A few months ago, Betty, a member of the BPL RA Dream Team, entered a contest to have author Justin Kramon come to her personal book club, and she WON!!!! Very kindly, she put the two of us in touch. Kramon agreed to do an interview with me.
Today, the day he will be appearing at Betty’s book club, I am running that interview. Kramon will be in the Chicago area for the next few days, however, he is mostly doing private events.
Before I get to the interview, first a bit about Kramon and his newest novel, The Preservationist:
To Sam Blount, meeting Julia is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
Working at the local college and unsuccessful in his previous relationships, he d been feeling troubled about his approaching fortieth birthday, a great beast of a birthday, as he sees it, but being with Julia makes him feel young and hopeful. Julia Stilwell, a freshman trying to come to terms with a recent tragedy that has stripped her of her greatest talent, is flattered by Sam s attention. But their relationship is tested by a shy young man with a secret, Marcus Broley, who is also infatuated with Julia.
Told in alternating points of view, The Preservationist is the riveting tale of Julia and Sam's relationship, which begins to unravel as the threat of violence approaches and Julia becomes less and less sure whom she can trust.For more info on Kramon, please click here. Now the interview. And after that, some readalike suggestions.
RA For All: When did you realize how important writing was to you? Was there a moment when you knew you were going to make it a career?
Justin Kramon: I wouldn't say there was a particular moment. Maybe a number of moments. One of the big factors in making it a career was Googling job opportunities for myself, and realizing there wasn't much out there in the world that I was qualified to do, or that I could imagine myself doing every day. Life choices are funny, I think. I'm not sure they're always so deliberate. It seems like we all acquire a kind of natural leaning, like an old house, and the direction of that leaning might have to do with how we were built or what the world has done to us or maybe just the weather. So for some reason I kept leaning into writing. It gave me an outlet (to change metaphors) for understanding and expressing things about life that I couldn't find in other places. And I do get a lot of satisfaction when it seems to be working. I'd say that when I sold my first novel it began to feel plausible as a career.
RA: You teach creative writing. How does that help you with your own work as a writer?
JK: Well, there's a way that clarifying an idea to another person helps you clarify it for yourself. But once you've taught a course a lot of times, I'm not sure that repeating the same ideas helps you so much. That's one reason I like to teach workshops and seminars -- because it's a discussion, and you're always responding to new questions and ideas, and thinking about writing in new ways, noticing things you hadn't noticed in old stories. I also like to change the stories my classes read, which helps to keep me thinking actively about how the stories work.
At its best, teaching writing is inspiring. I don't mean that I inspire the students -- I'm not sure my voice is deep enough for that -- but that they get me excited again about writing. Students are willing to risk things, to act out on creative impulses that you learn to tamp down when you've been writing professionally for a while. There's a way that I think writers sometimes scale back their ambition or their boldness in order to make a story work, or to make it more digestible somehow. But students don't have that. They wear their ambition on their sleeves. So sometimes you get wild, strange stories that remind you of the reasons you wanted to write in the first place, and it reorients you, focuses you back on what's important, and I think that's a good thing.
RA: Since you work with writers developing their craft, what is the best advice you can give young aspiring novelists? And can you share the best writing advice you ever received?
JK: I think it's a very individualized process, and honestly not worth the time and inevitable disappointments if you don't really love it. But here are a few things I've personally found helpful, in case they're helpful for others:
1) The only way I've really learned about writing is by reading. It's helped me figure out what I like and what I don't, and how writers accomplish different effects. I've tried to push myself outside of my comfort zone with reading (which is how I came to thrillers). For me, to write and to teach writing without reading would be like offering travel advice on a country I've never visited.
2) It's impossible to know if a novel or story could work until you finish it.
3) A writer once said to me that doubting your talent is your talent. Or at least it's one of the ways it speaks to you.
4) Another writer once said to me: "Always back into your ex-wife's driveway, because you never know how quickly you're going to have to leave." A different kind of advice.
4. Who are your favorite authors? Now and all-time favorites?
The set of books or writers I love will change for each book or story I'm working on -- so I have a lot of different lists from different periods of my life. For my fist book, I was reading nineteenth-century coming-of-age adventures. For my new book, I was reading classic suspense novels. There are so many great writers, and discovering one you love is one of the great experiences in life. But probably my favorite writer is Alice Munro. She's the writer who got me interested in writing, and whom I keep coming back to.
RA: If you could meet one character ever from a book and ask him or her a question, who would it be and what would you ask?
JK: I'd like to ask Gatsby for some investment advice.
RA: You have been very generous with your time to book groups. What is it like connecting with book groups who choose your book for their discussion? Have there ever been any awkward moments when you met with them?
JK: It turned out that book groups were the biggest audience for my first novel, and a similar thing seems to be happening with my new novel. I'm not sure why my books work well for these audiences, but it's been an unexpected gift for me. My visits to book clubs grew out of the interest that clubs had, and now I've gotten to the point where I typically visit four or five book clubs a week, and am doing it all over the country. It's a huge amount of fun. I've met so many different and interesting people, had wonderful conversations, and I get to hear from the reader on the other side of the page, which is the part I don't get when I'm sitting alone in my office writing. Once, when I was visiting a club while touring for my first novel, I walked into the leader's house and the club had made a life-size replica of a character from the novel. He was slumped over on the piano bench in this person's home, which is exactly the way he often appeared in the novel (he's a piano teach who happens to be narcoleptic). So it was a very fun surprise and a bit surreal that the character had taken on this life in the wider world.
RA: Your latest novel, The Preservationist, is a psychological thriller, a genre that has become very popular recently. What draws you to that type of story?
JK: I just became interested in reading some classic suspense novels. For about a year, I was reading a lot of books that focused on or orbited around violence. It probably concerned my wife a great deal. But I found the books to be a lot of fun, and they kind of brought me back to some of the simple page-turning pleasures of reading. So I wanted to pay tribute to those books, and also perhaps try to bring a couple new things to the genre -- some different types of characters and moods, a little bit of a change of focus. In thrillers, I particularly like the idea that you can tell a story from the point of view of a flawed person, or even a criminal, so it's not your job to make your main characters into heroes. It creates an interesting dynamic for a reader when you're intrigued by and maybe even sympathetic toward someone who is doing questionable things.
RA: Can you tell us a little about the novel?
JK: It's a psychological thriller about an unlikely relationship between a college freshman and a 40-year old itinerant cafeteria worker. It begins with some sweetness, but then the relationship is threatened by violence, and it's not completely clear why or who is responsible.
RA: What are you working on right now?
JK: I've been traveling so much for this new book that I'm mostly working on coordinating flight schedules and car rentals. But sharing the book with readers is a very fun and rewarding part of the process, so I wouldn't give it up. I hope to start wading into my new book this summer.
Readers who liked The Preservationist should also try:
Readers who liked The Preservationist should also try:
- The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison
- You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz
- Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
All three titles are satisfying psychological suspense stories which use what seems like a perfect love relationship as the focal point for a compelling thriller.