In 71 BC, around 6000 slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, a
120-mile stretch leading to Rome, each body no greater than 60 yards
from another. The end of a revolt, they dangled like decorations in the open air,
a mass suffocation.
In the imagined time of JP Vallières’ The Ketchup Factory, one
volunteers for this fate, the greatest honor, a death catering to the
cravings of others. All it took was 2000 years of conditioning.
JP presents his world with clear prose, the direct and confident writing
found in his short story
(if you like that story, there is much to love here). My copy of The
Ketchup Factory arrived signed by the author with an amazing sketch
tucked in its pages.
Check out our conversation on dystopia, religion, and writing 100 novels.
The Ketchup Factory presents a world where people are conditioned to
sacrifice themselves—closer to Brave New World than 1984—a
personal dystopia/corporate utopia. There, to die on a cross and have
your blood harvested is the greatest good. What books most influenced
the creation of this one? Were you conscious of trying to subvert or
avoid certain dystopian tropes?
I’m not sure if I’ve ever been conscious of anything apart from story
and character when I write novels. Although, when I’m not writing I’m
constantly wondering and hoping for certain things to happen. With The
Ketchup Factory I definitely kept waiting for some underground
resistance to emerge. Isn’t that what HAS to happen in a story that is
exposing an unjust establishment? But every time I sat down to write,
the characters and story took me elsewhere. I guess I don’t know how
else to write. I sit, crack open the laptop, and usually have absolutely
nothing. And then, like magic, an energy swoops in and takes over.
With this approach there is no known influence until someone tells me
there’s an influence, which often I agree with. Shirley Jackson’s works
come to mind before anyone else. Also, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. With Jackson
there’s always something lurking underneath a well-groomed, polished
surface. The world of Sayrafiezadeh’s stories are off-kilter from our
own, skewed in a way that highlights corporate corruption and societal
group-thinks. Both of these authors have one thing in common: their
exploration of unhealthy societies, which cater to the insecurities and
fears of its stunted citizens.
A distinct aspect of the story is the creeping infantilization of its
world, manifesting in how the characters talk (and what they don’t talk
about), the things they consume (juice boxes and bowls of candy), and
the names of corporate entities (Big Walmart). Why did you include this
angle? Do you already see this happening now in the real world as a
smaller number of monopolies take control of our lives?
Okay, turns out I was conscious about one thing while writing! No
cursing allowed. I don’t know if the world of The Ketchup Factory
doesn’t have curse words or the people simply don’t choose to use them.
My guess is the latter. It’s like the teacher’s aids making sure the
kids behave appropriately while they run around on the playground. Keep
the kids busy, distracted, while the real business gets done behind
the scenes. Give them snacks, give them cheap plastic toys, give them
something shiny to look at to pass the time.
I included this infantilization because the book was exploring it, and
well, I guess it is something that I think about too. Maybe it has
something to do with the loss of imagination?
Maybe this is an example of my narrative mind churning: When we lose
our imaginations, we become stunted, fearful, and in extreme cases live
in a permanent state of paranoia. When people start to sense they are
losing control, they become frightened, and when they are frightened for
long enough, they turn to anyone that promises a solution. Push them
further and they could be convinced to do harmful things to themselves
as long as they believe they are contributing to the Greater Good.
Concerning the inclusion of corporate entities: It’s rare to read
stories that have characters working at places like Walmart, McDonald’s,
or Costco. Too often I find myself reading into the lives of ex-grad
students working part-time at the local nonprofit, buying groceries at
the co-op … shopping at thrift stores … Why aren’t there more books
with characters who work real jobs?
Yeah, even if the language of a piece draws me in, I’ve always had
difficulty relating to a certain class of characters. In The Ketchup
Factory, the character Benji’s old job is screwing caps on ketchup
bottles. But what seems mundane changes when we learn that the condiment
is created with human blood. Was there a religious reason for making
crucifixion the collection method? I’m also thinking of your piece
Heaven, published in
in which Jesus is killed again by those rediscovering morality in the
Blood represents two things in America: death and salvation. You could
also say it’s the horror writer’s most coveted natural resource. I think
Twain said that or was it Bolaño? I get those two mixed up.
I grew up evangelical with Catholic grandparents. Blood is everywhere in
these two traditions! Blood was spoken of casually every day. We sang
songs full of blood in vacation bible school. Crucifixes hung on our
walls, reminding us that our God demanded blood to free us from eternal
My parents moved my sisters and I to a rural section of northern New
York when I was in the eighth grade. The church we attended was
different than any other church in the history of the world. We helped
each other out, especially during the harsh north country winters. I
don’t recall anyone judging or shaming anyone else. I don’t recall my
pastor talking much about sin. He mainly told stories about his
Mennonite upbringing on the farm. He spoke so softly he often lulled us
into daydreams and at times light slumbers.
The story Heaven partly takes on the idea of sin, I think. I’m no
theologian, but if God sent his only son to be crucified for the world’s
sins then why would anyone ever have to consider sin again?
Heaven was also the turning point for me. Before Heaven I had a bad
habit of trying to write good stories. Stories that would be able to
get published. Stories my fellow MFA classmates and teachers would love.
There was about two weeks when I didn’t write a word. I was waiting for
that short story “spark” to spur me on, but it just wasn’t happening.
So, I sat down and said to myself, I’m going to write as if I didn’t
care about anyone else. No one exists. And there’s nothing to lose.
Twenty minutes later Heaven was on the page. I remember there was a
ton of playful energy, like my fingers were on fire. But once finished I
didn’t think much of it. I didn’t look it over. I figured it was a fun
exercise, but not something I could actually depend on to write stories
people would care to read. It felt too easy. Don’t real writers make
valiant efforts (a thousand rewrites) to make one perfect sentence?
A few days later I looked at the story and impulsively (no revisions
made) emailed it to a friend. He praised it, which definitely was not
his normal response. There were no suggestions made to improve it.
Heaven was exactly what it was supposed to be on the first try. Since
then I’ve written everything just like I wrote Heaven: sit down and
write whatever it is that’s there. No need for sparks, ideas, or
Waiting for the spark is a good way to wait and wait. So, do you
revise at all these days? For me, I try to write the first draft the way
you describe—without hesitation—and then let it sit before
rediscovering the work, uncovering connections, removing false starts.
And, since we’re on a craft topic, what is the best and what is the
worst writing advice you’ve received?
I’ve revised novels lighter and lighter with each book. I love to
delete. Often, there’s something to remove, but not a lot to add. Just
because something happens in the story doesn’t mean it needs to be on
the page. This is something I have to constantly remind myself.
Once the first 10k words are set the characters are defined and the
momentum has been firmly placed.
I would say a big breakthrough was discovering novel structure. So,
you have your characters, your following the story, and you understand
what the structure of the novel is; then there’s really nothing else to
do but sit and fill in the empty space. There’s nothing to think about.
Stephen King pretty much structures all his books the same way. I think
this is a huge advantage. He doesn’t have to take time and energy to
find the structure for his latest book, it’s already set. I believe it
was my third novel where my own natural structure clicked into gear, and
I have kept it the same ever since.
Best writing advice came from my advisor in my MFA program at Eastern
Washington University, Greg Spatz. He said, “Writing doesn’t drain the
reserves, it fills them up.” What he meant was that when you write you
don’t lose something, you gain. Some people think that you may only have
a limited number of books in you. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who
said authors only have four good books in them. I’m left to assume
Franzen doesn’t read very widely.
The Spatz formula is:
I Write Now I have more to write.
I Write Now I have less to write.
It’s a way to break away from restrictions the MFA/Literary world at
times places on its genre.
There’s so much bad writing advice. But the one I hate the most is when
a teacher told us students to write a short story and don’t look at it
for a year. I was like, “No wonder this guy’s only written two books in
There’s a lot of no fun happening in the writing process encouraged by
some teachers. Write a short story and know it’s never right on the
first draft. Then rewrite it ten times over until it’s something
completely different.And then go brag to everyone about how hard you
worked on your two-thousand-word short story that took six months to
write. This approach is a big reason why students stop writing. But
worse than that so often the first draft is the better draft. I can’t
tell you how many times I read a friend’s first draft and then they send
me a revision and completely ruin it. They tell me someone else (usually
a teacher) told them to take the story this way or that way, and I’m
like, No, the story was right the first time.
I wonder if some teachers aim to make you as paranoid as possible, kind
of like how Pentecostal Pastors want you to believe the devil is lurking
around every corner. It’s an unhealthy way to live and will eventually
bring either insanity if not a clean break from that oppressive
Though there isn’t an organized resistance in The Ketchup Factory,
at least one of the characters—Benji—seems to recognize what is
happening. One might interpret his arc as a mental break, but he also
develops, as you mentioned before, a stronger imagination. You’ve been
open in the past (with
about your mental health struggles. How much of this book is an
exploration of those issues?
I found myself running into an exploration of schizophrenia pretty early
on when writing The Ketchup Factory. This is the first novel I ever
committed to, written in 2019. I have a backlog of seven other novels
and two story collections, all of them dealing very clearly with this
condition; both in the benefits and torments. The novel I’m currently
writing doesn’t seem to be handling the schizophrenic as directly as
prior works, but it’s still pretty early on. My hope is that I’m going
to move on, in my writing and my life!
Western medicine seems to be intent on diagnosing us and making sure our
diagnosis is our identity. The psychiatrist I was going to every week
told me I’d be on high doses of anti-psychotics (and two other
prescriptions) for the remainder of my life. After two years of an
invalid state my wife, Kimmy, drove me to Seattle to see an alternative
medical facility. They ended up recommending me to a homeopathic doctor
who flies into Spokane (an hour from where we live) every month. This
was in 2015. Long story short: I’ve been off meds ever since.
One thing I love about homeopathy (sensation method) is how I was never
diagnosed or labelled.
I could go on and on, but if anyone’s truly interested in finding an
alternative route to healing they can always contact me through my
website. I stopped preaching about homeopathy a while ago, since it
appears, people don’t care to shift their paradigm until they are left
with no other options. Desperate folks crawl to alternative medicine,
they don’t walk there.
So, this leaves me with the rest of my life to live. Not only can I
write more than ever I’m back into rock climbing (a sport I began in my
mid-twenties) and run up to thirty miles a week. I coach my sons in
sports, and work full time. I live as fully as possible and have massive
ambitions. I’m going to climb El Cap. I’m going to write a hundred
novels. I can’t control where I’m published, or who reads my books, but
I can sit down and write. I can follow the story. There’s no end to the
characters that line up at my door.
As far as The Ketchup Factory or any of your other novels, did you
shop them around with bigger publishing presses? If not, what does
organic ‘success’ mean to you? And, in general, what do you make of the
current divide between indie/self-publishing and the major houses?
I shopped my first four novels to every agent and small press in
existence. There were a couple conversations with agents, but they all
ended up hitting dead ends. At one point someone at the Community of
Writers at Squaw Valley looked me straight in the eye, pointed his
finger at my chest, and said, “JP, you’re not the writer the big
publishers want representing them.” I was like, “Well, alright! Thanks
for the honesty. Now I can find my own way.”
I definitely still submit to certain presses that I believe my books
would be a good fit for, but I haven’t reached out to agents in a while.
How many times can I deal with an agent getting back requesting a full
manuscript and then never hearing from them again?
At the same time, I can be impulsive, and who knows, I might query
twenty agents tomorrow morning. I like writing story synopses, and
there’s something important about searching for the right partner in
this strange world we’re all attempting to break into.
What is the divide between indie/self-publishing and the major houses?
No clue! I do know I loved publishing The Ketchup Factory because I
got to do the cover art, design, and released it when I wanted to. Also,
the print on demand model makes sense. It’s always there, ready to be
sold. There are no “editions” and timeline. It’s in print and ebook
format forever. The book can catch fire at any time, not just during the
first month of its promotional release.
My book is all mine. This doesn’t mean I don’t rely on editors. I do. If
it doesn’t pass the Kimmy Test, then it’s not going to be published. She
helps me delete the things that she hates. At the end of the day she may
be my only reader.
With a more recent book I hired an awesome editor for copy edits. I hope
to run all of my books through her going forward. She’s the best—Liz
On the subject of cover art, you’re also an artist (thanks for the
sketch by the way!) and I’m wondering if that is something you take as
seriously as your writing. An early favorite writer of mine, William
Wharton, described himself as a “painter who writes.” Where do you fall
on that spectrum? Does your sketching influence your writing or vice
Writer first. Then sketcher. In between novels I write short stories and
some poems (mostly bad poems), and you’d think I’d complete more
drawings then. But I don’t. I am more efficient in every area of life
when I’m writing novels. I can think more clearly and go about my daily
tasks without added stress and unnecessary burdens.
When I’m writing novels I tend to draw more, too. I drew several
sketches for the cover of The Ketchup Factory. I had friends (and
Kimmy) tell me which one worked best for them. This particular sketch
changed over time: first was the person, then red tears, then—weeks
later—the cloud of bugs flying out of his ear.
Currently, I don’t see drawing as a discipline. More of an outlet
(although, maybe that’s closer to what writing is for me, too). My
expectations are pretty low over all; I just sit down and begin. Often,
one or two of my sons will join me. Yesterday I drew a sketch of our
woodstove. We started burning in September this year. I don’t remember
us ever burning this early.
One of my favorite things to do is slipping a sketch into my book and
mailing them out to writers, readers, editors, and friends.
There’s something unique about a book that is written and designed by
the author. I don’t know if it makes it a better reading experience, but
there’s an artistic object to be held that feels complete.
Unique is definitely the word. JP, thanks for this interview and for
the story in Ligeia. Last questions. What do you hope readers take
away from The Ketchup Factory? And what’s next for you as a writer?
Any extra teasers from your current project?
“There’s a lot more where this came from if you go to the dance with me
Friday night.” I think Napoleon Dynamite said that.
Mainly, if you dig Ketchup then you can look forward to more on the
way. Everything I write is connected. You’ll even find nonfiction
characters (from my piece in Shenandoah) floating through my novels as
old friends or villains.
I don’t know which novel I’ll publish in 2022. There’s a novel about a
woman who thinks she’s an extra in the latest Terminator movie; a
novel about a guy whose other self is trapped inside a Thomas Kinkade
painting; a novel about an MFA student in the space age; a novel about
Hillary W. Bush—leader of the free world; a novella that is
the origin story of the Pied Piper. And more …
I have a forthcoming story at The Bear Creek Gazette. It’s about a kid
who turns into a penguin when he enters the ninth grade.
I got bored a few months ago and created a penname. As far as journal
publications go, they’re DESTROYING JP. I don’t know what that means.
I’ve probably said too much.
JP Vallières is the author of the novel, The Ketchup Factory. Some
of his work can be found at Tin House, Santa Monica
Review, Passages North, and forthcoming at Shenandoah. Find out
more at jpvallieres.com.