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The great novel: According to today’s guest, John Kolchak, it’s as simple as ‘story and style’

Today, I’m delighted to welcome John Kolchak to my blog. John was born in Moscow when it was still part of the USSR and emigrated to the US with his family in the 1970s. His father was a Principal Dancer and Teacher with the Bolshoi Ballet, who started his own ballet school in the US. His mother was a journalist for Radio Free Europe and a refugee social worker in New York. John holds a degree in Slavic Languages and Literature from SUNY Albany and has translated many obscure and forgotten Russian writers. After college John embarked on a film career, made several short films and wrote numerous screenplays. For the last 5 years he has been writing historical novels and poetry. Haymarket Square is his first novel.  John’s second novel, Next Year in Jerusalem will be released in early 2014. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. 


Jane: John, please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.

John: My background is in film. For many years I wrote for the screen and tried to produce independent films. Eventually I decided to put that entire business on hiatus indefinitely as the film industry began to change into something monolithic and extremely narrow. My first novel Haymarket Square first came to mind as a screenplay. I was born in Russia and although I rarely go back to visit I earnestly follow what happens in my country of birth. Two pages into the screenplay I realized that it would take years to get this film produced, if at all. Throwing caution to the wind I began with dialogue which morphed into poetry and which eventually produced a novel-in-verse that I think is highly cinematic.

Jane: What genre do you generally write in and have you ever experimented with other genres?

John: I have always been keen on poetry because of the musicality of the form and the opportunity to condense a single thought into a very compact and powerful few words or lines. Haymarket Square takes place only twenty or so years ago but I consider it historical fiction. If I had to choose a genre defining my work, that is what I would call it. My next novel, Next Year in Jerusalem, is a heterodox re-telling of the Gospels, so that too is historical fiction, as are my next two books which are in various stages of completion. I find it easier to address contemporary concerns by using a historical place setting and examples from history.

Jane: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?

John: The fact that I do not have the luxury of waiting and/or gambling on the whims of agents and publishers. 

Jane: If you have experience of both traditional and indie publishing, how do the two compare?

John: I worked in a publishing related job in my twenties and I found traditional publishing and the way that it was being restructured odious. Editorial and marketing are basically the same company division now. The problem with indie publishing is the same thing as with indie motion pictures, ultimately it is distribution that matters. Distribution works hand in hand with marketing. It’s not that much different between the two except you obviously have more control if you’re the boss.

Jane: As a self-published author, how do you divide your time between writing and marketing? 

John: Haymarket Square was written because I needed it to be written so it would exist. While it is essentially a book of ideas, much of it dealing with the concept of fate and retribution, it takes place in a historical setting that unfortunately does not have much interest in the West today. Western interests are fickle in regards to what happens outside the US where I reside. Just recently, the Syrian war was front page news for a few months. Nothing has changed other than some mediation by Secretary Kerry but it is hardly ever mentioned anymore. Because recent history oftentimes falls by the wayside in precisely such a fashion, it is difficult to market something that may seem overly specific to a time and place.


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My next book takes place two thousand years ago and concerns a handful of people that the world still seems to be highly interested in and I suspect will be for some time still. I aim to make a much more concerted effort to market this next novel. The recent popularity of NYT Bestseller Zealot by Reza Aslan shows that interest in the historical Jesus never ceases. Aslan’s book connects many of the same dots as I do in reconstructing the connection between early Christianity and first century Judaism with nationalism and terrorism. 

Jane: Where is home and how does your environment influence your writing?

John: I live in Los Angeles, CA. It is not my ideal place to live but it does me fine for now for a number of reasons. In some ways it helps me quite a bit because despite being the “entertainment capital” of the world, the city is quite dull. I often appreciate the dullness vs the hustle of New York. I find it easier to concentrate and be in my own cocoon whilst still having the access to what a metropolis has to offer. There are fantastic museums and art galleries here and visual arts are extremely important to me as a source of inspiration. It is a bit isolated but I fancy the relative quiet. Given a choice of European city I would choose Lisbon, again for the relative isolation and the quiet.

Jane: With the number of self-published books increasing by 59% last year alone, it is really difficult for authors to make their books stand out. How do you go about this?

John: Marketing is key of course. Sadly we are no longer in a society where quality is enough to produce results. One would hope that quality is what would separate the wheat from the chaff but with the oversaturation of media it is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Jane: Do you think the media gives enough coverage to books? 

John: I find that there are quite a number of outstanding coverage dedicated to literature. Much more is deserved though.

Jane: One of the key stories of the year was the revelation that The Cuckoo’s Calling had been penned by J K Rowling. Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?

John: Yes but if I reveal my pseudonym then what’s the point?

Jane: Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?

John: My parents. Who drove me nuts but also inspired me.

Jane: Which publishing platform/s have you used and why? 

John: Createspace. It’s cheap. Before that I used an actual printer.

Jane: Who designed your book covers? If you used a cover designer, what brief did you give them? 

John: My wife designs my book covers. She is a photographer and graphic artist. Haymarket also features unique pen and ink illustrations by the very talented artist Scott Corkern. I came across Scott’s work through a mutual friend and I believe he captured the feel of “Weimar Russia” the way that German artists in the Weimar Republic captured the zeitgeist, particularly the “New Objectivity” artists like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.


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Jane: What was your first recognition/success as an author? 

John: I’m still waiting for it.

Jane: What are you working on at the moment / next? 

John: I am just a few months away from publishing my novel Next Year in Jerusalem – a re-telling of the gospels which focuses on the ‘Jewish Wars’ – the insurrections against Roman rule. It is also a parable about the issues of endless war, religious fanaticism, the phenomenon of suicide bombings, and the historical Jesus. It is also a book about the nature of memory.


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My next book after Jerusalem, (working title: “The Immigrants”) is mostly finished. It concerns the collapse of the Greenland Norse, a society which managed to survive for hundreds of years and mysteriously disappeared. Told through the first person narratives of one Greendlandic family it draws parallels to the modern issues of migration and immigration in Europe and America.

Jane: What is your ‘writing routine’ – if such a thing exists?

John: Whenever I can find the time. I have a fourteen-month-old daughter.

Jane: Where do you get your inspiration from? 

John: History. Religion. Current events. The questions of good and evil and the existence of god. The rise and fall of civilizations. Painting. Music.

Jane: is your writing plot-driven or character driven? 

John: It is absolutely essential that it be both. You can’t have one without the other.

Jane: Some authors have one particular person in mind when they write. Do you have a muse – or perhaps an imaginary ideal reader?

John: Someone who appreciates a deeper level to quotidian reality. 

Jane: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to? 

John: My wife, Gerry.

Jane: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or, like me,  do you need silence? 

John: I sometimes listen to symphonic music or religious chants but I prefer silence.

Jane: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?

John: First person, when done well, can be miraculous. Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, despite the florid prose is a good example. However, much as in film, it is a loaded technique because it is so extremely difficult to pull off with any modicum of sophistication. In my next two books I tend to bounce around and break barriers between different point of views.


Jane: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? 

John: The cliché is that writing is “lonely”. That goes without saying. The hardest part is lack of reinforcement and fear of failure. The favourite is not having to rely on anyone other than oneself to create something lasting.

Jane: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

John: In the end, craft is what truly matters. As my dad used to say: it is not what is done but how it’s done. 

Jane: Are there any authors you would recommend?

John: My backlog is too long to list. I don’t follow current authors much as I feel there is still a long list of proven classics that I need to finish reading first. I like Michel Houellebecq very much but he can be over the top in his “epater la bourgeoisie” way. Paul Theroux’s travel books are great for an escape but are very far from pure escapism as he creates mesmerizing observations of people and places that can be very far from charming. I am currently finishing up William Styron and moving on to Saul Bellow.


Jane: My favourite books when I was growing up were The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. What were yours?

John: I don’t remember what I fancied prior to my early teens. I know I was keen on folk tales which I still am and use them for inspiration to this day.  My mom insisted that I read Crime and Punishment when I was fourteen. After that I read The Possessed and eventually the rest of Dostoyevsky. Then Gogol and Chekhov.


Jane: Are there any books that you would describe as ‘life-changing’?

John: For me, everything by Feodor Dostoyevsky, Paul Bowles, Hubert Selby Jr, Maxim Gorky, Elias Canetti, Feodor Sologub, and the German and Austrian playwrights Ferdinand Bruckner, Franz Xaver Kroetz and Marieluise Fleisser.


Jane: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel?

John: Story and style. It doesn’t get simpler than that. 

Jane: The publishing industry recognised in 2003 that reading as a pastime was in steady decline and that for some, book buying and reading had ‘little relevance to their lives’. How do you respond to that? 

John: I think it’s a valid statement. We are bombarded with useless information and cheap thrills. The publisher’s job should be to take us away from this unfortunate situation but as publishing is a business the bottom line is the judge of it all.

Jane: The shift from paperback to digital books appears to have plateaued in 2013. Was this a glitch or will the upwards trend resume?

John: I hope not. I like books, not digital files. 

Jane: With mainstream authors such as Margaret Atwood championing Wattpad ( one of the key trends of 2013 has been a return to the serialisation of books. Have you experimented yet?

 John: I am not familiar with this. Serialization is very interesting and was responsible for how many of the greatest novels of the 19th century were written published. 

Jane: At the beginning of 2013, Smashword’s Mark Coker predicted that ‘Global’ would be the year’s biggest story. Do you have a readership in a country other than your own?

John: Yes. Haymarket Square seems to have caught the attention of some readers in Sweden. This is mostly through word of mouth or perhaps that Sweden of course shares a nautical border with Russia and there is a long history of interaction. 

Jane: What is your favourite bookshop and why?

John: There aren’t many bookshops left. The two best ones still standing in LA are Skylight Books in Los Feliz and Vroman’s in Pasadena. I always like going to City Lights whenever I’m up in San Francisco. 

Jane: Is there a phrase or quote about writing that you particularly like? 

John: Yes. From George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” he narrowed it down as follows:

  1. Sheer egoism
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
  3. Historical impulse
  4. Political purpose 

Jane: What can we find you doing when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?

John: Changing diapers. Luckily not my own (not yet).

Jane: Are there any books on writing that you find useful and would recommend?  

John: I don’t think writing can be taught. 

Jane: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?

John: Not yet. That’s the next step for my Jerusalem book. I don’t understand Twitter and I find it somewhat alarming in the way that social interaction and information is shared.

Jane: What do you think the future holds for writers? 

John: I don’t see very much hope for the future for writers but this is not necessarily as depressing a notion as it sounds. I’m a student of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy and of Oswald Spengler’s theories derived from Hinduism about the cyclical nature of civilization. I believe we are living in the “Kali Yuga” –  “The Iron Age” – which is the last in the cycles of death and rebirth before the world is destroyed. On a lighter note, Kali Yuga lasts for dozens of thousands of years so writers can continue to write for quite a while but the quality will be degraded with increasing speed.

Jane: Is there anything else you’d like to mention? 

John: “He turned to me and said: ‘Son, write your guts out.’”

-William Styron, Sophie’s Choice

John has very kindly given me permission to reproduce an excerpt from Next Year in Jerusalem (below) or you can find out more about John and his work at:

“Sir, the roots of plants and trees are hidden and if you expose them, the plant dies. The guts of a man are hidden as well. Has anyone seen a man with his insides showing who still lives? Once exposed, the man perishes. So it is with evil. It is the same. Show it for what it is and it too will perish. Show that death does not exist and you will have everlasting life.”

Pilate shook his head in disbelief at the prisoner’s naivete.

“That’s very poetic, preacher, but no, it’s not the same. The human realm is more like the kingdom of beasts than those harmless plants and trees you mention. Some men are sheep, some are lions. Others are birds who seek to soar into the heavens, poets or musicians perhaps… and yet others are scavengers who feed on rot and carrion. You wish to make all of them equal? They might listen to you and claim to believe the same thing but eventually they will return to their nature. And they will never be equal. Their nature, my child, I apologize but you do seem much like a child, is a gift that the gods – or your God if you wish – gave them. You remind me of a crane that wishes to both soar into the sky and at the same time befriend the hyena. The hyena will listen to you, ape you, follow your exhortations and praise God with you in your Temple. But the minute you turn around he will snap your gentle neck with his powerful jaw. He will bury your carcass so it putrefies and then dig you up and eat your rotted flesh with delight. He will spit you up, roll around in the vomit and then, howling to the moon, he will give thanks and praise God. YOUR God. The one you introduced him to. It is in their nature, preacher. If their priests can’t teach them, what makes you think that you can?”

Pilate’s rhetoric was powerful. It took Yeshua a few seconds to answer: “I try to have faith.”

“Faith? What is faith?” Pilate delighted in this philosophical exchange. It had been many years that he was able to debate someone in earnest, or just to debate for its own sake. “There is only the rule of law that will keep people in check and that will keep mankind from reverting to mindless savagery. Your work will mean nothing. It will be wasted on them. Why don’t you stick to your own laws, the ones of your nation? It seems to have worked for your people for at least a few thousand years. At least that’s what I know. You ARE a Jew, aren’t you?”

Yeshua struggled for the correct response. He did feel that he had a higher chance of success to be freed if he admitted his true paternity. He chose the middle ground and said “It is in my blood.”

“Then if you are a Jew why don’t you stick to what you know, and worship the same God as they do and leave it alone?”

“Sir” Yeshua stammered, “There are no Jews or Romans or anyone else. There are only people. As for the God of the Jews, I cannot believe in a God that would flood the earth. A God that would spread diseases, plagues, pest; kill livestock and blight crops. A God that allows for the rich to build palaces and to purchase gold trinkets while others literally starve to death.  A God who wishes to test his servants and asks a father to sacrifice his son. No, that is not the God I believe in.”

Pilate still found the conversation interesting but he was becoming frustrated.

“Well? What do you believe in, then?”

“I believe the simplest thing in the world is to live decently. I believe all people are capable of being decent. I believe that-“

Pilate smirked.

“Have you followed that example in your own life?”

Yeshua remembered his mother and said quietly, “God will forgive…”

Pilate was ready to put Yeshua in checkmate.

“Oh, my poor boy. If only it were so simple. Live decently. As I said just now but you probably weren’t listening, the point is: to each his own. And let’s be frank now, what exactly is decent? Those Jewish books helped your people survive through hard times. They served their purpose once and I will agree with you that it is all for show now and for hypocrisy. Or maybe for ‘decency’? Hmm? And if God will forgive then what’s the point of being decent?”

He smiled and laid down another trump card.

“And what is decent? Does your God like something because it is decent? Or is it decent because your God likes it?”

“I try to believe in people, Sir”

“That is not a belief!” Pilate yelled. He was still intrigued, but there was something in Yeshua’s answers that was so naïve that it reeked of sophism. “Frankly, it sounds to me like you don’t know what you believe in exactly. How queer. For a minute I was feeling rather warm towards you in your naïveté. For all your peace and love routine you’ve actually got quite a chip on your shoulder don’t you? Who do you think you are, you who has no need of gods? This is their faith, your faith, so why not just leave them alone?”

“I do not need to offer sacrifices, Sir. No burnt offerings. Is not life itself a sacrifice? Is not life itself a death sentence? Is not life pain and misery for so many around us? If this is God’s will, why should I offer gifts to my tormentor? These gods, they-“

Pilate cut him off.

“And what do you suppose the people would do without gods? I do believe provided they don’t overstep their boundaries, peaceful religion can come in rather handy. It helps to keep the masses in check and for the most part, Jews practice a religion of peace. If all of them practiced their faith in such a fashion we wouldn’t have a problem with the current insurrection!”