John Linwood Grant

[Today, we sit down for an interview with editor and author, John Linwood Grant. Here, he discusses his love of genre fiction; his work with Occult Detective Magazine and other publications; and his upcoming projects.]

ev0ke: Most of your writing could be classified as fantasy, weird fiction, or crime. What draws you to those genres? As a writer, what do you find most compelling about them?

John Linwood Grant: I describe the bulk of my work as strange or worrying tales. The genre under which they’re published and marketed is a different matter, and I’ll usually go with whoever commissions or purchases them, so that isn’t always my call. I might be also be listed as a horror writer, but although I do frequently include elements of horror, it’s not quite who I am. Not that I mind a lot if it sells — my dogs gotta eat.

I tend to write character-based stories. I’m fond of limited descriptions and clear dialogue, exploring how individuals react to difficult circumstances. You can do this in almost any genre, but the ones above offer plenty of opportunities. I do like ‘weird fiction’, a field in which disquiet and uncertainty can operate without being constrained by reader expectations of simple cause and effect; magical realism is closely related.

Many of my tales are also close to historical fiction — my story ‘On Ullins Bank’, for one, is about Edwardian single-boat fishermen on the North Sea, but is also sort of folk horror and sort of dark fantasy. Probably the only time I do straight crime is in the case of Holmes pastiches and the occasional story about Mr Dry, my Edwardian assassin, but even there I like a bit of subversion.

ev0ke: You note that you started writing some twenty-five years ago, but then got side-tracked by a “real job.” What advice can you offer other writers who are struggling to get published, or to even find the time to sit down and actually write?

JLG: Hmm. I’m not good on advice. Still … time is generally a choice. You have to choose not to do other things, which can be hard. Sometimes it means choosing not to do things you should really be doing — in a full time job, or with kids, for example, that means making a decision every day. An hour where you don’t wash up, play ball, talk to your partner, or stare at the TV. Or don’t sleep, even though you’re knackered.

Struggling to get published is an odd one, because anyone can put their own work out. To get published by someone else, to get paid for it, relies on practicality, craft, persistence, and sheer luck. You can work on the first three. Lots of writers don’t check the markets and openings well enough, despite thinking they do — my first story was published by a small Young Adult press in the States, one I’d never heard of. At the time, I dug deep to look at every single opening, and that one wasn’t necessarily where I wanted to head at all — but it paid. It got me into print.

For me, craft is vital. I’m more an artisan than an artist. If you don’t know how to use a chisel properly, it’s going to be a long time before your sculptures or carvings are what they should be. Inspiration and wild original ideas are great, but if you can’t convey them, then what? A huge number of rejected stories are simply not well enough written, or are stylistically pedestrian. Nothing more complex than that.

And persistence is simple. If you’ve researched the openings, and have a handle on the craft, you keep at it. Each time you get rejected, see if there are any hints, and then read what they did accept. Show your story to someone else, preferable someone strong enough to point out where you screwed up (if you did). Revisit it with a cold eye, and ask yourself if it’s as good as you originally thought. If it is, submit it somewhere else.

As for luck — such as in getting noticed at all — you can sometimes game that factor by networking and using social media, but be a human being, not a ‘full of yourself’ writer or a pointless provocateur. Needy writers who only have eyes for themselves, who promote sub-standard, unchecked books, who ask questions they could have answered by doing five seconds of research, don’t draw the eye.

ev0ke: You recently published “A Farewell to Worms” in Space & Time Magazine. Congratulations! Given the pun of the title, are you a Hemingway fan? And what was your favorite part about that story?

JLG: I vary on Hemingway, and probably have more interest in his journalism than his fiction — I know more about his Spanish Civil War stuff than the rest — but I appreciate some of the pithy, direct style he often used. The title was simply a shameless steal — all writers are thieves.

On the story itself, I most enjoyed pitting mythic and folkloric elements against the simplicity of what a pain it was for the protagonist to be stuck in such a role. He’s annoyed, frustrated. Greek demonic imps, kallikantzaroi, are people, too.

ev0ke: You have edited or currently edit a number of different projects, including Hell’s Empire and Occult Detective Magazine. As someone who works as both a writer and an editor, what do you wish that other writers would keep in mind? What do they need to understand about the editing process that they don’t?

JLG: What do I wish that writers would keep in mind? That guidelines are totally there for a reason — both thematic and stylistic ones — and ignoring them pushes the submission to the bottom of the heap. Amazing how many writers skip that aspect. That if I have to choose between two stories of reasonably similar quality, I’ll take the one that has decent grammar and was spellchecked. That a great and original idea isn’t enough if the story around it doesn’t make any sense to the average editor (me) — I can’t have confidence that enough of the readers will get it. Selecting stories and finding a balance of different pieces takes up a huge amount of time. I will sometimes do a few developmental edits if I can see the author’s so close to something really good, but I don’t want to have to. The hard work should have been done before submission.

If your story’s decent and on topic, then rejecting material ends up being a matter of how much space and money the editor has with which to play. In the case of ODM, we take maybe 5% of what we get sent; other publishers accept far less than that.

Also, stop using tab indents.

ev0ke: Along with Dave Brzeski, you took over editorship of Occult Detective after the unfortunate passing of Sam Gafford. What do you wish that you saw more of in terms of submissions, and what plans do you have for the magazine?

JLG: I was a co-founder of the magazine, and an editor from Day One, but we soon found Dave indispensable; he and his partner are now the publishers, which makes us wholly UK-based for the first time. Thanks to a lot of hard work and sponsorship, ODM’s doing fairly well now (cue earthquake, storms, acts of gods), so the priority is to continue with a run of regular, high quality issues. Reliability. We do have a tentative plan to put out a bumper issue with some stories that wouldn’t fit into the regular size issues, but we shelved giving away a free penguin with each issue because of shipping costs.

Fairly happy with submissions at the moment, but I’ve said many times that the magazine is exploratory. So although we still want classic period-style mysteries/supernatural stuff, and contemporary Western psychic/occult, we’re also very keen on tales set across the globe, stories from non-white authors who have a different perspective, and unexpected historical settings. We like to show where occult detectives can go, not just where they’ve been in the past.

ev0ke: What are some of your favorite examples of the occult detective genre? Any classic authors that you recommend?

The bedrock is William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder, purely because Carnacki remains the archetypal occult detective — sceptical enough not to assume everything was supernatural; practical enough to investigate in a reasoned fashion; human enough to get scared sometimes. Half his cases turn out to be hoaxes. Blackwood’s Dr. John Silence is good, but as a character he’s sometimes a bit cerebral and pompous for me. The most fun is Flaxman Low, written by a mother/son team under the name E & H Heron. Low’s adventures vary from the interesting to the ludicrous, with logic abandoned, so are always worth a read, even if it’s just to go “But…” at the end.

ev0ke: You have published several Mamma Lucy stories. First, why stories featuring an African-American woman in the South? What do you find so interesting about that time and place?

JLG: I’ve always had an interest in the Cunning Folk, the tradition of community-based practitioners, witch-finders, witches, hedge-wizards, herbalist, and more. They’re not the grand sorcerers of fantasy, or the dedicated occultists in their temples and Lodges — they serve a different purpose. They do mostly small things, as need arises, and often for average people in distress or with illnesses. Mamma Lucy is one such, and as an old guy from a rural background, with folk history around me, I felt resonance with an old woman walking the Eastern Seaboard of the States, South and North. The combination of the blues, hoodoo, and the abominations of the Jim Crow laws came together at the back of my mind, and I couldn’t shake the image and presence of her, walking barefoot through the 1920s, a witness but with agency.

ev0ke: What sort of research goes into the Mamma Lucy stories? Stacks of books? Long hours at the library?

JLG: Yes. I’ve said before elsewhere that I’m not even sure I should be writing them — I’m hardly black, after all, though I’m of an age. If I couldn’t avoid the character, I had to be sure that I could offer respect, and that I neither over-dramatised or under-played her circumstances. I wanted no stereotypes, and no scapegoating for cheap thrills. She’s not barefoot out of poverty — that’s how she likes to feel the land; she’s not ‘sassy’ or ‘ornery’ to fit a role, like a token black character shoved in there — she’s the key protagonist and what she does is in her nature. She’ll challenge wickedness in anyone, of any colour, yet she knows only too well what her own people are facing.

I drew on hoodoo folk tradition, not the more Southern and Caribbean voodoo approaches. And Protestant syncretism, not Catholic. The root and conjure work she does is based on real practices from the period and earlier. I prefer to research black and rural sources, not second-hand white compilations made many decades later. And even then, I occasionally have my doubts.

ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?

JLG: I have a lot of stuff out there, from Holmes in the Middle East, through dark Edwardian supernatural, to contemporary weird fiction. I prefer writing short stories and novelettes, so I’m in a load of magazines and anthologies — my Amazon Author Page will give you a taste, or my Goodreads page. My last longer work was The Assassin’s Coin, the story of Catherine Weatherhead (an unreliable psychic), the consummate assassin Mr. Edwin Dry, and the Whitechapel Murderer.

I’m also active on my eclectic site, greydogtales.

ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?

JLG: It might be useful if I really knew — I tend to say Yes to things, and then worry afterwards. I’ve just completed two volumes of Sherlock Holmes & the Occult Detectives [Volume One and Volume Two] for Belanger Books, and ODM #7 for Dave’s Cathaven Press. I’m involved in a big, forthcoming dark humour project for Crystal Lake Publishing, and have been asked about editing another couple of anthologies. Three or four more of my own stories will be out in various places during the summer, maybe another collection eventually, and I hope to get down to some solid writing in the meantime. And spend time with the dogs.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]