J T VALENTINE
Welcome to an interview conducted with a very accomplished author from the USA who writes humorous mysteries.
Welcome, J T ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I was born in Los Angeles, California, in late 1940. The US hadn't yet entered WWII. My mother being a shy person, told me I arrived by bus, and I believed her. When my father got drafted into the Army a few years later, Mom and I followed him from base to base, mostly through scenic Texas where the wind blows from eternity and they grow cockroaches big enough to saddle and ride. Passenger trains had been turned over to the troops by then, and Mom and I sat in the aisle on our suitcases. She had a big one and I had a little one. It was cute. We were cute, and we usually got a seat. I remember sitting on a young soldier's lap while he peeled an apple all of a piece so it was like a spring. His hair was cut short and bristly and the starch in his collar was sharp. He was probably all of nineteen. I still think of him and hope he made it home to his family. We travelled a lot at night and the zeitgeist of the times was desperate and romantic. I remember long embraces on station platforms, and the yellow lights from the train windows dashing by like frames of Kodak film. Heads of sweet young soldiers filled each one. I was four. But enough of the early years.
My dad was a restless, self-made man who moved his family a lot trying to improve his station in life. I lived all over the country, mostly in the West, and was ever the new girl in school, so I read a lot and wrote a lot to please myself, since deep bonds with others were impossible to cultivate. And that's how it started. Books gave me a breath-taking intimacy with other minds, and writing helped me sort out my thoughts and give them clarity. As Wittgenstein duly noted about our sentences, "We cannot be too clear." It's impossible.
My teachers encouraged me to write and I started winning prizes on my stories in high school. When I entered my first university, I decided to pursue philosophy as a major much to my father's despair. Loud despair, I might add. He was not a silent sufferer. He wanted me to be a dentist—they make good money and have reasonable hours—I couldn't imagine anything more dismal. I went my own way even though he insisted I was wasting my time and his money. Standing up to him was a feat. I did it quietly and with respect. After all, I still lived at home. To placate my father, I pursued a double major in literature and creative writing because it was easier to get a job as an English teacher. And I loved it. The pursuit of philosophy also involved writing my head off, as I soon discovered. I lived at my IBM Selectric, watching the cheery little ball cavort around in the wee hours while the rest of the family slept.
There were times when I wanted to grab the damn thing and hurl it across the room. Mom provided grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee until she went to bed, then I was on my own. Mostly I remember frozen feet, and an impertinent mouse who kept me company at 3am in the den where I could work without disturbing others. He wanted the dog's milk bones, and he squeezed himself under the laundry room door to get them in a way that would make Houdini cry. In those days, I typed my way around the world on nouns alone, I know it. During Easter break and so forth, I wrote funny stories for my own amusement and some of them won prizes in literary contests at school.
Now that I'm retired from teaching philosophy-- Dad's misgivings were unfounded by the way, I got the first job I applied for-- I'm free to write all day and I generally do. I've chosen humorous mysteries because I like poking around dark places, unravelling secrets, and having fun doing it.
2. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
I officially dubbed myself a writer when the first collection of Max Knight mysteries called, "Night Walker and Other Stories," appeared on Amazon as a Kindle ebook on February 24, 2013. It was a cracker barrel ceremony. I think I just drank some champagne that night, probably all by myself. It was cheap stuff and it tasted like used seat cushions. I hadn't seen any of it coming. I was bored with retirement. I don't like to cook and I'm not a gardener. There was no epiphany; I just suddenly decided to put some stories together. I'd always wanted to write a story involving a dog as the central character, dog lover that I am, so I did. Then I recalled getting stalked by a male student as a young teacher. It was an incredibly spooky experience, so I drilled down on that for another story. Next I thought it would be clever to have someone commit a crime while talking on the phone. Ideas were popping like fireworks. Before I knew it, I had five stories, novellas really, that I had edited to death. I asked myself, "How bad can it be?" and, without pausing to answer, I had them published. Voila! JT Valentine was born and she didn't arrive by bus.
3. WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
For me, making an outline is about as pointless as scat singing. My stories take me where they want to go, and I can't know that in advance. I usually start with a vague notion of what is going to happen to Max and his cohorts, and I make lots of changes as I go along. Sometimes even I don't know who committed the crime until the end. Also, my stories move on witty dialogue, and that can't be planned in advance. I envy the planners, the meticulous outliners. They always know where they're going, and they get there safely and calmly, whereas I wander around, exploring tunnels and mine shafts, trespassing and jumping into mosh pits. It can't be helped. An outline is the antithesis of creativity for me.
However, I do need a working title. I usually spend some time thinking on that and often it ends up being the final title as well. A nameless story isn't real somehow. It's a bit of primitive word magic: "If you've got the name, you've got the thing," but I don't care. Ditto with my characters. They must be well and truly named, and once they've been given a proper handle, it can't be changed because that's who they are. I can't have an identity crisis with my people. This reminds me of something I once read about Elmore Leonard. He killed off a character and got himself in a bind with his plot as a result. He was lamenting this to a friend who reasonably observed, "Just bring him back to life, Elmore." He replied, "I can't. He's already dead." When you write, some things take on a reality of their own.
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
I'm a solitary person who loves words and wielding the language to express myself—words are the very texture of our thoughts. Just try thinking without them! I love making them align with reality. (How do I know that I have? Give me a break. I'm through tussling with philosophical questions.) I'm never happier than when I can single-mindedly focus on getting the right words for the job, whether it's for a bit of dialogue or a description of a face or a fence. It doesn't matter. There's enormous satisfaction in sensing you've captured it. There's power in it too, and understanding. Writing helps illuminate the world for me. High fallutin' but true.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Everything about being a writer is hard: The hours of solitude, the times when the words won't come out right, the constant need to market and promote yourself, the competition for a declining readership, the coffee nerves and tired eye balls that feel like they're going to fall out and roll around on the desk the moment you try to rest your weary head, and so forth ad nauseam. The fact that I write humorous mystery stories to entertain doesn't make it a less serious business, or any easier.
6. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
A case can be made that I was always a writer but just never punched my ticket until now. It's a protean notion, so I'll let it go. As a young woman fresh out of university with a master's degree, I taught philosophy in a college for a long time to a lot of young people, most of whom didn't care about the enduring questions of existence, they just wanted an A or thought I was cute. However, a small percentage actually did care, and that made it worthwhile for me. Eventually I decided to marry, and was able to spend many more meaningful years as a wife and mother. I loved this time. I raised two wonderful sons, Jeff and Todd, who are responsible for the initials in my pen name, among other things.
7. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
Wow! In logic we call that a complex, or a "have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife," question. I don't have a greatest writing achievement. At least I don't know about it, if I do. There's a learning curve to almost everything, including parachute jumping, and I have no idea where I am on the writing achievement curve. How does anyone know this except in retrospect? I'll just say I sure hope mine is still to come.
8. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
Well, I'm working on a story about a woman who saw something she doesn't know she saw, and now her life is threatened, because other people do know what she saw. Bad people. Furthermore, she suffers from heterochromia, which means in her case, she has one blue eye and one brown one. This condition, albeit rare, applies to humans as well as dogs and cats. The working title of the story is, "Unlucky Eyes."
9. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Honestly, anything and everything. I don't care to write about friends and family because it's limiting and uninteresting. The facts of my family life are what they are, and I don't want to rehash them in a story. My emotions give a sigh and cover their ears, as it were. Besides, I have no desire to embarrass or hurt anyone. Somerset Maugham used his friends as story fodder constantly. I can only conclude they were somewhat dim. If someone dropped a dime on me, I wouldn't accept another invitation to dinner, would you?
10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
So far humorous mysteries have grabbed my imagination. But I'm not through. I'll try something different soon. All of my stories are novellas, meaning they don't have chapters, and are somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words in length. I don't pad the narrative with peripheral descriptions of scenery and so forth unless it's necessary to the story. I see this done a lot and I suspect the reader tends to skip over them. That being said, I'd like to create a novel someday that's not written as if I get paid by the word—something lean and fast-paced and full of humor.
11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Just the obvious. I've read books with tips and they are as eccentric and as varied as the writers themselves. Patricia Highsmith, who gave us the Mr. Ripley series, drank gin for breakfast and collected snails as pets. They soothed her. Who knew? The romantic poets all seemed to have been inspired by long afternoon walks—Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley waxed eloquent about their walks. I also noticed that they had doting wives who cooked for them, did their laundry and kept the children quiet so they could indulge their poetic genius unimpaired by practical concerns. Flash forward to modern day and we see poets and writers like Sylvia Plath and Alice Munro who had to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing early in the morning before the family got up and they had to fix breakfast and get the children off to school. The thing is, as a writer you need lots of quiet time and the will to carve it out. You have to believe what you have to offer is worth the effort and you have to keep at it on bad days. Everybody has them. Dogged perseverance seems to be a key consideration.
12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
I haven't suffered from writer's block yet, but if this is in my future, give me the cyanide pill now. I relax for a week or so between stories to celebrate the fact that I actually finished the last one, and to catch up on laundry. By then I'm down to wearing the yoga pants I bought ten years ago on a whim. I didn't take the class and I shouldn't be wearing the pants. My interest in a new story often builds slowly. As my mind becomes preoccupied with it, I start making little notes about plot points, dynamite lines for Max, and so forth, and leaving them all over the house. This behaviour builds until I find myself back at the computer fully engrossed, with only the dog to remind me that it's dark outside and past time for dinner.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
Not really. I write almost every day for most of the day. I get up around seven and have coffee, read the papers, get dressed and get going. I usually quit around three in the afternoon, but often go back to writing in the evening. If I have to run errands or shop, I do it, grudgingly. I really dislike shopping. It reminds me that life is too expensive. (I can hear George Burns saying, "Consider the alternative.") I can rarely find what I want in the stores, and the parking lot at the local shopping center reminds me of playing bumper cars at the amusement park.
14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
Yes. I write in my study on an antique desk my father left to me. I use a laptop computer that I thought would make me more mobile, but it's planted on the desk. I thought I might take it in the kitchen and write standing up like Hemingway. I tried it once, but I hated it. The study helps me get in a creative mood. There's a wing chair and some book cases and some nice art on the walls. I really like the room. It's small and safe. I can think about anything I want to in there, even talk to myself with complete abandon.
15. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
I don't have a greatest joy, and I find questions involving superlatives really hard to answer. I think it's because I have a lot of life experience behind me. Sorting out the greatest this-and-that's requires some truth serum or maybe hypnosis. I could make something up but that would be arbitrary. I think people do that a lot, actually.
16. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
I don't have one. My tastes are quite stretchy. In school I was enamoured of both D. H. Lawrence and Jane Austen. I don't care for the post-modern nihilism of many current novelists. Their books seem highly forgettable and not about much of anything. I can't think of one to name. There's your evidence.
17. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
Referring to the Max Knight series, perhaps the compliment that impressed me the most was from a reader who had read all of the books and looked forward to each as it came out: "I love the author's mind. It's so great getting fix after fix…" I liked the idea there was a meeting of the minds between the reader and me. She got me and it was great.
18. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
Honestly, I don't have a worst comment. My readers have been very kind, and I don't have that many. A "worst comment" will accompany greater sales, and be welcomed because of it.
19. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Yes. Buddha observed that at any moment we are all the sum of what we have done and thought. I agree with him. All of my life experience goes into my writing, but it comes out in a new way that isn't found in any particular thing that has happened to me. I hope that makes sense. ..
20. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Being alive is pretty wonderful, but hey, that's just me…I love my children. They're grown men now and lovely people.
21. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
No. I do it myself. I think I'm ruthless, but I'm probably in for a surprise there.
22. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Most of my days are just right. I like living in the real world. I wouldn't mind stretching them out a bit, adding a couple of extra hours of sunshine.
23. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
I don't know anybody well enough to choose to be stuck with them. I think I'd rather be alone unless I can have my children with me, but there are two of them. I'd love to talk to Winston Churchill but he'd have to come with a sufficient supply of brandy and champagne to keep his wit lubricated. I am thinking of the mature, seasoned Winston we see in old news clips and read about in books when he was Prime Minister of Great Britain. And it should go without saying I wouldn't want the dead one.
24. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
I don't believe a world leader would give a fig for what I have to say about anything. And frankly, most of them are second-rate politicians. Make that third-rate… I'll save my breath to cool my porridge, as Jane Austen would say.
25. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
To keep on doing what I'm doing. Writing, and then writing some more. And getting better at it, I hope.
26. WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
I'm not taking "War and Peace" or "Angela's Ashes" or "Death in Venice" to Heaven! For one thing, I don't believe in heaven and, for another, earthly books are not relevant to eternal life, albeit "War and Peace" took a small eternity to read. Even the movie seemed to go on for at least a century. I had to renew my driver's license when I got out of the theatre. The notion of doing anything forever is totally depressing and quite meaningless. Living forever is a contradiction in terms since living is a temporal process i.e., it has a beginning, a middle and an end, like a Greek tragedy. I would take a big book of quotations though. I love reading the wit and wisdom of the ages all packaged up and alphabetized, and hurled at you in non-stop fashion. It's a literary pellet gun.
27. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Yes. Max is the ideal me, or so I fancy. His values, his attitude toward life, his wit, his willingness to go off the grid to help people…When I envisioned the series, I didn't think a female detective would have the freedom or the gravitas of a male lead.
28. DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
I don't pay much attention to it. I think the digital revolution is changing publishing for the better in spite of the "tsunami of crap" that's out there. There's also lots of good writing out there. The five legacy publishing houses in New York publish 250,000 books a year on average. That's it. Thanks to digital, several million books now get published in a year. No more frustrated writers papering their walls with rejection slips, and starving on free restaurant soda crackers. There's no need for such torture anymore.
29. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
No. I'm damaged goods. I can't.
30. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
The latest one is always my favorite. I push myself and the latest is always a bit harder, more complex, sleeker, smoother. In the Max Knight series, "Murder on Merchant Street" is the latest and the plot is more complex and the characters more fully developed than in some of the earlier stories. It was really hard to do, and at times I thought it was going to get away from me. But I pulled it together and I'm proud of it.
31. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER.
I think I'm a success already insofar as my stories are well-written, well-researched, fun to read, and never a cheat. But they're certainly not perfect. I want to improve and grow as a writer and increase my readership. That will do. It's a never-ending story.
32. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
They should feel like they just read a ripping good story. I would hope they might pocket a few facts here and there, have some solid values reinforced, and have some fun. I want them to approach one of my books knowing they are about to have a good time. People don't laugh enough these days. I think laughter has intrinsic value. Life is short. It's easy to get wrapped up in stuff that won't matter five hours from now, let alone five months or five years. Settling in with a good story and a cup of tea or a drink can lower the stress bar, especially if there's humor in it. It helps us to stop taking ourselves so seriously, after all nobody else does.
33. HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
Book covers are very important. I work with an incredible artist named Laurie Longenecker who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She's a genius with stock photos. I give her a rough idea of what I want and she manages to find the photo that suggests the essence and mood of the story perfectly without giving too much away. Sometimes she doctors the photo or puts two together, then she adds the graphics. My covers don't cost much but they look great because of her taste and skill. If you've got a good book going, investing in a professional looking cover is never a waste. In fact, it's a necessity.
34. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
Maybe I've lived too much already, but I don't have ultimate dreams. The future is now for me. Every day's a new day and I make the most of it. I'm not waiting for anything, I don't hold back. I sleep on my best sheets, I wear my good jewelry. This is it. I just want more of it. More time with my children, more quiet time in my little study to write more stories.
35. WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
Marketing is the big stumbling block for me. I have certainly been disabused of the notion, "If you write it, they will come." I've tried to convince Jon Stewart that we went to school together but he's not buying it. Oprah doesn't return my calls either, and I do a pretty good Michelle Obama imitation. On a more constructive note, I have had colorful business-card-size cards made with a thumb-nail picture of my book on it, and a brief description of where to buy the book and how to contact me. I have a separate card for each book, and I hand them out to people and leave them on bulletin boards, and in bowls in private libraries, community centers, and so forth.
When someone asks me about a book of mine it's nice to be able to give them something tangible so they remember the title and have a picture of it. People seem to like the cards and dutifully tuck them away in their pocket or purse. Whether they fling them into the trash the second they get home I can't say, but I like the transactional aspect of handing them the card so they don't forget who I am and what I wrote. Vista Print does a nice job on these for very little money. I keep a stock of them in my own handbag and scatter them in my wake like a literary Johnny Appleseed.
36. ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
Yes, and I love it. My first collection, "Night Walker and Other Stories," was published for me by Wasteland Publishing in Kentucky. All the others I've done myself with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. They provide you with a step-by-step process that's slick and easy to use.
37. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
I am a view point.
38. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
39. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
"Watch Me," A memoir by Anjelica Huston. She's a gracious and generous woman who has led a very interesting life. I liked the book. When I'm writing, I'm too fatigued mentally to read anything heavy.
40. WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
My epitaph: "I was here and I didn't figure anything out."
41. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
More success as a writer, in terms of growth, recognition and a wider readership. I want to see both of my children settled and happy. They are on their way.
42. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
You ask a lot of questions, Clancy! Thank you.
Clancy's comment: Thank you, JT. Great to meet another self-published author. Humorous mysteries sound fascinating. The book you're working on also sounds fascinating. Keep going.