Interview With J. Conrad Guest, Author of “A World Without Music”

A World Without MusicWhat is your book about?

JCG: A World Without Music is a non-traditional romance, as are most my novels. Protagonist Reagan returns from the first Gulf War haunted by horrific images of Tom Wallach, a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares and broken marriage in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with a beautiful young woman he meets at one of his gigs. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, the groupie’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction. With help from Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a friend who is more than he appears, Reagan must find the music that will enable him to finally let go of his tortured past.

How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?

JCG: Not long. After my publisher, Second Wind, accepted my previous novel, 500 Miles to Go, I took some time off. While going through some old short stories I’d written over the years, I came across one that I imagined could be part of a novel. I kicked around a few story lines for the next few weeks and finally settled on an alien from another planet “walking in” to the life of an average earthling. This alien is curious about music, since his planet evolved without it. He’s able to cohabitate with people without them being aware of his presence. He’s inhabited a number of notable historical figures from our history, from Jesus to Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Jefferson, and Thelonious Monk, in an effort to discover the meaning of music, and whether it serves to incite violence in humans.

But the character is a tertiary one, and his purpose isn’t revealed until the final twenty or so pages of the novel. The main character is Reagan, who is broken by his service in Kuwait.

What inspired you to write this particular story?

JCG: In the last dozen or so years, we’re hearing and reading more and more about our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A large number of these kids are unable to fit into society; many end up homeless, while others commit suicide.

I wanted to draw attention to this issue, so I created Reagan. A veteran of the first Gulf War, he’s unable to cope with what he saw. It costs him his marriage, and so he loses himself in his music and several meaningless affairs. He also contemplates eating his Glock. But it’s always music that keeps him from taking that final step.

In the end, Reagan learns that his PTSD doesn’t have to define who he is.

How has your background influenced your writing?

JCG: To a large extent, I’m a loner; I don’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, I march to the beat of my own drum. I’ve struggled most of my life to fit into society. I bore easily. I’m not sure whether that’s a bane of creativity or something I learned in my youth. Maybe it’s genetic. I don’t follow crowds or genres, so I don’t write about vampires or werewolves.

All of my characters are like me—loners. They’re broken is some way, every day people whose stories deal with the universal ideals of love, loss, regret, and death—and the emotions associated with those ideals. A reader told me that my novels are “gritty, entertaining … real. Romance for the non-romantic.”

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?

I think upbringing colors every writer’s work, to an extent. As I near completion of my current work in progress, I’m wondering if I’ll submit it to my publisher. I’m not sure he’ll even accept it, and should he, I may publish it under a nom de plume.

It’s largely about sexual addiction the result of marital betrayal, and I worry whether readers will wonder how much of me is in the protagonist. As I consider that few readers are taken aback by stories about substance abuse or gambling addictions, I fear offending readers who may be sensitive to describing the sex act. A reader once told me she wouldn’t finish reading Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings because of several paragraphs that describe a sexual encounter that is a defining moment in the story. I thought it was pretty tame, but it likely didn’t help that she was the wife of an ordained minister. Someone somewhere will always be offended by something we write, even the description of two tongues intertwined in a single mouth.

Still, there is the recent success of a trilogy about BDSM that became a bestseller and was sold to Hollywood. It depicts acts of violence, including rape, against women; but it was written by a woman for women, so maybe I’d do well to take on the name of the fairer sex.

What are you working on right now?

JCG: My current work in progress is Forever a Philanderer. If you could go back in time, what would you do? Prevent the crucifixion of Christ? Maybe kill Hitler before he comes to power? If your spouse committed the ultimate act of treason, perhaps you’d return to the past to murder their mother, thereby erasing their existence in your present. But would it erase your pain, or simply serve as the ultimate act of revenge?

For Forever a Philanderer, I once again explore the paradox of time travel: how undoing events in the past affect that past’s future, as well as how obsession can be our undoing.

The story was born after editing for pay a romance novel a little more than a year ago. Romance novels today are rated based on their heat level, from stories that leave the sex act to the readers’ imagination—the action starts with a kiss and segues to a shared cigarette after the sex act—to those that depict the act in great detail, including body parts and bodily fluids. This woman’s novel I thought was better suited for the erotica genre, and frankly, I thought I could do it much better. In short, Forever a Philanderer is my most sexually graphic novel, as it explores sexual addiction.

Still, I’m on the fence about seeing it in print. Readers are far more forgiving about “seeing” a junkie shoot up heroine or a serial killer dismembering a body in graphic detail than they are about the sex act. Part of this is sensitivity, but also, I think, because it’s very difficult to bring something new to the act of love-making or “screwing” in fiction. It’s been done countless times before, which is part of the reason why I’ve refrained—until now.

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

JCG: When Dain Galdikas discovers his wife’s infidelity, he doesn’t confront her with her duplicity, he decides to go back in time to murder his wife’s mother to prevent the birth of his philandering wife.

What was the first story you remember writing?

JCG: It was a short story titled The Ultimate Paradox. It was written about twenty years ago as a birthday gift for a woman I wasn’t even dating. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said she wanted me to write a short story. I can’t recall what it was that prompted her to ask that, but she must’ve seen something in me. I can’t recall what happened to the copy I kept for myself, but as I wrote it I began to see it as the basis for a novel. A year or two later I commenced my first novel, January’s Paradigm.

How do you deal with exposition to give readers the background information they need?

JCG: It really grates me when I hear agents and publishers condemn back story. “Just drop it into the story somewhere,” they say as if back story is something terrible that “takes the reader out of the story.” Just try to write a novel without back story.

The first 120 pages of Victor Hugo’s Laughing Man is back story, and the early chapters of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is filled with back story.

Commercials during my favorite television nighttime dramas take me out of the story, but they don’t lesson my enjoyment, and you don’t hear critics clamoring to remove them.

Over the years I’ve learned how to include back story sparingly and disguise it so that it doesn’t jump off the page as what it is.

Does your understanding of the story you are writing change during the course of the book?

Almost always my understanding of the story changes during the creative process, probably because I don’t write from an outline. I go where the story and the characters take me.

In Forever a Philanderer, Dain makes a serious miscalculation in traveling back in time thirty years and ends up at Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (he also failed to take into account the earth’s rotation in traveling nearly two thousand years). It was to have been a one-time encounter with the Messiah, from whom Dain flees; but Dain, having traveled back in time, partially exists outside the parameters of space and time. Therefore, Christ makes return appearances to Dain at opportune moments, wearing John Lennon glasses and a JESUS LIVES! t-shirt, to advise Dain that his actions will weigh heavily against his life in eternity.

Describe your writing in three words.

JCG: Gritty, entertaining, real.

From where do you think the most influential change in book publishing will come?

JCG: If I knew the answer to that, I’d already be a household name based on my understanding of today’s publishing model twenty years ago.

Would it matter to you if you were never published? (In other words, would it matter if no one ever read your books?) Why or why not?

JCG: Of course it matters, and any writer who says otherwise doesn’t take their craft seriously.

The number of self-published titles last year is up more than 400% from seven or eight years ago. That says two things: First, it matters because more writers today self-publish when traditional publishers turn down their work. Second, the approximately 400,000 self-published titles last year, combined with a shrinking demand, only makes it more difficult for the cream to rise. With more books in print today than there are readers, the industry is more competitive than it ever has been.

Do you have a saying or motto for your life and/or as a writer?

JCG: Happiness can’t be found, unearthed like some ancient relic at an archeological site, it comes from within.

Where can we learn more about your books?

From Second Wind Publishing!j-conrad-guest/c1k84 and Amazon

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.