The Big Idea: John Hornor Jacobs
Normally, when someone approaches a writer with the words “I have a great idea for a book!” the writer reels back in exasperation and fear. But in the case of John Hornor Jacobs, there was this one guy he just had to listen to. Who was this guy and how does he relate to Jacobs’ latest novel The Twelve-Fingered Boy? Here he is to tell you all about it.
JOHN HORNOR JACOBS:
I got the idea for The Twelve-Fingered Boy from my father. But don’t tell him that.
My dad’s a funny guy. He’s seventy-four and seriously cranky. My kids adore him but call him Grumps.
He’s a man of contradictions. When I was a kid, he introduced me to The Illiad and The Oddyssey, Frankenstein and Dracula, The Hobbit and Dune, possibly to get me to stop pestering him but really because of a deep-seated love of all things fantastic. When I was sick, he brought me The Savage Sword of Conan and Batman comics and ginger ale. He told me once, “You can have any book you want, I’ll buy it.” Two weeks later he brought me my first library card, saying, “I’m not made of money, son.”
But he could (and still can) be a tremendous dick. He made me a bookworm but then he forced me to do so many things that directly contradicted that bookworm nature. From eight to thirteen years old, I was in some boat every weekend, somewhere in Arkansas, Mississippi, or Louisiana, fishing for bass, or crappie, or gigging frogs, or freezing my balls off shooting ducks, or ass-high in scrub-brush hunting turkey. I had to play football because, goddamn it, no son of John Jacobs was not going to play football. (Yes, we have the same name…and yes, I have heard “John Jacobs Jingle Heimer Schmidt” about 17,235 times, give or take. That is why HORNOR is in there.)
He’d often make me arm-wrestle him. Or he’d ask if we needed to get some boxing gloves. He stopped asking that question when I got older and said, Yes, yes we do.
Eventually, there was a break. Bet you saw that coming. Nothing dramatic—no tearing of hair, no rending of clothes. No fistfight. (Well, not really.) But at a certain point, it became obvious I was tired of being his hunting and fishing companion and wanted to do whatever the hell fourteen-year-old boys did in 1985. Play Dungeons & Dragons and talk about girls and pick at our acne and masturbate furiously in the privacy of our bedrooms. Stuff like that.
But there was this other side to him. The one that loved The Lord of the Rings. He gave me that, and I’ll always be grateful.
As I’ve aged, my dad and I have become closer. Every Monday night, my daughters and I go over to my folks’ house and have pizza. Mom and Dad are well-to-do (Grumps was a fairly successful Southern lawyer, owning TWO seer-sucker suits) so we drink good wine and sit in their immaculate kitchen and catch up.
Invariably, a conversation like this will occur:
GRUMPS: Son, you’re the writer. You know what would make one helluva book?
ME: No, what?
GRUMPS: A vampire that works for the government. He’s old and bored so he offers his services to his country. And, of course, he’s the most badass hombre they’ve got, like a one-man swat team. Shit, that’d be a good book. You should write that!
ME: I think that one has already been written. It’s called The President’s Vampire. It’s pretty good.
GRUMPS: Well, shit on a shingle. I got another one. Was thinking about it when I was reading Harry Potter the other day—
ME: You’re reading Harry Potter again? How many times is that?
GRUMPS: Goddam it, I’m in my seventies. I’m not gonna waste my time reading crap. I want to read the Harry Potter series again before I die. [shakes his head, sour look crosses his face] That woman.
ME: Don’t start on Rowling again.
GRUMPS: I could die tomorrow! There’s so many more damned adventures she could tell in that world!
ME: [Clearing throat] What was your idea?
GRUMPS: Okay, picture this. There’s a family graveyard up in the Ozarks. The government’s putting an interstate right smack-dab through the graveyard. Imminent domain. So when the family begins to move the graveyard, they discover Grandma and Grandpa aren’t totally dead. They’re witches!
ME: That’s a little Harry Potter-ish. Might be something in it, but I’m working on this Lovecraft meets Southern gothic thing now—
GRUMPS: Lovecraft? Southern gothic? Nobody gives a shit about Southern gothic.
ME: Well, I do.
GRUMPS: People want more stories about witches and wizards, goddamn it. And one of the kids, a descendant of these witches, he’s got the power to shove things away from himself.
ME: Shove things away from himself? That’s kinda puny.
GRUMPS: You’re a writer? He does it when he’s angry. Use your damned imagination. Think of the possibilities!
And so I did. I thought out some of the possibilities. I scuttled the witch idea (though I reserve the right to return to it, just FYI) and thought about this explosive ability more as a superpower and pondered what might give someone that power. Genetics and a catalyst, maybe? I began searching the web for real human mutations. I’d been aware of polydactylism and the title sort of popped out at me in one of those ah-ha! Moments. Like in all my books, I mashed up many of the things I was interested in at the time: juvenile detention (and, snort, rehabilitation), prison escape stories, superheroes, physical and emotional abuse and how it tends to be passed on, generation to generation. “Man hands misery onto man. It deepens like the coastal shelf…” the old poem goes.
I realized I wanted to tell a superhero story, but without the superheroes. Just kids trying to figure out what to do in a morally ambiguous world with supernatural—or extranatural—abilities.
Thematically, I was interested in exploring the cages we all live in, both figuratively and literally. My protagonists are physically caged, both in space and in their own bodies. They’re isolated and alone—isolated by the knowledge of their own differences. What kind of bonds form in juvenile detention? What does having a real obvious physical “deformity” in a juvenile male society mean? What kind of coping mechanisms will boys develop to survive in a world poised to grind them up?
A constant word I use in this novel is incarcerado, which takes on a larger meaning as the boys learn more about their extranatural abilities.
In the end, I wanted to tell an adventure story my dad might enjoy. It’s weird, but he’s always my first audience.
Too bad he’s so cranky.