The Deep End interview with author J.S. Breukelaar
Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?
JS: I grew up in a small town in western New York State modelled on Little Ridge, in Aletheia. When I was a teenager, my family moved us to Sydney, Australia, which for a small-town American girl was like going to a different planet. I moved back to the States for a while and these days I straddle the two hemispheres pretty seamlessly, but I think that shock to my system—moving from a remote lake town to the big smoke on the other side of the planet—was profoundly disorientating and this sense of disorientation is in everything I write.
Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?
JS: No. I was always an author, if not in action then in intention. The moment when I decided to stop taking crap jobs to support those intentions was when I was a young mother and my husband and I decided to go back to school. We had two kids and I was still doing all sorts of part-time jobs like temping and data entry and so on and one of my husband’s colleagues offered me another data entry job. It was worth $300 and I said no. I decided that hell or high water, writing for money—didn’t matter what kind of writing—to support writing for love was going to be the rule from then on. The next week, a friend at Time Warner Publications sent me a book for me to write a sample review. If it was any good, I could be a regular book reviewer for Who Weekly (the Australia-New Zealand title of People Weekly). They took my review and that, along with a gig ghostwriting fashion copy for a clothing manufacturer (like Elaine in Seinfeld for the J Peterman catalogue), was how I paid my way through school. Since then, all my day jobs have been writing or teaching.
Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?
JS: I got an article accepted by the San Diego Herald Tribune and I yelled so loud you could hear me down in Mexico. It was a total high. I sold my first fiction story to John Joseph Adams at Lightspeed. Cue more screaming and yelling.
Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?
JS: It hasn’t. Of course I’ve made some friends who I wouldn’t have made without being a writer, and my life is better with them in it. My family continues to be the air that I breathe, and the reason I do this is to make them proud, so I love it when they are. Except that probably would have been the case no matter what career I chose. Intense writing jags, when I don’t come out of my office for days at a time, are tough on my husband, but that’s what you sign up for, right? I try and make it up to him.
Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
JS: Pretty sure that my early career was influenced by writers I read at college, and before that even. Cervantes first, then Poe, Melville, Shelley, Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Oates, McCarthy, Borges. I read, along with Cervantes, a lot of Latino writers and I’m sure they had a lasting influence—Cisneros, Fuentes, Bolano, Marquez—along with Straub, King, Shelley. And the list just gets longer—Stephen Graham Jones, Kelly Link, Joe Hill, Jeffrey Ford, Cathrynne Valente, Amelia Gray, Seb Doubinsky—I wouldn’t call them influences as much as wild rides thundering up the road just ahead of me, just around the next bend.
Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?
JS: I’m proud of my breakout story, “Lion Man.” That took me back to a house that had been haunting me for a while and unleashed a lot of other stories I didn’t know were in me. And I’m proud of a recent story, “Rogues Bay 3030” (Gamut), which is set in a different landscape, a more antipodean place that was harder for me to reach in my fiction, and I’m glad I finally did.
Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?
JS: Itchy all over.
Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?
JS: They’re all difficult.
Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?
JS: I always think about writing. I’m most relaxed when I’m working. I run. I spend time with my family. I’m a Netflix junkie.
Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?
JS: For my first book, which was about a DJ, I met a bunch of musicians and DJs. They were generous of their time and talents, but I’m not really still friends with them. For American Monster, I spent time on the road in Southern California, and people I met worked their way into the book, and I’m grateful for that kindness of strangers. The characters in that book are still very much my friends if that counts.
Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?
JS: Being organised. It’s a skill I haven’t mastered yet but it’s the one that, when I do, will give me special powers.
Joe: How did being author change you as a person?
JS: Not really at all. I wasn’t ever not an author.
Joe: Which response /comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?
JS: That’s impossible to say. Every single time anyone reaches out—either in person or on Goodreads or wherever— to tell me that something I wrote touched them in some indelible way, it pretty much proves to me that this thing with words is something we should all just keep doing the best way we can. Most recently I was at WFC and a reader commented that American Monster destroyed them and made them different after that, and by the end of the conversation we were both in tears. I’ll always be grateful for moments like that. Oh, and a beta reader for Aletheia told me that after she finished the read, she went on to an iconic novel by a bestselling author, and the whole time she was reading that she couldn’t get my characters out of her head. “How do you do that?” she asked. So I guess that thing we do, finding characters that live on in hearts and minds, is pretty much the end game here.
Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?
JS: Survival. I don’t mean that flippantly, or even in terms of the “business,” but literally. Getting this wascally wabbit under control is part of that, but it’s ongoing. Every time you think you’ve got it wrangled—words and sentences and story and character and time—it slips out from under and you’re back to that same old thing again. Process. Practice. Survival.
Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
JS: I don’t think about that, honestly. Kind of like asking a bullfighter or a gladiator or a werewolf about legacies. You’re too caught up in going the distance to think about what happens after that.