A proud and beloved representative of the darkly teeming milieu of ‘bizarro’ fiction, Jeremy Robert Johnson is attracting acclaim for his debut novel, Skullcrack City – a conspiracy thriller whose grotesque dystopian vision would have made Hieronymous Bosch proud, but whose pulp roots and cyberpunk beats lend it a brisk and ice-cool clip. He speaks to us about the sub-genre that has become his home, the challenges of corralling such a heady premise into a debut novel… and Tacos.
Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, and everyone will claim to be either skeptical about or downright sick of labels to apply to fiction. But you appear to have proudly wended yourself to what is being referred to as the ‘bizarro’ movement. Could tell us a little bit about this sub-genre-cum-community, and why would you say your fiction is a good fit for it?
Is it weird that my first instinct is always to answer questions about Bizarro by saying only, “Taco”? I’m not kidding. Maybe there’s a metaphor there. Like something about how Taco Bell invented Fourth Meal and now drunk people say that out loud like it’s a thing.
Bizarro is the literary version of The Island of Misfit Toys and we’re not waiting for Santa to get his shit together. It’s a bunch of people who got tired of hanging out in the corner at horror and sci-fi forums and decided to make their own scene and give it a name and put all their heart and energy into it and make it something real and worthwhile. And the company line thing, saying Bizarro is an analog to the Cult section at the video store, is actually quite apt.
If my fiction fits into the Bizarro mode it’s because it’s weird and because that’s about the only litmus test. It’s a wonderfully elastic term. It’s a great batch of writers, and after 9 years of applied effort there’s a pretty excellent canon you could associate with the genre.
When did you first get an itch to start writing, and how did your style (and also, perhaps, some overarching thematic concerns/obsessions) develop over time?
I was a nerdy little guy from the drop, all prodigious reading and writing and zero social skills, so I can’t remember when I wasn’t obsessed with the written word.
In the seventh grade I wrote a story about a man who’d fallen in love with a tub of margarine and the teacher remarked that she couldn’t decide if my writing was more like Dave Barry or John Updike, so I guess I’ve always been working with a mix of absurdity and literary affectations.
My concerns and obsessions have evolved and become more of an admixture, and I’m much more concerned about human connection than I used to be. I’ve never quite purged my revulsion/fascination with parasites, but I feel like I’ve properly processed the anger and self-destruction that marked my youth and early short work, so there’s slightly less of that in the mix.
As far as style goes, I’ve become a much more subtle thief. If you read Angel Dust Apocalypse you can clearly see me learning by trying out my favorite authors’ styles, like, “Here’s my Bradbury story and my SE Hinton story and my Welsh story and my Ellroy story.” Since then I’ve learned how to puree all of that and blend it in a way that’s closer to my own voice. So I’ve got a box full of stolen tools, but I’m trying to use them in a slightly different way, to sublimate my better influences. And I’ve become awesome at mixing metaphors!
Your most recent novel, Skullcrack City, is a blistering hodge-podge of different genres and styles, from noir to pulp science fiction, from cyberpunk to surrealism. But it’s shot through the scarred and intimate voice of your protagonist, SP Doyle, and as such also feels refreshingly raw. Did you have to work hard for this ‘personal’ voice to elbow its way through this fevered collage?
I knew Doyle had to be the anchor for ‘Skullcrack’. If you’re not tethered to him then the story’s altogether too much crazy to deal with. So I definitely paid close attention to maintaining his voice, to allow him to be as confused or disturbed or angry as the reader (or I) might be.
If Doyle works as an emotional center to the story, it’s because 1. I got lucky. And 2. Some of the elements at the core of his story (banking, drugs, alienation, meeting an amazing woman who altered his self-destructive course) are things I know intimately and tried my best to be honest about.
One of the most impressive things about Skullcrack City is just how clear the plot actually is. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but it’s actually no mean feat when you consider the intricate web of conspiracy that sets the plot in motion. Was it a challenge to make the novel flow as briskly as it does?
YES! [Looks at file folder for book, still overflowing with pages of notes and multi-page Excel spreadsheets charting story themes and plot elements. Begins to sweat. Right eyelid twitches.]
Who chooses a conspiracy thriller for their debut novel? I was cursing myself the whole time. I’m not returning to that mode for at least the next two novels.
As an author for whom the epithet ‘cult’ feels more natural than most, but also as someone who used to run their own indie publishing house – Swallowdown Press – what are some of the persistent challenges of operating within that sphere of the literary scene, both as a writer and as a publisher?
The biggest challenge in being a “cult” author is that I’m fucking bad at it. Which is to say that the model for surviving as a cult author, wherein you produce a ton of work for a small but adoring audience, is something I don’t know how to do. Carlton Mellick III is a true cult author, and he’s fucking great at that model. But I come into each book release as if it’s my first because in the 3-5 years it takes me between projects, I assume most readers have forgotten me and moved on. And the work I produce isn’t consistent tonally—like the mania of ‘Angel Dust’ versus the funeral dirge of We Live Inside You —so in that case the books ended up with very different readerships. So I guess my major challenge would be to write more—to write enough, and well enough, that readers can just depend on me as a storyteller.
With Swallowdown Press (RIP 2006-2014) my biggest challenge was to find the right audience for these dark, beautiful books that I knew people would love, but even there I couldn’t quite establish a particular ethos that people could attach to and depend on. “Carefully crafted horror-and-crime-influenced Bizarro” isn’t really a rallying cry. That being said, I’m immensely proud of the nine books Swallowdown released, and if I’ve done anything right by the body of human literature, it was putting more Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne and Forrest Armstrong out into the world.
With that in mind, which are some of your favourite writers working today?
Well, J. David and Cody, and definitely Stephen Graham Jones, Margaret Atwood, Laird Barron, David Wong, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Joe Lansdale, Colson Whitehead. I take a lot of inspiration from writers who take risks and create these new chimerical stories.
What’s next for you?
Two novels. One set in a high school here in Oregon, another set on a river in South America. Parasites. Sharks. Technology gone bad. Hallucinogenic frogs. After that, I’m contemplating expanding the mythology established in Skullcrack City, maybe telling the stories of some of the other denizens.
Also: Getting my bowling ball holes re-drilled. I think my fingers are expanding. Too many tacos.
Be sure to check out our review of Skullcrack City in this month’s edition of Pop Culture Destruction. For more information on Jeremy Robert Johnson, log on to the author’s official website.