The Deep End interview with Jack Ketchum

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Nov 23, 2016   Blog   1 Comment
jack-ketchum-add-copyright_steve_thorntonPhoto Copyright ©Steve Thornton

Joe Mynhardt: 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?

Jack Ketchum: When I was growing up, an only child, I learned early on how to amuse myself with my own imagination. Luckily our home was on a dead-end street surrounded by woods and a stream that ran right behind our house so there was plenty to explore and plenty to feed that imagination. I was constantly making up stories, whether traipsing through the woods or playing with my toy soldiers and dinosaurs down by the stream. All that was on the positive side. On the negative side, my parents fought bitterly nights and our house was small, so I heard quite a lot of it even with the door closed to my bedroom. I think that scared me young, and I stayed scared, and I guess that fed into the darker side of my imagination. By the time I hit junior high school I was already writing, getting both the good stuff and the bad stuff out of me.

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?

Jack: Yeah. It was 1976 and I was working—way overworking—as a literary agent here in New York City. It was pouring rain that day after work and I had a stack of manuscripts under my arm to read that night, with nothing to protect them, and I was wearing a Burberry raincoat which was decidedly not waterproof and a pair of expensive Paul Stuart shoes that were getting ruined and there were no cabs around and then HURRAH! there was one and I reached for the door just as a little old lady did too, and I pushed her out of my way and immediately thought, what have I done? Who am I? I apologized profusely and suggested we share the cab and she said yes and got in. I kept explaining to her that I wasn’t really that kind of guy, that I was really, really sorry and it was just a hideous day at work and she just kept nodding and saying uh-huh – she wouldn’t let me off the hook for a minute, bless her heart. When I got home that evening I told Paula and said, I’ve really got to quit this job and she said, oh yes, You do.

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 underwhelming, which motivated you to even greater heights? 

Jack: When I was writing for the magazines, right after dumping the job, I was delighted to find out I was actually able to support myself by writing full-time. And it was motivating as all hell. Validating. I couldn’t wait to get up on the morning. Then, when I wrote OFF SEASON in 1980-81 and Ballantine published it, I was absolutely thrilled – and then, scared. Because who knew? maybe I was a one-shot wonder, and it took me two more books to convince myself that wasn’t the case, that I was going to be in this for the duration.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

Jack: What friends and family? Just kidding. I don’t think it’s done much. Most of my close friends are New Yorkers, and New Yorkers are less impressed by success than most people I think – they more or less expect it. What my career has done, however, it to expose me to a lot of people from all walks of life in all kinds of jobs and situations I probably would never have met were it not for my being out there, if you know what I mean. Great perk.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
Jack: Career or writing? Writing would be Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson and Robert Bloch as a teenager, then in college Harold Pinter, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, D. H. Lawrence, Edward Albee. Later, Raymond Chandler, Peter Straub, Charles Bukowski, Steve King. I’m still “influenced” by every good book I read, and happily, there are a lot of them. As to my career, Robert Bloch early on. He encouraged me when I was just a green kid, straight through until the day he died. I wouldn’t be here without Bob. Of that I’m morally certain. Then, once I started publishing, Stephen King. He’s been a wonderful booster for my work for years now, right up to the present, with a terrific blurb for THE SECRET LIFE OF SOULS.

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?

Jack: I like RETURNS, about a man—a ghost—who comes back for his cat.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

Jack: I don’t have a set of target words. I write until I start to feel stupid. Then I stop. Before I have to rip out whatever else I might continue to stupidly write the following day.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

Jack: Animal abuse. There’s a book I’d like to write someday on the subject, but I don’t know if I want to live with those images in my head long enough to do so. Maybe one day I’ll get up the nerve, but I dunno…

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

Jack: I’m not obsessive enough to think about writing all day. That would be awful! I read a lot—on average, about a book and a half a week—and I watch a lot of movies. Often one a night for long stretches of time. Netflix makes little on me. Then, most days when I finish writing and I’ve fed the cats, I hit my neighbourhood bar for an hour, hour and a half, and see what some of my friends are up to.

Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?

Jack: I’ve met kindergarten teachers and foot-fetishists, doctors, cops and dominatrixes. If you get people going on something they know about, almost everyone’s happy to talk with you. But the only ongoing relationship I’ve had that began as mere research was with Richard Carey, an ex-Vietnam vet I met while researching COVER, whose wife and he were incredibly generous in sharing their experiences of that period with me over drinks and dinner. After a while the drinks and dinner became such fun they were just as important as the research. I miss them very much.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

Jack: Learning to really watch and listen. As a kid I always felt like an outsider, so I got pretty good at both things as a kind of survival mechanism early on. But knowing I could use what I saw and heard in the course of a story made me hone those skills to a much finer degree. Suddenly I was not only learning just to fit in, I was stealing! Eavesdropping is stealing, after all. And everybody knows that if you don’t get caught, stealing’s a whole lot of fun.

Joe: How did being author change you as a person?

Jack: To quote Joyce Carol Oates, “I never change, I just become more myself.” Writing full-time for me coincided with my reaching my 30s, and I think you’re not exactly comfortable in your own shoes until you reach your 30s. Before that, it’s all exploration, testing the boundaries of who you are and might become. But then if you’re lucky you can start to relax more, poke at those boundaries rather than trying to dynamite them, expand on what you know yourself to be. In my case the two sides of my personality became more defined. The solitary part was quite happy in my own company, writing when I wanted to allowing myself to lie fallow when I didn’t. The social part of me started going to Cons, doing readings, some minor acting, hitting the bar for an hour or so evenings instead of slamming it all night long.

Joe: Which response / comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

Jack: There have been many wonderful comments over the years and I’m loathe to just pick one  Some are book-specific – like the times I’ve been told by women that they were abused as kids and that THE GIRL NEXT DOOR helped them work through that. Others are more general but just as rewarding. People telling me that my books or a given book started them reading for pleasure for the first time, that it had become a lifelong habit since. You get that from somebody? Boy it makes you smile!

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

Jack: Reached that already. To live a life of words, emotions and ideas, to share that life with others—and never again have to wear a godamn tie to go to work.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

Jack: Hell, I dunno. How about I give you an epitaph instead. “Here lies Jack Ketchum. The other Jack Ketchum. The one they didn’t hang.”



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