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Taking It To The Grave 4: Old Gods, New Blood

Winter–that coy bitch–has finally pinned the city down with a merciless cold front; drooping above the barn is an ash grey sky studded by lonely pockets of stars. Your host’s fingers are clutched tightly to the old coffee can, and the thing inside it is making pitiful claws-on-tin noises: scritch-scritch-scritch. They’re hard to ignore, but she has hardened herself off so that she may face the task ahead. Wind snatches the collar of her coat and drags the fabric away from the delicate flesh of her throat, and she’s thankful that she’s brought a flask of Fireball whiskey.

Inside the barn, under a dry shaft of light, the circle is still waiting, fairly humming, creating an expectant buzz low in her belly. Stepping without hesitation to the workbench, she works quickly against her stiffening joints to lay out her supplies: candles the colour of blood orange marmalade, the flask, the tin can, the butcher knife.

A smell brings her hand to a hovering pause mid-air … it’s familiar, sweet … root beer? Craning to inspect the darkest recesses of the barn from her safe roost by the bench, she lets her fingertips fall on the knife. The cold length of it emboldens her. She hasn’t begun the ritual–hasn’t even put match to wick, yet–but the fact remains: she is not alone. The shadows breathe, stare, and wait. They don’t have to wait long.

She cocks her hip in blatant invitation at the corner. “An Infernal who does not wait to be summoned is pertinacious company, indeed. I am most eager to meet you. Won’t you come out and play?”

The shadow retreats like liquid mercury streaking down a drain, but the tilt of what might have been its chin shows interest.

“Show yourself, Old One. You will be welcomed with praise and offerings.”

Jesse James Freeman steps out from behind the riding lawn mower with a can of Barq’s in his hand, and his eyebrows pinched with bewilderment. “What’s that smell, AJ? Cinnamon and whiskey?”

AJ’s shoulders let down and she glares. “Dude, what the hairy fuck? I told you to wait upstairs. Some of us have shit to do. I’ll interview you later.”

“I got bored and thirsty.”

“Gawd, you’re impatient.” Her lips tighten into a thin line. “Fine. It’s fine. We can do this on your schedule, Hasty McItchypants. Here, come sit in the middle of this circle, here, and hold this.”

She plunks the tin can, with its scritching contents, into his midrif, and he cups it with one arm. His nose crinkles. “What’s in here?”

“Not for you to worry about. Have a seat. Now … my notes are upstairs, but we can improvise. Sit.”

Jesse steps into the circle tentatively, his brow darkening. “What are you tryin’ to pull, here?”

“If I were trying to pull something, you’d feel it, sweetheart,” she promised.

AJ: I’ve only known you since I joined Twitter in April 2011. How long have you been pretending to be a writer?
Jesse: I had a Twitter account for probably two years before I actually started using it for anything beyond a newsfeed.  I really didn’t understand Twitter or how one is supposed to use it.  I was a Myspace kid going a ways back – and I met a lot of creative folks on there who became actual real-life friends.  My friend Robert kept bugging me about Twitter – he said, “That’s where all the deals are being made.”  I guess I kinda started using the “@” and bugging people who were writers and kept being directed to this place called #PubWrite – I really think that people kept sending me that direction so I’d leave them alone.  What I discovered was there was this vast independent publishing phenomenon going on that I knew nothing about – at the time I didn’t have a Kindle and to be really honest wasn’t even reading that much.  I guess I’ve always gravitated towards people “doing their own thing” and I get caught up in groups and movements pretty easily cause I’m a Libra.
I joined the Twitter zeitgeist about the same time that you became active on there I guess.
As for pretending to be a writer, I’ve been lying to people and saying I was that for years.  The only sport I was any good at was throwing darts – and that required about three pints of Guinness before I got warmed up.  I wanted to be a comic book artist but I can’t draw.  Being a jazz musician was out because I’d have had to learn to play an instrument.  Writing was kind of all I had left – and I type really fast.
AJ: Is Billy Purgatory the first project you’ve worked on, and if not, what did you write before this?
Jesse: When I got out of college I bartended in Dallas for a few years and tried to break into the independent film scene that everyone was promising was going to show up at the time.  I never had much luck getting on a crew, so I decided to make my life even more difficult by loading everything I could fit into the bed of a truck and drove out to Los Angeles.  I had it in my head that I wanted to direct movies – you can guess how well that went as nobody has ever heard of anything I ever worked on.  My buddy Patrick Noblitt and I worked on some projects together and then I decided with his coaching that I was a screenwriter.  We had some stuff we wrote “go around town” but ultimately never made that big sale (thanks Pluto Nash).  What I did learn from all that is that what I was going to tell people I was from now on was a writer.
I actually got the idea for Billy Purgatory ten years or so ago when I was in L.A.  I was looking for a simple idea – because whatever I work on tends to mushroom cloud into stuff that’s way more complicated than it needs to be and I become overwhelmed in the fall-out.  I was like, “This is perfect.  Kid has a skateboard and fights a different mythological creature every week.”  No back-story, no complicated plot devices, no emotional what-have-you’s motivating the character.
A good friend of mine, Moses Jaen, who is an amazing artist and an even more amazing sculptor, and I put Billy together as a comic book several years back.  A lot of the ideas that ended up in the novel came from Moses and I brainstorming and I will always love that guy for believing in the project when not so many people did.
And now – Billy Purgatory and the “Billyverse” has, of course, grown into the most complicated and convuluted thing I’ve ever put on paper.  So yeah, given a long enough timeline I can royally fuck any easy idea right up.
AJ:  For those who haven’t read it yet, can you describe Billy Purgatory for us?
Jesse: *shakes the can* Is there a fuckin’ bird in here?
AJ: Hush, you. Answer the question.
Jesse: Billy Purgatory starts out in the book as a ten year old kid who is focused on skateboarding – it’s his entire world.  He’s being raised by his father, Ulysses, who is a black-ops Vietnam veteran with a wooden leg and a gruff disposition in regards to everything but his love for his son.  Their little family is all they know in the beginning – their entire world.  Billy’s mother is a complete mystery to him, she’s never been around and as far as Billy knows she’s either dead or left right after he was born.  His Pop isn’t really helpful on filling in the blanks and refuses to talk about any of it.
Billy’s life changes when he starts having dreams about a giant rooster who lives in his backyard, the Devil Bird.  Clues to what happened to Mom and the appearance of vampires and a monster Billy names The Time Zombie start the action trucking right along after Billy rescues a mysterious girl named Anastasia from peril.
The second half of the book lets the reader in on the answers to the mysteries of Billy’s life, what happened to his mother, and the relationship between Billy and Anastasia as grown-ups.  It also tells of an overlying paranormal mystery that plays out in ancient Greece, Vietnam, on the high-seas and to the mysterious island of The Satanic Five.
It’s an adventure story at its core – with elements of horror, the supernatural, UFOlogy and black comedy mixed in.
AJ: Does anything in Billy Purgatory come from real-life experiences, whether it be characters, or scenes?
Jesse: I think if anyone says that real-life experiences don’t factor into their writing I think they’re not being completely honest with themselves.  Your characters are either the things you like about yourself, or the things you don’t, probably a lot has to do with the things you want to be.
Billy has a sort of unlucky relationship with the ladies, so that completely doesn’t come from my own personal history.  There are a lot of really creepy places in the story that I pulled from childhood experiences.  The old sawmill where people supposedly drank and did occult weirdness is a real place.  The Witch House is a real place, or at least in my memory it is, in the woods behind the elementary school.
I’ve always had a really great relationship with my parents, they always supported me even when my plans were obviously bizarre and out on left field Pluto somewhere.  Billy looking for his mother was easy to write because I just imagined how I would feel if my own mother hadn’t been around for me.  The relationship between Billy and his “Pop” is definitely in honor of my own father.
The first person that ever read the book in its entirety was author Tess Hardwick.  The first thing she asked me when she finished reading it was, “So who was this girl and what did she do to you in real life for you to create the character of Anastasia (who turns out to *spoiler* be the vampire girlfriend, and not one of the sparkly-nice ones either)?”  I continue to plead the fifth.
AJ: Does fear make you horny? Of course it does, don’t be silly. Why do you think that might be?
Jesse: Yes, extremely – you know me so well.  I think that fear is a powerful emotion and our minds gravitate towards this power and switches get flipped.  Danger, fear, aggression and sweet sweet love are all labels for stuff that comes out of the same jar.  Open the lid and jam.
AJ: *chuckles* I would not recommend you open that lid just yet. *lights the candles one by one and places them carefully around the circle* When you’re not busy licking paint chips, which authors do you usually read? Do you have a preferred genre?
Jesse: Well, we might as well plug your book, Touched (The Marnie Baranuik Files), because I’m reading it right now – and it’s fantastic by the way.
AJ: Gosh, thanks, I uh .. that almost makes me want to reconsider this, uh, whole … um, nevermind, too late now. You were saying?
Jesse: I’m also reading a book by Marni Mann called Memoirs Aren’t Fairytales: A Story of Addiction – which is beyond intense.  Most everything I read lately is tied to our Twitter writing community #PubWrite.  There are a lot of amazing storytellers who I have been lucky enough to become great friends with.
As for genre, I’m definitely a genre-guy and a geek.  I’ve walked the floors at Comic-Con and stared in awe.  I love Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Michael Chabon, Joseph Campbell, and definitely Kurt Vonnegut.
AJ: Any odd writing quirks? Have you ever attempted to write sober? *smirk*
Jesse: Here’s the thing about my writing – I note obsessively.  I have stacks of journals full of ideas for stuff that I’m writing on, one page treatments that I have no idea what to do with, old movie scripts that will probably never see the silver screen.  I notecard everything – I’m into flowcharts and lists and plot breakdowns.  I’m kind of a world builder, and I probably build these worlds up far beyond what would be necessary to tell whatever story I’m working on.
I know people are going to shudder at this revelation – but I normally don’t write every day.  It’s just not how I work.  I might go three days just writing plot notes, or sketching, or letting it all tumble around in my head before I ever hit the keys.  When I do hit the keys though, I hit them hard and I attempt to murder the living plastic-hell out of them.
I absolutely hate editing, because I’m obsessive about it and don’t know when to quit.  Billy Purgatory went through eight drafts as a novel, and that doesn’t count all the Billy stuff that I had written previously to that.  I also, apparently, don’t know where commas should go.  God bless my editor, Katie Flanagan.
I am proud to announce, in closing, that I have never written a word sober (especially not this interview).
AJ: *eyeballs the root beer can* Good, that’ll make things easier. Say, what colour thong are you wearing right this second? Be honest!
Jesse: Are little hearts and lace bows a color?
AJ: Oh, you wonderfully kinky bastard. I heard rumours of a video blog upcoming … what can viewers expect to see, if not you huffing gas fumes in full pirate regalia?
Jesse: The details of our upcoming video blog are still in the top secret stages and to give out many details at this stage would put you and the rest of the world in danger.  That being said, I can tell you that it will chronicle the adventures of a crack team that I am putting together to investigate the paranormal.  This team realizes that they will be putting their very lives on the line in the quest for truth and will be uncovering mysteries that the power brokers of the world are trying to suppress.  To my credit, I will selfishly be undertaking this fearsome quest with no regard for my safety – and I will be doing all this while drinking Wild Turkey.
AJ: If you could collaborate with one writer, living or dead, who would it be? (pick me! pick me! WHAT?? Oh, fine)
Jesse: I think that Carl Jung and I could write a badass story together.  He could handle all the mystical-science-collective unconciousness bullshit, and I could pepper in a healthy dose of explosions and hot babes.
AJ: Will your next book be another Billy Purgatory adventure in weirdness, or are you trying something else next?
Jesse: The sequel to Billy Purgatory is already being written, Billy Purgatory and the Curse of the Satanic Five.  I’ve actually gotten a lot of it done, but it’s still kind of spread out in piles all over my office floor and my dog, PopPop, keeps stealing the pages and running around the house with them until I give him Honey Nut Cheerios.
AJ: To be fair to PopPop, that’s how I usually obtain Honey Nut Cheerios, too.
Jesse: I’m working on another book called MythCop.  It’s about angels, samurai swords, super-colliders, althernate-universes, hard drinking, lighthouses, the cavalry, grey aliens with shovels, and cops. I have another idea I’ve been playing with for a long time that’s almost become a comic book a couple times, but I’m thinking of just writing the novel – it’s called R. Cane and it’s about a Victorian adventurer-ruffian type who teams up with his chiropractor and a buddhist monk and goes on adventures.

AJ: Ideas, ideas, hey I have an idea. Open that lid, and stick your hand in, wouldja? Wait … mister, not twenty minutes ago, you said almost the same thing to me about your pants, and I played along, didn’t I? Jesse? I just need two more minutes of your time! Hey wait, ha! You said that too! WAIT! JESSE?? Come back here!

(editor’s note: AJ Aalto would like to thank her indulgent guest, Jesse James Freeman, author of Billy Purgatory: I Am The Devil Bird for allowing my insanity to continue, rampant and unchecked. Jesse, you are a gentleman, a scholar, and a world class nut. Thanks for being you, big guy *major smooch*)



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3 Responses to Taking It To The Grave 4: Old Gods, New Blood

  1. Dannie Hill says:

    AJ. I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you and not just because you’re a writer! You really put it to Jesse– the interview I mean. I do enjoy you two at Pubwrite but I mostly have to sit back and watch.

    Jesse. You are one crazy Texan and I can’t wait to read about the Devil Bird! I really do enjoy learning more about the people I admire… yes, I do. Don’t ever let me into your office because I love Honey Nut Cheerios. Speaking of Honey nut; what color thong does AJ wear? And I’d pay money to know what the A or the J is!

    One of the best interviews I’ve read in a long time.

  2. Apparently, I cannot get enough of either of you. You are both so deliciously talented and creative, it makes me simultaneously jealous and inspired.

    Congratulations to you both on your amazing novels. Too bad I can no longer sleep. Thanks for that.

  3. Shay Fabbro says:

    That was some serous fun! I feel like a need a drink 😀

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