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As a special treat, John has included the second chapter of his current work, ‘The Blue Man’. But for now, let’s take a minute to get to know John.
IDI – John, tell us within your writing, what are you the most passionate about? What is it that keeps the fire burning?
JK – I have written in a lot of genres for many differing audiences, but it is in my fiction that I am the most me. Fiction allows my inner voice to spill forth u pon the page in a way that is most fulfilling to me. sometimes there is this eccentric style of writing I do where I almost feel it is not even me writing, but some ethereal external force guiding my hand. My hands move quickly, my mind becomes blank, my heart barely moves – it is like kissing the most beautiful girl in the world and becoming totally one in that ethereal moment.
There are times when I reread my work later that I find myself sort of distanced from it – as if it was not even me who did it. I look at it in awe and say – Whoa! That is kind of cool. Wonder how I thought of that turn of phrase! Much of my work has a certain lyrical elegance to it – even when writing about a grisly murder or a mundane description of setting. It is in those spectral moments where the writing reaches that inner-directed height that I am the most passionate. It is trying to recapture that electricity, energy and sheer beauty that my pen finds the page again and again and keeps me treading forth.
IDI – What are you working on now? Can we get a peek, an excerpt maybe?
JK – No, of course not. What are you thinking? Share a work-in-progress? Geesh, no. I am too protective, private and superstitious for that kind of… oh, what the heck. It’s only writing. Okay. why not. Here is the opening to the second chapter of a future novel from the Ross Family Saga – my answer to Kerouac’s Duluoz. Sort of. (For what it’s worth – this particular book is being written at the gentle urgings of my friend, Matthew Pearl – whose brilliant, ‘The Technologists’ came out this month. When Matthew tells you that you should write something like this – you go for it with pen ablaze.)
From the novel, ‘The Blue Man’,
Short Subject: Ghosts (Chapter Two)
Egads! Alwyn shuddered as he drove his little Geo Metro into Newtonville. An involuntary shiver ran up his spine against his will. My gosh, he thought, the ghosts were there all right. They haunted every forgotten street of the village that seemed to be much smaller now than as he remembered it. He rarely came back to town any more. He had come back once to bury his father and then again to bury his mother in turn, but aside from occasionally driving through on his way to somewhere else, he hadn’t made it back at all. And in fact, he saw no reason to ever do so.
When he had lived here, before he moved away to college and beyond, he remembered that his older brother and sister had a playground chant that went, “Newtonville born, Newtonville bred, when we die we’ll be Newtonville dead.” He laughed thinking of that. So badly he had wanted to avoid that trap. So badly he had wanted to get out and defy the curse of a life and death in Newtonville. Now with time passed, he thought perhaps he had been too harsh with that.
His brother, Jadwin was now a missionary somewhere in Africa and his sister Dorothy – his dear Dotty – had been perceptibly lost to him for years. She lived somewhere in Iowa on a quiet country farm with her husband. One turned outward; one turned in, but both of his siblings had somehow avoided the curse of being Newtonville dead.
As to this point had he.
It was a nice enough little village but it felt somehow so different now. It was an alien entity to him, haunted by the ghosts of his past certainly, yet somehow so far removed from the context of his own personal being to be new again. It now seemed a quaint little village that had absolutely nothing to do with him at all and hence had regained some manner of appeal. Why even the Capitol Theater was gone now. His beloved theater. Gone. And that was okay. Things change. Especially everything that was.
The theater building however was still there and ironically it was to that address that he was now going, but truly the structure was only a shell of its former self. The glorious marquee was gone, the lobby doors were sided over. It was merely a haunted vapor of his own past that now housed a three-story antique store called ironically Rialto Antiques. He laughed that it was named a theatrical name. Seemed fitting. It was to there that he was headed.
As he neared the downtown where the Rialto was located, Alwyn felt the queasy presence of other ghosts too. New ones. Ones that had not existed before. As he drove past the shells of old stores that retained past memories for him despite their new and anachronistic names, he saw a grizzled old man – well, hard to tell his age actually – limping slowly down the street with what looked to all the world like his total possessions draped over his back in big garbage bags and dirty backpacks.
Were there homeless people here now? How was that even possible?
The guy looked as if he had suffered a stroke in some earlier incarnation of his life and had ended up on the streets. Had he held a job? Was he part of a productive, work-a-day society at some point, brought to his knees by time and fate?
It was jarring.
Alwyn had seen this in Milwaukee where he now lived. Sure. But here? The man turned as the Metro drove slowly by. Staring at him. Gawking at him as if it was Alwyn who was out-of-place here. As if Alwyn was the one to be pitied. To be feared and reviled.
It was a familiar look, one Alwyn had seen many times before in the veiled faces of the dispossessed. Obscured by shoulder length gray hair and a beard that looked a total tangled mess, there was nonetheless a touch of humanity beneath the subdued dignity of a face that had somehow seen the darkness of the belly of the beast itself and had somehow emerged – not necessarily whole, but alive. It was as if beneath the filth and the hair, there was something else there.
Something recognizable. Alwyn shuddered.
As he drove further he saw that on the broad side of a gas-station was a scrawl of spray paint graffiti. Miles away from any big city, there it was big as life. In his mind, Alwyn could not imagine in his wildest dreams that happening in his old town. It must have been some wannabe tagger who had done it – some kid with his pants slung way too low and looked insanely out-of-place in this still-mostly bucolic setting.
As in a way, was he.
He pulled his car around back and perversely parked precisely where he had parked way back when he had worked at the theater all those years ago. It felt weird. Another shudder.
Alwyn Ross was on the hunt. He had seen a classified ad in the Milwaukee Journal that Rialto Antiques in Newtonville had just obtained a large estate of old movie books. It was to that for which he was drawn back. As an animation historian with several books to his credit, he was always working, always seeking the next piece of some not-yet-told story. It was his joy in life. It was his purpose as strange as he knew that might sound.
He got out of the car.
Inside the store, he was amazed that he truly recognized nothing. The entire interior of the lobby, the auditorium itself betrayed no signs of recognition. He had the vague sense of where everything should be, but it was totally different. Walls were gone, the slope of the floor had been flattened. Row upon row of metal shelving now covered what had once been an entertainment Meccato him.
He paused by the front door staring.
“You can come in. We don’t bite.” A blue-haired woman behind the front counter cackled at him. She was so short that he barely saw her standing there stroking a mangy-looking cat.
“It looks different.” Alwyn said.
“We try to reorganize things every couple of months. Keeps the consigners fresh. Forces them to look at their stock ‘stead of just letting it collect dust.”
He looked across the vast room. With all the piles of merchandise stacked upon the overcrowded shelves, spilling into the aisles and caged in teeming glass cases, he wasn’t sure how fresh it really looked, but he took her point. “Actually I meant since it was a theater. I used to work here…” He gazed helplessly across the room. “…uh, somewhere in here.” He chuckled.
“Well, yes. Oh, my. That was ages ago. Don’t you go and make me feeling old now.”
He got the impression that had he been standing nearer, the blue-haired woman would have slapped his arm. Hard. Teasing him.
“I’m looking for the collection of film books I saw advertised in the journal.”
“The movie books? Way up on the third floor. You’ll have to go up there on your own, sweetie. I don’t do stairs any more. There’s a girl up there can help you but you’ll need to pay down here with me.” She motioned with her slapping hand in the general direction of the stairs. At least the stairs looked familiar. He remembered them.
“Thanks. I’m sure I’ll be back down with my arms full.”
She waved him off dismissively. Funny. Cute lady. Probably somebody’s mom that he used to know. Not that it mattered.
Where the balcony used to be he found a light and airy third floor filled with bookshelves and still more teeming tables of literature. A few other customers were milling about, browsing the stacks. They looked bored. The room was segmented in the same general categories as a bookstore. He scanned the Magic Marker-made signs for ‘Entertainment’ or ‘Movies’ or ‘Film’ or the like. Biography. Non-fiction. Children’s. Nope.
Young Adult. Fiction. Literature. Gardening. Sports. Nope.
Row upon Row of used Harlequin Romances… Typical book store stuff. Nope.
Popular Culture. There it was. A huge section in the back.
He found the aisle with the movie books. Good stuff this. Alwyn had always been something of a book-snob. He seemed to devour the books he loved and dismissed all the dregs of the written world to oblivion.
There were lots of books that he already owned here. That was a good sign. Similar tastes ran together. Donald Crafton. Bob Thomas. Even Joe Adamson. Nice.
“Hey, look at this.” He said to himself.
He pulled a colorful book by Ward Kimball off the shelf and admired it as the treasure that it was. It wasn’t his present area of animation study – he liked Disney okay, but he liked the more obscure stuff much more. It was cool nonetheless, and he had never seen this particular one before.
Kimball was one of Walt Disney’s famed ‘Nine Old Men’ – a group of key animators who were primarily responsible for the success of Disney’s glory days. Ward Kimball had animated Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio, the crazier scenes in Three Caballeros (which Alwyn loved!), the cat Lucifer for Cinderella and had won an Academy Award for creating the incredibly innovative Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom from the 1950s – one of Disney’s rare forays into UPA-inspired limited animation jazz.
“Do you know Ward Kimball?” A sales clerk suddenly appeared behind him in the stacks, startling him slightly from his reverie.
Oh, boy, what an opening.
That was actually one of Alwyn’s favorite inside jokes. “Yup.” He said without looking up. The joke perversely was that the saleswoman truly meant ‘Do you know OF Ward Kimball?’ but Alwyn in his research had actually met and gotten to know Kimball himself personally. Not close, mind you, but close enough to be able to say ‘Yup’ with a different intent entirely when asked. This had happened often and he never betrayed his real knowledge in those matters. The joke was solely for him. In an odd way, he felt that if he explained it, he would be bragging or something and then the attention would be on him not Ward. And it would take away entirely his private joke.
He was like that with other things as well. He loved to see his own books on bookshelves of stores – even the cut-out bins for the bargain books with remainder marks on the spines and holes punched in their covers. He couldn’t resist surreptitiously autographing the frontispiece of his books and returning them to the shelf or cart or wherever without any fanfare or recognition whatsoever. What made that seem so delicious to him was the fact that no one knew that he had done so. Some unsuspecting buyer would purchase the book for a much-reduced price of $3.95 and then find it had been autographed with some pithy epigraph on the inside. It was like a Christmas present.
Of course he knew that his autograph wasn’t worth all that much truly. He knew the fair market price of his name from watching his books on eBay. He joked that a lot of people didn’t know what they were worth, but he did. An autographed copy of one of his books on eBay sold for an average of $4.97 more than did a copy unadorned. He knew therefore that his perceptual worth was four bucks and ninety-seven cents.
It made him laugh to think of it. And ‘yup’ he did indeed know Ward Kimball. Alwyn felt the presence of the sales clerk hovering behind him. He turned to her.
“I thought it was you.” The clerk said with a soft smile. Her eyes were alive and bright, slightly misty even.
“Karen?” He asked, knowing the answer immediately. “Karen Wilcox.” It was not a question.
“Karen DeSchmidt these days. Or it was. Is. I didn’t change it back.” She winced nervously. “How are you, Aly? It’s been a long time.”
“It has.” He racked his mind for the last time he had seen her. “Twenty years?”
“Makes us sound ancient doesn’t it?”
“Well, we are old. I am at least. You don’t look like you’ve aged that much.” He regretted the words ‘that much’ as soon as he said them. Well of course she had aged, it was twenty years after all, but she had weathered time much more gracefully than he felt he had himself. That’s what he had meant. For being a writer, he sometimes didn’t use words as effectively live and in person as he wished. He was better upon the page.
“So what brings you home?” She corrected herself. “Back. What brings you back?”
“I’m working on one of my projects actually. I saw the ad in the Milwaukee Journal about the film collection you were advertising and just thought I’d give it a whirl. You never know what you can find in some of these collections.”
“Still doing the cartoon thing. I’m glad. I’ve followed your career. I have all your books you know. If I had known you were coming I’d have brought one for you to autograph.”
$4.97, he thought.
“We had your first one here for a time, but some lady bought it a couple of weeks ago.”
“Wow. It’s an antique. We are old.”
Karen laughed. Alwyn could always make her laugh. “Not so old. It came in an estate sale, and the subject matter is old, you know.” He could tell she was glad to have someone with whom to talk. He could tell that he was glad she was there as well. He had of course thought of her over the years and never expected truly to see her again except in fanciful memories of glorious days. “She seemed happy to have it. That was nice.”
“Don’t know why I never married you, Karen.” He blurted out the thought that was present in his mind.
She laughed and took the book from his hand. She held it clasped to her chest like the concession stand girl that he remembered her to be. “You would’ve had to have asked me out first.”
He laughed too. “Ouch. I guess so.”
“It’s okay. It’s been a good life. For both of us.”
“It has.” They looked at each other for a long time with no words needing to be spoken, aware of the silence between them, but not recoiling against it. “It’s good to see you, Ms. Karen Wilcox DeSchmidt.”
“And you as well, Mr. Alwyn Ross.” She smiled. Her eyes were still beautiful to him, and he thought her beauty had grown somehow over the years. It had an added weight to it now, a resonance of time and experience. She turned shyly away from his gaze. “So is there anything in particular I can help you find? You came up here looking for something.”
He nodded and let the moment pass. In his mind he wanted to say, ‘I’ve just found it’ meaning of course her, but he let that go as well. Better sometimes to let the past remain the past.
IDI – Are your stories plot or character driven?
JK – Yes.
IDI – Talent AND a sense of humor… gotta love it! John, who’s your favorite author, and why?
JK – At various times in my life I would’ve answered this question quite differently. Steinbeck, Kerouac, Vonnegut – have all held that undisputed title at times. Frank Norris, Norman Mailer, Palahniuk - sure. But if I am truly honest with myself perhaps my favorite author has been most consistently John Irving. I have not loved his later stuff as much as I would’ve liked, and I didn’t respect his younger stuff as much as my peers. But in the middle (and hopefully the future) he wrote words that made me want to write and to be a writer. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is still my favorite book of all time and ‘Son of the Circus’ is not far behind. Both books have rich characters involved in outlandish – though not science fictiony – plots and capture the attention from the gitgo in clever literary ways. There is a richness to the prose that makes all of his work sublimely resonant. One of the things that Irving has (as does Anne Rice and Stephen King for that matter) is that Dickensian ethos of not wasting the reader’s time. Every word seems profoundly selected, every prop chosen for a specific reason. If there is a baseball beneath the bed in one scene – that baseball will kill someone’s mom in a later chapter. Unity. Beautiful, beautiful unity.
I have tried to emulate this particular aspect of Irving’s style in my own work. If I mention in passing an avocado stuffed in the throat of a goat roasted over a spit for an African feast – it will later appear in a basket, or mayhaps in the throat of a young murder victim… Unity.
IDI – When reading another author, do you find yourself taking in what you read or are you more likely to critique as you go? And if so, what is the one thing you see the most?
JK – One of the more difficult things to do as an author is to be able to read with two distinct methodologies. I love books and adore reading, but truthfully, I read so much for writing that for a time I had forgotten how to simply enjoy for myself. When I was really studying writing – I made myself copy sentence structure in my own stories as stolen from other works. I actually have a novel in process where every line is structurally culled from its complement in Frank Norris’ ‘The Octopus’. It’s a fascinating study that makes you really look at the parts of speech with a critical eye. It also kind of fits philosophically the telling of that particular tale. Over time, I have taught myself to relax that critical ear and simply enjoy work for what it is – that’s not always easy. What I often hear most when I can’t relax that ear – is the voice of the author. A good writer has a unique voice. And really bad writers have really unique voices too. Sometimes that can actually transcend things for me and i get confused. My fictive voice tends to be elegiac in timbre – at least when what I am attempting actually works – and should heave a lyrical impression that is more than the simple context of the content. Or at least that is my desire such that it is. I strive for that lyricism always.
IDI – They say know the rules and then you may break them. Which ones do you find yourself breaking the most and does i work in your writing?
JK – Rules, rules, rules… While doing research for my biography on Ub Iwerks, I was one of the last people to interview the legendary animation director, Chuck Jones. In the course of a long conversation he told me that he established a whole array of rules for the Roadrunner cartoons – things as broad as the Roadrunner never speaking or leaving the road to the specific number of frames the Coyote falls when tumbling off the cliff. He felt that these rules didn’t limit the animators but instead freed them! With some things being given, the fun of the stories for Chuck was in the creative way the artists worked within that very regimented structure.
The truth be told, I found the Roadrunner cartoons and the Pepe Le Pew’s to be much less enjoyable than the non-ruled variety of Termite Terrace fare. At least from this viewer’s perspective. I know what he meant – but for me it just didn’t work. maybe I’m not disciplined enough to abide by rules all that much. Or maybe I’m too darned lazy. Dunno. Probably for me that most frequently broken rules are grammatical. Uh, obviously!
I tend to infuse my stories with lots of phrasing that sounds good when spoken as natural speech, but in truth may not even be proper sentence structure. For me it works, but for others – they may feel as i felt about Chuck’s Roadrunner endeavors – that it is simply not quite there, and I respect that.
IDI – John, thank you very much for appearing with me today. I would like to wish you the very best of luck with your current release and will look for your new book down the road.
John has supplied a few links where you can contact him or learn more about his work:
The Missionary and the Brute (Amazon paperback)
The Missionary and the brute (Amazon Kindle)
The Missionary and the Brute Blog
My tidbit offering this week comes by way of Bob Mayer. Bob talks Idea, Conflict and… Klout. That’s right, Klout. For those of you who are lagging a bit… Klout is to the internet as Credit Score is to financial standing. There is a lot of helpful information on Bob’s blog and his is one I recommend subscribing to. Write It Forward
Ink Drop Interviews are conducted by Kathy Reinhart, author of 3 novels including the award-winning, ‘Lily White Lies’. (Kindle or Paperback)
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