Monday, January 14, 2013

Critically acclaimed and now self-published! Meet Jon Clinch

Jon Clinch's debut novel, Finn, was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor. It was named a notable book by the American Library Association and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus. Such things are dreams made of! Then Clinch followed Finn with the critically acclaimed Kings of the Earth, also named a best book of the year by the Washington Post. But now he's self-publishing his latest literary novel, The Thief of Auschwitz (unmediated ink, January 15, 2013), and I'm delighted to post this interview with him to celebrate the occasion.

The Thief of Auschwitz is told in two intertwining narratives, taking readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max , and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital – and outspoken – survivor. Old Max has become a world-renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with the retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. Yet the truth is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world – indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself – all his life.

It sounds like the sort of book I will love and I'm really looking forward to reading it. Meanwhile, welcome to my blog, and here's my interview with Jon Clinch. Thank you so much for answering my questions Jon:

Q: I looked up your earlier books on Amazon and saw you have a really wide range of reviews, mostly very seriously positive. My first question is how do you react to negative reviews?
A: If I had any sense, I wouldn’t look at reviews at all. But who has that kind of self-control? Not me. So, saddled with the burden of looking whether I want to or not, I’ve found that the most interesting thing to do with bad reviews is to click through and see what books the reader in question actually did like. It never fails to put things in context.
That’s a crucial element of the crowd-sourced book reviewing culture we’re inhabiting these days: always consider the source. One reader’s five-star triumph is another reader’s one-star disaster.
Q: THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ contains an interesting cast of characters. How do you decide whose viewpoint to tell the story from?
A: I like to stick very close to individual characters, whether I’m writing in the first person or the third. The historical parts of THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ don’t stray very far from Eidel and Jacob and Max Rosen. The present-day parts, of course, are strictly from Max’s point of view since he’s the narrator. Regardless of who’s telling the story, though, these are the people we care the most about, and it’s important to see things if not through their eyes then at least in the context of their experience.
Q: When you intertwine narratives, how do you decide when to move from one storyline to another?
A: The decision is mainly based on pacing. In a big, sprawling thing like a novel, one of the writer’s chief obligations is to control how and at what speed the reader engages with the words on the page. FINN accelerates as it goes along – particularly in the second half – with shorter and shorter chapters that gain focus and momentum and intensity as the end approaches. KINGS OF THE EARTH, on the other hand, with ten or twelve narrators who take turns telling the story in little bits, shifts gears all the time. As for THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ, it maintains a very regular pace – two or three pages from Max in the present day, followed by fifteen or twenty pages from the third-person narrator in the past. The book begins and ends with Max, whose frequent appearances serve – among other things – to reassure the reader that at least one member of the family will escape Auschwitz with his life.
Q: How much time do you spend plotting and working on timelines for your novels?
A: I generally know lots more about the lives of my characters than will ever show up in the book, but less about what moments of their lives I’ll end up dramatizing. In other words I usually have a huge store of material to draw from, but I don’t plan much in advance what bits of it the reader will end up seeing.
Q: How much historical research goes into your novels (and what type of research went into your more recent science fiction novel, WHAT CAME AFTER)?
A: FINN and THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ are both very deeply researched, but KINGS OF THE EARTH comes from imagination and memory. (My Proctor brothers are based both on the Ward brothers of Munnsville, NY, whose tragedy made the news in 1990, and on my dad’s boyhood family. My dad was born on a farm very near the Ward family, although he didn’t know them.) As for WHAT CAME AFTER, I did what a lot of science fiction writers do: I looked around and imagined what the world might be like if we keep on making the mistakes we’re making.
Q: Do you think your novels have a common theme? Are you drawn to write about particular types of character, situation, or time?
A: I have a few recurring concerns, which include the connections between parents and children, the need for faithfulness in relationships, the pain and purpose of sacrificing oneself for the needs of others. Take those things out of my work, and there’s not much left.
Q: Your earlier novels are quintessentially American, but the Thief of Auschwitz has a more international feel. Is that deliberate? What led you to look further afield for inspiration?
A: I tend to want to set books in places that people think they know well, and then turn reader expectations on their heads by careful observation and reporting. FINN shows the dark side of Huckleberry Finn’s world, in a way that Twain himself sometimes said he wished he could describe it. KINGS OF THE EARTH visits the upstate New York of my own time, and finds something very much like Faulkner’s Mississippi. The death camp at Auschwitz, on the other hand, didn’t need to be turned upside down and seen anew – it needed to be looked at squarely, unflinchingly, and for the horror that it most definitely was. I’d been reading the histories and the first-person accounts for a very long time, and I decided that one way to deepen the understanding of that place for readers who might not want to read the non-fiction would be to apply the tools of fiction: character, plot, tension, and so on.
Q: What inspired you to write a science fiction novel (WHAT CAME AFTER—definitely on my to-read list) and how do you think it fits with your earlier books, and with the THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ?
A: I worry about the world that we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren: the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor, the decay of certain elements of our society, the rise of genetically modified foodstuffs. So, in the tradition of the science fiction that I read all the time in my youth, I just looked ahead a few years and wrote down what I saw. WHAT CAME AFTER is definitely a Jon Clinch book, even though the author’s name is Sam Winston. It’s about parents and children, and our responsibilities to one another.
Q: What led you to self-publishing? Do you have any insights to share with other writers about why to try, or not try the self-publishing route?
A: So as not to contaminate my “brand” in the literary marketplace, I’d self-published WHAT CAME AFTER under a pen name a year or so earlier. It did remarkably well, for a book with no backing and an author nobody’d ever heard of. So I thought the time had come. Of course, I have the advantage of coming from a big-publishing background, with the audience that goes along with that. What I tried doing differently was to tackle the whole thing myself – not just the manuscript, but the cover design, the marketing plan, the web development. I wanted to maintain control of the whole deal, for better or worse. I’ve blogged about the process, step by step, at
Q: How do you think the rise of self-publishing affects the reading public?
A: Self-publishing strips away the filtering mechanism of big publishing, for better or worse, so in the future – at least until some new mechanism arises – it will be harder and harder to find whatever it is that suits your reading taste. On the other hand, it certainly provides tools for people whose creative vision doesn’t exactly square with the vision of the big houses – a vision that’s increasingly focused on blockbusters celebrity books, and sensationalism.
Thank you Jon. I really enjoyed interviewing you and I'm really looking forward to reading more of your books.

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