An Interview With
J. L. CORBETT
J.L. Corbett is the editor of Idle Ink, an online magazine featuring curious fiction, poetry, articles and more. Her short stories have been featured in STORGY Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Schlock! Webzine, MoonPark Review and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much.
Check out his work before you get to know the man?
Often it is in our childhood days that we realize what we’d like to do when we grow up. Stories are now an essential part of your life. When was the first time you fell in awe with a story, and consequently, the art of storytelling?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the very first story that I fell in love with, but I remember the first time that I realised that stories could be written by anybody. As a child, I was nosing around in our attic one day when I stumbled upon a dusty stack of print-outs at the bottom of a box of sentimental items. As I read the first few sentences, I was amazed to find that it was a story starring my older brother as the protagonist. I sat in the attic and read the entire thing, stunned that I had found a story written about somebody that I knew, about my brother no less. Later that day, I asked my dad where the story had come from. He told me it had been written by my uncle many years earlier. Suddenly, I realised that stories didn’t arrive in the world ready-made, they were created, and if my uncle could create one, perhaps I could do it too.
That is so amazing! I’m curious what the story was about. I wish I had a uncle like that.
Can you recall the very first story you wrote? When was this? What was it about?
Not long after finding my uncle’s story, I set about writing a best-seller. I can’t remember the plot or the title (it may not have even had one, I’ve always struggled with titles), but I know it was written in a notebook with neon blue pages, it was accompanied by lots of wobbly illustrations and it featured an evil shark. I was convinced the book would be a hit, and I looked forward to my teacher reading it to the class during story time.
Wow! Do you still have that notebook? I’m sure your teacher would have been very proud.
What inspires you to write?
I feel that I have something to say. As I’m unable to articulate exactly what that is (and because I have an overactive imagination), I filter my thoughts through stories. Although my stories are kind of zany, if you squint hard enough, you’ll find my thoughts on family, religion, mental health and lots of other stuff mingled in with the aliens and monsters.
You’re a creator of many different beautiful stories. For an author, stories are like kids, and it’s impossible to pick a favorite. But will you still try?
I really like “A Study in Torment”, which was published a few years ago in The Cabinet of Heed, one of my favourite lit mags. It’s a bizarre period piece about a crochety academic who slowly realizes that he is sharing an office with an automaton and descends into madness when nobody believes him. It was inspired by the idea that people used to be much more susceptible to visual deception before special effects in film and television became as widespread and sophisticated as they are today. It was really fun to write.
I didn’t know that! Sounds like a fun story.
Which authors do you look up to? Whose works do you enjoy the most? Your favourite quote?
I admire a lot of writers. I love pretty much everything that Neil Gaiman produces, especially his Sandman comics – the worldbuilding alone is breath-taking. If I could possess even a tenth of his skill, I could die happy. I also enjoy Ted Chiang’s short stories.
If we’re talking about a writer who had a real, quantifiable impact on me, it would have to be Jacqueline Wilson. As a kid her books inspired me, so much so that I wrote her a letter asking if she knew of any publishers that would work with an eight-year-old. Surprisingly, she took the time to respond. Sadly, she wasn’t able to hook me up with any publishers, but she did give me a great piece of advice: keep a diary and write in it daily, even if you have nothing to say. I went on to write in my diary every single day until I was about seventeen years old and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was sharpening my written voice. I’ll always be thankful for the advice she gave me at such a formative age.
Seems like you had an awesome childhood, at least concerning writing. I had written a fan letter to one of my favourites. Never got a reply. And much later I found out that the address was fake. Lol.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you come up with ideas spontaneously or you lay some groundwork before you actually start writing?
I firmly believe that you need both in order to produce a great story. The ideas come spontaneously, but I take my time in developing them and plotting the story itself. Things can get very messy otherwise.
What are the steps in your creative process? How many drafts do you go through until you’re satisfied with the end result?
I keep it pretty simple. When I get an idea, I don’t start writing straight away. I let the idea percolate a little. This way, I can tell if it’s interesting enough to develop.
If it’s sufficiently interesting, I block out the main plot points. For longer projects I block out a couple of subplots and weave these blocks in with the main plot (it’s always colour-coded in Excel for maximum organization). I usually work with a four-act structure (for the book I’m working on the at the moment, it’s a variation of the classic Hero’s Journey) to keep the pacing strong.
Once I’ve got the plot blocked out, I write a rough plan for each block, and these become the chapters.
Next, I work through the plan, fleshing it out into a narrative. This is my first draft, and it’s usually heinous. Once the whole book has been drafted, I go back to the beginning and rewrite the entire thing. This is where I get fancy with the writing, add in character details, callbacks, foreshadowing, all the small details that really make a book.
When it’s finally completed, I have a stiff drink and a lie down.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Eating lots of salty snacks.
In a week, how many hours do you usually write? What’s your secret to keep writing regularly? Do you prefer writing in the wee hours of morning, or after midnight?
Let’s be real: I have a full-time day job which requires a lot of concentration, so I’m not writing in the wee hours or even staying awake past midnight.
I try not to be too harsh on myself: I’m only human, and I have a busy life outside of writing. I set myself the goal of writing for at least an hour every evening during the week, and more on weekends. Sometimes I exceed that goal, but sometimes I’m too exhausted to write anything. That’s life.
Yeah, balancing writing with work is hard. But seems like you do maintain a good routine. That’s terrific.
Is your family supportive about your creative endeavors? Who is your go to buddy when something goes wrong and you need a shoulder? Do you belong to any awesome writer circles?
I never really got into the whole writer circle thing, but I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by creative people.
My husband is a pretty awesome artist (@DazzDraws on Twitter) and he gives me a lot of help with the visual aspects of my stories – things like making spaceships look cool whilst still being functional and drawing concept art for some of my alien characters.
A close friend of mine is heavily into film, and quite often we’ll dissect films or bounce ideas off one another. It’s surprisingly helpful to discuss storytelling through the lens of filmmaking and mediums other than books. It’s definitely opened up my creativity as a writer.
I’m envious. Haha. But seriously that’s an awesome team.
How do you spend your free time? What are your hobbies? Do you watch TV shows or listen to music? Name your favourites!
My taste in music is pretty eclectic. I listen to a lot of soundtracks from musicals (despite not having actually seen many on the stage), and my favourites include The Heathers, Hamilton, and Be More Chill. Before lockdown, I used to go to local rock gigs semi-regularly.
At this time of year, my main hobby is sitting in the garden with a gin, listening to podcasts and enjoying the sunshine (my favourites include Cult Liter by Spencer Henry, NPR’s Invisibilia and Fake Doctors, Real Friends by Zach Braff and Donald Faison).
Is there anything about you—strange likings or personality quirks—that no one knows yet? Would you like to share them?
Sometimes I’ll talk to my husband via song or slam poetry. He likes it, I think.
That’s so cute!
What are your proudest and most embarrassing moments? Be honest : )
I’ve had a lot of proud moments (especially in recent years) so I’ll pick one at random. When my husband and I were in Tenerife earlier this year, we woke up early one morning and rode a moped up to the top of El Teide, a huge volcano whose apex disappears into the clouds. It was one of the best experiences of my life; the views were incredible and because it was so early in the morning, we were the only people there.
My proud moment came when we parked up the moped and decided to climb to the top of a gentle slope in order to keep warm (the sun hadn’t fully risen yet). Because we were so high up, the air was incredibly thin, and we were breathless within seconds. It felt like we were on Mars, running in slow motion, weighed down by space suits in a deserted rocky wasteland, pushing towards an impossible goal. But we persisted, we made it to the top, and then we collapsed.
I think I’ve blocked out a lot of my embarrassing moments. When we were filming a music video for my husband’s band last year, I got so nervous about my acting abilities that I drank too much Jägermeister, blacked out and missed my train to London the next morning. That was embarrassing.
Oops. But I guess that happens with everyone. What doesn’t happen with everyone is that epic volcano climbing! Whoa, I was kidding back then but now I’m really jealous. It must have felt so very amazing! And thank you for narrating it so beautifully.
What are your big writing goals?
Three of my favourite things! Let me know when it comes out.
At the moment, I’m working on my first full-length novel. It’s about friendship, aliens and time-travel, and I’d really like to get it published.
Do you have any dreams that go beyond the field of writing?
All of my goals revolve around storytelling. I run an online literary magazine called Idle Ink which is constantly growing, and I’d love to start printing physical issues in the future, or perhaps special edition anthologies.
I’m also working on a short film at the moment. I’m incredibly excited about it but it’s completely new territory, so I’m learning as I’m going and hoping for the best.
Recently I’ve been thinking about venturing into creative non-fiction, but that might be a dangerous door to open!
No, don’t be scared of dangerous doors. You climbed a volcano, you can do everything : )
Now the most important question: are you a foodie? What sort of food do you love?
I wish I was a foodie, but I’m not sophisticated enough. I recently discovered Taco Bell, and it’s all I can think about most days.
You’re a terrific writer. What writing tips would you like to give to upcoming writers? What is the most important rule of fiction? What makes a story brilliant?
Upcoming writers: don’t be afraid of writing terrible stories. Not everything you produce needs to be up to publication standard, so mess about with new ideas and writing techniques. If it works, fantastic! If it doesn’t, who cares?
When you’re sending out submissions, don’t get freaked out by the process. I often read submissions for Idle Ink in my pyjamas, and I’m sure other editors do too. We’re all just normal people who love a good story.
Don’t get hung up on rejections. We all get them. It doesn’t mean we’re crappy writers, it means that our work isn’t suited to a particular magazine/publisher. Don’t tether your self-worth to your craft.
Remember why you started writing. We’re all guilty of getting caught up in the “business” side of writing, and it helps to remember the reason you started this: to tell great stories.
This is so true.
Every writer is a thinker. What are your ideas about the current picture of the world?
I think the world is in flux at the moment, we all need to look out for each another.
Let’s now talk about your TGVB story. Tell us what it’s about. How did the idea come to you?
“Telling Ghost Stories in the Dark” is about the realisation that parents are human like the rest of us; they often make well-intentioned mistakes, but they come through for their children.
I originally tried to write this story a few years ago for a publisher that was looking for stories about monsters terrorising people using electricity. The brief was ridiculously specific, and I couldn’t make it work. The unfinished story lurked on my hard drive for at least a year before I looked at it again, and with fresh eyes I was able to revamp it into a completely different story. It turned out to be very dark in an unexpected way, but I’m quite proud of it.
Tell us about your upcoming projects!
I’ve always got short stories on the go. I’m also working on my novel and I hope to start shooting my short film soon.
I’ve also got a concept for a madcap Jurassic Park/Godzilla crossover film, but I don’t think the world is quite ready for that yet.
Go for it! 2020 has surely broadened our minds. Lol
Thank you so much for the terrific interview! I’m so glad you could give us some of your time. I had fun doing this interview, and I hope you did too. All the best for your upcoming projects!