Sep 24, 2009

Interview with Author, J. Adams Oaks

Last week I posted about my (very exciting!) first official reading at Women and Children First. I opened for a brilliant author, J. Adams Oaks, who read from his debut novel Why I Fight. I was so impressed by the captivating novel (which I devoured in about two days) and with J. that I asked him if I could interview him.

Tell us a little about your novel, Why I Fight?

Well, let’s see, it’s my first novel. It’s considered Young Adult and geared toward reluctant male readers. It’s about a boy named Wyatt Reaves who lives on the road with his traveling salesman Uncle Spade. Wyatt’s a quiet, kind soul who is just looking for his place in the world. He’s very tall, over feet by the time he’s in his early teens, so his uncle takes advantage of that and trains him to be a bare-fist boxer.

Fighting is not admired in my social community, but it was a common and acceptable experience when I was growing up. What inspired you to write a story about a kid that starts fighting for money?

I know this is going to sound funny, because I’d heard other writers talk about this happening and chuckled to myself, but the story told me it had to happen. I listened to Wyatt and he led me in that direction. I really didn’t want to write about fighting. In fact, I tried to get around it. I wrote scenes where Wyatt just carried on with his uncle without the fighting, without the income and the only answer to that, if I stayed true to both characters, was that Uncle Spade would have ditched Wyatt if he were useless. So I had to learn about fighting. I’ve never been around fighting before—I grew up in a middleclass academic family—so I had to interview some folks and read up on it. But now, I consider that part of the fun of writing, exploring the possibilities of the world you’ve created!

I am personally very drawn to both reading and writing coming of age stories. Why did you write a coming of age story?

Okay, to be fully honest, I didn’t think that was what I was writing. I balked at the suggestion by my agent that she wanted to try to sell my book as Young Adult because it was a coming-of-age story. I really hadn’t been paying attention to that section of literature while I was writing the novel and had no idea how much it had exploded and expanded and become so diverse. I’m so excited to be included in that group now, of course. The thing that’s so much fun about coming-of-age stories, for me, is that they are such a vital, dramatic and universal part of any person’s life. We all have one to tell. So even if Wyatt lives on the road and fist fights, there is still something there for any reader to empathize with if they see through the details to the emotions and struggles behind it all.

One of the things I loved about this novel is that it feels like the main character is talking directly to me. How does this writing style make the novel stand out from other books?

Thanks! I’m glad you felt that. I guess I’ve always written first-person narrators very close to the bone. And even more so with Wyatt; it’s what makes him truly unique, I think: his voice. My amazing editor, Richard Jackson, really worked with me to hone that voice. One of the first things he asked me when we started working together was, “Who is Wyatt telling this story to?” My answer was, “A stranger on a bus…. That’s the only way he’d be willing to admit to it all.” Richard’s response was, “Well, that’s not what you did. So let’s get to work on that.” My heart sank, but then began the first of three completely new drafts that forced me to check what why said to that stranger: Would he admit to killing animals? Would he swear? Would he lie? And how long would a stranger listen? It was a truly intriguing process and something I’ll use on the new novel I’m working on as well.

Sometimes when I’m writing about a character, I listen to music that I think my character like. What songs would you want as the soundtrack to Why I Fight?

Okay, what I imagine on the soundtrack to WHY I FIGHT is not necessarily what I’d listen to while I wrote, but what I remember on the radio on road trips when I was a kid: classic rock, glam rock, heavy metal, all the stuff Uncle Spade would listen to, you know, because Wyatt certainly never got to have control of the radio. What I listened to while I wrote was things that made me feel the words, but were in no way connected to the story. You’re going to laugh, but I listened to a lot of Brazilian music, like Samba and Bossa Nova. I didn’t know the words, but they were like poetry. I also listened to a lot of old jazz, like Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. I’ll have to try that with my next novel, listen to what the main character is listening to.

I don’t know about you, but I have about three different stories whirling in the back of my head while I’m currently working on one. Are you working on another novel now?

Yes, the new one takes place in Spain, so I’ll try listening to Flamenco and gypsy music to get into main character. I lived in Madrid for almost three years and so I’m finally writing about what it’s like to create a home so far from home. But, I’m like you; I’ve always got a bunch of things floating around in my brain while I’m working on the book. I have to have a few short stories going or they’ll become like flies buzzing in my ears.

I always like to hear about the beginning of an individual’s career path. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Well, I first thought I should be a cartoonist, but I wasn’t that good at the drawing. I do come from a long line of storytellers. But I remember writing stories even in elementary school. I used to write a paragraph on a note card and pass it to my friend Kathy Atkinson, then she’d write the next paragraph and give it to me. Also, my grandmother told me that for every story I mailed to her, she’d write down one of the stories from her very interesting life. I never got any of them in the mail (and I was pretty ticked about it) even though I kept mailing her what I’d written. And then, when she died, we found a notepad on her desk full of handwritten stories, and on the top of the first page it said, “For Jeffrey.” I guess writing has just been something I knew I would do.

I like to end my interviews with a ridiculous question. If you were a mythical creature, what would you be?

Ooh, that’s a good one! The first one that popped into my head was a griffin. That’s the eagle/lion, right? I would want to fly and be cool and ferocious. Ew, but I don’t think I want a beak. So maybe Pegasus. A winged Palomino. There we go. I’m good with that.

Thanks so much to J. for letting me interrogate him.

Please check out his book. You won't regret it. (You can read the first chapter here.)

Sep 14, 2009

Watch out, world, here I come!

I had the profound pleasure of reading with the illustrious J. Adams Oaks, author of “Why I Fight” at Women and Children First. I wanted my first official reading of “Cast the First Stone” to be at my favorite Chicago bookstore. David and I moved to Chicago from San Francisco about two years ago and I was feeling pretty homesick. When I walked through the doors of W&CF, I immediately felt at home. The positive energy of that bookstore is simply wonderful. (By the way, they’re celebrating their 30th anniversary!)

So, of course, I was panicking about the reading. To say I was nervous is a tremendous understatement. I couldn’t sleep all week. I wanted to cancel several times. I was worried that I wouldn’t find the right outfit, that my hair wouldn’t cooperate with me, that I’d lose my voice. What if no one showed up? What if I forgot how to read?

I read aloud the section of CTFS for the reading about 5 or 6 times. I practiced voice inflection. I figured out when to pause and take a deep breath so I didn’t pass out.

David, my husband (and everything-else-that-I-might-need-in-a-moment’s-notice), was a huge support. He baked cookies. He coached me through my bazillion practices. He told me that I looked great about a hundred times. He filmed the reading and the Q&A section afterwards. (The video should be up by the end of the week. Check back for details.)

Good friends, coworkers, and classmates showed up. I was thrilled to see so many friendly faces. Then people started walking up to me that I didn’t recognize. They introduced themselves as “so-in-so, but you know me as such-in-such from Open Salon.” I couldn’t have been happier. (Except that I was also trying to breathe and had a hard time focusing on people.) I told everyone that we would talk afterwards. If I made it through alive.

The little bookstore was packed. Kathie, an amazing writer and events coordinator, introduced me. I walked upfront, thanked everyone, and started reading. Once I started, I was on a roll. I tapped into Denny’s strength. I became my strong-willed and out-spoken narrator.

It was a major success. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing I didn’t pass out or throw up or forget my name. For another thing I felt even more a part of our remarkable Chicago literary community. J. Adams Oaks was kind, friendly, and even managed to make me laugh. This has been my experience with every Chicago author I’ve met. I’ve been so impressed by the literary community. It’s welcoming, intelligent, and down-to-earth.

I felt good. When happened after the reading felt even better. It was like a dream.

You know the dream. The one where you’re on Letterman or Conan, talking about your New York Times bestseller. The one where you get to quit your day job and write every day for eight hours. The dream where your book is studied in literature classes. Yeah, you know the one.

People I didn’t know or barely knew were asking me to sign their newly-purchased book and telling me how well I did. I was humbled. Honored. Overwhelmed with gratitude. I couldn’t believe that this was actually happening to me.

A group of OSers, my husband, and I went to Hamburger Mary’s where the party really got started. We laughed and talked like old friends. It was simply wonderful and I felt so grateful to have such an amazing community.

I really and truly couldn’t sleep last night. I tossed and turned, playing the events of the evening over and over in my head. It’s finally hit me that I’m an author.

Watch out, world, here I come!

Sep 12, 2009

Day Seven of the Seven Day Countdown

Alright, folks. I don't know about you but it's been a rough week for me. I'm thrilled that it's the weekend. Tomorrow is my reading and I can't express how excited and nervous I am. A good friend and brilliant writer told me that I should focus on the story, not on how people react to me. The story exists apart from me. So I'm going to take his advice and listen to Denny and Haley and what their story tells us.

In case you didn't know, I am a passionate feminist and Cast the First Stone reflects my feminist beliefs.

"Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We're not inherently anything but human." ~Robin Morgan

"You don't have to be anti-man to be pro-woman." ~Jane Galvin Lewis

"I've left the girl I was supposed to be, and some day I'll be born." ~Paula Cole

Today's question is a personal one. There's no right answer here. I just want to start a discussion. What do you think feminism is and, if you've read the book, how is it portrayed in CTFS?

Sep 11, 2009

Day Six

Today is the sixth day of my seven day countdown, but I feel that it's disrespectful to celebrate today. Instead, I posted on my other blog. I'm going to post a few words from Bob Dylan here, since he is Denny's favorite singer and I think she would spend this day of rememberance by listening to Dylan.

"In the dime stores and bus stations, people talk of situations, read books, repeat quotations, draw conclusions on the wall." -Bob Dylan

Sep 10, 2009

Day Five of the Seven Day Countdown!

I was straight edge in high school so I didn't drink. I had this fear that if I had even a sip of alcohol, I would do crazy things that I wouldn't remember later. I would be...wait for it...out of control. There was no way that 17 year old Gwen wanted to be out of control. Like Haley, I didn't have much control over my life so I desperately wanted to hold onto as much control as I could. (But, of course, control is an illusion.) I waited until after midnight on my twenty-first birthday to have my first hard beverage. I chose a wine cooler. Oh, yeah. I was so cool!

Denny, on the other hand, gains quite a taste for alcholol. Question number four is: What's Denny's drink of choice?

Sep 9, 2009

Day Four of the Seven Day Countdown!

Father of mine
Tell me where did you go
You had the world inside your hand
But you did not seem to know
Father of mine
Tell me what do you see
When you look back at your wasted life
And you dont see me
~ Everclear

Question number four is: How does each chapter open?

Sep 8, 2009

Day Three of the Seven Day Countdown!

Denny was based off my best friend in high school. She was a really tough girl. The first feminist I knew. We were like yin and yang. She was the dark, angry one and I was the sweet, happy one. On the outside. We listened to No Doubt and Metallica, created our own sci fi comic book world, stayed up until 1am watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, and could eat a half gallon of strawberry ice cream between us. We didn’t fit into any kind of group at high school. She was a little goth while I was nerdy and shy. We spent every day together until I went off to college.

Once I got deep into writing the book, the characters became their own. Denny and Haley no longer looked like me and my best friend. (My best friend never had a drinking problem.) But their friendship dynamic is based on us.

Okay, question number three: How would you describe Denny?

*image of Emily the Strange

Sep 7, 2009

Day Two of the Seven Day Countdown

When the story of Denny and Haley began forming in the dark recesses of my mind, it was Haley's story. I tried writing it from her point of view, but I had a big problem. Haley wasn't self aware enough to tell her story. She always wanted to tell other people's stories. So I decided that her best friend would tell her story.

Okay, are you ready for question number two? Here it is:

How would you describe Haley?

Sep 6, 2009

Seven Day Countdown to My First Official Reading

Today is the first day of my celebratory countdown to next Sunday, Sept. 13th at 4:30pm, when I'll be sharing an afternoon of literary debauchery with J. Adams Oaks, author of the adrenaline-packed novel Why I Fight. You'll find us at Women and Children First.

Each day I'll be posting a question about Cast the First Stone. The answer can we found either on my website or my blog if you haven't read the book yet. The person who answers the most questions correctly will win a copy of CTFS. You get extra points if you answer the question correctly and then post about it on twitter, facebook, myspace, or your blog. Just leave a comment telling me where you've posted.

Day One: What is Denny's last name? ( Yes, I know. It's too easy, but I thought I'd start you out with an easy one.)

Sep 3, 2009

Why I Write

I began writing as a little girl and I never stopped. Writing stories was my door to Narnia, to a world where magic was real and good always won. Writing stories was my way of going on adventures, which were strictly forbidden by my controlling father. Good little girls do not go on adventures. They do not take risks. They do not kiss boys. Good little girls pray and get A’s and obey their parents without question.

I think storytelling is in my blood. My mother created stories as a way to escape her poverty-stricken childhood and I did the same. I liked the control of creation and then the joy of watching things happen. I was quite the bossy big sister, but my brothers and all of our friends loved to play with me because I created the best plot lines. Whether we were playing Barbies, GI Joe, dress-up or detectives, I set the story in motion and then we just adlibbed the rest. It was beautiful.

As I got older, I crawled further into my fantasy worlds. I wanted to write stories about mythical kingdoms and princesses that had to dress like boys to escape their captures. My female characters were stronger than I was. They overthrew their dictators. They ran away from home. They walked down the road less traveled to new lands, meeting extraordinary characters. They fought dragons and became heroes.

I attended Oral Roberts University in order to start a new chapter of my life. I had been dreaming of fleeing my father’s kingdom for years and I was finally able to do it. But I still wanted to be a good little girl so I went to a conservative, Christian school where I became a “fringe” student because I didn’t think that everything was a sin. I didn’t think that people should be shunned for having different beliefs. I didn’t think that one’s public image was more important than one’s heart and soul.

I found my fellow travelers. Many were in the English and Drama departments. Some were studying theology and Spanish and history and psychology. I found my fellow fringe students everywhere. I took classes that introduced me to Anglo Saxon poetry, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the fairytales of George MacDonald. I learned that my favorite story, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, was written by an imperfect man who thought that heaven wasn’t be made out of gold. He believed that, just maybe, death wasn’t the end of the journey toward finding God.

During my senior year, I learned about modern fiction. I began reading Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Flannery O’Connor. I started to realize that I was a feminist. That realization changed everything.

I wanted to write stories that were true. I wanted to write about imperfect, real characters that fell down and then got back up again. I left my fantasies behind and took to the open road. I followed the footsteps of the beats, found the home of Maxine Hong Kingston, and opened my heart to the city of San Francisco.

It took me years to flesh out my written voice. The first, completed attempt of telling a true story is a Young Adult novel, Cast the First Stone, about two girls growing up in small town, Oklahoma. It’s a work of fiction, and yet it’s all true. The human connections are true and the struggle toward self-realization is true.

I’m working on a second book, Invisible Elephants, in which I become transparent as an author. I’m not hiding anything in this novel. All of the confusion and pain and beauty of being raised in a strict Christian home is revealed in this story.

If you live in the Chicago area, you’re invited to participate in my first official reading of Cast the First Stone. It will take place at Women and Children First on Sunday, Sept 13th, at 4:30. (It’s only 2 weeks away!) I am sharing the afternoon of literary debauchery with novelist, J. Adams Oaks. He wrote the amazing and engaging YA book, Why I Fight.

Hope to see you there!