As young man growing up in my neighborhood, I remember certain times in my life when I was scared so deeply that is froze me on every level. Stories that echo that fright and a moment frozen in a sensation that immerses you in the dark is Blood in the Woods, written by J.P. Willie. Willie tells the coming of age story of friends, a small town, insidious acts of evil and the events that surrounded them all. Willie took some time out during the promotional tour for Blood in the Woods to talk friendship, the idea of evil, impact as an author and tone of the writing with Jay Kay and the Horror News Network.
Jay Kay: Being a debut author, how has the process of creating Blood in the Woods affected you looking in retrospect?
J.P. Willie: It was a very long process to be honest. I finished the novel in December of 2009 and it finally reached publication in December of 2016. It’s extremely hard to get picked up by a publisher as a first- time author, damned near impossible really, because self-publishing is so easy and there’s so many books out there that are great. So, it’s really competitive and big publishers rather not take the risk. I learned a lot about the literary world, so in retrospect, the six-year journey was very educational and informative.
JK: Blood in the Woods is a very dark and realistic coming of age story. What influenced this novel and how much of this story is based on personal experience?
JPW: My personal experiences with the occult and the true life crimes committed at the Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, is what truly influenced the darkest parts of the novel. I experienced many strange things as a young boy growing up in Baptist, Louisiana, such as animals ritualistically slaughtered in the woods and the local Christian Academy down from my house being vandalized on a monthly basis with pentagrams and threats towards Christians. As an adult, when I found out about the atrocities committed within the church in 2006, it made me wonder if I was ever safe growing up out there. I was thankful to be alive.
JK: The friendship dynamic of this book has such a reality between Jody, Justin, Jack and more of intimacy level with Angela. It is the core of this book that runs a span of over three decades. Can you talk about how you approached these relationships and what they meant to the story? How important was creating the characters and relationships with Jody’s family?
JPW: The relationships were easy to establish and write about because they were real. Justin, Jack and I, in real life, were very close friends so it was fun writing about our adventures and putting the fictitious twist on them to keep readers engaged. I didn’t just want the novel to be terrifying, I also wanted it to be nostalgic and make readers remember what it felt like to be young again.
JK: What makes occult, satanic, devil worship and black magic such fuel for great horror? How much did Louisiana play into that?
JPW: The occult makes for great horror because it’s surrounded by mystery. One of my favorite movies growing up as a kid was Race with the Devil which starred Peter Fonda. If you’re not familiar with the film, go watch. For me, ever since watching that film, the occult has always peeked my interest and I’ve always associated it with darkness, as most people do. As for Louisiana, it’s known for darkness and the macabre. Voodoo, witchcraft, cults, you name it, we got it. However, that is not to say it isn’t elsewhere, because it is.
JK: Your timeline starts in 1975 with the first heinous event that triggers the events to come. You end in 2008 as Jody finds closure and perspective. However, the bulk of the story takes place in the very late 80’s through 1993 on Rhine Road with all points connecting. What was the thinking on the timeline for Blood in the Woods? Why did it span that long and was the 2008 return to Rhine the original closure you needed for this book?
JPW: My Uncle Jerry actually ran into a cult out in the woods in the ‘70s and told everyone about it. We even discussed it back during Thanksgiving of 2012 just for shits and giggles. But, my Uncle never knew about the terrifying experiences I had growing up on the same street he grew up on, so that’s why I wanted to connect the timelines as I did. It shows that evil has always been there, and in reality, maybe it’s still out there. As for the story ending in 2008, that’s exactly how I planned it. I wanted Blood in the Woods to feel like the “Forest Gump” of horror; a man telling his story in the present about his past and ending in the present. It worked perfectly.
JK: What was it like as an author to cultivate and return to the middle school age for these characters? What challenges did you face in finding the right details, emotions, dialogue and events as a part of the coming age aspect for the Rhine Road Boys? What made the dialogue so fitting?
JPW: The hit show Stranger Things captured middle schoolers perfectly, but the story is on the light side of darkness concerning the youths in my opinion. Even though Blood in the Woods was finished in 2009, I always wanted the story to be extremely dark and capture the coming-of-age middle school years because it’s probably the most social and magical time of your life. I knew as a storyteller I had to focus on younger children to be able to pull readers out of their comfort zones when dealing with the dark content of the novel. The dialogue came easy, honestly, and I really didn’t face any challenges. If you close our eyes I’m sure you can remember many conversations you had with your friends. All I had to do was capture them on paper. To me, as a reader, dialogue is probably the most important part of the story. You can be as descriptive as you want, but if your characters aren’t relatable and entertaining, I think the story suffers.
JK: What was the process of building tension in a story that is more of a coming of age piece rather than a straight horror story?
JPW: I wanted it to be the perfect blend of horror and coming-of-age. Stand By Me is one of my favorite movies and Stephen King’s original story is one of my favorites as well, but I wanted to tell a more disturbing tale; a story about the unbreakable bond of friendship, family, first loves and survival. I asked myself, “At what point is there a true loss of innocence within a child?” And when I had my answer, it was an extreme answer.
JK: Talk about handling the exploitative aspects like violence, extreme sexuality and gore where it is not overkill or excessive but impacts and fits the story? How did you handle writing rape and children in danger?
JPW: As a writer, this was probably the hardest thing for me to write. I had to take many smoke breaks while writing parts of the story, but I knew it had to be done, but not overdone. I wanted to shock readers but not make it seem as if I was trying really hard to scare them. I wanted it to be natural and come out of nowhere. As some people know, the novel doesn’t pull any punches. It’s gut-wrenching and disturbing, but so is the world we live in. I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to terrify you, because it terrified me.
JK: What makes a great villain that creates fear for the characters as well as the reader? Why go with three antagonists for this story?
JPW: Where there is dark, there is light. Villains, to me, are so fun to write. It’s our inner crazy coming out through a fictitious tale and onto paper. They’re our darkest fears come to life. The villains in Blood in the Woods are disgusting and the darkest of what humanity has to offer. I wanted three of them (even though there is technically four) because one films like House of a 1000 Corpses and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed the world how sick and twisted a group of wicked individuals can be when they’re together. I needed that for Blood in the Woods. The boys needed to face the worst society had to offer to truly survive, or die trying.
JK: Where can we find Blood in the Woods and where can we find more?
JPW: Blood in the Woods is available online at Amazon Kindle, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. Stay tuned for more exciting news regarding the novel and future film by following J.P. Willie on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.