I had the opportunity read and review this book for TLC Book Tours. Justin was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions that readers will love knowing more about: Justin’s writing and how the story and characters were created. Before we dive into his questions/answers, take a look at his book trailer for, The Preservationist.
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Author Bio: Justin Kramon is the author of the novels Finny (Random House, 2010) and The Preservationist (Pegasus, 2013). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers’ Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He lives in Philadelphia.
1. As a mom of a young writer, I know the importance of being a supporter to my son’s dream. Who has been your greatest supporter and encourager? How are you most supported?
That’s great that you’re supportive of your son’s writing. It makes a huge difference, and I imagine it must be scary for a parent to know that your child wants to be a writer. It’s like telling your parents that you dream of being a professional hula-hoop twirler, in that there’s a very small and specific market for what you’re doing, and you hope and have faith it’ll stick around, but you never really know. So I admire parents who take that leap of faith.
I’ve been lucky to have a family who has supported my writing — my wife, parents, sister, others. That helps a lot. Teachers and other writers have encouraged me, and that has made a huge difference at certain times. I probably wouldn’t still be writing if not for certain of these people, my wife in particular.
But the other thing about writing is that, ultimately, you’re alone. At some point, you close the door and no one is in front of the computer but you. And if you don’t want to do it, no one is making you. The world doesn’t care that much whether you do it or not. So something has to come from within you, some pushback against all the pressures not to do it. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I feel lucky when it happens.
2. Do you have a favorite book that you’ve most identified with or had the most impact?
Maybe not a favorite book, but the first writer who really spoke to me was Alice Munro. I started reading her in college, and I remember reading one of her very early stories, “Thanks for the Ride,” a story I’m guessing she wouldn’t think very much of anymore, but reading it was the first time I started thinking seriously about writing. It wasn’t that I thought I could ever write like Alice Munro, but that I wasn’t aware until then that there was a place in books for the types of feelings and small moments she writes about. I just couldn’t believe that these ideas were in a book.
Then, later on, I started reading those bigger, wilder, insanely wise and beautiful stories from the middle of her career — books like Open Secrets, The Progress of Love, Friend of my Youth — and again she blew me away, particularly by how she handled time, which I think is such an important part of writing. I was very affected by how she moved backward and forward in time, which was something I hadn’t seen before, and it made me realize the potential stories had to capture time passing, which is a very moving thing, I think.
3. I’ve always heard the saying, “write what you know”. So, with that in mind- was there a character or experience you most identified with in The Preservationist?
I’ve heard that saying a lot also, and it’s always made me nervous. I just don’t feel like I know very much. I’m good at ducking out of the way whenever anyone asks a factual question. I always took that saying to mean that because of your life experience, you have this collection of facts and details that you can and should draw from, but steer clear of the stuff you don’t know about. The problem is, I think one of the big reasons people write fiction is precisely to get to the stuff they don’t know about. So it’s a little bit of a dilemma.
I’ve come to take that idea — “Write what you know” — in a very broad sense, which is that there’s a set of universal feelings we all tap into in our lives, and everyone comes to know at least some of them in the course of a life, and the ones you know are the ones you try to write about. They’re the things that people relate to in your writing.
In The Preservationist, even though it’s a thriller, the underlying feelings all the characters are dealing with relate to loss. Each of the three main characters — Sam, Julia, Marcus — has a different approach to loss, and it seems to keep their heads above water, but then in the course of the novel they find themselves starting to go under. Everyone in the world experiences loss — it’s the fundamental thing about being in the world — so I was interested in exploring some of the feelings and ideas I had about that. What’s great about a novel is that you can give those sets of thoughts to characters who might take them to a much greater and more destructive extreme than you ever would.
4. A huge part of the storyline is taking the reader inside the mind of a serial killer. How did you balance writing the vulnerable side to a mad man, while also showing the madness and scary side? Was he based on any particular real life person? If so, who and how was that person helpful in the creation of that character?
This was one of the big draws and most interesting parts of writing the book. I was influenced by books like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Collector, and Felicia’s Journey. Those books present the criminal or violent mind on level ground with all the other characters in the story. In other words, the book itself doesn’t tell you who is the “good guy” or the “bad guy,” but presents each character’s world with equal intensity and detail, and allows a murderer to think of things like what he’ll have for lunch, and how nice his childhood house used to be.
That was what I really wanted to do in The Preservationist, to present all the characters with equal sympathy. The fact that one is a killer creates an interesting tension for a reader, hopefully, because you’re curious to know more about this person whom you normally wouldn’t get within a mile of, and you might even start to feel for him a little bit. That’s the strange magic a book can work, and that discomfort is a thing that can be fun to experience as a reader.
I didn’t base the killer on any real person. I just tried to think hard about what kind of cocktail of genes and experiences in the world would create a mindset where killing was possible or even acceptable. But I always wanted those violent impulses to grow out of gentler, more sympathetic, more human ones.
5. One of the most identifiable characters in the story was Julia. Perhaps because everyone has either been a loner at one time or another, or knew of the school loner on campus. What do you think made her so vulnerable and kept her in situations that were at times, quite dangerous?
It’s interesting that you mention this, because I’m not sure if all my readers identify most with Julia. She’s a difficult person, in a lot of ways, and I’m not sure she’s that likeable immediately. Although she had a kind of quirky sense of humor I enjoyed working with in the book. But I’m really glad to hear that you felt for her, and for her loneliness, because that’s something I hoped would come through — even though it was tough, because Julia works hard to shield her emotions from everyone, including herself.
My sense of her is that there’s a chaos under the surface. Maybe that’s often true with people who seem very reserved, that there’s a fear about what would happen if they lose that reserve. Because of the tragedy Julia faced shortly before the book starts, as well as her insecurity and a lot of childhood stuff she’s carrying around, I get the sense that she’s barely, barely functional, that underneath her quick jokes her thoughts are creating a huge and frightening mess. To my mind, that’s why her judgment is very poor at times. Through a lot of the book, it’s almost like she’s looking for a place to hide, or a place where she can erase herself.
6. Computer or paper? When writing, do you use the good ole’ fashioned notepad or do you use modern technology and use the computer?
I spend a lot of time first writing in a notebook about the characters, with no story or plot in mind, just trying to get to know them. Then I move to the computer once I want to start forming the plot, but I use all the weird stuff I write in the notebooks as a kind of basis for everything the characters do or say. There’s a ton of material in the notebooks that never gets into the novel, but my hope is that the novel will feel like the tip of the iceberg, with a very substantial portion just below the surface.
7. What advice or suggestions would you give to a student wanting to pursue writing?
I think everyone forges her or his own path through it, so my first suggestion would be to not take too much advice, and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. You gather that stuff over the years, from teachers or other writers or things you read. For me, reading was and is the most important teacher. It familiarizes you with the landscape of fiction, of what’s out there and what’s possible. And it also helps build the techniques you have to tell the stories you want to tell. Reading a great book is the most inspiring thing to me, as far as writing goes.
I guess one other thing I’d mention, maybe because your son is so interested in writing, is that it helps to take the long view, as much as is possible. For most of the writers I’ve met who have created truly outstanding books, there was a lot of struggling, a lot of doubt, and a certain amount of failure that came before the book they wanted to write. But those difficulties actually became part of the process of creating that book, and in fact the book couldn’t have been created without the difficulty. So it seems that the easy or immediate success isn’t necessarily the best thing for a writer, and that the writers who keep writing find something to love in the process, not just the end result.
A HUGE thank-you to Justin for taking the time to answer my questions! I absolutely loved you sharing advice that I can pass on to my son, who is graduating high school this year!! It is my belief that everyone will be able to learn something new or gain a new perspective in the world of writing, while also getting some interesting tidbits, in the making of some fantastic characters.
As a thank-you to all my blog readers: Justin’s book, The Preservationist, is being offered as a giveaway!
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All entries must be completed by November 30, 2013. Due to postage, only US entries.