Joe Sullivan: In Heavy Feather Review (Sept 2017) you have “Three Wendigo Poems” which reminds me of both Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and William Blake’s “A Divine Image”, and it really fits my idea of you from reading your work and following you on Twitter. Someone coming from a literary mag and poetry background, but totally willing to explore genre fiction. I’m curious about how you came to start submitting your short stories to genre fiction anthologies and publications?
Jonathan Duckworth: It happened very gradually, though I should say this is more like me coming full circle back to where I began. As a child I always wanted to write fantasy, and my earliest book projects were adventure fantasy, space opera scifi, and superhero fiction. It’s only after I started taking creative writing classes in college that I began writing literary fiction and poetry, but literary fiction never really worked out for me. I did and still do write poetry, though I’ve begun to explore speculative realms through that poetry more and more recently. Around 2017 is when I started writing horror, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 when I really started to produce short fiction at my current clip, and that’s also when I submitted to Pseudopod. Amazingly, my first ever submission to a pro-rate horror market was also my first ever pro-rate horror acceptance. I think the “how” is really as simple as me realizing what I wanted to write, and committing to writing that kind of fiction. After Pseudopod accepted my story, it was all the validation I needed to commit to that new path.
As someone in a PhD program, entangled in academic pressures and pursuits, do you worry your foray into genre fiction will distract from your career path, whatever it may be?
I think there is a narrow path for someone like me to still attain an academic job while being a writer of genre fiction. Most of my work still has a literary flavor, and I still hope to land a book deal at some point with a major publishing house. That aside, regardless of what I write, I’m just as qualified as any of my literary-focused peers to teach students the arts of writing, and I just have to bet on myself and believe that I can convince a hiring committee of that fact.
What horror media inspired you as a kid? What dark artists inspire you now?
It’s funny, but I wasn’t much of a horror fan for most of my life. I loved fantasy, as I said before, but anything darker than Scooby Doo tended to turn me away, though I do remember reading Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark, and I adored any media about cryptids, like Animal X on Animal Planet. I also loved the classic Twilight Zone, and that was a sort of gateway in my early 20s to enjoying classic Black and White horror, which in turn led me to other kinds of horror.
Today, I enjoy all sorts of horror, and what I look for more than anything else is atmosphere. For that reason, Robert Eggers’ films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, are some of my favorites, as they so perfectly capture a mood and atmosphere of foreboding, angst, and claustrophobia. I enjoy horror games too, especially the Indie ones, though I also very much enjoyed Alien Isolation. The breathtaking art of Russian artist Vergvoktre is something else I can turn to for inspiration. Of course, there’s also so many incredible writers emerging or putting out new work: Gordon B. White, John Langan, Eric Raglin, Gwendolyn Kiste, Suzan Palumbo, Laird Barron, Jon Padgett, Donyae Coles, Stephen Graham Jones, I could go on and on.
You have a really great idea for a novella. I don’t want to spoil the few details I know of it — something akin to an Old West treasure hunt. Have you made progress on that story?
I wrote Under a Ravenous Sky last summer, and am now looking for an agent to shop it. Writing it was an interesting process because I originally intended it to be a longish short story, which quickly ballooned to novella length and then finally ended up a 57,000 word novel. It’s a much tauter and more streamlined beast than any of the novels I’ve written before, probably because it’s a failed short story and so has that simple, elegant short story structure. I think every novel I plan at this point will be that way: a bloated, oversized short story. The novel form, I think, gives too much permission to writers like me to overcomplicate, so starting with a simple structure might be what writers like me need.
What themes most interest you in dark fiction? What books do you hope to release in the next five or ten years?
At the core of all dark fiction is some kind of betrayal. Either a betrayal of trust or of expectation. This isn’t what you thought it would be; this person isn’t who you thought they were. You could argue that’s true of almost all fiction, but it goes doubly so for dark fiction, and that betrayal is what’s so compelling to me. As for specific themes, I notice I explore certain elements a lot, probably because I have personal connections to them: miscarriages, for one thing, or dead children (I was born as the only survivor of a set of triplets, the other two having miscarried two weeks before my eventual birth), and also sympathy for monsters. In a lot of my stories, the creepy crawly who would normally be the main villain in a classic horror tale is often either the protagonist or a lesser evil to the true monster: usually some kind of authority figure. Think of Pan’s Labyrinth: yeah, the Pale Man is terrifying, but he’s only a metaphor for the ugly, ravenous evil of fascism that Major Vidal personifies.
I hope the next 5-10 years is the floodgates opening. I have so many stories, poems, and book-length projects completed in some form. Some need a lot of polishing, but some, I believe, are ready now. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I feel like I’m just in need of a big break, and then I can start drowning everyone in a steady torrent of work. Currently I have two novels (one horror, which I mentioned above, the other a YA fantasy that probably needs a rewrite), two short story collections (plus probably a third on the way once I collect all the fantasy stories I’ve written in the last few years), and two poetry collections, one of which I’m using as my dissertation project. The short story collections and the Western Horror novel are probably the most “ready.” Both the story collections are in a shared universe with plenty of connections between the two. The earlier one, Undying, is a collection of historical stories all set in various parts of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The second, more recently compiled, is entitled Have You Seen the Moon Tonight? and is more contemporary (though there are some historical pieces as well, such as a warped cosmic horror retelling of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond) and set in the United States. I’d love to find publishers for both books, and hope I will within the next year or so.
Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a Teaching Fellow and PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at University of North Texas.