J. Conrad Guest, Author of “Retrospect in Death”

retrospect_thWhat is your book about?

A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. Who hasn’t wondered about the meaning of life, the origin of the universe, what we’ll find on the other side? The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche theorized that some of us are born into the world destined for greatness. The rest of us he referred to as the bungled and the botched. They’re teased with greatness, but they never see their dreams come true, no matter how hard they try. They get thrown under buses, gunned down when someone goes postal in public. What a world it would be if everyone who reached for the stars saw their dreams come true.

The protagonist in A Retrospect in Death, unnamed throughout, leaving the reader to infer he could be anyone—hopefully connecting to them in a highly personal way—dies at the onset. The reader is taken to the other side of the Great Divide, where the protagonist meets his higher self, the part of him that is connected to the Creator. The protagonist learns, to his vexation, that he must return to the lifecycle. But not before they discuss his past life, the mistakes he made, the disappointments he encountered, why he gave up on love.

The risk I took was telling his story in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end and ending with his childhood, as they search for the breadcrumbs—those defining moments that led to future choices.

Darker than any of my previous novels, and also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I’d just finished writing my fifth novel, and was kicking around ideas for my next project. I came across a short story I’d written a year or so prior, which I’d posted to my blog. It chronicles a man’s death and subsequent rebirth to a new life. I considered expanding this to novel length, breaking off into a prologue the death sequence and adding a meeting with his higher self, and using the end of the short story for the end of the novel. In between, I envisioned enough content, maybe a hundred thousand words, to fill out the three major stages of his life: old age, middle age, youth, and childhood. The novel ended up 110,000 words, each section approximately 27,000 words—by far my longest novel to date.

What inspired me was a desire to write something that was more honest than anything I’d written before, along with a fascination with death. Although I’ve not yet reached 60 years, I relate to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s adage: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” Our society fears death, when it is the most natural thing in life. And while the health care industry frets over which disease is the leading cause of death, I’ve always felt it was birth. Or as John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”

How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in the book?

I dug deep for this novel, opened a vein and bled profusely, writing a lot from personal experience, particularly those from my youth. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical, because I endeavored to fictionalize much of it. Friends who’ve read it have asked if this or that incident is based on my life, but I’m vague in my answers.

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

Very little. I usually start with a beginning, an ending, and only a concept of what fills the middle. I tend to let my characters take me where they wish. I act only as a channel for their voices.

How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

I often use people from own life, disguised of course, so that they don’t recognize themselves. This makes it easy for me to differentiate them, since I can imagine the true life characters and hear their voices. Several people may recognize themselves in A Retrospect in Life, and some of them are not portrayed in a flattering light. But they are not people I expect will read it anyway.

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

With a vague idea of total word count, I typically envision a theme for the story. I see each chapter as a short story, each loosely connected to its predecessor and foreshadowing its successor. With a concept for the ending, I just write to that end, letting my imagination and the characters take me where they will. I’m often surprised by the journey, which I think is good. If I’m surprised, surely my readers will be, too.

In my current work in progress, I was startled by a discovery I made about the protagonist after I was nearly 10,000 words in, and that discovery shaped the entire piece.

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

For A Retrospect in Death, I hope that readers will look to within, connect with the story on a personal level. Like most of my novels, A Retrospect in Death is not mere escapism, but an introspective look at life’s ideals—love, loss and grief. It may sound cliché, but life is not about our failures and successes, but about the choices we make, or fail to make. Do we allow those failures and successes to define us, for good or bad? Do we learn from the past, or stare at it, choosing to not live each new day as if it were a clean slate?

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

I like to think each novel I write leaves me changed in some way. Not only do I learn something about the craft of writing, but I learn something of myself, through my characters. I find the creative process wonderfully therapeutic.

In A Retrospect in Death, I reconnected with my lost youth in a way that rejuvenated my present, and led me to conclude that the innocence of my youth isn’t as lost as I feared.

What has changed for you personally since you wrote your first book?

I’m a much better writer than I was while writing my first novel. I was flying by the seat of my pants twenty years ago. Still, I must’ve done something right. I recently launched a third edition of that first novel, and took the liberty of making some minor changes to the text and adding an afterward.

Typically, I don’t read my work once it goes to print, for fear of wanting to make wholesale changes; but that wasn’t the case here. I found I still liked the novel, the story and the characters. Would I write it differently if I were writing it today? Absolutely; but I didn’t wish to change that. I wanted it to stand in its rightful place in my body of work, to serve as a sort of measuring stick of where I was at that point in my life, both as a man and as a writer.

While writing may not come any easier today, I’ve streamlined the process. Twenty years ago, I was writing was a hobby, and frankly, I had no expectations that I’d write another. It was only during the writing of that first one that the idea for a trilogy began to take shape—two more novels based on the Joe January character, One Hot January and January’s Thawresulted. Once I learned to enjoy the creative process, without the burden of publication, I became a writer. Perhaps not so surprisingly, publication followed.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes. I typically write on Sunday morning, using the remainder of the week to revise and polish. I wake up around seven, have breakfast, put on a pot of coffee, and select a cigar from my humidor. For me, writing is all about ritual, in this case, the ritual of selecting the right cigar; unwrapping it, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, snipping the head, lighting it, and watching the smoke fill my den. I may have no idea where I’ll pick up the story, or what I hope to accomplish that morning, but I’ve learned to trust that something will always come. I may start with a few revisions, but before long, the muse shows up to peek over my shoulder, if only to see what all the tapping is about.

For my weeknight revisions, I go through the cigar ritual again, but instead of coffee, I sip on a glass of bourbon or scotch.

What are you working on right now?

I hope to complete my current work in progress, A World Without Music, in the next few weeks. I started with a prologue that describes a walk-in from another planet inhabiting the lives of notable historical figures—Jesus during the crucifixion, St. Augustinus, Bach (where he becomes fascinated with music—his world evolved without music), and Thomas Jefferson (who also loved music, practicing his violin three hours each day), before stepping into a present day fictional character, where he interacts with a Gulf War veteran whose PTSD cost him his marriage. As a bass player in a jazz-blues quartet, he seeks to infuse his world with the music he lost, the result of a traumatic experience while in Kuwait.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your work-in-progress?

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?

Are you writing to reach a particular kind of reader?

I’m hesitant to say that I don’t write genre fiction, so I don’t write for a specific audience. I write to amuse myself, and in a way that challenges me as a writer. The first display I bypass in any brick and mortar bookstore I may patronize is the bestseller table. I enjoy reading novels that don’t fit a genre or formula. It’s that audience I hope will find my work — readers who don’t read simply to be entertained, who choose books with which they feel comfortable, perhaps knowing ahead of time what they’re purchasing. I seek the audience that prefers books that strive to do nothing short of changing the world, and that force them to think.

Where can people learn more about your books?

You can learn more about my literary world, including novel excerpts and news, at my website.

2 Responses to “J. Conrad Guest, Author of “Retrospect in Death””

  1. sheilaenglehart Says:

    Love that your process is similar to mine – minus the cigar. Looking forward to this book and your next one.

  2. knightofswords Says:

    While I write variously throughout the week, I find Sunday morning a relatively good time for it since few people or computers call me then. Rainy Friday afternoons are also good for the same reason.


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