Just Around the Corner: An Interview with Len Joy
Interviewed by Kuzhali Manickavel
I remember reading the first iterations and versions of this novel. If you could go back and talk to that Len, what would you tell him about the novel and its journey? What’s he doing wrong and what’s going to surprise him?
I would probably not tell him anything, because he’s stubborn and I know he wouldn’t listen. He would be certain the novel was “almost finished.” He wouldn’t want to hear that he still has more than seven years of work and a million more words to write. He wouldn’t believe me when I told him he has far too many characters and sub-plots.
If I were cruel I would tell him that many of his absolute favorite characters: Kayla, Paula and the sexy Anita are not going to survive. Well it’s not that they aren’t going to survive, they’re just not going to get on stage because the story is going to end decades before they make an appearance. That would definitely surprise him.
How hard was it to cut your favorite characters and how did you realize they would have to go?
When I eliminated Kayla and Paula and Anita I told myself I wasn’t killing them off, I was saving them for a sequel. So that wasn’t too difficult. I originally had a prologue with a grizzled old whiskey runner named Cecil Danforth who talks to Dancer about baseball and regales him with tales about the St. Louis Cardinals. When we got to the final edit of the book, the line editors suggested the prologue was unnecessary and should be cut. Cecil was a son-of-a-bitch and a hypocrite and a crook and I was very fond of him, but I knew they were right. I was sad for a day, but got over it.
We’re old workshopping buddies and I know you put up a lot of this book for online workshopping- what was the best part of workshopping the novel? And what was the worst?
The problem with trying to workshop a novel is that you can only share a small piece of the story. I attended a bunch of summer workshops over the years (Iowa Writer’s Festival, Squaw Valley, Tin House, Skidmore NY State Writers Conference, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and Bread Loaf). I tended to always workshop the opening chapter (The one actual baseball game in the novel). The best part of the experience was when people (usually women) would come up to me after the workshop and tell me that they didn’t really like baseball, but they enjoyed my story.
I don’t know if this is the worst (probably not) but the most memorable in a not good way was when I attended Sewanee. After the workshop one of the participants told me she heard a couple of the scholars (those are the exalted members of the workshop who don’t have to pay to attend) talking about my excerpt and one of them thought that the name of my main character, Dancer Stonemason, sounded like the name of a gay pornstar. I actually thought that was sort of funny, except they said it behind my back, which made me feel like they were making fun of my work. See we never really outgrow those feelings of insecurity.
There must have been times in your novel journey where you felt like giving up. I myself have shelved my numerous novel attempts for numerous incredibly good reasons. What made you keep going?
Over the years I hired a lot of writer/editors to read my manuscript. It didn’t cost a lot and the people were good writers and candid in their assessments. They helped me to see what wasn’t working with the novel, but they also helped me to see what was working. I became convinced I had created characters readers could connect with. I kept believing success was just around the corner.
It wasn’t frustrating for me to keep writing. The frustration was that when I thought I had a publishable novel, I couldn’t get an agent to even read the manuscript. I sent out seventy or so query letters and probably got five responses all telling me they weren’t interested. I didn’t hear anything from most of the agents I queried. “No Response” appears to be the standard expression when the agent isn’t interested. I understand how that saves time, but it is slightly more frustrating not to hear anything.
In September 2012 I did give up on the novel and posted my surrender on my blog. Two weeks later I was contacted by Hark! New Era Publishing (who were accepting unagented manuscripts) and asked if I would be interested in having them publish my novel. I accepted, not realizing I would still have to completely rewrite the novel one more time.
A shorter answer would be that I am very stubborn and have an inflated sense of my ability. Sometimes it pays not to be too perceptive.
Dancer is described as someone who is on the cusp of having everything and then loses it all. What’s interesting is how this doesn’t just affect the rest of his life, it affects other people as well. What exactly do you find compelling about this kind of situation and how did it influence the creation of Dancer’s character?
Curt Gowdy, an old time sports broadcaster once commented about a young baseball prospect that, “most of his future is ahead of him.” I played a lot of sports and I often wondered what it would be like to have most of your future not ahead of you. What happens to the figure skater who almost wins the gold medal? Or does win the gold medal? Life goes on after the crowd goes home. How does a person come to terms with his or her life when it doesn’t work out the way we planned. I guess that’s what I find compelling because to some degree it is true for everyone. Nothing works out the way we really plan it. God laughs at our plans.
One of the things I really enjoy about writing stories is that you can come up with some event, like Dancer pitches a perfect game and doesn’t make it to the majors. Okay what happens next? To Dancer? To his wife? To his son? And it’s a ripple effect. A causes B causes C and so on. There’s a zillion ways it can play out. What Dancer does affects his family. And how they react affects Dancer and things just keep rolling along.
Now that you’ve written one novel, are you going to write another one? if so, what would you do differently?
The original version of the novel covered fifty years. I have thirty years of material I wasn’t able to use. I am working on a sequel that takes place thirty years later and includes surviving cast members and many new characters from the next generation. It will take place on a single day in July 2003.
With American Past Time I just wrote stories – one after the other without really knowing where they were going. I think that is a good way to write a novel. I had some idea where I wanted to go, but things changed as I wrote. Characters can surprise you and I think that makes them more believable.
This time I am little more focused on the story arc – making it all take place on one day helps to do that. But I want to remain flexible. I think I know how it is all going to end, but someone may surprise me.
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Kuzhali Manickavel (Tamil: குழலி மாணிக்கவேல்) is an Indian writer who writes in English. She was born in Winnipeg, Canada and moved to India when she was thirteen. She currently lives in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. Her first book, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings was published by Blaft Publications in 2008. The Guardian named the book as one of the best independently published ebooks in the weird fiction genre, calling it “just very, very beautiful.” Manickavel’s short stories have also appeared in print magazines like Shimmer Magazine, Versal literary journal, AGNI, PANK, FRiGG and Tehelka, and in anthologies such as Best American Fantasy 3 and Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana. A second book, Things We Found During the Autopsy, has been announced for release in early 2014.
Len Joy’s first novel American Past Time was released in April 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. He is the author of two short fiction collections, Casualties and Survivors. His work has appearedin fwriction : review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Washington Pastime, Hobart, Annalemma, and Pindeldyboz. He is a competitive age-group triathlete. In June 2012, he completed his first (and probably only) Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.