Once upon a time, I wanted to be a literary writer. As a kid and teenager, I wrote my share of angst-filled bad poetry and short stories and had most of everything I wrote rejected. No matter. The Writing Force is strong in this one, and I continued to write for myself and my friends and eventually realized that since I couldn’t really understand how that plot stuff works, nonfiction was my thing. And my writing lives happily ever after, as evidenced in this blog, a book about my dad growing up in Holland during WWII, and a handful of embarrassing long, but well-written essays (if I do say so myself).
Along the way, I met many talented writers, but life’s winding paths can make maintaining these relationships difficult. Except when it brings you back together again, oh, 20 years later. This week I want to share with you an interview with John Young, a writer who I met through his wife, who I worked with. I hadn’t seen in either of them since they moved to Cincinnati. We reconnected at his reading in Boston last fall to promote his first, new novel, When the Coin Is in the Air. The best parts for me?
The book was really good. It’s a coming of age novel about Jason Blake, who wants to please his erratic father and hyper-competitive older brother. To find his way, Jason tries on different roles: schoolyard bully, football player, actor, student. He escapes his Midwest home and heads to the East Coast, but he must return to confront his father and protect his mother. The book has emotional depth, and it also has a lot of dramatic tension and is a total page turner. The father’s behavior and how Jason will handle it kept me hooked though the whole book.
Another cool point for me: He held on to the idea for the book for more than 20 years. People, this is a writing superpower. I have met people who say they want to write “someday,” and have a great story in them and just never can get to it. John was writing when I met him, and then as what happens to a lot of us, he had to prioritize family and career, and put it aside. The kids are off to college now, and guess what? He finished that novel he started 20 years ago. I love that. Also, I love that he read his book for the audio version. All in one week. We’ll talk a bit about that too. I was fascinated by how that even works.
And so, here is a very free flowing telephone interview I had with John, about his book, writing, and how being our age really is a cool thing.
Sandy: I really appreciated the male perspective of the father, brother, Jason. I know people talk about how we have too much white male perspective, but these were complex, well-developed male characters from different perspectives. You get the full range of emotions, fears, shame, and how Jason evolves. How did you manage that?
John: The book is semi-autobiographical, and I used what I remembered feeling as a kid and a young adult. The novel represents different kinds of men. The father is from a different generation, tough and wanting to be invincible—he’s also addicted to speed and is violent. The brother represents the hyper-competitive man, trying to surround himself by the best and being the best and what that means. The characters are very flawed but still human. Jason is different and does not find himself in either of these categories.
Sandy: What are some of the other themes that you cover in this book?
John: The book is about a young man’s search for self worth. How he gets there is important so the novel covers issues like the idea of the need for independence against the sense of loyalty. Another is shame, which is such a common and devastating emotion. The book opens with Jason as a child accidentally starting a fire that consumes a hay field. Even though he helps fight it and they save the house, the neighboring corn field, and the woods from the fire, he holds a lot of shame about it. And that shame continues throughout the character’s life and how he mistreats his girlfriend Nancy. The shame comes from the character not being able to be vulnerable.
Sandy: Vulnerability is really at the center of everything in life, isn’t it? And it’s so hard to be vulnerable when you are younger. Another bonus of aging.
John: I’m interested in exploring that with my characters. It’s easier for me to be vulnerable now that I’m older and have experienced success and feel strong. It’s much harder to be vulnerable to others when you aren’t feeling strong. I was listening to Brene Brown and her TED talk about vulnerability. That’s a great talk, but it’s also easier for her because she’s a successful college professor, author, has a TED speaker. But could she be vulnerable when she was a 21-year-old college dropout? Probably not.
Sandy: Interesting, I was thinking about vulnerability from a relationship point of view, but there are other places where it’s risky to be vulnerable.
John: Being vulnerable in the workplace can get you fired. If you can’t figure out how to approach a project, I have seen people who admit it get fired. I worked in advertising, a typically high-pressure kind of job, but I’m sure that industry isn’t the only one.
And related to that, we get good at hiding. Jason, who doesn’t really fit in with how his brother and father live their lives, hides much of himself as he tries to go along with what is expected of him. His father is tough, literally teaching him fighting moves and handling the pain. His brother has a relentless drive to be the best at everything — sports and career.
But Jason finds a different path. He ends up taking the best from both parents —toughness from his father and loving thoughtfulness from his mother, April. In fact, I was dealing with a difficult passage in the manuscript and my editor said, “What would April do?” I see her as a mindful person before it became a cliché.
Sandy: You wrote a first draft in your mid-30s. How is the book you wrote now different from that version?
John: 20 years ago, I had less tolerance for the father and the brother. But over time and distance, finishing the manuscript now, in my 50s, I understand more behind each character’s behavior. For example, the father’s addiction to speed starts when he’s a young man driving a Greyhound bus. His coworkers tell him if he falls asleep, he could kill innocent people and himself. They suggest speed to help him stay awake. The problem is he likes the way it makes him feel invincible, so it’s not just helping him stay awake, it becomes a life-long addiction. I can understand those circumstances more now than when I was younger.
Sandy: Let’s talk about the audio version. How did that come about? It seems like a must-have these days when you publish a book. I knew all about how to try to get published 20 years ago and find this new piece so fascinating.
John: Yes, I wanted to have an audio version, but my small, independent publisher doesn’t do that piece. I started looking online on how to do it myself, and it was daunting — learning how to edit out breaths, as well as figuring out the equipment. So, I did a Kickstarter to help pay for it.
Then I had an interview on a Cincinnati local TV morning show, and I talked about my Kickstarter campaign. Just so happened that the CEO, Dan Carruthers of Gwynne Sound in Cincinnati was watching and he offered to do the audio book for free.
Sandy: That’s amazing!
John: Yes, but there was a catch. They said I had to read it myself. I had thought I would hire an actor, but the folks at Gwynne Sound were adamant that I knew the book best and that I had a good voice. Secretly, the high school drama student in me was thrilled [we both laugh].
We recorded for 24 hours in one week—6 hours of reading a day. By the end my throat felt ragged and it hurt. I thought my voice quality was going down, but the engineers assured me I was fine.
Sandy: My voice starts to tire out after 20 minutes, never mind 6 hours a day.
John: After the initial read through, we reviewed the entire recording and then did another 6 hours of redo’s — things like a fumbled word or they could hear me brushing my hand against my jeans, so I’d have to reread that sentence.
Sandy: It’s like the audio version of re-writing.
John: Right. In the end, they had 30 hours of tape that they edited down to 10 ¼ hours of audio book. It was really demanding, but the professionalism, supportive nature, and the passion of the sound engineers at Gwynne Sound made all the difference. When I started to feel discouraged and made mistakes, they encouraged me to take a break. It really felt like a team effort. I can’t recommend them enough.
Sandy: Once you had a clean, professional file, then what happened?
John: I went to Author’s Republic, which puts the files through another QA process, and then they get your book out to 30 different outlets. For example, I requested that my local library add the audio version, and 2 days later Author’s Republic added it on Overdrive and Hoopla. You wouldn’t be able to do that yourself. They also manage the royalties and take out a percentage.
Sandy: What’s next for you?
John: I have a second novel manuscript that I’ve just finished. It began as a short story in the late 90s, and I’m looking for an agent. I’m also working on a 3rd novel that started as an idea I told friends 25 years ago. I’m learning and challenging myself—the new book requires significant research. My 4th novel may also be based on an idea I also had in the late 90s.
Sandy: Well, I hope your novel incubation period speeds up and that the process gets faster [we both laugh]. But that’s the great thing about getting older from an artist/writer point of view, right? You have more experience and patience.
John: As long as you are continually learning and observing the world around you, and using your art to make sense of it, you will be able to continue and make good art. Age is helpful in that respect. If you’re paying attention and can share those insights, that’s worth pursuing.