1. I was fortunate enough to win One Hot January by writing a letter to my eight-year-old self and being chosen from many entries. Are your Joe January novels in fact your own letter to your young self? A creative outlet in such regard? If not, do you mind sharing your own letter with us?
Will I disappoint you if I say the January novels are not in fact my own letters to my younger self? Will I still be able to share my own letter to myself at age eight?
During the last year of my dad’s life I asked him if he had any regrets. He laughed and told me, “Of course. No one gets out of their life without a few.” I was forty-two at the time and had acquired one or two of my own, and have acquired several more since then. Maybe it’s natural, with fewer years ahead of me than behind, for me to stare a little longer at the past, at those chapters of my life that define me.
I’d already started writing One Hot January before Dad passed away, but the project went on hiatus for a couple years when Mom passed away and Dad became ill. I wanted to spend time with him during the final year of his life and, in the aftermath of his death, coming a year after my mother’s passing, I was, well, just grieving.
When I felt compelled to pick it up and start writing again, something about it no longer seemed to sit right. The more I thought about it the more I realized I had an opportunity to say something important—about life in general as well as life in our society, and the relationships between men and women and children and their parents. What started out as pure escapism into an alternate reality in which Germany wins World War II with the paradox of time travel mixed in then became a man’s autobiography (January’s, not mine). Whisked a hundred years into the future with no way to return to his own era, January laments his lost past, the choices he made, the mistakes he accumulated, the woman he treated so poorly.
I think one of the messages in One Hot January and its sequel, January’s Thaw (due to hit the shelves later this year), is that we’d all do better, live happier lives, if we weren’t so self-centered and fearful about reaching out to others, leaving ourselves vulnerable, and to make our dreams come true. Just because, according to Thoreau, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” doesn’t mean that a man’s reach shouldn’t exceed his grasp, not if you buy into Robert Browning’s adage that it should exceed his grasp “or what’s a heaven for?”
Another message is a reminder of how short life is. When you look at the grand scheme, the age of not only the universe but the solar system and our planet, how significant is a mere seventy or eighty years? It’s nothing. And we bicker and we squabble over meaningless issues. We’re like a cell in a Petri dish or a cancer cell in a body, devouring everything we touch and giving nothing in return until, eventually, we use it all up. What then?
2. The concept of One Hot January is very unique in the sense that it is a realistic way of describing the science fiction (?) concept of time travel and changing the future by affecting the past. Is this something you believe is happening or may be our future/past at some point?
Wow, that’s pretty deep, Sarah. You like time travel themed science fiction, don’t you?
I think many of us wonder, when we reach a certain age, how our lives might’ve turned out had we made different decisions along the way. Most time travel plots center on the theory that a change to the distant past—the stepping on that butterfly in the age of the dinosaurs—will have a profound effect on our present.
But what if it doesn’t? What if going back in time to undo history leaves our present unchanged but instead only creates another timeline? Who’s to say myriad timelines or alternate realities don’t exist, the result of the many choices we make—or fail to make—each and every day?
That’s the premise behind One Hot January.
Joseph Conrad wrote that the mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
I think what that other Joe meant was that whatever the mind of man can conceive he can make into reality. Had I been alive the day the Wright brothers made history at Kitty Hawk and someone told me that in sixty years man would not only cross the Atlantic in an airplane but land on the moon in a spaceship, I’d have told them they were crazy. Cell phones were spawned by Star Trek communicators, and today’s lasers were at one time an element in science fiction. A lot of things only written about fifty or a hundred years ago are today reality.
Whatever man can envision he can make into reality.
If we survive as a species we may indeed find a way to travel back in time, against the flow of events. In fact, many believe that UFOs aren’t extraterrestrials but instead visitors from the future come back in time to ensure the continuity of their own timeline.
In One Hot January I started with an alternate reality in which Germany won World War II. A hundred years later the empire Hitler vowed would last a thousand years is systematically wiping out entire peoples to ensure German supremacy. But a small faction of dissenters sees the flaw in extermination, the elimination of diversity. So they travel back in time to launch a conspiracy to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place, thereby drawing the U.S. into the war earlier, at a time when Hitler was still vulnerable. The insinuation in the plot is that we are living that alternate timeline and that another exists, side-by-side with this one, in which we are all speaking German.
In the sequel, January’s Thaw, I explore the subsequent events in the aftermath of Hitler’s demise—freedom left unchecked leading to pornography, pollution, capitalism spawning greed; in addition to global warming, corrupt politics, terrorism, the pursuit of materialism—the American Dream—as a basis for happiness, and for all our purported connectivity through the Internet and cell phones, we are more disconnected than ever. Not what Dad fought for on Okinawa.
That’s not to say that rule under a tyrannical despot is preferable; only that freedom without accountability can have equally disastrous effects.
3. You post a lot of flash fiction pieces relevant to your Joe January series on your blog (http://www.jconradguest.com/jconradsblog). Do you use these to get to know your characters more or are they excerpts from a novel which you’ve already written?
I post a lot of excerpts from works in progress and later, too, once they’ve been published. I use them as a sort of movie trailer to generate interest in readership. I can’t say they help me get better acquainted with my characters, although I once went to New York when I suffered writer’s block during the writing of One Hot January. The plan was to visit some of Joe January’s haunts in an effort to try to catch up with him. The trip resulted in a piece of flash fiction I called A Case of Writer’s Block. It’s told from the perspective of the character (January) who meets his author in Central Park. It won a contest for me and appears on my blog. And yes, it unlocked my block for me and for that January and I will be forever grateful.
4. You were recently interviewed by Pat Bertram in regards to this book (http://patbertram.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/j-conrad-guest-author-of-one-hot-january-2/) and mentioned it took 10 years to write the Joe January trilogy due to your parents passing for which I am very sorry. During difficult times such as these are you able to separate your life from your writing or is your fictional creation always trying to take over?
I never try to separate my life from my fiction, Sarah. Red Smith, one of the most widely read sports journalists in the mid-twentieth century, said, “Writing is easy—just open a vein and bleed.”
That seems to go against what creative writing courses are teaching today. I read several years ago that writers should distance themselves from their characters. I wish I knew why we’re supposed to do that. I read in part to connect with the author and I can tell when something is purely fictional and contains no elements of reality. Maybe it’s just me, but I can spot a novel that lacks that connection between author and character.
A couple years after my mother passed away I wrote an article for a print magazine that was a chronicle of watching her succumb a little more day-by-day during her eighteen-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Granted, I needed to allow the reader the freedom to experience my story in their own way. Which is another way of saying I needed a certain amount of distance myself so that I didn’t make the memoir too focused on my grief. I achieved that; but that’s not to say it wasn’t a painful journey through which to go. I later posted that article on a blog and later found someone from a Parkinson’s support group had reposted it where several comments had been left by people with whom I’d connected and they expressed their gratitude to me for making them feel they weren’t alone in what they were feeling—the sadness, the grief, even the anger—in being a caregiver to a loved one afflicted with Parkinson’s.
I wrote a similar piece for my dad a couple years after he passed on, depicting a visit to Fort Custer National Cemetery in Battle Creek. It, too, appears on my blog. No fiction resides in that piece; but it is embellished here and there for readability. That’s not to say I had to resist the urge to write a fictional account of the event.
I’m not saying that everything I write is in some way autobiographical, but I do draw on some personal experiences, putting some unique twist into a familiar event or situation. For me to write believable fiction I have to be able to relate to my characters, no matter how fetched the storyline might be, and what better way to relate than by turning to reality?
For example, I’ve written a lot about father-son relationships, which has been therapeutic for me in some ways (not to mention it’s a way for me to keep my father alive); but I think a lot of men of a certain age struggle with a childhood during which their father wasn’t very nurturing. When I read something that connects with me, to which I can relate personally, it makes me feel I’m not alone, and that’s what I try to do as a writer—connect with others.
5. You also mention that most of your characters are loosely based on people you know – are they able to figure out who they are in each book? Has this created any conflict?
Up until now, no, it hasn’t been a problem. Thanks for bringing it to their attention! I’m usually pretty good about disguising them. However, the novel I completed in February, A Retrospect in Death, digs deep into the childhood of my protagonist and I was surprised by how much we shared (although I’m sure my recollections were blurred by the passage of so much time). And that’s all I have to say about that. Just remember the disclaimer about any resemblance to actual persons living or deceased being purely coincidental.
Seriously, if writers are honest, I think they infuse their fictional characters with traits of people they know or have observed at Starbucks while waiting for their morning brew; maybe they’re just unaware of it, or maybe they’re pompous in wanting to take credit for creation of something with which they had little to do. Or maybe they’re intent on protecting the innocent!
6. Who is your favourite author and what genre do you enjoy reading most?
I’ve had a number of favorites over the years. I grew up reading the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany. I’ve followed Stephen R. Donaldson for thirty years, and Gene Wolfe, too. Wolfe has been writing for nearly sixty years and although he’s still creative, his more recent work hasn’t connected with me. I don’t know that that’s a reflection on him or my reading tastes. All three write science fiction-fantasy. I don’t think I have a favorite today. Today I just look for good writing no matter the genre, although I’m reading more biographies and autobiographies than ever before.
7. Do you have any advice for aspiring or emerging authors?
Learn perseverance and don’t be so quick to self-publish as a means to an end. A rejection letter never hurt anyone. There is no shortcut to success in any chosen profession, and that includes publishing on a credit card. Learn your craft! Beware of unscrupulous publishing houses that make their money upfront, off the author, and don’t care about sales.
Never underestimate the value of revising—a writer’s work as an editor is never done. Never be satisfied with a first draft. Don’t rely on a publisher to provide editorial services. They’re trying to cut costs and a good way to do that is to eliminate staff editors. Publishers today look for clean narratives that don’t require a lot of changes let alone fixes.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a good story is all you need. You still need to be able to craft sentences and create compelling characters that spew believable dialogue. I can’t believe the number of writers I meet who don’t like to read. How can you aspire to write if you don’t like to read? Reading is perhaps the single best way to learn how to write, not to mention to find ideas. Find an author you like and try to emulate his or her style. You can’t plagiarize style and besides, you won’t be able to entirely hide your own unique voice.
8. If you could be anyone in the world, or in fiction, would you still be J. Conrad Guest? If not, who would you love to be?
I try to stay away from such whimsical notions. We may one day discover how to travel faster than light and travel back in time; but I don’t think anyone will find the cure to who we are, permitting us to change places with someone else. I think we’re pretty much stuck with the body into which we’re born.
That said, I’d still be J. Conrad Guest, but perhaps with a slightly different story to tell. This J. Conrad Guest made it to the major leagues, played his entire career for one team—the Detroit Tigers of course—winning the World Series once, was happily married to his childhood sweetheart, fathered three children (one more than Dad) and wrote a best-selling autobiography about his days as a Tiger; his would be an autobiography bereft of scandal and steroid use. His name would appear on the Hall of Fame ballot his first year of eligibility and Al Kaline and Ernie Harwell would speak on his behalf at his induction to Cooperstown.
9. And last but certainly not least, is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked while interviewed but never were?
The question: If you could write a letter and send it back in time to yourself, at age eight, what would you write?
Three things you should know about Dad. One: His bark is worse than his bite. His eight-year stint in the Marine Corps, during which he fought on Okinawa and returned stateside to serve as a Drill Instructor, left him ill-prepared for fatherhood. He no doubt suffered from what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder. In a few years, after you’ve gotten your driver license, he’ll make a habit of checking the odometer on the family car when you bring it home and tell you it’s a father’s duty to distrust his son. Don’t believe him. In the end, when it matters most, even as he takes with him to his grave all he saw and endured on Okinawa, he’ll trust you as if you’d once shared a foxhole together. You need not fear him; in your fourth decade you will discover the teddy bear inside him, and yes, the pupil you always thought yourself will become the teacher. He will hold you in much higher esteem than you ever thought possible.
Two: He means well even if he isn’t very nurturing to you. In a couple years you’ll take a spill from a bike that doesn’t belong to you and is much too big for you. Dad will scold you and the lesson you will learn is to avoid risk. You already dream of playing major league baseball and you’ll want to play little league, but he will dissuade you, fearing a risk of injury and, perhaps more important, your disappointment should you fail. Understand he means only to protect you, just remind him that he joined the Marines to avoid the sentence of serving on an assembly line for forty years to retire with a gold watch, and that playing baseball carries with it far less risk than does going into battle. Remind him of the words of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Three: Although he doesn’t show it, he loves you. It’s true, the notion of “pay it forward.” An unhappy childhood, the youngest of three boys, and the weight of sixty-five years of guilt over violin lessons?unable to stand up to his own father, he allowed him to pay for lessons unwanted and in later years accused himself of thievery?perhaps accounts for his hands off approach to fatherhood. He’ll tell you he wants you to live your own life and, too late, you’ll realize that some decisions you, as a young man, should not have made without his wisdom and guidance. You’ll be angry at him, blame him for a lot of your shortcomings and failures, in both career and relationships with women, and for your difficulty in bonding with men. Understand that he may be responsible, but he is not to blame. He may have left you handicapped in many ways, but you have the good sense within you to choose the paths down which you travel. You can unlearn all that his absence from your youth teaches you.
As an adult you will continue to seek the approval he withheld when you were a boy, and which he will continue to withhold until the final year of his life. Understand that setting goals and reaching for your dreams—doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do—doesn’t require approval from anyone.
Dad is right: no one gets out of this life without regrets, and you’ll be no different. You’ll feel the perceived weight of his disapproval of many of the sins you’ll commit. In your fifth decade, ten years after Dad’s passing and as you realize there are fewer grains in the upper bell of the hourglass than in the lower, you’ll come to understand a lot about why he was the way he was and so you’ll come to forgive him. The forgetting will be more difficult. Use it to your advantage.
Wisdom: it comes alone from living. Yet it’s no substitute for the teachings of a father, the man whom a young boy first aspires to emulate. This letter is not intended to save you from bloodying your nose, to prevent you from ever riding the bicycle too big for you. It is instead intended to assure you that you have within you the power to risk and to change, the strength to make choices, even if some of those choices aren’t always the right one. You also have within you the ability to forgive yourself your transgressions, as God forgives you, even as others choose not to. Yet choose wisely, knowing that yesterday’s mistakes can’t be undone, but that tomorrow is a blank page.
With no children, I cannot pay it forward; therefore this letter is my sincere effort to pay it backward, in the hope (what is a man if he cannot dare to hope?) you will pay it forward for the three of us.
Thanks for reading and be sure to comment for your chance to win a a copy of J Conrad Guests book!