Welcome to the one hundred and eightieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre (inc. novels and poetry) John J Hohn. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, John. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
John: I have been writing all of my life, but retirement gave the time to work at getting published. I first published as a schoolboy, placing first in two national contests. I wrote poetry while I was in college and after graduating because a poem is shorter, easier to commit to paper, and more convenient to edit and revise. I love poetry, of course, and still compose poems as I work along on my fiction and non-fiction.
Morgen: Is there a genre you generally write?
John: My first published novel, ‘Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds’, is a mystery thriller. Because of the acceptance that it received, I am working on a sequel, but I also have a coming-of-age novel in the works. I have not adopted a genre.
Morgen: You sound very much like me; you like to dabble with a bit of everything. What have you had published to-date?
John: I published a small book of poetry, ‘As I Was Passing By’, in 2000. I published my first novel, ‘Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds’ in 2010. Holding my novel in my hands for the first time was a thrill.
Morgen: I bet. Sadly there’s not that joy with eBooks but it’s still thrilling seeing my covers on a website other than my own. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
John: I struggled for months to market the book on my own. I gave up. There are so many self-published authors in the fray these days and the books print are of very inconsistent quality. I finally hired a publicist to get my book launched. The jury is still out on their efforts. I also brought my own web site onto line, but I don’t think of my efforts as marketing myself as a “brand.” I want people to read my book and enjoy it. The marketing is hard work.
Morgen: It is. There’s a fine line between touting and gently nudging people. I’d love to blast Twitter and Facebook but it’s the quickest way to get de-followed / de-friended. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
John: I have been a finalist twice in the annual poetry concert sponsored by North Carolina State University; most recently, I was a finalist in 2010 and a runner up in a year earlier in the decade.
Morgen: Well done. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
John: I would love to have an agent take an interest in my work. An agent may not be vital to an author’s success, but I believe that with an agent’s contacts, knowledge of the market and industry, and editing advice a writer’s chances of getting published are greatly enhanced, and that being so, is assured a much better chance at having the book widely distributed.
Morgen: They do say that agents usually earn more than their commission in the deals that they secure but it’s so hard getting them in the first place. I mentioned eBooks a moment ago, are your books available as eBooks?
John: Yes. An eBook version is available through Outskirts Press and the Kindle version is available through Amazon.com.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
John: I have dozens. Sometimes, I could see why a piece was rejected. I may not have proofed it thoroughly. Or the cover letter may not have addressed the agent’s or the publisher’s interests. At other times, it is simply frustrating. To a lifelong salesman, rejection is an old sidekick. Every rejection at least notches another try in the belt. More notches mean increased odds of being accepted on the next effort.
Morgen: Absolutely, that’s the way to think of it. Just keep going. Finding the right thing for the right person.
John: I think also that agents and the few publishers who accept direct submissions are overwhelmed, and as a matter of survival, they need to develop a sharp eye for errors. I doubt that many can afford to look for the redeeming features in any writer’s submission. They are the gatekeepers. It can’t be a fun job. Certainly the pay scale in the publishing industry is not on the glamour end of the national average.
Morgen: It’s definitely a tough industry for most, apparently they rely on their top authors to keep the others afloat and it’s getting harder.
John: I love it when an editor or agent makes an encouraging comment on the rejection notice. I hope that they realize it is really a shot in the arm to the writer.
Morgen: I would imagine they do, I’m sure they started somewhere further down the rung of the ladder – we were all learner drivers once (hopefully). Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
John: I don’t manage to write every day. It’s a reflection on my lifestyle. I play golf. I walk my dog. I am a regular at the gym. My wife and I plan time together each day. I cook several times a week. Those are everyday priorities. But I have a conscience about my work. I think I log in about 20 to 30 hours a week one way or the other.
Morgen: That’s pretty good going. You obviously enjoy it which is the important thing. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
John: Any writer suffering from writer’s block is trying to start in the wrong place. I can get hung up, but I am a believer in getting underway no matter what—if not on the piece at hand, then another; if not that, then at another place in the same piece. My solution is to write where I find my energy the strongest. Another rule that I have is that I do not try to write the perfect first paragraph. I won’t know what the starting paragraph should be until I have finished the piece. The first paragraph is the last one that I write.
Morgen: That’s interesting. One of my Monday night poets starts with the last line and works backwards. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
John: My inspiration comes from the anger, disappointment, hurt, disgust, frustration, and joy in my every day life. I don’t hang onto much. My word processor is my therapist. I love ripping into a character that I have drawn on some small minded, vicious person.
Morgen: I love that.
John: Likewise, I enjoy portraying a generous forgiving character when someone comes to mind who has acted kindly toward me or others. I read once that we read to assure ourselves that we are not alone. Nothing under the sun is new. I think people who have a passion for writing are the sound of the other hand clapping in seeking the assurance that we are not alone. Writing is intensely private yet the writer’s efforts are turned inside out when something is published. I want others to agree with me. I want others to see things as I have seen them. I want them to feel as I feel. I don’t want to be alone with the most personal, most frightening, most joyful experiences in my life.
Morgen: Which you’re not when someone else is reading your story. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
John: I rough out a plot, do my research and get underway. I want to find the characters first and let them show me how they want to get to the end of the story in their own way. A strict outline is too confining, although I do not believe in abandoning good rules of composition unless the reason for doing so will justify itself—a pretty hard thing to do.
Morgen: Characters are obviously a big part of your stories, do you have a method for creating them, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
John: Most of my characters are modeled after people I known. They are a composite. Occasionally one springs from my imagination without any living person in mind at all. One comment I love to hear is that my characters or well-developed. The characters move the plot. They are not bits of flotsam caught in an inexorable tide. Adhering to this makes the story far more interesting.
Morgen: Absolutely, if you have a weak character the reader is going to switch off, regardless of how good the plot is… my opinion anyway. You write poetry, do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
John: I write a lot of poetry. Earlier in my life, I disciplined myself to master traditional forms—the sonnet, the Italian sonnet, etc. As I continued to write, however, I found free verse more suitable to what I was trying to convey.
I object to the term free verse. What is usually meant is that the piece is not rhymed in a given format nor is it presented in a uniform cadence. Free verse requires as much, if not more of an ear for cadence and tempo and the sound of the piece than verse. It is much more difficult to write well.
I love the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost is to American poetry what Norman Rockwell is to American art—irreplaceable and without peer. Admiring them does not prevent anyone from enjoying free verse or abstract painting. It is a matter of genre.
The distinction between prose and poetry is very blurred presently. I read poems frequently that are really prose pieces. Perhaps they are offered as poems because of their brevity. Prose seeks to be specific and eliminate ambiguity to assure understanding. If a reader sets down a piece of prose and says, “Now that could mean a lot of different things,” the writer has failed. Poetry, on the other hand, thrives on ambiguity and strives for the universal. Poetry indulges the allusion, the implied metaphor, uses cadence and tempo to reinforce the subject matter. Good free verse would communicate something close to the feeling that the poet intended if it were beat out on a drum. That would not be as easily true of prose. The vowel and consonants sounds communicate something of the poet’s intended feeling also even to the listener who does not understand the language of the poem. That would not be required of prose.
I didn’t know that poetry is very popular. Garrison Keeler has certainly been a wonderful influence. I haven’t a thought on why it is so poorly paid. Americans traditionally don’t value the arts unless it is something really sensational. Sometimes things get to be sensational and have no artistic merit at all. So go figure.
Morgen: I only really follow poetry through the poets in my group and there seems to be a real wealth of it. Of course this is going to vary country to country but it seems a shame that it’s not as ‘marketable’ to the professionals as novels, but then I think the same about short stories (and I’m a BIG fan of those). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
John: I post three or four articles a week on my blog that is part of my web site. I do it primarily to promote my novel. Most of what I put up is non-fiction, and it relates to my work as a financial advisor before I retired. Occasionally, I will put up a poem or an excerpt from something I am working on just to get reader reaction to it.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
John: My wife has a Masters in Romance Languages and an MBA. She is a voracious reader. It was she who asked, “How can you expect to write a mystery novel when you have never read one?” She is an excellent critic with a terrific BS detection system.
Morgen: Ah yes, a lot of author stress how important it is to read. I don’t write science-fiction or fantasy because I don’t read it. I have a good imagination but even that only stretches so far. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
John: I don’t believe in editing as I write. I probably do more by second nature now because of experience, but I usually do not like to stop and go back and reword anything. I know I will catch it on a rewrite. If not, I always keep a note page under a tab on the word processor and I call it up, make my note, and keep going. I believe that editing and composing use two different parts of the human intellect. Some may be able to get a working partnership going between both of them, but I don’t edit well when I write and don’t write well when I edit so I consider them to separate steps in preparing my finished work.
Morgen: I do too really, get it all out and then see what I’ve done when I come back to it later (often surprised, sometimes pleasantly so). How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
John: The Internet makes research a breeze. What once took hours, if not days, can be searched out in minutes.
Morgen: Isn’t it great? Research is one of my least favourites and the internet does make it more bearable, fun even. Although I love libraries I’m so grateful I don’t have to spend hours there looking for one piece of information.
John: I enjoy research and seek out subject-matter experts when I do not know where to look. I stopped by the sheriff’s office to find out about how forgeries are investigated and crime scenes managed. I asked an anesthesiologist to help me with toxicology issues.
Morgen: What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
John: I lie awake at night contemplating the mysteries of life—true statement but fodder for another question—the fate of my characters. By the time I am ready to sit down I am hoping that I have the time and the stamina to get it everything keyed in by the end of the day. I have a very active imagination. Almost on reflex, I see alternative meanings to everyday statements I hear or see. I am not good at abstraction, symbolic reasoning as in higher math nor am I very good a chess or cards.
Morgen: I think maths was my third worst subject at school (after physics and history – I couldn’t remember the dates – probably why I don’t write historical or science-related stories). Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
John: A computer. Wow. Paper? For years it was paper. What an amazing advance. Spell check. Auto formatting. Cut and paste. I retired my Smith-Corona. I don’t even know where it is any more.
Morgen: My favourites are the ‘undo’ and ‘format painter’ buttons. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
John: Silence, please! Perhaps the breeze outside my door. An occasional bird singing. The rustling of a squirrel foraging in the underbrush. My dog snorting her way through a nightmare at my feet. That’s it.
Morgen: “a nightmare at my feet” I love that. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
John: Second person shows up in my non-fiction. Especially when I am giving directions. I can’t conceive of being comfortable with it in fiction.
Morgen: It’s certainly an acquired taste (I love it) but few editors take to it, sadly.
John: Most of my work ends in third person because it gives me, as the author, a wider view of events and knowledge of the characters than would be true of first person. That said, I find writing in first person very enjoyable and easy. But when I look at the finished product, I am not as happy with it as I know I would be in third person. I think that first person requires immensely more skill. Look at ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Huckleberry Finn’. The reader finds out more about the characters in the book than the narrator knows. It is communicated by implication. I am not at that skill level in my development.
Morgen: It’s all practice. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
John: I use an epilogue in ‘Deadly Portfolio’, and readers have commented that they really like it. I studied Shakespeare’s tragedies. My novel is, given one perspective, a tragedy. Shakespeare usually tried to end his tragedies on a positive note so that the audience would not leave the theatre with a sense of foreboding and disheartened. I used the epilogue in the same way. I like using traditional conventions.
Morgen: I’d not heard of that… I covered Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet at school – maybe they were the exceptions. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
John: Oh, yeah! Two drawers of a file cabinet. Some are so bad that I shouldn’t keep them any more. Some I save only because I thought I had a good idea. Others would be embarrassing if they ever found print, not for the subject matter but the manner in which they were written.
Morgen: Oh dear, but then you can see how much you’ve improved. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
John: Promoting my work. I was in sales most of my working life. When I retired I wanted to devote my time to writing. Now I find myself back in sales again.
Morgen: Oh dear… a necessarily evil I guess. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
John: That I know so little about grammar, punctuation, and capitalization—and I was an English major and taught high school English for four years.
Morgen: Wow. I come unstuck sometimes with dialogue punctuation – I have to keep referring to published novels to see what goes. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
John: Do it for the love of doing it. Otherwise, find something else. Go fishing, Play golf. Build bird houses.
Morgen: Building bird houses appeals the most out of those three but writing would still win hands down. What do you like to read?
John: I like to read history. I read very little fiction.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
John: “Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.” Dylan Thomas from Fernhill, my favorite poem.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
John: I am just getting started on this. My publicist has given me a list of about 60 web sites to register in with and follow. Yuck!
Morgen: Wow! Maybe I should get you to email them to me. Where can we find out about you and your work?
John: My website www.jjhohn.com is the best place. Amazon.com also has information and some of the reviews of my work.
Morgen: and Amazon.co.uk here. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
John: The industry is changing. Traditional publishers are trying to find ways to compete with publish-on-demand. Taking the editor and agent out of the process and allowing authors to go directly into distribution has flooded the reading arena with badly proofed final drafts (I revised my own twice), poorly conceived plots and expository presentations, and work that would never otherwise see the light of day. An entire new industry has grown in support of getting misguided aspirants to publish. The printers make a buck no matter what, and they have no commitment to aesthetics, save perhaps wrapping a pathetic book that would not get a passing grade in high school in a package worthy of Grisham.
Anyone can publish a novel. Anyone can hire a publicist, pay for a review, appear locally at a book signing and invite friends to attend. We are going to swim in a sea of mediocrity until it is recognized that standards in defense of the art need to be enforced. At the moment, nobody wants the job. Too many are making too much money off of the yearnings of aspirants with limited gifts to turn back the trend.
Digital media is overtaking the printed word. It offers definite advantages. It costs less. Revisions are easier. Distribution is simplified. The ultimate impact of that is something to which we will all be witnesses. I prefer to cuddle up with a book not a machine, but then, hell, I don’t understand twitter or tagged. I am a vanishing breed.
As far as the writer is concerned, instead of rising above the crowd with the help of editors, agents, and critics to assist in the refinement of his or her craft, the crowd simply is getting much louder and bigger, making good work harder to find, and clogging up the usual channels to literary recognition, financial success and wide readership like a bad drain.
Writers need to be content with smaller, more intimate audiences except those who vault over the congestion and find favor with the major producers and promoters in the industry. Most writers can expect smaller, more intimate incomes as a result.
Morgen: A lot of choice for authors and readers to wade though certainly. Thank you John.
A Midwesterner by birth, John J. Hohn claims Yankton, South Dakota as his hometown. He graduated from high school there in 1957. After four years earning degree in English at St. John’s University (MN), he became a teacher. His first wife, Elaine Finfrock, also of Yankton, and he had five children; four sons and a daughter. They divorced in 1977.
In 1964, Hohn joined The Travelers in Minneapolis, MN and began what a 40-year career in the financial services industry. During the that time, in addition to The Travelers, he held positions with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota, Wilson Learning Corporation, and Wachovia Bank and Trust. Hohn retired at the end of 2007 after 17 years as a Financial Advisor with Merrill Lynch in Winston-Salem, NC.
In 1986, He married Melinda Folger McLeod and gained a stepson. Currently, the couple divides their time each year between a cabin near West Jefferson, NC and a cottage in Southport, NC. In addition to writing, Hohn enjoys golf, music, and reading history. He has already begun work on his second novel, a sequel to ‘Deadly Portfolio: A Killing Hedge Funds’. As yet no title has been announced for the new book.
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