Author Jack Ketchum has worked as everything from a soda jerk, lumber salesman, teacher, singer, and an actor. He claims that Elvis, dinosaurs, and horror probably saved his life. Most readers who are familiar with his work, are likely well aware of a piece in Entertainment Weekly in which Stephen King, when asked who was the scariest man in America, was quoted as saying, “probably Jack Ketchum”. No small praise, though well earned, it is without a doubt one of the highest compliments anyone could receive in his field. In 2011 he earned The World Horror Convention Grand Master Award for outstanding contributions to the horror genre.
A knack for creating stories and a love of written word from a young age led up to what was to become a lifelong career. He was mentored by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho,) who in turn had been mentored by H.P. Lovecraft during his early days as a writer, and who remained a friend and supporter of Jack’s until his death in 1994. In the earlier days of his career, Ketchum sold a rather impressive amount of articles and short fiction under his original pen name, Jerzy Livingston, which he later changed to Jack Ketchum when he began writing novels. He recently worked with director Lucky McKee on the novel and the movie version of The Woman and the book I’m Not Sam.
How exactly do you think Elvis, dinosaurs, and horror have saved your life? What first sparked your interest in horror.
I was what they call a troubled kid. Parents at war, me in the middle, that kind of thing. Elvis gave me my first taste of rock ’n’ roll rebellion and a sense of identity, he got out and I wanted out, I wanted to be just like him. Dinosaurs gave me a rich fantasy life and a sense of the unknowable past and unfathomable future. I never believed they’d gone extinct, by the way. Turned out I was right! T-Rex was my first monster. Scared the shit out of me and chased me through my dreams. Probably Christianity gave me my first true sense of horror. Some guys nailed some other guys to a cross, on purpose! What a world, huh? Give me T-Rex any day.
You also credit Elvis with giving you your first taste of the freedom of rebellion and a sense of identity. How did the idea that if he could get out you could too influence your life from that point on? Do you remember what you thought the very first time you discovered his music?
I’ll quote Bob Dylan here. “When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him was like busting out of jail.” I felt exactly the same.
What do you think you’d be doing right now if you hadn’t become a writer?
I’d be in jail for murdering my boss.
Stephen King has called you the scariest man in America. What did it feel like to learn that? Do you agree with him? Are you a fan of his work?
Big fan. Steve’s the real deal, a natural storyteller with heart, soul and an endlessly crafty mind. When I learned he called me that in Entertainment Weekly I was all smiles, naturally. But that was during the GW Bush administration. I e-mailed him and told him thanks, but that I thought the scariest man in America lived across the Potomac.
What was the first story you ever remember writing?
It was a first-person narrative about Hector being dragged around the walls of Troy by Achilles’ chariot. From Hector’s point of view. Artistic license. Hey, I was just a kid.
What was it like to be befriended by Robert Bloch? Do you think you would have accomplished all you have without his support? What was the most important thing you learned from you friendship with him?
Many things. To apply my ass to a chair. To keep your sense of humor intact at all costs. To try to be generous to young writers. That loving books doesn’t make you a wuss…all kinds of stuff. Bob was a wonderful man. I wrote to him in high school at the behest of my English teacher, a class assignment to write to authors we liked, and he wrote me back. That began a long correspondence that lasted until he died. “Nice” is putting it mildly. It was intoxicating at first, for a teenage kid, and later, invaluable to have that feedback. His work stands because he was unique—the first pulp writer to inject both humor and realism into his stories. And most of them hold up to this day.
What one question that never gets asked do you most wish would be posed to you in an interview?
If you’re so damn smart, why ain’t you rich?
What is one little known thing about you that even those closest to you don’t know?
Exactly how much scar-tissue I have around my heart.
Do you think it is important for people to help each along through this life whenever possible?
Whenever possible, yes. And not just people, but animals too. You’ve got to pick your battles, though, or else you risk wearing yourself too thin, both financially and emotionally. As Stephen King said in his story The Reach, “I believe it is better to plow deep than wide.”
As someone who is truly kind do you think kindness is a highly overlooked virtue in today’s world?
There are people who would argue my kindness but I try. I don’t think it’s an overlooked virtue. I think it’s one of the few that we still hold dear. I’m an old hippie. I still believe, as many people do, that it’s important to spread a little sunshine.
You are also very fond of animals I understand. Is that a long-standing trait?
Sure. When has an animal ever made fun of you? Bullied you? Made you feel unwanted? Ripped you off? Give me a cat or dog over most people any day. They’re a safe, reliable, giving repository for love.
You have worked with Lucky in the past. What is it like to work with him? Why do you enjoy it so much?
Lucky and I are always on the same page. It’s very unusual, I think–especially because he’s young enough to be my kid. Plus he’s just a lot of fun to work with and be around. We share a kind of black sense of humor and a very real love of books and movies. You don’t want to ruin a friendship with disagreements over work, so you have to pick your partners carefully, and both of you have to be okay with the possibility of it not working out. But when it does, as with Lucky and me, you find this kind of rapid-fire inspiration going on, each of you picking the other’s brain for ideas, some ridiculous and some perfect, so that it’s a lot of fun. The product that you get is not quite yours and not quite the other guy’s either, but belongs to some third “writer” that you both invented together.
For those not familiar with the story, can you tell us a little about The Woman? What does it feel like to see your ideas take come to life on film?
The Woman picks up where the film version of Offspring leaves off. She’s the sole survivor of her tribe, badly wounded, and a very strange guy out hunting trips over her one day and decides to bring her home to the wife and family. It’s a major kick to see a bunch of talented people applying their skills and insight to a template you’ve provided with your own imagination. When it succeeds, as I believe The Woman does, it’s thrilling. And even when it only partially succeeds it’s delightful. I’d guess that when it fails utterly it’s distressing as hell. Don’t know. Luckily, I’ve never been there.
The scene at the beginning of The Woman with the wolf and the baby is one of the most comforting scenes I’ve seen. How was that accomplished?
It was a real baby, real time. No CGI at all. Trick was…they “grew up” together. The wolf met the baby first thing, since he belonged to the trainers. A little red sugar water and voila!
You are working with Lucky again on I’m Not Sam. Is there anything you can tell us about that? Any thought yet as to who is going to be in the film version? Is there any chance you might use Sean Spillane again on the soundtrack seeing as he nailed it on The Woman?
At this point I’m Not Sam is two linked novellas, a very twisted love story, to be published by Cemetery Dance this year. We’re still working on the screenplay so it’s too early to say who’ll be involved with it, though Sean certainly nailed the music for The Woman in our estimation. We have a producer interested, but nothing firm yet.
What do you think you would like your famous last words to be if you had one final thing to say to the world?
Ne pas sto kalo. That’s Greek for “go with the good.”