Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A chat with author Jonathan Cook.

Today I have the pleasure of hosting Jonathan Cook, author of many popular books that now include the one I'll be reviewing: Youth and Other Fictions.

Jonathan Cook is an author who I greatly admire, mostly because he is willing to write about difficult subject matter that most others won't touch. I'm proud to have him here today. Enjoy this look at the influences in his writing career, and make sure to check out his newest book!

I was a solitary child, not out of misanthropy--that would come later--or that dreaded Only Child Syndrome, but out of a desire for quiet. Even as a boy, I preferred the sound of wind blowing through an open field to the sounds of crowd cheering on some overpaid, overgrown, and oversexed basketball star. Growing up in a rural community, this presented no problems--though it did limit the number of friends I had, as most youngsters enjoyed sports and wanton destruction--and eventually gave rise to one of my true passions: the written word.

I've always enjoyed reading. I recall being one of the few in Mrs. Thompson's class genuinely excited by the prospect of reading stories myself instead of having them read to me. At that time, however, a dearth of reading materials aimed at younger audiences made reading an uphill climb. Sure, we had the _Hardy Boys_ and _Nancy Drew_ books--neither series did anything for me--and R.L. Stein was publishing his _Fear Street_ books, but the bulk of what was labeled Children's Literature was simply worthless: poorly written at best, insulting at worst. Finding myself too mature for the _Berenstain Bears_, I fished around for something more my level, but found only books about teenaged athletes and shipwreck survivors, books that read like after-school specials with their capitalized messages of Trust, Family Values, and Drug-Free Life.

Stephen King saved me.

_The Tommyknockers_ had just begun to air on ABC, and though I had no interest in watching the miniseries--I eventually did, much to my chagrin--the cover of the reissued paperback fascinated me with its sinister figure of a space alien, complete with elongated head and a general cast of decay. I wanted to read it. This was my kind of book; I was certain of it. Fortunately, my parents endorsed any reading, no matter what the level or genre or content--in that regard, I feel extraordinarily lucky compared to many children today whose parents refuse to allow them to discover the joys of reading without senseless limitations. The book itself was huge, over 700 pages with small print and no pictures. It took me just under a month to read, and I never looked back.

In hindsight, yes, there are a number of things in the book that are totally inappropriate for a child of eleven--that scene with the vaginal tentacles comes to mind--but what lingered in my impressionable mind was that first real exposure to adult storytelling, to the ways in which real people communicate. Nothing in my prior reading had prepared me for this onslaught. Here was a book with a massive cast of characters, characters with names and problems and flaws, characters who felt real.

Simplicity was what I had come to loathe; here was, in part, the cure.

I spent the better part of my teens reading everything King had written. Some were better than others, I'll admit, and there were a few clunkers--though my opinion of _Gerald's Game_ has dramatically improved over the intervening years. Today, I have a tendency to dismiss King's works as decent storytelling marred by bad--at times, abysmal--writing. College made me deeply pretentious in that regard, but I've come to believe that King has never tried to write books based on some obscure need to put stylistics above substance. His ability to tell one hell of a story is eclipsed solely by his ability to find authentic voices for his characters.

And that, I think, is what I've taken away from his works: the imperative to put narrative and voice above all else, to find the truth not in what is being said but in how it is being said, to tell the story.

In King's _On Writing_, he opines that themes and symbols and motifs should never be at the forefront of a writer's mind when he/she is writing a first draft; if they are meant to be in that story, they will appear almost unintentionally. It is no accident that upon finishing that book, I began typing the first pages of my novel. I hope while writing _Youth and Other Fictions_, I managed to keep King in mind: tell the damn story first, then figure out what it's about.

There may be far stronger influences on my writing--the philosophic violence of Cormac McCarthy, the rule-breaking of John Fowles, the epiphanies of James Joyce, the meanderings of Paul Auster--but I cannot think of a writer to whom I owe more than Stephen King.

Jonathan Cook's debut novel looks at the horrors of a school shooting and its psychological effects on those involved. Told from two perspectives--one a student's and one a teacher's--the story reveals the inner concerns leading up to the moment when the world falls apart and the anxieties of coping with the broken pieces afterwards.


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