Our latest interview is with Ross Jeffery, following the launch of his post-apocalyptic novel Juniper. Ross is the Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine, and has been published in print and online by STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival and many more.
Receiving impressive reviews across Amazon and Goodreads, Juniper was also well-received by Retreat West’s founder Amanda Saint. She commented: ‘Juniper is a creepy, sinister read with strong women, who just want to give love and be loved in return, at the heart of it. Despite the sorry state of the town where it’s set, and the people living in it, there are some laugh-out-loud moments alongside the more macabre ones. The writing is visceral and sharp and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.’
We enjoyed catching up with Ross to discuss his work, explore his love of the horror genre and learn more about his approach to writing in general — including the best writing advice he’s ever received, and what he believes makes a great story.
Congratulations on the launch of your novel, Juniper. Could you tell us a little about Juniper and the world in which it’s set?
Juniper is set in a pissent little fictional town in Southern America — a place that’s hanging onto the world like a festering wound. The town is facing an apocalyptic drought which could spell the end of life as they know it. The town is populated by what remains, the lowest of the low, struggling for survival in this apocalyptic wasteland — where food is scarce and water is like gold dust.
There is one woman though, Betty, who is a born survivor, an outlander who survives by eating the various slim pickings of roadkill. Another woman called Janet in the face of adversity has conjured up a new cattle for the town to survive on: large interbred cats which roam the town, and which are then slaughtered to feed the empty stomachs of the grumbling townsfolk. Janet’s ex-con and abusive husband Klein is against the idea, but as the money and bartered resources keep flowing in he turns a blind eye to the proceedings. Life takes on a new type of normal until Janet’s prized ginger tom, Bucky, goes missing — but Betty finds something half-dead by the side of the road, and decides to take it home.
A post-apocalyptic horror, your writing in Juniper has been compared to that of Stephen King. Have you always been drawn to writing (and reading) about the dark and grotesque?
I’ve always loved the dark and grotesque — if you speak to my mother, she’d say that she was responsible for the whole thing. She said that when she was pregnant with me that she was reading Pet Sematary by Stephen King, and that my love of horror and the macabre came from there (she might be right?).
I’m honestly blown away by the comparisons to King because to me he’s a huge role model, and I’m just astounded that people think my writing is reminiscent of his work (people have also said my work reminds them of Palahniuk, Ballard, McCarthy and a whole host of other great writers whom I adore). But with all these comparisons I’ve tried to do something new, and people have seen that and appreciated it — making the horrific things poetic and believable. I’m a fan of the dark and grotesque, but I always try to have a reasoning for the dark and disturbing; I don’t write for shock value. I try to ground my characters and my stories in hope and fear — things that we can relate to on numerous levels. If you were to look at my bookshelves you’d see all of these writers — I like the gritty realism of McCarthy, Bukowski and Selby Jr, but I also love the horror of King, Herbert and Blatty. I’m a voracious reader, but the dark and the grotesque is what I love to consume most of all.
Why do you think we, as readers, enjoy being brought into fictional worlds that can shock, scare or challenge us in some way?
I think, as humans, we all have a sense of fear and shock drilled into us from day one. As babies, we’re subjected to people saying ‘boo’ to us, hiding behind hands and then peering out from behind them and shouting ‘boo’ — how cruel are we? It’s something I feel that everyone can relate to in some way: that feeling of being scared.
I also believe that when reading a book, the reader’s mind projects its own fears into the text, making whatever written darkness that they are reading or facing that much more disturbing. It might take different forms for each of us, but we’re all scared of something: whether that be killer clowns, rats, the dark, enclosed spaces, loss, sickness, or things that go bump in the night. To each of us, these fears are very real.
Each person has a fear, and I think we get some satisfaction from facing those fears from time to time. It’s a sick game but I think, within books, we can get away with confronting these fears better than if they were happening in real life — because it’s fictional, right? You can close the book at any time and just walk away. It’s a safe place to encounter your nightmares. And if it gets too bad, you can always do what Joey does in Friends and stick the book in the freezer!
Juniper is the first in a trilogy: can you share how far along you are with writing the next two in the series? Any hints as to what we can expect in books two and three?
That’s right, Juniper is book one in a trilogy of books — but I’ve written these books in such a way that each one stands alone. But the real joy of the series is that, if you read them all, you can see recurring characters pop up from time to time. Things that happen in one book have an echo in the others. It’s the town of Juniper that is the focal character in these books — and what a character it is.
Book two, which is called Tome (due for release in October this year 2020 by The Writing Collective), takes place about fifteen years before Juniper. It’s set in the dilapidated Juniper Correctional Facility, where there is a strange evil lurking and the suicide rate has increased. Book three, I’m yet to write. I’ve a bundle of notes for this one, and it’s set sixteen years after Juniper (where the protagonist is the unborn baby mentioned briefly in Juniper). This book will be called Scorched.
Juniper is my Castle Rock — I’m sure other tales may spew forth from this place in the future, but at the moment it’s a trilogy. I guess I’ll need to see if readers are craving more from my little atrocity!
Can you remember a moment of inspiration that sparked your idea for the trilogy, or did the concept for the story come to you gradually?
The original seed for this story came to me about twenty one years ago when I was at university, and I’d seen a short film someone had created for our Video Production course. It was of a lonely old lady who befriended a student and invited him in to live with her, then began to treat him like her pet. The story has never really left me and a few years ago, I started planning to write it as a short story. But when I started, I couldn’t stop — I’d built this character Betty, and I felt that she deserved a larger part in something. So I developed the world she lived in, which became Juniper, and then it just snowballed really.
Juniper is more of a novella, and I feel that the space I’ve afforded the story really works. Some reviewers have said they wanted more, but I guess that’s why I have expanded this universe with Tome and then Scorched. I like to draw and plan my work — and with this trilogy, I’ve had to do that more than ever. I need to ensure that the threads I’ve woven through the whole series work, and that each one adds to the canon of work.
You’re also launching a novella-in-flash in June: can you tell us a little about it?
My novella-in-flash, Tethered, is something that I am self-publishing in June 2020. I attended the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol in 2019, and went to a workshop with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins about the novella-in-flash. After attending the workshop, I realised that this artform was a great way to incorporate many stories that I had been working on.
Tethered is a story about a father and son; a fractured relationship that covers the themes of toxic masculinity, hope, love, gender, domestic violence, being a father, being a son and the quest to survive. I’ve had some fabulous feedback already from writers I approached to blurb, with comparisons being drawn with the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlisted author Bryan Washington for his book Lot, and Justin Torres author of We the Animals. Many others have said that it’s refreshing to see a story that shows an intimate portrait of the father-son dynamic, as it’s often not seen in such honest detail. It’s the most honest writing I have produced, and is very different to the writing of Juniper. It’s currently on digital pre-order on Amazon, and paperback copies will be available on the 1st of June (which is the release date).
Whether you’re writing a novel, flash or fiction in any other format, what do you think makes a great story?
I think what makes a great story are things that are grounded in life and circumstance; things that people can relate to, no matter their walk of life. I also think that when you write with unabashed honesty, leaving some fragment of yourself on the page, that’s when great things can happen. My best works are when I write from the heart, and try not to force things.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Sit your ass in the chair! (This might be from Stephen King.) It’s quite a simple thing, really. But if you don’t sit down to write, you’re never going to do it. So when I don’t feel like writing, when I’d rather be doing something else, or when my stories have got away from me, sometimes you’ve just got to sit in the chair and write. Write your way out of, or through, your current mood… it works!
Another one which I think I got from Steinbeck was to not edit your work as you go. Instead, sit down and write it from start to finish — at least that way you can say you’ve completed a book, a story or a flash, instead of having to say ‘I’m still writing a book’, etc. Since taking this advice on board, my output has been greatly increased… It’s definitely one to try!
Thanks, Ross! To find out more about Ross and his work, check out the links below…
Writing Collective Page for Juniper: thewritingcollectivetwc.wordpress.com/juniper-2