Some writers have it. Others don’t. But that doesn’t always line up nice and neat with standard measures and models of success; the writer who has it may linger in obscurity, while the author who doesn’t ends up on the best-seller list. John Hornor Jacobs is one of those authors who has it—he has it in reams and sheaves, he has it in great bloody fistfuls, even as he jumps from genre to genre, from world to world—but despite his great talent, you may not know his name. At least, not yet.

Jacobs’s most recent world-making can be found in Playboy magazine in his short story The Domestic Lives of Superheroes, a poignant look at the intersection between humanity and super-humanity. In it, the protagonist, Pete, is married to a mind-reading super-woman and lives in perhaps the world’s safest “gated community”—a protected enclave home to men, women and children endowed with powers. And although Pete has no special abilities, his actions are dangerously powerful in a way he may not realize. Jacobs says his story is a mash-up of classic American comics, John Updike’s Couples and his own vivid imaginings.

Jacobs and I started publishing books around the same time and we share an agent, so we’ve known each other for a while. We talked about everything from comics and speculative fiction to jumping genres, working at an ad agency and wanting to be a villain.


Kalen Hollomon

Kalen Hollomon

The Domestic Lives of Superheroes—intimacy and adultery mixed up with superheroes. Where’s that story come from?
I was chatting online with Twitter folks about the overblown queue of superhero movies slated to be made and joked that at this point I’d rather see a movie about their domestic lives—their little joys, their families, their amorous relationships—than see another city destroyed or computer-generated fight scene. Like “Updike writes the next Superman.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it might be a fun—or interesting—story. So I wrote it, since it was imminently clear no one else was going to.

Did you ever think about turning it into a comic? Or writing comics in general?
I’ve thought about writing comics, sure, but not really about writing comics about superheroes. I think the best work being done in comics now takes unexpected directions with subject matter outside of what is traditionally thought of as comics material: Congressman John Lewis’s March or Max Brooks’s Harlem Hellfighters or Jason Aaron’s Southern Bastards. Plus, I’m a little daunted by writing for a new medium. I’ve started writing a screenplay. I had always thought, “I write books, how hard can a screenplay be?” And I found out: pretty hard. I can’t imagine writing for comics would be any easier than writing a screenplay.

Do you read many comic books?
I go through phases where I do. I don’t really do individual issues. I usually buy them once they’re collected into a graphic novel format. I tend toward crime and horror comics rather than superhero ones. The late Darwyn Cooke’s Parker is one of my crime favorites, and Brian Wood’s Northlanders for some Viking mayhem.

Who’s your favorite superhero?
Hellboy, for so many reasons. He’s other and somewhat absurd, though all superheroes are absurd with any sort of scrutiny. He’s a reluctant hero: He’s denied his fate and birthright, snaps off his devil’s horns and renounces his name, Anung Un Rama, and now fights for humanity—despite the fact that he’s a monster. He is imminently pragmatic, packs a big-ass gun and solves things with his fists, wisecracking all the while.

People wonder about the sex lives of superheroes—you know, like how Superman’s ejaculation would probably blow Lois Lane into her constituent atoms. What superhero probably has the most interesting sex life?
Like kinky, freaky sex? Probably Doctor Strange. It’s all right there in his name. I imagine he’s into autoerotic asphyxiation. Magical autoerotic asphyxiation.

And Doc Strange has those hand gestures, if you know what I mean. Which leads me to a classic, kitschy question: If you had one superpower, what would it be?
I would like Batman’s superpower: being a billionaire. Failing that, I’d like the ability to give other people superpowers—not because I’m generous, but because I’m super passive-aggressive and could guilt them into doing things for me. “Hey, Grendlefist, can you come help me move this couch with your super strength? What? You’re busy fighting crime? Oh, okay, I guess that’s fine, even though you wouldn’t be able to if it wasn’t for me.… You’ll be right over? Great, thanks.”

Actually, the more I think about it, I guess I wouldn’t be a superhero at all. I’d be a villain.

Your work jumps from genre to genre, and you even mix it up within each novel: Southern Gods mashes Lovecraft with YA meets the X-Men, Lord of the Rings meets Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. What’s the value in genre-hopping, and are there any disadvantages?
The advantages are simple: Mash-ups keep me enthusiastic and engaged in a project. When you take two seemingly dissimilar things and combine them, it lets you look at both in new ways. And as a writer, it keeps my mind energized.

The disadvantages are that I have to restart my career with every new book. I don’t keep readers when I move from horror to YA to weird epic fantasy.

Mash-ups keep me enthusiastic and engaged in a project. And as a writer, it keeps my mind energized.

Is there anything you want to write that you haven’t yet written?
I’m currently working on two projects, both new endeavors. The first is a screenplay about a little-known creator of one of the most influential early video games. The second is a more “literary” novel. That’s in quotes because I don’t know any other way to explain it. I’ve never written a book without any speculative elements. There’s always this urge for me to throw in some sort of supernatural antagonist to heighten the conflict when I construct stories. With this book I’m just doing the historical research, finding the natural conflicts that abound in our world and examining how they affect the human condition.

I’ve kind of hedged my bets, though. I’m calling it “a Southern fantasy” because I’ve Faulknered the bitch and set it in a fictional county of my own making—Quapaw County, Arkansas. In Quapaw County I am God, and I can bend history to my will.

Is there something that connects each piece of yours? Some tendon, some binding element?
Dysfunctional families. Go figure, huh? Also, people tend to get their hands chopped off in my books. That’s probably the fault of Star Wars. Thanks for that, Chuck. I lay the Star Wars blame at your feet.

I accept all blame. I want to ask you about one of my favorite bits in all your books: In your zombie novel This Dark Earth, there’s a chapter where a few characters go after a steam locomotive—it’s this great island of writing that doesn’t really connect with the rest of the book, but it’s damn near perfect, very King-esque. Where did that independent chapter come from? No one would ever recommend a writer do that, but you did it, and it’s great.
Originally, I envisioned This Dark Earth to be a mosaic novel—a speculative zombie-ridden version of maybe Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In mosaic novels, a through-line narrative isn’t absolutely necessary; you can have independent sections that add to the fabric of the story as a whole without forwarding the ideal of plot. I had cut a couple other sections to that novel that were similar—one has been published as a short story called “Heaven of Animals,” referencing James Dickey’s famous poem.

Anyway, I liked the idea of characters going on a doomed train ride and how that failure would affect the plans of the people in Bridge City. In a way it raised the stakes of the story.

What advice would you give a new or, hell, even a practiced writer? Do writing rules or writing advice matter at all?
I think it’s important that writers see that people come up with sets of rules by which they try to create, but that every rule is on an individual basis. You do a great job of letting people know, when you post about writing, that all writing advice should be à la carte—you take what works for you. And you don’t figure out what works for you without actually rolling up your sleeves and doing the work. You can’t come up with rules beforehand; rule-making is done only through experience.

Writing rules are like CSS stylesheets—great for controlling the aesthetic of a project as a whole, but adaptable in that you can always make exceptions. The best advice I could give writers starting out is to read. If you believe in the 10,000-hour theory to mastery, reading counts toward writing.

The best way to survive as a writer is to either marry well enough that your spouse can put you on their health insurance, or learn to cook rice.

Who’s a writer you read—I don’t want to say who inspires you—who, when you read their work, you get just a little bit jealous that they’re too damn good?
In genre, I’d say Daryl Gregory has never written a book that I didn’t love and that didn’t leave me feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing as a writer—although I haven’t had a chance to check out his young-adult stuff. Hopefully he’s dropped the ball there and written a real shitfest so I can feel better about myself, though I doubt it.

Hillary Mantel’s ability to take scholarship of history and convert it into luminous prose populated by immediate and heart-wrenching characters leaves me floored. Anthony Doer’s elegant and elegiac storytelling leaves me happy-sad and jealous.

You’re one of those writers, by the way, who can make me feel jealous. One of the best in the biz—everything you write is just… [kisses fingers] …and yet you haven’t crested that wave yet. Plenty of amazing genre fiction writers haven’t really hit it yet either, whether we’re talking Daryl Gregory or Kameron Hurley. It’s a hard job, if you can call it that. You have another job in graphic design and animation. Does having one creative job feed the other or clash with it?
Daryl Gregory, again. That guy.

Author Chuck Wendig.

Yes, I’m lucky to have achieved my childhood dreams twice. All I ever wanted to do since I was a kid was find a profession in a creative field. I’m a partner in an ad agency where I function as the senior art director for clients like Twitter, Heifer International, PK Grills, Komen Race for the Cure and many others. On a more granular level, I create loads of graphics, print pieces, videos and animations for these clients.

My day job does clash with my writing job, if simply due to scarcity of time. I have fewer hours everyday to write and often have to work late to get jobs done for clients, and that is always a problem. Less time with my family too. But when there’s downtime, I write at the day job, and since I own part of the company my partners can’t say shit to me about it. Not that they would. They’re super excited about me being in Playboy.

What does it take to make it as a writer? To survive as one?
If you mean become successful, I have no idea what it takes to “make” it. But there are varying degrees of success. When I first started writing, getting published was success, but at this stage in my career, it’s not. Success now is reaching a wider audience, and I haven’t succeeded there yet. There’s always the chance I won’t ever realize success on that level, and I’m cool with that. I just try to focus one what I can do to become a better writer and storyteller, and hopefully the rest of it will sort itself out. The love I have for my day job allows me a freedom to do it on my own terms.

The best way to survive as a writer is to either marry well enough that your spouse can put you on their health insurance, or learn to cook rice.


Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter and game designer, as well as the best-selling author of Star Wars: Aftermath. You can find him on Twitter at @chuckwendig, and he blogs at terribleminds.com.