This month, we shook things up a little. Jason’s newest novel, HEX-Rated: A Brimstone Files Novel released this month and I had a couple questions for him about the process. And a few questions about his writing life in general.
What’s your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Or do you throw the laptop at the wall until the holes in the sheetrock resemble words?
HAHAHA! I wish my life was more cartoon than real. My process is protean and changes all the time. When I was just writing short stories, I was a pure “write by the headlights” fella. Though unlike a lot of pansters I like revision. Novels have recently started as synopsis and pitches and then plotted out. I’ve studied plot and format and have a decent handle on some general forms, but for longer work like HEX-RATED, I employed some fun plot techniques from everyone from James Campbell to Michael Moorecock.
I love experimenting in short controlled bursts with short stories but doing some detailed considerations with novels . . . mainly because my first novel was so awful. It was done by the SEAT OF THE PANTS until the protagonist turned around, looked at me, his god, and said, “Why the fuck am I running around a graveyard? There’s no one even after me!” The novel collapsed under the weight of its own inadequacies, and my takeaway was that for the long narrative I needed to do some kind of plotting. Most of it takes the form of dialog (I HATE PLOT DIAGRAMS), but recently, chapter bullet points and other techniques pop up.
Best part? The final product almost NEVER looks exactly like my outline because I’m willing to take the risk that what emerges from creation is often better than an ingredients list!
To those of us reading your work, it’s safe to say, it appears pretty unfiltered. How true is that? Are you actually more outrageous inside your head than you even put on the page? Is there a dialing up or down process you go through to make your manuscripts ready to go out the door?
Wow. Good question. Sometimes it’s unfiltered and even then the wildness of my head and heart aren’t always grafted well on the page. Like the dream I had where Henry Rollins was driving me to improv practice and telling me he has a kid he never sees, or when the entire female cast of The Young and the Restless rode a rollercoaster with me! Not sure what to do with THAT stuff. I often have to dial things down some because I come from a pretty punk rock place in my thinking. And sometimes a battle cry is what is needed. And things MUST be turned to 11. But if your writing is just the equivalent of SOMEONE SCREAMING INTO YOUR FACE IN ALL CAPS ALL THE GODDAMN DAY . . . you’re going to check out (some idiot in the horror scene actually recommends this approach and holy fuck did I laugh). Plus, as a writer, I want to play with dynamics. Atonal ain’t my bag. I love writers who can freak you out by being quiet, like Steve Tem, or just everyday goddamn weird like Jeffrey Ford and Liz Hand. So I’m generally unfiltered but know when to mix it up.
FXXK WRITING, the book. Mea culpa here. KDP mangled the first round of mobis released. I know I was chewing through my laptop but I still had some control over the process. How frustrated were you? Did it feel like one more “of course this happened”?
While mildly frustrated, I also get ZEN kind of quickly. The first two reviews are all about bad formatting and rude words, which I find unfortunate (and I hope they got free copies once the formatting issue was fixed), but also hilarious (why would you buy a book called FXXK WRITING if you were not cool with swearing?).
And for all the kids at home, we’re discussing A Christmas Installment of The GUTTERS. Are you totally insane or just a glutton for punishment? Or is this business model of walking headfirst into the weedeater beginning to pay off?
HA! Just trying to keep the flame alive. Plus, the GUTTERS was a fascinating experiment for the second year of the FXXK WRITING column since it was about all the shit I was doing BEFORE I landed my book deal. So much of writer biography in articles is “Well, I wanted to write, tried really hard, got stuff out, and fast forward to ten years later and . . .” And hold the fucking phone! WHAT HAPPENED IN THOSE TEN YEARS MATTERS! Stop creating illusions of shit just working out! It took me seventeen years to go from “I want to write short stories” to “get a regular book deal.” What I did in between (in comics the space between dominant action is called the gutters) these poles matters. What choices I made or didn’t. What I wanted and what I didn’t know I wanted. What illusions I had ruined my life.
As far as being a glutton, yeah. As you know, I’m a workaholic who fears he’ll vanish if he doesn’t try something new, make a change Bring it.
Talking of paying off, let’s talk Hex-Rated. NPR just gave it a glorious review.
“Smutty, profane, and unapologetically slathered in pulp, Hex-Rated is a loving homage to all the musty, dog-eared paperbacks stuffed in the used bookstore’s spinner rack.”
How did you react to reading that?
I WAS STOKED! Jason Heller GOT IT! He got that HEX-RATED is both pulp fun but also has an undercurrent of smarty pants thinking about the nature of illusion, lust, and desire. So yes, enjoy the sexy adventure and magic and all the crazy fun of James Brimstone’s life, but if you scratch under the surface you’ll find something deeper!
Where did Hex-Rated come from?
From sticking around long enough that my skills and interest and general good humor found an opportunity. My friend and colleague Nick Mamatas informed me that Night Shade Books was interested in doing something like a groovy detective series. I asked if I could pitch them my take on such a work since I was raised on 70s TV detectives and love mucking about with pulp traditions and lost noir gems like NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Plus I’d read an article (I really did) on the history of the pornography industry and how much more like Hollywood it was back in the day. So, I crammed all these influences into a blender. The result is a mystery set in the adult film world of 1970s LA with James Brimstone as the lead, a wise-cracking PI who can do stage magic but was a failed apprentice to a REAL magician and solves the groovy crimes the cops won’t touch. It lets me use my history chops, play with the mythology of LA, and the iconic figure of the Cult Detective in a world of sex cults, drug madness, and the death of the love generation. Plus, it’s funny as hell!
You teach writing classes. What’s your favorite part of working with new writers? And are you as tough love with them as you are in your FFO columns? Do you find that they try to emulate your style?
For young writers, I focus on developing their strengths. There’s enough “tough love” in other workshops. I approve and use “tough love” crits all the time. But beginners tend to see everything they do as awful, and it’s not, so my goal is to get them to understand how their themes and strengths function to good effect. Once they’ve got a hold of that strength, they’ll be able to navigate how best to use with the stuff they need to change or revise.
I’ve NEVER had anyone in my class who writes like me. Ever. I’ve had tons of talented folks who’ve come from amazing subcultures and do wild and punk things that get on the page, but no one writes alike and yet I can help them to write more like THEMSELVES. I don’t want clones. I want to give students every tool I know so they can sound MOST like their best selves.
You’re also an improv actor and perform on a regular basis. How does being an improv actor help with your writing? Or is it vice versa?
Improv is way weirder, but it allows me to brainstorm and even sometimes create scenes far quicker than others because I’ve created narratives out of nothing on stage for four years! But improv is also inherently collaborative so I have to keep my mind sharp to all the details OTHER people make, ones I’d normally make up on my own. It’s a great mental workout, though, and the best part is that improv teaches you that a mistake or a failure is a fantastic thing, a true beginning, a true improvised moment because you didn’t want it or plan it and yet it’s here. And from such things can come wild ideas and stories. I’m much cooler with crashing and burning and picking through the wreckage to find the jewels amidst the junk.
You’ve been under the slush pile for a long, long time and I’ve had more than one laugh at your slush pile comments. I can’t publish them for obvious reasons, but for posterity, what’s the most offensive common mistake you see in the slush pile?
It’s not so much a mistake as a story form that I call “my wife divorced me and now I’m going to kill sexy vampires, zombies, and other stuff to prove I’m a real man.” If I never read another version of this form, I’ll die happy.
What’s that thing you read in the slush pile that’s probably scarred you for life?
People who are allergic to punctuation.
If you woke up tomorrow and had a bazillion dollars, what would you do?
I’m so not money driven, but I’d buy some goddamn stability in property and investments. Then donate much to research on cancer, support oppressed peoples and buy ETERNAL LIFE! But I’d do what I’ve done because that’s what I’m here to do: write history, fiction, teach.
Last question: why don’t you write more cheerful peppy things, Jason?
Oh, I do that now. Sure, I used to write rough tales of fuggly people on the wrong side of the tracks. But not anymore! Check out the happy go lucky and sexytime adventures of James Brimstone and you’ll see Dr. Ridler can do happy endings and then some!
© 2017 Jason S Ridler