By Daniel Ford
In last month’s “5 Books That Need To Be On Your Radar,” I called author Jordan Harper a “short story artist.” After finishing his debut collection Love and Other Wounds, which threatened to punch my lights out on more than one occasion and is now available to purchase, I’m more convinced than ever that Harper is headed for a special career in fiction.
The television writer/journalist/author answered some of my questions recently about his first writing experience, his early influences, and why he loves short stories.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Jordan Harper: I’m one of those who knew from a very young age. Before I could write, I made books of monster drawings on stapled construction paper. I would dictate the words of the stories to my mother, who would write next to the drawings in magic markers. I also had a line of comic books when I was 10 years old, with heroes like The Human Fly, Discus, and Werewolf. Around the same time, I wrote some adventure stories. I gave the hero the toughest-sounding name I'd ever heard: Max Factor.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
JH: I read the bulk Stephen King’s short stories and novels before I was out of grade school, and I re-read them over and over again. In high school, I worshipped Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve lost the love for drugs, but the love for short, hard Anglo-Saxon words stuck around. My interest in crime came from Ozark stories of outlaws, mixed in with Quentin Tarantino, “Miller’s Crossing,” and gangsta rap in my teenage years. James Ellroy is who I aspire toward.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JH: I like to listen to very loud music while I write. I like weird drone music, heavy metal, Board of Canada-style electronic music. I’ve got a 4,000-song writing playlist on Spotify that I'm happy to share.
I don’t outline for short stories. They’re small enough to keep in your head. Television writing requires outlining. It’s a very structured medium. Now that I’m used to outlining, it seemed natural to use one for the novel. It’s also handy, because I like to write scenes out of order, and that’s only possible with an outline.
DF: You’ve been a movie critic, journalist, a television writer, and now you’re a novelist. Is that a reflection of your personality or were you just following where your passions led?
JH: A lot of my career has felt like luck to me. There have to be alternative universes where I never landed a job as a full-time music writer, or as a television writer. But I’ve always been heading in the direction of more creative freedom. Novels feel like the natural end to that journey.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
JH: It’s just such a pure medium. The language choices and plot choices and character choices are all so unified. There’s no stalling, no asides. Just the single most important moment in a character’s life. It’s also just the form of storytelling that comes most naturally to me. I’d have loved to live in the age of the pulps, cranking out one story after another.
DF: How did the idea for Love and Other Wounds originate?
JH: Well, “Johnny Cash is Dead” is the earliest story written in the collection. I wrote it right after the death of my grandfather, an old Ozarks badass, a prison guard who made knives in his spare time. I wrote the story in memorial to him, and then thought maybe I could get it published. I wound up sending it to ThugLit, a really fantastic crime fiction magazine, which sort of opened my eyes to the possibilities of the genre. So I kept going.
DF: Your debut collection has one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time. “James ran through the high desert, away from his grave.” Did you start the process with that line in mind, or did you refine it in the editing process?
JH: There are a few stories in the collection almost inspired by their own first lines. “Red Hair and Black Leather” and “Lucy in the Pit” both really fell into place once I had the first lines. This line was like that as well. I was out in Agua Dulce, driving through the desert, and I imagined a man running covered in dirt and blood—the high desert conjures these sorts of thoughts easily—and the line popped into my head. I built the story from there.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
JH: I ascribe to what I call the Stan Lee school of storytelling, which is to take larger-than-life shells—folks like white power hit men, bank robbers, or dog pit trainers in my case—and then do my best to make their inner lives as rich and real as possible. So I do try to put myself into all of my characters, even the truly horrible ones. I don’t tend to go for those Freudian just-so backstories for characters. I tend to let their characters be built by the telling of the story.
DF: Your collection has garnered rave reviews from a variety of media outlets. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?
JH: I’m glad the collection has been well-received. My plan now is to keep going telling stories. My next book is a novel called If All Roads Were Blind, which is a Southern California road novel about an 11-year-old girl who is kidnapped by her father because they’ve been marked for death by the Aryan Brotherhood. Sort of Lone Wolf and Cub with desert meth labs and Nazi skinheads. It should be out this time next year.
And since I’m working in television, I’m also looking to develop my own show. I’d really like to do a television show about an armed robbery crew.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
JH: It’s better to read one book 20 times than to read 20 books. It burns useful pathways in your synapses. Notice the kinds of books you choose to re-read. That’s what you ought to be writing.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JH: I’m very good at cutting cards with one hand.