You may wonder how being called the scariest guy in America could be considered a compliment, but Stephen King chose his words wisely when honoring the author of modern genre classics like „Off Season“ or „The Girl next Door“. Jack Ketchum does not necessarily write the type of books you would read to your kids at bedtime and even if you think you are fairly hard-boiled, the four time Bram Stoker Award winner will still have a couple of nail-biting surprises in the bag for you. How well his stories of barbary and moral demise in a civilized world are also suited to the big screen was recently proven (again) by a film that Ketchum conceived together with „May“-director Lucky McKee. Embraced and celebrated by genre audiences around the world, „The Woman“ is well on the way to gaining serious cult status, and the Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences just acquired a copy of the script for their permanent collection. Mr Ketchum was so kind to agree on a little interview and told us about the movie and its accompanying novel, censorship, torture porn, his main goal as a writer and film adaptions in the making.
screen/read: „The Woman“ is to some degree a sequel to your novel „Offspring“ and its adaption, while the initial idea of expanding the central character into her own movie was Lucky McKee’s – a pretty interesting constellation. How did it come about, how did he approach you with the concept and how did you react?
Jack Ketchum: Actually the idea was Andrew Van den Houten’s – the producer and director of „Offspring“. In my script and novel I killed her off, but when Andrew saw how good Pollyanna [McIntosh] was in the role he immediately thought „franchise!“ and kept her alive. Then I saw her and agreed with him completely and a little later, Lucky saw it and felt the same.
screen/read: You decided not only to agree on the movie but also to write the accompanying novel. The approach is quite unusual as the book neither became a novellization of an already existing film nor is it something that already existed long before ist adaption. Why did you want to do it in the first place?
Jack Ketchum: We felt Polly should have her own movie, and Lucky wanted to get into prose, so once we found the central concept, we decided to do both book and movie at the same time.
screen/read: You and Lucky then wrote the novel together. How can we imagine the process and its development? Did you brainstorm ideas that built script and novel? Did either of you write certain parts, or was writing the novel your job while Lucky wrote the script?
Jack Ketchum: We built both script and novel at the same time, going back and forth initially in e-mails and on the phone and then, when we felt we needed a more solid record of where all this was going, we’d instant-mail every day for at least an hour and saved the transcripts. That way we had „bibles“ for both.
screen/read: Very few elements of the novel differ from the film, but we do get the chance to further explore thoughts and emotions of the characters, particularly the Woman herself. Furthermore you went on to explore the story after the story and wrote a lengthy epilogue. What was the motivation behind that? And would you find it an attractive thought to return to the characters again in another book?
Jack Ketchum: The motive for writing „The Cow“, which picks up the story a year later, was getting the damn thing published in the first place. Leisure had bought the rights but thought the book we turned in was too short – we didn’t, we thought it was just fine – but they felt they needed a novella to bulk it out. I’d run into this before. „Quantity over quality“ bullshit. I tossed them a few ideas they didn’t like for one reason or another, and then I got the idea for „The Cow“. Would we pursue the characters further? We’ve talked about it. We decided we’d have to come up with a story and theme as strong and unusual as „The Woman“, though. No Freddy Krugers, thanks.
screen/read: Apart from the fact that this was a special case of an adaption, how do you feel in general about film versions of your material? Is it easy for you to let go and have somebody else re-tell a story you have been living with for a while?
Jack Ketchum: I’ve been very lucky because in each case, the filmmakers involved wanted to stay as close as possible to the source material, the books. In each case I was consulted, asked about revisions and approved the scripts. That’s quite rare. I’ve even had input on casting. And I was on-set for each of them, with „The Girl next Door“ and „The Woman“ for a good bit of the actual shoot. If they get it right, it’s exciting to have so many creative minds set to work doing their variations on something you’ve dreamt up in the first place.
screen/read: You wrote the screenplay for „Offspring“ and you are working on another script right now. Is there a decisive difference between writing fiction for print and for the screen, and would you be interested in writing more scripts in the future? Do you even feel tempted to try on the director’s chair yourself one day just like many of your colleagues did at some point?
Jack Ketchum: I don’t know about the director’s chair. I wouldn’t rule it out. But I’d have to learn a lot more first, be on a lot more shoots. As to scriptwriting, a filmscript normally takes me about a quarter of the time it takes to write a book. They’re very different animals. In a script you’re engaging only two senses, sight and sound. In a book you’re engaging all of them. Scripts are a lot easier. And sure, I’ll do more of them.
screen/read: In general, „The Woman“ meant re-entering to a territory that you walked upon with your very first novel „Off Season“ about three decades ago. Back then you had well-documented trouble getting the book published in its original shape and agreed to a lot of changes. Interestingly enough, they were not exclusively about graphic violence but even more central about a certain need for a happy ending. Did you ever have comparable trouble since then and how much and to what degree do you think times have changed either in cinema or in literature?
Jack Ketchum: Well, nobody asks me to change the endings of my books anymore. If they did I’d go elsewhere. I think there’s some understanding of the responsible depiction of violence both in books and onscreen nowadays. Of course, there’s a lot of irresponsible depictions of violence floating around too. There will always be hacks. But in all, the climate’s better.
screen/read: While many of your books deal with a lot of sometimes excessive violence it would be wrong to call its depiction exploitative, even though it is pretty much a thin line. How do you feel about the rising success of a phenomenon like „torture porn“ in the movies and its effect on mainstream? Does is make it more difficult writing about violence in a, say, emotional, character driven kind of way?
Jack Ketchum: I hate the term „torture porn“. If you want to see torture porn the net’s the place to be, not the movies. It’s there in abundance and a lot of it’s real. All these „Saw“-type movies have their antecedents in the slasher sub-genre of the 70’s and 80’s. The only real difference is that today, the pain of death is doled out over longer periods of time, drawn out in detail. But there’s still the emphasis on body-count and innovative ways to kill. There’s still usually The Last Woman. My only criteria is, is it a good movie or not? Do I care?
screen/read: Compared to other horror films of recent years, „The Woman“ caused a good deal of controversial reactions and discussions, but did not have to face censorship so far. What is your view on this issue, is censorship for art and entertainment something that has no place in a free and liberal society or are there cases where it may be justified?
Jack Ketchum: Oscar Wilde said that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. There’s never a place for censorship, in books or movies. I could wish some books never existed – the Bible for one – but I’d never burn a book that does exist or forbid somebody to read it. Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you?
screen/read: Your books often look at some kind of hidden barbary, rottenness and moral illness behind the façade of bourgeoisie, sometimes based on actual events as in „The Girl next Door“. Do you think that is a phenomenon of a modern western society which is unable to live up to its own premises? Or is it especially an American problem? And from that point of view, would you consider yourself a socio-political writer in a certain way a.k.a. how would you define your role and maybe task as an artist?
Jack Ketchum: I don’t think it’s especially an American problem. There’s plenty of barbarism floating around everywhere and I think a lot of people recognize that – otherwise I probably wouldn’t be published in sixteen or seventeen languages. I think my main goal as a writer is probably to reflect in my stories what I feel is important to me personally, which for me would be the tenderness and preciousness of life – all life – and love. My main task as a writer is to entertain. You’ve got to entertain first, then you can talk to people.
screen/read: So far five of your books have been turned into movies and there has been an attempt by Stuart Gordon to adapt „Ladies’ Night“ which unfortunately never ended up on the screen. Are there other adaptions that were tried but never happened and which ones would you like to see come true?
Jack Ketchum: Hell, I’d like to see ‘em all up there on the Big Silver! I’m a movie fan! There are adaptations of half a dozen or so of my books making the rounds or lying fallow out there – one of them, „The Passenger“, written by me. And since I’d get paid twice for that one, novella and screenplay, that would obviously top my wish-list. I could take that trip to the Galapagos I’ve always wanted to take!
screen/read: Will there be more collaborations with Lucky McKee in the future? And do you think we will ever get to see a film version of „Off Season“ to complete the cannibal trilogy?
Jack Ketchum: I sold the rights to „Off Season“ quite a few years ago, but the gentleman who bought them has never been able to finance the picture. Just recently, though, there’s been interest from a very fine director whose name I think you’d know immediately – but I can’t say who right now. I’d love to see him do it, and we think the financing is there. – Work with Lucky again? You bet I would!
[Thanks so much to Jack Ketchum for taking the time. It was a pleasure.
The German translation of this interview can be found here.]
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
- Jack Ketchum: Official Homepage
- Jack Ketchum: International Homepage
- Jack Ketchum @Twitter
- Jack Ketchum @Facebook
- Jack Ketchum @YouTube