Jeff's name may jog a memory of a previous review of his I did this year, Foodchain. This man is just hysterical and his novel was insane!! Take a glance at what he has cared to share with me.
Your newest novel, "Food Chain" was released last month. Can you tell us a little about it?
Foodchain is a crime novel about Frank Winter, a disgraced veternarian who works for the mob at a Chicago horse racing track. When a job goes bad, they take Frank out to a roadside zoo out in the desert and try to feed him to a bunch of starving alligators. He ends up in an isolated small town where the tyrannical mayor puts Frank's talents to use in a series of exotic animal hunts that escalate into animal death matches. And of course, Frank is pushed to the brink, and has to decide whether to side with the humans or the animals. Basically, it's a story of bad guys and even worse guys. I mean, to be totally honest, when I started, all I wanted to write was a compelling, really vicious shoot 'em up. And Foodchain was the result.
Columbia is one of America's most prolific colleges. Did you begin writing before teaching? Or vice versa?
I'm one of these guys who started writing stories as soon as I learned how to read and write. I think my mom has a few of my early efforts, thirteen page epics with painstaking illustrations like "The Creature From the Black Swamp." I suppose the subject matter hasn't changed much over the years, but hopefully my skills have grown a bit sharper.
Do you incorporate your own work into your teachings? Why?
Oh sure. Columbia College Chicago is a liberal arts school that takes a lot of pride in hiring teachers that work in whatever field they're teaching. As a writer, it's impossible not to bring my own experiences into the fiction workshops. Not so much my voice or the content of my stuff; in fact I work very hard at keeping neutral so students can develop their own voices and stories. The last thing I want is for my students to go out and write stuff just like mine. But I definitely talk about my experiences in publishing. I especially talk about my mistakes, so the students can learn from my dumbass moves, and they can go on and make their own mistakes, which is how we learn.
You seem to travel a bit? California, Chicago, Taiwan, Australia...What did you take away from your acting in "the land down under?"
Yeah, I like to travel. There's something very appealling about dropping everything, throwing shit in a backpack, and hopping on a plane. Of course, it's different now, since I've got a family and a job, so it isn't quite as simple. It started in high school, when a buddy was going to apply to be a foreign exchange student. He ultimately wanted to go the Air Force Academy, and apparently they frowned on anybody spending an extended length of time outside the States, so he dropped the application. God forbid you might actually learn there's a whole other world out there. The more I thought about it, the more I said what the hell, and within a year, I was living in Melbourne, Australia. There, I met some fantastic folks, and ended up acting in a non-profit company called "No Mates", directed by my good pal Craig Christie, who has gone on to become quite a celebrated playwright/songwriter. In terms of what I took away, I think it was probably a heightened awareness of your audience when you're telling a story. When you're acting, you get this immediate feedback, and so you can alter whatever you're doing, stretch moments out, stress certain things, etc. When you're writing, you don't have the luxury of that immediate audience, so it helps if you can imagine one and try to anticipate how they might react. Of course, there's also a flip side; when you're acting and the audience isn't into your story, then you've got nowhere to hide. When you're writing, you can keep rewriting, keep sending it out to your friends and gauging their reaction, you keep fiddling with things until your happy.
You mentioned to me that "Wormfood" has changed since the ARC, Advanced Reader Copy. What was the reasoning for the changes?
Oh, nothing major, just a few small things, like fixing a few clunky sentences, some dumb continuity errors on my part, things like that.
If you had to pick three of your top favorite most gory, blood-fest movies, what would they be?
Jeez, I don't know. It's too fucking hard to nail down just three, you know? I tell ya, in terms of movies that have influenced me the most, I've got probably five or six crammed into the top three spots in a kind of strange tie. But if you put a gun to my head, let's see... My life wouldn't be complete without Dawn of the Dead, Jaws, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. There's some others I can't live without, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Road Warrior, The Killer and Hard Boiled, Escape From New York, The Thing... Man, I could go on and on and on. But you'll notice, most of those came out within four years of each other, right around '78-82. I was ten in there, so yeah, it was a hugely influential time in my life. I was one big-ass, thirsty sponge. But if I had to pick three of my favorite most gory, blood-fest movies, I'd probably recommend Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive (Braindead), which has, quite possibly, the most bodily fluids ever spilled in a movie. It's also one of the funniest movies ever. For me, anyway. Then I'd go with Cannibal Holocaust, which is excrutiating, and always leaves me a sweating, nervous wreck. Then maybe something like Doctor Butcher, M.D., just 'cause.
What about novels?
Hell, this is even harder. If you're looking for some authors that don't take any prisoners, that aren't gonna hold your hand and tell you everything is gonna be okay, that aren't fucking around... First off, Jack Ketchum's Off Season. If you like horror, and you haven't read it, then you owe yourself. Jump up right now and go get it. Actually, pretty much anything with Jack Ketchum's name on it is required reading. Then I'd have to go with Edward Lee's The Bighead. I can't describe it. I'm not even going to try. Just trust me. It's not scary exactly, but it'll test your gag reflex. I just read J.F. Gonzalez's Survivor, and it kicked my ass. And one more, even if it isn't shelved in the horror section. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It's flat-out brilliant.
What is it about crime and horror fiction that appeals to your writing skills?
Maybe not so much my writing skills as my sensibilities I guess, but I'd have to say that for whatever reason, I was born with this love of dark stuff. The thing about horror and crime is that they don't have to play by the rules of "traditional" or "mainstream" books. You can get away with a lot of really subversive shit. I mean, I just read Jason Starr's Fake ID. It's a first person crime novel, and when you start, since it is narrated in the the first person, you kind of automatically want to root for the character, but Starr yanks the rug out from under you. It's a lot like what Jim Thompson was doing. I guess, in these kinds of books, you have an opportunity to examine these awful people, the kinds of characters that most popular fiction shies away from. Hell, I don't know. Bottom line, it's FUN.
So many classic horror flics are being remade- A Nightmare On Elm Street, Night Of The Demons- the list goes on. What is your take on classics being remade?
Well, you gotta remember that filmmaking is a business, first and foremost. Pretty much every single decision is made with an eye toward the bottom line. That said, I try not to get too upset when I hear that they're planning to remake one of my favorite movies of my youth. I mean, look at my list a few questions back-- damn near every single movie I listed has either been remade or is in the planning stages. When I first heard that they were going to remake Dawn of the Dead, I was fucking furious. But when I had a chance to calm down, I realized that the original will still be available, so no big deal. And hell, I thought the Dawn remake was kinda cool. I hope they'll do a good job with the Escape From New York remake, but whether it is or isn't, hey, I can always still pop in my DVD of the original. And I think it's important to not be a hypocrite here; I mean, let's be honest--John Carpenter's The Thing is a remake. So is Cronenberg's The Fly. So is Friedkin's Sorcerer. Same with Scorsese's The Departed. And even Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, even if he won't admit it. So I'm not against remakes exactly, I'm just sick of bad filmmaking. That piece of shit remake of The Fog comes to mind, you know? So yeah, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious about the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and frankly, I'm fired up about the Piranha 3D remake. Bring it on.
How do your students react to your accomplishments?
I don't think it's a big deal to them. In the Fiction Department at Columbia College, there's tons of teachers and professors that are published authors. Most are far more accomplished than I am. So to the students, it's pretty routine. I mean, I'm nothing special, you know? My students are the first to tease me and keep me grounded. It's a good reality check.
Jeff, wow! Where can I begin. Your brutal honesty and dark sense of humor make me smile. I can't express how much I appreciate how frank you were without a care. Some author's tend to tip-toe around and be courteous. I don't want that. I want reality. So thank you for showing that. I truly enjoyed your interview just as much as I did your novel, Foodchain. Congratulations once again on your success with both your novels and in your teachings. I hope that we can read more from you in the future.