I’m delighted to welcome Jay Lemming to Virtual Book Club, my author interview series which gives authors the opportunity to pitch their books to your book club, be it virtual or real.
Jay is the author of the Maddox Men series including Billy Maddox Takes His Shot and new release Green Bay Outsiders, the subject of today’s interview. He is the recipient of a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant and his work has appeared in several publications including the Miami Herald, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette and on LiteraryTraveler.com. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland in the United States.
Q: Before we delve into the pages of the novel, can I ask, what was your first recognition/success as an author?
I had published some small freelance journalistic pieces in and around Washington, DC for a magazine, which was pretty exciting (especially when you’re young and get to see your name in print). But the first real recognition of note came when I applied for a small project grant from the DC Commission on Arts and the Humanities. I had an idea for a novel, but it required me to conduct research and interview border agents along the Southwest Border in the United States. So I had to travel and I had expenses. I sent my book proposal and research schedule to the Commission along with my request for funds. I still remember how great it felt to open the letter from them stating that they were supporting my project. Having my writing project taken seriously like that was incredibly validating.
Q: Do you have a day job, and if so, is it a distraction or does it add another element to your writing?
Without a doubt it ends up adding another element to my writing, Although, to be more specific, it may be more accurate to say my day job adds an element to how effectively I market my writing. My day job is as marketing director for an accounting firm in Maryland, and it’s a very interesting, challenging and rewarding job. You occasionally hear this narrative in the indie publishing world from authors who have made it. They’ll say–oh, I worked this boring, uninspiring, unfulfilling job for a long time until I found indie publishing and now that I’m doing that, I’m happy as a clam.
I’m not like that. When I started establishing my author’s credentials in the digital space–building a website, engaging other authors and readers in online communities and setting up writing timelines, it was all so new and had nothing to do with my established job. But the better I got building my author’s platform, the stronger the alignment grew between digital marketing for my author’s business and also for my day job. Now I’m learning techniques in each of these two areas that I can apply to the other.
Q: What is it about Green Bay Outsiders that makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
Green Bay Outsiders is a coming-of-age novel that examines the fearful, confusing and painful transition of one young man’s life from childhood to adulthood. All adults go through painful transitions at one point in time or another, and most often many times in their lives. It could be a divorce or the loss of another close relationship, a job loss or the death of a loved one. These experiences ultimately lead to personal growth though of course they leave scars. I think reading Green Bay Outsiders would give any book club the chance for its members to discuss how similarly the experiences of Carl Daniels (my protagonist) match painful transitions in their own lives. The book, in other words, could be a good conversation starter!
Blurb: Raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Carl Daniels has a promising future with his first job out of college, a close group of friends and a budding romance. It’s all on the verge of going up in flames, however, as sudden yearnings to experience life away from the hometown lead to opposition from all sides. As Carl’s distracted thoughts unmoor him from friendships and as his mother’s strong opposition stirs memories of her strained relationship with a Vietnam vet brother, Carl grasps for some foundation.
But a random meeting with Border Patrol agents fishing out on Green Bay and an unexpected death raise the stakes for what must be his final decision. Will the criticism and social isolation of those he’s known all his life force Carl to turn from dreams of the horizon? Or will the weighty comforts of middle-class, suburban life lead him to pay the price of pain to earn a young man’s freedom in a large and frightening world?
Q: How did you decide on its setting?
The book is set in the Great Lakes region in the United States. The title may be a spoiler. 😊 I wouldn’t say I decided on Green Bay for any particular reason other than that it’s not where I live. I don’t like the idea of writing about places where I’ve lived or had important life experiences because I really want to minimise the possibility that autobiography that might creep in.
About twenty-five years ago, I read an interview with an author who wrote an article about the Everglades in Florida. She’d never actually been to the Everglades but the piece had been so well-researched that local readers wrote asking her how long she’s lived in the region. So I know effective research can create the powerful illusion of knowledge and familiarity.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
Originally it was going to be a short story of the same name. The title just kind of popped in my head and stuck. That’s usually how it happens with my stories. I don’t agonise over them. Something–a phrase of a couple words–just pops in my head. I decide I like it, so I check off that box (i.e. the title) then move right along.
Q: What is the central conflict in your novel?
My stories have tended to be character-based, though I feel that starting to change. In Green Bay Outsiders, there are two conflicts. In the internal conflict, you have Carl Daniels who’s been raised on all the promises and ideas of what adulthood is supposed to be like, which ultimately fall apart after he graduates college and realises what he actually wants has little to do with his parents’ expectations. The external conflict concerns all the relationships that get put under significant pressure due to Carl’s realisation as an adult that he not only wants certain things–to travel, and to have life experience away from home–but he is willing to challenge the life and relationships he’s had so far to pursue them. Some of his friendships end as does a budding romance with a young woman he’s known for several years.
Q: Have you ever set off on one course of research and then discovered something unexpected that changed the focus of the book?
The deeper you get into writing a story, the more you see opportunities and connections between elements of your narrative that you never would have considered when you first started writing. With Green Bay Outsiders, I knew Carl would have an uncle who inspired him to want to get out there in the world. But I had no idea how the research I did on Uncle Jack–a Vietnam War veteran who served as a Marine during the siege on Khe Sanh in 1968–would ultimately impact Carl’s parents’ history during the turbulent 1960s in the United States. It wasn’t until I was about three quarters of the way through the novel that I realised Carl’s mother was, in her youth, one of those war protesters outside the Pentagon who started slipping flowers down the rifle barrels of the National Guard soldiers brought out to stem the protest. Flowers down rifle barrels became a pretty iconic image from Vietnam War protests.
As a result, Carl has to take a hard look at his parents’ own history and realise that even though he’s known them in one very specific context (they’re his caretakers and parents who raised him in middle-class America), that they also had turbulence in their lives. Everyone has turbulence in their lives, and his is just beginning!
Q: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel? Did you consciously ensure all of these are in place?
I try not to think about this too much since it can paralyse your writing. You can always be asking yourself: Am I incorporating the elements of a great novel? Did I do this as well as Dostoevsky, create this conflict as powerfully as Shakespeare? I think the best you can do is craft the best story you can, try to use your craft to give your reader a strong reason to keep wanting to go through the full journey with you, and then leave it at that. With that said, I’m also a big fan of the C.S. Lewis character played by Anthony Hopkins in the film Shadowlands. He said in the movie “We read to know we’re not alone”, and that’s huge. I believe in that entirely. Everyone is full of words–words about their thoughts and their feelings. Ulysses by James Joyce is just raw inner language dropped on the page. But if there are elements of my writing that I hope will create compelling fiction it’s that someone can read their own experience into my story and think to themselves–I feel a little less alone because of this story, because I know this author had to experience something like what I did to write this story the way he did. To establish that kind of connection would be very meaningful to me as an author.
Q: “My childhood,” David Lynch has famously said, “was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out—some black, some yellow—and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.” Have you ever had a red ants moment?
I’m long past the point of believing things can really only be elegant homes, tree-lined streets and the milkman. We all have a smiling face we put on when we go out in the marketplace because we have to; otherwise no one wants to be anywhere near us. And sometimes your private world can be going pretty well too. Despite the pain and suffering of the current pandemic, my current world is going along pretty well and I’m grateful for that. But 2014-2016 were the worst years of my life–divorce from my wife, a difficult transition out of a job, and financial hardship. You never know when those red ants are going to come out and get you. Which is why it’s important to be kind to people because, despite whatever face they show you in public, there’s usually a place of serious pain somewhere in their lives they’re not showing you.
Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?
It’s part of a series of contemporary fiction novels called the Maddox Men, which will examine the lives of several generations of, well, men from the Maddox family dating all the way back to the early 20th century. The main character in my novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot is a Border Patrol agent in Arizona and his supervisor and mentor, Carl Daniels, is a sympathetic but somewhat mysterious guy. My current book, Green Bay Outsiders, is about Carl’s history–it’s about his past. I didn’t know who he was, or where he came from, when I finished writing Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. So I set off to find out and now I know.
The next novel is going to be about Billy’s great-grandfather, a miner from West Virginia, who leaves his hometown and travels west to Kansas with his young wife, who ends up getting murdered by a crime syndicate.
Q: When she worked at Penguin UK, Jodie Archer found that manuscripts by new authors were too ambitious, like a painter who can’t settle on one colour and uses the entire paint box. How has your writing style changed over time?
I would agree with her. I wrote a novel–largely autobiographical–called Journeying Away when I was in my 20s. It collapses under the weight of its ambition. The prose is quite purple and there’s little evidence of technique or structure. It’s more than 900 pages long and it sits on my bookshelf. Strangely though I feel as though if I were to take it down and read it now, I’ll probably love it, not because I’ll find the craft is spectacular but because it’s a literary statement of where I was in my life at the time. My son is just becoming old enough to understand that I write, and I look forward to sharing the manuscript with him one day.
I’ve tried to add a level of restraint to my writing without losing the passion of what I’m doing. The musical equivalent would be Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. Can you balance incredible power and passion while keeping it recognisable as the thing you set out to create?
Q: Do you believe that you write the book you want to read?
Absolutely. After I finished writing Green Bay Outsiders, I had to take some time off from writing because my life got pretty busy. When I recently returned to the novel, I re-read it and my approach now was more as a reader than an author because enough time had passed since the writing experience and I was out of the weeds. And I loved it! Every word seemed true. Every passage made me say “Yes”. It was an exhilarating experience to be able to do that.
Web and Social Links
- Website: https://jaylemming-author.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/jay_lemming
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jaylemming.author
Readers who purchase a copy of Green Bay Outsiders between 22 – 26 August will receive a free copy of Jay’s novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and the chance to win a free Kindle Paperwhite. In the back of Green Bay Outsiders, there are links to the book download page and the giveaway entry form.
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