J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

What is your book about?

January’s Thaw is the sequel to One Hot January. In One Hot January, Joe January, a private investigator circa 1947, grudgingly helps a pretty young woman find her father, a professor of archeology at Columbia College in New York who’s been missing for six years. When January finally tracks him down, Professor MacIntyre spins a wild yarn of time travel and alternate realities. All January knows for sure is that two nefarious individuals are hot on his trail. Only at the end, when January is transported a century into the future, does he come to believe in the validity of MacIntyre’s claims.

In January’s Thaw, January must come to terms with his misplaced past, which includes losing the woman he loved but never told, while trying to survive in a world that has, in his eyes, gone mad: “Pornography, prostitution, pollution, government corruption, global warming, terrorism, and for all your purported connectivity through the Internet and cell phones, your society is more disconnected than ever. On top of that, the war between men and women is no closer to a cease fire than it was from when I come.”

Written in January’s own first person narrative, it’s a convoluted story that ends where it begins. If that makes little sense, well, don’t expect me to explain. You’ll just have to read both books for yourself! Trust me, when all is said and done, it’ll be crystal clear.

Tell us a little about your main character.

Joe January was fashioned after Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s character in many great novels from the 1940s and 50s. Chandler did so much to shape the hard-boiled detective genre that others, like Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and, yes, even Elmore Leonard, have pushed to new heights.

January is my tribute to Chandler. Think Marlowe working against a science fiction backdrop of time travel and an alternate reality in which Germany has won World War II.

How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?

The answer to that is twofold. I usually have the end of the story in mind before I sit down to write the first word; I also have in mind an approximate word count. Therefore it’s simply a matter of writing to that end while I allow the characters to tell their story through me. I make a number of discoveries as we go, taking digressions and detours, all the while keeping track of the word count. Just because I hit that word count doesn’t mean I just end the story. I give myself permission to go over if the story requires it. Subsequent drafts usually add to the word count.

The second part of my answer is that I’m never truly finished writing a story until I approve the final proof. Frankly, I could make revisions indefinitely. Each time I read a novel of mine I’m capable of tweaking this or that, adding narrative or an exchange of dialogue. I’m a perfectionist that way. Jack Kerouac would accuse me of self-censorship, but I can’t help myself: I’m constantly looking to improve something I’ve written. But once it’s published, it’s done and I won’t revisit them.

January’s Paradigm, my first novel, has been available for more than a decade and I haven’t looked at it since. What would be the purpose? I’m sure I’d find ways to improve it; however, that’s where I was, both as a person and as a writer. Why would I wish to change it to reflect who and where I am today?

Someone recently told me they thought January’s Paradigm is my best novel. I have to say I felt somewhat insulted. If I’m not writing better today than I was twenty years ago, then what have I learned about the art of writing? I think what they meant is that they connected to that story more than they have to my other work.

Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?

The January books are composed of a number of messages. In January’s Paradigm the reader learns that there are people in the world—men and women alike—who are not very nice, and that men don’t have a corner on the mean market. Men, too, can be hurt through a woman’s infidelity. One Hot January shows that no government is benign and that we must care about a world we will not see. While January’s Thaw is largely about redemption, that it’s never too late to close the door on the past and to live in the moment, for tomorrow.

Do you think writing this book changed your life? How so?

I think every story I’ve ever written has changed my life in some way.

The January trilogy took ten years to write. During those years I lost both my parents. I struggled with the creative process as I struggled through my grief; but I also struggled because I was so caught up in publication and the rejection letters I received. It was like playing the dating game. I constantly questioned why I was doing it—putting myself through the agony of looking for approval of my work through publication. I questioned my talent and ability—ignoring the reality that the book industry is a business concerned with bottom line and that acquisition of a manuscript is, like wading through profiles at an online dating site, largely subjective—and I often talked myself out of a writing session, procrastinating to another day because I doubted the value of my work. It was only as I neared completion of January’s Thaw that I finally learned to enjoy the process of creation. At that point I knew I was a writer.

Coincidentally, success came when I stopped focusing on trying to manifest it. Just like dating: when you stop looking, someone usually comes into your life when you least expect.

What are you working on right now?

I just completed my seventh novel, 500 Miles to Go. Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the story centers on Alex Król and his drive to win the Indianapolis 500. A sports/romance novel in the vein of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, 500 Miles to Go is largely about the importance of, and the risks associated with, pursuit of dreams.

I’m presently in the process of making revisions to A Retrospect in Death, my sixth novel, and I’m nurturing the seed for my next major project, which was given to me by a beautiful and creative woman I met on Facebook. I’m making plans for a book event in late February to promote both One Hot January and January’s Thaw at Barnhill’s in Winston-Salem. The aforementioned beautiful and creative woman is planning to meet me there and we will endeavor to create some romance. I expect the endeavoring will come easily and naturally.

When I get home I’ll work on the second draft of 500 Miles and will likely commence my next novel sometime in March.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

Revisions are the most difficult process for me; yet it’s a process I enjoy immensely. I constantly seek ways to improve my work—even before I finish my first draft. First draft is really a misnomer, because I edit as I go. I sometimes think my first draft is really the equivalent of a third or fourth draft because of all the changes I make as I go.

But it’s difficult, too, to cut something you really love but know you must because it contributes little to the overall piece.

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

Putting on a Sunday morning pot of coffee, going to the humidor to select the right cigar, unwrapping it, snipping its head, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, lighting it, and watching the smoke permeate my den. Then I put on a Beatles CD and crank up the Bose speakers. The Beatles were turned down by Decca Records because some suit didn’t like their sound and also thought that guitar-driven music was on its way out. The Beatles inspire me to one day create my own White Album (which, at present, might be 500 Miles to Go).

Honestly, that’s all a part of my routine, and writing, for me, is all about routine. While I’ve heard other writers talk about waiting for their muse to show up, I find that, with a cup of coffee and a good cigar, my creativity gets a jump start and pretty soon the muse shows up, out of curiosity, to peek over my shoulder to see what the tapping is all about.

Does writing come easy for you?

It comes a heck of a lot easier today than it did when I first started. It’s like anything you do with regularity—like a workout routine. The first few times you hit the gym, your muscles rebel. But after a time, your body craves that workout; miss a few days and your body complains. For me, a day without writing is like a day without sunshine. And a day without sunshine is like … night.

But does it come easy? No. Nor should it. I’ve gotten better at arranging words on a blank screen. I’m more efficient about it. I rarely struggle for thirty minutes or more over the construction of a simple seven-word sentence like I did early in my career.

I don’t write formula, or even in a specific genre. I find that easier than writing to a particular audience. The January books combine science fiction with the hard-boiled detective and mix in more than a dram of romance—just not the bodice-ripping romance novels that sport Fabio on the cover. Backstop and 500 Miles are both sports-themed novels with romance; while A Retrospect in Death deals with searching for love and never finding it. The Cobb Legacy is a mystery-romance with subplots of infidelity, divorce, and a son trying to connect with his dying father.

Always in my novels you’ll find something decidedly different. If you’re tired of regency romance because of the formula, why not try one of my novels? Another Facebook friend of mine says I write gritty love stories … what she calls “romance for the non-romantic.” I like that, although that in no way reflects on me as being non-romantic. I may be curmudgeonly and smoke cigars and drink scotch, but I know how to romance the right woman. The trouble is it’s been a while since I dated a woman who I thought was the right woman. I suspect that’s about to change.

But enough about my love life.

I suppose writing would come easier if I chose to write following the formula many creative writing courses teach; but then I’d see myself as a mercenary, writing for a paycheck to appeal to the masses. I still write largely to amuse myself and hope my audience one day will find me.

I like the challenge of writing a good story—outside the confines of genre—creating characters with whom readers can relate, and writing engaging dialogue. If it was too easy, I’d grow bored and find something else to challenge me.

Wow. What was the question and did I answer it?

What words would you like to leave the world when you are gone?

In the words of former Spinal Tap keyboardist, Viv Savage: “Have a good time all the time.”

No, seriously. Don’t let the novel die. Wherever the technology takes the novel, there’s something about words—whether on a page or an e-reader—and what they make happen inside a reader’s head that can never translate to the small or big screens. It’s been said that all change begins with a thought. And what is a thought but words that ultimately compose an idea.

If the novel is dying, what’s that say about imagination? Watching a movie requires little imagination—it’s all done for you. A picture may be worth a thousand words; but never underestimate the power and value of a thousand words and what those words, in the hands of a skillful writer, can do to inflame a mind. Words can inspire support for a cause; they can stir the oppressed to rebellion; they can bring understanding to two sides at odds; or they can bring two lonely hearts together for a lifetime.

So many people today in our immediate gratification society don’t have the patience for reading. I find that sad because, like stopping to smell the roses—which requires disconnecting from technology—getting lost in a good book is truly one of the most gratifying, and rewarding, indulgences.

Where can people learn more about your books?

You can find out more about me and my literary world, which includes all my novels and works in progress, events, cigars, and a link to my blog, at J. Conrad Guest. I’m also on Facebook.

Click here to read Chapter 1 of: January’s Thaw by J. Conrad Guest

Click here to read an: Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

6 Responses to “J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw””

  1. Ellis Vidler Says:

    I like your attitude and that you aren’t still obsessing over your first book. I Joe January sounds interesting. I’ll look for him. Nice interview.

  2. Stephen A. North Says:

    Great interview! The book’s premise is interesting, and I love the Noir genre.

  3. Book Bits #120 – Donna Tartt, Jane Wenham-Jones, J. Conrad Guest, Tayari Jones, Indie Bookstores | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions Says:

    […] J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”, with Pat Bertram – “Joe January was fashioned after Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s […]

  4. Sheila Deeth Says:

    I love this take on noir. One Hot January was one cool read.

  5. J. Conrad Guest Says:

    Thanks to all who read my interview here and left a comment. I, for one, write to connect with readers, and comments (along with royalties!) are the only way by which I can know I’ve connected.

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