Today I would like to share an interview with Rebecca Jones-Howe, she was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with me here at The Scary Reviews. Rebecca has been published in PANK, Punchnel’s and Pulp Modern, among other publications. Her first collection of short stories, VILE MEN, was released in thr summer of 2015 by Dark House Press. Thank you for so much for the interview Rebecca, let’s get right to the Q&A.
The Scary Reviews: First of can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from?
Rebecca Jones-Howe: I live in Kamloops, British Columbia with my husband, daughter, and two cats. Kamloops is a mid-sized city with a smaller town kind of vibe. The balance is nice, but the urban sprawl isn’t. I don’t drive so I either walk or take transit. Kamloops is also one of the hottest places in Canada during the summer. I can’t stand the heat, so most summer nights I’m sweating over my computer like a season two True Detective character.
Apart from writing, I’m a political junkie. I love commentary videos, in-detail articles, and especially talking panels about the issues. Politics is basically my main writing distraction. I also enjoy crocheting over Netflix in my spare time. Other tidbits: I prefer my chocolate dark, my coffee with cream and sweetener, and my gin with some cranberry juice added. My favourite snack is Cheddar Bits and Bites. My favourite food is Hawaiian pizza. My favourite movie is Heathers. I actually have and still use a Zune.
TSR: What inspires you to write? Music? Other books? Real life events? or just an incredible imagination?
RJH: A large amount of my stories stem from feminist issues. I get way too emotional when discussing feminism, and while the Internet has proven to be a great means of having open discussions, I do find that the jargon (“rape culture”, “slut shaming”, “victim blaming”, etc.) do eventually tune unwilling listeners off the original message. I think that’s why feminists ultimately end up facing a lot of backlash online, is that the message ultimately becomes an argument. Many people ultimately tune out, ending up angry and defensive instead of understanding and engaged. Writing stories about feminist topics is my way of discussing the issues in a less combative way.
I’ve received a good amount of positive feedback from male readers on one of my short stories titled, “The Paper Bag Princess”, which is about an ugly woman who has casual sex with a paper bag over her head. The feedback is something that always inspires me to write more. It’s great to hear from people who tell me that one of my stories made them feel validation, or that they recognized some of their own flaws within a character. Stories allow readers to empathize not just with the story, but also with each other.
That said, a lot of my stories do revolve around men’s issues, too (“Grin on the Rocks”, “Slippery Slopes”, and “Cat Calls” are a few of the ones I’ve gotten some great responses on). Feminist stories don’t always have to be about women, because feminist issues don’t just affect women.
On a less serious note, I can admit that I sometimes just like to write a good sex scene and then build characters and substance around the scene to make it a more impacting piece of smut.
TSR: Can you tell me if there any writers that your inspire you?
RJH: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’d say that Chuck Palahniuk was the first writer who really inspired me enough to believe that I could actually pursue making a career out of it. Over the years I’ve added other writers like Lindsay Hunter, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Sylvia Plath and Amelia Gray to my inspiration list. There’s also a little bit of V.C. Andrews creeping around my writing, if you know where to look. Another one of my favourite writers is a Canadian writer named Jenn Farrell. I found her short story collections (Sugar Bush and Other Stories and The Devil You Know) while on my honeymoon in Tofino. I devoured her work. It’s gutsy and raw and unflinchingly honest. Her writing greatly inspired me to write the kind of stories I currently do, though I’ve recently learned that she’s since quit writing and become a body-builder. I guess I get to pick up the torch.
TSR: What is it that you love about writing?
RJH: I grew up as a reclusive introvert kid. Other than being a form of expression, writing really just became an intricate hobby. People and their characters (and mostly their inner demons) have always been fascinating to me, and writing is a really neat way of creating a new form of understanding. I’ll write a simple scene and then have a great time dissecting the moments during the editing process. What people wear, what they look at, the pauses they take; everything can have some kind of meaning. Every word matters.
I still remember my high school English class, being forced to pick apart every minuscule element of Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I mean, who knows if he even meant for all that symbolism to be there, but I think it’s pretty cool when a bunch kids who might not be serious readers are forced to attribute meaning to different elements within a story. The discussion can be objective, but underneath all that symbolism, it also gets quite personal.
TSR: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
RJH: During the writing process I never feel too challenged by the subject matter or the events in a particular story. I get into a very emotionally-driven state while writing, so there’s not a lot that I shy away from. When it comes to literary fiction, I sometimes find that a story can lose it’s momentum when a writer chooses not to show scenes of sex or violence. Granted, subtlety can have its own effect in the literary world, but done well, a vivid scene of graphic nature can really put a reader into a character’s shoes. Genres like horror and noir don’t pull those punches, and it’s often during that carefully visceral graphic writing is when the most emotion is drawn, and when the reader is most engaged and most sympathetic.
The real challenge I feel is after I publish a story and it’s out there in the world. Like most people, I am afraid of judgement, so I do often wonder if people judge me personally based on some of the salacious things I write about. I know it’s not for everyone. One would only expect that a book called “Vile Men” would contain just that, but whenever I see a certain kind of reader picking up my book, I can’t help but cringe.
TSR: If you could write anywhere in the world – in a fictional or nonfiction place – where would you write?
RJH: I mostly prefer to write anywhere that’s quiet and comfortable, so I don’t often dream of foreign places or writing from a fancy castle or anything. Whenever I go to Vancouver, though I always fantasize about what it would be like to have a small fancy apartment just a few floors up from the street. It’d definitely have to be a building that had like an all-night convenience store and a coffee shop and a Quizno’s underneath, though, so I could always go down for a bite to eat when those late-night snack cravings kick in.
TSR: What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
RJH: When I was first starting out, I was part of The Cult writing community that was once a part of Chuck Palahniuk’s official website (which has now evolved into Lit Reactor). There used to be a thread on the forum where people could mention the magazines they’d recently had stories rejected from. I used to post on that forum frequently, openly questioning what the editors didn’t like about my work. Eventually a few community members got fed up with my whining and told me that I just had to suck it up and continue sending my writing out. I learned that writing isn’t any easier even if you’re “good” at it. At the time it was easy to convince myself that I was a good writer, but writing is subjective. Not everyone is going to like it. There’s an immense world of genres and niches and styles out there. Getting rejected only helps you find the right places to send your work. It’s trial and error, and there will be a hell of a lot of error before you get things right.
TSR: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
RJH: When I’m not writing I’m usually crocheting while binge-watching television shows. I also do enjoy taking a nice walk around my hilly neighbourhood, though it usually takes me a lot of will to actually put on real clothes and go outside. I also shop online more than I should.
TSR: While reading Vile Men a few things stood out that and I wanted to ask the following. Was blue a theme and if so what is the significance? Why the unhealthy sexual themes? and was there any significance to the sentence preceding each story?
RJH: Blue was never an intended theme. I know I have a tendency to use blue and red as colour motifs in a lot of stories, but that’s more a reliance on my part than a deliberately-inserted recurring theme.
The unhealthy sex is definitely that V.C. Andrews influence taking over. I’m not sure if men read books the same way, but I definitely feel that women have always relied on literature as a means of exploring sexuality. There’s a reason why the romance/erotica genre has been long been a female dominated genre, especially today. I do love a good sex scene, and am always on the lookout for a decent erotica novel, but they’re nearly impossible to find. Even back when I read V.C. Andrews books in high school, it didn’t take too many before I got bored of the same flat and naive Mary Sue characters reluctantly boning in every similar plot revolving around a distant or dead dad, a nightmare mother, and a related love interest.
It’s always been a goal of mine to write sexy stories for the people who want to delve into the underlying power-struggle of sexuality, as opposed to just reading long purple prose paragraphs of chiseled abs just for the sake of picturing chiseled abs. I’m sure there’s enough sexy dude Pinterest boards out there that can get the job done a lot better than any cheap Kindle erotica book ever could. Sexy books need to step up their game.
As for the pull-quotes: I used to make little meme-style “hipster graphics” for my short stories when they were published as a way to promote my stories, because nobody enjoys reading strings to text online. Everything is either in photo or video form. So making little graphic excerpts was my way of drawing links to my published stories. I’d probably do four or five quotes of the more salacious lines from each story, and match it up with a free stock photo that kept with the theme and mood of the story. (There’s a full collection of the Vile Men graphics excerpts at http://rebeccajoneshowe.com/vile-men/) Dark House Press always goes the extra mile when it comes to their book design, so when my book was in layout, editor-in-chief Richard Thomas asked if I wanted to incorporate the graphic idea before each story.
TSR: I really enjoyed Vile Men, what’s next on your agenda?
RJH: Since I finished writing Vile Men, I honestly haven’t been doing a lot of writing. I recently finished my first short story since then, and I do hope to pen more and start sending out work again. I’m also currently working on the beginning stages of my first novel. I tried to write one (pantser-style) last year for NaNoWriMo. I hit the word count but the novel was a mess without a hook. Right now I’m finishing up my outline for my new project. It’s shaping up pretty nicely, but the real work now is getting the first draft started.
TSR: Let’s close things with a few words for struggling or upcoming writers. What obstacles can they look forward to overcoming and how have you overcome them?
RJH: Probably my first piece of advice would be to not think too highly of yourself or your writing. Pride is an easy trap to fall into, and it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re still going to struggle as much as any other writer has.
Secondly, I’d suggest to any new writer to find a community of other writers. There are so many niches and genres of fiction now, it shouldn’t be too hard to go online and find a community that can provide support and a great network to help you get your writing published and promoted. These are people who are facing the same struggles and issues. It’s nice to not have to go it alone. Read their work. Give them feedback. Make real connections (even if they’re only online). I’ve known some of my writer friends for almost a decade and I’ve never met them in person. They still mean so much to me. They’re kindred spirits. A lot of them are also very political, so it’s definitely nice to be able to talk politics with them. I don’t have enough political junkies in my real life to listen to all my talking points.