A few days into grade one, the parents of Jonathon Scott Fuqua attended a hastily called meeting at his school. The school downgraded Scott from green to red: he couldn’t hope to succeed, the teachers said. If lucky, Scott might be a failure.
His parents were not to hope for much. The teachers, too pious to fool, said success came from walking the path of conformity, which Scott could not. His parents stood hard against the threats.
In August 2014, Bancroft Press published the ninth Fuqua novel, “Secrets of the Greaser Hotel.” The book includes more than one hundred drawings by Fuqua. The six-year-old boy, destined to fail in life, is a best-selling, award-winning writer, artist and painter.
“You’ll find my books,” says Fuqua, “in the Young-adult section of bookstores. My core characters are teenagers. Booksellers think only teenagers buy my books. This is not true.” An older character, Jerome, steals the show in his new book, “Secrets of the Greaser Hotel.”
That Jerome is a cat may cause a different problem. “Jerome hangs out in dumpsters and the back of fish shops,” says Fuqua, but he’s the wisest character at the Greaser. No bookstore shelves “Greaser Hotel” in the pet section.
“My books build on a core idea,” says Fuqua, “such as class warfare, mental illness or greed.” He develops a layered story allowing him to engage the reader in the core idea. “I don’t dump,” he says.
Nor is Fuqua an eristic. “I try to balance as I slip the core idea into the story, here and there.” His goal is for the reader to think about the core idea, more, after reading his book.
Names are important to him. The hero of “Greaser Hotel,” is Allie. Her name means unselfish, loving, optimistic, strong-minded and enriching, all of which she is and more. “I spend much time researching the names of my characters,” says Fuqua.
What’s old is new again. “Greaser Hotel” features more than a hundred narrative drawings by Fuqua. “In the 1800s,” says Fuqua, “books were full of story-related drawings. I think it’s time to return to that practice.”
By the 1920s, writing improved a great deal. “Hemmingway and Fitzgerald,” he says, “are examples.” Then Steinbeck, among others, wrote readable books, set in familiar locations. “Story-related drawings became a cost ever frugal book publishers could avoid.”
Today, many readers find it hard to focus on a book length text. “More and more, students are visual,” says Fuqua. “I must find ways to engage them.
“My drawings make the text less daunting and easier to engage.” His drawings reflect the mood, spirit and storyline. “If a reader only follows the drawings,” says Fuqua, “she or he still gets the full story.”
“There’s a harmful bromide,” says Fuqua, “urging us to write what we know. I ask my college students to write about what they like. A twenty-year-old has some knowledge and boundless likes. Writing what they like means finding out more about that topic, which is empowering.”
Grub Street (GS) You have a new book.
J Scott Fuqua (JSF) Yes, the “Secrets of the Greaser Hotel.”
GS It’s your ninth novel.
JSF Yes, and I have several others books, including a study of the front yards of homes and architectural histories.
GS You have a most interesting character in “Greaser Hotel.” We don’t want to give everything away, but I think we must talk of the cat.
JSF Jerome, the cat, is interesting.
GS How did you come up with Jerome, a cat that talks, with much wisdom?
JSF Honestly, I don’t know. I wanted a humble servant, with a well-developed personal take on the world. I wanted a knowledgeable character with a true, basic perspective and viewpoint.
When you know what happens, in “Greaser Hotel,” you understand why Jerome is in the world created in this book. I don’t know if that makes sense, but the character worked. That’s how I came up with Jerome.
GS Jerome is always a cat.
JSF Yes, he has catlike experiences. He has hung out inside dumpsters. He hangs behind fish shops. He has all those cat experiences, with a human side, too.
Jerome was great to write. We are one, as writer and character. I tried to get into the mind of a cat.
I tried to think about what would matter to a cat. What would get a cat excited? What might turn off a cat?
Jerome was great to write. I guess I thought of him, as my family once had a cat we called Jerome. This Jerome is not the Jerome we had.
GS I like that.
JSF Jerome has a huge personality. He’s all attitude and bluster. Yet, he’s a cat.
Jerome does what Jerome wants to do. Nothing is going to deter him. He will sit where he wants to sit. He will challenge dogs. He will do anything, everything, he wants to do. Yet, there's an incredible intellect lurking behind his eyes.
GS What inspires you?
JSF Nature, my family, fear and failure inspire me. I love monumental places, such as the Grand Canyon. I could sit and take in the wonder of such places, days on end. I guess nature inspires most.
GS The setting for “Greaser Hotel” is Howard Street, in downtown Baltimore, Maryland.
JSF Yes, it’s now a run-down area that once thrived. The area is Howard Street, even the side streets, much the way Times Square, in New York City, includes many streets, avenues and alleyways. The Greaser is ostensibly at the southern end of Howard Street, at Pratt and Lombard.
GS For how long did the Howard Street area, of Baltimore, thrive?
JSF It was the heart of Baltimore for about half a century, ending in the 1950s.
Vibrant and thriving, Howard Street was hopping. If you look at old photographs of Baltimore City, it’s there: more people on the streets than you see now, anywhere in Baltimore.
Those few blocks were an exceptional place. Baltimore lost much of its heart and soul when Howard Street went into decline. We lost the beat of the town.
GS Nothing replaces it.
JSF No, not in one place, anyway. Today, scattered around the city is the best way to describe where you find the interesting part of Howard Street. Baltimore lost many residents over the past two generation. They fled for the suburbs; their flight emptied the interior of the city.
GS You think a financial crash ruined Howard Street.
JSF Yes, as soon as I started looking into the decline, of Howard Street, I found it was all about money and greed. It’s was about trying to amass wealth on the backs of people. It seemed no one was trying to help anybody else.
GS Take the money and run.
JSF Yes, this is true. No one cared about decent housing, for example; the available housing became so run-down. For some people to live well, property owners, in the suburbs, most people in Howard Street lived in misery.
The downfall of Howard Street was all about greed. It was distasteful. I find that, as a nation, we need to watch out for each other. We have to be aware we are a group of individuals that need to make it together.
GS When people forgot this idea Howard Street went with it.
JSF Yes, it seemed that during the financial crisis, everyone was trying to prosper on his or her own; for him or herself. There was no taking care of others, only taking care of personal needs, wants and business, no balance, no caring, no sharing. It was an incredibly unlikeable time for me.
I started thinking about stories. One of the ideas I had was to capture the sensation of everyone trying to win for him or herself. What I saw was women and men, supposedly aligned, in competition for fewer and fewer spoils and everyone losing.
The two primary characters in “Greaser Hotel” are Herman Gristle and Marvin Greaser. Son and father pitted against one another; one wants what the other has, in their own way. I found that to be an honest position during the financial crisis. I find it a defect in the entire idea of capitalism.
JSF I wanted to address that issue. Too many men and women don’t think about how looking out for themselves usually hurts others. For our society to work properly, we can’t cheat as a way of life.
I wanted to show the effects of cheating. Yes, cheating is going to happen, but it can’t become rampant. I guess we can tolerate some greed, but not greed as a way of life.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
JSF Screw it, I guess; I’m always around children, which means I must be careful if I cuss.
GS From your take on the decline of Howard Street, you built a solid young adult story.
JSF Yes, I think I did.
GS What makes “Greaser Hotel” a story for young adults rather than for adults?
JSF Well, for me, the age of the main characters places a book in the young adult section of bookstores. Teenagers, as the main characters of a young adult story, bring a different world view to the story. They may face an experience for the first time, whereas an adult may have faced the same experience many times.
This age related novelty gives a special resonance to the story. A middle-age reader may foresee pitfalls or results, whereas as younger reader don’t or can’t, yet. An older reader may find stories for young adults too predictable.
GS The age of a reader defines young adult.
JSF I think it does, now. Twenty-five or sixty years ago, it did not. In 1951, “Catcher in the Rye,” with the teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was fiction. Today, book marketers are sly; they direct publishers to buy novels that fill a niche, largely defined by age of most likely reader.
Should the age of main characters be the defining point? No, good fiction should be good fiction, a good read for everyone. A reader should pick up book, read the jacket, for example; from that blurb, they may decide it’s for him or her, despite her or his age.
GS It’s not likely a typical adult reader will head for the Young-adult fiction section of a bookshop.
JSF No, but I don’t think it is right that age, alone, defines category. Still, no matter how much I want to resist targeting to young adults, that is who buys my books. If an author wants to sell his or her book, marketing must win the day, when it comes to category.
I prefer a book with a character or two that I can like, regardless of age. By like, I mean a character the reader can gravitate to because they identify something of themselves in a fictional man or woman, girl or boy, cat or dog.
GS Is Jerome, in “Greaser Hotel,” an example.
JSF Yes, Jerome, for sure, but maybe marketers know something authors do not. I admit, though, that forty-seven year old readers seldom identify with teenage characters, but teenagers do, in large numbers. I like dream that anyone can identify with Jerome.
GS From what you’re saying, you don’t write down to the young adult reader.
JSF Never, I want to make sure the idea I throw out is clear and concise. If I succeed, anyone can read the story and understand what I’m saying. I try to be clear about what I was saying.
I know I write passages that have one meaning for me and another for the reader. I try to avoid such passages, desperately. Often, editors and early readers catch such problems, giving me a chance to revise those sections.
Never have I thought, ‘This is above their heads. I need to revise.’ In “Greaser Hotel,” there a great deal on capitalism. This might bore many readers, which is a different challenge, but I tried to integrate into the characters.
I wrote about capitalism in a way I thought the reader might be able to enjoy. I didn’t dump. I wrote so the ideas that comprise capitalism referred to current events. I tried to avoid it as an abstract notion. Ideally, readers connect more easily to events in motion, current events, which makes the book more rewarding.
GS What are you reading right now?
JSF After our first chat, I decided to reread “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” by John Irving. The book lies open in front of me, right now.
GS As well as your own books, what books do you urge readers to read?
JSF I recommend Steinbeck for versatility; Salinger; Harper Lee, John Irving and other older books that developed a different way of expression.
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
JSF T-shirts, I live in tees. There’s nothing more comfortable.
GS Where did the name Gristle come from?
JSF At one point, the son, Herman, doesn’t want anyone to know he is the son of Marvin Greaser, owner of the hotel. Investors, which include the father, Marvin, are taking over the American Midwest, meatpacking, railways and steel plants. The son, Herman, wants to distance himself from what his father is doing. Thus, he changes his name to Gristle.
GS Why did you pick Gristle for the name of the son?
JSF I always research character names. The names, Marvin Greaser and Herman Gristle, are oddly representative of their personalities. Marvin is the famous Welsh king, Merfyn. Gristle means whiny.
GS Those are good choices.
JSF Thank you.
GS What is your favourite indulgence?
JSF Red wine: my stepfather was French chef; it was an important part of his work and always around, I guess. Also, many wonderful moments, in my lie, have built around red wine. Red wine has a lasting cleanness to it.
GS Do you think someone, say, thirty-five years old, that reads “Greaser Hotel” will find Allie, who’s sixteen and the main character, off-putting?
JSF I don’t know. I think if someone thirty-five years old picks up this book, one of the first facts they'll discover is that Jerome is older and more mature. Although a cat, he’s more mature. Zachery is also older.
GS “Greaser Hotel” orbits Allie.
JSF Yes, she’s an old soul. Her personality is fuller than are most sixteen year olds. In many ways, Allie is older than are some of the older characters in the book.
I don’t think Allie reads as a teenager. I think she has depth; I hope she has depth. Giving her a chance, an adult reader may find much in Allie that’s adult.
GS What do you mean when you say Allie has depth?
JSF By depth, I mean Allie seems more experienced than a reader might expect of a sixteen year old. She’s wise beyond her years. Therefore, Allie’s an old soul, in a natural sense.
GS As soon as you said, “Old soul,” I started to think about “The Reappearance of Sam Webber,” your first book.
JSF That was fifteen years ago, 1999.
GS The protagonist, in that book, is a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, living with his single mother.
JSF I like odd arrangements. I had an odd upbringing. I grew up in the South, where everybody calls everyone by his or her second name. I’m Scott, but my first name is Jonathon.
I’m used to the slightly odd. By my count, we had moved fourteen times by my fourteenth birthday. I was always the new kid in class.
GS Why did you move so often?
JSF My father was in the military and my birth came in Germany. When I arrived in the US, I didn’t have a birth certificate or password. All I had was baptismal certificate, what a mess my lack of documentation caused.
After my parents divorced, my mother married a French chef from Maxine’s, in Paris. He came to the US to open Maxine’s, in Chicago.
GS Chefs are a breed of hopeless romantics.
JSF In a way, yes, he may have been. That was a time, after the Second World War II, when chefs came up through the ranks of Suisse Chefs in Europe. Chefs, in those days, were not happy-go-lucky chefs, as they are on television, today. Tyrant was more the word for chefs, in those days.
Chefs were angry. They spent too much time in the kitchen. They did not accept failure in any form.
My stepfather travelled from A-list restaurant to restaurant and place to place. He worked in The Four Seasons. He worked in Maribel Restaurant, in Florida, the Williamsburg Inn and all sorts of top places.
GS You were always the new kid in town.
JSF Yes, we were in constant motion until I was fourteen. For that reason, too, I had to learn to adapt to new circumstances, quickly. I became used to the idea I wasn’t going to be the star of any classroom or any grade. It made me an old soul, I think.
I have an older brother and younger sister. We had self-confidence. We learned how to enter a new classroom, without making waves. This took much stress off us.
GS There seem only two responses to the constant moving, going to new schools and such: don’t make waves or become a major wave maker.
JSF I agree.
GS If you think about celebrities, many them went through something like what you went through when you were moving all the time. They became the wave makers. They wanted the attention.
JSF That’s probably true.
GS Often, we don’t hear about the boy or girl that enters new, strange circumstances and finds his or her way without making waves.
JSF That’s interesting. Entering a new classroom almost every year called for control. I played my part well.
I always tell my writing students that writing is acting. Although you’re not on an entertainment stage, you’re doing it alone, in the privacy of your head. If you’re not acting out what you write, now, then start.
As I write, I find myself saying words, aloud. I jump up and make motions, trying to think about how my characters react and how readers will respond. I think it is acting, but I’m not overt about it.
GS How is the protagonist, in “The Reappearance of Sam Webber,” like you?
JSF At first injured, Sam finds himself, again. When I was his age, twelve or thirteen, I also felt lost and confused. It was as if somebody had put me in a dryer and turned it on for a while, opened it up and I didn’t get out.
I stumbled for a bit before finally finding myself. When I found myself, I was on much surer footing than anyone else around me. I wasn’t loud about losing myself or finding myself, I just played the parts as I went along.
I was okay with everything I heard. I think that was much like Sam. He and I came to a peace within ourselves.
GS What is something you like to collect?
JSF Animalistic objects, art in the odd shape of animals. Carved snakes cover my kitchen. I enjoy hobo art, too, items made of bottle caps and wire, for example.
GS When did you start to create your own stories?
JSF I loved stories, as do most kids. It wasn’t until seventh grade that I started to write down my own stories. At first, I wrote for me; I never considered my stories publishable.
I became a writer, somehow. I look at that. I think how weird and unexpected.
I’m colour-blind, yet an illustrator. I’m 5’5” and determined to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Although I didn’t make the NBA, I became a writer and illustrator, with many published books.
A writer must have empathy for characters he or she doesn’t like
GS Your notion of a writer as actor is clever. What else does a writer need to be good and, ideally, successful?
JSF Empathy for characters you don’t necessarily like or respect is important. A writer must understand how and why his or her characters act as they do. I constantly tell my writing students to try to do this, as they write.
I can get into the mind and understand why people believe what they believe, strongly; beliefs I don’t necessarily share, such as a serial killer. Woman and men aren’t merely good or bad; motivations and experiences create their characters, in life and fiction. Thus, I think empathy is most important.
Empathy for characters you like is also important, but dangerous. A writer can get too close to the characters she or he likes. Such closeness can lead to mistreatment of those characters. Remember to be kind.
GS What characters do you write that you don’t like.
JSF Marvin Greaser is one. I didn’t feel a need to get into his mind. All the other characters, in “Greaser Hotel,” including Herman Gristle, I felt the need to understand.
I discovered I could understand how Herman Gristle paid for the respect of his father, Marvin Greaser. That fact is nasty and troubling. As cool as Herman was, he worried someone would take over his place at the side of his father. This makes him a big child. Herman isn’t much of man, except in years.
There was a character named Turpin Dunn, in a book called “Darby.” I didn’t like. He belonged to the Klu Klux Klan.
I understood why he joined the Klan, in the 1930s. I can figure out where my characters come from; how he or she sees the world. Dunn, however, had a cruel streak I did not or could not figure out. I disdained him, but I wrote him, anyway.
GS Did you find Dunn difficult to write.
JSF I did. At some point, Dunn and other characters I don’t especially like or like to write, escape the boundaries I try to set for them. Some writers decide to write from inside the mind of a serial killer. I don’t know if I could spend my time writing from such a perspective. Maybe for a week or two, but not for writing a book, that can take two years.
GS What city could you lose yourself in for hours to explore?
JSF Montreal, most of all, and San Francisco, both are walking cities. I like to walk and walk and walk.
GS Do you find characters write themselves.
JSF That’s true. I think people who don’t write, much, can’t believe characters write themselves. Characters start as blank slates. As I write, walls creep up around them.
Characters will think and act in a certain way. They will think this or do that, but they have limits. The more I write a character, the more I understand what is consistent or inconsistent for him or her. I come to know their faults rather specifically.
When I put a character in some circumstance, I know his or her response alternatives. Characters don’t turn 180-degrees, often; sometimes a character may surprise me. Mostly, characters are consistent. So, too, are everyday women and men, although an unexpected change might happen to make a story more interesting. I plan the unexpected less than I write what the character wants.
It’s such a joy, as I near the end of a book, when the characters seemingly fall in place. They have such vibrancy and life. I can count on them.
They are concrete, as are all people. Characters will act in specific ways. They’re going to surprise the writer, sometimes, but they’re not going to be inconsistent. I think about the surprise and realise it’s not a surprise.
GS How has any character from any book surprised you?
JSF What surprises me and not others is that I don’t know. What I love is when characters see differently than do I. They put ideas and events together differently than would I.
“Catcher in the Rye,” by J D Salinger, is one of those books that are wonderful because the viewpoint is different. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, is the same. These books, among others, solve a problem differently than a reader might expect and are repeatedly enjoyable for that reason.
For similar reasons, I liked “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” by John Irving. It was in first person and told differently; the scenes and moments formed a story as no writer could fully plan. I like the way Irving sees and tells a story; it’s beautiful.
E Annie Proulx, author of “The Shipping News,” developed my love for voice and the sound of language. I love Michael Chabon, author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” as well as “Wonder Boys”; he tells straightforward stories so differently. John Steinbeck, author of “Grapes of Wrath,” is surreal in his depth, humour, emotion. Deborah Joy Corey, author of “Losing Eddie,” falls into that category, with Steinbeck.
Each of these authors wrote a book or two I love and respect. I gravitate to writers that are inventive, clear and create with a certain joy, while preserving readability, fluidity and pace. It’s no surprise that I loved the first three books by Richard Russo, “Mohawk,” “The Risk Pool” and “Nobody’s Fool.”
Russo tells stories in scenes and moments that mature into a story clearly different from other writers. His unusual storytelling is almost perfect, right on the mark.
I thought “Nobody’s Fool,” by Russo, was incredible. He wrote wonderful, observant moments; say, the laundry list of traits of his father that his mother didn’t like. I thought that was such a great way to describe his parents.
That surprised me. The way he turned the visual into words; how he put his ideas together. I love that in writing. I think that’s everything about a book to me.
GS Maybe Russo was as surprised as were you.
JSF Yes, he might have been.
GS It came to him, meaning Russo.
JSF That’s it. You know I think that way, too. Our best lines appear, sneaking up and bopping our fingers to hit the correct sequence of keys.
GS What’s your favourite word?
JSF Beauty, as a child I was afraid to use the word thinking someone might think I was effeminate.
GS What is your least favourite word?
JSF Narcissism, it’s among the ugliest human traits.
GS What sound or noise do you love?
JSF Wind, I suppose, as in monumental places, the crash of sea. I love the power of nature. I also enjoy eavesdropping on conversations in public places.
GS Are you writing every single day whether you have a book in the works or not?
JSF That was the case until about nine months ago. For almost thirty years, I wrote every single day. Now, I write about four days a week.
One of those four days, I’m trying to put together some marketing material and such. I’m putting together a website, now. Those tasks need doing, but it’s my least favourite work in the world.
GS Do you not like marketing or promoting because it takes away from your writing.
JSF Yes, promotion takes away from writing what I want to write, a great deal. I want to concentrate on the next book after “Greaser Hotel”; I want to write that book. Of course, that takes time, more time than I have now.
I’m at a point where I want to write what interests me. I want to work on stories I care about, not what a publisher might want. It may seem incredibly selfish because nobody gets to do that in this world.
GS Writing what you want to write.
JSF Yes, that’s normal for me.
GS Do you have a word, page or time goal when you sit down to write what you want to write.
JSF I mostly have a time goal. I figure I’ll write two hours, say, twice a day. Sometimes I can, but I teach college, which is a huge distraction.
GS You said it takes two or three years to finish a book. Some adventure novelists, say, David Rich or Chris Allen, write ten thousand words a month.
JSF That’s stunning. Those books are taut, I would guess. My books are as much an adventure for me as for my characters and readers; my characters roam a great deal.
It’s a gift that some writers can do complete a book a year. Financially, it would be great for me. Maybe adventure and intrigue comes easier than do my stories.
GS You’re right. David Rich wrote screenplays for thirty years. I guess when he gets an idea, an outline, of sorts, falls into place.
JSF That could be it.
GS The stories you write contain much nuance and detail.
JSF I would say that’s true
Stories I write take more time. Maybe it’s faster to escape a burning hotel than to transverse the community, as, say, Sam Webber did. I try to develop a sense of Baltimore when Sam goes to buy a soda at his favourite badega: it much the same as other places, but different, too.
I take notes on how the homes look, the condition of the pavement or long-abandoned trashcans rolling around the streets. I must consider how characters respond to their immediate environment.
GS The way Sam explores and wonders about the backyard of the apartment building where he recently moved, with his mother. Where the trash bins, say, sit or the boys he sees and hears on the next street.
JSF Yes, I want to know what makes such a response, in Baltimore, different from a response in Boston, say.
GS Might both cities evoke the same response.
JSF Yes, but I think through such matters, a great deal.
GS Your description of Sam going to buy a soda is so clear and complete; I sensed I could find my way to that exact badega. Simplicity often takes more effort than does complexity.
JSF Right, I like readers to get the feel of where the character might be: on a busy street, in a back laneway, crossing a field. The way the road looks, cracked, caving and dirty grey. The way the houses sit on the side of the street, a bit askance. How close the houses are to the road, lawns the size of a Ping-Pong table.
Still, I don’t want to write it in a way that it becomes as a travel journal or too descriptive. I want it to be as vibrant as it feels when you’re doing it. I want readers to sense they’re going along, with Sam, to buy a soda. I want them to imagine the parts I don’t mention, to complete the picture.
GS Do you like voices.
JSF Yes, I confess to that attraction.
GS Do you go to public places, Starbucks, say, to sit, listening to conversations going on around you.
JSF Sadly, yes, I can be at dinner, with my wife. I concentrate on a conversation across the room, at her expense. It’s a sad fact she surrendered to a long-time ago.
GS That’s the nature of the business.
JSF Yes, I guess that’s true. Conversations among strangers haunt me. Yes, everywhere I go I try to listen to the funny ways people put ideas and words together. I’m enthralled when I eavesdrop.
I also confess to stealing part of those conversations, constantly. I teach illustration, as well as writing. I carry eight-by-ten sketchbooks, with me all the time. Roughly half the time I sketch, the other half I’m stealing words or phrases, from nearby conversations, under the guise of sketching.
No one knows. It’s sad. Maybe I should attend conversation stealers anonymous.
GS You’re not alone. The readable writers I interview are mostly eavesdroppers and conversation thieves.
JSF The nuances of everyday use of language are a joy. To deny it’s an art form, itself, is sad. Everyday language is such a great place to go for ideas.
These days, I don’t have time to go to a coffee shop to eavesdrop. In the last few weeks, I have not had that opportunity to sit and listen. I’ll get to that again, when I’m done with the marketing tasks, but that will take a month, at least; it's a month or more before I return to normal to some degree.
GS Do you think authors should write they know or like.
JSF Write what you like is better. If what you like happens to be what you know, that’s the best. For a long while, I believed in the adage to write what I know. When I decided to write what I like, it was more of an adventure that ended, successfully, with me knowing lots more about what I liked.
Little rules, such as write what you know, can lead to disaster. When students first enter my classroom, I ask them to write or draw anything, whatever they wish. That’s how I find what they know and like as well as their strengths.
College students, twenty year olds, have some knowledge, but there’s much more they like. I work with that information to build their strengths. To suggest they produce only what they know is too limiting.
There are incredible books about experiences the authors never had; Steve Berry writes historical conspiracy thrillers set, say, in the 1500s. A writer, of fiction, imagines, creates pictures in her or his mind; that’s the job. A fiction writer creates sensations or images that are new for the reader. In this way, the writer bridges realities for readers.
GS Researching what you like is fun, too.
JSF Right, I do full research on everything I write or sketch. I learn an enormous amount from research. I constantly tell my students how computers make research easy.
When I was in college, I had to drive to the school library, search card indexes and stacks full of books and journals or try to read microfiche. Often, it took days and days to find what I needed.
Today, it takes a few minutes to carry out what it may have taken a few days, thirty years ago. As well, more and more information goes online every day and search technology is increasingly fast. Research is easier and easier as well as deeper and deeper, today.
GS Do you continue to use libraries.
JSF Yes, I do. Libraries remain a useful tool for authors. You can find a newspaper from the time an event took place and read current coverage of it. That’s coming to computers, but hasn’t arrived, fully, yet.
This means authors that restrict their research to computer searches may write books that are slightly less knowledgeable. Those that use libraries for research likely take much longer to complete a book. Using both research tools is the best idea.
GS What turns you on?
JSF Adrenaline sports, such as kayaking, white water canoeing or monumental areas, such as a national park. I guess human against nature turns me on. The survival rush is exceptional.
GS What turns you off?
JSF Las Vegas, it’s the capital city of gaudiness and greed.
GS Where do your ideas come from?
JSF You know it is odd. I try hard to write stories around ideas I care about. Thus, before I even develop the story, I come up with the idea I would like to broach.
That may sound strange. I’m a polemist of a sort. I don’t dump ideas that interest me on reader. I try to rope the reader into the story and ideas.
For “The Reappearance of Sam Webber,” I was playing with several ideas. The problems of urban ethnicity, say, the White trash and Black Americans, in downtown Baltimore; the disparity between those with and without education and so forth.
This overall idea came to me as what I wanted to write in “Sam Webber.” For “Greaser Hotel,” I wanted to write about the greed and exploitation inherent in capitalism. For “Darby,” I wanted to write about ethnicity, again.
Each of my books starts with an idea. From there, I devise a story that allows me to explore the idea, which I hide, as best as I can from the reader. There’s nothing worse, I imagine, than for a reader to pick up a book and the foundation idea is in their face, on every page, from the beginning.
I want layers of information. The first layer is a good story. The second layer is the depth and quality of the characters or the history of the idea. Eventually, I hit the bedrock idea; for “Greaser Hotel,” it’s capitalism as villain.
Some readers, I think, decide not to notice the bedrock idea, but only to enjoy the storytelling. Other readers catch on to the core idea from page one. I’m not sure it matters, as long as all readers enjoy my book.
GS My sense is any reader of your books comes away with a sense of the core idea.
JSF Thank you, what I don’t want to do is leave the good stories for the bedrock idea; I lose the reader. I want the layers to produce enjoyment. Then, when I hit bedrock, the reader is on my side.
GS At what point does the idea control the writer?
JSF Does the writer ever control the idea.
GS Can we talk of “In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe.” Briefly, what’s the storyline?
JSF Well, it is funny. I talked to the artist, who did the photographic illustrations for the book, about Poe. “How odd,” I said, “it would be if Poe and his demons were real; not figurative or make-believe facts, but psychological facts. Facts,” I said, “that affected his work.”
I wondered how to make figurative demons, psychological demons? How do you make such demons real, haunting him in a fear-provoking way? That was the first step.
As I thought about it, I decided it would be cool to build a story around the idea that his demons are as physical as, say, bricks on the road. Then I would undermine that idea by implying maybe, in fact, the demons aren’t real. I tried to make sure everything made sense and seemed solid, as honest, as possible. Then I drop the bomb: it’s an invention.
I wrote the book. It published. Readers liked it.
GS I read, somewhere, that one group of Poe devotees took you to task.
JSF Yes, I got angry letters from a group or society that espouses Edgar Allen Poe as a brilliant man and writer, which is true. The Poe group said I undermined its existence by asserting demons helped him write. I performed my goal, to such a degree, that a group, which dealt in Poe history, literature and reality, somehow felt I did him a disservice by suggesting demons helped him write his books.
GS In your new book, “Greaser Hotel,” the core idea is the rampant, mostly unchecked, greed, today, whereas one hundred years ago, perhaps there were greater checks on it.
JSF In “Greaser Hotel,” I wanted to compare greed, today, with greed during the heyday of Howard Street. In its heyday, Howard Street reflected the fact huge companies controlled most individuals. This is why unions formed.
Companies hired Pinkerton Security to break unions, literally and figuratively. Today, I think there are odd parallels between with those earlier days. The runaway wealth of the one per cent is an example as well as the fact they won’t cede a penny.
GS Do you think greed is a separate idea from capitalism?
JSF Yes I do, but I think the influence of greed on capitalism undermines the economy. Greed is human nature. Yet, not everyone has an equal chance to benefit from greed.
Society needs to work for everyone, in much the same way. We, you, I, everybody, must respond to the contrary tugs of human nature. Human nature is to watch out for you, to make sure your family and close friends are doing well.
Giving in is easy. Resisting or balancing is much more difficult. When human nature harms some people, while benefiting others, much is wrong.
GS I think happened a few times.
JSF Yes, consider ancient Rome or Germany and Russia in the middle twentieth century. The negative side of human nature was rampant. If social progress means a better life for all, then we must willingly self-sanction.
GS We’re all in this together.
JSF Yes, but I can’t forget that greed is part of human nature. In a sense, greed ensures I and mine survive. I am resolve that it’s one of the most basic parts of human nature, but it needs tempering.
GS Technology always seems at fault, too. A hundred years ago, it oil, trains and manufacturing. Today, computers, software and drones that deliver products to your door are the greed industries.
JSF Yes, I agree technology seems always at fault, but I don’t know, for sure. Must some people use technology to meet greedy ends? The world came out of the 1980s believing greed might be good, might drive societies to new heights.
Allowing more greed didn’t pan out as expected. The rich got much, much richer. The poor got much poorer and grew in number. The middle-class hasn’t grown or improved its lot.
I recently read how the infamous one per cent has more wealth and have more control of the ability to amass more wealth than do the bottom ninety-five per cent. The source was the Independent US Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. I, as he, ask how such disparity is fair, in any sense.
GS The more wealth you have, the more wealth you’re given. If you have a million dollars in a bank account, you earn a higher interest rate than if you had one hundred dollars in that account.
JSF Yes, what the ninety-five per cent own and control has shrunk, whereas the already wealthy get obscenely wealthier. This does not help society at all. It harms society.
In some ways, that doesn't change. It’s a constant across time. Howard Street, as the metaphor, has suffered deeply.
You know you can go to areas in Baltimore that appear shelled, as if there was a war. It’s unbelievable such places exist in America. It doesn’t seem healthy or right.
GS It’s a metaphor for the global condition.
JSF Yes, I think it is, but I don’t know what to do about it. That’s the point. We must change the way we run the country, if only to seem as if we’re trying to make life better.
GS What item must you have with you always?
JSF My laptop, I don’t need to be online, I use it mostly as a typewriter that automatically saves what I write.
GS Do fiction writers convince readers to follow a path.
JSF Well, that’s one of the goals for “Greaser Hotel.” I want readers to begin to think our current path is unhealthy. That’s what readers do, think, at the end of the book, because they care about the characters.
I want readers to consider why circumstances at The Greaser are bad. Why Marvin Greaser, in the end, would run for president? We have many billionaires doing that these days. I would love if readers saw and though it would be able to watch this a little more clearly, then they do currently.
GS You’re doing a good job of leading other people to the same, to want the same.
GS When you decide your manuscript is complete, what’s the next step.
JSF I use a few publishers. I send the manuscript to the publisher I think is most likely to like it to fall in love with it. I can be right or I can be wrong.
With “Greaser Hotel,” I wanted to get it to a smaller publisher. A smaller publisher, such as Bancroft Press, which published “Greaser,” was most likely to allow me to include the one hundred and ten illustrations I did for the book.
GS Why are there so many illustrations.
JSF The world is increasingly visual. I wanted to find out how readers might respond to the artwork. It was an experiment on my part. I was willing to shop around, as much as necessary, for the right publisher.
GS How did you decide what to illustrate.
JSF I wanted to provide the mood, the spirit and the core events of each chapter. As I decide what to illustrate, I think a great deal about the hesitant reader. What can I provide to help him or her finish reading the book?
My sense is that illustrations help hesitant readers most. Thus, I want to capture the primary moments, the most important action in each chapter. I want to capture the meaning of each chapter, in an illustration or two.
I want to engage the hesitant reader. I want improve the reading experience for all readers. Narrative illustrations do this best and readers may come to love the written word as well.
GS Once Bancroft Press bought the book, how long did it take to get to readers.
JSF It took roughly eighteen months from contracting for the book to a reader finding “Greaser Hotel” on a shelf in a bookstore or online. It was an enjoyable, fun and rewarding year and a half. Many writers don’t care to wait that long for a book to hit the streets.
GS Many authors don’t like all the hands that touch the manuscript, each set of hands leading to changes.
JSF I see writing as whittling away at a large idea. I start with a big marble block. I slowly remove pieces until I have a book that’s fine and beautiful, hopefully.
An editor helps me see the outlying areas that aren’t smooth enough, yet. The passages that aren’t clear enough, yet. I’m so close to the manuscript for so long, there’s much I can’t see.
I love the eighteen month of cleaning up a book. The time spent getting the book ready to go, discussing ideas and so forth is fun. Usually, my books have parts that retailers, say, may not like.
The marketing part of the publishing house will talk with me about those parts. They make suggests about how to fix up the manuscript. What we do in those eighteen months forms the difference between a book that sells well and a book that does not.
GS How many editors comment on your manuscript, during those eighteen months?
JSF It depends. Liz Bicknell, at Candlewick Press, is my ideal editor. She would get comments from other editors, prepare a summary and write responses for me. I only saw what she wrote, what she thought most important for me to know.
I like that limited, thorough contact. I thought that worked, well. We would argue back and forth over something; sometimes she would be right and sometimes I was right. Liz Bicknell was a wonder in that way.
At other publishers, three or four editors look at a manuscript. That can get troublesome. When editors, other than your own, look at a book, we move toward the old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth.
Usually, other editors are not planning editors. If I find a good planning editor, that’s wonderful. I think, thought, it’s natural for people to want their fingerprints on a project.
This is especially true for younger editors. They have careers to make. They want to say they were part of that.
Young editors want to claim they came up with the key idea. They suggest changes and cling, too tenaciously, to those changes. Sometimes I’m embarrassed for them.
As I get older, I realise is that you can’t be as tenacious with your ideas, as you were when you were young. The younger editors are tenacious. They want their names on these books, at almost any cost.
I must stand my ground. It goes back and forth a bit. Sometimes, though, it’s not an enjoyable experience.
I try to be fair, if a younger editor comes up with a good idea, I embrace it. It’s not who comes up with an idea. It’s how foolishly they sometimes hold on to a bad idea.
Careers are everything for most editors. Still, young editors don’t need their fingers on everything. They need to learn to let bad ideas go, save the energy for battles worth fighting.
I like editors. Richard Nash was at Candlewick Press for a time. He was wonderful to work with, as well. Jody Corbett was also a good editor.
I like the way Liz Bicknell does it, best. She’s exceptional. She did a wonderful job as well.
GS Where do you teach?
JSF I teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). I teach courses in creative writing as well as story illustration, which is how to combine image and writing, as in “Greaser Hotel.” I also teach painting for illustrators.
I have an excellent position at MICA. The position is for a practising writer or artist. It’s intended for someone with a body of work, published books or illustrations, as do I.
As much as I enjoy teaching and the students, I don’t want to be a full-time professor. I’m a writer and an illustrator. I learn much from teaching, but I need to do my own work.
GS Does part of your teaching at MICA involve how to illustrate a manuscript?
JSF Yes, it’s narrative illustration, which is different from sequential art. Sequential art is what you see in graphic novels or comic books. In this form of art, a panel depicts a representative point or scene, often with dialogue.
Narrative illustration, as the name suggests, tells a story. Each panel furthers the story. Together, the panels tell a story.
GS Could I follow only the illustrations and get the story?
JSF I would hope so. Narrative illustration goes back to Howard Pile and the Golden Era of illustration, in the late nineteenth century. Artists illustrated novels, such as “Treasure Island” or maybe the dime novels that made folk heroes out of cowboys. Pile developed narrative illustration at Drexel University and other schools before colour comics, in newspapers, and sequential art first appeared.
At MICA, I’m reintroducing narrative illustration. This generation of students is so visual. They have a hard time staying on task, such as reading a regular book.
Computers and working online get much of the blame for a reduced ability to focus, to concentrate. I not sure that’s true. Many schools are thus adding narrative illustration to the curriculum. One inducement, it appears, to preserve focus on longer documents, is visual art.
Narrative illustrations double and highlight the text. Seemingly, this more fully engages readers, especially younger readers. The redundancy, in telling the story through words and illustrations, likely helps younger reader preserve focus.
GS What’s old is new, again.
JSF Yes, Jerry Pinkney, for example, is an exceptional artist. He’s done many young adult books, such as “Song of the Trees,” written by Mildred D Taylor. More recently, Pinkney has beautifully illustrated books for adults, which is outstanding. His book is a multimedia piece of art, which I love.
GS Why did narrative illustration disappear?
JSF As with most everything, the cost drove it away. It was prohibitively expensive to publish colour panels in books. Howard Pile had colour paintings reproduced in black-and-white, only a few in colours.
From the 1920s on, writing also became more realistic; Ernest Hemmingway is an example. It was a new era of writing. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote more vividly, more economically, than did writers in the past.
Popular writing moved away from adventure or fantastical subjects, such as “Treasure Island” and “War of the Worlds.” Such books benefited from narrative illustration. Novels became more realistic, such as John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath,” or Erskine Caldwell, “Tobacco Road.” Such writers reduced the need for illustrations; readers were familiar with the settings.
GS Perhaps radio, especially dramas and sitcoms, in the 1930s, encouraged use of imagination, too.
JSF That’s possible, but writing became more readable. Urbanisation, greater access to education, newspapers and magazines pushing for accessible content contributed to improved readability. A good read was a quick read, by the 1920s; illustrations slowed reading, a bit.
Technology has improved, again, in a way that encourages the return of narrative illustration. Today, printing is mostly one or another sophisticated form of photocopying. A book, in black-and-white or grey scale, is easy to publish; mass printing of colour in books isn’t far behind.
For Kindle and other e-reader books, there’s no extra fee for artwork. This medium is ready for colourful narrative illustration. Every part of publishing a book is much easier and less costly, today.
GS Artists are reopening an avenue for their work.
JSF Yes, that’s what I keep telling my students. I think, right now, for all of us, writers and for artists, the life and work in the arts is not wonderful. The artistic world needs to turn around.
I think it will and we’re on the cusp of that change, today. Technology is going to give older forms of artistic expression new media; it will create new forms of art, too. Technology, as capitalism, is great, if we don’t lose control of it.
GS What occupation, other than writing, would you like to try?
JSF A tugboat captain is my secret other occupation. There’s something about the romance of being on the water, which hasn’t stopped since I was a child; multiple possibilities on the water
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
JSF Any office job, stuck in a cubicle crunching numbers.
GS You’re dyslexic.
JSF Yes, I am and colour blind. Books terrified me as a kid. I didn’t even like the smell and feel of them. I became a writer because I realized I loved stories. Books scared me, but stories amazed me.*
GS You’re a published author and illustrator, but dyslexics aren’t supposed to do be successful, especially at visual tasks.
JSF True and it led to an unusual entry into first grade. My parents were middle-class, upstanding citizens in the community. Everybody assumed that I would be a rising star in first grade.
The school lowered me, quickly, from green to red. This meant I had difficult issues, namely, dyslexia. I was going to be a day labourer, if I could work, at all; that was that. I wouldn’t make it in academia or using my head in any way.
GS Sorry, I need a time out to laugh.
JSF That’s okay. For the longest time, I could only fail. What a dismal outlook for a child. I was a huge failure and only six years old; success was out of the picture.
I never, ever assumed I would be a writer, an illustrator, gawd forbid, a painter, what a dream. I never thought any of it possible. How could I, at ten years old, know dyslexics are often great writers, say, Agatha Christie and W B Yeats, or artists, such as da Vinci or Picasso.
GS Are you still dyslexic.
JSF I get that question all the time. Dyslexia does not go away. I must find ways to cope and I do, as you know.
Something, such as dyslexia, can weigh one down, as a stone. It can get in the way, any time or all the time. That’s the way it was when I first became a published writer.
I’d e-mail my editor at Candlewick Press, Liz Bicknell. She always included my message in her response. One time, I happened to scan what I had written her, in a previous e-mail. When I read the scan, I realised I had written something wonky in the middle of every e-mail I sent her.
My dyslexia used to get me down in a small way because it seemed as if I could not leave it behind. Now, I think dyslexia made me a better writer. I'm more careful, more mindful, more thoughtful. Now, I think about dyslexia as in the past, to some extent.
GS How do your students deal with your dyslexia?
JSF I don’t bring it up with my students. Sometimes a student finds out, on his or her own, and asks. I’m not ashamed of dyslexia. I go to schools, where students have dyslexia, to talk about how it affects my writing and drawing, which is positively or not.
I talk to these students about dealing with dyslexia. I make fun of it. I try to take away the negative side of dyslexia.
GS You stress learning to work around it.
JSF Yes, that’s what a dyslexic must do. As soon as I get cocky about it, if I send an e-mail without double or triple checking it, something’s going to be wrong with it. As soon as I get the notion that I can send it off, I realise, once again, that I don’t have that luxury, as do most other people. I don’t see writing or life the same way, as do other people.
GS That’s good.
JSF It’s honest. I have to deal with it.
GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?
JSF I appear laid back, but am not, at least all the time. I am often intense about certain ideas, say, greed, and in unforgiving way. I’m intense when it comes to writing or drawing. Otherwise, I guess you could call me laid back
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began writing, which you now regret.
JSF I thought of book publishers as fonts of wisdom, faultless. I learned differently. Young writer, old writers, must believe in what they write.
GS Thanks, Scott.
JSF You’re welcome.
*Baltimore “Style,” http://www.baltimorestyle.com/index.php/style/baltimore/ so12_kidlit/#sthash.8qRGti3X.dpuf
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Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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