An interview with… Jo Quenell

Jo Quenell lives in Washington State and writes. Their short fiction has been featured in anthologies and magazines such as Zombie Punks Fuck Off, Bleak Friday, Dark Moon Digest, When the Sirens Have Faded, and LAZERMALL. Their first novella, The Mud Ballad, was released April 2020 from Weirdpunk Books.

What was your first story and when did you write it?

I remember writing my first story when I was in elementary school. The first reading material I had fallen in love with were Goosebumps books and Tales from the Crypt reprints, and I distinctly recall trying to write something in that vein. The only detail I can still remember is a character’s eyes exploding in their sockets. I showed it to my dad and it was the first of many times my parents considered censoring the type of media I was indulging in.

What had been your biggest mistake as a writer?

I don’t feel like there are many mistakes, as much as there have been steps that have allowed me to evolve. But if I could go back and change one thing, it would be to stop strictly reading the type of fiction I want to write. I knew I wanted to write horror, and for years, I only read horror. I feel like lack of exposure to other genres really limited my ability to grow in the craft–as I started to explore crime, drama, Westerns, Romance, etc., it opened my eyes to the use of different tropes and character-building techniques, which helped me expand upon my own skills. I know that reading widely is a cliche, but doing so has helped me grow a lot.

Do you have a writing process?

I don’t know if there is something I do specifically for every story I write. Normally I just try to do whatever it takes to get the first draft done and keep myself from burning out on a project. Sometimes that means meticulously outlining, and sometimes that means writing by the pants. For the last few things I have written I’ve found writing the first draft like a really rough script allows me to focus on dialogue, plot and character development without getting hung up on writing the perfect sentence.

Many horror creatures are tied to religion (vampires, ghosts, possessions, demons, devils). Do you find this to put a limit to horror creativity as a genre?

I guess, as someone who is not religious, and doesn’t really give a shit about religion in general, I don’t consider that a factor when I write. But in general, I think we should try and stray from a lot of these creatures and tropes because they’re just played out.

Does writing energise or exhaust you?

It depends on the story. If I am going to feel exhausted, it’s going to be while working on the first draft. Sometimes I stop liking a story halfway through and it’s like pulling teeth to get to the end. But normally once I finish a draft and put some time and distance between myself and that particular piece, returning to it becomes energizing and reinvigorating. Rewriting and revising is my favorite part of the process.

Do you have a writing space and more generally a writing routine?

I used to arrive at work several hours before my shift began, disconnected from my wi-fi, and wrote until it was time to clock in. It was my routine for a few years, and within that routine I was getting my best writing done. Due to the nature of the pandemic, I work at home now. I need to figure out how to write without that routine, so I can continue to be productive regardless of my schedule.

Do you have a formal writing instruction (for example, a degree in creative writing)? Do you think that a formal instruction helps writing?

The closest I have to any formal writing instruction was taking a creative writing class in community college. And that course did have some benefits, like forcing me to write both often and outside my comfort zone. But ultimately no formal instruction beats reading widely and writing daily.

What was a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up?

It was all horror and fantasy in Elementary and middle school. That tempered when I entered high school–assigned curriculum generally ruined my enjoyment of reading literature. I became pretty enamored with punk rock, and read a lot of zines like Maximum Rock and Roll and Punk Planet. But I also gravitated towards work by Vonnegut, Bukowski and Richard Russo. It was only in my early twenties that I resumed reading horror, when I found out that writers like Ketchum or Lansdale could write fiction similar to the type of movies I liked.

Is there anything you find bad for the horror genre? For example, how do you feel about the stigma attached to being a horror writer?

I think there are some regressive attitudes in horror that keep the genre from reaching its full potential. People tend to assume that if a piece of work doesn’t equate with their personal definition of horror, it somehow betrays the genre. It’s fine to have your areas of comfort in the genre, but to assume the unfamiliar as “not actually horror” limits the scope of stories we can tell. There’s nothing particularly shocking anymore about Richard Laymon-knockoff fiction. It takes experimenting with new voices, new stories, and new motifs to keep the genre from stagnating.

If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?

Transgender people have been represented horribly in horror fiction and film. Examples include Endless Night, Sleepaway Camp, Silence of the Lambs, Terror Train, or more recently, Incident in a Ghostland. It’s very, very rare to see trans representation exist outside of “this person is so crazy they CHANGED THEIR GENDER;” if it’s not that, then it’s portraying gender nonconforming folks as comic relief. Both of these depictions punch down on a marginalized population. It’s long past due to stop this shit.

Do you normally research your stories before you write it, or do you start with a general concept and see where it goes while writing?

Depends on the story. Most of the time, no–at least not in the first draft. Too much research sometimes gets in the way of being able to tell the story. I’ll research more for the second draft, mostly to fact-check and make sure there’s not a ton of inconsistency. 

Writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, marketing… Do you wear all these hats yourself or do you have some trusted person helping you through it all?

I think it’s incredibly important to have somebody help proofread your work. Getting a second (or third and fourth) pair of eyes on your work is crucial. There are going to be typos you miss, or plot points you think are great that actually suck. 

As far as cover art, I need somebody else to help me with that because I have none of those skills.

Do you want to talk about your current project? What is next for you?

I’m working on a weird noir novella that explores queerness and gender identity, as well as the easy creep from concerned citizen to reactionary vigilante. It takes a lot of influence by works such as Vic City Express by Yannis Tsirbas, some of William Boyle’s recent crime novels,  and Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. Right now it’s a really shitty first draft. 

How important it is to have a good cover in order to get your book read?

Incredibly important. Whoever said “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” never lived in a time of mass self-publishing.

What do you do when you’re not knee-deep in writing?

I’ve been a full-time student for the past few years. Balancing writing out with that, plus full-time work, has kept me pretty busy. 

Where do you see horror going in the next few years?

I think we’re seeing a broadening in the voices telling us stories. Different perspectives lead to more diverse, interesting fiction. And as the argument for better representation in horror continues, I think the amount of otherwise unheard voices will continue to amplify. I don’t have a crystal ball, obviously. But I’m excited. 

Do you want to give us some of your contacts?

You can find me on instagram, at @jo.quenell.

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