Interview: Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. 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. 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 over twenty novels and novellas, the latest of which are The Woman and I’m Not Sam, both written with director Lucky McKee. Five of his books have been filmed to date–The Girl Next Door, The Lost, Red, Offspring and The Woman, the last of which won him and McKee the Best Screenplay Award at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival in Germany. 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. In 2011 he was elected Grand Master by the World Horror Convention. You can learn more about Jack Ketchum at his website

What is it about horror that fascinates you? Is there a certain element or style that always has to be present for a story to be horror?

There’s no rule about style except that it be engaging. Do not bore me. Other than that, anything goes. The main element, of course, is fear. There’s a wide range to this. Everything from a growing dread to a sudden eruption of violence and all stops in between. Horror should disturb your equilibrium somehow, take you into places you really wouldn’t want to go on your own. In that sense the writer stands between you and what scares and disturbs you, involves you but lets you keep a safe distance at the same time. He’s your Beatrice for Dante’s tour of hell.

You’ve talked about the importance of “knowing what to leave out of the paragraph or sentence” when creating a strong atmosphere of dread. Could you give an example of some details that you might include, and those you would exclude, to maximize the effect?

Really good suspense-and-horror writing’s tight writing. Elmore Leonard famously said, when asked how he got his own writing so tight, was that he left out all the parts people tend to skip. If it doesn’t feel absolutely necessary, if it doesn’t advance character, theme or plot, get rid of it. Moby Dick‘s Ahab wouldn’t be right without the wooden leg. Likewise Queequeg’s tattoos. But do we really care at all if Ishmael’s a blonde or a brunette? We don’t. Leave that stuff out.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. Last time you taught at Odyssey, you spoke about the importance of strong openings. Can you describe some of the qualities of a good opening?

A good opening gets you right in there with no wasted words–it makes you need to read further. Example, from Christopher Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking. “Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”

Consider how immediate that is. We’re smack in the now. This has just happened. And we’re given a lot of information about Nick. We know his job, that he’s been at it a while, that it’s an important job in his company–and we can even intuit something of his moral and ethical stance if he’s been called names before and is now being compared to the Biggest Bad Guy of all.

Immodesty be damned, I’ll give you one of my own opening lines, from The Girl Next Door. “You think you know about pain?” I might have added the word smartass here, because I’m challenging you to continue in this one. I’m also implying right off the bat that my narrator knows a whole lot about pain. Makes you want to know why, doesn’t it? Makes you want to read further.

You advise developing writers to “steal as many great licks from other writers as you possibly can.” Can you share some techniques you learned/stole from other writers?

The long, discursive sentence from Faulkner and Henry Miller. The short punch from Hemingway. The art of the wisecrack from Raymond Chandler. Black humor from Robert Bloch. I could go on and on…

Why do you write under a pseudonym? Why do you use more than one?

I got used to pseudonyms writing for the men’s magazines. There were times I’d have as many as three or four pieces–fiction and nonfiction–in the same issue. So I’d use my real name for one, Jerzy Livingston for another, and so on. Then, when I wrote Off Season, I sold it by making believe I was still dipping into the literary-agenting biz from time to time, and I’d found this really cool writer named Jack Ketchum. It got me off the slush-pile. The book sold well, so I kept it.

Your list of appearances on your Web site finishes in November of 2012. Where can we expect to see you in 2013?

Nothing definite except NECON in Rhode Island, which I do every year. But probably Rock ‘n Shock in Massachusetts, Blood on the Beach in Virginia and KillerCon in Las Vegas.

You have an extensive bibliography. What’s your secret for being so prolific?

I’m really not that prolific. Compare my output to Stephen King’s. If you look closely you’ll find that I’m lucky to get out a book a year, along with a handful of short stories and articles. Once I more or less established myself as a viable writer in my own eyes, I started to take it easy. I’m not particularly driven to write. For me, it has to be a pleasure, or I’d rather watch movies or read somebody else’s book.

The reprint of Consensual in A Hacked Up Holiday Massacre came out recently. Do you get flak for mixing the holidays and horror in your writing? How do you deal with that?

I get flak for practically everything. So I’m used to it by now. Though the occasional death-threat does tend to give me pause.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

Lucky McKee and I are talking about doing another project together. I’ve been asked to come up with a new novella. And I’m in the midst of compiling a small book of poetry. Yeah, poetry. Me. New and old. If I thought I was sticking my neck out with Broken on the Wheel of Sex, my men’s mag pieces, I’m looking at the possibility of total dismemberment on this one.

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