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Thursday, October 8, 2015

31 Days of Horror: Day 8-- Lesley Conner Pays Tribute to J.F. Gonzalez

This is part 3 of 4 where I asked debut authors whose novels I included in my Library Journal column to share their inspiration-- the books or authors which are their favorite scariest reads.

Today we have Lesley Conner, the author of The Weight of Chains with a personal story about her favorite horror author.

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Ask people to name a great horror author and most people will say Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Or possibly one of the classics: Mary Shelley, Ira Levin, Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, or Richard Matheson. Someone who reads horror on a regular basis might mention Brian Keene, Sarah Pinborough, or Gary A. Braunbeck. All great horror authors, to be sure, but none of them would be my answer. Ask me to name a great horror author and I’ll reply, without hesitation, J.F. Gonzalez. 
About ten years ago, I picked up a copy of J.F. Gonzalez’s Clickers (written with Mark Williams) after hearing him mentioned several times on Brian Keene’s blog. I cracked open the cover and starting reading. And I loved every word of it. It was fun! Giant crabs running amok, killing people and destroying everything in their path with wild abandon! What’s not to like? 
I was hooked. 
My J.F. Gonzalez library quickly grew as I read through Fetish, The Beloved, Bully, Survivor, and Shapeshifter in rapid succession. His novels were all different, some leaning toward the supernatural (such as The Beloved and Shapeshifter) and others rooted in real life horrors like snuff films, serial killers, and bullies, but no matter what topic J.F. explored in his plots, he wrote characters who spoke to me, and monsters – both supernatural and the evil within men – that gave me chills long after I’d reached the last page. His books were brutal, honest, and rich with emotion. After my initial binge of every novel of his I could get my hands on, I started putting aside one unread, holding it back so I would have something to dig into on those rotten days where you just need a good book to curl up on the couch with and forget about the day. J.F. Gonzalez became – and still is – my comfort read.
I met J.F. at a convention less than a year after I discovered his books. I was eight months pregnant, incredibly excited to meet the man who had quickly become my favorite author, and a little nervous… Okay, a lot nervous. I couldn’t help but wonder what type of person could imagine the horrific acts that played out in his novels. 
What I discovered was one of the nicest, sweetest men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Actually, I’m pretty sure I startled him that first time we met with my overzealous enthusiasm for him and his books. (I’m sure the fact that I was balancing a HUGE stack of books for him to sign on my enormous belly didn’t help matters.)
After meeting J.F., my love affair with his writing didn’t change, but my relationship with him did. He was no longer only my favorite author. He became my writing mentor, and even more important than that, he became my friend. J.F. Gonzalez taught me about the business side of writing: how to write a query letter, who to submit to, what to look for in a contract. When he read a story I’d written called “The Weight of Chains,” he told me that I was trying to shove too much into a short story; the story I was trying to write needed to be a novel. 
I took J.F.’s words to heart and started reworking this dark alternative history horror story I’d written based off the crimes of a nobleman named Gilles de Rais. Honestly, I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t know how to write a novel. But when your favorite author tells you to write one, you do. 
There were a lot of details that I needed to sort out before I delved too far into the writing process. Questions about dialogue, how true to history I was going to stay, whether or not I wanted to use contractions. But the biggest issue I needed to solve was how graphic was I going to let my scenes get. If you’ve read much about the real Gilles de Rais, then you know he was accused of being a vicious, horrid man who committed atrocious acts against the most innocent members of his community. To help me decide how to deal with the violence that would undoubtedly occur in my novel, I went back and reread J.F. Gonzalez’s novel Survivor. Survivor is the story of woman who is kidnapped with the intentions of being used in a snuff film and what she is willing to do in order to survive. To call it brutal is an understatement. It is the one novel that truly terrified me. The first time I read it I kept thinking that J.F. would down play what was happening, cut away from the scene, somehow soften the horrors, but he didn’t. Not once. He forced his reader to stare every despicable act straight in the face, to take it in for what it was, blood, guts, and all. I decided this is what I needed to do in my novel.
Many hours of research, many notes cards outlining each scene, and many Chinese crispy beef dinners later, The Weight of Chains was finished. In August, 2014, I sent J.F. an email telling him. He replied, “Yes, it is,” and I realized that the novel had been finished for a long time and he’d known it. He’d been waiting for me to be ready to admit that it was time to stop revising and move on to submitting. We discussed publishing options: did I want to look for an agent, target small press publishers, or go the self-publishing route. After a few emails back and forth, I decided to submit my novel to Sinister Grin Press. J.F. was currently working on a few projects with them and he felt they would be a good fit for my little horror novel. 
In the fall of 2014, J.F. was diagnosed with cancer. It tore through him with remarkable speed. The day after he passed away, I found out that Sinister Grin had accepted my novel The Weight of Chains. At that moment I didn’t know if I should be happy or sad. The thing I’d wanted more than anything had finally come true, but the man who had coached me through it, who had given me the confidence to not only write those first words, but also to not back away from the horrors within them was gone. He wasn’t there to celebrate with me. He wasn’t there to thank. 
So if you ask me to name a great horror author, I will reply J.F. Gonzalez. Not only because he was an amazing writer, but because for me he was much, much more and I can think of no better way of honoring his memory than by grabbing one of his books and reading. 
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Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent and much-deserved tribute. I never got to meet Mr. Gonzalez in person but I did have a few very interesting interactions with him on Twitter, about old-school Victorian horror writers and how mystifying it is that people aren't reading Karl Edward Wagner as much as they should. Even in those brief exchanges his extensive knowledge, his genuineness, and his generosity came through. I was just an unknown fan and he was treating me like a peer - he wasn't rushing me off and seemed as happy to find someone who knew of those authors as I was. I've had a lot of nice interactions with big-name horror authors but often feel like they're just being nice (and I appreciate them for it, because I'm conscious of how many people they have to deal with, and I never hold it against them if they don't reply - I'd rather they be writing more books than answering one of my goofy comments, anyway :) ), but Mr. Gonzalez didn't come across as just "being" nice for P.R. or whatever -- he WAS nice. And, man, was he smart. It's hard to find people who still know of the authors he discussed with me.

    He is missed, and I'm glad we have so much of his writing, and appreciate Brian Keen's efforts at releasing the rest. Like Karl Edward Wagner, J.F. Gonzalez should remain on the reading lists of future generations. He was unique, and important.

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  2. Good job, Lesley. He would have been proud of you. Hell, he *was* proud of you.

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