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?
Jonathan Winn: I grew up in a very small town in Western Washington State surrounded by trees, trees and more trees. And since I didn’t have a large social circle growing up—my best friend was me and often only me—I spent most of my time alone sitting in my bedroom or under the shade of a tree.
But the solitude of being an outcast—no prom or homecoming or anything like that, really—forced me to connect with my imagination, the creation of elaborate worlds filled with magic and demons and angry gods that lived in the clouds somehow making me feel a bit less lonely. And that, right there, was the beginning of the world I still live in. A world where all my stories begin to this day.
In fact, there were many times I felt like the field I was walking through would come alive and get me or that there were things living in the trunks of the trees that could reach out and grab me and drag me in. Themes I’m still haunted by and that sometimes show up in my work (“Forever Dark” in Tales from the Lake Vol. 2, Martuk… the Holy, The Elder).
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?
JW: The decision to be “a writer” was in May of 2005 when I was still primarily a screenwriter/playwright, a hat I’d only been wearing for a year or so.
But, you see, 2005 was the year the first script I’d written—a horrendous dumpster fire driven by hubris and encouraged by caffeine—had made its way, due to events began a decade before at Mark Sourian’s office over at DreamWorks. And that experience, even though I strongly doubt Sourian even saw the script—it was seriously that bad—gave me a surprising shot of confidence and drove me to double down to try and find a way to somehow make it work. It also helped that a friend of mine at the time, a big muckity-muck on Law & Order, knew a thing or two (or three) about screenwriting and saw a glimmer of strong talent in what I was doing, despite the fact I had, at that time, zero clue as to how, exactly, to do it.
And all of this was four years before I’d even considered writing fiction. So by the time I wrote word one on Martuk… the Holy, my first book in 2008, I was already living life as a writer.
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?
JW: I’m not sure what you mean by “success.” Having a short story (“Forever Dark”) I kinda sorta wrote in an afternoon win second place in a contest that put me on an incredible table of contents was thrilling and definitely a success. Locking a book deal with an amazing publisher on the basis of a concept, a pitch, was a success.
But, for me, my drive comes from forcing myself to write outside my comfort zone. To change up rhythm and pacing. To break those earlier rules I’ve set. To push myself and the reader into darker, uncharted waters. In short, the success of my work doesn’t drive me; the need to terrify myself into temporary inertia by demanding I do something different, bold, daring next time out does.
Then again, I’m kinda weird that way.
Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?
JW: It hasn’t. My family and my tiny circle of real-life friends don’t read my work. So what I do, how it’s received, sales figures, reviews, and so on, none of that is ever discussed. Those rare times I get to see my real-life friends—schedules allowing—my work is the last thing we discuss.
Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
JW: Ages and ages ago, I read a lot of Anne Rice. And although I now see her work differently, her The Witching Hour still stands in my mind as one of the best stories I’ve read. I also fell hard for Stephen King’s “1922” in Full Dark, No Stars. The brilliance of that collection actually was the beginning of what became Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast. My eidolon was prompted by that shining example of the kind of reading experience that could be accomplished with just short stories.
I guess I tend to be inspired more by stories than by an author’s body of work. Which is how it should be, I think.
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?
JW: Although Eidolon Avenue stands head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever done, without doubt or hesitation Martuk… the Holy, my first book, is what I’m proud of and captures perfectly the surprising journey I found myself on at that time: someone discovering, page by page, that he could really write!
For someone who’d never written a short story or an article or any piece of prose fiction to sit down (without an editor or even an experienced beta reader—I was new, remember, and knew no one in the writing community) and slam out an 80,000 word novel is beyond audacious.
Is Martuk perfect? No. But it’s ambitious. A sprawling epic covering two thousand years. It’s fearless and noisy, quiet and desperate. It’s wounded and yearning, violent and hungry. Martuk may lack the polish of its sequel Proseuche or Eidolon Avenue, which is on a different level entirely when it comes to the writing and storytelling, but what Martuk has in spades is the passionate, carefree excitement of a writer finding his voice.
And that, right there, is worthy of applause. In fact, sometimes I find myself wondering ‘Where the heck did that guy go?’
Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?
JW: If I did nothing but stare at the ceiling and be absolutely lazy, I chalk it up to life. If I was busy with rewrites on other projects or meetings or conference calls or outlining future work, I chalk it up to life. If the words simply weren’t there and I’ve learned if I push it I always regret it, I chalk it up to life.
In other words, life happens so I try not to sweat it too much. Until I find myself waking up in a panic at three in the morning to write a quick 500 or something.
Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?
JW: I’m not sure how to answer this because I’ve gone horrifically dark in my work. So it would appear as if nothing is off the table for me when it comes to what I’ll write about. I do know that a character showing a shocking lack of empathy tends to make me pause and dig a bit deeper to get the words on the page. Or any psychological tick that results in unapologetic cruelty makes me wince and sigh and sometimes even sob. But those words still hit the page even if I viscerally on a very deep level violently, loudly disagree with what my characters are doing.
Joe: What do you do to distract yourself enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?
JW: I’m always working. I’m always thinking of writing. Answering business emails. Outlining future projects. Polishing WIPs. Laying the groundwork to somehow, in some way, open impossible new doors. Even when I take my daily walk or hike or whatever, the wheels are still turning. They never stop, although I do take an hour each night to watch something on Netflix. But that’s it. I end my day thinking about work and I wake up, often too early, thinking about work.
A producer I met with recently made a point of mentioning my passion and drive and it was a compliment I cherished and carried with me for the rest of the day. ‘Cause lord knows to be carried by passion and drive to knock on doors that refuse to open is one heck of a long, lonely journey.
Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?
JW: Though others may disagree, I’m surprisingly shy, so most of the research I’ve done is online or via books I already have—usually world history, political history, history of the Catholic Church and the Pope, the earliest witch trials in the 13th and 14th centuries, etc.—so, no, I’m not friends with my research material.
Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?
JW: Prioritising my time. Saying no, politely but firmly, if my calendar is already over-scheduled, but always leaving the door open to future opportunity. Realising my worth as an artist who offers something which should be valued. How to exist and work on no sleep and obscene amounts of caffeine. Not defining myself by bad reviews or good reviews, but how I feel in my heart and in my gut about what I’ve put on the page even if it finds zero readers.
Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?
JW: Being an author made me braver. More courageous. Being an author helped me to care a little less—a lot less?—of what people thought of me or of what I wrote. Being unloved and disliked—‘cause, hey, not everyone is gonna love what you do or like how you do it—taught me how not to define myself through someone else’s eyes. I’m finding this skill, in particular, immensely valuable as I continue marching forward.
I’ve also discovered, especially as I venture deeper into other avenues, that taking the time and making the sincere effort to really be a good person does matter. Being honest, being kind, working hard, pitching in, doing your part, keeping your promises, being responsible, working for an end result where everyone wins… That all matters.
Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?
JW: It’s amazing how seldom readers reach out with their thoughts. But it’s also understandable since reading, by nature, is a private journey you take with the author and I suspect most readers often have trouble finding the words to describe that journey. And that’s maybe how it should be.
I do have to say it was pretty cool when, in 2012 or something, a friend of mine showed up at my door in tears and, without a word, gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had and then said they’d just finished chapter 49 in Martuk… the Holy and anyone who could write something that monstrous and devastating and heartbreaking and haunting needed a hug more than anybody on Earth. So, yeah, that was cool. Weird, but cool.
Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?
JW: To have my name become synonymous with writing that is strong, stories that are courageous, characters that live and breathe and are emotionally engaging. Narratives that make you pause and think and reconsider. And words that challenge your preconceptions, test your faith, shake your core and leave you different after the read than you were before it.
I want my words to linger long after you’ve closed the book.
Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
JW: If people can find strength in my failures and inspiration in my successes, and then draw on that to find the courage to be more of who they dream of being, I’ll be happy.
Learn the craft of writing from those who know it best.