Welcome to the one hundred and ninety-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist, short story author and publisher John Daniel. 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 would you start by telling us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
John: I decided to write my first story when I was five or six years old. I borrowed a pencil and a piece of paper from my mother and asked her what I should write my story about. “Write about what you know about,” she advised me. So I did. The story came out something like this: “Johnny and his mother went to the circus. They saw clowns. They had fun. They came home. The end.” My mother was proud of me. (Of course. That’s what mothers are for.) But when I showed my story to my brother, Neil, who was nine years older than I, he said, “It’s not a real story. A real story needs conflict.” That put me in a quandary. At the age of six, I had no conflict in my life, so I couldn’t write a real story if I were to write about what I knew about. That put my writing career off for another ten years or so. Then I started reading the novels of Richard Bissell, and I thought to myself: I can do this. I tried it, and I found I was right: I could do this. By that time I was a teenager, so of course there was conflict in the life I knew so well; it goes with the territory. I haven’t turned back since.
Morgen: I love that story. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
John: I write fiction, by which I mean literary short stories, mainstream novels, and mysteries. To the degree that I write within a genre, it’s the mystery. For books that is. I also write memoir pieces for a literary magazine called Black Lamb.
Morgen: Ooh, I don’t know them (will have to take a look). What have you had published to-date?
John: I’ve published dozens of stories in literary magazines, and ten books with various small-to-medium publishers. My first book, Play Melancholy Baby, came out in 1986, and it was a thrill. It’s out of print now, but I reread it every now and then, and it still thrills me like a first-born.
Morgen: Ahhh… Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
John: I don’t think of writing as a competitive sport, and I don’t enter contests or competitions. I have been praised in reviews, and some of my colleagues have gone public by saying they like my work. These help of course. Perhaps my highest honour was a starred review in Publishers Weekly for my mystery The Poet’s Funeral. I was especially pleased because the book was about the publishing business and, because I’m a publisher, the review was seen by all my colleagues.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
John: I’ve worked with four fine agents, and not one of them has sold a book for me.
John: I’ve given up dreams of being published by the Major League Literary Establishment, and am content to be published by smaller presses who don’t generally work with agents.
Morgen: They do say it’s easier these days to find a publisher than agent and eBooks are bound to keep changing the way the industry works (in a good way, I hope). Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
John: I have three novels published only as ebooks, and my Guy Mallon Mysteries are published as both ebooks and in print. I’m old fashioned about electronic reading devices. I’m happy to be published that way, but I don’t want to read on a screen. I love the smell of real (paper) books.
Morgen: Me too. I have an eReader but only use it for travelling, especially as I have so many wonderful paperbacks (and some hardbacks) yet to read. It’s a thrill seeing my books on my eReader though. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill for you?
John: I have had stories accepted for magazines since I was seventeen (school magazine was the first), and that’s always a boost, no matter how large or small the circulation, or how much or how little I’m paid. As for books, my first acceptance was from Perseverance Press, for Play Melancholy Baby, in 1986. That association eventually turned into a partnership between Perseverance Press and my own publishing company. In 1999 we teamed up to publish literary mysteries by established mystery writers. Yes, of course being accepted for publication is a thrill. Not as much of a thrill as the writing itself, though.
Morgen: I’d not thought of the comparison but actually thinking about it now you’re right, it’s how it feels for me (sometimes sitting clapping at things I’ve just written!). 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
John: Are you kidding?
Morgen: Surprisingly not. 🙂 Some authors I’ve spoken to actually haven’t had any (but then some haven’t submitted anything so that would help).
John: I sometimes feel I belong in the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected writer on earth. I used to save them and worry. Now I forget them and move on.
Morgen: Good plan. I don’t know how many you had but apparently horror writer Dean Koonz had 500+. What are you working on at the moment / next?
John: As an author, my current big push is to promote my new novel, Behind the Redwood Door, published by Oak Tree Press in November 2011.
Morgen: Ah, the lovely Oak Tree Press… we meet again. 🙂 Tell me more…
John: It’s a mystery novel set on the far northern coast of California, where I live, a land of rocky shores and tall redwood trees. It’s about a family feud and a newspaper war, in a multi-ethnic small town. As a writer, I have three books in the works. One is a collection of memoirs, most of which have appeared or will appear in the literary magazine Black Lamb. One is a collection of stories featuring the main characters of two previous novels, Geronimo’s Skull and Elephant Lake. The third is a mainstream novel about an aging gay has-been folksinger.
Morgen: That sounds hilarious. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day?
John: I have a full-time job as a publisher and freelance editor, so I don’t have time to write every day. But I write every Sunday and try to get ten pages written each Sunday.
Morgen: What’s your opinion of writer’s block?
John: I don’t have time for writer’s block. That’s a luxury. I believe it’s a combination of boredom and insecurity, and those are also luxuries I can’t afford.
Morgen: 🙂 I’m very lucky that I don’t suffer from it (she says with fingers crossed being 19 days behind with NaNoWriMo… oops). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
John: I like to outline a story or a book, but I allow my story to get off track, and if it goes in a direction that seems better than the one I started with, I’ll follow it.
Morgen: Because the characters usually know what they’re doing. How do you create yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
John: I create characters by showing them, not describing them.
Morgen: Absolutely. Show not tell.
John: I observe them in action and listen to what they say. And what really creates them is to show them in the moments of choice and change.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
John: My first reader is my wife, Susan, who encourages me but does not let me get away with any phony writing. Next, I pass my ten pages around to members of my weekly writing group.
Morgen: I’m sort of the other way round… fortnightly writing group first then editor. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
John: I write a perfect first draft every time, of course.
Morgen: Oh me too. 🙂
John: Then I throw half of it away and do it over again, and it still needs editing. Seriously: writing is rewriting.
Morgen: It is. And I hope the “throw half of it away” means “store it safely in case I can use it again”. 🙂 What’s your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
John: Before I come to my desk in the morning, I try to think of a first sentence to write when I sit down. I start with that sentence, and then there’s no stopping me.
Morgen: That’s one of the exercises we do in the other fortnightly group. It’s one of my favourite but I know another member’s least favourite (and I usually pre-empt it with “and now for Denny’s favourite”) – it’s funny how different methods work for different writers. Annoyingly (I’m joking) she still comes up with something brilliant! Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
John: I prefer a computer for my Sunday’s work. But I also write a bit during the cocktail hour during the week, and I keep a notebook for that. I also take a notebook with me whenever I go on vacation.
Morgen: What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
John: I don’t listen to music while I write. I listen to the rhythm of my words.
Morgen: 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
John: For some reason all my mysteries (and my one suspense novel, Swimming in the Deep End) are in the first person, from the point of view of a reluctant but curious amateur sleuth. My mainstream fiction tends to be in third person. I don’t write in second person, and I consider it a gimmick.
Morgen: A lot of people do, including most editors (sadly, for me as I enjoy it). Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
John: I sometimes use them. They’re good devices when they’re called for.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
John: Alas. Yes, and I loved those characters so much as I spent time with them while they were changing and growing before my eyes. Now they howl in loneliness from the darkness of my closet.
Morgen: Ah, bless. Maybe they can come back in other pieces? What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
John: The writing is the favourite, the self-promotion is the least favourite.
Morgen: That’s been the general consensus with that question. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
John: Sometimes, a character in my fiction will say or do something totally of his or her own volition, as if he or she is realer than I am. I’m surprised when this happens, but I have to respect these people, watch what they do, and listen to what they say.
Morgen: Only sometimes? Isn’t it great when they do that, that’s my favourite bit. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
John: Enjoy the writing. People will try to tell you that writing is painful, long, hard, work, that ink is blood, that only an insane person would put himself through so much struggle. How ridiculous.
John: Writing is fun. If you don’t think writing is the most enjoyable thing to do, then perhaps you should take up playing the viola or gardening or golf or cooking or macramé. Also: develop the skin of a rhinoceros when it comes to rejection. Also: invest in a sizable waste-paper basket for rejection slips and first drafts.
Morgen: Or in my case red and blue display books, and shredder respectively. What do you like to read?
John: Well-crafted fiction. Stories by Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, or Jane Gardam. Novels by Louise Erdrich, Richard Bissell, John Darnton.
Morgen: I’d definitely agree with Alice Munro – I think I have everything she’s had published. I’m not familiar with the others. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
John: For some reason I have never read a how-to-write book, even though I teach creative writing.
Morgen: That’s OK. I have more of them than I’ve read (or should I say “dipped into”) but it’s the writing that gives you the practice. I think you have to find your own way, hand-held by the ‘experts’.
John: I believe the best instruction is a balanced diet of real life and good reading. Curiously, though, I wrote (and self-published) a successful how-to-write book, Structure, Style and Truth: Elements of the Short Story.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that you’re based in California, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
John: I do, but I didn’t choose it for the sake of my writing career.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
John: I’m on Facebook.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
John: My home page is www.johnmdaniel.com. You’re also welcome to visit my blog: blog.johnmdaniel.com. Also, check out my author page at: amazon.johnmdaniel.com. I also invite people to contact me directly at email@example.com.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
John: I have a good deal of trouble keeping track of the present. That’s why I write about things that happened in the past. I’ll accept the future when it arrives, only because I have no choice in the matter.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
John: Storytelling is arguably the oldest art form in human culture. Relish that. Style makes that art form your own. Style gives wings to your words. Style’s best trick: irony. Irony is like life.
Morgen: Indeed, sometimes too uncanny (or should that be canny). 🙂 Thank you John. Would you like to finish off by providing an extract of your writing?
John: Here’s the opening paragraph from my new book, Behind the Redwood Door, published this month (November 2011):
Just as the sun was coming up on the morning of Friday, June 18, 1999, there was a break in the clouds, and Carol and I went out for a walk along the nature trail by the ocean, down the road from our house. The rising sun lit up the waves and brightened the snow-white egrets wading in the lagoon. The band-tail pigeons had come back to roost on the skeleton of their wind-whipped tree. And out there, over the ocean, we saw a pair of ospreys mating in the air, doing their circle dance for what seemed like ten minutes, then coming together high in the sky and clasping each other’s claws as they went into a downward spiral, breaking their bodies apart just before they hit the water, then flying up and away together, heading for the forest to the south. “God,” Carol said. “I want to do that!”
Morgen: If only. 🙂
John M. Daniel is the author of ten published books, including the Guy Mallon Mystery series. He lives in Humboldt County, California, with his wife, Susan. The Daniels own, and are owned, by a small-press publishing company.
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