Recently BSP signature author Jayme K. interviewed horror icon and legendary author Jack Ketchum. Once described as "the scariest guy in America," by Stephen King, Ketchum has authored over 40 books and as of late has found himself in the spotlight through notable film adaptions of his work.
In the following interview he discusses his experiences in writing, publishing, and collaborating, and also talks about his creative partnership with filmmaker Lucky McKee, as well as upcoming projects.
BSP: I’m sure you’ve been asked the same tired old questions by a number of different interviewers, rephrased in an innumerable amount of ways, so I’m going to lead in by asking, What is your favorite Italian dish?
Jack Ketchum: “Linguine with white clam sauce. Crusty bread on the side.”
BSP: It wasn’t until recently that I realized you had attended Emerson College, and actually taught in Brookline. As someone from the Boston area myself I feel almost obliged to ask, Bruins or Blackhawks?
Ketchum: “As regards to team sports, I’d rather watch grass grow. I’d rather have hemorrhoids.”
BSP: Getting into your work; you’ve become one of the most prolific horror writers in America. With your most recent publication, I’m Not Sam, you collaborated with filmmaker Lucky McKee—who has adapted two of your works for the screen, and who you also wrote The Woman with. Do you find that collaborating, in general, with others comes easy to you and what is it about McKee that has you guys partnering up on so many projects?
Ketchum: “I’ve probably got thirty years on Lucky but creatively we think a lot alike. Our first interests are theme and character — events evolve out of them, not the other way around, and only when we’ve got them down solid in our heads do we start to shape what actually happens. We both take our work seriously but we also like to play, so I think that enters in a lot as well. We’re both pretty easy-going guys who really like each other’s stuff. I’ve only collaborated with two other writers, Edward Lee in a handful of short stories — you can find them in our collection Sleep Disorder — and P.G. Cacek on the short story The Net. Trish Cacek and Lee like to play too. Collaboration only comes easy when you’re working with a like-minded soul who respects your work and whose work you respect as well. You can’t have any one-upmanship involved. No showboating.”
BSP: As stated before, you’ve written a number of books. Writing a novel can often times be a lonely and grueling experience; are there any books that you reflect on where the writing process was absolute hell or simply unpleasant? If so, which and why?
Ketchum: “My second novel was a thing called Ladies’ Night, which Ballantine initially wanted to be my “‘SALEM’S LOT” to Off Season’s “CARRIE” Bigger in pages, bigger in scope. Being scared that I was possibly a one-book wonder I wrote a very long, very detailed outline so they knew exactly what they were buying. Then I followed it slavishly. I hated the experience. The outline gave me no wiggle-room. But I was locked in to all these plots and sub-plots — not to mention all those fucking pages. Then, because despite the early fanfare their distributors absolutely hated Off Season to a man — and went so far as to accuse Mark Jaffe, a distinguished editor, of stooping to publish violent pornography — Ballantine tried to back out of Ladies’ Night because it was very much in the same vein. Only longer. My agent, the brilliant Jack Scovil, cut a deal with them wherein I’d produce a much less violent book, keep the advance, and even got them to sweeten the pot by ten grand. So I shelved Ladies’ Night and wrote Hide and Seek, which they quietly dumped on the market instead. Years later I pulled out Ladies’ Night, took a hatchet to all the fat, and had a great time revising it into the tidy, nasty little book it is today.”
BSP: What is the one book that you’ve written that you consider yourself most proud of?
Ketchum: “What am I most proud of? Sorry, I’m not going to choose my favorite daughter. Or my favorite cat.”
BSP: How about the flip side? Is there anything you look back on now and wish you could jump in a time machine and alter?
Ketchum: “I’d alter nothing. Not that all my stuff is perfect, it definitely isn’t. But I’m very content to let it all stand.”
BSP: Back onto the topic of film adaptations. It’s a rare thing that literary works, especially horror ones, are translated well to the big screen—let alone critically acclaimed. For example, Stephen King—who has had plenty of good things to say about you—has a list of best selling books to his name and also a sizable list of underwhelming film adaptations. You seem to be one of the few authors to find success both in your literary efforts and their on-screen adaptations. Why do you think your writing translates as well as it does to film?
Ketchum: “Two reasons. First of all, I love movies almost as much as I love books and I think that sensibility drives a lot of the prose. But more importantly, I’ve been lucky as hell to have people adapting my stuff for all the right reasons.”
BSP: Lucky McKee with The Woman and Red, Chris Silvertson with The Lost, Andrew van den Houton for Offspring, and Gregory Wilson with The Girl Next Door.
Ketchum: “They honestly like it and want to get it right. I haven’t had a prima donna in the bunch. They’ve all wanted to do service to the material, not just show off or make a pile of cash. Some have gotten it a bit more ‘right’ than others, but basically I’m happy with and grateful to every one of them for giving my work their best shot. I think it helps that they’ve all been pretty young, too. Not a bunch of jaded old Hollywood farts.”
BSP: To return to literature, what was the last good book you read?
Ketchum: “The last great book I read was Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and The White — prostitutes and gentlemen in 1800s London. But also terrific ones like Peter Straub’s novellas Pork Pie Hat and The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine, Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Hilarly Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies and Clair Huffaker’s The Cowboy and The Cossack. So much fine stuff out there.”
BSP: Are there any authors or books that are popular or mainstream that you don’t particularly care for?
Ketchum: “I’m not going to dish any writer in public. That’s just a rude and stupid thing to do. Talk to me personally once I know you? That’s possibly another story. But I think that there’s plenty in the world to bash other than artists. Ask me about religions or guns or anti-abortionists and I’ll rant all day long. But not artists. Not going there”
BSP: On your website, you tote yourself an actor, teacher, etc. Let’s pretend this is an alternate universe where, for some reason, you actively choose not to pursue writing. What do you think you’d be doing for a living?
Ketchum: “Possibly paleontology, possibly archeology. They’ve both always fascinated me. Diggin’ in the dirt, man, diggin’ in the dirt. Only thing is, both these professions probably involve bosses. I’m very bad at bosses.”
BSP: Do you have any unconventional writing tips for aspiring authors that will read this?
Ketchum: “Write with honor, write with truth. Get at the best and worst in you. And don’t let the cat on the keyboard.”
BSP: To wrap things up, is there anything you’re currently working on and would like to promote?
Ketchum: “Apropos of what I said before about not bashing artists, I’m working on editing a little book that does exactly the opposite of bashing. It’s all about appreciating artists — a collection of essays I’ve done over the years, introductions and reviews and such, which I’m calling “What They Wrote: In Praise of Dark Fiction.” Just a little labor of love. After that, I want to do a couple more short stories to fill out a new collection. Been too long since Closing Time and Other Stories. Then maybe another novel or another project with Lucky. We’ll see.”