October 12, 2012

Jack Ketchum: Thirteen (or so) Terrible Questions With a Grand Master of Horror

Although the intended purpose of Dark Bites is to provide bite sized entertainment  I couldn't help but think this was the perfect time of year to offer you this conversation I had with the man who Stephen King hails to as the scariest guy in America, Jack Ketchum.  This interview, one of my personal favourates if I may so so, gives a intimate glimpse inside of Ketchum's apartment and his head at that time.

Also if you would have enjoyed reading this lengthier interview as a series of smaller portions, please do let me know as it's your feedback that will ultimately drive what and how stuff gets posted here. 

Thirteen (or so) Terrible Questions for Jack Ketchum 
Originally interviewed for Dark Recesses Press, 2008

If THE LOST came like a blood stained bullet that tore through the minds of all that witnessed it then surely JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR pulled the plug on all that ever felt safe when it came to watching a film based on the novels of Jack Ketchum, one of the hardest hitting, controversial authors writing today. So what goes on behind the eyes of someone who’s muse has conjured up the most horrific and socially devastating worlds where human monsters pay no mind to closed doors and locked windows because they’re already living on the other side, or down the road or right next door? What makes this acclaimed bad boy of dark fiction tick and, more important of recent, what’s a guy like Ketchum doing jumping out at us from behind the silver screen when for so long we’ve been quite alright knowing he’s safely confined to his writing desk working on our next medicinal dose of unsettling prose? These questions and many more were brewing in my mind when, armed with a hot coffee and my own burning curiosity, I cornered the man on the phone, himself armed with his vises of choice, and carefully ventured into his world unknowing of what I’d find.

JK - I’ve got my drink, my smokes, what have you got?

Rick Hipson - First off, congrats on getting a double bill of THE LOST and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR on Canadian soil in Toronto. Sorry I had to miss the show and the chance to buy ya a round, but then again, I’m not sure my mind wants submerge its self in the world of TGND again just yet. What’s it like for you to be traveling all over the world with TGND and having to watch such a moving and mentally challenging film over and over again? It doesn’t get any easier I’d imagine.

Jack Ketchum - I just don’t. I come in at the beginning and leave, and then come back at the end. Even I can only watch the movie so many times. After a while it becomes like some sort of strange masturbation. You just have to go away and hang out with friends for an hour and a half and check your watch until it’s time to come back and say hi to the watchers in the theatre.

RH - When I spoke with some of the actors from THE LOST, they felt that - depending on where you went across the globe - you’d get a slightly different interpretation of the film. Apparently the folks in Italy viewed the film from more of an emotional level and cared more for the characterization than for the way the violence and the imagery was carried out which was more to the liking in other parts of the world. With both THE LOST and, now with THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, do you find the crowd response to be much different as you tour from place to place.

JK - That’s funny. It’s more similar than different. I think you’re right about Italy. There were more people visibly upset in Italy than there were in the ‘States. Italians are very emotional! [LAUGHS] They’re very big happy and very big sad. It’s pretty close to a certain kind of line that people either walk out angry at it or are moved by it or impervious as to why the hell they got in there in the first place. I’m not finding a lot of diversity (in emotional reactions). I’m finding a pretty much across-the-board response. People either love it or hate it. It’s a pretty polarizing film.

RH - Dallas, if THE LOST put you on the map as an author who’s books make for great films, than THE GIRL NEXT DOOR most certainly cemented that idea. Do you look at your recent success with the film adaptations as a defining point for the over-all success of your career, or does this success mean something else that one wouldn’t guess so easily?

JK - I’m going to have to digest that for a minute. My feeling is that the films are almost peripheral. Yeah, I’m pulling in more cash this year and last year than I did before and I’m getting more exposure than I did before, but it’s always about the work and the books and the prose to me. I find the books were pretty well esteemed and accepted before any movie adaptations were made of them. For me, it’s still about that. I can only take credit for the base material on (the movie adaptations). I’m certainly willing to field questions and promote the movies because I’ve liked them and because they’ve been responsible, good adaptations. I’ve always thought, for me, the book is on the shelf and that’s what I really want to point you to and, for me, the real pleasure, apart from the fact that it’s wonderful to have these people interested in my books, is to point back at the books; Just point it back to the actual writing.

Movies are the cherry on the ice cream.

RH - No doubt, your film credits will help you become an even more prolific writer than you were before. Besides diversifying your paychecks, what other, not so evident, benefits are you uncovering as a developing “film guy”?

JK - Well, I’m discovering a lot of people are really angry at me. [LAUGHS] (It’s) kind of interesting and par for the course. I didn’t get into this particular area of writing to play it safe and clearly, the fact that films are bringing my stuff to a wider audience – they’re not looking at it as safe for them either. I like the fact that I seem to be generating a lot of controversy. If that weren’t the case, I don’t think I’d be doing my job in the first place by writing this stuff. So, yeah, I think there’s that. I’ve been getting e-mails from as far away as Denmark and Hungary. Hungary is publishing The Girl Next Door (and) I never thought that would happen. That’s because it’s getting noticed in a wider field.

RH - Does the film stuff help take any stress off you as far as toiling over the decision to make that next novel out-sell its predecessors?

JK - I think that’s true. I feel like there’s a time to be sitting down at the computer and writing stuff; there’s a time to be striking this particular fire and this particular fire is getting my name out there and it’s getting people to know me in a more worldwide way. So I feel perfectly okay with taking a year off and promoting these projects that other people have made of my stuff. I have managed to get off a few things – I’ve got a new book coming out from Bloodletting Press which is a small book of memoirs. I never thought way back when that I’d ever have a contract for a book of memoir. It’s lovely and I can segue’ these smaller pieces into the larger business of actually promoting this stuff this particular year. But I’d like to try, in the middle of 2008, to get a little bit out of the movie fray and more back into the actual writing, because that’s what I’m here to do.

RH - I think a lot of people would agree that having even just one great mentor in your corner goes a long ways when you’re first struggling to learn how to do it so well. Who were your most trusted mentors as a writer, and have they been altered much now that you’re also into the movie end of things?

JK - Well, you know my first mentor was Robert Bloch. Without him I wouldn’t be doing this. And before him there was my English teacher Dorothy Senner, who sent me to Bloch, basically threw us that assignment, saying write to your favourate writer and see if he writes back. And of course, Bob did. Then there’s been Stephen King. Stephen has been amazing. Pretty much every time he gets a chance he’s throwing a word in for me somewhere. I don’t think I would have been noticed nearly as quickly without Stephen because Stephen has this amazing huge bully pulpit that even Bob didn’t have because Bob was basically only known by the fans in the genre. If you say Robert Bloch to people who don’t know horror, you have to say, okay, he wrote Psycho, but if you say Stephen King, everybody goes, ‘oh yeah, I know that name.’

So Stephen has been amazing over the course of time and I think he’s been instrumental in getting me into a lot of foreign countries and just sort of getting me noticed in general. Did that answer that?

RH - Yes, pretty much. So in other words, now that you’re more into the movie end of things your mentors haven’t really changed all that much because you’re still the writer?

JK - I wouldn’t call any of these movie guys mentors. What I’ve been lucky enough (with) is to have film people who really care about the material, who I suppose in a way are mentors for the projects, because you’ve got Chris Sivertson (Director of THE LOST) sending me three versions of the first film script and I’ve had input on all three films, and I suppose many people don’t have that. So, in a way they’re mentors because they’re sheparding the films into the right direction and the kind of films I can be proud of. I think that’s been true of all three of them. I haven’t seen the finished product of RED yet, only the rough cut, but I have really good feelings about that as well because they also seem to be in my corner, if you will, in terms of trying to get the material down responsibly and well.

RH - I understand that RED, an adaptation I personally can’t wait to see, is in post production as listed on the IMDB website. What other book to film adaptations are you able to divulge details to us about?

JK - Lucky McKee has the option to my screenplay for The Passenger and hopefully he’ll do that because I’d love to see him finish that project. I think he’d be great for it and we’ve already talked about structure and design and I’m behind that. My friend, Allen DiFiore has an option on Joyride and I’ve seen his first draft on the script and that’s quite good. Again, it’s faithful to the book. I’ve known Allen since British Columbia; we were hippies on Lasquiti Island together. At that time he wasn’t even writing much except for a short story here and there. He’d become a very major television writer in Canada and he did a really neat script for this. He was shopping around with some interest until the damn writer’s strike hit so I don’t know what’s going to come of that.

Also, Phil Nutman, who co-wrote THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, has an option on The Crossings. When the strike hit, he was about half way through a script for that so we’ll see where that goes. So there’s stuff out there.”

RH - Is there anything from your body of literary work that you’d most enjoy seeing on the big screen that hasn’t been optioned or made into film yet?

JK - (Without hesitating) Sure, Only Child. I’m talking to some people about that, but it’s never been optioned. I think it would be a really good film and again it’s a true crime based thing. It’s pretty responsible. It’s pretty strong (and) it was based loosely on a case I saw on a segment of American Crime, I believe it was called, on HBO. The actress Lee Grant directed it. It was about women in prison and why they got there, and this one segment was particularly gruesome. She shouldn’t have been in prison. She was trying to protect her kid. So I wrote that and I think that would be a neat film. Also, there’s been a couple of nibbles at Hide and Seek lately. Hide and Seek, I think is a very cinematic piece. It’s pretty linear and it’s got some really great parts for actors in it. I think that would work.

RH -Who could you see in your mind’s eye as being leads for either of those films?

JK - I don’t think about things that way. I just don’t. The only time I’ve ever had any experiences of having an actor in my brain when I was actually writing a book or writing a script was Clint Eastwood for Red. I said to myself, ‘What if they shot Clint Eastwood’s dog?’ That’s the only time that’s ever happened.

RH - That is a lot of fun to think of; Eastwood as the lead guy in Red.

JK - Yeah, what if they shot Dirty Harry’s dog [laughs].

RH - They probably wouldn’t have made it past the third chapter!

JK - [laughs] That’s true too. But Clint had that gravitas. He’s got that chiseled wonderful face, and you can always see him, in all his roles, one way or another just insisting on justice and that’s what the old man does in Red – he insists on justice. And by the way, I think Brian Cox nailed that part. He’s not Clint Eastwood, but he’s brought a whole lot of dignity and strength to it.

RH - I can’t wait to check that out.

Now, if I asked you what your biggest personal achievement was and, on the flip side of that, your greatest disappointment since selling your first film option, what would you come back with as far as worst and best?

JK - Wow. You don’t fuck around do you, Rick? [laughs]

RH - You can feel free to tell me to go to hell if you don’t want to answer any of these questions.

JK - No, that’s okay. [laughs] Oh man, I don’t know if I’ll get in trouble for this or not. The silliest thing I’ve ever done as a writer is to sign off on the rights to (omitted by author’s request.)

The best - my favorite moments have all been between me and me. It’s all been finishing something, something I’ve felt was really right on target. I remember finishing Red and knowing that I had nailed it as best as I could. Cover, I felt like I really got the end of Cover right. The beginning and the end and hell, all of the middle of The Girl Next Door -- I felt like I was almost taking dictation on that one. And Red was a little like that too. Those are really magical moments. They happen in short stories, they happen in books. Sometimes you’re just writing something and it’s fun and you're certainly having a good time, but that's all it is. But every now and again you feel the real magic is that you’ve actually given it your utterly best shot and you can look back on it when you finish and say, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I’ll stand behind that one one-hundred percent.’ That’s the best.

Worst moment? The cover of The Girl Next Door. The cheer leader! When I got that one in the mail I just went, ‘aw, fuck!’

RH - Yeah, as if that didn’t give the wrong impression. And to think there’s people who thought the DVD to be not to their standards.

JK - Actually, I like the DVD Cover. I think it’s nice.

RH - Well, I was a little worried when I saw the original promo cover for it that said on the bottom, “based on a true story”. I see here they changed the one on the DVD to say “inspired by.”

JK - I went to the wall on that one. You cannot quote this “based on.” You’ve got to get it “inspired by.” …It’s not “based on.” It’s based on a novel which is inspired by so you can’t put “based on” on your DVD cover.

RH - In regards to actually writing the thing in the first place, everyone knows that great horror writing is not only the cheapest form of mental therapy, but it can also be the most efficient way to safely exorcise one’s inner demons.. Being known as the guy who doesn’t write happy stories by any stretch of the imagination, when the work is done and the demons are subdued for another day, what’s left to scare you more than anything else as you walk down your city street as just a regular guy who happens to write dark tales for a living?

JK - I’m not scared by much, basically. I mean, I live in a fairly safe area in Manhattan so nothing on a daily basis tends to scare me much. Disturbed, sure. I’ve been disturbed every time I turn on the news or look at the AOL boards and I see this or that person doing this or that to somebody else -- or some kid getting tortured in the basement. That happens on a pretty damn daily basis. But that story’s out of me now. It’s now in the general public’s purview. They can take from it what they want or not, but it’s still going on and on and on. I’ve pretty much said what I’ve had to say in the matter. Still, it’s going to be there. It’s just a fact of life. People will be doing awful things to kids for the rest of my life and way beyond. If I've made a teeny dent in that or made someone at least talk about it, it seems like a good thing to do. I dunno.

RH - Absolutely. And it seems like you guys are achieving that especially according to one of Phil Nutman’s blog, on MySpace I think it was. It was about how people had come up to you both after one of the festivals and had made a rather candid confession and thanked you guys for making a huge difference.

JK - Phil told me that. I thought it was pretty neat. Every now and then I’ll get confessions like that. Sometimes it’s on a much smaller scale. I’ve had a couple guys who’ve said to me, ‘look, I didn’t read until I read Off Season. I really didn’t. Somebody said you gotta read this book and I didn’t read anything unless it was something I had to read for high school. I read Off Season and now I’m a reader.’ That - you can’t get better than that for a writer. That’s what a writer wants to do, is to turn you on to more and more books, his own plus everybody else’s. We’re all in this because we started to love reading in the first place. It’s not a lost art, but it’s an art that needs protecting.

RH - You hear confessions like that and it must water down negative from the people you end up pissing off along the way, huh?

JK - I don’t give a shit if I piss people off. I don’t care. I hope that if I’ve pissed them off, I pissed them off for the right reasons, and that they’re the right people to be pissed off. I don't want to hurt anybody who’s been mistreated as a child by having them read my book or seeing the film based on my book. I don’t want them to feel that kind of pain, but they can, after all, choose not to buy the book, or choose to close it, or choose not to watch the movie. And I can understand that completely. And if I can get one or two people here and there along the way who are actually helped by it, that’s amazing. That’s just – that’s the mitzvah. (Which, as I learned, is the Jewish translation for blessing.)

RH - Here’s a question for you: If I was just walking down the streets of New York and we shared a drink or what-have-you and ended up going back to your place, getting a tour of your place, what do you think we’d be most surprised to come across or to see along the way?

JK - In my apartment?

RH - Yes.

JK - You’d probably be surprised to see a lot of early American furniture. A lot of stuff that really doesn’t look very scary at all. It’s kind of sweet. I’ve got an old pie chest, an old cupboard. Paula and I both tend to like early American stuff. So interspersed between the horror awards and the ugly stuff are the strange sort of really twisted Santa Claus I’ve got hanging on my wall and the two-handed saw. You’d fund ducks, wooden ducks. You’d find Japanese prints. You’d find a checker board sitting on the wall. You’d find, let’s see… you’d find lots of bloody books, but that's not surprising. You’d find a doll house. Paula’s been working on this enormous doll house for all of her natural life practically ever since I’ve met her, which is a replica of the Eldritch House in Providence, Rhode Island, the Eldritch Mansion, and she’s been doing that for a long, long time. What else would you find that’d be surprising? You’d find that the space is basically organized around four cats. What else? You’d find lots of cooking stuff ‘cus I cook. You’d find a whole kitchen full of cooking stuff.

RH - What’s the meal that you always go back to cooking for yourself the most often, do you find?

JK - My soul food is lentil soup; German style lentil soup. Whenever I feel depressed, I make lentil soup. It goes back to my great-great grandmother’s soup in Germany.

RH - Kind of a quick time-warp travel, eh?

JK - [laughs] That’s good!

RH - Well, thanks so much for basically playing the twelve or thirteen terrible questions for Jack Ketchum, which I think ended up being a few more on top of that.

JK - Get everything you wanted, Richard?

RH - Absolutely. I find with our interviews I usually end up getting a bit more than what I had bargained for, so I thank you for that. Anything extra you can think of that needs plugging as far as what we fans can expect of you craft-wise?

JK - We talked about the memoir book, which is good. There’s also - good god, someday before I die, Broken On The Wheel of Sex is going to come out [laughs] which we’ve probably been promoting since 2005. Joy Ride is coming out soon from Cemetery Dance. I have a deal with Gauntlet Press to do the last major book which isn’t in print yet, Only Child, (now available from Gauntlet Press in three limited editions) and that’s coming out soon. So, by the end of this year, pretty much all my major stuff is going to be back in print somewhere, which is pretty cool.

RH - Like we’ve talked about before, sounds like the prolific status your movie stuff has put you up to, is definitely helping out the books.

JK - Oh, absolutely. When you consider that, about fifteen years ago, I was lucky to get a book on the shelf for six months.

RH - I thought it was pretty awesome when, I think I was in Germany, where they did the re-issue of The Girl Next Door?

JK - Germany has The Girl Next Door and Off Season is out there too.

RH - I don’t think I’ve seen the Off Season cover yet.

JK - It’s very close to the original cover that never got used. It’s a hand, a sort of severed arm. It looks very much like the cover that Ballantine refused to use because their distributors thought it too scary.

RH - Very cool. Again, thanks for everything. I appreciate it.

JK - Good night.