A Couple Of Questions With LitReactor Instructor And 'The Art of Horrible People' Author John Skipp
Horror-bizarro legend John Skipp is a busy guy. His hit LitReactor class, The Choreography of Violence, starts this Thursday. And he just released a new collection of short stories, out from Lazy Fascist Press, called The Art of Horrible People.
John is an incredible addition to our workshop program—the energy and insight he brings to the classroom is unrivaled. So to mark the occasion of a busy month, I posed a couple of questions to him.
But before that, here's some more about the book:
"Savor this book. Savor this writer." - from the introduction by Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box
From Hollywood film studios to high-security psychiatric facilities, there is an art to being a horrible person. Splatterpunk legend John Skipp turns the mirror back on ourselves, showing us all the ways that make us the worst monsters of all.
A decade in the making, The Art of Horrible People collects John Skipp's most horrific, hilarious, and starkly honest short stories, raising horror fiction to gleefully deranged new heights.
How much of this collection is plumbed from the depths of your own life, versus how much is pure fabrication?
I don't write much autobiographical fiction, if that's what you mean. If I did, there'd be a lot less shit blowing up, a lot more doing dishes and putting gas in the car. I mostly like fiction to depict the wild, imaginative visions real life can't give me except through art. Otherwise, that's why God made non-fiction.
That said, there are two stories in The Art of Horrible People that are hugely autobiographical, and only slightly tweaked. "Zygote Notes on the Imminent Birth of a Feature Film As Yet Unformed" is pretty much a walking/driving tour of my first trip to Manitou Springs, CO, in the last years of my father's life. "In the Waiting Room, Trading Death Stories" is a thinly-veiled depiction of a typical morning walk with my dog. Except I changed the name of the dog, so that nothing bad would happen to my girl Scoob. And then Scoob died anyway. (The book is dedicated to her, and my eulogy to her closes out the collection.)
Actually, now that you mention it, this book is insanely personal. Even the craziest made-up shit is deeply rooted in things I care about. So let's put it at roughly 50/50, okay? Half plumbing the depths. Half hallucinating on paper like a sonofabitch.
What attracts you to the short story format?
You can tell a ton of story in a very short space. Create a whole world, set it up and knock it down in a couple of pages. Sometimes in just a couple of lines. I'm a huge admirer of one-panel cartoonists like Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, and Gary Larson, who can deliver both the punchline and the joke it rode in on with a single sentence and funny drawing. That's economy of craftsmanship. And a truly extraordinary skill.
Even when I'm writing novels, I treat each chapter like a short story. Like an entity unto itself. But standalone short stories, when done right, are little miracles. I love them more than I can say. Love doing them. Love reading them. Just love love love love love.
Have you been writing toward this collection—or did you just find that a lot of your stories revolved around horrible people?
Well, when you're writing horror fiction, someone or something horrible is liable to show up. And frankly, every story from comedy to drama—every story that's actually a story at all, and not just a dreary literary still-life—is gonna be based on something going horribly wrong. Sometimes it's nature. Sometimes it's monsters. But mostly, it's humans fucking up. And when they do it on purpose, to hurt you, they're horrible.
You bring a lot of energy into the LitReactor classroom—not always an easy task, considering it's entirely online. What do you get out of the experience of teaching?
I love teaching at LitReactor. You have the systematics utterly dialed. All I have to do is engage with my students, set up my clear guidelines, set them loose, and go to town.
The Choreography of Violence is my favorite class to teach, because the parameters are clear. This isn't about theory. This is about practice. The nuts and bolts of making an action scene jump off the page. How to zero in on the moment that counts. How to strip away all that doesn't matter. How to deeply kick ass on the page
These are learnable skills. They are not abstract. And the difference between doing them right and doing them wrong is not just palpable, but measurable. Measurable by degrees.
So what do I get out of it? Every time I help someone decipher the tricks that make the difference, it's incredibly exciting. And I've had sooooo many great students here. Watching them throw down, with such heart and such discipline, is just the most beautiful thing there is.
Are you a horrible person? Does it take one to know one?
You know what's weird? As a soul in a meat-bag on Earth, I seem to be pretty hard-wired toward kindness. It's just what I like. It's what I like to do, I like to treat people well. It feels way better than being an asshole, you know?
But for some strange reason, I really understand evil. Am acutely aware of every wicked impulse within me, every time it flickers up. And am really good at recognizing it in others, no matter how well it's hidden.
I don't know if this is cellular memory—the sins of the species etched in DNA—or some past-life awfulness I did, or just being awake and aware, or what. But I understand evil waaaay better than I should. Understand it from the inside. It's like I have Will Graham Disease. (When I read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris for the first time, my primary thought was, "Oh, dude. You, too?")
As I say in Appendix A of the book, I think most people are a jumble of good, bad, and indifferent impulses, trying to sort it out on a day-to-day basis. Some people just have a much harder row to hoe.
That's why I respect the art of even the most genuinely horrible people. In many cases, it's the best and most revealing part of them that we will ever get. The light that their lives couldn't live up to, but that they couldn't help but express, squeezing beams of radiant truth out through the cracks in their black armor.
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