Interview with J. Conrad Guest

Jen: Today we are happy to welcome J. Conrad Guest to Romancing the Book. J. Conrad, will you please share a short bio with us?
J. Conrad: My first novel, January’s Paradigm, was published by Minerva Press, London, England. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “(readers) will not be able to put it down.” I have two other novels based on the Joe January character, One Hot January and January’s Thaw. Both have been picked up by Second Wind Publishing, with One Hot January set to be released later this year.

In 2008 I completed Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. I’m currently shopping for publication Chaotic Theory, a novella that explores the conjecture of how the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might result in a tornado in Texas, and just completed my fifth novel, The Cobb Legacy, a murder mystery that spans two centuries written around baseball legend, Ty Cobb, and the shooting death of his father by his mother.

My fiction and essays appear in various online and print publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal, Redbridge Review, and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine. I am also a contributing writer to Impact Times and am cofounder of The Smoking Poet. My sports writing can be found at Bleacher Report.

I live in Northville, Michigan, have been married once, now divorced, have no children and I’m available and why does this suddenly sound as if I’m writing a profile for a single’s Web site?

Jen: Tell us about Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings and where it’s available.
J. Conrad: Having lived my entire life in the Detroit area, my dad took me to my first Tigers game when I was seven—a Tigers win over the Angels, during a time when the Angels played for the whole state of California and not just Anaheim. I dreamed of a pro ball career, but when I turned 40 I realized that dream was no longer in the future but instead the past. It was inevitable that at some point I’d write a baseball novel.

In Backstop, I combined my love and knowledge of baseball with romance and the heartbreak of betrayal. Not your typical romance novel, Backstop can perhaps best be described as a literary Bull Durham, sure to appeal to purists of the game as well as those who enjoy a good love story. Backstop is available from Second Wind Publishing, as well as from Amazon in both book and Kindle formats.

Jen: At what age did you discover writing and when were you first published? Tell us your call story.
J. Conrad: I’ve always loved to read and I’ve always had a love of language; but in my youth I didn’t have the patience to devote to writing—a very solitary endeavor.

My first novel, January’s Paradigm, was born of a broken heart. At age 39, I found the process very therapeutic in my recovery. Paradigm grew out of a short story an old friend asked me to write for her as a birthday gift. Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the short, but during the process I began to think of expanding it to novel length. The finished manuscript bore no resemblance to the short save as inspiration.

Jen: How does your family feel about your career?
J. Conrad: Sadly both my parents are now deceased. When I first told my dad, in 1991 or 1992, that I was writing a novel, he asked me what I was doing wasting my time on such an endeavor—this from a man who named me for Joseph Conrad, his favorite novelist. At the time I was unemployed and in the process of changing careers, so he thought I should be devoting all my time to that. When he read the second draft of January’s Paradigm, he was pleased. He lived long enough to know it was to be published but had passed on before I received my author’s copies.

I have no children, but my friends all enjoy my work. A former colleague adores my work and I’ve taken to affectionately calling her Annie Wilkes, a reference to Stephen King’s character in Misery who refers to herself as Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.”

Jen: How do you approach your writing? Do you plot or go with the flow?
J. Conrad: I rarely plot. I start with an idea, a beginning and an ending and write to that ending. Of course everything in between is a surprise as I go with the flow, where the story and characters take me. The exception to that rule was Cobb. I had no ending in mind when I started, and as I approached the 70,000 word mark, I still had no vision for how it would all tie up. But I trusted myself and the ending just sort of came to me when the time was right (sort of like giving up on finding love—the moment you do, it somehow finds you). I went with it and found it as much a surprise as I think my readers will, although I think it suits the story very much.

Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
J. Conrad: Backstop required little in the way of research. My boyhood dream was to play major league baseball, but my parents steered me away from that. For the book, I started with my own childhood and wrote the biography I envisioned for myself as a boy, sans the infidelity part. Backstop’s parents, too, tried to dissuade him from a career in baseball; but where I allowed my parents to influence me, Backstop ignores his parents and makes his dream come true.

Jen: Do you feel as if the characters live with you as you write? Do they haunt your dreams?
J. Conrad: I won’t say my characters haunt my dreams, but I often feel as if they live within me as I’m writing. I act as a sort of channel as they relate to me their stories.

Jen: Do you have a favorite character or one you most identify with?
J. Conrad: I don’t really have a favorite; or maybe they’re all favorites, at least during the time I spend writing about them. I draw on personal experiences, so I identify with all of them.

While I was writing about Joe January, I was in a vulnerable place in my life, so I created a character who was strong and stoic; but like Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, he has a big heart and hides behind a mask. There’s a tertiary character in January’s Paradigm, my protagonist’s creative self who described as a gargoyle—hideous with coke bottle glasses and halitosis so foul as to peel paint. A very dark character, he was a fun character, his actions and dialogue bringing so much to the story; imagine creating your own alter ego, able to speak aloud those words you, in your own reality, only think and wish you could say. Backstop and I share a love of baseball, and he, too, is creative—sees the art in baseball and shares my love for literature. At the end, it’s implied that he, in first person, is the author of Backstop. In Cobb, Cagney Nowak is a writer who is questioning his talent and ability as a writer, as I often do.

Jen: Is there a genre that you’d like to write? Is there a genre you’ll probably stay away from and why?
J. Conrad: I try to stay away from labels or genre. In fact, I tend to mix and match them and try to sell them as literary or mainstream novels.

I was dismayed when Second Wind accepted Backstop under their Beckoning Books romance imprint. I’d never read Danielle Steel, and the only romance novel I ever read was A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which is not your typical romance formula. But I got over it. I figured the romance genre has a large following, so it would be to my benefit. Besides, there is enough baseball in Backstop to appeal to baseball readers, too.

Jen: Who has inspired you as an author?
J. Conrad: As a boy I loved the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany, and later Gene Wolfe (who also writes science fiction). It was Delany and Wolfe I emulated early on, eventually developing my own style, which I’ve been told is very distinct. That’s high praise in this modern era of publishing that seems to reward the formula and eschew art.

Very few writers today are stylists in the way Raymond Chandler was, and emerging writers are advised against style for fear of “pulling the reader out of the story.” I understand what that means but I don’t agree with it. I love to read artistically crafted prose, it connects me to the author, and I think nothing of rereading a passage a second or third time if it moves me. So what if it takes me out of the story momentarily? So does having to answer my telephone or responding to Nature’s call.

Off my soapbox: I also draw inspiration from Joseph Conrad, who was born in Poland, moved to France at an early age, and found himself in England. Having learned three languages, I marvel at his choice to write in English.

Jen: What has been your highlight of your career to this point?
J. Conrad: The memoir I wrote of my mother’s battle with Parkinson’s disease. It was picked up by Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine. I’ve since posted it to several blogs and have gotten a flood of comments from Parkinson’s patients and caregivers for my insight into what is a very unpleasant disease. I’ve learned to enjoy the creative process, as solitary as it is, but writers write, I think (or at least speaking for myself), in part to connect with readers and it’s always a rush when someone sends you an email to tell you they connected with something you wrote.

Jen: What do you do in your free time?
J. Conrad: I watch too much TV—mostly baseball, hockey and movies, in addition to TV dramas—and read and write. Reading inspires me to write, and I write on a host of topics in op-ed pieces, memoirs, book, movie and CD reviews, and sports.

Jen: What’s next for you?
J. Conrad: I just commenced my next novel project. The working title is A Retrospect in Death. The story begins with a man’s death and the reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist, as yet unnamed—he could be any man or every man—learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle, but without any of the wisdom or lessons learned in his previous life. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way to uncover the origin, or birth, of his cynicism.

Jen: Where can you be found on the web?
J. Conrad: I have a website and can also be found around the Internet—just Google J. Conrad Guest.

Jen: Is there anything you’d like to ask our readers?
J. Conrad: Who are your favorite writers? Are you an aficionado of Jane Austen, a proponent of Edgar Allan Poe, a connoisseur of Conrad? Or do you prefer contemporary writers—James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell? Or maybe it’s an emerging writing who’s on the brink of becoming the next best seller. Let us know your favorite writer and tell us why. I’ll select responses at random to receive an inscribed copy of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. Limited to residents of North America only. Winners will be picked on Friday, August 6.