now. And I also got to experience intense disillusionment at twice the speed you’d get from only working as a writer, so I got that going for me. And, knowing the work that goes into designing a book, I can really appreciate the beauty of a properly laid out novel or perfect cover.
Side note: Within a week of putting Swallowdown Press on publishing hiatus, I stopped grinding my teeth at night. Take from that what you will.
TS: What's next on your agenda?
JRJ: Actual writing, which is great since I’ve had a bad habit of taking 4-5 years between books. Now I’m devoted (and contractually bound) to that book-a-year schedule, whereas in the past I was hooked on a kind of dilettante behavior where I pretended attending conventions and hosting readings and talking about my existing books on the internet was the same thing as being a writer. But it ain’t. So I’m about to activate my Anti-Social and cop some pizza and beer and donuts disappear from the world for a while. And when I return I’ll have a massive beard and some new fucked-up stories and maybe diabetes, but I’m looking forward to the work.
There you have it. Jeremy Robert Johnson, everyone. If you like anything that you have read here, check out his work.
Keep it creepy.