Interviews in the Machine : Jack Wallen
Tune in tomorrow for our review of Jack Wallen’s latest book, Frankenstein Theory. For now, check out this interview we conducted with him as well.
MM : Tell us a little about yourself and what put you on the road to being an author.
JW :I spent the first 30 years of my adult life as a professional actor. I was on the road, traveling across the country, from gig to gig, and finally landed at my current home state, where I performed for one of the largest theater for young audiences in America. During my ten years as a resident actor there, I realized that Actor’s Equity Association’s retirement plan was, in a word, sad. When that hit home, I knew I had to find something that could serve as a retirement.
Flash backward to graduate school (go, Purdue!) and I had a very tight-knit group of friends who played a lot of role playing games. We spent an entire year playing Vampire: The Masquerade. I became so connected with the character I played, I decided I wanted to continue his story. After leaving Purdue, I had no one around me to play with (sad panda), so I decided the best way to keep that character in my mind was to write out his story.
Turns out, I actually had a knack for verbiage. That story never saw the light of day (although I do still have the manuscript), but it kicked off my love for writing.
MM: How would you characterize your writing? Genre? Ideal audience?
JW: To sum up my writing is tough, because I write in so many genres. I tend to allow the Universe to instruct me what to write next, so I never know what genre I’ll be playing in. Outside of that, my writing tends to be intellectual and lyrical. I’ve always felt, as a writer, words are my tool to convey plot, character, relationship, ambiance, mood, style, rhythm … and so much more. And so, I use those words as a composer uses notes, a painter uses paint, or a sculptor uses a chisel and clay. To me, it’s artistic expression on a high level.
MM: A number of your books have connections with music. The Kitty in a Casket series as well as Punk Ass Punk. Music certainly plays a central role in Frankenstein Theory. How does your background as a musician and an actor inform your writing?
JW: It’s one of the things I hold most dear, as it helps me to understand things like point/counterpoint and rhythm. As an artist, one of the things I talk about a lot (when I teach) is a bit of music theory call non-harmonic tones. These are tones which color melody as it passes from phrase to phrase. It’s a bit of a stretch to use it with the written word, but there are ways – as in transitions from beat to beat, or scene to scene. Being able to blend those moments together with tension or resolution really brings the writing to a new level. Those “passing tones” help the characters to navigate the waters of plot with grace, precision, empathy, pain, wit … you name it. Outside of that rather esoteric notion, the use of rhythm is incredibly important to my writing. When I see paragraph after paragraph written as big blocks of text, I immediately see a writer who has no sense or understanding of the role rhythm in the written word. Most humans don’t speak or think in that manner … they think in spurts and sputters, intermixed with long, drawn-out thoughts. Writing should reflect that type of rhythm.
MM: I’m old enough that I can still just remember the end of the era when going to the movies was more of an event, almost on level with going to the theater. I see the Universal Monster Franchise as a great symbol of that era. What drew you to these stories?
JW: First of all, I adore those old black and white films. When I was a child, my favorite memories are watching the horror films of old. I couldn’t get enough of B-Horror and B-Scifi. I think there’s this layer of innocence to those films that allowed people to be so much more frightened of the unknown. These films brought to the celluloid table something no one had ever before seen, so even the original Frankenstein was able to frighten them to nearly fainting. Today, we’ve pretty much witnessed every possible horror and calamity that there is to behold, so there is no longer such thing as innocence in the cinema. The same thing holds true with books.
MM: How did Frankenstein Theory come to be, specifically?
JW: It actually started out as a short story. A gent reached out to me, saying he was going to be doing an anthology of short stories, based on the Universal Monsters. He gave me Frankenstein, and I decided to do a sort of prequel to the film … a sort of “What happened to lead up to Victor reanimating a human?” After submitting the short story, the gent had to abandon the project (for reasons unknown). I loved the story so much, I decided it needed to be fleshed out. That led to me taking on the story with the twist found in Frankenstein Theory.
MM: You seem to engage much more directly the contrast between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. How the morality of the Doctor seems to decrease as the morality of his creation seems to increase. Is this something that was on your mind as you wrote?
JW: Yes. One of the biggest themes in all of my horror writing is turning the mirror back on humankind, to illustrate how, left unchecked, we are the most horrific monster of all time. So I spend a lot of time in much of my work on that theme. Why? It serves as a way to help remind readers that we are only a twitch away from the monstrous … so keep yourself in check. Without keeping tabs on our morality, the human condition wants to spiral down into a rather dark abyss. It is that dance, I find, where so much horror gold can be mined.
MM: There is such a disconnect between Mary Shelly’s book and the way the monster is represented in the films that followed. Have you ever wondered how point A led to point B in this case?
JW: At the time, Hollywood believed Shelly’s book to be too intellectual for the standard audience. They couldn’t offer up a “monster” who was not only intelligent, but worthy of sympathy. The “monster” in the book speaks with an eloquence we don’t find in most villains (save for the likes of Hannibal Lecter). There is no way Hollywood could have placed the burden of sympathy on a character like the “monster” and turn the protagonist into a villain. In the book, the monster says “I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?” That is far too moralistically confusing for audiences of the period. Because of that, Hollywood opted to strip the monster of eloquence and make him hideous.
MM: Can we expect more from you in this series?
JW: Yes. I am about to release “Dracula Theory”, which does the same thing (for similar reasons) that I did with “Frankenstein Theory”. I also plan on continuing the series with the rest of the Universal Monsters and beyond. I love writing these types of period horror, because their tapestries are so rich and lush.
MM: The landscape out there for authors seems to experience constant tectonic shifts. What advice would you have for authors who are trying to get noticed?
JW: Patience, patience, patience. Back in 2014, it was reported that a new book went live on Amazon every five minutes. I would imagine that number to be exponentially higher now (more like 100+ every five minutes). That translates to a very large number of new books every day, which (in turn) translates to it being harder and harder (with each passing day) for authors to be seen. That means you have to work … hard. At what? Your craft. Make it your goal that the book you’re working on now is better than the book you previously finished. Never. Stop. Pushing. Yourself. Also, don’t adhere to someone’s advice as though it were gospel. Why? Just because it worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. I have witnessed so many authors fail, simply because they were trying to recreate what succeeded for another. Pave your own way. Know the rules, break the rules, make your own rules. I’ve pretty much lived and died by that mantra, and it pays off.
The beat I march to is my own. Find yours and make it something glorious.
MM: Is there anything coming up for you on the horizon that you would like to share?
JW: As I mentioned, I have “Dracula Theory”, which is my take on Bram Stoker’s fabulous tale. My version is in the same period, but flips the whole narrative on its head. Besides that, I’m working on my first romance novel, called “Beautiful Complication”. This is far from a standard romance, so expect the unexpected. Beyond those two pieces, I have a “to be written” file that’s massive, so there’s never a lack for ideas.