An Interview with John Russo
How did you get your start in writing?
I wrote my very first poem in 4th grade when we had a substitute teacher, who refused to believe that I had written it myself, as opposed to copying it out of a book. She spent an hour or so trying to find the book that I must've copied from, with no success. I think that's when I first realized I must have some writing talent. But, although I was reading Mark Twain and other authors too “advanced” for most grade-school kids, I didn't try my hand at writing short stories till I got to high school. I wrote a couple of short mysteries that probably weren't too bad, but certainly not polished enough to get published. By the time I was graduating from high school, I was also starting to realize that I didn't want to work for anybody other than myself, so I tried to write a mystery novel that might launch my career as an author so I'd never have to go to work in corporation land. But I didn't get very far with that novel because at that point I lacked the necessary skills.
In college at WVU I kept writing poetry and short essays and did not write a novel till I was about to graduate and was doing my student teaching as an English Education major. I completed the novel and submitted to quite a few publishers who rejected it. I still didn't quite have the necessary skills. But I kept at it by writing a second novel that was an improvement over the first one. But it still got a lot of rejections.
My first published novel was a novelization of the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD screenplay by me and George Romero. After that, I kept getting published because during the writing of “NIGHT” some of the key skills opened up to me, as if by magic. Pocket Books published quite a few of my novels, granting me several multi-book contracts — so I just kept going — with MIDNIGHT, THE MAJORETTES, LIMB TO LIMB, THE AWAKENING and on and on. To date I've published about 40 novels and several books on film making that are widely known as “bibles of independent movie making.”
Who were some of your inspirations at the start of your career? Who were your inspirations as your career progressed?
In the beginning I read a lot of Steinbeck, and my second novel was comprised of vignettes written in a similar style to CANNERY ROW or TORTILLA FLAT. I kept on reading mystery novels, too, and I loved the books by Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and John D. McDonald.
Later on, Norman Mailer became my favorite author and I've read all of his books and loved them.
What do you think is essential to a great horror story?
Well, obviously you've got to have genuine suspense, dread and horror, but it has to be driven by a uniquely imaginative plot and characters that the reader can identify with and believe in. The theme comes first, then the characters who help to explore that theme and drive the plot forward.
Do you enjoy interacting with the generations of fans who grew up enjoying your work?
I LOVE interacting with my fans and that's one of the reasons why I appear as a featured guest at fifteen to twenty horror movie conventions each year. I never look down on my fans — or on anybody else, for that matter. Joe Biden has quoted his father as telling him, “Remember, nobody is better than you, but you are not better than anybody else either.” I think that's a good way of expressing it.
Do you prefer writing screenplays or novels?
Screenplays are faster and generally easier to write, but the essential elements are about the same. I love writing screenplays or novels. A famous writer, I forget whom, once said, “I don't enjoy writing. I enjoy having written.” There's a lot of truth in that, because writing is a solitary endeavor that sometimes is TOO solitary.”
What is your writing schedule like? Every day? Do you outline?
I write almost every day. I find that once I'm into it, the ideas keep coming and keep on keeping me awake at night, flooding my brain with ideas. I almost always outline. I come up with a theme that I'd like to explore and that I feel will interest and excite readers or viewers, then I develop characters of the kind that will best help me to explore that theme. Then I start making plot notes based on those characters' motivations, goals and conflicts. Pretty soon a fleshed-out outline emerges, and I can work from that to build a novel or a screenplay.
What direction do you envision the horror genre going in the next few years?
I don't know that it ever goes in a planned-out or even a predictable direction. I try to make all of my work unique. I don't just copy or try to forecast trends.
How can fans get in touch with you?