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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview: John Rector

Last May we published John Rector’s Folded Blue, an unassuming story that turned dark and gruesome in the last passage. It created a buzz and is, to date, one of our most read stories. John is used to creating a little buzz, having released his first novel, THE GROVE, on the Kindle platform and creating sales that caught even Amazon’s attention.

Since then THE GROVE has been published by AmazonEncore, with print edition releasing from a Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt imprint, along with THE COLD KISS released under MacMillan’s Forge imprint and the upcoming release of ALREADY GONE from Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Folded Blue was the first John’s first published short story since 2005 and it was our pleasure to be its host.

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I’m not sure I was ever drawn to crime fiction.  If anything, it was my writing style that pushed me in that direction more than a conscious decision on my part.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of crime fiction, especially the old pulp stories and the classics – James M Cain is a huge influence- but I don’t see myself as a full blown crime writer.  Dark suspense seems to fit me better, but it’s a thin line separating the two.

Crime lends itself to a lot of genres, if only ancillary. In Folded Blue the crime isn’t revealed until the very end and with some controversy. What was your thought behind Folded Blue?

Folded Blue started out as a simple conversation between two characters (almost a writing exercise in dialog), and I had no idea where it was going until the last couple paragraphs. When the ending presented itself, I knew there was no other way it could go. The characters came to life in two or three sentences, and I was able to go back in and tweak what was essentially a very flat scene and make it into something vivid and real.

I was a little surprised to hear people were talking about that particular story, just because I’ve written a hell of a lot worse. There are scenes in  THE GROVE that make Folded Blue seem tame, at least to me. But I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. What I see as a fun little masturbation story, someone else sees as glorifying violence against women.

I suppose like beauty, the reader sees only what they want to see for good or bad. And I don’t see controversy as a bad thing. Folded Blue is one of our most read stories.

You mentioned THE GROVE, a book that created a bit of buzz last year as one of a handful books picked up by Amazon Encore, Amazon’s first initiative into publishing. How did that come about?

It started in the spring of 2009. THE GROVE had made the rounds through all the NYC publishers, and nobody wanted to buy it, so I put it in the trunk and moved on. I’d written another novel called THE COLD KISS, and my agent had been focused on sending that one around to publishers. One publisher, Tor/Forge, had been sitting on the manuscript for about eight months. Anyone who has played the waiting game with publishers knows how stressful it can be. So, instead of sitting there making myself crazy, I started thinking about something I could do on my own.

I’d recently read an interview with a writer named Boyd Morrison who had signed a three book deal with a big publisher after selling several thousand copies of his three novels as ebooks, so I looked into it and decided to make THE GROVE available as an ebook on Amazon. At the time, no one was self publishing ebooks, and everyone I talked to about my plan thought I was crazy and told me it was a terrible idea. But I did it anyway. I thought if I could sell a few hundred copies and start building an audience then maybe the big NYC publishers would take a chance on The Cold kiss. So, I uploaded THE GROVE to Amazon’s website and waited.

As it turned out, Tor/Forge had wanted to buy THE COLD KISS all along, and they made an offer about 48 hours after I’d uploaded THE GROVE as an ebook. The timing was perfect. If I had waited two more days, things would’ve been completely different. With a contract from a major publisher, I never would’ve released THE GROVE on my own, but since it was already up and selling, I decided to leave it there. I figured every sale I made could translate into another sale for THE COLD KISS once it was released. Plus, it was really selling well, and I wanted to see what would happen.

Because THE GROVE was doing so well, it caught the eye of an editor at AmazonEncore, and he called me at home one night and asked if they could publish the book themselves. They would redesign the cover, market the eboko, and release a print version in stores nationwide. I was hesitant at first, but I’d just signed a three book deal with Simon and Schuster in the UK that included THE GROVE, and I really wanted to see the book published in the US, too, so I said yes. As it turned out, signing up with Amazon was the best decision I’ve made.

They say that timing is everything, don’t they? A little luck too, I suppose. Can you share the pitch for THE GROVE? Sell it to our readers.

Here’s the pitch my agent, Allan Guthrie, wrote when he was shopping the book.  It’s always been my favorite.

The last time farmer Dexter McCray went off his medication, someone wound up dead. So, after waking from an alcoholic blackout to discover his tractor stuck in a ditch and the body of a teenage girl in the cottonwood grove bordering his cornfield, things look worryingly familiar.

With no alibi and a creeping suspicion that he might indeed be guilty, Dexter decides to investigate the crime himself. He can’t tell anybody. Not his friend, the sheriff, who keeps offering to help him winch his tractor out of the ditch. Nor his estranged wife, whose love he’s desperate to win back. And certainly not the Tollivers, his redneck neighbors.

Fortunately, Dexter’s not entirely alone. He has some help.

In the shape of the dead girl herself.

That was a pretty sharp, intriguing pitch. You would have thought at least one editor would have shown interest. Their loss.

E-publishing, Amazon and the Kindle have changed publishing dramatically in the last year. Did you have any apprehensions jumping into the muddied waters of self-publishing?

A lot of editors showed interest, a few sent it around their offices and pitched it in meetings, but it seemed to always come down to marketing. No one wanted to take a chance on an unproven new novelist with a book that didn’t fit perfectly into one genre. It wasn’t quite mystery, and it wasn’t quite horror, so they all passed on the challenge.

When I released THE GROVE myself, I didn’t consider it self publishing. There was no ISBN number attached, so bookscan couldn’t track the sales, and that was important to me because I wanted to eventually publish with a major publisher. If it would’ve felt like true self publishing, I never would’ve done it.

Also, when I released THE GROVE on my own, there weren’t many people putting out ebooks. This was pre-Konrath, and if the waters were muddied back then it was because no one knew what the hell they were doing or what to expect. I still remember my agent’s stunned reaction the first time I showed him my sales figures, and that was back when ebooks were less than 2% of the market. The big sellers out there now put my old numbers to shame, but at the time it was all new for everyone.

THE COLD KISS — having read the book — is more focus in respects to genre, was that a deliberate choice because of the initial reluctance towards THE GROVE? Or were the wheels already in motion?

Both. I was already writing THE COLD KISS while THE GROVE was making the rounds, but once I started getting feedback from editors telling me it was too in between genres, I made an effort to stay in one particular genre.

THE COLD KISS is described as The Getaway meets A Simple Plan, making it sound marketable and mainstream. Do you regret not writing it as a genre blender?

Not at all. THE COLD KISS is a tight, streamlined little book that works just fine the way it is. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and I can’t picture it any other way.

Having had the unique opportunity to test the publishing waters on both sides of the e-divide, what have you learned as a writer?

I’ve learned the same thing all traditionally published writers are now learning. Things are changing fast. As recently as two years ago, I never would’ve turned down an offer from a major publisher, but that’s exactly what I did with my most recent book, ALREADY GONE. The reason was because I saw first hand what Amazon Publishing can do to sell books, so I took their offer instead.

While traditional authors and major publishers are fighting each other for severly limited shelf space in indie stores or in Barnes and Noble, Amazon Publishing can take their books directly to the reader. They have an enormous customer database, and can directly market their books to the exact audience.

I’m not overly familiar with the current state of self publishing, but as everyone who is paying attention knows, you now have a lot of writers who are able to make a very good living by selling their unpublished manuscripts as ebooks. The publishing shift that represents cannot be overstated. It is a different world out there, it’s never going back.

ALREADY GONE is part of a strong launch of Amazon’s imprint Thomas & Mercer, which includes Barry Eisler and Kyle Mills, and early next year J A Konrath. You must be a mix of pressure and pride to be part of that launch?

I’m definitely proud to be part of the new imprint, and it’s funny, but I’m not feeling a lot of pressure. I have complete faith in the people at Thomas & Mercer, and I know they’re going to do whatever they can to get the book out to as many readers as possible. That’s a rare and wonderful feeling to have about your publisher.

Do you have any parting shots, pearls of wisdom, for our readers?

All I can say is be flexible, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Publishing has changed, and it’s still changing. If you’re not open to doing things in new ways, you’re going to have a hard time finding your place. Things are never going to go back to the way they were, and as a result, this is the best time to be a writer, especially if you’re willing to take chances.