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Interview With an Author: Josh Rountree

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Joss Rountree and his debut novel, The Legend of Charlie Fish
Author Joss Rountree and his debut novel, The Legend of Charlie Fish. Photo of author: Leah Muse

Josh Rountree has published more than sixty stories in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, The Deadlands, Bourbon Penn, PseudoPod, PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, and A Punk Rock Future. A handful of them have received honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth and Twenty-First Annual Collections, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant, as well as The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. Josh lives somewhere in the untamed wilds of Texas with his wife and children. His debut novel is The Legend of Charlie Fish and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Legend of Charlie Fish?

The Legend of Charlie Fish came about from a collision of ideas. I’ve been writing a series of short stories set in Texas between 1830 and 1930, all of which feature monsters of some sort. I love Creature from the Black Lagoon and other gill-man stories, and I’d been thinking for a while on how I might be able to write my own gill-man story, but set in the old west. While visiting Galveston, I imagined a gill-man coming out of the ocean, and the idea occurred to me to set the story right there, but during the Great Storm of 1900 that destroyed most of the city. The story took off in a hurry after that.

Are Floyd, Nellie, Hank, Abigail, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Charlie has an obvious cinematic inspiration, but none of the characters are based on real people. Nellie was influenced by Mattie Ross, the young protagonist of the great Charles Portis novel, True Grit. Mattie is one of my favorite characters in literature, and I couldn’t help but draw a bit of her personality into Nellie. The rest certainly draw influence from the host of quiet loners and scheming scoundrels that populate many of the Westerns I love, but hopefully, they’re alive and moving in their own unique ways.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I don’t think much was lost in the revision process, but there was quite a bit added. The original version of The Legend of Charlie Fish was a novella, about half the size of the novel it became. Based on feedback from my editor and others at the publisher, I added a second point of view and fleshed out many of the events and characters. The result was a much better understanding on my part of the people I was writing about, and the published version is far superior to the story I started with. In particular, the character of Nellie really came alive, and she’s certainly my favorite character in the book.

How familiar were you with late 19th & early 20th century Galveston prior to writing the novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Legend of Charlie Fish?

I was already familiar with turn-of-the-century Texas, and Galveston in particular, before I started writing Charlie Fish. But I certainly read a few books to get more of the details right. I rarely engage in a ton of research in response to a story I’m working on. Typically, my stories are inspired by something I’ve already read. I read a lot of history and other non-fiction, and many of those books are crawling with ideas, waiting to be written. But I re-read a few books on the hurricane, to get everything fresh in my head.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I knew that the city of Galveston had been raised after the Great Storm, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it had been done. I describe this a bit in the book. To avoid another hurricane bringing a massive wall of water, sweeping across the island, the city built a seawall that spans several miles along the shore. It’s a tall concrete wall built high above the beach. To accommodate, the city had to be raised as much as seventeen feet in some places. There are large mansions and other buildings that predate the storm, and they were literally lifted so that the ground could be raised beneath them. Quite the engineering marvel, especially for the early twentieth century.

Have you ever lived in Galveston? Do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss, but would only learn about from a resident?

I’ve never lived in Galveston, but I’m a lifelong Texan, and typically visit the island several times per year. When my children were younger, they loved visiting Moody Gardens, where we could tour three large pyramids filled with sea life, rainforest animals, and rotating science exhibits. Galveston is home to numerous tourist destinations, including the Strand neighborhood described in The Legend of Charlie Fish, a pier with amusement park rides, and of course many miles of beach. As for hidden gems, I’m not sure how hidden the Galveston Bookshop is, but it’s certainly a gem. The store is home to a great range of new and used books, and what tends to draw me in the most is their large selection of used horror, science fiction, and fantasy paperbacks.

Are you a fan of the Western genre? What are some of your favorite authors, novels, films and/or filmmakers?

Yes, I’m a big fan of the genre. I began reading Westerns at an early age, and I tore through dozens of Louis L’Amour books before I made it out of middle school. My favorite book is a western—Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry—and True Grit by Charles Portis had more of an influence on The Legend of Charlie Fish than anything else. Other western writers I love are Elmer Kelton, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy.

I’ll watch any Western movie, and many I count among my favorite films. The Unforgiven (1992), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit are just a few of the ones I love the most. And the recent television miniseries 1883 was absolutely fantastic.

Charlie Fish seems to clearly be a nod to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Are you also a fan of the Universal Monster films of the 1930s-50s? Is The Creature your favorite of the classic monsters or do you have a different favorite?

Yes, I love the Universal Monster films. I recall watching them on regional television networks every Saturday afternoon when I was a kid. Once the Saturday cartoons ended, the movies would start. You might get one of the Universal movies like Dracula, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or The Mummy, or you might get a different sort of monster movie like Godzilla or Jason and the Argonauts. And they’d mix in Hollywood westerns as well. The Wild Bunch, The Searchers, High Noon, and so many others. All those movies drew me in, and still occupy the same space in my head.

While I really love the Creature, I’d say that Frankenstein is my favorite of the classic Universal monsters, and both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are my favorite of the movies.

The Universal Monsters turned 90 in 2021 and The Creature from the Black Lagoon turned 69 in 2023. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how these films continue, almost a century later, to thrill viewers and inspire writers and filmmakers?

I think their popularity is largely due to the iconic creature designs. If a person has never seen a single Universal Monster film, they’ll likely still recognize Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man or Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster. And of course, the incredible Creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s a great book called The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara about Milicent Patrick, who was responsible for the creature design, but wasn’t given credit. The images of these monsters are pure Americana, burned into our minds like the images of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe.

Another reason for the enduring popularity must be our general affinity for monsters and monster movies. The Universal Monsters are far from the only creepy and terrifying creatures that we love to watch. Monsters can be metaphors for societal ills, and for the darker side of our own nature, but they’re also just fun. We’re afraid of them, but we love them. And while some, like the Mummy or Dracula are objectively the bad guys, others like Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man are more sympathetic characters. If not the heroes of the film, necessarily, we can at least empathize with their plight.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I have stacks of books all over the house, waiting to be read, but I have a few on the nightstand right now that I’m really enjoying. Linghun by Ai Jiang is a haunting novella about a neighborhood where people can interact with their deceased loved ones, and the lengths they’ll go to in order to live there. No One Will Come Back for Us by Premee Mohamed is a new short fiction collection of dark fantasy and cosmic horror tales, reprinting many of the writer’s best stories from places like The Deadlands and PseudoPod. And I just received my copy of Laird Barron’s latest Isaiah Coleridge book, The Wind Began to Howl. I love this series, and this latest novella promises to be another fantastic read.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Like a lot of readers and writers, I can think of a hundred names to put on this list, and next time, it’s liable to be entirely different. To start, I’d say the twin pillars of influence on my writing would be Larry McMurtry and Joe R. Lansdale. As writers, they’re quite different, but both have a quintessentially Texan voice that strikes a chord with me, and they’ve left an enduring mark on my prose and my storytelling. Without a doubt, they’re my two favorite writers.

I have a special fondness for short stories, and I write a lot of them. Kelly Link is one of our greatest contemporary short story writers, and I’ve spent a long time trying to unlock her writing secrets. I’m pretty sure she’s a genius, and that’s something I can’t internalize to better my own writing. I can just read, and marvel. Another modern short story writer who has influenced my writing, and whom I love to read, is A.C. Wise. She has a brilliant way of allowing the darkness to creep into her stories, bit by bit until you realize everything around you has changed for the worse, and there’s no way to get back to safety. I’d highly recommend her collection The Ghost Sequences, and also Kelly Link’s latest, White Cat, Black Dog: Stories.

Finally, one of my sentimental favorites will always be Ray Bradbury. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a book I read pretty much every year and one of my all-time favorites. Add to that The October Country, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, and so many more. Bradbury writes a flavor of fiction that nobody can match, and there aren’t many writers I enjoy reading more.

The Legend of Charlie Fish is your debut novel. What have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I suppose it would be to listen to feedback from editors and fellow writers and be willing to incorporate their input back into your story. I don’t mean to say that you should sacrifice whatever your creative vision is for the story, or that you should take any and all advice without considering how it affects what you’re trying to accomplish. But well thought out takes by first readers and editors can really help your book shine. In my case, working with my editor at Tachyon resulted in a vastly superior version of the book. Many of my favorite scenes and character moments didn’t exist prior to our conversations about what was working in the original draft, and what was not.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

When I was young, I read anything I could get my hands on. Children’s books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series and Encyclopedia Brown, as well as adult books from the likes of Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Louis L’Amour, and many others. I was also a great fan of movie novelizations and books of myths and legends from around the world. But if I had to nail down my favorite book as a child, it would have to be Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I read it over and over, and did the same with the sequel, Superfudge. Those books are still close to my heart.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I can’t recall ever having to hide any books from my parents or anyone else in my family. For the most part, I had free reign over what I read, and I took advantage of it. I do recall some weird volumes on my late grandmother’s shelf that drew me in with a sort of dark fascination. Books I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be reading, like The Illustrated Man, The Amityville Horror, and various horror short story collections curated by Alfred Hitchcock. Nobody stopped me from taking those off the shelf, but I recall being terrified by many of the covers, and by the internal illustrations of flies in The Amityville Horror. Throw in her books on ghosts and aliens and folklore, and I’m pretty sure you can trace my love of the weird to those bookshelves.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

There are plenty of books I want to read, but none that I’ve ever faked reading. I either like a book or I don’t, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. I used to feel it was necessary to finish reading every book I started. The older I get, I’ve given myself permission to stop reading when a book loses my interest, or if I figure out it’s just not for me. No judgment on the story or the writing, but of course every book isn’t going to hit the mark for every person. There are a million great books waiting to be discovered—just move on to the next one!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The late seventies DAW paperback cover for Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer. I remember finding a copy sometime in the eighties. It shows Elric, emerging from a green fog, Stormbringer lifted high above his head. I had no idea what the story would be about, but I could tell it would be seriously cool. It didn’t take me long to figure out there were more Elric books and to track them down. I’ve remained a pretty big Michael Moorcock fan ever since.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There have been so many. Books that arrived at just the right time to influence my writing in a certain direction, like Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry or By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale. There have been books that have caused my writing to take dramatic U-turns like the story collections by Howard Waldrop. But let’s go with a book that cemented my love of reading, and horror, and made me first begin to think that I might grow up and be a writer. Stephen King’s first story collection, Night Shift. I had the version with the die-cut cover so that eyes appeared to be peeking out from an open hand. That’s another cover that hooked me, and those stories kept me coming back. Now I think that Skeleton Crew is a much stronger collection, but it was Night Shift that first blew my mind and started me writing horror stories.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Anyone with an interest in short stories needs to read Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. Once you read that, you’ll want to quickly move on to her other story collections. Every one of them is brilliant. Single-author short story collections are my favorite thing to read, and these all rank among the best.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

It would be cool to be able to read The Fellowship of the Ring again for the first time. The whole trilogy, really. I first read them when I was a kid, and I can remember the feeling of that story unfolding from page to page. I had no expectations for what would happen next. No assurances that any character would have a happy ending. No images from movies to clutter up what the characters looked like in my head. It was a formative reading experience for me, and for many others, and while I’ve read the trilogy many times over, there’s no way to recapture that original trip to Middle Earth.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Lately I’ve been obsessed with Weathervanes, the new record from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. He’s one of the best songwriters alive, and his songs always feel to me like perfect little short stories. He knows exactly which details to put in, and which to leave out, and the results are dark glimpses into the minds of his characters. I love Jason’s songs going back to his time with The Drive-By Truckers, and Weathervanes is really something special. Songs like "King of Oklahoma," "Cast Iron Skillet," and "White Beretta" are heartbreaking, harrowing slices of life. Weathervanes is a straight-up masterpiece.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

For me, it’s going to be hanging out with my wife and children, having fun together. Probably playing some board games, watching baseball, or checking out a movie. Nothing too fancy. If we want to make sure it’s perfect, there will be donuts for breakfast and tacos for dinner. That’s pretty much what I shoot for every year when everyone asks me what I want to do for my birthday.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Since I love short stories, I might ask which are my favorites, or which have impacted me the most as a writer. Of course, that’s a hard question to answer, so maybe I should have chosen something easier. Right now, if I had to narrow down to a handful of stories, I’d say the following: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, The Night They Missed the Horror Show by Joe R. Lansdale, Steam Engine Time by Lew Shiner, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. I could name a couple of dozen more that would be in the running for my favorites. I love to read and write short fiction more than any other type, and every one of these is a stellar example of the craft.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a follow-up novel to The Legend of Charlie Fish. It’s not really a sequel, but there’s a chance a character or two might cross over. I mentioned before that I’ve been working on a series of short stories with monsters, set in old Texas. Several have already been published in magazines and anthologies, including February Moon and The Guadalupe Witch, both of which originally appeared in the wonderful online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Those two were also reprinted in my latest short fiction collection, Fantastic Americana: Stories. There are a few others as well. None of them tie together, apart from existing in the same fictional universe, but I hope to keep expanding on these, and discovering more connective tissue between characters, places, and events. I really love these stories, and I hope readers do too!

Book cover of The Legend of Charlie Fish
The Legend of Charlie Fish
Rountree, Josh

Josh Rountree’s debut novel, The Legend of Charlie Fish, is a bit difficult to describe briefly. It is definitely a Western, given the time period and some of the story elements. It is also a love letter to early 20th century Galveston, a city for which Rountree admits a fondness in his afterword. There is a dash of fantasy and a healthy dose of Creature Feature influence in the titular character of Charlie Fish. Rountree expertly weaves these seemingly disparate story threads together into a gripping Tall Tale which is anchored by a historic storm, the largest to hit the US before or since, and a group of marvelous characters.

To quote Kirk Douglas from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Legend of Charlie Fish is "a whale of a tale." But it is also grounded enough in human desires and experiences, in human frailties and strengths, in the shared experiences of longing for a home, and how we often create the families that we sometimes lack by birth. Readers will find more than merely a sense of spectacle and wonder within Rountree’s yarn.