It’s said that good readers make good writers. But what happens when you’re an aspiring writer reading literary giants? In the case of author J.D. Horn, that’s what prompted him to put the pen down almost permanently.
Horn began writing his first novel when he was a senior in high school and continued writing when he went to college. That’s where Horn, majoring in comparative literature with a focus on French and Russian writers, encountered some of the greatest books ever written.
“Within months of being confronted with the old, dead white guys, I threw my manuscript away,” he says. “I couldn’t possibly live up to what those writers did.”
Intimidated, Horn didn’t try to write again for another decade.
“Sometimes I think it’s best to not be exposed to such great writing,” he says. “There was nobody to explain that I didn’t have to be Dostoyevsky. I just had to write like me.”
It’s wild now to think that Horn — author of the bestselling Witching Savannah and Witches of New Orleans series, and the stand-alone fantasy Shivaree — ever suffered self-doubt when it came to his own work. He’s a bestselling author several times over; fans and critics alike rave about his supernatural Southern Gothic tales. Recently, The King of Bones, Horn’s first book in the Witches of New Orleans trilogy, was a finalist for the One Book, One Parish campaign in Louisiana, alongside Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, and Becoming by Michelle Obama.
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The good news is that writing never truly leaves us, as Horn discovered. He likened it to a scene in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The master in the story is a frustrated writer who, after yet another rejection, tosses his manuscript into a fire — but the manuscript never burns.
In Bulgakov’s story, this is a trick of the devil. The novel literally doesn’t burn. But in Horn’s case, his writing didn’t quite disappear either. Instead it took on another life: When Horn’s first book (The Line) was published in 2014, the novel contained significant elements of the story he had thrown away decades earlier.
“These were just things I remembered and wove into the story — but it was satisfying to bring back something from when I was 16 and make it part of my first published book,” he says. “It shows how stories can survive, even if you thought they were gone.”
Horn knows all about the enduring power of stories. Growing up in “the red dirt of Tennessee,” in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, he says there was little to do but tell stories: “I had a lot of alone time, and I used a lot of that alone time to make up stories to entertain myself. The connection only came to me later that I could take those stories and entertain others.”
After completing his degree in literature, Horn earned an MBA and worked in finance for several years, still hesitant to give writing another shot. Then in 2007, a conversation with another writer prompted Horn to pull out some of his old work.
“I spent so many years licking my wounds,” he says. “Just trying to write again was a big deal.“
Horn polished the work and sent it out. Though it didn’t nab him a deal, he did land an agent — and some valuable notes from editors at publishing houses about the type of novels that were selling.
“I thought, ‘Well, I could be depressed again. Or I could take these notes,’” he says.
Horn took the suggestions, and the revised novel sold in six weeks in a three-tome deal. It ended up becoming the first of four Witching Savannah books.
A few years ago, Horn left the finance world to focus on the worlds he creates in fiction. Also, the writer and his husband, Rich, have cultivated a great world of their own, splitting their time between homes in San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Palm Springs.
“As silly as it sounds, there’s a magic to Palm Springs. And you experience it at dawn and when the sun slips behind the mountains and when the world changes color around you. It gets into you and puts you into a creative mindset,” he says. “It’s a more meditative place than I expected.”
It has also provided some unexpected inspiration.
See, back when Horn was trying to find an agent for his first book, he started writing another novel. Though he quit when he was about 80 or 90 pages into it, he put the manuscript away and has been lugging it around for years. He recently unearthed it during his move from a Palm Springs condo into a house.
“I had been struggling to find inspiration to get me going again, but then I started reading these pages,” he says. “Of course, they’re terrible. It’s a first draft. But there was something that was still living there after all these years.”
He’s now borrowing pieces of that work for his current work in progress, a dive into Southern Gothic magical realism.
“It’s been very fun, like doing a conscious collaboration with 27-year-old me,” he says. “It’s as close to time travel as you can get.”
“I spent so many years licking my wounds. Just trying to write again was a big deal.“
— J.D. Horn
20 / Trey Gowdy. Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa.
24 / Peter Walsh. The Bank, Palm Springs.
29 / Susan Straight. UCR Palm Desert.
29–31 / Rancho Mirage Writers Festival. Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory.
23 / Bob Costas. Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa.
6 / Bob Woodward. Richards Center for the Arts.
23 / Jon Meacham.Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa.
TBA / Coachella Valley Shakespeare Festival. Green Room Theatre Company.
9 / Paul Nicklen. Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa.
22 / Maggie Downs. UCR Palm Desert.
25 / Abby Ellin. The Bank, Palm Springs.
7 / Matthew Zapruder. UCR Palm Desert.
17 / The Bhikkunis. The Bank, Palm Springs.