My special guest this Halloween is horror writer J. F. Gonzalez, author of several acclaimed novels of terror and suspense including Clickers (with Mark Williams), Clickers II: The Next Wave (with Brian Keene), Survivor, Bully, Fetish, and many others, as well as over sixty short stories and numerous articles. Gonzalez was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk about his life and works.
Thanks for stopping on The Dark Phantom today. To start with, would you tell us a little about your background and how you started writing?
I was born in Inglewood, California on May 8, 1964. I am of Spanish and Anglo-Saxon stock. My father’s family can be traced back to Spain. My great-great-great grandmother was born there in 1870. She and her husband emigrated to Mexico and, eventually, my grandmother emigrated to the US with my grandfather. On the other hand, we’ve traced my mother’s family as far back as 1690, to the Strong family in England. This pedigree also includes the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Princess Diana Spencer and, I’m sorry to say, Sarah Palin. I do share lineage on my father’s side with the acclaimed poet, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez; he’s my father’s first cousin.
I’ve been a book geek for as long as I can remember, and as a child I was constantly coming up stories to amuse myself. I was a voracious reader, and devoured everything from comic books to classic literature (Mark Twain was a childhood favorite), to mysteries and science-fiction and fantasy, to poetry. I made the conscious decision to be a writer in my senior year of high school when I read the famous Ray Bradbury story “The October Game”. The feeling that story gave me, especially the impact of that final line – And then some idiot turned on the lights. – made an incredible impact on me like nothing else. I remember the feeling of shock and surprise it had and decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do that to people. I wanted to write stories that would shock them, make them think, provide them with a sense of awe, wonder, and terror.
When did your passion for the supernatural begin?
In addition to always being drawn to tales of science-fiction and fantasy, I was drawn to tales of terror by television. Primarily, reruns of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and the Outer Limits. I remember watching Night Gallery and Kolchak the Night Stalker during their first run. At the same time, my family on my dad’s side were voracious oral story-tellers. Everybody from my aunts and cousins, to my grandparents all told me various ghost stories or tales of urban legend based on Meso-American myth. They fascinated me.
Not many Latino authors write in this genre. Why do you think this is?
I’ve always wondered this myself since Latino culture is rich with legends that can be utilized in tales of dark fantasy. The tale of La Llorona is a prime example. Latin cultures have many legends and ghost stories. Because I work primarily in U.S. publishing, I am not exposed to work by Spanish or Mexican authors who are published in their native countries and languages. I’m sure there’s some excellent dark fantasy and horror fiction being written in Latin American countries; I’m just not aware of them. Spanish wasn’t spoken much in my house growing up, and I can understand it better than I can speak it. Reading it is a challenge too, and anything I’ve ever read that has been published in Spanish has been in English translations.
In the early 1990’s I co-edited two magazines of dark fantasy and horror fiction and bought a science fiction story by a Latino author named Octavio Ramos, Jr. that was really good. Around the same time, a guy named Dan Perez was sending me stuff, but I never bought anything from him. The only Latino author I can think of off-hand with serious publishing credentials is Guillermo Del Toro, who just published his first novel. Guillermo is more known as a screenwriter/director than a prose writer, though. I love his films. The Devil’s Backbone is a powerful film, set during the Spanish Civil War. Robert Rodriguez is another director who comes to mind, but he seems to operate on a more pulpy level, like me. The Mexican film industry, in particular, has long had a fascination with the macabre. I’ve seen some pretty good (and some really horrible) Mexican horror movies over the years, and some really good ones from Spain.
So while there are no Mexican or Spanish counterparts to US writers like Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft, plenty of Latino writers with serious publishing and critical acclaim are occasionally producing works of dark fantasy and terror. Most academics call this type of work “magic realism”, but its all fantasy. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a prime example. Aura by the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes is another. I’d recommend that short novel (or any of his work) in a heart beat for anybody interested in reading good supernatural horror fiction, period.
Would you tell us a little about the type of books you enjoy writing?
While I enjoy reading all kinds of fiction, I seem to be only good at writing strict genre fiction. I’ve tried writing all kinds of fiction, everything from simple mainstream literature to romance and erotica to westerns. I seem to excel in thrillers, horror fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Since I excel in those, they are the genres I spend the most time working in.
Do you outline books beforehand?
I don’t outline too heavily. Ideas for novels come to me from different sources. A central image, a news story I might have read that festers in the back of my mind. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea by simply day dreaming and letting my mind wander. I think a lot of “what if?” thoughts. Like, what if we, as a species, lost our sense of humanity and our sense of being civilized and we were reduced to a very primal state? That sparked the seed that became my latest novel, Primitive, which is a post-Apocalyptic thriller with heavy SF and supernatural horror overtones to it.
While my main objective is to provide entertainment for my readers (because, after all, mainstream US Publishing is an entertainment business), I do try to provide some kind of subtext. Primitive is a prime example. While on the surface it can be seen as a post-apocalyptic thriller, at the heart it examines religious belief, racism, and survival. My next novel, The Corporation, while on the surface can be seen as a horror novel about an evil force that has taken over the people who work at a large corporation, at the heart its about the corporatization of America and how greed can turn into a soulless feeding frenzy where the bottom line is the only thing that matters. People’s lives are worthless; the almighty dollar is our God.
This is probably why I enjoy working in horror and dark fantasy fiction more than other genres. I can give people entertainment and at the same time I can try to illuminate them, make them think. That’s what the best horror fiction does. Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” is covered in literature classes all over the country for various reasons (its exploration of mob mentality, for example), but at its heart it’s a horror story. You can find other examples from writers as diverse as Poe, Hawthorne, Le Fanu, and Bierce to Richard Matheson and Stephen King.
In general, though, once I get a central idea for a novel or a short story, I don’t outline too heavily. I’ll sketch out the basic arc of the story, the establishment of the setting and characters, the conflict, and then simply let the characters and their situation carry me along. Things like theme and mood and subtext will arise naturally during the the writing of the first draft. Sometimes I have an idea for a resolution, but many times I don’t. I figure if the ending comes as a surprise, it will please my readers too.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you have any ‘horror author’ quirks?
The creative process is simple. I sit my butt in my chair, put my fingers on the keyboard and produce.
Ideas for stories will come at the oddest times, and when they do I always try to jot them down quickly on a pad of paper, which I then transfer to a file of story ideas on my computer. As far as horror author quirks, no. I realize many people who normally do not read horror fiction think that those of us who make our livings writing it are weird, and maybe we are in a way. However, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and being friends with many horror writers. They’re all quite normal.
Of all your books, which one is closest to your heart? Why?
Primitive is my favorite for several reasons. The main character is an ordinary guy who becomes a hero by simply surviving and being an inspiration for others to survive in what has become of the world after the majority of the human population has been reduced to ravenous animals. It’s only him, his wife and young daughter and a handful of other survivors that band together. Of course, there are other people unaffected too, but they’re spread across the world. The story mainly focuses on David Spires, the narrator, and details what they must go through to ensure their survival. I’ve had readers tell me they were very affected by David’s courage in the face of extreme adversity. I’m proud of that.
Do you have a website or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Absolutely. www.jfgonzalez.com. I have a blog linked to my website, and readers can learn about me there, read info on my work, and communicate with me through myspace, my message board, or through twitter (www.twitter.com/jfgonzalez)
What do you do on Halloween?
My opinion on Halloween is like a drunk’s opinion of New Year’s Eve. It’s the one day of the year that everybody else goes out of their way to try to scare each other for fun. I do that as part of most of my everyday work, so Halloween is no big deal for me.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Somebody I’d like to explore my Latino/Southwest heritage in a novel. I have an unfinished novel with large Latino cast. The novel is set in my father’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, and it also takes place in Ciudad Juarez, across the border. It’s sort of a modern day gothic novel because its scope is very sprawling, with different storylines that intersect with each other. It’s very hard to describe. I set it aside to work on something else (my novel Primitive, which a publisher paid me to write). Someday, I’d like to return to it.
Aside from that…I live a very private life. I have a wife and daughter. Politically I’m a left-leaning independent. I love to go target shooting with my friends and I’m an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. I’m an Agnostic, yet I’m very spiritual. I love to take my dog on long walks, and I love to browse for hours in used bookstores. I love all kinds of music and I love to travel. My favorite novel of all time is probably John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and my favorite movie of all time is probably Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! I love Japanese food, especially sushi. I love Mexican food too, and I’ve sampled most cuisines from across the Latin spectrum. I never did take a liking to menudo though, but I love chorizo. Yeah, I know, it’s weird, but what can I say?