Halloween in April: Interview with J. Tonzelli

For this week’s author spotlight, I’ve got a special treat for all you fans of fall. My writer today is J. Tonzelli. He’s the scribe of End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween, a book that might have the coolest creepy cover ever. But this author has even more to offer than one (completely awesome) collection of short stories, and he was kind enough to share his experiences, inspirations, and advice for other horror and fantasy writers out there. Halloween in April indeed.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

J. Tonzelli AuthorI’ve been writing since I was fairly young, so I guess I’ve always had the itch to do it. When I was young, I read mostly horror-centric stuff: R.L. Stine, and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I read In a Dark Dark Room over and over. I was really infatuated by this notion that you could be in a room by yourself reading only someone’s words, and that someone still had the power to scare you. This wasn’t someone sneaking up behind you and screaming, “boo!” or a scary movie on the television in front of you. It was just words, and they were terrifying, and I loved that.

I matriculated from Stine to Stephen King in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, when I read IT, but then eventually I began reading all genres both fiction and non-fiction. My go-to authors are Ray Bradbury, Dennis Lehane, Per Petterson, and Norman Partridge. I love David Sedaris. I’m also really digging Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal series right now.

Halloween plays a major role in your fiction. What is your earliest Halloween memory, and do you think that formative experience shaped your love for the holiday?

I actually share this memory in the foreword for “The End of Summer,” but one of my earliest Halloween memories was being puked on during a Halloween party while I was in elementary school. Some kind of flu or nasty bug had been spreading slowly around the school that month and making all the kids sick. I guess it was her turn. Ironically, she was dressed as a witch, and I was dressed as the devil. Talk about mutiny!

The End of SummerTo offer up a more serious answer, I think it’s because I’d always been into horror even at a young age, which sometimes made me feel like an outcast. I didn’t share the same interests a lot of the other kids did – sports or video games, for instance; wrestling was big at that time, but I wasn’t interested. So I sometimes felt isolated because of it. I’d hide the covers of books I was reading so the other kids couldn’t see them. If I was watching a horror movie at home, and my parents or brother came into the room, I’d turn it off real quick. I hated being judged or ridiculed for my interests. But Halloween was that one time of year when everyone was into that kind of stuff, so it always felt like a safe day where I could sort of live vicariously through all of these people having a good time wearing the scary mask and watching the scary movie and not feeling weird for enjoying it. I sometimes felt like a horror cheerleader, trying to make my friends realize that this kind of stuff could be fun all year. It hardly ever worked – my schtick probably got old pretty fast. Some of that carries over into The House on Creep Street.

Your book, The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween, was released in 2013. What was the most rewarding part of writing a short story collection of Halloween stories?

The most rewarding aspect was simply seeing that book though to the end, as my main goal was to see if I could even do it – not necessarily put together a collection of writing, which is its own reward, but to see if I could keep it contained to a common theme (that being Halloween) and explore its myths and folklore in different ways. Originally, “The End of Summer wasn’t necessarily Halloween-themed. I wasn’t even so much trying to stick with a horror theme. I was just writing whatever concept I thought would interest me as a reader. At that point, there wasn’t a “book” in my mind – I just wanted to write. But as I wrote, I noticed that I was subconsciously either setting the story on Halloween, or injecting into the story some kind of Halloween-like imagery or setting. Once I became cognizant of that, it seemed to me that I had to follow through with this impulse to see if I could concoct an entire collection of stories all relating to Halloween. For better or worse, I did!

Your most recent novel, The House on Creep Street, was a collaboration between you and author Chris Evangelista. How is the creative process different when writing with someone else?

The House on Creep StreetI’ve known Chris for fifteen years now, and we’ve been sharing writing projects together for almost that entire time – just in different ways, and mostly for fun. I’m convinced we were fraternal twins somehow separated at birth. We both share a lot of the same interests and sensibilities, the same weird sense of humor, and we both approach writing in the same way. It’s scary how in-sync we can be when working on something together; sometimes it gets to the point where we can literally finish each other’s sentence, and I don’t mean on the page, but out loud when we’re outlining every new adventure. When we start a new novel together, we’re both in step right from the start about the story we want to tell and the themes we want to convey. We know how we want to tell that story, and more importantly, how we don’t want to tell it. We go by the pen name of The Blood Brothers for these books, and a large reason behind that, besides that wonderfully corny pun of a name, is that we just genuinely feel like brothers.

“The House on Creep Street” is the first in a series called “Fright Friends Adventures,” which are horror adventure stories for younger readers, highly influenced by stuff like the Goosebumps books, the show “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and movies like The Monster Squad and The Goonies. We grew up devouring that kind of stuff, and we felt that those kinds of fun, adventurous morality tales were ripe for another exploration. Our goal was to keep them as timeless and classic as possible.

Out of your published works so far, do you have a personal favorite piece?

I love a lot of what I’ve published, and not because I would ever dream of flat-out stating they’re excellent – that’s for the reader to decide – but because I feel like everything out there so far with my name attached to it reflects me, and my personality and interests and passions, in some way. Even if there’s something of mine I look back on with a bittersweet feeling of hesitation or regret, that book or story still reflects who I was, and the place where I was in my life, at that time. Every story invokes recollections of, “Oh, I wrote this when I’d found out so-and-so had passed away” or “I wrote this while I was still going through that break-up,” etc. Everything I’ve written is the equivalent of a photo album. If I were to go back and read my stuff, I could tell you exactly what I was going through at the time I wrote it.

To offer a specific favorite, I love the opener of “The End of Summer,” a story called “Stingy Jack,” because that wry, weird kind of humor really defines my personality. I also love “The House on Creep Street” based strictly on its origin, which were childhood writings of mine that I’d forgotten about and subsequently rediscovered several years ago. As a kid, I’d been fascinated by the idea of nighttime adventures, with my real childhood friends by my side, so I had written all of these stories where we encountered something weird or supernatural in our neighborhood. They were terrible, obviously, since I was twelve or so when I’d written them, but they were also charming in a way. It seemed like a fun concept to strip down and rebuild, which we did, and which led to “Fright Friends Adventures.”

What upcoming projects are you working on?

Blood BrothersI keep going back and forth on a solo project I’ve been working on for the last year or so – my take on the historical mash-up. I originally abandoned the concept several months ago for fear I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but now it won’t leave me alone. It’s getting to the point that it’s almost screaming in my ears for me to keep trying, so I’ll likely get back to it sometime soon.

Chris and I are currently doing a rewrite on the second book in our “Fright Friends Adventures” series that a publisher is excited to release. It’s called “Beware the Monstrous Manther!” and it’s about Joey, the main character in the series, and his creepy new neighbor across the street, who Joey suspects of kidnapping his neighborhood’s pet population for dastardly reasons.

I’m also pretty consistently contributing to the film site Cut Print Film, where I write reviews, interview filmmakers, and do write-ups on genre titles that have a certain cult appeal. I’ve been doing that for about six months now and it’s been pretty rewarding. I’ve gotten to talk with filmmakers I really admire and it’s nice to collaborate with a huge group of like-minded film enthusiasts. Plus I get to see movies for free, and who wouldn’t love that?

Big thanks to J. Tonzelli for being part of this week’s author spotlight. Be sure to check out his main website where he features several free short stories (and who can resist that?). You can also visit the official site for “Fright Friends Adventures,” which has resources for both parents and kids. And for film buffs, you won’t want to miss his contributions to Cut Print Film. Calling all cult classics.

Happy reading, and happy early Halloween!