Jeremy Robert Johnson (JRJ): Okay, ready to power type like it’s 1997 and everybody’s kickin’ it on ICQ. Brace yourself for some typos!
Sadie Hartmann (SH): [laughs] Are you ready??
JRJ: YEAH. Let’s roll!
SH: How are you? How have you and your family been handling quarantine, social distancing, and the world’s sense of normal being, well, not normal?
JRJ: I’m well. My family is well. Seems like that’s the main thing. Somebody told me that these days it’s okay just to answer “How are you doing?” with a prolonged sigh, which I thought was funny.
Answering this from my new writing home, the Garoffice, which as you might guess, is both the garage, and my office. Baby birds screeching up in the eaves. Semi-trucks on I-5 roaring by.
SH: I’m glad to hear you are all well. Are you finding that you have more time to write or less?
JRJ: Given that I am now the impromptu elementary school teacher for a 9 year-old, and still going to college (albeit online now), and trying to ramp up for The Loop‘s release, I’m writing way less. But I’m transcribing a new and very high volume of nightmares, which should help for future work.
SH: How does it feel to be releasing a book in these weird times? A virus conspiracy thriller, no less?
JRJ: It’s strange. Partly because launching a new book–in the sea of millions and millions of pre-existing books–always felt kind of ostentatious. Like, “Where do I get off? Do we really need another fucking book just because I like writing ’em?” And partly because The Loop does seem so overtly on-the-nose with everything that’s happening. You know, it’s like “Take a break from your worries with this book about biological warfare quarantines, corporate greed, disinformation, class warfare, identity and othering, and the struggle to survive in late-stage capitalism.”
On the flip side, people seem to be having a lot of fun with the thriller aspects of the book, so I’m really happy about that.
SH: I can speak to that. The Night Worms Team just finished doing a Book Party with The Loop and we all found the subject matter comforting and special, since it was so familiar right now. The themes and unique struggles struck a chord. They do have a question for you though.
For some of the team members, this was their first experience of your work, and they’re rabid for more. But! After having a browse on Amazon…
JRJ: Ahhh! I only have one book available!
SH: [laugh] Yes! I know! Can you tell us what’s going on with Skullcrack City specifically?
JRJ: So last October all the rights to my earlier work reverted to me pretty much all at once. Angel Dust Apocalypse, Extinction Journals, We Live Inside You, Skullcrack City, and In The River. All those books mine, and ready to reposition.
So I let my agent know, and she’s very bright, and she has a strategy for finding new homes for the work based on the industry buzz we’ve already got around The Loop.
Right then, film folks start coming out of the woodwork, asking about these older titles. And I know, I mean KNOW, that most movies and shows, they just don’t get made. You take the options, you keep working on the next book. You can’t make decision based on Hollywood. That’s some lottery business.
But the specter of a feature film of In The River or a network series of Skullcrack City are sitting out there, and obviously, if those get optioned then we can get very different deals for these books. And “The Sleep of Judges” is still optioned, and they’re moving into the script phase on that film, which is great. So now we’ve been playing this kind of agonizing waiting game, wondering what’s going to happen. And in the meantime, my email inbox is full of people wondering where they can get Skullcrack, so… it’s weird right now. But my goal is to have everything back in print by the end of 2021 (including that early short fiction that nobody’s asking for but that I think is a lot of fun).
SH: Oh, man. I loved your collection Entropy in Bloom so much that I am imagining another collected volume of work with all those weird short fiction works. And I’m still recommending Skullcrack to anyone who will listen. Crossing my fingers and toes for a movie deal on that, it would be wild! In The River too–Night Worms lucked out on getting that one to our readers when we did back in March 2019.
JRJ: Thanks! We’ve been pretty far down the road on a feature for Skullcrack twice now, but I think a film would require a radical re-wiring of the third act, whereas a series would give all that crazy stuff room to breathe.
With In The River, the folks interested are people I trust implicitly, based on their prior work, and they have a very interesting take that moves the story to the American South, so fingers crossed that they’re able to move forward.
SH: That story is so atmospheric, I have no trouble seeing that cinematically. I would love for that to come to fruition. It’s crazy that you wrote that story *and* The Loop, because the vibe is so different! I loved your voice in this new book–did you find it easy to write this one? Tell me about your relationship with the characters.
JRJ: The Loop is so different from In The River, and it had to be, because the process of writing In The River pretty much gutted me. So for readers, and for myself, I knew The Loop had to be a different beast. I knew I wanted to try my hand at writing a thriller, and I was dying to do a coming-of-age book, and I wanted to do something that had jokes again. For me that was one of the most enjoyable things about writing Skullcrack: just letting funny, weird stuff be part of the book, no matter how dark it got.
In The River has zero jokes.
So with The Loop I wanted to make the kind of book that used to keep me up until four in the morning when I was a kid, listening to Faith No More’s Angel Dust on my Walkman, reading under the sheets by flashlight. But I also wanted to give it that kind of wild energy I would get from reading Lansdale, or Skipp & Spector. And I also wanted to write this kind of intimate character study, and examine kindness, and cruelty, and what divides and drives us. So I had a lot of disparate guidelines.
SH: Insert a gif of me standing on my chair clapping for this answer because The Loop is all of those things rolled into one crazy, impossible-to-put-down story! And I think the contrast of In The River and The Loop shows your versatility and range. Of course, I love getting my feelings wrecked, but I think I loved having a good time with The Loop even more. Like you said, In The River has zero jokes. The Loop has laugh-out-loud moments.
JRJ: Ha! Thank you! And The Loop was easier to write, ultimately. At first it was hard, because I didn’t have a center for the book, and I didn’t want the narrator to just be a cipher for my morose high school bullshit. But my wife knew I was struggling to kick off the next novel, so she bought me a gift certificate for a sensory deprivation tank place, and I meditated on the book before I went in, and about 3/4 of the way through the float I projected out of my body on some floating cosmos business and I was out among all the green swirling stars…
SH: Wait. Seriously?
JRJ: …and the stars started to coalesce and they formed a single name in the blackness: LUCIA. And that’s where Lucy/Lucia came from. I knew the book had to be about her.
SH: You really used a sensory deprivation tank? Like, Stranger Things-style? Was it scary?
JRJ: It was odd at first, but once I got used to hearing my heartbeat and floating, it was awesome. The rest of the folks in The Loop, like any coming-of-age story, are all amalgams from my time growing up in in my hometown (in this case Bend, Oregon). Except for Brewer, who kind of represents my friends J. David Osborne and Brian Allen Carr, and the decency and kindness and truthfulness I admire in those guys.
SH: That is the coolest backstory for a book project ever. Do you think you’ll do more stories in this style?
JRJ: I would absolutely love to do more weird literary sci-fi horror thriller conspiracy romance body-horror novels. I’m pretty religious about letting inspiration guide my projects, though, so who knows.
SH: You said you were transcribing quarantine dreams. Nightmare fuel, all of this stuff: pandemic, murder hornets…
JRJ: Yeah. My kid made me a nightmare book with a light-up skeleton pen that I keep by my bedside. Most of what I write down is incoherent slop by morning, without the tone of the dream to make it make sense, but I definitely find some good imagery in there. There’s a gruesome scene with Jason Ward in The Loop that’s straight from my nightmare book.
SH: With everything being so different now and book tours being canceled and such, are you planning any online speaking engagements? Where can fans see you? Will signed books be an option?
JRJ: Oh, man… I hope I can properly recalibrate to the online world. There’s nothing to replace that buzz of doing live public performances, and reading at Powell’s and out at Telluride Horror Show are these things that recharge my battery for a year or so. I need to find some way to get back out there. Maybe I’ll just start doing ASMR videos where I wear acrylic fingernails and tap on a hairspray bottle and whisper, “Hi… it’s… Quiet Jeremy with another story for you.” I don’t know. I really have to figure that shit out. Signed books have got to be an option, right? If getting signed books out through Powell’s isn’t an option this time, I’ll start offering that through my website again. Any way to stay connected.
Meeting people and drinking with them is like 90% of the point of a book launch. I will do that shit in a hazmat suit if I have to.
SH: I’m glad you put that ASMR video imagery in my head… what a weird note to go out on. Thank you so much for chatting with me tonight!