Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I honestly don't know. It doesn't make much sense, does it? I've been really struggling to live on my writing income for the last four years. You'd think I'd write something a little more commercial and mainstream—maybe a nice contemporary romantic thriller with normal, uncomplicated, smiley-face characters and a simple, easy-to-understand plot. I can do normal. Would it be so wrong to target my books to the largest segment of the reading population? I'd love to see my books on the best-sellers list.
So why do I keep writing dark, surreal, complex, contemporary, creepy, genre-twisting supernatural-romantic-mysterious-fantasy-thrillers? I don't know. Maybe I'm just a slow learner. Or maybe I'm writing for the readers of tomorrow instead of the readers who are out there buying books today. It's a complete mystery to me.
Actually, John, there are plenty of readers who like what you write. That’s why I’m promoting you, hoping to introduce you to more of them. Besides when you came to know the Lord, what is the happiest day in your life?
I tend by nature to be a tortured soul. My inner critic is very generous with the rest of the world, but it's extremely hard on me. I'm still working on the happiness thing. I'm getting better at it, but it's taking time.
This isn't to say that I haven't experienced more than my fair share of happy circumstances. The first night I met Amy Wylie (now Amy Olson) was an extremely happy circumstance. I wish you could have seen her. We met at a Campus Crusade meeting in Charleston, SC. She was radiant with happiness and laughter and the joy of life. Her roommate asked me out on a date for that night, and I immediately went to work turning the date into a double-date with Amy and my brother. Poor guy… We hadn't walked more than fifty feet before I was with Amy, and he was with her roommate. I was terrible, but I couldn't help it. I was blind to every sight but her face, deaf to every sound but her soft timid voice and bright laughter.
I'm normally self-conscious and inhibited on a first date, but that night I lost myself completely. I know we went to Old Towne on historic King Street for dinner and that we walked through the old Unitarian cemetery and the Battery and even a playground. Somehow we ended up on the roof of the Francis Marion hotel, and I even remember walking on the moonlit beach by the Sullivan's Island lighthouse, but the whole night is a blur. All I could feel was the pounding of my heart in my throat, the ache to reach out and touch her hand. I, with all my over-analysis and bitter self-criticism, had ceased to exist. It was like stepping out of my body and walking into a world of wonder and magic and joy. A dream filled with faerie tale happiness too intense for our mortal bodies to endure.
I love Amy a million times more now than I did on that first night we met, but time and familiarity have softened the impact her presence has to my system. I'm not blown out of my body and into faerie land as often now, which means I have to put up with myself and all my happiness-squelching neuroses while enjoying her company. It's not complete happiness yet, but it's getting closer and closer every day. I don't suppose I'll truly master it until I'm dead—which is a comforting thought when you stop and think about it.
I’m glad to hear that about you. After over 45 years with the love of my life, my heart still leaps when he walks into the room. How has being published changed your life?
Being published has allowed me to quit an extremely demanding day job as a director and principal scientist at a scientific software company. As a result I get to spend more time at home with Amy and our 16-year-old son, Peter, and 14-year-old daughter, Ari. I LOVE hanging out with my family and friends—and we do a lot of hanging out. Writing is a lonely business, and I'm an obligate people person. I need to be around people or I get depressed and kind of pathetic. On Sunday nights our friends come over to play a fantasy role-playing game we've been playing since the kids were little grasshoppers. The game has grown over the years until it now includes fourteen teenagers and ten adults. Monday nights we have our "small" group (around twenty-five people) over for dinner, Bible study and prayer, and on Friday nights I have two different writing groups over: SCUM is for around fifteen adults and Mojack Platicorn McJako is for six teenagers at the local high schools.
One of the hardest things for me is the isolation thing, too. As you know, I’m very much a people person. What are you reading right now?
I just started reading Robert Liparulo's Comes a Horseman, and I just finished Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins which is the sequel to The Hunger Games. I've been a huge Collins fan since her Greggor the Overlander YA series. Before Catching Fire, I read Looking for Alaska by John Green and Stargazer by Claudia Gray, and finished rereading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.
What is your current work in progress?
I'm currently working on Exiles, the third and final book in the Shade collection. I left a lot of questions unanswered in Shade and Powers. Exiles should answer them—if the readers are clever and pay very close attention.
I want to feature you with Exiles, too. What would be your dream vacation?
Living on a houseboat with my family on the River Thames in Oxford, England, with our extended family and thirty or forty of our closest friends docked close by.
Wow! You dream big. I’d like to be one of those friends when you do it. How do you choose your settings for each book?
I don't really choose a setting. It's a natural part of the story. San Francisco with its swirling mists and rolling hills and quirky homeless population is completely integral to the plot and literary style of Shade. It was part of the inspiration for the story. Likewise, the city of New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana were so integral to Powers that I had to delay writing it when the hurricane struck. I was actually scheduled to fly into New Orleans for story research the day after the levees broke. I canceled the trip, and in my mind I canceled the book, but God had other plans. A year or so later when I finally revisited the manuscript to see if it was still salvageable, I was shocked to see what I had written several months before the hurricane struck. Here's an excerpt from what was then the first chapter:
Jazz took a deep breath, letting the smoke-laced air slide across the mic in a long rasping sigh. E minor. He switched keys, blending the Steinway’s plaintive tones to the sound of his breathing. A high-pitched buzz rang in his ears. The room was starting to spin again. He shut his eyes, pressed his chin against the microphone, a solid anchor against the rocking swaying room. The murmur of distant voices lulled him. Gulf waves crashing against a distant shore. Soft, soothing. A balmy breeze on a warm winter afternoon.
A woman’s tittering laugh shocked him back to the present. Had he quit playing? He glanced up at the manager of the club. Joey was leaning over the bar, talking to a brunette in a neon pink top. The whole building could burn down around him and Joey wouldn’t notice. But the customers…
Jazz blinked the grit out of his eyes and upped the tempo, hammering at the old ivories, left hand battling the right in a discordant duel between majors and minors. One by one the murmuring voices died away, leaving the bar frozen in expectant silence. Jazz could feel their confusion, the building sense of anticipation. He took another breath, filling his lungs with burning pain. His right hand hammered harder, faster, building to a last frenzied gasp before collapsing under the weight of the throbbing bass. C washed away by E minor. Hope swallowed up by despair.
“Washed, washed away with the waters…” Jazz’s rasping voice slurred in and out through the tumbling notes. “Many lost… many more, many maybe… many more waiting to be found.” The lyrics scraped past raw vocal chords. Two hours tops. It was all he had left. “Washed, washed away with the waters…” He flung the words into the room, letting them splash like a pounding tide against startled concrete faces.
“I remember, I remember, when I was young I remember most of the time…” Jazz pressed his face to the microphone, filling his senses with the cold taste of metal and stale beer. “The sun so shining bright on your face… in the memory of moments we stole from this place, I can see that the ages will never erase… most of the time.”
A natural blonde was on her feet. Stepping toward him now. Flushed cheeks, deer-shined eyes. The cut of her dress screamed money.
Digging deep, he channeled even more intensity into his voice. Longing, yearning, unendurable pain, he sent it reverberating through the room, surrounding her, lifting her up, pounding into her swaying slender form.
“Washed, washed away with the waters…”
Her lips parted. She was gripping her purse in both hands. White-knuckled, trembling arms.
Almost… Just a little bit more. This could be his big score, but everything had to be just right.
He pulled suddenly back on the piano, letting his voice hang on the thin desolate air.
Her eyes locked onto his. He could feel the rise and fall of her swelling chest. He had her. It was going to be a huge score. Fifty dollars at least. Maybe even a hundred. He’d gotten bigger tips from women much less well-off than this one.
Needless to say, I didn't have to do much rewriting.
Katrina happened after one of my books with part of the setting being New Orleans had already gone past final edits. So I know how you felt. We did add one line to the book, but I still got a letter from a reader who was hurt by my almost ignoring the event. If you could spend an evening with one person who is currently alive, who would it be and why?
C.S. Lewis. I know he's been a bit reclusive as of late, but he continues to have a profound influence on my life and work.
What are your hobbies, besides writing and reading?
I also like inventing and playing new games, programming in Java or PHP, designing new businesses, playing ultimate frisbee, coming up with plots and story ideas, watching movies and television (mainly So You Think You Can Dance), and travelling with my family (which is funny because I dislike travelling alone).
What is your most difficult writing obstacle, and how do you overcome it?
I have a crippling form of perfectionism that makes me feel like everything I'm working on and and everything I've ever written is a putrid pile of steaming piggy poop. I've only found two things that help: 1) painful deadlines and 2) writing with a coauthor. I love being with people, so not only does writing with a coauthor give me more objectivity, but it makes the whole process a lot more fun. When I don't have the luxury to work with a coauthor (such as right now), I have friends hold me accountable to daily deadlines. (E.g. I owe them $100.00 for every day I don't write 1200 words.) It's amazing how motivating $100.00 can be. Not only am I motivated to write, but Amy is motivated for me to write as well. It's win-win-win-oops (but I’m still a winner because I’m so much more productive)-win.
I love it. What advice would you give to a beginning author?
Other authors will be able to help you a lot more than agents and editors. Make friend with us. Feed us cookies. :-)
Or feed us chocolates. Tell us about Powers.
You're asking me about one of my books? Well… Powers is basically, in layman's terms, what I like to call a putrid pile of steaming piggy poop.
Honestly, I'm really not a good person to ask. I'll ask someone more objective like some of my friends or my mom and get back to you.
Okay, I asked them. Here's what Ronie Kendig had to say:
Okay...Powers: A breathtaking plunge into the world of darkness . . . and back. A gripping tale that challenges one to consider the Powers we deem fantastical and unreal as horrifying realities. By far this is John's best work to date.
And here's what writing guru, Randy Ingermanson said:
Powers is a terrific example of what John calls "Writing in the Shadows" -- a technique for which I have no natural talent. But John has a lot of talent in writing this way. The book shows that John practices what he preaches. And oh yeah, it's a fun read.
And here's what my mom had to say:
Powers is good, but I liked Shade better. Tell them they have to read Shade.
Please give us the first page of the book.
The above snippet used to be the first page, but that was before I made Mari the main POV character. Here's the new first page:
Smooth moonlight, soft and timid as a sleeping babe’s breath, seeped through the forest canopy, painting Old Man Oak’s mossy beard with twisting ribbons of silver and shadow. The swamp folks were full awake now. All stoked up with joy, singing hallelujah for the tolerable coolness of another summer night. Bachelor bullfrogs barked out their steady bass against a piercing cicada threnody. Crickets and peepers and creepers hollering their praises full on top of the other, singing out to the Lord for the blessings He hath made.
It was a glorious song, filled with deep magic and considerations of awesome wonder. It made a body thankful to be alive. Squish-squashing through soft cool mud. Hop-scotching dead wood and fresh fallen branches. Pausing to look out across dark star-dusted waters where the proud Cypress sisters, skirts hitched high above dark boney knees, waded through reflections of ringing light. Swaying and sighing to the night music. The sounds of blessed freedom and sweet never-ending joy.
* * *
Mariutza let loose with a wistful sigh and felt her way through the dark forest. Purodad would be getting home soon. He was going to be mad as a dirt dauber when he discovered she’d run off again.
But she couldn’t just sit there in the wagon and let him lock her up. She was a proper lady now, a full-grown woman—Miss Caralee said so herself. Proper ladies didn’t hold to being locked up in diddlecars. Proper ladies had work to do. Washing and cooking. Tending to the nets.
Gradually, step by step, the forest opened out into a moonlit clearing. Mari tiptoed around a sun-burned vegetable patch and ran for the cover of a gnarled old oak tree. Miss Caralee would take her side. Purodad was getting superstitious in his old age. She’d said it herself. She wouldn’t stand for any more of his nonsense. That’s what she called it: utter nonsense.
“Yoo-hoo! Miss Caralee?” she called out from behind the old oak. “Don’t shoot. It’s me, Mariutza.”
She peeked out at a ramshackle hut pieced together with drift-boards from the storm. “I’m coming out now. Just me alone.” Stepping out from behind the tree, she hesitated. The cook fire wasn’t burning and there weren’t any candlelights shining through the windows. Caralee couldn’t be off visiting. It was long time past dark. Had she already gone off to bed?
“Here I am. Walking to the door!”
A scrape sounded inside the shack. The clank of metal against metal.
“Don’t shoot. It’s me!” Mari put some wind behind her words. Miss Caralee’s eyes were sharp as stickers, but her ears were starting to wear thin.
A strong voice, dry and weathered as sun-bleached driftwood, called out through the screen. “Lands, Chile. What you doin’ out the door? Night’s most black as soot. Don’t just stand there gawping like a catfish. Come on up!”
Mari ran up to the shack and sat down on the smooth old stump just outside the narrow door.
The screen flared bright as a match struck against the jamb post. Hollow cheeks and soft dark eyes. The flame flickered and steadied as it took hold of a tallow candle. Miss Caralee pressed it against the screen and peeped outside, squinting into the darkness like it was light.
“Your grandfather know you out this late?”
“He said he was going to lock me up. Keep me in the diddlecar till I learned some sense.”
“Mmm-hmm…” The ancient woman sighed. “That man! What have you gone and did now?”
“I was just looking. Didn’t nobody seen me. There haven’t been any hunters since spring.”
“Lord have mercy. Spying on the road again. Don’t you have work to tend?”
“No ma’am. I done finished it. But if Purodad locks me up, I won’t be getting nothing done. He thinks he can do it all himself, but you know he can’t. He’s got town folk to visit. Healings to tend.”
“Hush up, Chile. Ain’t nobody locking nobody up, but you listen to me. You a grown woman now. Time is for you to be telling him what to do. If you want to go running your skirts through the pluff mud, that’s nobody’s business but your own—so long’s all your work is done—but laws… spying on the road? I told you that myself. If Mr. Jonah say it ain’t safe, it ain’t safe.”
“But if they don’t see me—”
Okay, I'm hooked. How can readers find you on the Internet?
http://www.litany.com/ – CAUTION: I programmed it myself, and it still isn't finished so watch where you step.
Thank you, John, for this interesting time with us.
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