The Blues Ain’t Nothin’: Tina Jens, Horror Writer: Interview by Michael McCarty from my book ESOTERIA-LAND
I did this interview with Tina Jens when her first book was published, so it was many moons ago. Tina is such a gifted writer and such an important part of the Chicago horror writing scene, I’d thought I’d run it again on my blog … because summer is just a perfect time for the blues.
So please support Tina’s work…
The interview originally appeared in ESOTERIA-LAND .. the ebook is only .99 cents and the link for that book is on the bottom of this interview….
Writer, producer, editor, performer, and college instructor, Tina L. Jens is a multi-talented lady. This Chicago writer has been nominated three times for a Bram Stoker Award, once for the International Horror Guild Award, and was the winner of the National Federation of Press Women’s Award for Best Novel of the Year. She’s the author of more than eighty published stories and the editor/publisher of twenty-four anthologies. She produced Twilight Tales, a weekly reading series, for fourteen years. Her debut novel The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ was published by Design Image Group and is a great ghost story set in a Chicago bar.
Born in Iowa, Tina now lives in Chicago with her husband Barry, along with Boo, a guinea pig who has gained notoriety on her Live Journal blog, and Nemo, a red-clawed miniature crab.
The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ was composed from several short stories written over several years. Was it difficult to connect all these stories together and keep the continuity tight in one episodic novel?
TINA JENS: By the time I was halfway through writing the first story, back in 1992, I already knew I wanted to do a lot more with these characters. The back-story and world building was already slipping into place. So, from the time I wrote the first piece, I started building a timeline and chronology, detailing not only the major life events of the characters, but also cultural references used in the stories. Everything from births and deaths to when Buddy Guy celebrated his fiftieth birthday, the season South Park first aired, and the year Valerie Wellington recorded her first album.
When I went to put the book together, I did some minor rewriting to help the sections flow together and I noticed there was one major gap in the story arc. The book is ultimately the coming-of-age story of Mustang Sally. She’s a precocious 10-year-old when we first meet her, but by the time novel ends, she’s a seasoned and jaded club owner. I’d told some of the stories along the way but never the one where the transfer of power happens from mother to daughter. I’d laid the groundwork for it years earlier, when I’d written a one-liner about how Miss Sarah had run off with a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman. I wrote the episode “Miss Sarah Leaves the Blues Behind” especially for the book. It became the major turning point for every character.
There’s a place in Chicago called the Red Lion Pub. It has the reputation of being haunted. Was the Lonesome Blues Pub based on this famous ghostly bar?
JENS: The Red Lion was the home of Twilight Tales and I’ve written a ghost story or two set there. Our beloved Lion is currently closed, with plans to tear down the entire building and rebuild from the basement up. The group currently meets at a place with an inspiring name for horror and fantasy writers: the Mystic Celt.
The Red Lion inspired us all, but it wasn’t the inspiration for the Lonesome Blues Pub. That distinction goes to B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, one of the oldest blues clubs in Chicago. About the only thing I changed was the name. A lot of the staffers and musicians who work there appear in the book, and the layout of the real and fictional clubs, as well as the location, are exactly the same. B.L.U.E.S. was never reputed to be haunted, but there are a lot of great ghost stories in blues music, and since the book came out, I’ve heard Rob Hecko, the owner, spinning a few ghostly tales of his own.
You wrote about several real-life blues musicians in the book. Have any of them given you feedback yet?
JENS: Most of the musicians I wrote about have already passed away, so regrettably I’ll never know what they thought. But many of the local musicians and club regulars have thanked me for capturing their world. Fame is fleeting: some of the best blues musicians in the world work in Chicago, but many never build a name outside the city. A lot of local musicians have thanked me for preserving the memories of some of the local, but little-known, legends.
I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of musicians who helped make The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ a better book. Liz Mandeville, Chicago’s only red-headed blues diva, spent a lot of time talking candidly with me about what it’s like to be a white woman in the blues and what it takes to be a bandleader. Her personal memories of some of the performers are included in the book.
Mark Skyer and I have been talking for nearly twenty years about the Chicago blues scene, blues history and the realities of the road. He’s a marvelous guitar player, but I’ve only seen him perform once. He doesn’t play Chicago because the pay is so low for blues musicians in the city. The blues genre is an even smaller market than horror. He also read the book manuscript and offered invaluable comments on instruments, the biz, and blues community attitudes. His comments made the manuscript much more authentic.
Is there a sequel in the works or are you planning to write a different novel?
JENS: I’ve started a sequel and a couple of prequel stories that explore Beale Street in Memphis when it was a rough-and-tumble town apt to believe in voodoo and likely to see a nightly knife fight in the blues clubs. I’m currently finishing up a novel that’s a supernatural spy thriller – sort of a Nostradamus meets James Bond kind of book – that I’ve been working on for years, and I’ve got a New Orleans voodoo novel that’s simmering on the back burner. I’ve also got a couple ideas for chick adventure novels that could become a mystery series. The only thing I know for sure is, the blues sequel is next up.
Peter Straub wrote a blurb for The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ and the book was nominated for multiple awards. Did you expect such recognition for your first published novel?
JENS: You always hope for recognition – we all crave a little fame – but I never imagined that my first novel would get that sort of acclaim. I just hope my future novels get half as much attention!
So far, you’ve edited twenty-four anthologies and fiction collections for Twilight Tales (http://www.twilighttales.com). As an editor and writer, do you feel guidelines are becoming too restrictive?
JENS: Themed books are much easier to work on. As a writer, I love them, because they kick-start me in a general direction, and I can let my creativity go wild from there. As an editor, it’s much easier to structure the flow of a book when there’s a common theme. But as a reader, I’m not always happy with themed anthologies. I enjoy reading a couple of stories about mean old witches with pointy hats and warts on their nose, but I don’t want to read fifteen stories about scary hags. As a writer and editor, I try to stray as far away from the traditional tropes as I can.
You were president and CEO of Twilight Tales – a weekly reading series, small press, listserv, webzine and general support group that offered frequent author development seminars and actively participated in many horror and fantasy conventions – for fourteen years. How did that get started?
JENS: I started Twilight Tales fifteen years ago, mostly because I love live readings, but also because my husband is a news producer for the local ABC station and I hated being alone on the long Monday nights he had to work during football season.
I retired from actively managing the great multi-tentacled beast that Twilight Tales had become almost a year ago. I still attend the shows – especially the open mics – and I’m still on the board of directors, but I try to stay out of day-to-day operations. There’s a great team of volunteers who have taken over those duties. They’re doing a terrific job!
It continues as a multi-genre show, though it has always skewed heavily toward horror and fantasy. It still provides solid networking and educational opportunities, bringing new authors together with seasoned professionals.
You’re awfully young to have retired. What’s next on your horizon?
JENS: Twilight Tales had become a full-time (forty hours-plus) volunteer job. My main reason for retiring was to have more time to write. I got so busy doing organizational management, book editing, book promotions, sales and author seminars, my own writing pretty much got shoved to the side, except for the occasional short story. When I turned forty, I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer was novelist, not org president.
I’ve also taken on a one-course, one-semester-a-year teaching gig at Columbia College Chicago, teaching fantasy writing. I’m talking with them about teaching an additional course in the winter semester. And just last week, I agreed to book a few bands and help promote a little lakeside bistro that has become my daily writing space this summer. I tend to throw myself full throttle at projects.
I’m hoping by the time I’m sixty, I’ll learn how to moderate how much time and energy I give to non-writing projects. Despite my new part-time occupations, I’m still getting a lot more writing done than in the old days.
What is the Chicago horror scene like right now?
JENS: All the fiction communities in Chicago are thriving. Twilight Tales brings folks together from the horror, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, true crime, romance, western, humor, mainstream and literary communities. That’s a tremendous gift that lets us share ideas across genres. A mystery novelist will read, and a couple months later, at the open mic, there’ll be a new crop of mysteries from writers who traditionally work in horror or science-fiction. The local interplay among the genres encourages everyone to think outside the traditional boundaries.
JENS: Blues music and horror fiction have an unholy alliance. They’re both filled with ghosts and demons and voodoo. They’re both filled with tragedy, tears, and fear. The characters are mythic figures who died gruesome, lonesome deaths, who are willing to try anything, even going so far as buying the gypsy woman’s mojo hand to recapture lost love. A lot of blues songs are just horror stories set to music. That’s why The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ was so easy to write and why I’ve always got several story ideas percolating about that haunted
ESOTERIA-LAND by Michael McCarty Ebook is only .99 cents (Nonfiction) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086VLK2KY/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Esoteria-Land&qid=1586295662&sr=8-1 Interviews with Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong, Terry Pratchett, Mojo Nixon, Bobcat Goldthwait, Famous Monsters editor Forry Ackerman, Buddy Holly’s drummer and many more… Introduction By Linnea Quigley Afterword By The Amazing Kreskin