Interview: Jack Ketchum

Jack KetchumJack Ketchum is the pseudonym for a former actor, singer, teacher, literary agent, lumber salesman, and soda jerk–a former flower child and baby boomer who figures that in 1956 Elvis, dinosaurs and horror probably saved his life. He will be a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer. His first novel, Off Season, prompted the Village Voice to publicly scold its publisher in print for publishing violent pornography. He personally disagrees but is perfectly happy to let you decide for yourself. His short story “The Box” won a 1994 Bram Stoker Award from the HWA, his story “Gone” won again in 2000–and in 2003 he won Stokers for both best collection for Peaceable Kingdom and best long fiction for Closing Time. He has written eleven novels, the latest of which are Red, Ladies’ Night, and The Lost. His stories are collected in The Exit At Toledo Blade Boulevard, Broken on the Wheel of Sex, Sleep Disorder (with Edward Lee), Peaceable Kingdom and Closing Time and Other Stories. His novella The Crossings was cited by Stephen King in his speech at the 2003 National Book Awards. Four of his novels have been filmed  — The Lost, The Girl Next Door, Red and most recently Offspring, for which he wrote the screenplay. You can visit his website at http://www.jackketchum.net/ .

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece?  What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

Not sure what you mean by “writing seriously” since it seems to me writing is always pretty serious.  You’re exposing yourself, after all — and willingly.  It’s essentially a somewhat crazy thing to do.  In junior high and high school it was all about popularity, probably.  The first thing I ever published was in the seventh grade — a mimeographed weekly paper called THE DAILY BLAB, a class-clown kind of thing which my homeroom teacher encouraged to reign in my urge to disrupt pretty much everything I possibly could.  I graduated from that to high school poet laureate — their designation, not mine — wherein I got to show all the girls my sensitive side.  By then I was hooked though, and all through college I was reading precociously and writing constantly.  The goal was the literary magazine for prose and poetry and stage production for my one-acts, with which I had some success.  I was also submitting all over the place, going through the back pages of The Writer, at which I had no success at all.  Somehow after college I got it into my head that I was either the next Harold Pinter or the next Henry Miller.  Sort of hard to reconcile the two, doncha think?  So that for years thereafter, that was where the problem lay.  It was only after a dozen or so rewrites of my massive “road” book a la Henry that I finally burned the only copies of the damn thing in our  fireplace, and — free at last — not long after sold my first short story to Swank, a wannabe Playboy.  So, say that I was twelve baring my disturbed, disruptive soul in THE DAILY BLAB, and thirty selling that equally disturbed story to Swank, it took me eighteen years of trying.  And they said in school that I had problems with my attention span.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision?  What sort of revisions do you do?

On any long project I rewrite what I’ve done the previous day before going on to write new stuff, so that when I’m done, instead of a rough draft, I have a first draft.  Already revised and fairly clean.  I print that out, hand-correct it, feed the corrections back into the computer, print that out, show it to my long-time best editor and female partner, take her guff on the piece, accept some of her criticisms and reject others, feed what I’ve accepted back into the computer, print that out for one last polish maybe, and I’m done.  That “road” book taught me the dangers of too much rewriting.  You begin to loathe the thing.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Read constantly and widely and steal as many great licks from other writers as you possibly can.  Try them on, see if they fit.  For you, a book isn’t just a story, it’s also a lesson.  And don’t give in to the temptation to call yourself a real writer just because you’ve published online — do your homework, be patient, go for the print sale.  I like this quote from Louis de Bernieres in Birds Without Wings.  “‘Take your time,’ he would say to himself, ‘if the cat’s in a hurry she has peculiar kittens.'”

Your work is known for its strong sense of atmosphere.  How do you go about creating a strong atmosphere that really pulls your readers in?

Atmosphere’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things working together.  It’s employing the senses, and not just the usual sight and sound but touch, smell, and taste too.  All these used judiciously help get you into the scene, feel like you’re there, another actor in the play.  Then it’s the length of the sentences.  Short sentences and paragraphs for that matter tend to lend a kind of urgency, longer ones a sense of calm, reflection — unless of course they’re rampant run-ons, which are actually short sentences cobbled breathlessly together.  A kind of disguise.  Then there’s knowing what to leave out of the paragraph or sentence, focusing on one or just a few really important, evocative things which will suggest a scene or action without describing it down to the last poor dime in the pocket.  Elmore Leonard was once asked how he got his books so tight.  He said something like, “I leave out the boring parts.”  The same’s true of atmosphere.

Your work is also known for occasional striking, explicit violence.  What advice do you have for developing writers struggling with violent scenes, which can often seem cliched, over-the-top, or even silly?  Do you feel like there’s such a thing as TOO much violence in fiction?

My advice would be to handle violence as you’d handle anything else — make it human.  Start with the characters.  If your characters are believable you won’t be writing cliches and you won’t be writing silly.  As for over-the-top, sometimes that’s called for.  Charlie Huston is someone who does over-the-top exceedingly well.  That’s because he has real people in extraordinary, wildly rough situations.  Hey, it happens to the best of us sometimes.  Do I feel that there’s too much violence in fiction?  No.  I feel there’s too much violence in the real world.  Which is why, every now and then, I like to push your face into it.

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