Interview: John F. D. Taff on Writing, Horror Fiction, and Why He’s Called the King of Pain

John FD Taff Though he’s been called an overnight success by some, John F. D. Taff has been writing dark fiction, primarily in the short form, for more than 25 years now, with stories appearing in numerous magazines and anthologies, including  Cemetery Dance, Eldritch Tales, Morpheus Tales, Deathrealm, Schrodinger’s Mouse, Night Chills, Big Pulp and One Buck Horror, as well as anthologies such as Hot Blood: Seeds of Fear, Hot Blood: Fear the Fever, Shock Rock II, Best New Vampire Tales, Best New Werewolf Tales, Horror Library V, Best of Horror Library, Dark Visions Vol. 1, Ominous Realities, Death’s Realm, Savage Beasts and many more. His debut collection, Little Deaths, enjoyed remarkable success and has since been followed up by many more publications, including the intensely emotional The End in All Beginnings and his recent novella, The Desolated Orchard. Just this year, he’s ventured into the role of editor, co-editing the forthcoming anthology, I Can Taste the Blood, with Grey Matter Press editor Anthony Rivera. We’ll be reviewing that book in the very near future but, in the meantime, John was kind enough to sit down and talk with us about his past, present, and future publications.

For starters, please tell us a little about yourself and your work.

Well, I’m a horror/dark speculative writer who’s been at it for 25 years, with fair-to-middling results to show for all that time. 😉 I’ve got about 90 short stories in print in various vehicles, seven novels and two collections to date.  One, Little Deaths, features 19 short stories, and was met with some great critical response. The second, The End in All Beginnings, features five sort-of related novellas. It, too, did pretty darn well, racking up some impressive reviews and snagging me a Stoker award nomination last year.

My stuff tends toward the dark and strange, less gore and splatter and more Twilight Zone, I guess. At least that’s what people tell me. Let’s see…what else? I’m 52, married to the wonderful Deb, live in a fantastic lodge in the middle of the country, have three great, mostly grown children and three ridiculous pugs. I love cooking, Star Trek and the Alan Parsons Project. I’m a very late (sixth season) convert to Game of Thrones on HBO. And I’m a Sagittarius.

Ummm….that’s about it.

When did you know that you wanted to write fiction for a living?

I kinda knew I wanted to write when I was young. I started writing comic books at a pretty young age, mostly to entertain myself.  As my interests evolved, so did my writing. I moved on to mysteries, then science fiction, then fantasy, then horror. I’d write little pastiches for friends of mine, usually featuring them. It was fun, but it also forced me to learn more about writing, and not just grammar and syntax and that kind of stuff, but how to tell a story.

How to tell a story…hmmm…that has always seemed to me to be the most important part of the equation. I mean, you might know where to put your periods and ellipsis, what the right word is, but are you writing something that anyone wants to read? Some authors don’t care too tremendously much for that. I guess it’s a much more artsy-fartsy endeavor for them, and that’s cool. God speed, John Glenn! But that’s not for me. I want to tell a good story AND I want to tell it well.

Sorry, when did I know I wanted to write fiction for a living? When I was pretty young, maybe 20 or 21. Now, if I could just get the “living” part of it down, that’d be swell.

Why horror?

The End in all Beginnings coverWhen I knew I wanted to write,I was really into horror—kind of had been my entire life—so it just seemed natural.  When I sat down to write my first, really serious, “real” short story that I would submit somewhere, horror was the best fit.  Still is for the way my brain distills things.

To me, horror is all about emotion, so it works with any type character, any setting, any time period. Of all the genres I think I could have ended up writing in, horror gives the widest possible palette on which to paint, which is really freeing for a writer. I can think of something horrible and set it anywhere, populate it with anyone. For me at least, now that I’ve spent two decades (plus!) writing in the horror field, the other genres seem…well…limiting.

If you had to choose an occupation other than writing, what would it be?

Hell, I dunno. Something that paid more, definitely. Umm…I spent a lot of years in advertising/PR, then a lot of years in the trade magazine/trade show field. These days, I think I’d probably choose to do something helping animals. Work in a shelter or something. Of course, that doesn’t pay either. Bother. I think I’m pretty much hardwired for low-paying, high-return professions.

If you could give just one bit of advice to a fledgling author, what would it be?

Get out quick or develop rhino skin. If you can’t take rejection, this ain’t the artistic field for you. If you can’t handle the bouts of self-doubt that are somewhat peculiar to authors, if you can’t take constructive criticism, if you think your stuff is the shit from the moment you set pen to paper, get out. Otherwise, you’re in for a never-ending series of well-placed kicks in the head by life.

It’s a thin line between having enough ego to know that what you’re writing is good and having so much ego that you view your work as direct God-to-hand dictation. You need to learn when to stand your ground with a story and when you need to listen to what editors or readers are saying. It’s hard, and there’s no clear path to get to that place.

That said, the real coin in this game is persistence. Persistence triumphs over skill and luck in the long run.  If you can stick with it, continue to learn (especially from your mistakes) and hone your talent, I truly believe that you’ll eventually succeed. I believe that’s not just true for writing, but all of human endeavor. If you really want it, stick with it.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given as an author?

I think the worst advice has been that given by the voices in my head. “Oh, you don’t need to attend cons or writer events. Why bother meeting readers or other authors?” Or “You know what, things just aren’t moving like you planned, so why don’t you take, I dunno, maybe 6 or even 7 years off from writing? You know, get your head on straight, do other things.”

Ugh. Bad advice, and for a time at least, I took every word of it.

You’ve been called the King of Pain by many, including myself. What draws you to the more emotional, often viscerally sad side of dark fiction?

I think the fact that there are aspects of horror that don’t work that well for me on their own—mainly gore. If you distill horror down to its essence, it’s about fear, yes. But this fear can usually be broken down into three main components—1) fear of death; 2) fear of pain; and 3) fear of the unknown. And there’s a lot of overlap and muddying between these three. But there are so many other emotions aroused by these three components that it seems silly to me at least not to deal with them as well as fear. I’ve said it before, but I truly believe that fear works best when paired with these other emotions. They heighten or deepen fear, give it dimensions beyond just a simple scare reflex. Without these other emotions coming into play, stories seem flat and lifeless and rather meh.

So, I always want to pull on a few other strings when I’m in there trying to scare or discomfit readers. I think the end product just comes off feeling more real, more grounded. I also think that dealing with these emotions allows the story to offer the reader a catharsis of sorts, depending on the story of course. So that means some of my pieces aren’t quite as dark as some people like, to which I say, again, meh.

This may seem strange, but I feel distinctly uncomfortable not allowing my characters to have, on some level at least, a hope, a glimmer of redemption or salvation or something. Not really a happy ending, mind you…I mean, who’s promised that? But when I read other people’s works that are so dark, so unremittingly bleak and hostile and depressing, it makes me feel like it’s more akin to a small boy with a magnifying glass roasting ants for his pleasure. Does it sound strange that, as an author, I feel some degree of responsibility for my characters? I suppose it does.  But then again…meh.


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