Interview: Jason Heller

Jason Heller is an author, editor, and journalist whose nonfiction has appeared in many publications, including Clarkesworld (where he’s currently the nonfiction editor), The A.V. Club (where he served as Denver City Editor and is currently a regular contributor), Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Alternative Press, and Tor.com. His writing on popular culture appears in Scribner’s A.V. Club book, Inventory. He’s a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and his science fiction/fantasy/horror short stories have been published in Apex Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, Polluto, Expanded Horizons, Farrago’s Wainscot, M-Brane SF, the anthology Descended From Darkness, and others. Quirk Books released his debut novel, the satirical alternate-history Taft 2012, as well as his Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in, The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. He can be found at www.jason-heller.com.


Congratulations on your debut novel Taft 2012! What sort of feedback are you getting?

Thanks! The feedback has been great so far. That said, I’m too chicken to read the negative reviews on Amazon (although I have noticed there are a few of them…). I have received some constructive criticism from some friends whose opinions I value, but I hope whatever strengths the books possesses outweighs the negatives! Luckily, Odyssey helped give me a thicker skin in that regard.

How has this sale impacted your life? Has it changed your writing process or schedule?

In one sense, it hasn’t significantly impacted my life. I still spend most of my week doing various freelance writing, and I’ve been working on my next novel (or five) in my off-time. The freelance work is far less rewarding, of course, but it’s where the instant paychecks come from. So I’m still learning to balance the (potential) sale of future novels with the here-and-now, day-to-day grindstone of freelancing.

Can you tell us a bit about the publisher, Quirk Books? How did you get involved with them?

Quirk is probably best known for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its various spinoffs, although it’s begun to publish a wider range of fiction recently (including The Thorn and the Blossom by Odyssey Graduate Theodora Goss). Former Quirk editor Stephen H. Segal approached me about writing a satirical alt-history novel featuring William Howard Taft, and it kind of took off from there. I’d previously done freelance nonfiction work for Stephen during his tenure at Weird Tales, but initially I tracked him down at a convention and asked if he needed writers. I’ve also recently become the nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld, and meeting Clarkesworld publisher Neil Clarke at Worldcon last year definitely played a part in that. Let that be a lesson, I guess: Don’t be afraid to pipe up and offer your services. You never know when someone will be crazy enough to say yes!

Taft 2012 is very political and quite funny. Do you have a particular philosophy about humor? How does an author create something funny?

Heck, I don’t even know if I have a particular philosophy about philosophy! I’d say humor is all about timing (and how to use bad timing to your advantage) as well as appropriateness (and how to use inappropriateness to your advantage, usually in collusions with artful placements of bad timing). Or something. Really, as with my political views, I’m just winging it. That said: Shooting from the gut is probably the best recipe for laughter. If you find yourself thinking too much about how to come up with a joke, may I suggest banging your forehead against the floor?

You are also a journalist. How does your journalistic experience influence your fiction writing? Do you think it has helped in any way? Do you have any advice for journalists who want to write novels?

Journalism is an immense help when it comes to writing fiction. Reviewing sundry media and interviewing people from all walks of life about various topics (which is what I do as an arts-and-entertainment journalist) is a great way to expand your vocabulary of potential characters, speech patterns, subject matter, and so forth. It also gives you discipline: Journalists usually have very tight deadlines, and getting into that kind of rhythm builds momentum than can be transferred to fiction-writing. I’d advise every journalist to write a novel (or twelve). Not only do you have chops and velocity, you likely have an online platform as a journalist that makes you look more attractive to an agent and publisher. Even a modest platform such as mine can be a big help when convincing someone that, yes, you just might be able to sell some books.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

I’d been an editor for The Onion’s A.V. Club for three years immediately prior to attending Odyssey. I was burned out. I spent upwards of seventy hours a week editing other people’s writing (and doing spreadsheets and compiling payroll and wrangling with marketing folks and wrestling a CMS). I wanted to write. So I quit my job, and two days after my last day in the office, I was on a plane to Odyssey. I’d applied months before that, of course, but I knew the end of my salary job was imminent, and felt Odyssey would be a great way to immerse myself in fiction-writing and kickstart this new leg of my career.

Do you feel your writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What surprised you most about what you learned there?

Absolutely, my writing improved by a magnitude of many after attending Odyssey. It was a life-changing experience. Everything I thought I knew about writing—or that I’d been surfing on instinctually—was disassembled, reexamined, and rebuilt. The thing that surprised me most was how utterly plotless my previous writing had been. I mean, I can write pretty, but I didn’t aspire to be a poet! I learned that pretty writing is all well and good, but priorities are priorities. Tell a story first, spruce it up only if and when it needs it.

You mentioned a couple of new projects in the works in a recent interview. Can you share a bit more with us?

Sigh. Well, the middle-grade series I was going to do for Quirk fell through, but perhaps that was all for the best. It was going to be under a pseudonym, and I had been writing it under very strict deadlines, concepts, and plot outlines that had already been established. It was a great learning experience, though, and I completely respect Quirk’s marketing acumen and aggressiveness. The other upside is that I’m now working on two other projects that are much dearer to my heart: a YA trilogy and a standalone novel for adults. Both are involved, to varying degrees, with biomechanics in a post-apocalyptic setting. Exciting stuff (at least for me!). Hopefully I’ll be selling one or another of them shortly…

Your agent, Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Agency, is renowned in her field (and an upcoming guest lecturer at Odyssey). How did you connect with her? Do you have advice for those seeking an agent?

I approached Jennifer after I’d been offered a contract from Quirk. She and I had some great, long conversations over the phone, and she looked carefully at the partial manuscripts for the abovementioned, post-apocalyptic novels I’d been working on. Things sparked, and there you go! I’ll admit, Jennifer had been at the top of my dream list of agents for a while; she represents SF/fantasy authors of both the literary and commercial bent, and that was important to me. My advice for seeking an agent would be simple: Do your research, make a list of agents you’d most like to work with, list them in order, and query them in that order (in strict accordance to their guidelines). Oh, and I guess, finish that novel first!


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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