Published on December 9th, 2011 | by Jenah0
Welcome Jonathan Cook
J.C. – I was born in a two-street town in New Mexico—or so I’m told; I don’t have any memories of that time. When I was two, my family moved to Aurora, that suburb made famous by Wayne’s World. Of that period, all I can recall is the neighbor’s orange cat, Mr. Pitts, though it is possible the neighbor was Mr. Pitts and I, being too small and too lacking in anything approaching intelligence, confused the man and the cat. After a year or so, we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I learned to love cheese curds and the Green Bay Packers. Four years later, we moved to what I now call my adopted hometown: Lincoln, Illinois. I spent the following fourteen years there.
What I love about Lincoln sounds strange to most people: I love the way it persists. When I left Lincoln the summer after my sophomore year in college, the town felt like it was dying. Economically, the town’s best days were long behind it, and I felt I was leaving little more than a rotting corpse. However, whenever I visited childhood friends during college, I was surprised by how the town seemed to be finding its footing once again. The downtown area was renovated, new businesses began dotting the outskirts of town, and people started building new homes. I recently took a trip back to Lincoln for the first time in almost eight years, and I was shocked by how different and alive the town felt. I think there is something to be said for a rural community not only surviving in this economic climate, but actually thriving.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How has that childhood dream affected your career?
J.C. – I wanted to be a computer programmer. I was virtually—pun intended—baptized in circuitry and I’ve been a tech geek for as long as I can remember. As a child, I really wanted to get beneath the surface and make these marvels that I so enjoyed. When I got to college, however, I quickly learned how little aptitude I possessed for the mathematics required. Knowing that I needed to change paths, I switched to English, but I still thoroughly enjoy technology and the progress that has been made in the past twenty years.
Tell us about your latest book. Do you have anything new in the works and can you tell us a bit about it?
J.C. – Youth and Other Fictions is the end result of ten years’ work. It is how I understood high school life to be at the end of the millennium and how that conflicted with my understanding going back years later as a teacher.
Since shortly after beginning the first draft of Youth, I’ve had a number of projects begin, only to later consign to a drawer or a file folder somewhere. When I finally finished readying the ebook, I started going through those “discarded” projects: what had I started or thought about or scribbled down that still interested me? As it stands, I have three projects that I’d like to see through to completion, three projects that I feel can be great in their own ways. The first is a contemporary take on Moby-Dick and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The second is a comedy about an intervention. The third is a kind of love story. Which one will end up being finished is anybody’s guess, though. I may start on a horror story tomorrow and end up working on that for the next three years.
Why did you write this book?
J.C. – The Columbine incident.
When I first started Youth in the fall of 2000, Columbine represented a tragedy not only in what happened, but also in the aftermath. The notion of children taking arms against their peers was terrifying, but it was almost negated by the way the media began assigning blame and asking “Why?” without ever waiting for a real answer. It seemed there was some kind of pleasure being taken in the spectacle and the speculation. “Marilyn Manson made them do it” is not a real answer. “They played Doom” is not a real answer. People needed to do something with their grief and their anxiety, but what they chose to do was trivialize what happened because no one actually wanted to understand.
The first draft of Youth came out of my frustration with that entire situation. I understood, as did any high school outcast at that time, how it could happen. I will never claim to understand the specific details of those two boys’ lives, but I do understand the stresses that can push a person in that direction.
At the same time, I never wanted to write about a school shooting. What interested me was the stress of high school life, the experience itself, and its after effects. Saying this book is about a school shooting is akin to saying the New Testament is about the birth of Christ. I wanted to use the shooting as a central event around which I could bring characters into conflict.
How did you come up with the title?
J.C. – The title is a reference to the volume in which Joseph Conrad first published Heart of Darkness. The novella was originally serialized, and when Conrad arranged for its publication in book format, he included it with two other stories of his in a volume called Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories. Any further exegesis I leave to my careful readers.
How did you choose your genre?
J.C. – Short answer: I didn’t.
Those who have read this novel have referred to it in any number of ways: a coming-of-age tale, erotica, horror, young adult fiction, and satire, to name but a few. None of these were labels I actively sought. Is there strong and graphic violence in this novel? Yes. Is there strong sexual content? I suppose, but I don’t think the book is nearly as “sexy” as some of my readers have claimed. Is there lyrical writing? I hope so; I tried. What then should I label it? Literary horror porn?
Genre is nothing more than a label applied to make interpretation easier, to lessen the work needed on the part of the reader. If I were to say yes, this is a work of horror fiction, the reader would enter the book with a set of expectations and understandings already in place; he or she would not have to engage the novel as fully, to learn its rules. I want my readers to react to the novel itself, to its content, to its ideas. The notion of labeling any work with a particular genre does that work, its creator, and its audience a grave disservice.
What inspired you to be a writer?
J.C. – Books are a way of escaping the banality of our own lives. We look at the adventures of the heroes and the villains and live vicariously through them. We experience things we’d never have the opportunity to experience. It’s cliché, but that attracted me from a very young age to writing. I am far too pragmatic a man to say anything so absurd as “I want to change the world,” but I believe that experience, even vicarious experience, can influence people and set them to pondering the world around them.
Who is your favorite character in your books? Why?
J.C. – I imagine many of my students want me to say something along the lines of “Jason Brays because he’s really me with a much better sex life.” As if the content of the novel didn’t start enough chatter.
I find the character who most moves me is Jamie. My heart breaks for her every time I read the novel all the way through.
J.C. – As I mentioned before, the Columbine incident played a major role in this work.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
J.C. – The biggest challenge I had with Youth was finding an appropriate distance from the material. I needed to be close enough to write something valid, something true, but far enough away to maintain some semblance of objectivity. Writing a novel, one cannot afford to go wild, to lose himself or herself in the words. At the end of the day, a novel is a story. A writer needs to continuously ensure that whatever he or she writes is in support of the story. Ideas, philosophies, themes: these are all just icing.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
a. Know what you want to say. Figuring that out is half the battle; the rest is just figuring out how the hell to say it.
b. Do not show your drafts to other people. Finish the damn thing first, and then worry about whether anyone else will like it.
c. Do not read books on the craft of writing. Why would you want someone else telling you how to do something if it’s supposed to be your work?
d. Read. Everything. All the time.
e. Write something every day. A line. A chapter. A character sketch.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
J.C. – I go for drives in the country with the windows rolled down and the music turned up. It helps clear my head and get rid of the excess voices. Then I sit down and watch some television or take a nap.
Much like insomnia, trying to force it leads to nothing but frustration. I find that by accepting temporary blockage and refusing to let it get to me, I get over it much quicker.
Who is your favorite author and why? What books have most influenced your life?
J.C. – John Fowles and Cormac McCarthy are my favorite authors. Both are master stylists and master storytellers. In particular, Fowles’ The Magus remains one of the few novels I read regularly. Its portrayal of a reprehensible young man who nevertheless remains intriguing to the audience is well worth the required effort. Likewise, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Outer Dark are two of the most intense philosophic works I’ve ever read outside of explicit philosophy. McCarthy dissects the nature of good and evil with such minute clarity that he is able to make manifest our most base angels.
How did you deal with rejection letters?
J.C. – The very first rejection letter I ever received actually made me laugh. It was a skewed photocopy of their form rejection letter. Since then, I’ve always accepted that not everyone is willing to take the time to give me a chance. That is basic human nature. My novel may be the best ever written, but that doesn’t mean everyone should drop what they’re doing and read it. Does rejection hurt? Sure, but nowadays, there are other ways of getting one’s work to the public.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
J.C. – A 16-year-old Lagavulin, a pen with which it is a pleasure to write, and a yellow legal pad. Anything else is just shit that gets in the way.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
J.C. – I took three bullets to the chest, man!
No, not really.
In order to write a relatively short section of Youth, I needed a list of every noteworthy event between 1990 and 2000. I filled a notebook with all of these dates and descriptions, and then created an elaborate cross-referencing system to link events together. My notebook quickly became unwieldy, and I was forced to create a Tinderbox database of the events and their links.
Little did I know that Wikipedia had already compiled lists of noteworthy events by year. All I would have needed to do was print them out and start drawing the links.
Visit Jonathan On The Web!
Jonathan M. Cook’s Official Website: http://www.jonathanmcook.com
Youth and Other Fictions on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Youth-and-Other-Fictions/279678705377413