I am so excited to have new author and veteran journalist, John Coon, on my blog today! John agreed to an interview about his debut horror novel, Pandora Reborn (which frankly, looks crazy scary, so you should check it out). So, without further ado …
SHARI: You’re a fellow journalist! I always love connecting with other journalists. Can you tell me how your career as a journalist influenced your development as a creative writer and author?
JOHN: One cool thing about journalism is that it really teaches you how to be a storyteller. You learn to listen to how people think and how they speak and watch what they do in so many different situations. You train yourself to notice even the smallest details, so your audience is engaged and informed by your story from the lede until the final sentence.
It makes shifting gears from journalism to fiction so much easier. Many of the same principles that enhance journalism also make a novel or short story better. A journalist is essentially as much of a story teller as a fiction author. Crafting a well-written story requires a blend of skill and art and journalists understand how to strike that balance.
Where being a journalist has helped me the most as a fiction author is shaping characters. I’ve worked in the media for 15 years now and it has given me a chance to literally meet people from all walks of life. Their personalities offer some inspiration to me when I create main characters, secondary characters and even ancillary characters. It helps me paint a much more realistic picture of how a specific character will react in a given situation.
SHARI: You have mentioned that the idea for Pandora Reborn came to you in high school, 20 years ago. What initially sparked it, and how has the story developed over all these years?
JOHN: I grew up in a sleepy farm town called Kamas. There’s a cool bit of folklore in that area of Utah that I became aware of when I was a child. Thomas Rhoads, a Mormon pioneer, was supposedly shown a sacred gold mine, located in the Uinta Mountains, by Ute leader Chief Walkara. Rhoads was allowed to extract gold for the sole purpose of financing construction of the Salt Lake Temple. No one was permitted to know the mine’s location except Rhoads and he was only shown the mine after promising to use the gold exclusively to help temple construction efforts.
Many people have reportedly died in the Uinta Mountains over the years while trying to find the lost Rhoads mine. Their deaths led to legends of a lingering curse on the mine. Learning the story sparked a question in my mind: what could make a mine cursed? At that point, an idea came to me of an ancient chest with an evil witch bound inside. What would she do if someone opened it and let her out? As the idea took shape, I also drew on elements of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology and the Jewish legend of the dybbuk box.
My idea sparked by the rural folklore formed the basic foundation for Pandora Reborn. I always had the woman in black as a central antagonist and teenagers were always the ones who ended up battling her. A large percentage of my main and secondary characters in Deer Falls came to me in a rudimentary form in the beginning. As time went on, I filled in the details on each individual character, added new ones as needed, and sketched out different scenes that ended up in the final story.
Even with it being a horror story, some key elements drew inspiration from my my work as a sports journalist. I covered high school sports for several years and that led to my central character, Ron, evolving into a high school soccer player. It also influenced using a high school soccer game as a setting for a pivotal scene within the main narrative.
SHARI: Your genre of choice is horror. Why do you prefer writing horror, and who are some of your literary influences?
JOHN: I do enjoy writing horror, but it actually isn’t my only genre. My first writing project, which I started at 12 years old, was a comedic children’s book with cats as the main characters. Then, during the summer immediately following my high school graduation, I wrote a rough draft for a 400-page science fiction novel. Both are stories that I love and I fully intend to polish and publish both books within the next 2 to 3 years. The science fiction novel, in particular, will be the first in a six-book series. I already have detailed outlines, character sketches and backstory notes for the other five books.
People may ask, ‘Why don’t you just pick one genre and stick with it?” I don’t find any fun with taking that approach in fiction. My goal is to share specific stories and characters with the rest of the world. One genre that works well for one set of characters may not work at all for another set of characters. I always admired classic authors who could just tell a story and not worry about what category it fit into along the way.
My literary influences attest to that philosophy. I loved reading classic authors Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne while growing up. As I aged, I delved into popular modern authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Michael Crichton; as well as some less notable authors. I simply enjoy reading and telling good stories, no matter what form they end up taking.
SHARI: You live in Utah, but the setting for your novel is a rural Colorado town. What drove you to write about Colorado over your current state of residence?
JOHN: I wrestled with the setting for Pandora Reborn for some time. Originally, I planned to set it in a fictional rural Utah town because of what sparked my novel’s origin. I ultimately chose to move it to a fictional rural Colorado town to give myself more creative freedom.
Setting it in Colorado opened the door to create a story that could appeal to a broader audience. I could simply focus on developing characters and let the plot unfold in a natural way. I did not have to worry about any ancillary concerns. If I stuck with the original Utah setting, that would not have been the case. When you set a story in Utah, you inevitably end up including characters who are Mormons. It’s impossible not to do so. But it opens up a whole can of worms.
How do you portray a Mormon character realistically in your story without stirring up trouble? Many Mormons are good people and good neighbors. But, as with any church or even a secular organization for that matter, you also have a few rotten apples lurking in the barrel. If your story includes a major or minor antagonist who also happens to be a Mormon, will that decision lead to accusations of negative stereotyping or religious bias?
I did not want to allow these concerns creep in and overshadow the novel, so I changed the setting as I developed my story further. I am happy with how it worked out. Colorado is a beautiful place and I love the irony in employing such a picturesque setting as the backdrop for horror.
SHARI: What is your favorite scene from Pandora Reborn, and why does it mean so much to you?
JOHN: It’s so tough to pick just one favorite scene because several scenes in the book carry special meaning to me. When you devote so much time to developing characters, they almost feel like family or close friends after a while.
One scene that does stand out as a favorite for me is when Christina bumps into Ron at the park after he sneaks out of his house following an argument with his mom, Emily. It is such a cool character defining moment for both teens. The scene climaxes in a powerful way with Ron getting his first exposure to the supernatural realm. It is easy enough for him to scoff and dismiss what he is told earlier in the book by multiple characters. But when he witnesses an event for himself that challenges everything he believed, it is earth-shattering for Ron.
Ultimately, I like Ron’s evolution in the scene. He takes the first steps in a journey to overcoming his own fears and selfish attitude. Christina shows a vulnerable side of her personality for the first time and you begin to see what led a girl like her to end fall in with the detention crowd at Deer Falls High.
I love moments that challenge characters to step outside their comfort zone and force them to grow. It is what makes a story fun and rewarding.
SHARI: If your readers take ONE thing away from reading your book, what would you want it to be?
JOHN: Isolation is a dangerous thing. No one should be on an island of their own making. You need to team up with family and friends to prevail in life’s battles.
When Pandora Reborn opens, every major character is in a state of metaphorical or literal isolation. You have Ron who has been uprooted from his old life and dropped into a new town against his wishes. You have Dean, who spends his days and nights alone and consumed by fears brought on by tragic events from 55 years earlier. There is the woman in black who is literally isolated from other living things due to her evil nature until she is foolishly released from an ancient chest back into the world.
In every case, isolation has a negative impact. Ron develops a selfish woe-is-me attitude that strains his relationship with his mom. Dean has gradually lost his mind because he won’t allow himself to heal from past trauma. The woman in black is consumed by a malevolent spirit and a thirst for vengeance because of what she suffered centuries earlier.
Ultimately, the idea of overcoming isolation through unity, teamwork and love serves an important role in how the story plays out. The toughest battles aren’t meant to be fought and won alone.
SHARI: Pandora Reborn is your debut novel. What have you learned about the world of publishing since it launched, and what advice would you offer to first-time writers?
JOHN: It’s a bit of a shock to see just how crowded the marketplace is for traditional books and ebooks. Thousands of new books are released each month by indie authors. Writing and publishing a book is just the first step in the journey. Marketing and promotion is equally important if your goal as an author is to get your book out in front of as many eyes as possible.
The best thing a writer can do is to construct a sustainable marketing platform for themselves and their book well before it is released. This includes everything from building an active social media presence and connecting with other authors and readers to starting a website and blog dedicated to your book and other topics relevant to your writing endeavors.
Creating exposure is the name of the game in publishing. You want people to know about your book and give them a reason to buy it. That means putting in the work ahead of time, so you don’t get lost in the independent publishing equivalent of the slush pile with your intended audience.
SHARI: In your opinion, what makes a great horror story, and how did you try to incorporate that into your book?
JOHN: Horror is most effective when it incorporates real fears into the narrative. No rational person is going to be concerned with a vampire or a zombie attacking them in real life. When a horror story can make an antagonist embody a real-life fear, however, it creates a lasting effect on the reader long after they finish the last page. The goal of every good horror author is to get their reader looking over their shoulder and wondering what is lurking in dark corners.
With Pandora Reborn, I played with themes of isolation, obsession and revenge to inspire fear. What makes the woman in black truly frightening as an antagonist, in my opinion, isn’t her skill in dark magic. It is her cold calculating thirst for revenge and power. She wants to control the world around her while delivering a warped version of justice to people she feels wronged her. The scariest part with the woman in black is that she feels justified in all that she does. She sees herself as a hero. That’s what separates a truly frightening antagonist from a cartoonish villain you might see in a low-quality slasher movie.
**John Coon first discovered his passion for writing at age 12 when he composed several short stories on an old typewriter at his parents’ house. After graduating from the University of Utah in 2004, John soon turned a part-time job on the scoreboard staff at the Salt Lake Tribune into a full-time job as a reporter covering sports and business. He has worked as a journalist for 15 years and currently freelances for multiple media outlets including, most notably, the Associated Press. John published his debut novel, Pandora Reborn in June, 2018. He currently resides in Sandy, Utah.
Grab your copy of Pandora Reborn below!