J. Conrad Guest, Author of “500 Miles to Go”

500 Miles to GoWelcome, J. Conrad. What is your new book about?

JCG: In a nutshell, 500 Miles to Go is about the importance of, and the risks associated with pursuing our dreams. Alex Król made his dream come true to drive in the Indianapolis 500 eight years after seeing his first 500, in 1955, the year Bill Vukovich was killed in his bid to become the first driver to win three consecutive 500s.

Then there’s the girl: Gail, as in Gail Russell. No, not the Gail Russell, who starred opposite John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch and was in her own right downright gorgeous. Just not as gorgeous as Alex’s Gail. Gail had been Alex’s girl since high school. She fell for Alex before she learned that he risked his life on dirt tracks during the summer months to the delight of fans who paid to see cars crash—the more spectacular the wreck the taller they stood on their toes and craned their necks to see the carnage.

By the time she learns the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—that Alex had vowed to one day drive in and win the Indianapolis 500—it was too late. She was in love with him.

What inspired you to write this particular story?

JCG: This story was born from a part of my youth that I shared with my dad, recalled with much fondness. Dad took me to my first Indy 500 in 1966, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The 1960s are considered the golden era of motorsports. At that time Indy had a pure formula, and innovation was encouraged—unlike today, where, to keep costs down, the cars pretty much come out of a box.

Today’s sport is all about technology—wind tunnels, engineers, two-way communication with the driver and pit lane speed limits. Unlike the days of yore, when a good driver could put a mediocre car into victory lane, today a winning combination is maybe 40% driver, and their on-camera appeal as spokesperson for their sponsor is as important as their talent behind the wheel.

For 500 Miles to Go I wanted to capture the glamour and the allure of what was once known as the greatest spectacle in racing, so this my tribute to that bygone era, before television and technology turned a sport into a beauty contest and a science.

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

JCG: A lot. Sadly, my father wasn’t very nurturing to me in my youth; as a retired marine and drill instructor, he was more disciplinarian than a dad. He taught me to throw and hit a baseball, but left the finer nuances of the game for me to learn.

Most of my novels depict rather dysfunctional relationships between fathers and sons. In 500 Miles to Go, the relationship between Alex and his father is one I wish I could’ve had with my own father. Fortunately for me, in the final year of his life, Dad and I connected; but I’m grateful for what we had during that final year. So many fathers and sons don’t get even that.

Why will readers relate to your characters?

JCG: Who doesn’t enjoy a good love story? Alex and Gail never consummate their love in their youth, and she is largely absent from the middle pages, except in Alex’s mind, in his yearning for what might’ve been. The reader is left to root for them to achieve their happily ever after.

Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

JCG: I mixed real life figures—the actual drivers from that era, Foyt, the Unsers, and Eddie Sachs, who befriends Alex and is killed during Alex’s first race at the famed Brickyard—with my fictional characters, which was challenging. I tried to stay true how the races played out in reality, and I found some great Internet sources on specific races, the starting fields and how the drivers finished. What I found most challenging was getting the drivers to “sound” like their real life counterparts. I don’t have a particularly good ear for dialect, so getting A.J. Foyt’s Texas drawl was intimidating to me, but I think I managed it quite well, recalling interviews with him that I heard on TV. I’d never heard Eddie Sachs speak, so I had only my research to go on: he was a prankster, so I created him as a fast-talking wise guy who speaks in quips and laughs at his own jokes.

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

JCG: I think each novel I complete changes me in some way. Certainly I feel each book leaves me a better writer as I continue to hone my craft. In 500 Miles to Go, I learned that love, and marriage specifically, isn’t about me. It’s about my partner. When I focus on me, my needs, I doom the contract. Successful marriages are between partners who understand that it (the vows) is about their teammate and not about themselves.

Have you ever had difficulty “killing off” a character in your story because she or he was so intriguing and full of possibility for you, his creator?

JCG: I killed off Joe January, the protagonist in One Hot January, at the end of the book. Since he lives in an alternate reality, it wasn’t difficult. Talk about your time travel paradoxes, One Hot January begins where its sequel, January’s Thaw, ends, and January’s Thaw ends where One Hot January begins. How’s that for a teaser?

Which is more important to your story, character or plot?

JCG: My plots tend to be tightly focused, while my characters are everyday people dealing with the everyday issues of love, loss and regret. That said, most important to me are my characters. They must be real and easy for my readers to connect with.

What has been your greatest internal struggle to overcome in relation to your writing career?

JCG: My greatest struggle came early in my literary career: dealing with rejection letters. I found myself questioning my talent and ability. Each rejection was a personal affront to me and my work. Once I learned how to enjoy the creative process—to simply write because it gives me great joy—I became a writer. Perhaps not so surprisingly, once I learned to enjoy the process, publication followed.

Do your characters ever take on a life of their own?

JCG: I think they have to, if they’re to come to life in my readers’ heads. Any book is only as good as what its words make happen inside the reader’s head, and so my characters do take on a life of their own. Corny as it sounds, I’ve said that I act only as channel for them. They tell me their story, and I put it down in words. If I have them say or do something that is out of character for them, they’re the first to voice their discontent.

Describe your writing in three words.

JCG: I love language and words. I can’t listen to a book on disk. I prefer seeing the words on a printed page (or my Nook). A three-word description of my work? A literary feast.

What one word describes how you feel when you write?

JCG: Euphoria

What is your favorite place, real or fictional? Why?

JCG: I love a good pub, a place where I can go with my fiancée to sip a black beer and simply relax, letting the world around us go by at its furious pace. My favorite pub is the Dead Poet, on New York’s Upper West Side. Its mahogany-paneled walls are adorned with black and white portraits of writers long since deceased but remembered for what they left behind, literary quotes, and poetic passages pertaining to the universal quandaries of life. Ah, nuts. Now I’m thirsty.

J. Conrad GuestWhat do you wear when you write?

JCG: In the winter I wear sweats and a hoody; in the summer, shorts and a t-shirt.

Where can people learn more about your books?

JCG: I have a website, an Amazon author page, and a page at my publisher’s site.

2 Responses to “J. Conrad Guest, Author of “500 Miles to Go””

  1. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    I saw this title on the Second Wind site a while ago, then got distracted, but now here it is again in one of your posts that went up when I wasn’t looking. This must be a sign that the universe wants me to read the story.

    Malcolm

  2. J. Conrad Guest Says:

    I hope you did, or will, Malcolm. Thanks for stopping by!


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