Q & A with J.J. Alo: The Street Between the Pines
Updated: May 31
I am thrilled to be speaking with J.J. Alo, whose upcoming release The Street Between the Pines is out March 14th!
A strange creature lurks between the pines of Forest Street.
Since the deadly DUI that ruined his life, Curtis Reynolds has long struggled with sleep deprivation, debt, a failing marriage, and, frankly, justifying his own existence. But when his elderly neighbor is murdered, the Gulf War Veteran returns home to Forest Street, where a dangerous encounter sends him spiraling.
Battling insomnia and PTSD induced visions, Curtis begins an investigation of a mysterious monster, falling down a rabbit hole of folk mythology, government conspiracy, and ghosts from his past that threaten to destroy his fragile psyche and, possibly, all he holds dear.
Hey J.J., and thank you for agreeing to talk to me. It's probably biased for me to say this as one of your editors, but I loved your novel! I was on the edge of my seat the whole read.
I wanted to start off with a couple of questions to get to know you better. Firstly, I had to ask: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I always enjoyed creative writing. And I began writing short stories. I remember around eleven or twelve years old, I found a stack of textured wallpaper in my family’s shed in the back of the house. I’d take lined paper, staple it, and use this fancy wallpaper as the paperback cover of these little novels I was creating. And they weren’t terribly long, or terribly good, but I probably created 30 or 40 of these stories.
So what drew you to thriller and suspense as a genre? Is it something you were always interested in, since you were writing these short stories as a kid? Or did you grow into it more recently?
I honestly never considered anything else. I was a big horror movie fan. My parents never restricted me on what I could and couldn’t watch, so I’d seen just about everything as a ten year old: action movies, horror movies, rated-R flicks, it didn’t matter. I loved all of Stephen King’s adaptations, and I’d read some of his books. He was really all I knew of horror at the time. So I’m not really sure what drew me to that specifically, but I knew when I started writing this book, that’s exactly where I wanted to go.
And what inspired you to write The Street Between the Pines?
I got the idea back in 2006. And it’s kind of a long story, but I wanted to adopt a cat. I was probably 26 or 27, and I wanted to get a black cat. I live on the shoreline of Connecticut, so I was calling all the local shelters. I was using a pet-finder website to see what some of these places had for inventory, if you will, and I couldn’t find one, so it took me a couple weeks. But I finally called a place that was about twenty, twenty five minutes down the shoreline, which is a garden center.
I think I can see where you’re going with this.
Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of funny—kind of meta. So I show up, walk through this place, and I finally find someone to help me out. They took me to where their cat shelter was, and it was just a handful of cats in mesh cages, like chicken or rabbit cages, just stacked. And I was like, oh, ok. Kind of weird. But I wanted a black kitten, so I took the cat home. And then the cat scratched me pretty good, and I started to get freaked out. I’d had the cat a couple days, and I was like, this cat could have rabies, this cat could harbor diseases. I don’t even know where they found him. So I called up the place, and I spoke to the lady running the shelter, and she said the cats were coming from eminent domain. And I didn’t know what that meant, and she clarified. Again, this was in 2006. There’d been a big takeover here by a pharmaceutical company that had driven people out of their houses in this neighborhood on the water. The company ended up filing for chapter 11, and they didn’t go through with whatever they planned to do with this land. So this neighborhood was left, just abandoned. This was in 1995, ’96, so I guess some of these cats were just living in the houses. When I heard that, I just had this weird vision. And the idea that popped into my brain was some abominable creature breaking into someone’s flooded basement and attacking their family. And that was the impetus of my entire story; everything was built around this one idea. And I honestly kind of forgot how the cats in the neighborhood originally played into the idea… I just wanted to write a story about this creature escaping from an abandoned facility, this shutdown pharmaceutical company, within this neighborhood filled with stray cats.
I could definitely tell from your writing that you’re a cat lover! And a horror fan, too. I loved how you created this terrifying and vivid monster, complete with a whole mythology surrounding it. Tell me about how you came up with "The Norwich Norwaukus."
When I got my first draft back from my initial editor, he gave me feedback—like you. His was much, much lighter; he maybe gave me three pages of notes of what he thought the book was missing and what he thought was needed to help flesh out some of these scenes. His suggestion was: “You want to add some mystery surrounding the creature. Maybe create some mythology around it. Research that angle.” So I was like, you know what, kind of sounds stupid—and I almost didn’t do it. But I started doing the research on Connecticut mythology, and I found all this stuff that I mention in the actual story. There really are these cannibals, and a long island serpent sighting, and vampires (which was a tuberculosis myth). These are all real mythologies, based in Connecticut. And my creature, the "Norwaukus," its name is very similar to another monster sighting in another town in Connecticut. But my story takes place in Norwich, so I did a play of words with “Norwich Norwaukus.” It has this sort of native feel to it. But that’s what I ended up choosing, and I guess it was a good choice to add this whole mythology element to the story.
Yeah, I loved how the detailed lore added a sense of realness to the world. I also really enjoyed your protagonist, Curtis. He’s a Gulf War Veteran grappling with a terrifying monster. Yet he's also struggling with PTSD and deteriorating mental health, a depiction veteran readers have found both relatable and realistic. What would you say informed Curtis's complex characterization?
So the story started off with the idea of a family getting attacked in their house. And while I was building this story, I had to answer these questions… What does Curtis do for a living? Where does he come from? What is his story? And I’m not exactly sure why I chose the military, but they do say “write what you know.” So part of Curtis was inspired by my brother. He’s sixteen years older than me, and he was in the navy. He never fought in any wars; he was never drafted. But he and Curtis also share similarities in what they do for a living; they’re both telecom technicians. And I have a technical background too. I went to trade school after college for two years and did telecom work very briefly, so I also had a bit of knowledge. I decided Curtis is going to be a telecom tech, he’s going to come from the military, and he’s going to have illusions. So I decided, you know what, he may as well be suffering from PTSD. And what also inspired and helped all this was the time period. Because of the eminent domain inspiration happening in the mid 90’s, I wanted to keep it real. I wanted to keep the time period similar, which is why I set the story in 2004, nine years after the destruction of the pharmaceutical company and the eminent domain takeover. And that put Curtis at the perfect age for being a Gulf War Veteran. It did take a tremendous amount of research to make sure that I was doing it justice, but I wanted it to feel believable and real. And pretty much all of that is what informed Curtis’s character. Writing it was like watching a puzzle, all these pieces falling into place. This sounds stupid, but it kind of wrote itself. It was such a rewarding experience doing this, and I’m in the middle of it again now. I’m writing the third act of my second novel, and the same kind of thing is happening. It’s like magic.
I’m so happy to hear that your next novel is going well. Can you tell us a little about it?
I’m writing a sci-fi horror western that takes place in 1884. It’s not a redemption story, but more like, if we’re talking movies, “The Unforgiven” meets “Alien” and “Predator.” It’s about an older gentleman, an outlaw and civil war veteran, who has two kids and is living under aliases. He recently discovered that he may have been discovered, so he runs from his current place of residence in Denver, Colorado, and escapes to his uncle-in-law’s cabin, in New Mexico. Today, it’s considered Roswell, but in the 1880s, it was a town called Missouri Plaza. He escapes there with his family, meets a very eccentric mix of characters who’ve also escaped their lives to come “hide out” in Missouri Plaza, and eventually finds something very intriguing in his backyard as he’s digging a well. Misery Plaza is the working title. And I got the idea from a lot of stuff that happened in history, just like The Street Between the Pines.
That sounds amazing; I can’t wait to read it! Before we wrap up, could you share the most surprising thing you learned in creating, editing, and publishing your book?
I had spent about a year and a half querying. Just to find a literary agent alone is a job in and of itself. The query letters, the synopses, filling out all their forms… It almost drives you to just want to stop writing. And then, on top of that, the rejections—if you even get a letter back. That has been the most discouraging, frustrating part of this whole journey. So I’m kind of glad, at this point, I’m not pursuing that route. Learning I don’t have to find a literary agent, but still can possibly find success and have a great piece of work is the most surprising part of all this, I would imagine. It takes a village.
Do you have any other tips or advice you've learned during this process that you'd like to share with your fellow writers?
Don’t ever give up. Don’t give up the dream. If you really want it, it’s not impossible. Trying not to quote Back to the Future… But all the information you need is out there.
I had this idea in 2006. And I just never wrote it. I never thought somebody such as myself could write a novel and just sell it. Self-publishing was not a thought—I mean, I was bartending at the time, so not much of anything was a thought. But 2016 rolls around, and I finally get the idea to start writing this thing. Slowly and surely, it started to come together.
If you’re willing to go out there and get it, put in the work, anything is possible.
Finally, where can readers get their hands on The Street Between the Pines on March 14th?
You can find The Street Between the Pines eBook and paperback at Amazon.com on March 14th (https://amzn.to/3mxNzQ1)! It's available for expanded distribution and may start showing up in brick-and-mortar stores and libraries starting in May. The hardcover will only be available via brick and mortar such as Barnes and Nobles.
J.J. Alo is a commercial actor, model, and author. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, he was a graphic designer, bartender, and library media specialist. As a lover of the macabre, J.J. has written several screenplays and novels, creating his interconnected “New England Supernatural Universe” filled with inherently flawed, complex characters and antiheroes. His next novel, Misery Plaza, will be released fall of 2023. J.J. lives and works out of his Connecticut Shoreline home with six insane cats and spends his time visiting coffee shops, movie theaters, and concert venues. He is a lifelong pop culture nerd, Comic Con & cosplay fanatic, avid gym enthusiast, and subpar snowboarder (he tries!). And he’ll never say no to a perfectly shaken dirty martini. Never.
fb novel page: facebook.com/streetbetweenthepines