J. Kent Messum wanders into the Ruins to talk HUSK (#interview)

Sometimes it's good to be Canadian. Okay, it's always good to be Canadian, but sometimes it's even better being a Canadian reader. I was immensely fortunate to read HUSK way back in 2015, and with a North American edition finally hitting shelves, Jamie has agreed to stop by for a chat.

Q: Welcome to the Ruins, Jamie! For those who may be new to your writing, and who haven't yet checked out Bait or Husk, please tell us a little about yourself.

I'm a former casualty of the music business turned writer of psychological thrillers. I've authored two novels published by Penguin whose rights have also been sold to 9 territories (Husk has been optioned for an international TV series as well). I also teach Writing Popular Fiction at the University Of Toronto, and I'm a book critic for the New York Journal Of Books.

Separate from that, I'm a champion of animal rights, enjoy video games probably a little too much, and have been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember.

Q: Husk is an interesting story. We originally talked about it when it hit Canadian shelves back in 2015, but it's just now getting a wider electronic release. What has that journey been like?

Oh God, that's a loaded question. The journey has been unconventional, frustrating, enlightening, and a serious test of patience and determination. Originally Husk was published by Penguin UK (as they commissioned the book) and foreign rights were also sold to half a dozen other countries. Strangely, the US and Canada weren't among them. Although practically every review of the novel has been positive and glowing, North American publishers had mixed reactions to it. By and large editors loved the book, but hit a brick wall when asking their superiors to take it on. I think some publishers were uncomfortable with the subject matter, as Husk deals with heavy themes of death, sex, and the darker side of human hierarchies. I don't write for weak minds, weak hearts, or weak stomachs, and I think the book business is growing more conservative to appease an increase in readers that are deemed 'sensitive'. It's unfortunate, but at the same time it has been a clear reflection of how the publishing industry works these days. Like any business where profit is paramount, they want to minimize and mitigate risk.

With regard to the ebook, I was in talks with a few companies for a long while, lots of promises were made, but none delivered. After much deliberating, I finally decided to self-publish Husk for North America. At the end of the day, I write stories for people to read. Husk is a novel I'm really proud of and if felt wrong that people in my own country and the US couldn't get easy access to it.

Q: Husk was nothing, if not uneasy, unrelenting, and unsettling, but that's the appeal. It's a shame more publishers don't realize serious readers are looking to take chances. If we can look back a bit further, when did you begin writing, and how did you feel when you first saw your work in print?

I started writing fiction when I was a kid. My dad is great verbal storyteller, so I was influenced from a young age to be a storyteller myself. I was a scared child growing up, and my fascination with horror and dark fiction dominated my reading. Unfortunately, in high school I experienced some considerable discouragement. I wrote a short story as an assignment for a social studies class about a boy in an abusive household who became a runaway and ended up on the streets. In retrospect it was pretty damn gritty. To my credit, I wrote the story so well my teacher immediately thought I was being abused at home. Uncomfortable interrogations followed and she eventually got the guidance counselor involved. Thankfully, the guidance counselor knew me and my love of storytelling and was able to smooth the whole thing over. My parents have never been anything except wonderful and supportive, but the whole experience left me shaken. After that I stopped writing altogether and only got back into it when I attended university.

When I first saw Bait in print I was flooded with a sense of accomplishment. The end result is largely why I write, and the publishing of my first novel was the biggest result I could have hoped for. In all honesty, I don't enjoy writing because I experience it as difficult and time-consuming work. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into creating a good book. As Maya Angelou says "Easy reading is damn hard writing". So, the act of writing itself isn't particularly pleasing. But when the book is finally completed, it comes with a level of satisfaction and achievement that can't be compared.

Q: Maybe it's the setting, but I'd say Bait was even darker and more disturbing - a phenomenal debut. What is it that draws you to that realm genre fiction, particularly with the thriller aspect? Do you feel it offers that other genres don't, or is it just 'right' for the stories you want to tell?

When people ask me what kind of books I write, I always respond with "Psychological Thrillers", as that is the one common thread with all my work. The thing I love about the "Thriller" categorization is that it can span different genres, it's kind of a floating genre actually, and my ideas tend to be all over the map. The "Psychological" part I dig because I enjoy going in depth with tough themes and difficult questions, as opposed to just staying surface level with the material. Undoubtedly, I think it is the right fit for all the stories I come up with.

Q: It's kind of a loaded question, given that whole abused runaway misunderstanding, but how does your past influence your writing? Are you conscious of relating the story to your own experiences?

I've had a colorful life so far, both bright tones and dark stains, and that tends to shade everything I create. A lot of good fiction starts with a kernel of truth, comes from a place of experience, then expands and is exaggerated into elements of a great story. Fiction isn't necessarily make-believe; it has to be made in a way that is believable. So you build stories on existing foundations, draw it out from real life. People's bullshit detectors will go off if you're just pulling stories out of your ass.

With regard to being conscious of relating stories to my own experiences, for the most part no. The process for me often feels like stories make contact when they're ready to be written. It usually comes quite unexpectedly. They've got a direct line to my head and when they feel like it I get a call.

Q: Do you have a schedule or a routine to your writing? Is there a time and place that you must write, or do you let the words flow as they demand?

I don't have a specific routine, but I make a point to clock in the hours. I tend to write late at night. I'll often start at 9pm or 10pm and work until 3 or 4am. The wee hours of the morning are very quiet, everyone else is asleep and there are no email/phone distractions to deal with, so that time becomes a big pocket of peace where I can lock in and write uninterrupted.

Q: Do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood, or do you require quiet solitude? 

It varies. Sometimes I need silence, particularly when I'm working out plot and pacing. Other times the narrative and dialogue seem to move along well to music. I enjoy listening to instrumental movie soundtracks that set the mood for what I'm creating. A few great ones are Ashe & Spencer's soundtrack to the film 'Stay', Cliff Martinez's soundtrack to 'Solaris', and Trent Reznor's soundtrack to 'Gone Girl'. I can get lost in those for hours on repeat.

Q:Trent Reznor. Nice choice! Now, for some authors, it's coming up with a title, and for others it's writing that first paragraph - what do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing?

Getting started is most definitely a struggle. Finding traction and then the rhythm in those opening pages is often a challenge. The beginnings of my books are always rough and require a fair bit of rewriting. However, once I'm on my way it gets comparatively easier, but that starting line is a bastard every time.

Q:I know it's like asking you to pick a favorite child, but is there a favorite quote or scene from your work that you feel particularly fond of? Something that reminds you of why writing is important to you?

There's a quote in Husk I love:
"There is a vast difference between those who wish to live forever and those who are simply too scared to die". 
That speaks to me and certainly keeps me aware of where I stand in the world.

It's actually the creative writing course I teach at the University Of Toronto that constantly reminds me why writing is so important. When we study the genres or writing skills of talented authors and great books in class, it always reaffirms the fact that great stories need to be told and craftsmanship is so crucial to telling them well.

Q: As a Brock grad I know I'm supposed to jeer, but UoT seems to be a hotbed of literary creativity.  I wouldn't mind taking a class like that. When you're not read, writing, or teaching, what are some of the hobbies and passions that keep you happy?

Music and drumming remains a big part of my life. I still love it, but was happy enough to walk away from the idea that it could be a full time career when it became evident that pursuing it would probably be the death of me. Discovering great new music is always a thrill for me and I can haunt late-night record stores for hours searching out rare gems.

Q: Is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who refreshes your literary batteries?

There's been two main guys. The first is Stephen King. He was the first author I really got into on my own when I was a kid. In fact "IT" was the first novel I ever bought for myself with my own money. I found a dogeared paperback at a church sale and my mom let me buy it with my allowance. I'm a slow reader (and was even slower at that age), IT took me six months to read. When I finally finished the book it felt like a relationship was ending. It left me hollow inside, and I immediately started filling the void with more books.

The other guy is Cormac McCarthy. I discovered him in my first year of University and was absolutely floored by his writing. It was next level, the first time an author had really connected with me and that inner darkness that I've always found so fascinating. There's no one else like him.

Q: Sounds familiar - I had the same five-or-six month experience with Pet Sematary where King took my literary virginity. To get back to your own writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?

That's a hard question to answer. Some of the stuff my characters say and do is awfully dark and there was a period of time where I didn't want that to be misconstrued as a reflection of myself as a person. Fortunately I was often reminded that writing fiction is hard enough without having to worry about how some readers will react, and you can't write to appease the audience or trends because audiences are so diverse and trends are constantly changing.

Having said that, I'm not a fan of writing anything for "shock value". Anything shocking or dark or horrific has to be supported by the plot, has to be needed within the story.

Q: Agreed. That shock has to have weight and resonance to have any real power. Looking outward, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've ever encountered?

I've received my fair share of hate mail for Bait by people who I've offended. The most surprising one was from a woman who emailed me to say she would make it her mission to ensure that no one else ever buy or read my "horrible, disgusting, novel". She also said that if she ever saw me crossing the road, she wouldn't bother braking her car.

Q: Sounds like a lovely woman. Yikes. Finally, I'm sure you hear this a lot, but what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?

My next two novels are already complete. The third novel 'Skin Deep' is a crime-thriller crossover about an unsettling black-market dieting trend that starts in Los Angeles. The fourth novel 'All The Darkness Looks Alive' is a Southern Gothic thriller about a boy and a seemingly haunted tree that puts a different twist on the paranormal. I'm already working on my fifth and sixth novels, and I'm developing a pitch for a new TV show. Luckily, I have no shortage of ideas for stories.

I'll be looking forward to them all. Thanks again for stopping by!

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About the Author

J. Kent Messum was born in Toronto in 1979, the product of a merger between a Cockney Lad and a Geordie Lass that resulted in a typical Aries, who came out of the delivery room with a chip on his shoulder and an overactive imagination.

During his early years his mother read fantastical stories to him every night, and his father frequently invented tales of witches and ghosts that both intrigued and terrified him. He was a frightened child growing up, convinced of a boogeyman in every closet and a monster under most beds. His stories are rooted in that same childhood fear, now evolved and molded by a mix of life experiences and a good deal of thinking outside the box.

Jamie graduated from York University's Fine Arts Program and has worked as a session musician, freelance writer, producer, internet radio station disc jockey, bartender, office gopher, music teacher, movie grip, laborer, contractor, and a few other things he'd rather not admit. A glutton for punishment, Jamie has been involved heavily in both the music business and film business for well over a decade. He writes incessantly, putting on paper as many stories and ideas as his time will allow. The literary business is a welcome change, since he writes as if his life depended on it anyway.

Jamie's debut novel, Bait, a dark psychological thriller about a group of strangers who find themselves stranded on a deserted island, was published in the US and Canada August 27 2013, and by Penguin UK September 13 2013. Publishing rights have also been acquired in Brazil, Czech Republic, Greece, and Bulgaria. His follow up novel, Husk, a serial killer thriller, was published by Penguin UK on July 30 2015. Publishing rights were also acquired by Greece and the China Complex. Warp Films has optioned the TV rights for 'Husk', with the intention of turning it into an international returnable series.

You can find updates on his website at http://jkentmessum.com

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About the Book

HUSK
by J. Kent Messum  

It’s the all too near future, and eternal life is a commodity only available to the ultra-rich. Billionaires pay top dollar to exist in a virtual world once their bodies have failed them. However, this foray into immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. Anyone who cheats death only wants to live again, itching to interact with the real world.

Young and handsome Rhodes is a Husk renting himself out to the wealthy who pay to inhabit his body while his consciousness sleeps. During these sessions some clients indulge in hard drugs, promiscuous encounters, and dare-devil behavior, all to feel the rush and pleasures of being alive again. Husking is a highly illegal and guarded secret, relegated to the black market. The penalties are severe, but the money and perks are extremely lucrative.

After repeatedly Husking for one particularly demanding client, Rhodes begins to suffer the mental toll for losing himself in his work. When strange schizophrenic visions and panic attacks start, he tries to get out of his cast-iron contract, but his employers won’t relinquish their asset. As the body counts rise, disturbing questions emerge, leading to grisly clues about his whereabouts while on the job. Finding himself pursued by the police and shadowy operatives, Rhodes begins to search for answers. It isn’t long before he learns the true cost of Husking…

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If you want to get your hands on a copy of Husk, there's a Goodreads Giveaway going on until June 14th. There are 20 Kindle copies up for grabs, to enter ASAP!

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