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Sad Horror & Blood, Blood Blood
An author interview with Moss Covered Claws author Jonah Barrett
It’s true, we love chatting with Jonah Barrett. There’s something about their cheeky humor and blatant honestly that keeps us leaning in to learn more about their writing, filmmaking, and multiverses of monsters and ghouls. I sat down with Jonah just after Moss Covered Claws, their debut short story collection, hit shelves around the Pacific Northwest last month (don’t worry, they’re in my COVID bubble!). Here’s what Jonah had to say about writing books and making art:
Q: What was one of the most unexpected things you learned about yourself while writing this book?
Jonah Barrett (JB): The biggest thing I had to learn was that I was good enough to write a collection on my own. I still have imposter syndrome about this. Like holy fuck, Jonah. You have a collection of short stories? And not a small collection either. Jesus on a cracker what have you done? Logically it wasn’t unexpected but emotionally it was still pretty shocking.
Another thing I learned was: I write about blood a lot more than I thought I did. I’m diabetic, and I’ve been pricking my fingers and drawing blood my entire life, so the plasma’s always just sorta been in the background. When I was going through and making content warnings for each story, blood came up the most. I never thought I was so fixated on blood, but apparently it’s my subconscious’ favorite topic.
Q: What advice would you give young writers who are thinking about publishing their first book?
JB: Independent is the way to go. As cool as it’d be to get picked up by the big five or whatever, small presses are gaining popularity and accessibility everywhere. Just like filmmaking, the tools to create amazing art are now in everyone’s hands. You get more creative freedom and flexibility when it’s just you and a small team of dedicated publishers. Indie publishers are kinda the lifeblood of the literary world right now (there I go with blood again). They’re more interested in works that deviate from the norm and try new and exciting things.
Also, and this is just a personal preference, but don’t work with Amazon. They’re ruining the book world (and the real world to boot), and they can go die in a goddamn fire. Fuck Amazon.
Q: You create so many things – creative writing, movies, newspaper articles – how did you decide what to include in this book and what to nix?
JB: I think this is why having a great editor on your side can be a big help. Christina Butcher really helped me with slimming these stories down—originally there were going to be thirteen. We got rid of the poetry and experimental pieces pretty fast. She also helped me notice themes that held the whole collection together, stuff that I never really gave any thought to. One of those themes was depression. All my characters seem to have some kind of depression, because spoiler alert: that’s what I have!
Q: Is your creation process for writing a story similar/different to filmmaking? How so?
JB: The first part of both processes is pretty similar for me to be honest. Both writing a first draft for a story and writing a first draft for a screenplay have the same highs and lows of, well… writing. For screenplays though I maybe only go through one or two revisions before I start heading into the rest of the pre-production stage. With filmmaking it’s like you go through all the trouble of writing and you’re maybe like, 1/5 of the way finished with the project as a whole. For writing, the writing is the finished medium, so that involves much heavier editing and revising. You can focus more heavily on THE CRAFT.
The way I usually start a story is coming up with the creature that I want to feature in it. What does that creature represent? How do people come across it? What’s going through their minds as they encounter it? And then I go from there.
Q: Has being a bookseller changed how you look at/interact with books?
JB: Books are just objects. Unless they are hand-made or super rare or old, they are always replaceable. When I was just a reader I used to think of books as these sacred things that must be cared for and coddled. But it’s not the books that are sacred; it’s the writing within them. I like books now that have been around the block and have worn covers and smooth edges. Books are wonderful things that can easily be created or destroyed.
From a technical standpoint, it was awesome learning how to make a book as we went along. I could bring things I learned from bookselling to the table, and vice versa. I always hated blurbs and endorsements on books, I just wanted to read the freakin’ synopsis on the back. But you know who the endorsements are really for? Booksellers. We’re trying to find recognizable names that we know our customers love. That blew my mind when I learned that.
Q: There’s a lot of, er…… gore in these stories. They’re kind of serious and dark. Was it hard working on this book during dark and scary pandemic times (when, as some believe, we need all the light we can get)?
JB: I don’t like pretending I’m “light” when I’m so obviously in a dark place. I remember during the first few weeks of quarantine I tried so hard to write a comedic screenplay with that mindset of “we need light,” and it just wasn’t coming out. The meat and potatoes were really in the darker things I started to scribble down, and I think it’s a kind of catharsis really. For a long time our society has taught us to suppress our darkness, to not let ourselves cry when we need to and put a smile on instead. It’s healing for me to read dark stories; it’s like flexing a muscle we haven’t been allowed to use most of our lives. I really think you need both light and dark to find balance.
This might sound weird, but I don’t consider Moss Covered Claws to be a “grim” collection. Sure, I turned the dark elements up pretty high in some cases, but the stories don’t revel in the muck, so to speak. You know what I mean, right? Sometimes I read horror stories and it’s so obvious the author is writing these horrific scenes in delight. I didn’t necessarily enjoy writing the fucked up things in my stories. (Two exceptions I can think of are the nazi-punching scene, and anything the demon in “Stripes”—her name is Jerusha btw—says or does.) I don’t actually like sick, twisted things. Well I mean I do but I also don’t. I think the true horror for these types of scenes is how sad or tragic they are. There we go, that’s the genre I write in. “Sad horror.”
Q: How did it feel to have your first book drop into the hands of almost everyone you know (and folx you don’t know, too!)?
JB: I was pretty nervous, actually. I felt like there are parts of myself that I’ve kept hidden from people that rear their ugly heads in this collection. I was scared to death at what my mom would think. I was scared at all the assumptions people might make about me. I was scared the violent elements would overshadow the emotional aspects of love and melancholy, the parts I really cared about most when writing these stories.
Q: Do you have a favorite story from the collection, or a least favorite story? What are they???
JB: Right now I am really, really proud of “Warmonger,” which is kind of a shame because it has the least amount of monsters. I think it captures my generation’s frustration and is about something bigger than my usual themes of “Jonah is sad.” I’m trying to dip my toes further into “high fantasy” as well, and I’m exploring this one alternate world in “Warmonger” and “Snow Thing” where I can talk about issues in my own world without getting bogged down in the hyper-details that I’m too dumb to know.
My favorite though is “Boggy.” It’s the most autobiographical of my stories, since I grew up in that very bog. I didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was little, I had an imaginary monster, and Boggy was that monster. If you want to get really dorky, he is a prehistoric throwback-cryptid called the Tanystropheous, and he lives in my bog on a diet of frogs and peat. I literally convinced myself this creature existed when I was little, so it was a joy to bring him back into my life for this story. I also really love Anita, and plan to come back to her at some point in the future.
Least favorite? Probably the first piece, “Acts of Violence.” It’s based off an Alan Watts talk about how we are all the universe since we make up the universe, but I don’t know if I conveyed that in the way I wanted in the story. It also was just awful reliving my Catholic school days on the playground. Not that we beat anyone up for being gay, but there was a lot of homophobia (and bullying) in hopes of covering up our own questioning identities. I just hate revisiting that dark part of my life… so naturally I had to write about it.
As a whole, my favorite thing about the collection is how the stories all take place in the same multiverse. I didn’t plan it like that, but some characters popped up in multiple stories, and I just followed along. So if you step back it’s like this web where everything is connected. That was my favorite part of making this collection, going back in and adding little fun Easter eggs everywhere. Even the stories that take place in my high fantasy world are a part of this web. It’s never outright stated, but in “The Way Things Were” the concept of string theory and multiple timelines and worlds is introduced. Maybe the Dallas you meet in one story isn’t the same version of Dal you meet in the next. It’s wild and messy, and I like it that way.
About the Author
Jonah Barrett is a queer filmmaker, writer, and multimedia artist. Their debut book, Moss Covered Claws, was released in March 2021. They have also been published in the Forest Avenue Press collections Dispatches From Anarres and City of Weird. Jonah has directed and written three feature films, a dozen-ish short films, and four web series—with their film work being presented at the Olympia Film Society, Northwest Film Forum, and Trans Stellar Film Festival. They usually find themself in old haunted buildings or overgrown swamps.