Riding with The Incorruptibles: An interview with John Hornor Jacobs

I’ve talked elsewhere about what a fantastic reading year 2014 turned out to be for me. A big part of that was John Hornor JacobsThe Incorruptibles. It’s a remarkable book on any number of levels ranging from the very clear eyed view of multiple spiritual belief systems to the seamless combination of western and fantasy iconography. In between all that there’s some expertly realized discussion of class, a look at the unique perils of being an enlisted man in the service of an idiot, a deeply affecting romance and some of the most creative technological fixes I’ve ever read. It’s a Hell of a book and I’m delighted that John took some time to chat to me about it, writing, and what else he has planned.


What writers influenced you growing up?

The first book I ever read from cover to cover and back again was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myth. I was mad for Greek mythology for a very long time, from kindergarden until third or fourth grade (and beyond, to be honest) but later my father introduced me to horror, adventure, and fantasy novels. DraculaTreasure IslandRobinson Crusoe, The Hobbit. Frankenstein. As far as I can recall, those were the ones I read over and over. Those authors were my formative influences. I could not say how they manifest themselves in my fiction other than speculative elements. When I was older, I really got into Southern fiction – since I am of and from the American South – so writers like Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Charles Portis could all stake out some of the territories of influence in me, if you’ll pardon the labored metaphor.

Not labored at all:) I’m curious as to your thoughts on the success of Southern fiction in the last few years. Charlaine Harris’ work springs to mind as does a lot of Jason Aaron’s comic work. What do you think attracts people to Southern fiction? And are there any authors in particular that you’d recommend people start with?

Honestly, I don’t read a lot of Southern based genre fiction, though I tend to write it. If I had a favorite Southern genre writer, it would be Manly Wade Wellman whose Silver John stories influenced my first novel, Southern Gods. I do, however, read a good amount of Southern crime fiction and what would be considered 20th century Southern fiction – William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy, Ferrol Sams, William Gay. There’s a burgeoning sub-genre called rural noir, written by guys like Tom Franklin and (more prominently) Daniel Woodrell, gaining popularity probably because of the same reasons dystopian fiction has been gaining popularity – if you want the crucible of a desperate environment in which to place your protagonists, coming from a perspective of scarcity, ultra-violent, yet imminently relatable, either set it in the depressed South or forty years in the future. Either way works.

A side note – any time there’s a Internet list with the worst cities to live in America, at least two of them are in Arkansas – Pine Bluff and Little Rock, my home town.

So, if you wanted a few authors to explore, I’d suggest Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin (especially his wonderful Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) and anything by James Lee Burke. Or you could go out and pick up Southern Gods which is a Southern Gothic mashed-up with 1950s crime noir smothered in eldritch evil. If you need your genre fix.

What writers influence you now?

Stylistically, I wish I had the grace of Tobias Wolfe, or the dense, rich, literate prose of Roberto Bolaño. More likely, I write like a crime noir author trying his hand at fantasy and speculative fiction. I’m okay with that. But I have been trying to stretch my legs in Foreign Devils and deliver a book that falls more in the traditional fantasy category.

Your approach to language is very different, thanks to that wonderful combination of Roman and western mythical archetypes. How does Foreign Devils build on that and how easy is it t meld the two genres together?

I’m taking myself way too seriously as a writer, nowadays, and so nothing is easy. I’m making mistakes by trying to buck convention, yet still nod my head at it in greeting while I’m flipping it off. So shit’s getting complicated and it’s my own fault. Nobody told me how hard it would be to write a series of books. I’m easily bored, and so delivering the same story with the same characters wears on me. I want each book to offer me not just new challenges, but new intricacies, new pleasures, new types of rabbit holes for me to bolt down. In The Incorruptibles, Shoestring is the narrator and he’s a very likable, wise one, and we get to know the world through him – an outsider, a conflicted native. But very identifiable. In Foreign Devils, I wanted a new voice and I didn’t want to be hobbled by a rustic, or a provincial. I wanted to be able to tell the story through an educated voice. So I split the Gordian knot down the middle – LIKE YOU DO – and separated the narrative into parts: Shoe relating the “western” or rather frontier part of the story, and Livia Cornelius telling the other side, in a epistolary correspondence through a daemonic device called the Quotidian. I absolutely adored living in Livia’s head, not just because she’s smart and strong like, say, a grown up Mattie Ross, but highly educated and I never needed to wonder if she’d know a certain word, unlike Shoestring. She’s a wonderfully complex and intimidating character

One of the things I love about the book is how much of a sense of history there is to it. How much stuff did you work out before hand? Is there a series bible?

Well, I’ve got a sense of the general history and background – Rume, while easily compared to Rome of old, is really more like colonial England. Because writing a book is a long process, and during the process I want the joy of discovery, just like the reader, I don’t work up in-depth histories, backgrounds, languages – all the “dungeon master” type world-buidling stuff some writers do. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for me. I have a good general idea of the history and I make up details as I need and as it pleases me. The things I love about writing fantasy I documented in a blog post called “The Best Part of Writing is Making Shit Up” (http://www.johnhornorjacobs.com/the-best-part-of-writing-is-making-shit-up/) and “The Daemon is in the Details” (http://www.johnhornorjacobs.com/the-daemon-is-in-the-details/).

I agree, there’s nothing quite like taking a map bearing and heading off into the wild:) I can see Colonial England in Ruma, definitely. What’s your favorite ‘discovery’ so far?

Oh and if you’re got the rough history and background, do you have ideas for stories set elsewhere in the world?

Favorite discovery? Maybe the Brawley river culture of Occidentalia or the Nagâ worshippers of Kithai.

In Foreign Devils, we do see much more of the world, namely Rume and many cities in Kithai. The characters (or some of them) leave Occidentalia and the Hardscrabble Territories and venture forth on missions. I had a wonderful time exploring new lands, cultures, people, and creatures, but I tried to do so respectfully. I have been accused of many things, and one of the most hurtful of those is being a racist. I’ve worked most of my life to combat that in myself – I grew up as a white male in the American South, around racists (some in my immediate family) – and so, I try to depict the dvergar natives of Occidentalia (who will invariably be compared to Native Americans) in a realistic, shifting light. So too with the people of Kithai – or, as they call them in the Hardscrabble Territories, “folks from Far Tchinee.” I do my best to respect the Kithai culture and people, because the germ of their conception comes from China and Japan and even though this is a secondary fantasy world, I should recognize people will draw connections to them.

But I do it for reasons that go even beyond these – I treat them with respect because cultures are characters in themselves, and all deserve even and honest representation, showing the both the bad, even despicable aspects, and the good and noble ones.

I hope some of this made sense.

You have a perspective on fantasy I’ve never seen before, combining historical fact and two separate sets of fictional tropes. Did anything come up in the drafting process that didn’t make it to the book?

Not really. There weren’t many changes from the first draft of this novel to what you see, other than general copy-editing. The same can’t be said of Foreign Devils, the second book in the Incorruptibles series. I’m finishing up rewrites now and while it’s not exactly overhauling the engine, there definitely is a major tune up and parts being replaced.

Any particular reason? Or is it just one of those things? Also what’s your rewrite protocol? Do you keep off cuts to fold in later if the opportunity arises?

My editor had some questions about pacing in the first part of Foreign Devils – I was thinking, “Hey, I’m writing a fantasy and I can talk about flora and fauna and the habits of Ruman soldiers and the landscape near the Dvergar Spur, and the language of the Brawley speakers that ply the shores of the Big Rill” but he’s all like “Hey, this is a fantasy novel, get to chasing stuff and stop sight-seeing!”

I probably shouldn’t have gone on a China Mieville reading binge – I gave myself long periods of doing nothing but set-building and exploring ideas. But editors (and readers) will let China do nothing for hundreds of pages. I have to get shit moving quicker, or so the word came down from on high.

How closely mapped to history is the book? I’m seeing broad strokes but I’m curious if any if the characters have real world analogues.

It’s not really close to history at all, except in very broad strokes and some details. The Rumans have many linguistic, naming, and cultural points in common with imperial Rome, and Occidentalia has some things in common with the colonization of America, and there are other loosely analogous things, but as soon as you start looking at the details, the differences become apparent. For example, in this world, Rumans don’t worship the Greco-Roman gods, the dvergar aren’t stand ins for native Americans – they’re more of what you’d think as fantasy dwarves, and the vaettir are more of what you’d think of as evil elves. Technology hasn’t advanced very much with the exception of infernal combustion and Hellfire pistols, but other than those, the world is almost medieval in its technology. There’s a reason for that, which will become more apparent in future books.

So, in answer to your question, “How closely mapped to history is the book?” I’ll use the words of Bilbo Baggins to answer you: “Lots… er, NONE AT ALL.”

Best possible answer:) Does that free you up to work in events or echoed of events? The joy of discovery like you mentioned earlier.

I don’t really touch upon events in the past, unless they’re entirely made up. Again, this is secondary world fantasy, so there’s no division point where history split into one of a myriad ways. I will, occasionally, reference mythological and historical things or people as though they were real – Mithras, Emrys, Croesus, the Minoan bull-leapers, certain weird Roman laws – stuff like that.

The different spiritual beliefs you’ve got in there are some of my favorite elements of the book largely because they’re so subtly layered in. What influenced them?

Ha! Well, I’ve just finished a YA series, narrated by a surly teen with a smart mouth and a bleak disposition. He’s pretty godless, as I am. So, Shoestring was a nice change of pace – a devout man, a wise one in some ways. Though he is conflicted – he’s a mixed race dvergar, not comfortable with either humans or dwarves, and seemed fitting he’d take refuge in faith. Also, it set up a nice dialogue on the infernal nature of the technology and his distaste of Hellfire – daemon technology – allowed me to give the reader breadcrumbs as to its nature, since I try not to just explain everything with exposition and info dump and write the book as if the reader was fully aware of the details of the world.

Shoe’s arc through the book was one of the things that really got me. I like his constant interrogation of his own ethics and faith, and how rough that path is. He’s like a surly dvergar Horatio, the sort of open minded skeptic you see a lot of authors aim for but no one quite hit. Are we going to see more of that, and of his future or past, in later books?

Shoe is inherently a conflicted character. He’s biracial, actually. Half native Occidentalian or dvergar, half Ruman. I don’t know if it’s stated explicitly, though it’s hinted at, he’s a child of rape and the occupying first wave of Ruman settlers – conquistadors, if you will. So, he’s an outcast – not really welcome in dvergar culture, not really welcome in Ruman and “human” culture, though I daresay he’s far more human than most of the humans in The Incorruptibles and Foreign Devils.

In Foreign Devils, he really begins to come to grips with his native heritage, and how that relates to the vaetttir. We get to learn a lot more about the stretchers and see that there’s more to them that meets the eye. The Rumans start to get some of what’s coming to them.

What’s the focus for Foreign Devils?

Plot-wise, Foreign Devils is half about diplomacy during the beginnings of a world war, and half a man-hunt.

Tell us about your YA series

The Incarcerado series – The Twelve-Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity – is about juvenile delinquents with superpowers fighting eldritch (dare I say Lovecraftian?) evil. At least over the course of the series. The first book is half jailbreak, half origin story. The Shibboleth and The Conformity are both delving into the themes of established by the first book – themes of self-identity, sexuality, individuality, morality, and love – you know, the raw stuff of adolescence. I probably should take the time to point you to all the glowing praise these books have received from NAMES but fuck it, you guys got the Google. Despite all the praise from fancy people, what’s really rewarding is that the book is actually connecting with its intended audience: there’s nothing like getting a letter or email from a 14 year old telling me he loved Shreve and feels like he known him all his life and Shreve’s struggle is HIS struggle.



John’s work is always clever, interesting, black as triple test coffee and brimming with a frantic compassion that cuts through all the pomp and circumstance that can sometimes drown fantasy. The Incorruptibles was one of the books that finally opened fantasy as a genre to me in 2014 and I can’t wait for Foreign Devils and everything that’s to come. Thanks, John for taking the time to chat.

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