Interview With An Unpublished Author - J.S. Mueller
I've really been looking forward to this next interview. Not only is J.S. Mueller one of my favorite writers, but also a close twitter friend with a fascinating life history. I mean, who goes to Woodstock at age 5? Amazing, right?
So without further delay, let's see what J.S. has to say about writing, and much, much more!
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
Let’s see… I’m a scorpio, a convert to Catholicism, and at 16 I stayed at the Munich Hilton overnight with the band Devo. I have 6 kids ages 9 to 19. I’ve been married for going on 32 years. I was born to hippie, teenage parents and was at Woodstock when I was 5. I love sushi. And Irish whiskey. And bourbon. And cheap chianti. I have 9 tattoos and a wonderful, goofy pit bull. I live on 34 acres in rural Kentucky, 25 minutes from the nearest Walmart. I hate Walmart. I am trained in book restoration and did work for the Special Collections at the U of A in Tucson under my mentor’s guidance. My workroom walls are deep red, music is very important to me and I suffer from insomnia.
2. When did you decide to become a writer?
I’m a late-bloomer. I wrote a few crappy poems in high school, a few macabre short stories in my mid-twenties, but I only started getting back into writing—attempting a novel—at 48 or 49. It was also about that time I took up running (I’ve been decidedly non-athletic throughout my life) and got my first tattoo. Not sure if it was the fact that my kids were finally of an age where they didn’t require constant watching (we were home-schooling them back then) and I had more time, or if it was some form of midlife crisis, or a combination of both.
3. Are you using a pen name and why?
Yes, I’m using a pen name. One reason is that my name is unusual enough that if someone has the same last name, they are most certainly related to me. Another is that I rather enjoy anonymity, which is practically impossible in this day and age, especially if one has any sort of digital footprint. I do. I had a blog for six years on which I posted a lot of family stuff, photos of my kids and so forth. When I became a writer, it was probably the first time in decades that my identity wasn’t shaped by my family life. It was just me, who I am, my own creative process, my own head. Somehow my actual name seems to be that of this other me—the parent, the spouse, the church member. My pen name belongs to me as a writer. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself very well.
4. What should people know about you?
What should people know about me? They really need to know nothing, other than my writing. I like to write about unusual relationships, friendships between people who differ in social position, age, gender, whatever. I like the push and pull, the attraction/revulsion of these contrasts. May come from the fact that my own friendships have so often been with people so utterly different from myself. I also have a dislike of tidy endings. My characters have a lot of baggage, and it’s unrealistic that they would come to the end of a story and just be able to give it a drop-kick and live happily ever after. I do try to offer them hope, however. Most of the time.
5. What inspired you to begin your current project?
I have only just finished my first completed draft of a novel, after two stories that fizzled out at around 30K words. This one I doggedly pursued for six years, and I finished on 26 February. In six years, it little resembles the original concept for the story, and I’ve trashed almost as many words as I’ve got into it. The original seed came from my childhood in Greenwich Village. I was born in 1963 and left New York City in 1972, but the last place where we lived was, if not an actual slum, something damned close. Roaches, rats, junkies shooting up in the stairwell. It was a five-flight walk-up, and we lived on the top floor. Two floors below was a nine-year-old boy, Gavin. His dad was a junkie, and his mom was a barmaid. He was sometimes locked out of his apartment, parents nowhere around. He sometimes slept on the subway. Well, I’ve frequently thought about him over the decades, wondered if he was still alive, how his live panned out. My novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, grew out of that wondering.
6. How’s the process going?
I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have this draft done. I’ve had three or four outlines, knocked off a few minor characters, dropped the POV of one character and trashed about 64K words over the years. I have stalled for months at a time trying to figure out the story. In the end, it was a friend, a writer himself, who looked at it and gave me the clarity I needed to see the forest when I’d spent the last few years circling trees. I was caught in all these subplots and scenes that didn’t quite work, and he essentially said, “This is easy. You have the story. Just wrap it up.” I made a list of everything that had to happen before the end and found I didn’t have thirty chapters left to write. I had maybe ten. I write pretty clean first drafts, so I’m nearly ready to send it out to a few readers for critiques and feedback. Then the process of revision begins.
7. Do you have an estimated date of completion?
Good God, I do hope the revisions won’t drag on forever. Ideally, I would hope to have my revisions done by the end of this summer. I’m 55, after all, and I’d like to write a couple more novels before I die…
8. Do you plan to self-publish or query for traditional publishing and why?
I intend to query agents. My reason is quite simply that I don’t feel as though I want to invest the time I could spend writing in promoting my work. I stink at self-promotion, and like a lot of creative types, I’m not a very good business person. Also, although I hope to live into my nineties—God knows I do my cardio and swallow handfuls of vitamins and supplements—none of us really knows when we’ll be forced to make our departure, and I have at least two more novels I really, really want to have time to write. I am cautiously optimistic when I say I hope that neither will take as long as this first one has.
9. What is your goal as a writer?
My goal as a writer… not very lofty, really. I write primarily for myself, to give voice to the characters in my head. But if there’s something I’d like a reader to come away with after reading my work, it is perhaps a deepened compassion. Isn’t that the goal of every writer? Studies have shown that teachers can use fiction to teach kids empathy. Fictional characters may be worlds apart from our own experience, but we can find a connection with them because of what we do share, which is our humanity. We all experience love, hate, fear, sorrow, laughter, exhaustion, and so on. That common thread that runs through us all, that’s the entry point for empathy.
10. What is your goal for this book?
My goal for this book? To entertain, to put the reader in my head for 200+ pages. I don’t really know. I know that some might love it and others hate it, but I hope it affects the reader, makes them feel something in reading it.
11. Any advice for your fellow writers trying to survive their first book?
Ha! I don’t know. In the midst of this novel, I suffered a four-year depression. I doubt the book triggered it, although I dug deep into my own soul to write it, and perhaps the writing stirred up the scum at the bottom of the pond. Somewhere along the line I found that my protagonist was my Ego, the love interest my Super Ego and the antagonist my Id. I drank a lot of bourbon. I wouldn’t recommend it. Better tactics for getting through it would be to first of all, not compare your process to anyone else’s. I sometimes despaired as I watched some writers start a third novel in the time it took me to write a first draft. I despaired as I read the short stories in literary magazines and compared them to my own writing, which in my eyes fell short. I despaired when I saw that this or that writer had these degrees, this MFA, which I lacked (I never finished college). And I despaired reading the work, reviews and credits of writers half my age. Compare and despair, or just carry on at your own pace, in your own way, knowing that there are writers without degrees, writers older than you, writers who have worked harder than you. Your book will be written in the time that’s right for you. My second piece of advice would be this: do not write in a vacuum. Find writers who will read your work and give good, sound, gentle feedback. Preferably someone whose work you admire. It is hard to improve without feedback, as everything we write is magnified through our ego—we are our biggest fans and greatest critics.
I'd like to thank J.S. for being my interview this week. You can find J.S. on the following links: