Today I’m talking to Jonathan Winn, an author of horror fiction, screenplays, and, as you’ll see, much more. Normally, I write fairly extensive introductions to my interviews, but Jonathan is an endlessly fascinating individual so I’m just going to get the hell out of the way and let the man speak. I hope you enjoy this enlightening and entertaining look into the mind of one of the brightest stars shining in the horror firmament today. I know I did.
SDK: Thank you for talking with us today Jonathan. For starters, please tell us a little about you and your work.
JW: In all honesty, my work is the most exciting thing about me. No, really. My days, every day, revolve around work. So, long story short, I’m a fairly average, ordinary guy who’s somehow lucky enough to be a writer who writes and, more importantly, has readers.
What’s interesting about that is that the readers who know me from my Martuk the Holy books and The Martuk Series short fiction are completely different than the readers who know me from Eidolon Avenue and my short story Forever Dark. But now that I think about it, since the works are so different from each other – Martuk being an epic of dark fiction about a tortured immortal who’s walked the earth for three thousand years, Eidolon and Forever Dark being more brutal sucker punches to the head set in the here and now – I guess it isn’t too surprising.
SDK: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional writer?
JW: You know, for as long as I can remember, people told me I should be a writer. So, of course, it was the last thing I wanted to do. Until one day – this was in the summer of 2004 – I woke up and being a writer just made sense. I can’t describe it any other way. In my gut, in my bones, it went from ‘Ugh, no, I don’t want to be a writer’ to ‘Yeah, of course I’m a writer.’
So the short answer is the summer of 2004 was my beginning. That’s when I sat down and, having zero clue what I was doing, wrote my first screenplay, an overwrought embarrassment driven by ignorance, curiosity and caffeine. But I finished it, a friend of mine in the film business took a look, sighed, shook her head and then generously showed me everything single thing – oh, so many, many things – I did wrong and how best to fix it. From there I wrote more scripts, some plays and then, in March of 2008, came home from walking the dog in Washington Square Park and just up and started writing a book, a full-length novel, which became Martuk the Holy.
My “official” beginning, the book that, for lack of a better word, legitimized me in the eyes of the writing and publishing community, since Martuk was self-published, was in 2014 with my Forever Dark short story in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2 and then, of course, 2016’s Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast.
SDK: Do you work in other areas of the horror/creative writing industries?
JW: I’m a writer who, thankfully, can write fiction, short stories, screenplays, TV scripts, short films, adaptations of my own fiction. This is more common than you think, by the way. But, with me, I kind of just let the story tell me what form it wants to take, what way it wants to speak, and then go from there. Also, thankfully, I tend to write insanely fast (sometimes) so that helps, too.
SDK: Why horror? Was that an intentional choice, or just the direction your stories naturally trended?
JW: Can I say both? My stories do trend darker but I absolutely chose to focus on horror. Why? Because it’s limitless. I can be brutal and strange or sly and surprising. Horror is a big tent under a huge umbrella. What other genre can you turn a field of golden grass into something it’s not? Something sinister? Or a simple piece of string into the most horrific of inescapable nightmares? Or have an unexpected tattoo – one the character doesn’t remember getting – come to life, multiply, burrow under the skin and bring bloody retribution fed by guilt and regret? My imagination is allowed to run free when it comes to horror. I’m not sure it’d be that way with other genres.
I’ve also found the readers who prefer horror are different – can I say better? – than in other genres. They make you work. You have to write smart, you have to root your concepts in the familiar while still shocking with something unique, and you have to come from an authentic, sincere place. If you do all that and you’re lucky enough to click, those readers will be with you through thick and thin.
SDK: What are the most difficult challenges you’ve faced as an author?
JW: This business is tough. Period. Everything from silencing the inner critic enough to get words on the page and finding a home for you work all the way to shouting loud enough over the Amazon static to actually getting read and, god willing, reviewed, it’s tough. And no matter how high you climb, those challenges don’t go away. They might lessen, at times, but they’re always there. Nothing is guaranteed. It’s always work, it’s always walking a high wire and it can always collapse at any moment. You have to have a spine of steel and the thickest of skins. Like I said, this business is tough.
SDK: How do you face and overcome such challenges?
JW: Listen, some days the inner critic wins and I end up with empty pages. And depending what’s happening in my life and in my head, sometimes I can fight it and sometimes I can’t. It’s the nature of that very insistent beast we cutely call Writer’s Block. Every writer goes through it. I’m no different.
When it comes to finding a home for my work, I’ve been insanely lucky. No sooner had I decided to write, I, through a series of lucky chances – including being awarded second place for a short story that put me in my first Table of Contents – found a very good publisher willing to give me a shot.
Now, when it comes to shouting over the static loud enough to get read, I’m at a loss. Seriously. It helps if you have a publisher, but it’s not a magic bullet that solves everything. And it helps if you write great books, but so do a ton of other people. I mean, there are whole books written on how to be seen and get readers, but, honestly, there are no easy answers.
But if you’re good – and you’re consistently good – at some point, someday, word of mouth will find you and that, I believe, is when the readers will find you.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
SDK: What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to newer authors?
JW: Write! No, seriously, write. Write horribly. Write badly. Write imperfectly. Put words on the page. Even if they’re the worst words ever written in the history of the written word, write, write, write. Even if all you write is how dumb you are and how much you suck as a writer, put it on the page. The only way you learn how to write is by writing, often badly. But bad is good. No one ever has to see your worst. That’s what edits and rewrites are for.
What’s important, if you’re a beginning writer, is to have written. That’s how you find your voice. That’s how you learn pacing, and structure, and dialogue. You write often enough, you’ll begin to feel those things in your bones. You’ll feel when the sentence is off or when the word is wrong. You’ll feel when to break to a new paragraph or stop and move to the next chapter. You learn all of that through writing, not thinking of writing or talking about writing, but actually sitting down and writing.
Only through writing do you find out who you are as a writer. So write!
I’d also advise new writers to get used to the word No. Learn to love it, learn to befriend it, learn to embrace it. Learn how to remove You from No. Learn how to not take it personally. Listen, you’re going to hear it a lot so take a moment to dive into it and discover what it really means.
Sometimes No means “not right now.” Other times it means “I haven’t decided yet.” And there are times when it means “try again later with something else.” But more times than you think No doesn’t mean No. It isn’t the closed door people always assume it is. Sometimes it’s just a pause because the time isn’t right.
Heck, I’ve heard No more times than I can count – and I still do, by the way – and I still plow forward until I get some kind of Yes. Might come in a different form than I first expected, but, heck, that’s just part of the journey.
SDK: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
JW: Oh, good question. I don’t think I have an answer for this. I’ve been fortunate in that the very few people – I don’t have the largest of writing circles – who’ve been kind enough to come to the table have done so with great advice.
I think if I had to reach for a response, someone once told me – and this actually goes back to the “learn to love No” I just talked about – that if someone tells me “no,” I just need to drop it, give up, call it the loss that it is and move on. Heck, if I’d done that, I can’t imagine where I’d be right now. Certainly not where I am.
SDK: What achievement(s) have you made as an author that you’re most proud of?
JW: The critical acclaim Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast received still shocks me. From the very generous blurbs by award-winning authors I read and respect all the way to the even more generous reviews reviewers and everday readers took the time to share, people have responded better than I dared imagine. For my first traditionally published book, that’s something to be discreetly proud of.
I’m also still sincerely proud of Martuk the Holy, my first book. I mean, I sat down, having never written fiction let alone a full-length novel, and wrote a full-length novel. Imperfect and sometimes messy, this self-published thing I didn’t know I could do – and, at times, was pretty sure I really couldn’t do – pulled off the impossible by being a great story centered around a unique, memorable character. And to this day, it’s still my most- and highest-reviewed book.
That’s something to be proud of.
SDK: Do you have particular methods or habits that you approach your writing with? Like a common daily work process?
JW: Yep. I wake up, brew some coffee – milk and sugar – check my email and then get to work. On a good day, I’ll go a few hours before I take a break for a walk outside before coming back in and getting back to work, usually on something else. I tend to break my day up into a morning project and an afternoon project and sometimes even an after-dinner evening project. Helps me to stay somewhat on schedule.
SDK: Do you listen to any sort of background noise while you write?
JW: I have to. And I’ve found the only thing that silences my very loud, opinionated, insistent inner critic is music, preferably loud, always a remix, and usually just one song on a perpetual loop. So, basically, I distract my inner critic by putting him in a rave, minus the glow sticks, of course.
SDK: A good portion of the work you publish comes from Crystal Lake Publishing. Has working with Joe Mynhardt and company been a positive experience?
JW: What Joe has built is nothing short of impressive. And when we did Eidolon, he was really still just a one-man band shouldering a company that was growing at an amazing rate with some of the best writers in horror. Thankfully he now has a team around him – though I suspect he still does the one-man band thing – and Crystal Lake continues to still impress and will for some time, I suspect.
SDK: Talk a little bit about Eidolon Avenue and the forthcoming follow-up to that remarkable book.
JW: Well, first of all, thank you for calling it remarkable. Very kind of you. It’s funny, actually, because I thought of the concept for Eidolon while I was kinda-sorta weeding the garden. Two days later I had the outlines for all five stories. A week after that I found myself writing it. Set in a crumbling building, Eidolon is a collection of shorts that take place in neighboring apartments on the same floor, the nightmares in each happening on the same day at the same time.
Finding a common link between stories is one of the challenges of writing (and finding a home for) a short story collection. So this was really a way of linking the stories together and making them part of the same universe while still allowing them to be wildly different from each other. Thankfully, putting them on the same floor with the singular events happening on the same day at the same time worked.
With Eidolon Two – tentatively titled Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast – I’m moving that concept up to the second floor where, so far, the stories are just as visceral, dark and disturbing as what the first Eidolon gave us. Although it’s moved slower than I’d hoped – life, personal gut punches and multiple WIPs will do that, you know – I’m pleased with what’s on the page so far.
SDK: Are there any other exciting projects in the works that you’d like to talk about?
JW: Oh my god yes. But my career right now is a quickly changing puzzle of moving pieces, discussions, decisions and new relationships. So to speak of specifics would be premature . What I will say is I’m juggling TV pilots, TV adaptations, short films, more books, and some potentially fantastic marketing with some pretty amazing people.
SDK: Is there any one question—or set of questions—interviewers never ask that you wish they would? And if so, what are the answers?
JW: Good question. Since we writers are infamous for claiming we’re actually working when we’re staring at a blank screen – or at a wall or out the window or into an empty glass of choose-your-poison – I’ve found it interesting that no one’s asked what’s REALLY going through our minds when we do that.
Let me just say, to answer your unasked question, that, yes, we are working. Or at least I am.
When I’m staring, I’m untangling narrative knots. Or following a concept to see if there’s an actual story behind it. (Concept and story are not the same) Or mentally rewinding the current WIP to see where I screwed up and what I need to fix so I can get over the Writer’s Block hump and finish the dang thing. Or figuring out how I can shave three pages off a script because I want a lower page count. Or how I can write a two-page short film with no dialogue. Or outlining a new book that may or may not work.
You see? There’s a lot that can go on up there. Writing, as most writers will tell you, is an endless process that pays little attention to things like errands, family, having a life. Sleep.
SDK: Is there anything else you’d like to cover before we wrap this up today?
JW: You know, if you read a book and love it, take a moment to offer a brief review over on Amazon or wherever. Nothing big. Just your thoughts, as imperfect as they might feel. That simple thing that takes five minutes to do, if even that, can make a world of difference to a writer as well as the press that rolled the dice in publishing them.
If you’re a writer, write. Let us hear your voice. Share your stories and inspire us with your courage. Give us the pleasure of wathing you begin, find your way, and then grow. Include us on your journey and let us applaud you.
And if you’re an interviewer, take a moment to reach out to those names that aren’t yet big. Ask them questions. Learn who they are. Discover what they’re doing and how it’s unique. Your interest can be the perfectly timed thing that keeps them going when no one else seems to care and when they feel no one will ever read their words.
SDK: Thank you for sharing some insights into your work with us today, Jonathan.
JW: Thank you!
About Jonathan Winn: Jonathan Winn is a screenwriter and author of Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast (Crystal Lake Publishing) as well as the full-length novels Martuk … the Holy (A Highlight of the Year, 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Awards), Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (Top Twenty Horror Novels of 2014, Preditors & Editors Readers Poll), Martuk … the Holy: Shayateen (2016) and The Martuk Series (The Wounded King, The Elder, Red and Gold), an ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by Martuk …
His work can also be found in Writer’s on Writing Vol. 1-4 Omnibus, Horror 201: The Silver Scream, Writers on Writing, Vol. 2, and Crystal Lake’s Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2, with his award-winning short story “Forever Dark.”
Feel free to visit him at http://martuktheholy.com