Q & A with Author JP Paul
The following are questions culled from conversations and correspondence with author JP Paul.
Last update: April, 2015
What’s more important to you, the writing quality or the story?
Story and character development are generally what pulls most readers through a book, but I love great writing and can often wrap myself in the peculiarities of a writing style regardless of the story. I'm not talking grammatical perfection or vocabulary Olympics. Both can actually produce stale, dated or derivative work. I enjoy surprising forms of expression, unique voices when you can tell immediately that the author is feeling no constraints from the vehicle nor preconceptions of the entended readership. Some writers have a special gift to be able to make anything read well. Contrarily, even the best stories can stall if the writing is flat or the work is blatantly over-written. Many great writers manage to get out of the way of the story entirely, imparting their style so subtly that it becomes integral to the book rather than serve only as that vehicle.
In the visual arts, I'm always looking for something unique or at least a fresh approach to an old style. Same in writing. I love rule breakers and enjoy a good literary puzzle even if the story falters.
What type of stories do you prefer?
I like slice-of-life stories, those events, circumstances or relationships that any of us might encounter at some point in our lives. How do we react? What decisions do we make? What can I learn from the success and failure of others?
I also want to be challenged. I like to be forced to think about the story's intent and the author's relationship to it. I want to explore the time and the characters beyond the surface. Many readers like to be whisked away to fantasy worlds. I understand that need for entertainment and escapism but I think we have plenty that can be accomplished as a global community. I'm positive we can still get the planet right if we work at it rather than run away from it. I'm bother entertained and free to escape through realism.
The problem I have with fantasy genres is that they tend to recreate many of the same socio-cultural problems that already exist but wrap them into ugly monsters or pseudo erotica of incarnate shells. This creates unbelievable villains and heroes who often don't seem to carry sufficient credibility - in my opinion - for me to care whether they succeed or fail. I’d rather know how a human being, my neighbor for example, would react given a specific set of obstacles or pending decisions. I question why so many fantasy writers hesitate to show the warts of real people and instead choose to dehumanize their characters.
That said, I enjoy a good speculative novel if it tackles bigger questions that we can learn from.
Are there writers who you especially admire?
Too many to mention. I admire every author who has been published, gained an audience and enticed readers to come back for more. Some that come to mind are the late David Foster-Wallace as well as Douglas Coupland, Nick Hornby, Jay McInerney, David Mitchell, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Tama Janowitz, Tom DeLillo, Collum McCann, Michael Chabon, Paul Harding and Zadie Smith. I loved the challenges previously laid forth by complex authors such as Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis, the intense bellyachers such as Norma Klein, David Markson, Claire Messud and Christopher Hitchens, or further back the complex imagery of Joyce or Faulkner. I frequent the same Uruguayan beach town where Martin Amis wrote and his wife Isabel Fonseca wrote some fine work over the years and totally understand why they chose that setting. I've always enjoyed the works of ex-journalists including Hunter S. Thompson and Orianna Fallaci. Some of the experimental Beat Gen writers who defined an era are fun to revisit, as are many of the LatAm magic surrealists who developed a platform that continues to be imitated in the region's art and literature through many generations.
This was the story that came to mind. It combines experiences in Jamaica and Florida that are still fresh in my memory. It also deals with corporate politics, the art world, dysfunctional families and various dichotomies such as rural/urban, rich/poor, developed/undeveloped nations and cultural peculiarities. I've dealt with all of the above on a daily basis for the past twenty five years! Mind you, Rattle isn't cathartic, rather an attempt to explore some deeper issues under the guise of a compelling story. :-) It was fun to write in a time when I needed some chuckles.
How would you describe the voice or style of Rattle?
I believe it's current, conversational and fluid. I hate to say contemporary since that has weighted connotations of its own, more so in the visual arts world. I don't want people to think that this book is overtly experimental or bizarre. I've been told by one editor who I admire that it is acrobatic and dizzying -- in a good way I think -- and aimed for the reader who prefers to engage with the writing rather than escape to an unreal place.
I wanted the story to seem familiar and well-paced without being hectic. I don’t want to confuse readers but I admit it will certainly help if the readers reserve some time to get lost in the book. I try to write as a reader, not a word scientist. I use humor when I think it works, drama where its intended. I’m not out to game readers. That said, I hope my writing makes people contemplate the issues that lay behind the story.
My characters are mainly regular Joes with huge upside, people working to build careers and create a better life for themselves and their community. They are fictional depictions of imperfect people who you might know or meet on any given day. I've always enjoyed studying the human condition and strive for recognizable protagonists who are credible even if they're not pleasant or easily-accessible hero types. That said, I think my characters have plenty to cheer for.
I create a dilemma in the modern reading world. My work often has character arcs with rough beginnings and positive endings. The protagonists may seem unlikeable for many but they grow into better persons through the story. Balanced against the need for instant hooks, it's difficult to set the protagonists properly in the first few chapters for the sake of the plot without the reader saying, "Wait a second, I don't like these characters. Why should I continue reading?" I hope readers can get into the minds of my characters and see where they're going rather than let the initial skin dissuade them. I believe they are thought-provoking and worth getting to know. They better be since at least one sequel is in the works!
After discussing my work with numerous people, one theme that popped up frequently was my involvement with the visual arts and how it affects my writing. I think it's a valid point. Stylewise, I'm very aware of the use of contrast, form and negative space as well as the need to leave plenty of room for the viewer or reader to reflect from a personal standpoint. I don't serve every detail. I suppose in literary terms you would call this forcing the reader to delve between the lines. A few academics have called it collateral interpretation. Sometimes what isn't written is equally important as what is. The late great artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, explained it this way, "I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them."
Literary purists may balk at this approach. I can safely say I'm not a purist. The same applies to musical similarities. Cadence, tone, spacing, beat and pulse are more important to me than grammatical perfection even though I don't go out of my way to botch sentences. I think this applies to all the arts. Perfection can be dull unless the creator is a skilled craftsperson. Besides, what is perfection? I'm more interested in fluidity and keeping the reader engaged.
The last defining feature of my work is the influence of living in a Spanish-speaking culture for much of my adult life. The Spanish language has fourteen general verb tenses instead of six in English. Castellano is lush and naturally rhythmic, verb-rich and it utilizes much longer sentence construction with far less punctuation. This has clearly influenced my English writing and is a nice counterpoint to the modern works of Hemingway and others. I talk to many people who question Gaddis or Pynchon or Foster-Wallace for rambling on and on and usually repsond by saying, "You call them long and twisted? Try most of the Spanish writers!"
To be honest, I'm not fond of the current trend of woodpecker writing, paragraphs with fifteen sentences of three or four words each. Too choppy, no flow. Get it. Don't get it. Perplexed. Next thought. :-) They say it adds tension. Maybe it does, but it also gives me a headache even if it doesn't pull me out of the story entirely. I think it will pass as a fad. People will look back thirty years from now and say, "Why so blunt, why were they in such a hurry? Were the authors nervous, insecure?" Seems contrived. Next.
Why talk in sound bites or write in tweets when you have an entire novel to flesh out your ideas and story? Call me strange, but I believe that well-constructed longer sentences are often much easier to read and can greatly enhance flow. I try for balance to control the pace and enhance readability.
What do you see as the market for Rattle? How would you classify it in terms of genre?
Good question to which I have no definitive answer. I'm not big on tight classification, but I'd say it's a fusion of general, contempoary and literary fiction that may appeal to everyone from blue and white collar to hipsters and tweed. The work features artists and bohemians, rich socialites, business people, technologists, social workers, restless world travelers and the poverty stricken. It's both plot and character driven and deals with numerous underlying issues. Main characters range from their early twenties to their fifties so there's something for a wide range of age groups. If you strip away the technology and contemporary references, I believe it depicts a timeless struggle even though it is rooted in a specific recent period.
Those who enjoy being swept into unfamiliar international settings are exposed to the underbelly of a Caribbean culture that tourists rarely witness. At its core, Rattle is a family conflict that erupts due to a combination of internal communication problems and external forces. It's also a David versus Goliath saga arising from conflicting principles and financial implications rather than swords and stones. Opportunism, greed and survival at any costs are examples of ethical conundrums many of us face at one time or another in our lives.
The novel features plenty of sweat and tears both sad and joyful. Other body fluids are minimal. I suggest those looking for alien fantasies, steamy sex, shock & horror or dead bodies can find better ways to spend their entertainment dollars. There's romance, but not in the typical form of misty-eyed dreamy disillusionment of the unattainable. There's suspense throughout the dual plot line. Tension is disturbing in that this story is ominously close to many of us and entirely plausible. I want people to think that they could read this book then walk outside and make something positive happen for themselves. As the title implies, people who rattle cages - intended or otherwise - will be particularly entertained. Outliers who feel they have no input can attach themselves to the voices of the main protagonists. I'ts both fun and serious, if that makes sense.
For me, reading boils down to three human needs: to learn, to be entertained and to be challenged. I try to accomplish all three. And don't forget, sometimes we learn as much by seeing what we shouldn't be doing rather than being told what we should. This is often an advantage of fiction.
Can you give samples of similar books or authors?
Of the millions of books in print, I'm sure there are plenty. None are dead ringers but here are a few that have similarities:
Many of Douglas Coupland's books have a similar voice even though the writing style is distinct. Coupland is more experimental. He deals with a range of similar issues from dysfunctional families, isolation, being misinterpretated, career disillusionment in our 20s or 30s, the changing age of technology and the corporate jungle. Nick Hornby also comes to mind. I'd love people to consider me in their league.
Some say there is a similarity with some of the late Orianna Fallaci's writing. As a journalist, she rolled important real world issues into a more accessible novel format. My intent is similar.
Zadie Smith is half Jamaican, a child of a mixed family. Her treatment of multi-cultural issues and detachment parallels many of my experiences. My nuclear family is also multi-cultural and we've been immersed in diverse societies, for better or worse. This inevitably surfaces in the themes and plot of the book as it does in hers.
"The Descendants" by Kaui Hart Hummings explores two cultures, American and Hawaiian. It deals with an inheritance issue, a single father and a confrontation with the late wife's lover. Mine is based in Florida and Jamaica and the battle is between a private landowner and a mega-transnational. I think style-wise both books are brash and unapologetic.
If you enjoy any of those authors, I think you'll enjoy Rattle. One reviewer who I've known for two decades says the voice of Rattle is clearly mine but with touches of Colum McCann, Thomas Berger's "Neighbors" and Tom DeLillo's "Underworld." Another said some of my characters are as "unlikeable but magnetic" as those of Claire Messud or Thomas Bernhard. I'm honored to be even mentioned in such company. At the end of the day, I'm confident that the book and its characters will connect. Plaudits to E.M. Forster for showing the importance of base-level connection. More than one of my beta readers said "you gotta love Max" who is one of the main protagonists. Even the villain CEO isn't such a bad guy once you peel off the veneer. Another says the women characters shine. I tend to agree. They are strong, independent and determined, probably due to the phenomenal women I've been blessed to have in my own life. In many ways the main female characters are three of the four pillars of the story.
Before Rattle, what have you published?
I'm hoping to redistribute "Crack/ed" as a novel. It was originally written around 2005 as a series of vignettes based on real life situations. "Scenes from Below the Curb" was started in 2008, four years before Rattle, and will also be coming out soon after falling off the planet due to other commitments. Both have been substantially rewritten. "Only Indigo" and "Take the Dance" have been stewing for years and will be released in the USA for the first time, probably in 2015 or 2016, definitely as ebooks but possibly in paper versions. I'm hoping to have another novel, The Harbinger Effect, out for Christmas or early 2016. Portions of it were written in the 90s, the bulk in the past few years. I'd like to release one or two more works after Rattle this year, much of which are already in place and waiting for the proper publisher. I even have suggestions for cover art and I've been building a following since the late 90s through websites and social media.
Most of my print journalism experience was at The Daily Journal of Caracas where I worked under editor Tony Bianchi as their western correspondent. I covered everything from the petroleum industry to arts & culture, sports, politics, hard news, education and themes of specific interest for the ex-pat English-speaking community.
Parallel to the DJ, I published dozens of investigative features for the Sunday Plus weekly edition with editor Sally Weeks. Works included the plight of small independent farmers, the extinction of remote tribes, tourism initiatives and plans to save South American freshwater lakes. I followed the medical team of Dr. Nancy Wexler in their search for DNA markers and a cure for Huntington's Disease. I scaled the Andes, plunged into contaminated waters to witness the devastation caused by under water drilling and wrote an exposé on the abuse and corruption in Latin American youth soccer.
I've provided written work and editing services for websites related to visual arts, education and technology since the late 90s, published poems and have ghost written artist statements, portfolio reviews and marketing materials for visual artists since the 80s.
When did you realize that writing was your calling?
That's a long story. I've always enjoyed writing but I was terrible in English during my first couple of years in high school. I could always write smoothly but I didn't read enough. I think it was a matter of feeling disengaged with the material. I was never thrilled with the classics as an active teenager with numerous extra-curricular and social interests. My grades were fine, never had to sit for a final, but I had other priorities besides academics. In my junior year, my English teacher let us pick major essay themes and our own reading lists to support them. Suddenly I began to identify with modern books/authors and actually read entire works rather than skim Coles Notes to write reports. In my senior year, some of our papers were graded by university professors. The feedback was very positive. At the time I was a closet poet but was encouraged to share longer prose.
Writing has never been a problem. It was taking time to read classic books that didn't attract me. I couldn't identify with most of the stories and characters at all.
At one point I considered studying creative writing or journalism in college but again was put off by the mandatory reading lists for introductory undergrad courses. I also didn't have sufficient second language credits for direct enrollment into those faculties. Strange, I've since enjoyed reading most of the books on those lists -- without the pressure -- and I'm now fluently bilingual! I suppose I wasn't mature enough to deal with Shakespeare or Dickens or George Bernard Shaw until I was a little older than most. Now I love to revisit what I missed in the first round.
Throughout my career, I seemed to be the one writing most of the articles for the company newsletters, including ad copy, proposals and tech manuals. I was convinced I could write for a living but never seemed to be able to combine my work responsibilities with personal projects.
The real breakthrough came when I queried Tony Bianchi at the Daily Journal about a half dozen articles I was prepared to write. He accepted all of them and shortly thereafter I starting working full time for the paper. Sally Weeks with the Sunday Plus gave me plenty of rope to investigate feature-length articles. I loved the work and learned plenty, but the 80s and 90s were tough periods for foreign journalists in South America. Pay was low and security was minimal. Being out and about covering luminaries in various fields presented me with numerous opportunities in the corporate market and the world of fine arts. With a family to help feed, I followed the money while my writing reverted to part time for over a decade. Nothing seemed to work since I wasn't truly engaged. Except for a few years working at the pinnacle of the Latin American art community, I've always preferred to be writing.
More recently, through blogs, forums and website contributions, strangers from all corners of the world convinced me that I should return to writing full time. Here I am, onward and upward.
What would you say to readers who don't like your book?
Screw off! No, seriously, similar to visual arts I think tastes and preferences are what makes the culture industries so vibrant. Some like Damien Hirst, others prefer Rembrandt. Some devour the entire 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, others can't navigate past its first paragraph. In a world dominated by 30 second video clips and 140 character tweets where a 1,500 word online article seems like an unbearable anchor to many, I respect any person who still takes time to read an entire novel whether its mine or someone else's. We all have our favorites. All I can do as a writer is be as transparent and forthright about the nature of my books as possible and then deliver to the best of my ability. I listen to all criticism and suggestions.
Touch wood, my articles were usually well-accepted at the Daily and Sunday Plus. My poems and short works have received accoladesand a few awards. I've never spoken to anyone who disliked the advance review copy of Rattle although I'm sure there are those for whom it is not their preferred genre. I don't do romance, or sci-fi or murder mystery, but that's not to say that my characters are heartless or I don't speculate about the future or my stories aren't suspenseful or entertaining for the reader. What I don't follow is a strict genre formula and see no reason to apologize for that. I understand that people may want to engage with characters in ways that aren't integral to my work.
To answer your question, I've been involved with the visual arts and writing fields for over two decades. You learn not to take rejection personally. I can't name many books in the history of literature that were universally accepted on first release. Likewise with visual art. no movement that started in the past 125 years avoided ridicule upon original introduction. Melville sold only 400 copies of Moby Dick during his lifetime. Now it is universally accepted in most schools and included in every all-time Top 100 list.
What's the worst thing about writing, in your opinion?
In my case, I'm a people person. I love to observe, learn and converse with others. Writing is very solitary. With a loving wife, two wonderfuls sons and a dog yearning to be outdoors, I need to find equilibrium between family and writing since both make me what I am. I don't believe in external inspiration but I definitely need to spend plenty of time with other people in order to ensure the integrity of my stories.
What is most important to you: financial, popular or critical (literary) success?
I think every author dreams of having their work praised by everyone, from academia and literary critics to family, friends and the general readership. Very few writers produce novels to become wealthy. Critical success to me would be touching a nerve, compelling people to read and think, making them want to read something else I’ve created. For instance, do reviewers and readers enjoy my approach to telling a story as much or more than another approach? Success for me is having people appreciate my effort and come away convinced that their time reading my work was well spent. If that leads to more sales, all the better.
What I'm not concerned with are the opinions of the gang in tweed and bow ties who insist on comparing every new 21st century book to 19th century rubrics. Or the grammar gurus who miss the intricasies of a solid story due to their preoccupation with word choice and punctuation. Not that it matters much since the literary/academic field and the mainstream/commercial readership inhabit two different planets.
To date, have you had fond experiences in the world of book publishing?
Hot and cold. Subjective taste and market trends seem to carry far more weight than I expected. The truth is, publishing is a buyer's market where supply far surpasses demand. How many football players play in the NFL? How many movie scripts make it to the big screen? It's tough to reach the pinnacle of any industry. I firmly believe that quality will eventually find its share of the market, but good work continues to fall through the cracks in all fields, not just writing.
In visual arts, one can look at paintings or photos in a few seconds and get a very clear idea of the artist's talent. Conversely, it can take days or weeks to read and analyze the potential of one book and there still are no guarantees. There are no shortcuts in publishing. This also explains some of the herd mentality. Find a formula that works and everyone jumps on board. Same with readers. Most don't have time to research what book they want to buy so they tend to stay close to the best seller lists, the book club recomendations or what their profs and favored reviewers advise them to read.
I've spoken to authors who say they've spent almost as much time on their two paragraph query pitch and their one page synopsis as they did on the novel. That to me is a sad waste of human creativity, as is the importance of a catchy image even though we've all been drilled for years not to judge a book by its cover. Initial impression is critical. I don't see an alternative. If an author can't succinctly express the essence and value of her writing in a few words or sentences, how can anyone else?
Fifteen minutes of fame? Hardly. In the book biz, new authors are lucky to get fifteen seconds.
The problem I see going forward -- not only for me but for all writers -- is the lack of breadth made available to readers. It's a chain reaction. If we assume that certain genres and formulae sell much better, writing becomes too generic. Editors and proofers will modify to acceptable standards. Agents will pick titles that appeal to the broadest possible readership and publishers will choose from a narrowing window of look-alike work rather than gamble on outliers. That, coupled with the almighty thirty second hook, makes certain types of story and character development much less attractive to publishers. The irony is that many publishers dream of finding that unique voice or story. But the farther authors stray from the norm, the less likely they are to pass the broad appeal test! And good luck to any author who doesn't fit nicely into one of the staple genre cubicles ... I say to myself while peering into the mirror.
How do you think the Internet and technology will affect book publishing going forward?
I think it will be similar to visual arts. More people will be involved since it's much easier to publish, but the quality won't necessarily improve. Nor will more people be able to make a decent living on their writing. The pie may grow, but the slices will be smaller for all but the top few percent. Just as there will always be museums and a gallery tier-class structure for visual art, there will always be publishing tiers. Gatekeepers aren't going away for the simple fact that many readers rely on them to make selections easier. I think we'll see many more small indies and boutique presses come and go, and Amazon will continue to flourish since they have both the best economy of scale and excellent customer-first services.
As for digital reading, I believe we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. The time I have for pleasure reading each day has risen exponentially since I bought an ereader / tablet. 15 minutes here and there during pauses, breaks and line-ups adds up really fast. Since I live on a continent that is 99% non-English speaking, selection of printed books in my native tongue is scarce. Being able to purchase ebooks online from all over the world is a godsend for me and most North American ex-pats.
Printed books will probably exist at least for another couple of decades. After that, all bets are off.
Serialized publishing and the proliferation of short works has returned. Shortening attention spans and fragmented lifestyles will most likely affect the length of novels, if they haven't already.
Ebooks will explode when the pricing models make sense. I understand that much of the cost of publishing a book is in editing, prep and marketing. That's fine. Everyone needs to make a profit. I don't expect ebooks from major publishers to be significantly cheaper than printed versions, but definitely they should be lowered by the non-incurred costs of printing, shipping, storage and returns. Let's say on average about three dollars cheaper than paperback versions. When I go to Amazon or B&N and see an ebook listed at a higher price than the equivalent hardcover version, I cringe. There is nothing, absolutely unequivocally nothing, that can justify this. I have no problem paying 15 dollars for a paperback or 10 for the same work as an ebook. I think these pricepoints can work for everyone involved.
Why did you wait so long to publish Rattle?
I've been writing most of my life and have written upwards of three hundred shorter pieces and articles published since the 80s. Only recently did I get the overwhelming need to flesh out and publish longer works. I had a deal worked out with a company named CCI in Venezuela back in the early 90s. It unfortunately went bankrupt during the early stages of the CAP and Chavez turmoil and was never able to published my works. It took many years to recover some early work from those early days. The same thing happened recently when the matriarch of the Uruguayan publisher who I deal with passed away after a short but valiant battle with the Big C word.
Part of this is situational. I've lived in over forty homes and moved internationally thirteen times in the past twenty-seven years. There was always something else I felt I should be doing in spite of my desire to concentrate on novels. Finally I reached a point when I had the time and the ideas. Best way to attack that was to write the bloody books! I'm now concentrating on my writing career for the foreseeable future.
There's also the experience level. I know there are many young people producing good books as early as their twenties. I'm dealing with adult themes from an adult's perspective. I couldn't have completed them twenty or thirty years ago with any conviction. I don't believe you can fully comprehend the fine art, education or corporate worlds until you've been immersed in them for extended periods. Likewise, in the case of Rattle, I lived in Jamaica and have many Jamaican friends. It's impossible to understand their culture by spending only a couple of one week vacations in an all-inclusive hotel. I needed to live there for a couple years to actually understand them, converse with them one to one. Watch them. Since I'm writing close to the surface of reality, I feel I needed to experience their life before I could write about it with sufficient integrity.
You've been involved with many different industries. Why go back to writing?
If I look back at my career in technology, journalism, visual arts and education, the one constant that led to success in these diverse fields was the ability to express myself. While I think I have good visual and verbal communication skills, it was my writing that opened many doors and consistently received the most positive feedback. It's also what I enjoy most.
My English is better because I learned to speak Spanish. My references and sources are amplified through travel and diverse experiences. I'm no longer as naive as I once was. I believe all of these improved my writing and my stories. Let's call the rest of those tangents part of my life apprenticeship. My time in other fields wasn't wasted. If anything, they've help facilitate my writing.
Look at it this way: If people spend entire lifetimes doing nothing but writing, what can they actually write about with any authority? Wasn't that Thoreau's premise? For me, it's all about balance.
Would you consider self-publishing?
Sure. I've always worked diligently to promote my own work and that of others. It's partially self-publishing or group publishing. I prefer to call it collaborative publishing where we work as a team to utilize each of our strengths. Artfronts is part time. ETCH and ALTSur are pushing me to look for a larger publisher with wider exposure in the English-speaking world, but we'll see how Rattle goes in small local runs plus Amazon distribution before deciding on the others. I plan to be involved in marketing regardless of how, where and by whom my novels are published. Like I mentioned earlier, I'm a people person. I love to be out and about.
I think Rattle warrants a wider readership than I can muster on my own. Most authors say the same thing. That said, have book, will travel. Some say that the best marketing for a novel is the next novel. That's why I'm planning to release a few works over the next two years. I fully expect my time will be divided between promotion and production. What profession is any different? Whether it's trad or self-pub, the works will get out there.
Every time I put dates on my future plans, I miss them due to more career tangents and our meandering family path. I've been helping some friends build a visual art gallery so I haven't had much time for my own work. That along with my role with the CPF Foundation have kept me busy, as has my role as a stay-at-home parent to raise our youngest son, Shawn. I'm still putting final touches on Scenes Below the Curb for release in 2017, with Harbinger Effect sometime soon thereafter. I also have a couple of other shorter pieces on the go that I may decide to publish as e-shorts. I expect to remain very busy for years to come!