Jeff Jacobson Discusses Writing as a Career

Jacobson's Foodchain has recently been released as an eBook.

Jacobson’s Foodchain has recently been released as an eBook.

Jeff Jacobson is a horror crime novelist who lives near Chicago with family and many pets. He was born and raised in rural Northern California, but has since spent more than 20 years in Chicagoland. He also teaches Fiction and Screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

We reached out to Jacobson for his input on the publishing process, writing as a career, and books going digital.






LC: Why did you choose to publish with an independent/small press?

JJ: Frankly, the content of my first two books didn’t give me much of a choice, especially the second one, Foodchain. That idea grew out of my hatred of using animals in fighting pits, like dog fighting or bear baiting, and this rage found a structure in the conventions of a crime novel. No agent or big publisher wanted to touch it, given the subject matter. I mean, agents wouldn’t even return my emails. Maybe I scared ‘em. But Five-Star took a chance, and I’m extremely thankful. Independent publishers, just like indie films and music, are putting stuff out because they love it, not because they’re always keeping an eye on the bottom line. Not that they’re not interested in making money, but that’s not why they got in the game.

And let’s face it, most of the time, that’s where you’re gonna truly find the interesting art, the stories that take chances, the movies that assault your senses, the music that breaks rules, the stuff that challenges you. Here’s two recent examples that I just found: I’m reading Losing in Gainesville by Chicago writer and all-around good guy Brian Costello right now. Published by Curbside Splendor, it’s about directionless punk rockers, and while I think it’s fantastic, I can’t imagine some giant corporation falling over themselves to put it on shelves. I suppose they’re more interested in making money off bored housewives with “Fifty Shades of Twilight” or whatever. And then I stumbled over this book called, and I’m not kidding here, Motherfucking Sharks, by Brian Allen Carr. I mean, how awesome is that? I love that attitude. Full steam ahead, to hell with what people think, just punk as fuck. That’s the kind of stuff you discover when you venture a little off the beaten path, out into the wilds where people might have very different ideas about our life on this planet.

LC: How has living in Chicago influenced your writing? Did it have an impact on your development as a writer?

JJ: My first two books were set in rural Northern California, where I grew up. But when I started thinking about my third one, Sleep Tight, I realized I’d been living in Chicago for twenty years, which came as something of a shock, to be perfectly honest. So then I knew I had to write about it here. I rode my bike all over downtown, figuring out what landmarks I wanted to destroy. Every day, right before I sat down to write, I’d always read aloud from Studs Terkel’s Chicago. It wasn’t so much the subject matter, because my story was a goofy thriller about plague carrying bedbugs invading Chicago; no, it was more about the voice. His book is like sitting back in some dark bar, drinking plenty of beer, and listening to an old timer tell these fantastic stories about the city. I tried to capture that conversational, Midwestern tone. It’s kind of polite, yet necessarily blunt when talking about the realities of this city.

LC: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

JJ: First off, read everything you can. There are very few pieces of writing advice that can’t be contradicted, one way or another. But this is something you can’t really argue with. If you want to be a good writer, be a good reader. And I don’t mean only read in whatever genre you write, read as widely as you can. Fiction, non-fiction, and everything in between. Then sit down at your keyboard, your notebook, your whatever, and write. And don’t stop. Listen to your instincts, but study the craft. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about waiting until you have some explosive epiphany because you’re drunk or stoned or whatever and man, Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida has given you this fucking amazing idea for a story. Sorry, but it’s about discipline. Boring, I know. You gotta put the work in. Like anything, it all depends on how badly you want to achieve your goals. How much are you willing to sacrifice? If your very soul is in danger if you don’t write, then you’ll find a way. And never, ever give up.

LC: How do you go about finding an agent (if you have done so before)?

JJ: Like finding your path to being published, this is different for everybody. In my case, I was lucky enough to have a great editor, Gary Goldstein from Kensington, contact me because he liked my first book, Wormfood. I pitched him Sleep Tight, and because they’re a fairly big publisher, I needed an agent to represent me, you know, go over the contract and all that. He put me in touch with an agent who was more than happy to take me on since I’d already sold the book.

LC: How would you compare working as a writer to more “traditional” work schedules (i.e. the 9-5, 1st/2nd/3rd shifts, etc.)?

JJ: As a writer, there’s never any real sense of leaving your work behind at the office or factory or store or whatever. It’s always with you. You might as well try to escape your own shadow. That can get kind of frustrating, in an obsessive-compulsive way. You have to learn how to turn down the volume of the voices in your head sometimes. On the other hand, you get to set your own schedule, which most of the time is absolutely necessary, because most of us ain’t making a living writing our fiction. We’re paying the bills however we can, and spending our time alone, writing, when we could be, you know, having a life.

LC: Do you become very picky when editing your work? How do you strike a balance between getting everything just right without getting too caught up in the editing process?

JJ: These days, I’m only able to get as picky as my deadlines will let me. All I can do is try to get the story into the best shape possible in the time I’ve been given. Always, always read your stuff out loud. Especially when you reach the end and you think you’re finished. I think this idea of finding a balance is important; you want every page, every damn sentence to sound just right, but it all has to serve the overall story. It’s certainly possible to forget that original impulse and lose it somewhere along the line by getting too critical of each line.

LC: What do you think of self-publishing? Do you think it should only be used as a last resort, or do you think it has more of a place with specific genres?

JJ: This is a tough one. Like I was saying about the technology changing so all you have to do is hit “Send,” and your masterpiece is up on Amazon, ready for the world. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. All I can really say is that just about everybody’s work can benefit from an experienced editor going over it. Hell, mine especially. There’s a lot of solid freelance editors out there now, so if you want to self publish, bite the bullet and pay their fee. It might make the difference between a reader searching out more of your books, or swearing never to read something by you ever again. Don’t forget, you don’t need a degree or anything like that to be a writer. It’s not like being a doctor or lawyer or airline pilot. The cynical side of me also has to point out that you don’t even have to be a particular good writer to be published. As for different genres, I don’t buy that bullshit that just because something is horror or fantasy or whatever, you should lower your expectations. A good story well told is all you need to worry about.

LC: In this digital age, many publishers are evolving to produce ebooks and some are creating only ebooks. How do you feel about your work in a digital format? Do you ever see the printed book going away?

JJ: I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of spending hours sifting through dusty novels in a used bookstore or library; I love the weight of physical books, I love the smell. But that said, there’s something awfully appealing in being able to hold a hundred or so novels inside one tablet, or if something sounds interesting, you hit a button and bam! You’ve instantly got it. That’s pretty addictive. Written stories will never go away, as long as we humans hold it together enough to hang onto some kind of written language. So sure, I love to be able to touch actual pages, but if technology has evolved to the point where we can read all these books on one device, then why the hell not? Most of my readers are finding my stuff in digital formats, so I’m quite happy having my work out there as a bunch of ones and zeros. Antenna Books recently put out Foodchain as an ebook, so I hope that it will find a whole new audience in that realm.

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Sarah Tassoni

Sarah is a graduate student in the MA Writing & Publishing program at DePaul University and an aspiring horror writer. She also loves cats and is a goth kid at heart.

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