Author Interview – Jon Black
In the latest in my on-going series of interviews with authors I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’ve been able to get to speak to Jon Black, one of the most talented and impressive authors I’ve had the privilege to come to know through the years of running this book review blog. He’s the author of the absolutely superb Jazz-Era occult mystery thriller Gabriel’s Trumpet and the on-going novel series Bel Nemeton that deftly blends mythological and modern-day action-adventures to create a fascinating take on Arthurian fantasy, as well as a number of novellas and short stories that focus on occult horror. He was kind enough to find time in his schedule to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspirations behind his different books, including the Bel Nemeton series; how he manages to write in different genres; and what his plans are for the future.
Hi there Jon, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
I was raised in a university town north of Dallas. My mid-20s were spent bouncing around various locations in the world before ultimately landing in Austin. My previous jobs include archaeological excavator, Benjamin Franklin impersonator, embassy worker, graduate assistant, newspaper reporter, pizza jockey, political speechwriter, small business owner, substitute teacher, and summer camp counselor…not necessarily in the order you might expect.
I’ve been earning my living from writing, in some form or fashion, since 1997. Initially that included speechwriting, ghostwriting, and other things most people don’t find exciting. In 1999, I added journalism to the mix. Starting in 2008, I dove into music journalism and music history, reflecting a passion for music which later finds its way into my fiction. In 2015, I started writing for roleplaying games.
Writing fiction always interested me. I had big, elaborate plans about how I would break into fiction. Then, early in 2016, I had a very slow spring with a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. Answering a submission call for an anthology seemed like a good way to start. A writing prompt, a specific word count, a hard deadline: it all seemed perfect. Looking around, I found the submission call for 18th Wall’s anthology After Avalon, looking for stories about the central characters and elements of Arthuriana – but set after the fall of Camelot and death of Arthur.
I banged out a tale called “Bel Nemeton,” about 16K words, and submitted it. This next part of the tale is one I don’t often tell, I know it’s not typical and sometimes results in grumbling from other authors. About 48 hours later, I received a response. Not only did 18th Wall accept my story for the anthology, but they inquired as to my wiliness to expand the short story into a novel and use it to anchor a series.
I was 42 years old when that happened. I wish I started writing fiction a lot sooner. So, I always tell people, if you want to write fiction – don’t fret or plot or scheme – just do it.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
My guideposts have not changed much since I started writing. Caleb Carr and Harry Turtledove are my benchmarks for writing well-researched, compelling historical figures. Likewise, they are inspiring examples of how research pays off in big ways. Speaking of research, Neal Stephenson is my proof that a work of fiction can essentially double as a textbook yet tell an exciting and irresistible story. The various Mythos authors are big influences on the flavor and atmosphere I seek in writing horror and supernatural mystery. Clive Cussler and Dan Brown speak to the kind of plots I enjoy crafting though, admittedly, my style and flavor cleaves much closer to Cussler than Brown. For models of detailed, multi-dimensional, believable worlds I look to King, Lovecraft, and (one of these things is not like the other) Garrison Keillor. Authors Dan Franck (Bohemian Paris), Erik Larsen (Isaac’s Storm), and Juliet Nicholson (The Perfect Summer) write non-fiction history in a style rivaling the best novels for color and human-driven narrative. I have tried to create the mirror image of those styles: engaging fiction which has the ring of historical truth. On a slightly different tack, as a young person I zealously read YA author Daniel Pinkwater and have been strongly influenced by his tales of a quirky, eccentric world lurking just below the surface of daily life.
Some of my most powerful influences, however, are cinematic rather than literary. In particular, I need to cite three gloriously terrible films from the ‘80s and early ‘90s: Big Trouble in Little China, The Golden Child, and Hudson Hawk. The common threads there are a contemporary pulp aesthetic mixed with at least a nod to some highbrow concepts, a bit of magical realism or at least slipstream, and quirky humor. I start with the conceit that all three of these films take place in the same universe…and want everything I write to fit seamlessly into that universe. Buckaroo Banzai: Adventures in the 8th Dimension almost makes the cut but is so stylistically distinctive and over the top (even by the standards of the other three) that it can’t always be ported.
You’ve written stories that take place across multiple genres, but some of your earlier novellas and stories are based around occult horror. What attracted you to Horror as a genre in the first place? And what keeps you around in the genre?
That’s a good question. I had to think about my answer a bit. I think it’s true that authors generally write what they enjoy reading, and that’s certainly the case here. I might argue that several of my works often classified as horror (most notably the novel Gabriel’s Trumpet) are more properly “supernatural mystery” than horror, but that’s splitting hairs on my part.
I don’t want to in any way suggest that horror is a “training wheels” genre, but some of its conventions make it forgiving for a fledging writer. First, the majority of horror stories are set in a world that is mostly the one we know. Ergo, the world-building demands for writing horror don’t have to be as taxing as, say, fantasy or science fiction. Second, the genre is highly tolerant or even actively supportive of ambiguity, things which are never explained, or even apparently contradictory. Again, this is not to suggest to that horror is a lesser genre. The same traits that make horror a forgiving genre for novices also make it sublime in the hands of a veteran.
Your first horror novel was Gabriel’s Trumpet, published by 18thWall Productions. It’s an emotionally-charged Jazz-Era tale that intertwines supernatural chills with the very human and equally horrifying realities of racial discrimination in early-20th Century America. I believe this started as a shorter piece of fiction before it was expanded to become a full-length novel? What led to you expanding on that story to create a longer piece of fiction? And how did you go about writing such a complex tale?
“Gabriel’s Trumpet” originally appeared as a short story in 18th Wall’s 1920s horror/supernatural anthology Speakeasies & Spiritualists. If memory serves, word count for the anthology was limited to 16,000 words. My initial draft for the story was about half-again that. So I had all this material I couldn’t use in the anthology and an awareness that Gabriel’s Trumpet could be a much longer, grander story delving much deeper in to the rich music, literature, and folklore of the 1920s. At that time, 18th Wall had already asked me to expand my short story “Bel Nemeton” into a novel, so I was aware they were open such things. I reached out to them and proposed a novel-length version of “Gabriel’s Trumpet” and, to my great delight, they agreed.
A couple of things were necessary to make that work. First, I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler but, while Gabriel’s Trumpet has only one point of view, that of physician and paranormal investigator Marcus Roads, there are three characters whose experiences are essential to the plot: Dr. Roads, Gabriel Gibbs, and Rebekah Gibbs. To make that work, I had to write each of their stories separately, starting with Gabriel, then Rebekah, and finally Marcus, and then figure out how to integrate them into a single, coherent narrative.
Second, while I have a good working knowledge of the story’s three main locations, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, and New York City, to really make them come alive in a novel, I needed to do significant additional research. That was especially true regarding the historical figures making appearances in the novel – particularly those that were significant to the plot, rather than just functioning as local color: poet Langston Hughes, chronicler of the weird Charles Fort, photographer E.J. Belloc, and recording engineer Ralph Peer.
Some of your more recent horror tales have been short stories in the new Horror USA anthology series, which is being released by SOTEIRA Press and which apparently aims to have an anthology for each of the 50 States in the USA. That’s a project I’m greatly fascinated by! What can you tell us about the stories you’ve had published in those anthologies so far? And do you think you’d be able to find enough material for a story from each State?
This series has been a true delight. While I revel in international travel, something I hope is reflected in the Bel Nemeton series, America offers a lot of beauty, wonder, and weirdness close to home. The Horror USA series has been a chance to explore that. I am very proud that I’ve had stories appear in all three titles released so far (to the best of my knowledge, I am the only author with that distinction).
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Eats its Children,” in the California anthology, was a chance to put my background in music journalism and music history to good use. Kyle Acevedo, an LA-based music journalist, sees the chance to make his name after discovering a lead on an obscure band from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and an entirely unknown music venue along the Salton Sea. An artificial, and accidental, inland sea in southern California, the Salton Sea has always held a powerful fascination for me. After a brief heyday as a tourist hotspot in the 1950s and ‘60s, economic decline and environmental catastrophe set in – and a lot of bizarre “off the grid” types moved in – which is precisely as Kyle finds it during his journey to learn more about Sherri & The Skylarks and the mysterious Renewal Room.
“Darker than Black,” in the Texas anthology, takes place during the West Texas oil boom of the 1930s. The story follows ‘Harvard,’ a one-time college man forced by hard times to take up the life of an oilfield roughneck. When the drill bit on Harvard’s rig breaks and has to be replaced, dredging up a mysterious artifact that definitely should not be a mile underground, things on the drill site go bad…and quickly get worse. In seeking to unravel the mystery and protect his crew, Harvard uncovers a dark history stretching back to the land’s earliest occupants and beyond. I’ve been intrigued by reviews of “Darker than Black.” A story sticking closely to Mythos tropes, it has been rightly pointed out that plot doesn’t really break any new ground. At the same time, reviewers say that its setting and, especially, characters, really make the story work. Astute readers may also notice that “Darker than Black” gets a small shout-out in the second Bel Nemeton novel.
“Rapture of the Birdman,” in the Washington State anthology, follows Ana. Experiencing a midlife crisis and going through a divorce, she takes a vacation to Washington State as possible preparation for following her original dream of moving there. Hiking a remote trail through Washington’s pine forests, she finds herself trapped in a space-time anomaly filled with wonders, dangers, and general weirdness. “Rapture of the Birdman” was an opportunity to bring together some of my favorite quirky elements of the state’s folklore and history, including one of its most enduring mysteries – the fate of hijacker D.B. Cooper.
I do believe, time and schedule permitting, I would be capable of crafting a story for every state. For many, ideas immediately present themselves. Others would require research to find the right inspiration. Unfortunately, I worry Soteira may have overreached themselves and the series appears to have gone dormant. I am currently sitting on unused stories for Alaska and Louisiana (and a partial on Hawaii that I haven’t quite worked out), so I very much hope they get back to it. If not, I am hopeful I can find a home for them with 18th Wall. “The Novitiate,” my Alaska story, has a tie-in with Bel Nemeton’s Jake Booker. “No Mother’s Son,” the Louisiana offering, would make a nice bonus story with my upcoming novel Chupacabra vs. Rougarou.
Your other major publications are the Bel Nemeton series of novels (Bel Nemeton and the newly-published Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch) which bring together Arthurian mythology and modern-day archaeology to create some hugely entertaining and thrilling globe-trotting adventures that span entire millennia. How did you first come up with the idea of Bel Nemeton as a concept? And what’s the idea behind the series as a whole?
As I mentioned earlier, my gateway into writing was 18th Wall’s After Avalon, an anthology of stories about the central characters and elements of Arthuriana – but set after the fall of Camelot and death of Arthur. To me, Merlin is Arthuriana’s most interesting character. Imagining what he would do “after Avalon,” I pictured him leaving Britain behind and wandering the 6th century world, seeing what there was to see and learning what there was to learn. That, by itself, felt too straightforward. So, I decided to reveal the story of Merlin through two points of view. First, the eyes of the druid himself. Second, from the perspectives of a 21st century professor of Celtic linguistics and a treasure hunter as they struggle to outwit rivals on a globetrotting race to find Merlin’s tomb and treasure.
There are a couple of different ideas at work behind the Bel Nemeton series. First, it will be an eight-volume reimagining, through Merlin’s eyes, of Arthurian mythology, from the king’s youngest days to Merlin’s post-Camelot wanderings. All the books will use the same split 6th century/21st century point of view as the original. I also wanted to use the series to explore the diversity of Celtic culture and history, so seven on the volumes concern themselves primarily with one Celtic region: Brittany (the first book, Bel Nemeton), Cornwall (the upcoming Bel Nemeton: Mark of Cornwall), Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland (the second book, Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch), Wales, and northern Iberia – with an eight book reserved for the Grail Quest.
Not only do the two novels have some brilliant, fast-paced adventures both in the distant past and the modern day, but there’s also clearly been a huge amount of academic research put into them by yourself. From details about forging ancient weaponry, to the requirements of modern-day archaeological practices, and even inventing your own version of a long-dead language, you’ve clearly done a great deal more effort into these novels than your competitors! What led to you conducting such a detailed level of research for the novels? Does it tie into some hobbies, perhaps, or general interests?
I love research for its own sake. That being said, the research for the Bel Nemeton series draws upon some longstanding passions and interests: a 40-year love affair with tabletop roleplaying games as well as interests in travel, history, archeology, culture, libraries, and even the history of food and drink. Two confessions; firstly, Arthurian mythology was never a special passion for me prior to being contracted to write the Bel Nemeton series. I wonder, however, if this is an asset rather than a liability, giving me greater confidence and willingness to deviate from source material in ways that seem novel and engaging. Second, linguistics has never been a particular interest of mine and I definitely do not have a gift for languages. Wrapping my head around the field well enough to convincingly write a protagonist who is a linguistics professor is, hands down, the most challenging component of research for the series.
It certainly seems like the Bel Nemeton novels are your most popular and well-reviewed titles yet – what do you think is drawing in readers to the series? Do you think it’s something to do with the blend of Arthurian mysticism and modern-day adventures that’s rarely been seen before? Or is there perhaps something else to it than just that?
I think several things play into its popularity. First, I believe you are correct, the split 6th century/21st century setting probably draws in some readers who might be inclined take a pass on a story featuring only one time period or the other. Footloose readers definitely enjoy the emphasis on travel and the elaborate descriptions of its various locations, whether contemporary or in the distant past. Others respond to the quirky, tongue-in-cheek yet internally consistent reimagining of Arthuriana and 6th century Britain.
The most consistent feedback, however, I’ve received on why people like the series is the characters. The portrayal of Merlin as equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf, and MacGyver really resonates with many people. The same is true of the 21st century protagonists. I’m very flattered by the feedback I’ve gotten on Dr. Vivian Quinnsey as a strong, compelling female lead. And everyone seems to love Jake Booker, something I find somewhat surprising. The Texas oil man, even one turned treasure hunter, is such an easy character (or even caricature) to dislike. But something about “Han Solo with a big bank account” seems to enchant people. For the 21st century arc, I think part of the hook has been playing both protagonists against type: the brainy academic with a two-fisted streak and the man of action with the heart of a nerd.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
You nailed it the first time. While I have a home office I use for days at a time, sometimes the distractions of wife, cats, etc. are too much to resist. At those times, I retreat to Epoch Coffee, a 24-hour coffeehouse (well, it is when there’s not a pandemic). A lot of my best writing occurs there, usually between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Epoch is home to a vibrant community of authors and other creative types, so it is a really fertile environment for writing and discussing story ideas. It is also where I’ve met many of the subject-matter experts who have been so useful for the research in my stories. This is includes the professor who informs my vision of Dr. Vivian Quinnsey’s academic life, the historical bladesmiths who supplied most of the information for Caledfwlch, and my “cars and guns guy” who I tap for almost every story I write.
One thing that surprises people, considering my background, is that I rarely listen to music while writing. Because I engage so actively with music, my signals get scrambled way too easily and that makes it very difficult to put myself entirely in a story. On the other hand, I find that the anonymous chatter of conversation as background noise is very conducive to writing, another reason I enjoy working from the coffeehouse.
Would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novels and entire series?
My writing style has definitely evolved over time. Paradoxically, as I spend more time on novels, I find my sentences becoming more succinct and less loquacious. I’m still a long way from, say, Hemingway. But I’ve definitely moved in his direction on the continuum over time. I also hope I’ve grown more nuanced with exposition. Personally, I am a fan of Neal Stephenson-style exposition dumps, but I accept that those of us who are mere mortals can’t get away with that.
Apart from Horror and Arthurian Mythology, are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
I feel comfortable saying I’ve found my true passions (if, indeed, there was ever any question about what they were). That being said, there definitely are genres I’d like to try my hand at, including science fiction, fantasy, and alt-history.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? Having just released Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch, are you returning to that world in the near-future? Or perhaps another existing universe, like Gabriel’s Trumpet? Or are there new things on the horizon for 2021 and further in the future?
I have several projects in the pipeline about which I’m excited.
My main focus (which I’m very, very past deadline on) is an adventure for the new time travel roleplaying game, Paradoxes and Possibilities, created by James Bojaciuk, CEO if 18th Wall Productions, and author/illustrator Sophie Iles. It’s a great system incorporates all the elements I like from contemporary rpgs. My adventure, very heavy on roleplaying and social interaction, sends characters back to pal around with Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Clarie Clairmont as they huddle in their dark, cold villa along Lake Geneva’s shores and tell the stories which will become the foundations of modern horror. The characters must stop a rival time traveler, and failed horror writer, from injecting his own campy yet disturbing vision of horror into the genre’s beginnings.
Overdue is an anthology of stories set in shared universe bringing together my Bel Nemeton series with M.H. Norris’s All the Petty Myths, both from 18th Wall. This anthology revolves around the quest to recover and rediscover lost or forgotten books. We were extremely fortunate to receive many well-crafted, imaginative stories from very talented authors. And the genres are all over the map: Mythos, thriller, young adult, mystery, slipstream, caper, and even one most accurately described as romance (and, I won’t lie, the romance is one of my favorite stories in the anthology). My contribution to the anthology, “Provenance,” delves into the art and science of forgery, linguistics, Near Eastern mythology, and the pre-Bel Nemeton history of Jake Booker. Also, look for a little tidbit suggesting that Bel Nemeton and Gabriel’s Trumpet take place in the same universe.
The third book in the Bel Nemeton series, Mark of Cornwall, is already in progress. The 6th century component is a reimaging of Tristan and Isolde, reworked to give Merlin a central role and tying their romance into the broader quest to establish Arthur as the King of the Britons. The 21st century arc brings more globetrotting brainy action, taking Vivian and Jake to Argentina, Africa and Afghanistan as well as a journey through the weirder corners of North American colonial history. I know many readers will also be pleased by the return of the Bond-villain-esque General Gumanizov.
I have a novel-length story appearing in Total War, an anthology of War of the Worlds related stories. “The Clash at Crush” is a Weird West caper story occurring against the backdrop of the Martian invasion. It contains many of the elements I know you enjoy in my stories, but I’ve thrown in one twist. Three of the historical figures most significant to the story, members of the caper crew, are not identified by names which would make them instantly recognizable. That having been said, the text is littered with clues that should allow readers to put the pieces together.
I am also very excited about the upcoming Chupacabra vs. Rougarou, part of 18th Wall’s Cryptid Clash series. It combines a campy, over-the-top “direct to cable TV”-style monster mashup between the eponymous goat sucker and the Cajun werewolf with a deep dive into the history, folklore, and Forteana of Louisiana.
I’m also working on an as of yet untitled collection of short stories set in Junzt County, a fictitious region of the Texas Hill Country, my answer to Lovecraft’s Arkham. Its stories are spread across time from the Great Depression to the present day. In addition to several original tales, the collection is anchored by a novel-length expansion of “Totmann’s Curve,” my Mythos-adjacent tale set against a backdrop of 1950s hot-rodding, as well as the 1980s weird tale “Pioneer House” and the 1930s Texas Gothic “So Lonesome I Could Die,” all of which have previously appeared elsewhere.
Finally, since you specifically asked about it, while I am not ruling it out, I currently have no plans to bring back Gabriel’s Trumpet’s Marcus Roads as a protagonist in future stories. I do, however, have one idea which would feature an older version of the good doctor in a supporting role.