Monday, October 22, 2018

Interview With James Anderson, Author of Lullaby Road

Can you share a bit about your journey to becoming a writer/published author? Did you dream of being a writer from an early age, or did that come later? 

A few years ago I was asked in an interview what I wanted to be when I grew up. I responded immediately: "Someone else." In the second grade I was diagnosed as (in the parlance of the day) "retarded." Perhaps I was marginally autistic, certainly ADHD, and absolutely dyslexic. I didn't understand people at all and, candidly, I could be explosively violent.

As a result of all this, I was left to myself a great deal and slowly I began to read, and as I began to read and write I also began to understand people. Most of my early social skills were learned from books. My guess is that my writing, which began early, was an attempt to refashion the world and the people around me into ways that made sense—at least to me. (And gave rise to comments from Ben Jones, when telling of the unexplainable and horrific crime at the center of my first novel, like: "All people wanted is a reason that made sense, even if it made no sense."

I finished my first novel when I was sixteen and not attending high school very much, which I suspect was their choice as well. By the time I was nineteen I was beginning to have my poems and short stories accepted in magazines. At twenty-one and still an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I started my publishing company. Though I continued to write, I generally stopped trying to publish my own work.  I wrote six or seven novels in my twenties through my forties, all prior to The Never-Open Desert Diner, which was my first published book—at age sixty-two. I have often thought that writing was how I achieved my goal of growing up to become "someone else." I have become many "someone else's," one of which is Ben Jones, and in the process became contented if not always happily myself.

While Lullaby Road is offered as stand alone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to your first book - The Never-Open Desert Diner. Did you mean for Ben Jones to be the main character in a series of books from the start, or did the idea for the second book come later?

Review HERE!
That is an excellent question. The answer is yes—and no. As I was writing The Never-Open Desert Diner, which I was almost positive would never be published, I simply wanted to write a novel that entertained and consumed me during a difficult time. All I wanted to do is write the best novel I could write, without regard to genre or formulae. I've never been much interested in coloring inside the lines. Not a "mystery" or a "thriller" or a "crime" story. Really, I don't care much about genres. Besides, I agree with Faulkner, who was an avid reader of mysteries, that all stories are mysteries of one sort or another. I wasn't really thinking of a "series" character, and that is still true.

By the time I completed the book, but before it was published, I sensed there was more to tell—more to the story—and thanks to Crown, I had a chance to do that with LULLABY ROAD. Still, my vision is not as a series, not even as a trilogy—rather a triptych (which is a term usually associated with visual art) that exists as (3) separate panels, where each panel can be appreciated alone, but when attached in sequence provide a larger, single work, a panorama if you will.

As the plot centers around the desert, the "desert rats" who live there and driving a big rig, I wondered what your experience was? Have you actually driven a big rig? Have you spent serious time in the desert? If not, what research did you do to make it feel so real?

I have never driven a "big rig," at least not as a job. Neither does Ben Jones. He is a "day driver" and not an "OTR" (over-the-road) driver. Ben drives a slightly customized medium duty diesel with a twenty-eight foot box (trailer) that has a small refrigerated unit built in to the back. He needs room, but not that much room. His truck and trailer economically accommodates what he usually has to deliver to the "desert rats" and the poor roads he must traverse on a daily basis. A semi-trailer would be a hindrance.  

As a driver, the medium duty trucks were the ones I drove, though not well and not for long. My first job, delivering masonry building materials ended after three weeks when I slammed into the rear of a 7-Up truck scattering bricks and mortar and broken green bottles of 7-Up all over the road. The load came forward and crushed the cab flat. I was uninjured and unemployed. Then I drove a 1937 REO for a thrift outfit raising money for Vietnam vets. A few months. Top speed was maybe forty miles an hour. It had an old Brownie transmission that required about four shifts all double-clutched just to get to walking speed. The cast iron tailgate hydraulics failed and dropped several hundred pounds of iron across my knees. I was young and healed quickly but never returned to the job. I had made enough money to go back to college.

As for the desert, yes, I have spent a good deal of time in the desert, particularly the deserts of the American Southwest, most notably Utah. I do some research, though not a lot. Usually I write something and I think it is and then go back and check it. Nothing is more dangerous, to a writer or a human being, that what one 'thinks' he or she KNOWS. As anyone who has read the novels, or knows me personally, will say, the natural world is very important to me, and very personal. In that way the desert, the desert of Ben Jones, is both harshly beautiful and at the sometime surreal, often spiritual. 

The Utah desert is different from other deserts (in my opinion) because of the unique quality of the light. Deserts (all deserts) are usually defined by what they do not have—people, resources, particularly water. At the end of The Never-Open Desert Diner the crazy itinerant preacher John, says to Ben Jones, almost exactly what I just said, and then concludes with: The desert is home to light." It is no accident that my novels are preoccupied with the desert weather and landscape and their symbiotic relationship with the people who choose to live there. Ideologies melt away. 

What becomes clear in such a sparse and unforgiving setting is the connections between people, the abiding interdependency, almost in a form of high relief that wouldn't be nearly as dramatic and clear in any other kind of setting. What is absolutely essential in life, and to life—our reliance on each other and the land— rises from the flat, desolate environment of the desert. That, I believe, is the true essence of the desert and why so many readers have found my novels so evocative and atmospheric and those qualities are not really 'facts' you can research, you simply have to feel them.


Previous Ben Jones Novel
Your characters were very solid and believable. Can you share a bit about the process of creating and fleshing out people so they feel real. Are they composites of people you know? Are there elements of you in them? Do you create a cast of characters ahead of time you refer to or are they created as you write the story?

The praise my novels have received with regard to their characters has given me the greatest sense of accomplishment. The answer to your question, again, is yes—and no. I don’t work from an outline. My rough draft is my outline, and most of the events and characters spring from the page even as I write them.

Recently I was asked how much research I do, especially on people, and my honest answer was, not much. I know these people, or variations on them. When I was young, doing all kinds of jobs, I worked doing hard physical labor. My sister and I grew up in poverty and saw first-hand how tough life can be working day in and day out just to make ends meet. I just heard Alice Walker speak of this, her line: “Fighting for life everyday.” The characters in my books seem “real” because they are “real.” Part of what makes a character appear real is building the truths of their lives and entwined histories and shared hardships through simple, though often obliquely complex conversations that arise from common daily tasks and habits.

A good example of this is a scene in LULLABY ROAD where Ginny, the teenaged unwed punk teenaged mother of an infant, tells Ben Jones how she fell asleep working the nightshift at Walmart—her total exhaustion as a new mother, alone in the world, working two jobs, going to community college. But the other women, all older, gather around her, protect her from being seen by the supervisor, and just let her sleep as long as they can. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book because it comes in part from seeing what my own mother went through and how the women around and helped and protected one another as they each cared for their children.

Lullaby Road is not upbeat. While a mystery is being solved, we are surrounded with damaged people living sad lives.  What do you do an author after a day of immersing yourself in that literary world to shed the gloom and bring you back to reality and a happier place?

Now that is a truly original and tough question. First, however sad and damaged the people might be, most are heroic in some way, just as the truck driver Ben Jones is heroic. It is not so much a matter of winning or losing but the valiant daily struggles with which they contend. I admire their stoic, exhausted determination. I think readers do too. But yes, there is sadness, great exhausting sadness that often personally overwhelms me.

Ben Jones gets severely physically injured, as do others, in LULLABY ROAD, and I confess I felt just as beat up when I completed the novel. The violence in my novels, when it happens, is not comic book or melodramatic violence that can be shaken off with an ice pack and a couple Tylenol, or a six-pack of beer and a good joke. The same is true of the emotional and psychological damage. If you survive you do eventually go on, but you live the price you paid everyday. This, too, happens in a kind of personal geological time where the consequences of being a victim, or even a witness, can unfold over generations.

One of the absolute best novels I’ve read in a long time is BULL MOUNTAIN, the debut novel by Brian Panowich. You see the geological life of crimes played out over generations in a rural Georgia crime family.

As for how I shed the residue left over from writing such harrowing scenes, all I can say is that sometimes it takes good friends and family, and a long, demanding workout at the gym. That said, some of it never goes away. That’s how I know I’ve succeeded in telling the truth and that there is lasting value and accomplishment in what I’ve written regardless of how well a book sells or is received. Every page must risk it all. A writer always knows when he or she has achieved authenticity. It has to—it must—leave real scars. If it doesn’t, why do it at all?

What is your writing process (scheduled time, when inspiration strikes, etc.)?  What do you enjoy the most? What part of the process is your least favourite?

I really like what Pam Houston says about this topic. She thinks and thinks and when an idea reaches critical mass you simply must begin committing it to words on a page. But along those lines, both Steven King and Dennis Lehane have said, “professionals get up and go to work and amateurs wait for inspiration.” Somewhere in there is my process. I am always thinking about an image, or a piece of dialogue—or just a sensibility that is the seed of a story. I usually am up very early in the morning about 4am, before the fires of the day begin and I am awake though still with a residue of sleep—it’s quiet. But I will often write until I am exhausted, oblivious to the time and everything around me and inside me is inside the narrative and the world I have created.

Again, the best, really the only important part of writing or any form of artistic creation, is doing the work. Falling in love with the blank page as Michael Chabon says. The least favorite? Final proofing. No matter how many times I’ve been over a project, along with terrific, detailed copy editors—damn! There is always, always something. It drives me crazy.


Most of the writers I know did not study in university. As you have you MFA in creative writing, I am curious to know what you feel was the most important thing you learned in school? Also, what do you feel that training has brought to your craft?  

 I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen, followed by several more, none of which I even tried to publish. I read a few hundred books a year in the sciences, environment, biography, philosophy, poetry and novels. My life, as a publisher and writer, has continually been blessed with friendships with many writers. BUT—I didn’t go for an MFA until I was in my late 50s. An MFA will not make you a writer, though it might make you a better writer by adding new tools to your tool box, or helping you learn different ways to use the tools you already have. It also helps to be around others struggling to do the same thing. You learn from their struggles, and successes.

I went to a program in Boston at Pine Manor College, the Solstice MFA, where Dennis Lehane is the Writer-in-Residence. They accepted me. All the others to which I applied rejected me; and yet, it turned out to be the best program for me because my instructors, like Sterling Watson, Sandra Scofield, Venise Berry and Jaime Manrique looked at what I was trying to do and then simply worked with me NOT to change what I was doing, but to help me do it better. I wouldn’t trade that MFA experience for anything. It challenged me to throw away everything I thought I knew and become a beginner again—at 57. No one expects a surgeon or an accountant or an attorney to simply wake up one day and start operating, or defending a client or whatever. You work. And work. And learn everything you can about writing in every way you can from everyone you can. I am still learning. Still failing. Still adding tools to my tool box.

What's next for you as a writer? Any new books in the works?

Good question. I am working on a memoir, as well as two other novels and a collection of short stories/novellas. One of the novels is the third Ben Jones, but if LULLABY ROAD does not do well I might not have a publisher. Of course I will write it, but it might take a backseat to the memoir. As the Zen Master said: We’ll see!

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