Oh, what beautiful pain he has to show you…
Bram Stoker Award®-nominated author John F.D. Taff has earned his moniker as the “King of Pain” in large part due to his deeply emotional and affecting horror. Having written some of the most moving fiction over the last several years, Taff often avoids common terror tropes and standard scares preferring to create an immersive reader experience in his work that commonly investigates the darker side of human behavior.
Nominated last year for the Stoker award for authoring the acclaimed collection THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS, Taff has stepped into his first dual role of author and co-editor (with Anthony Rivera) of the recent Grey Matter Press title I CAN TASTE THE BLOOD. Today, from his “lodge” in the wilds of southern Illinois, he shares with us his thoughts on awards, his writing process and his most prized possessions.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): Not so long ago you made the move from St. Louis to the even-more-humid wooded confines of southern Illinois. How do you like your new environment, and has that very fancy office been a boon to your creativity?
John F.D. Taff (JFDT): I’m very much a creature of the Midwest, for good or ill. And, as a subset of this, I am very much a creature of St. Louis. Born and raised there and spent the vast majority of my life there. So, in one sense, the move wasn’t that jarring. Still rural Midwestern sensibilities here, just as there were where I lived previously. We moved down – my lovely wife and I – to look after her parents who are getting up there in years. My mother-in-law is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and we made the move primarily to help in her care as best we can.
I think my wife felt bad, like she was pulling me away from St. Louis, but honestly it’s been great. I mean, I can live anywhere as long as Amazon Prime delivers and I don’t have to drive 20 minutes to get a gallon of milk. But, feeling bad, she gave me a budget to build an office here in the basement of Taff Lodge, so I did—complete with an overwhelming desk, a door, and a 16-foot wall of custom-built bookcases to hold my books and my various geek paraphernalia.
So, yes! Loving it. The setting our house is in is tranquil and lovely, my office gives me a sanctuary to disappear into and write, and things are generally swell.
GMP: Where do you look for inspiration for your stories?
JFDT: Everywhere. Anywhere. A newspaper article. Song lyrics. Something on the Internet. Maybe an overheard snippet of conversation. Maybe some character I see in a restaurant. It can be absolutely anything. It all feeds into the shredder and comes out in some form.
GMP: Which tends to come first for you: plot, setting or characters?
JFDT: None of the above. For me it’s always the why of the story, the idea, the ‘what’s it all about?’ Always, always, always. The idea is separate from the plot; the plot is just how the story unfolds to express that central idea. I get the idea, then the characters fill in the empty spaces. Then the plot, and finally the setting. But the driving force behind everything is the idea, and then the characters that make that idea come to life. So really my progression is why/what, who, how and where.
GMP: You came up with the idea behind the Grey Matter Press collection I Can Taste the Blood—with you and four other authors all creating their take on the title theme—after seeing the words scrawled on a bathroom wall. What it is about these words that caught your attention, as opposed to all the other crazy things we see written in public restrooms?
JFDT: Well, as a guy I can say with utter certitude that we like to have things to read in the bathroom, standing or sitting. Sorry if that’s too much information, but there it is. So, yeah, I take notice of the graffiti in bathrooms I’m in just to see the crazy things people feel the need to scrawl on the walls. Most of it is just the usual vulgar witticisms, nothing particularly that interesting, but this one, “I Can Taste the Blood,” caught my eye because…well…because. That’s just a wonderfully, exuberantly whacko thing to have written. And therefore exactly the kind of thing I seize on when I encounter it. I knew from the moment I saw that phrase I needed to use it for something.
GMP: Can you tell us a little about your story and the inspiration behind it.
My story in I Can Taste the Blood came about precisely because of my move to the wilds of southern Illinois. For a few years prior to the move, my wife Deb and I made the drive from St. Louis to her parents’ house—about two hours—on an almost weekly basis. This drive passes through one small, forgotten rural town after another. And it seemed that there were things that tied all of them together—the VFW spaghetti dinners, the Knights of Columbus blood drives, the water towers, the people who cling to these places without leaving, even when the towns are clearly dead or dying. I got to know, intimately, the blasted, bleeding heart of the Midwest, and it lodged there in the story center of my brain, turning and turning on itself until I brought it together with another idea I’d been gestating, and then…wham!
GMP: Last year, your collection The End in All Beginnings was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, an honor to be proud of. But in your experience, do you think that authors sometimes place too much importance on these awards, getting distracted from the business of selling books?
JFDT: Well, I can only speak for myself and the answer is yes. I mean, I had to realize, despite being proud of my Stoker nominee status, what I’m writing for, and that took me a little while. The awards and the honors and the distinctions are nice. Recognition is nice, to be sure. But in the end, if you’re writing for these things, you’re doing it wrong. I write for myself, primarily, and for readers as a close second. For me, this works. I never lose sight of the fact that the writing has to satisfy something in me—the creative urge, the need to tell a story, the compulsion to deal with an idea or something in my past. And it has to satisfy readers. I have to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and a goddamn end, with compelling characters, with a plot that makes sense. Otherwise, all the awards or recognition mean little. At least to me.
GMP: Here’s a scenario: mankind has to evacuate planet Earth immediately and you can take only three personal items with you on the spaceship. What would they be?
JFDT: First, my Google Nexus 10 tablet loaded with as many books and as much music as I can cram onto it. (Is that cheating? Who cares.) Second, my signed copy of The Throat by Peter Straub. And lastly…hmmm…I dunno? Can I count my three pugs as personal items? Yes. Yes, I can. Done.
GMP: Do you currently have projects in the works that you would like to tell us about?
JFDT: Always. I’m working on refilling my stable of short stories, which has been severely depleted as of late. I’m continuing work on my novel, which I hope to have done very, very soon. And I have a few other irons in the fire that I can’t really discuss right now. But I think you’ll see a lot of me next year, which is great, I guess, if you like my work.
You can experience a bit of his “I Can Taste the Blood” as John reads it to you in this video.