Interview with Jay Wilburn

Jay Wilburn was a public school teacher for 16 years. He left to care for his younger son and to be a full-time writer. He lives in beautiful Conway, South Carolina with his wife and two sons.
Jay was featured in Best Horror of the Year vol. 5, edited by Ellen Datlow. His work has appeared in many other publications such as “Watch” in The Ghost IS the Machine with Post Mortem, “The Interrogation of John Walker” in The Best of Dark Moon Digest, and “Securing the Empire” in Horrific History. His debut novel, Loose Ends: a Zombie Novel is available from Hazardous Press. His second novel, Time Eaters will be released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing at the WorldCon World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio over Labor Day weekend 2013. He is a columnist for Dark Eclipse and Revolt Daily.
Jay will be a featured author with Hazardous Press at the 2013 World Horror Convention and a panelist on RULES OF THE GENRE. He is also one of the featured authors on the 2014 Dark and Bookish tour and documentary.
Follow his many dark thoughts at and @AmongTheZombies on Twitter.
Chimerical Dark: Hey Jay, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
Jay Wilburn: Sure, I appreciate the opportunity.
CD: Well, let’s dive right into it. Not to come off as a stalker, but you posted something interesting on Facebook recently. Let me throw a couple quotes out. “Right now I’m pursuing the idea of writing horror as “truth telling.”” You go on to say that “[d]arkness scares us on a primal level. The intelligent part of our brains starts to feel real dread when we realize we are starting to see what is in the dark.”
Good stuff. What were you working on when you wrote that?
JW: It doesn’t sound sexy, but I was doing panel prep for World Horror Convention and writing articles to promote the Dark and Bookish tour campaign. I keep getting asked in one form or another “What is horror and what is it for?”
I’m always writing short stories though. I finish one, edit, and submit. I immediately plow into the next. I have this working delusion that has led to the minor success I’ve found in writing so far and probably what little success I’ve had in teaching, parenting, public speaking, and a dozen other skills and schemes. One part of me recognizes it as a mental trick, but I also recognize the value in the delusional construct. In the case of writing, the delusion is that I am a good writer bordering on very good and capable of moments of true greatness. This belief leads me to write prolifically and push to learn the craft as I practice. It leads me to strive for something better. Whether the delusion proves to be true almost does not matter at this point. It leads me to do and think the things I need to as a writer.
CD: I wouldn’t exactly call being chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in BHotY “minor,” but whatever. How has answering the question “What is horror and what is it for?” changed your writing philosophy?
JW: I had bought into the notion that horror is a device in writing like irony or symbolism. The idea of sitting down to write a zombie story because I am a zombie writer isn’t quite good enough. Horror becomes something that is applied skillfully in a story about something besides the monster or the genre.
I guess the change is in coming up with why the use of horror matters. English teachers can explain to you why authors use irony, symbolism, or parallelism. We all buy these explanations. I would be surprised if even one in a hundred could give an explanation of why an author uses horror that I would accept. Probably many believe it serves no real purpose at all that can not be achieved through some other device in a purely literary work.
CD: What’s your opinion, as a former English teacher?
JW: I was a bit lacking with my English teacher chops. I benefit greatly from the work of editors. As a working writer playing English teacher, I would tear horror down to its base element which I now believe is darkness. I also believe that what an expert horror story achieves through the use of darkness can only be achieved in a watered-down, weakened form if the same story were purely literary. There is no conflict without darkness. The power of light and goodness are underappreciated in the absence of darkness and evil as a reference point of comparison. The power in the light of a candle to push back any amount of dark is a minor miracle. This cannot be truly understood without going into a very dark place. These concepts are what I mean by understanding truth through the use of darkness.
If something scares us, there is meaning in that. Fear holds meaning. It usually holds the secrets that we would rather lie about than to face and understand. Well-written horror by its design is targeted to address hidden truth by tapping and exploring fear. Badly-written horror does not know how to scare people and loses the reader before the truth is revealed in the darkness.
CD: How have you reconciled your “I’m going to write a zombie story because I’m a zombie writer” philosophy with this shift in focus?
JW: Some of what I’m trying to do is understand the mechanics of fear so I can use it to tell the truth of a story. For example, in real life, seeing a zombie shambling would be terrifying. On the page, zombies shambling is boring. A zombie drooling blood and scratching at his inner thigh through a hole in the seam is a little closer to scary because it catches people off guard. Their unguarded imagination is terrifying. I’m more likely to be able to tell what my story is about if the reader is unsettled by the zombies because they expect zombies to not bother them anymore. Watching a guy scratch his thigh in real life is rather ordinary. If I add that the color seemed wrong every time the creature withdrew its finger to stare at it, I may unsettle a few more people because I’m showing them something without letting them see it or understand it entirely. There is an art in the use of these details.
CD: I agree.
JW: Another example is the paradox of random and targeted fear between real life and the page. In real life, if a sniper is shooting people randomly and we don’t know why, we are terrified to leave our homes. On the page, the impact of this same detail on the reader is blunted because random doesn’t connect with what the reader is investing into the character or how they view the story. In real life, if a sniper is targeting red-haired hookers that dropped out of high-school and then following their johns home to cut up their families, I’m not scared because I very seldom go to hookers with red hair AND less than a college degree and I can take a break for a while until the sniper is captured. On the page, it carries fear to follow the story of one of these johns that indulged one time and is trying to keep his secret while trying to protect his family. It is scary not because we frequent hookers, but because we make mistakes and have other secret vices of our own. If the john is written well or perhaps he breaks down and rights himself before going through with the act, we are invested, sympathetic, and opened up by the fear because we are seeing the truth in secrets, guilt, temptation, dissatisfaction with our lives, and limited power. A good horror story about the hooker sniper isn’t just about hookers, snipers, or light off of razorblades. These things have great, dark potential and in the right hands could reveal a hell of a lot of depth.
CD: It’s interesting that there’s this disconnect between the random terror of real life and the focused terror of fiction. I’ve heard that that’s why conspiracy theories exist: they’re people’s way of dealing with the randomness. If one man acting alone killed JFK, then anyone can be in danger at any time and for no reason, but if there was someone on the grassy knoll, then there was a plan, and even if we don’t like that plan, it’s easier to deal with than a chaotic world.
JW: In real life, we can be sympathetic, but survival motivates us to focus on “me and mine.” We want to be outside the cone of possibility and look into dangers. Scary story arcs are no fun if you are in it and can’t turn the page toward a set ending. In fiction, we are permitting ourselves to be drawn into the characters’ lives and allowing ourselves to be targeted in a way that we won’t allow in real life. A well-written character becomes “me and mine” for the reader. We will allow ourselves to be submerged in the terror with them to reach the ending that real life does not let us get to in our own timing.
CD: Indeed. Moving to a different, yet related, topic, you recently said that you hate Past Jay. What was that about?
JW: At the time I was removing an extra space between each sentence from a story I had written back when I did that. I hate Past Jay when I’m having to rewrite his work to my current standards. I also hate him a little when I find a creative, risky idea in his work that I wouldn’t write now. I’m trying to keep from playing it safe as I’m writing pieces for bigger calls. Sometimes his raw work reminds me of that too.
CD: Is there anything you’d like to apologize to Future Jay for right now? You know, to get it out of the way.
JW: Probably for bad habits I haven’t discovered yet. He will not be thrilled with that. I also think he’ll have a clearer view of what I should have been doing with my time and where I should have not put my energies.
CD: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
JW: Whenever you are able, let it go. Most things we worry about never happen. You almost always guess wrong when you try to figure out what is worthy of worry. It’s not exactly writing advice.
CD: Still good though. How did the Dark and Bookish Tour start as an idea and grow into what it is now?
JW: I was open to the out-of-the-box idea because as an aspiring writer, I asked myself “What hasn’t been done?”
During this same period of seeking that answer, we lost a few important authors. In all the aftermath of these farewells, the hand-to-mouth nature of writing began to come to light. Successful authors started drawing back the curtain to reveal that even the highest paid were making less than many of their readers. I started reading accounts from authors going on half a century in the past that had higher potential pay per word than authors today. Adjusted for inflation, the devaluation of the written word is more striking.
I began to think about the current era of publishing in that I have conducted extensive business with people I have never met or spoken to in real life. I’ve written stories, submitted them, completed edits, signed contracts, taken royalty payments, promoted, and have sold books on six continents without leaving my living room. People have bought and read my work the same way.
I felt like there was a story here about the changing state of the written word that was unknown to most including those participating as authors, publishers, book sellers, and readers.
The tour is a stage and the featured authors are a through line to tell a bigger story about the storytellers. With cameras rolling, the tour will engage all these groups in a conversation that tells this story to capture and understand this moment in publishing.
CD: What’s the next step for you and fellow authors Max Booth III, Adam Millard, Derek Deremer, and Jessica McHugh? How can we help?
JW: We convince others to buy into the idea. We are going to also set up another writing/publishing project to promote and fund the tour and documentary while giving voice to other authors that are part of the story. Get ready to write.
Check out the campaign and find a perk that appeals to you. Every donation gets us a step closer and nothing will be wasted.
CD: Cool. I look forward to following your progress. To wrap up, just a couple standard questions: What are you reading right now?
JW: I need to be catching up on my review reading, but I’m rereading Stephen King’s On Writing.
CD: I read that one as a teenager. I should dust off my copy and give a reread too. Who are some of the new authors that have come out in the last year that you’re excited to see more from?
JW: They have been around a while, but they have projects coming out now or in the future the intrigue me: Chris Larsen, Doug Murano, Mandy DeGeit, Amalia Dillin, Andrea Janes, and Megan Engelhardt to name a few. Not for nothing, but your own Clean Freak has my interest up.
CD: Thanks! I’m hoping to have a surprise for you at World Horror. Speaking of which, is there anyone that you’re hoping to meet in New Orleans?
JW: This will sound strange, but I’m looking forward to meeting all my partners in crime. We’ve done extensive business with folks across the country and this is the first time I will meet most of them.
CD: Sounds like New Orleans will be a lot of fun. I look forward to it.
JW: Behave yourself.


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