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.


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.


The Twelve-Fingered Boy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s Web page. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

38 Comments on “The Big Idea: John Hornor Jacobs”

  1. Purchased for my Kindle. This big idea piece was hands down the best I have ever read. I can’t wait to read the book so I can be pissed that the next one isn’t ready yet.

  2. Hmmm, this book bring up the age-old question of which superpower you would like to have. In this specific case it’s between telepathy and telekinesis.

    So, which one is it, John?

  3. Sounds very cool. I may have to check this out.

    Oh, and my kids call my father-in-law Grumps, too. Not because he’s actually cranky, but because he told them to. I think he was joking, but the name stuck.

  4. Scorpius: I don’t know if you’re addressing this question to me or our host, but I’d probably err on the side of caution and choose some sort of telekinetic power because bugfucks (as telekinetics are referred to in the world of TTFB) usually go, um, bugfuck insane. Or evil. And I’ve got an addictive personality, so it’d probably be best if I was a poltergeist. A stonechucker. They have more fun, anyway.

  5. That was a very entertaining big idea post. But really, you had me at polydactylism.
    I have three polydactyl cats, River, Simon and Narcissus.

  6. I ordered this last night based on Dean Fetzer’s recommendation, happy to see this as a Big Idea on Whatever. I can’t wait to read it.

  7. Strugglingwriter: I know you can get a sample of it for your Kindle enable device at Amazon, but I’m not aware of any other excerpts online. I will ask my publisher if there’s any chance of that. Sorry I don’t have a better answer.

  8. Hey, this guy is one year younger than me. And it sounds like his dad and my dad might make decent friends, except my dad is a rancher and doesn’t much like lawyers… Heh. Anyway, I partially developed my book-wormitis from my dad, too, although he was always annoyed at me for enjoying fantasy and not reading enough “real life” stuff. yeah, but he loved the Chronicles of Prydain as much as I did… :-)

    You’re killing me with these features. I end up putting almost every single one on my wishlist…

  9. This sounds great! I just put it on my Amazon wish list for my next paycheck purchase. I actually worked at a Juvenile Justice center and I still miss “my guys”. A lot of the kids there are there because they come from incredibly messed up families. I actually saw three generations from the same family in just my time there. I loved showing the Iron Giant and seeing all those “bad boys” practically crying. Everyone can change, but change is much harder than riding down the same road.

  10. If the book is anywhere near as entertaining as the Big Idea post it’s destined to be a bestseller. I agree with Lisa W. this is the best one I’ve read to date.

    I also developed a love of reading, and Science Fiction in particular, from my father. He gave me one of the John Carter Warlord of Mars books and after I read it, immediately bought me the whole series, in spite of my mother’s concerns that I wouldn’t read them all. The trust he showed in me that day meant a lot to me, and of course I loved the books.

    I’m a bit older than you, John Horner Jacobs, and I dare say my father is, if anything, even crankier than yours, but boy do I love the old guy. Excellent post, can’t wait to read the book.

  11. Billy Quiets: My dad had all of the John Norman of GOR books (I know, not quite in the same league as John Carter) and I would stare at the covers for hours. HOLDING THE BOOK WITH BOTH HANDS.

  12. MWT: So far, I’m batting .500 with Grumps. He liked (or so he said) my first novel, Southern Gods, he hated This Dark Earth (he didn’t even finish it), and he hasn’t started TTFB – I think he’s reading the Harry Potter series again. That or The Last Picture Show cycle of books by Larry McMurtry. I’ll let you know if he says one way or the other.

  13. That sounds great. There is something about the combination of special abilities/powers/etc and some kind of weakness/disadvantage that just works for me. (e.g. Anne McCaffrey’s Ship series, it’s one of my favorites and I go back to it again and again)

    I also got the reading “thing” from my parents. I have very fond memories of Narnia being read at the table after we ate dinner, one chapter at a time.

  14. Dadgmit, Scalzi! Stop highlighting awesome looking books! I’m not made of money myself!

    Seriously though, looks amazing, added to my Goodreads list.

  15. I keep promising myself that I’m going to STOP reading Big Ideas… meanwhile, the pile gets higher.

  16. Six fingers on one hand and belongs in reform school? Inconceivable!
    John, thanks for giving writers a place to talk about their books, I’m certainly going to read this one.

  17. This book has immediately gone on my list for next payday. If it’s half as good as the pitch, I expect it’ll be more than worth the time and cash.

  18. “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.” As I’m anew discovering writers and their work, this reminds of E Bronte’s Wuthering Heights characters, all trapped by circumstance, weather, geography, and, as exemplified by Hindley and young Linton, the addictions and health problems of the author’s family.

  19. You had me at “being in the boat crappie fishing somewhere every weekend” There is nothing like being out on the water catching crappie! Especially catching them BIG slabs on Kentucky Lake. I Love Crappie Fishing Do You?

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