WITH JOHN CAMPBELL
Tell me your story.
In short, I am a daydreamer.
To elaborate, I concur with the notion that fiction writers fall into one of two categories: those who write for the destination and those who compose for the journey. My inclination leans toward the latter, to strike the right balance of detail to make the prose a pleasant journey. And this I attribute to the accurate though less often used definition of the term quixotic, having a sense of romantic nobility, a dreamer. I would venture to say that most of my fellow “journey writers” are daydreamers, as well.
As a result of this predisposition, however, I did not excel greatly in elementary school. On the surface, my young character Brandon Stewart in Walk to Paradise Garden echoes my failures and triumphs. The main character in A Lark Ascending, Malcolm Roberts, however, truly is me at heart. New writers often put themselves on the page. I have thus far chosen not to fight this tendency.
As an aside, I find the opening scene of Doctor Zhivago relative to writers of poetry and literary fiction. The way it captures the dreamy psyche of the boy Zhivago (who grew to be a poet) distracted during his mother’s funeral is worth the occasional revisit; that scene is artfully done.
As to my background, I am a Baby Boomer from Chicago’s northern burbs who had a liberal arts education. I wish the young today could all benefit from exposure to liberal arts , along with training in critical and creative thinking, but this curriculum is just not that available or valued these days.
Tell me about your latest book.
My latest published book is A Lark Ascending. Main character Malcolm Roberts is much more resourceful than the average thirteen-year-old. This is out of necessity and out of something else inside him that is beautiful, a love for truth, family, and community. We first see him trying to escape from a gang of bullies, from trouble that had arisen as a result of his curiosity. But it’s this same drive that leads him to solving a murder and to thwarting a plot against the Chinese in London’s East End. The setting is London after the Great War. Malcolm is forced to rely on his own resources because his mother had recently died of the Spanish Influenza and his father is distracted by the miseries of shell shock.
I like stories with colorful characters, so I strived to enrich this tale via an eccentric aunt and her bohemian friends, as well as with Malcolm’s first experience with love.
Here is one of those distracted moment’s of my character Malcolm Roberts in A Lark Ascending. He would sometimes go to the cemetery where his relatives were buried for consolation during troublesome times, troubles which he had to shoulder on his own.
The shadow of Colonel Basil Green’s mausoleum encroached on Malcolm’s sunshine. A slight chill settled on his ankles, but late-day light tried to warm the rest of him. His attention was trained on a large spider off to his right. Its dexterity was as impressive as the tightrope walker he’d seen last summer at the Bristol Fair. The spider was ‘knitting’ some mittens over the fingers of a familiar stone lady. The lady was his paternal great grandmother, Hermione Lily Roberts. The sculptor had captured her spirit and legacy, reportedly at the wish of Malcolm’s relatives. Malcolm preferred the artist’s rendering rather than a fashionable likeness. A simple robe, similar to that of the Roman goddess Libertas, draped the figure to her feet. The hand undergoing the spider’s attention stretched low, palm down, as if to rest on the head of a child. Her other hand held a book to her breast. This frozen-in-time gesture represented her life’s work, he’d been told.
I would like to add that my debut novel Walk to Paradise Garden is a love story, a saga of resilience and hope. The story details a couple falling in love at the Western Front and covers what I hope are interesting highs and lows until their deaths about a century later. I tried to dramatize how love is the best shield to carry when facing a world gone mad.
My latest book, however, is yet in my head, “maturing,” as I like to put it. It will be a tale of love set during the period between the wars, mostly in London, but I have scenes in Vienna and Paris, as tensions build from Nazi aggression. As to what will make it stand out as unique, I can’t say at this time, but I’m at that stage of writing (or to be more exact, cognitive composing) that is troublesome yet vital. Otherwise, I try to keep my mind and fingers nimble with occasional flash fiction and essays.
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
Ideas come unbidden while, for example, walking past an alley in East Village, New York City or from seeing an old black and white image that raises a question. Some years ago, while playing golf, I realized the value of the peripheral, of an added awareness of it, and then allowing it to guide me. It helped my game and it has generated story ideas. The oddest things can serve as a trigger, something as vague as the cast of afternoon light or as interesting as a misheard comment from another table. Well, this works for me, at least. After deciding upon my main story, I buckle down with research and writing and so forth.
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
I am very sloppy when it comes to process. That’s not to say I am lazy, just haphazard, which sometimes generates my best writing. Of course beyond this, I strongly believe in the value of professional editing (substantive and copy editing particularly*) and then rewrites. I suggest writers find the strictest substantive editors during the writing process, those who might hurt feelings but see the bigger picture or missed opportunities. I have benefited immensely from tough-love editors…even those without love, the cold, hard, success-driven editors. Of all these, the most brilliant I have found is Wendy Bertsch of Ocean Highway Book Consultants; she is worth every penny and tear.
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
Tea and a window. While writing A Lark Ascending, I often tried different types of Chinese tea to have steaming at my side. I wrote one of the scenes in Walk to Paradise Garden while sipping martinis. I do not suggest anyone try this, unless you want a good laugh the next day while reading your work.
I need to be next to a window for my writing to flow best. And, I often have some symphonic music playing in the background. The musical key, major or minor, would depend on the type of scene I’m working on (such as a minor key for moodiness). Most folks have learned never to play music with lyrics while writing or reading. I am sure many know that instrumental music is ascertained by a different part of the brain than the linguistic part. So, rather than fighting for attention in the mind, instrumental music can inspire while we arrange our words in print.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing?
James Michener said, in his biography, I believe, that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to write down one’s thoughts for others to read. I like to think of that arrogance as chutzpah. I think it also comes many times from a love for entertaining others. And, for balance, I will reiterate that it takes a lot of humility when working with editors. One needs to take substantive critique seriously while, of course, remaining true to oneself and the project. So, I concur that a balance of pride and modesty is what we all as writers strive for. And that has been a helpful learning experience for me.
What do you think makes a good story?
First of all, I believe most readers want a protagonist we can sympathize with, one that is noble-hearted, though, perhaps, temporarily criminal.
Next, unless I am writing a cozy, I need to use some social issue of the time to drive the story. I learned the value of this from author Will Thomas. I love his work.
Lastly, I have learned from the world of opera that the characters need to grow within the story. For example, many singers find the roles of either Romeo or Juliet challenging because the short duration of events and the rushed circumstances leading to the tragedy do not allow for much expansion of character. While, on the other hand, the psychological depths of any Verdi protagonist does allow for the performers’ artistic abilities to shine as the story unfolds. Simply put, a likable protagonist and character growth interest me more than cleverness and high suspense. But I do use conflict, of course.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick and why?
I’d like to say something profound like Tolstoy, some classic, but, I often carry an old Martha Grimes paperback in my backpack. Her writing is artsy without pretension, which attracts me because her genre is not literary fiction. And I never tire of her comedic sense of the absurd—and in this crazy world, who doesn’t need regular humor? Writers learn early on the value of analyzing the style of other good authors, and Martha is a gem.
What books are currently on your night stand?
I am reading the latest by Will Thomas and the latest by M R C Kasasian. And I am anxiously awaiting the next release by Alan Bradley and the one by Anne Perry. So, yes, I am current with all of my faves.
With time constraints, I most often chose to read within my genre and historical eras to at least have relevant impressions while enjoying my reading escapes.
How do you organize your books?
I’m afraid I don’t.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I could say that I’d invite Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Marcel Proust. But in actuality, I’d want it to be fun and relevant, so I would invite Susan Elia MacNeil, Will and Julia Thomas…and, if I could add one more, Alan Bradley, all of them brilliant and likable.
*Please note: I did not submit this interview to a professional editor
Thank you for joining me on OF QUILLS & VELLUM today, John! It was a pleasure talking with you.