John W. Howell
Photo by Tim Burdick
Welcome to an interview with John W. Howell, author of a new novel (working title: My GRL) soon to be published by Martin Sisters Publishing. John is also an editor at The Community Storyboard, a student of the haiku, a short story writer when he is not writing haikus or working on his next novel, and is my “partner in crime” in producing a weekly Top Ten List of Things Not To Do at both his blog, Fiction Favorites, and my own, 1WriteWay. John worked for 40-plus years in the private sector world before taking up writing full-time and is currently undergoing “margarita therapy” in an effort to overcome the unpleasant memories he has from that long, painful experience.
M: John, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Of course, I wanted to return the favor since you had interviewed me not too long ago. And I do need to return this margarita glass that I inadvertently took with me when we last met. All that aside, I am very interested in your writing, how it all came about and where you want your writing career to go from here.
J: Marie, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for returning the margarita glass. It was getting embarrassing to have to serve the odd margarita in a mason jar. Aren’t you going to offer me anything?
M: Oh, of course, my manners. I’m no good at mixing drinks so …
J: I’ll have some hot tea. I have a long drive back.
M: A pot of hot tea coming up. Be careful where you sit. There may be a cat on the chair.
J: Thanks for the warning. Since I have two cats as well and know they don’t like to be disturbed. Perhaps if you could just find me a chair without a cat in it.
M: Here you go. OK, let’s get started. So, elsewhere you’ve said that you worked for over 40 years in the business sector. If it’s not too painful, could you talk a bit about what you did, what your occupation was?
J: Yes, Marie (takes sip of tea). I actually had three separate careers. The first was in consumer marketing and sales where I worked for over twenty-two years. In that time I started as a section sales person and finished as President of a consumer healthcare division. The second career was as a consultant in consumer marketing. I worked as an independent consultant for about five years and then for my third career started when I was hired by one of my clients. The client was a major telecommunications company and I started as a cube dweller and worked for about fifteen years and finished as a director. I retired and began writing full time in 2012.
M: That’s really interesting! Has any of this experience influence or play a part in your writing?
J: I have a reoccurring character named Frank who embodies all the arrogance I witnessed by upper management when I was working. You know the attitude, believing everyone else is less than equal and not quite as smart. I am slowly torturing Frank by giving him a life that he loves mixed with a life of a homeless person. I do this in various stages of his dreams. So whenever Frank goes to sleep he wakes up under a different situation and the beauty is he remembers the previous dream and is in agony. I love it.
M: And you wrote a short story about Frank that received an Honorable Mention from Writer’s Digest in their Popular Fiction Contest. Our readers can enjoy “Cold Night Out” on the Community Storyboard. Congratulations on that award. So now you are retired from the business world. What prompted you to take up writing? Had you done any writing while you were employed before?
J: I actually did a fair amount of contract writing on my last job. I became very interested in the creative process which I then infused into the contracts I was creating. I was able to have living documents that two parties could embrace. It was this experience that got me to the keyboard so to speak. I finished my first book while still working. I printed it off and it is now holding the laundry room door open which seems the best purpose for a 122,000 word piece of trash.
M: I think a lot of us may feel the same way about our first novels. You’ve said that Kurt Vonnegut is a writer you look up to and that Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is the book that got you interested in reading. Do you have any other literary influences?
J: In college I studied comparative literature and part of the curriculum was a concentration on the classics. I guess if I were to pick another influence it would have to be Stephen Crain who wrote The Red Badge of Courage. It was not only a compelling story but also reflects the inner experience of its protagonist. This inner experience or feeling I continually bring out in my characters. One of the reasons I like to write in the first person is that my protagonist has the responsibility of interpreting the scenes around him and then explaining those scenes to the reader. This makes a story not so much as an external circumstance driving the protagonist but an inner conflict that is causing the behavior.
M: And it makes for a compelling story, much like “Cold Night Out” where the reader only knows as much as Frank knows. Let’s talk about Haikus. When did you start writing Haikus? You know, you are quite the master. For our readers, many of John’s haikus are featured on The Community Storyboard.
J: Oh, Marie, you are so nice to say Master, but I am a humble student. I was challenged by a fellow blogger who you know as Kirsten to bring some of my poetry out of the closet (so to speak). I had a great fear of being laughed out of the blogosphere with some of them. I started studying the various forms and somehow fell into Haiku since it comes close to my natural writing style. I practiced and read a lot about Haiku and so I guess I learned with a hands on method. Here is one for you:
Marie is the best,
Truly cares for all near her . . .
Secret of her smile.
M: (blushing) John, that is lovely and so sweet of you. Thank you. Here, have some tea (clears throat and sniffs). Now, I understand that My GRL is will be published by Martin Sisters Publishing. How did that come about? How has your experience with Martin Sisters been so far?
J: I finished the book and then went through the query process to find an agent. After about two months of no response, I went on line and looked up publishers who would take a chance on first time authors. Martin Sisters Publishing and a number of others came up and since they did not require an agent, I sent a query. They liked my query and asked for that I sign a contract which I was very happy to do. They are very thoughtful and have great respect for writers. I have really enjoyed the experience
M: As you know, many of our fellow writers are self-publishing these days. What are your thoughts on self-publishing? Did you consider self-publishing at all?
J: I was actually going to go the self-publishing route before contracting with Martin Sisters Publishing. I think self-publishing is the way to go if you have some aversion to relinquishing some control over your book. I was very faint of heart when I knew some rights like cover design were now in the hands of the publisher. Martin Sisters also has an option on the next book which I just finished so I am not sure I will be in the self-publish mode for a while. I would like to try it though.
M: Oh, you just finished your second novel? How exciting! Is this a sequel to the first?
J: Yes, it seems the story was too big to fit in one book so I ended the first with some question as to the justice system’s ability to bring the true perpetrator to trial. The second starts off with the protagonist being hailed as a hero and scheduled to appear at the White House for an award. All the while the person behind the original terrorist plot has another in mind and he wants to get his hands on the hero. Many more bullets fly in the next book.
M: Sounds like fun (big smile). So, what is a typical writing day for you? Do you set yourself goals like word or page counts? What needs to happen for you to say that you’ve had a productive and satisfying writing day?
J: My day starts with normal chores like walking dogs etc. By noon I am ready to write. I set a goal for one thousand words for the day on my WIP. Of course with blogs and e-mails I write more than that totally. A successful day to me is moving the story along and working out a twist or plot problem successfully. (Oh and getting all the 150 E-mails put somewhere.)
M: Hmmm, you get a lot of emails, too. Ah, you know, publishing whether it’s self-publishing or traditional publishing is very competitive. Writers who are coming out with their first novels or short stories may feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the marketplace. Do you have any advice for writers who aspire to be published authors?
J: Anyone who wants to be published needs to understand that the work is hard and the result needs to be a personal goal not driven by some other person. Given that understanding, the writer needs to write every day. It really doesn’t matter how much but every day is a must.
M: Well, John, that’s great advice. I agree that writing everyday, even if it’s just an email in response to 150 emails, is worth doing. I want to thank you again for taking the time for this interview. I know I am one of many others who are eagerly awaiting the publication of your first novel. I assume you will announce it on your blog, which again is Fiction Favorites. Would you like some more tea before you head back?
J: Marie, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by you. You have a lovely new kitchen and I must say your cats are well-behaved. Yes, I would love some more tea.
Well, that’s it, folks! My first interview with Haiku student (master), novelist, blogger, and all-around great guy, John W. Howell. Be sure to follow his blog Fiction Favorites. And please stay tuned for more interviews by 1WriteWay.