13 Questions with Jonathan Winn

Hello my Freaky Darlings,

Today we have Jonathan Winn in the interrogation seat.


Jonathan Winn is a screenwriter as well as the author of Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast (Crystal Lake Publishing), the full-length novels Martuk … the Holy (A Highlight of the Year, 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Awards), Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (Top Twenty Horror Novels of 2014, Preditors & Editors Readers Poll), the upcoming Martuk … the Holy: Shayateen and The Martuk Series, an ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by Martuk …

In addition to Forever Dark, his award-winning short story in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2, his work can also be found in Horror 201: The Silver Scream and Writers on Writing, Vol. 2, all from Crystal Lake Publishing.

You can stalk Jonathan on his blog, twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

  1. What drives you to write?

Curiosity. I am relentlessly curious. The true Why to this What Drives You to Write really just comes down to plain, ol’ curiosity.  Not just about my characters and the journeys they’re on, but also about the consequences of their decisions. How small things have huge implications. How a tiny X in the opening pages turns into a horrifying Y four chapters later. As a writer, the slow, patient construction of those “uh oh” moments when their lives change forever really does fascinate me.

But I’m also curious about myself as a writer. Can I do better than before? Can I pace this reveal in a way that has a greater payoff for the reader? Can I do oh so much more with oh so much less? And can I bend and break and shatter the rules, blending Past with Present, up with down, prose with poem, halting the rhythm and obliterating the format while still holding the reader safely in hand? The challenge to answer these questions and evolve as a writer drives me back to the page time and time again.

Because, at the end of the day, I want to know I’ve done all I can do to become the best writer I can possibly be.

  1. What attracted you to writing horror?

In my opinion, horror lets you write your own rules. I can create a haunting something out of a forgettable nothing in horror. A speck of dust, a loose thread, a glance in the mirror. In other genres, those everyday things are just that: everyday things. In horror, at least for me, they’re jumping off points for the total unraveling of a life, of one’s sanity, of one’s grip on reality.  For me, they’re the necessary first step into the hungry shadows of deepest dark.

Horror also has some of the best readers in the industry. People who not only applaud your breaking of rules and annihilating of limits, but actually demand it. They want you to go too far. They want you to shock. They want to gasp and cringe and keep reading. And these readers want that unpredictable predictable to be achieved in a way that is surprising and memorable and, above all, smart.

Listen, those who read horror are a tough group to please. They’re not a knee jerk “OMG sooooooo good”-type of fan that posts a five star review two seconds after the book hits Amazon. They make you work for their praise. They demand you do better than before. And I appreciate that.

  1. Who are your favourite horror writers?

Oy, I have a list that keeps changing. I do find myself returning to the classics like Shirley Jackson and early-Clive Barker, but there as some great new voices out there worth looking into. Paul Tremblay, Lucy Snyder, Mercedes Murdock Yardley and Lisa Mannetti are all hitting homeruns these days. Josh Malerman is also coming out with some fantastic stuff as is Brian Kirk. Chesya Burke is consistently wonderful. Really, in my opinion, the more I dig, the more I realize we’re in a bit of a Golden Age when it comes to fantastic writers.

  1. Which horror novels do you think every horror fan should read?

Argh, questions like this always give me panic attacks. The horror genre is so varied and so all over the map that to say “every” horror fan should read X or Y doesn’t really make sense. That being said, there is some writing out there – not exclusively novels, by the way, so I’m gonna bend the rules a bit with this answer – that really shows some people at their current best, so that’s certainly worth mentiong.

Stephen King’s short story collection “Full Dark No Stars” remains a long-time favorite of mine as does Paul Tremblay’s more recent “Head Full of Ghosts.” Brian Kirk’s short story “Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave” from the Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories anthology is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen recently. It’s one of those haunting stories that you finish and then flip back to the beginning to read all over again. Brilliant concept and gorgeously paced. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a classic for a reason. One of the best narrative left hooks out there, in my opinion.

  1. Ebooks or paperback?

Both. I love paperbacks for reading in a comfry chair on a rainy day. I love ebooks for reading on a plane or in the back of a car on the way to or from the plane. I’m pretty democratic when it comes to savoring words on a page. Not too concerned with how those words get to my head. 🙂

  1. What would make you pick up a novel by a new author?

Good question. For me, because of my schedule, it begins with word of mouth. This is why it’s so important to share your new discoveries or write reviews. If a friend or a fellow writer, someone whose opinion I trust, says “Wow, you gotta take a look at so-and-so,” chances are I’ll take a look.

From there, it goes to those opening pages. Like it or not, readers can tell what you’re bringing to the table based on those opening pages. The pace, the use of language, the rhythm of the prose, the cadence in the dialogue. All of that is, or should be, on those first pages. And if that isn’t resonating for me, chances are I’m probably not going to make it through the book.

Jonathan Winn Eidolon Avenue front cover

  1. Who is your favourite fictional character?

No idea how to answer this one. Can I choose a character I created? Probably not, so my apologies to Martuk the Holy. But, seriously, I’ve gone into brain freeze here. And here comes the panic attack…

  1. Do you plot your stories or does it just unfold before your eyes?

Both. I come from screenwriting where every scene is plotted and planned ahead of time. Where you create a blueprint to follow and refer back to when writing. But I’ve also learned, even with a bullet-pointed narrative map in front of me, that the story will surprise me with unexpected twists and turns. You have to be open to those, even if it means going back and reworking the initial map.

But, really, some of my best moments come from following my curiosity and stumbling into potentially exciting, uncharted territory. I suspect the greatest work comes from those who aren’t total control freaks. You can’t be when it comes to creativity.

As long as you have the support of that narrative structure you created in the initial Plot Map, closing your eyes and taking a huge leap of faith is almost a given at some point during your writing.

  1. Do your characters take on a life of their own and do things you didn’t plan?

Yes! All the time! Why do you think writers drink?

Kidding aside, this really goes back to my first answer about curiosity. If you’re doing your job right and you’re creating living, breathing people, they’re going to do unanticipated, unexpected things. That’s where those fantastic plot twists and unpredictable turns come from.  Because, again, if you’re doing your job right, you’re creating a life on the page made up of moments. And those moments lead to revelations and realizations. And sometimes those revelations and realizations open doors to fantastic things you, the writer, simply did not see coming.

So you really want your characters to surprise you. You really want them to fight you and resist and be, like, “Dude, there’s something better you can do with this if you just forget your map for, like, two seconds and follow me through this door.” And then we’re back to the aforementioned leap of faith.

  1. Do you listen to music when you write or do you need silence?

Absolutely. I need music to write. In fact, without my headphones on, the words simply won’t come. It’s the only thing that keeps my insanely opinionated, very vocal inner critic occupied.

  1. Do you do a lot of research for your stories?

It depends. For Martuk the Holy and Martuk the Holy: Proseuche, I needed to research the ancient world, 1st century Jerusalem and 3rd century Antioch. I needed to know the smaller things about their daily lives as well as their larger world of politics, religion, the scope of their experience at that time. Without even a rudimentary understanding of those finer points, it’s difficult to create a living, breathing world for your reader to sink into.

When it comes to research, I always begin with “market day chatter.” What would they be talking about as they roam the market together? What politician did what stupid thing? What King was threatening the border? What religious belief would occupy their minds? What vantage point would they be coming to their day with? I even discover what the weather would be like at that time of year and what smells would be in the air. Roasting meat? Sweet grass? Smoke? Dust? Sodden earth?

So it’s not only what would they be buying – and how – but what would they be gossping about? That’s where I find research the most helpful. Because, in my opinion, gossip narrows the focus from a hands-off macro of society and history to a more hands-on micro of one person moving through their day. And that’s a lot easier for a reader to connect with.

For Eidolon Avenue, specifically in the opening story, my research was really about the rise of Communism in China because that was the world Lucky was born into. But, again, the trick with research is to have it inform you, the writer, and not become an info dump on the reader. Have it support what you’re creating and then let it go and just tell your story.

  1. Facebook or Twitter?

Both. And Instagram!

  1. What really pisses you off about writing?

For a relentless diplomat who’s incredibly discreet and rarely sweats the small stuff, this is a question I’m going to dodge. Because, listen, I’m not really “in” the industry, per se. I’m just a writer. I’m not a bestseller. I’m not on anyone’s Best Of list. I’m not part of the award circuit or anything like that. I’m not the guy people kiss up to because I’m “somebody.” I’m an ordinary writer blessed with anonymity.

And I say blessed because not being a bestseller or on anyone’s Best Of list, affords me the opportunity to fail while still flying under the radar. To stretch my arms wide, to test my limits, to bend and break the rules  and screw up and get it wrong and utterly, completely fail. And then try again and do better. And I get to do this quietly, sitting in my corner, scribbling away, without anyone caring. I have the luxury of discovering myself and what I’m capable of without anyone watching. And there’s something wonderful, and perhaps temporary, about that.

So I’ll leave it to those who are actually “in” the industry to vent. I’m just going to get back to work putting words on the page that hopefully people will want to read someday. 🙂


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One thought on “13 Questions with Jonathan Winn

  1. Pingback: the hungry shadows of deepest dark « Martuk ... the Holy

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