Snake oil salesmen hide in the corners of every business. This is particularly true in the publishing world. From what to read, how to write, when to publish, and where to find resources, good advice is often elusive. Having encountered my fair share of bad tips (including the downright ‘criminal’), I’m going to spend the next few weeks introducing readers and writers to a few of the best authors whose work you need to know. Let me say that again: The best authors whose work you need to know. Their stories are second to none, their passion and commitment is of the highest caliber, and their wisdom makes them stand-outs in the field. Perfect qualities for this Authors Helping Authors series.
I chose James Lockhart Perry as my first guest. His published works include The Messsenger, The Expatriate, Cat Flight From Birdland, Daddy’s Girls, Exposure, and The Quotidian.
Why James Lockhart Perry? His Amazon biography explanation for the pseudonym he uses might lend some insight:
“James Lockhart Perry was a Texan born on Valentine’s Day in 1892 into the wilds and woolies of East Texas. Daddy Jim, as he came to be known, never worked the oilfields that erupted all around and became so potent a symbol of the crude, brash, lawless state the rest of us recognize. Instead, he patiently farmed the rice fields, married the fine-looking Missouri-bred schoolteacher Dora Mae, and built a beautiful yellow house in the tiny hamlet of Markham for his three lovely daughters Adrienne Lavonne, Audrey Louvelle, and Anita Lorraine. He also built a legend in his lifetime for tireless inner strength and placid outer humility.
So the author’s use of Daddy Jim’s name for a pseudonym serves as homage as much as anything to the towering gentle spirit of that pioneer and his brave people. The only historical connection Daddy Jim and the author share is that Daddy Jim died on the author’s twelfth birthday, thirty-three days before John Fitzgerald Kennedy set off with Jackie of the pink pillbox hat for Dallas. And the fact that both author and rice farmer have loved Daddy Jim’s granddaughter to distraction.”
Yep, Lockhart (as he’s fondly known) can transform the simplest story into a thing of beauty. He had me at hello, but now having read several of his books, I’m a huge fan.
So I picked his brain…
Do you have any advice for ‘young’ authors?
- Throw away the TV—no, don’t just turn it off, get rid of it. Your friends will tell you who won the election, and you can get all the sports you need in the nearest Sears showroom. Look out your window for the weather report. Not only are the experiences you gain from TV derivative and hackneyed, but watching TV is a passive experience. You want to invest every waking minute of your day in actively developing your writer’s brain.
- Read a book, any book. Start off with the easiest trash you can find and gradually work your way upward. Read an entire author’s repertoire, then move on to the next. I started with John McDonald, author of the Travis McGee series, read all 23 installments, then moved on through Ian Fleming, Delacorta, and Eric Ambler to Wouk, Manchester, Michener, and eventually ended up at Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Joyce. The important thing is to read for pleasure (otherwise, you’ll end up back in that Sears showroom). Set yourself a goal of reading every book in the universe. Read constantly, everywhere you go. If your friends won’t let you read at the dinner table, eat alone.
- Subscribe to the New York Times and read it cover to cover every day. Forget your local newspaper that thinks it’s in competition with TV (because it is). For the same reason, forget the scandal rags and McPapers like USA Today. The NYT (print version, that is) is your only source in the USA for great stories, impeccable writing, and almost no fluff.
- Get a job that’s interesting, but not exhausting (if you need to recover at the end of the day, pick up a book!). Alternatively, find the interesting and curious in everything you do. Supermarket checkout clerks, parking lot attendants, and door-to-door salespeople find the human condition all around them if they look (I’ve slaved away at all three). Every human being you meet is a character, every trivial, ridiculous story you see and hear is a detail in your next novel.
- Write stuff down. On anything, from a napkin to a laptop. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on an envelope. George V of England recorded the daily tides in a leather-bound diary. Write down stories you hear, great lines people use, character sketches, views out the train window. I would call this a journal, except that implies that you have to keep everything. The material isn’t nearly important as the writing, and the writing isn’t nearly as important as the observing. So throw it away or lose it—doesn’t matter.
- Do things. Get in your car and drive around a new neighborhood. Get on a train, bus, and plane and go anywhere, even if it’s across town. Go picnicking and backpacking in the woods. Sleep through an opera and a political speech. Stumble through Tae-Kwan-Do and ballroom dance classes. Whatever you do—and you should do everything—if you see something interesting, ask about it or look it up when you get home. Make it a goal to becomes an expert on every place you go. My father, a world traveler, always started off in the local stores and supermarkets to get a sense of a culture; my mother headed for the museums, churches, and opera houses; my first week in Los Angeles, I put a thousand miles on the odometer and barely scratched the surface. Do everything and go everywhere.
In my experience, unfortunately, most people will be defeated by the first item here. Nothing is easier to spot than an author who has derived all their life experiences from the evil tube. But the good news is that the accomplishment of the first item opens up vast reservoirs of time for all the others.
What were your ten biggest mistakes as a writer?
Taking too many breaks, including a whopping ten-year hiatus spent working, building a house, and staring at the TV. Cranking up your writer’s brain after that much time is harder than starting a car in Buffalo in January.
Taking bad advice from people who didn’t know what they were talking about. If you can’t muster the critical faculties to differentiate between good and bad advice, it’s better to ignore all of it. The good advice will percolate into your thickest skull anyway. Eventually. Hopefully.
Worrying about my message, instead of just telling a good story. Worrying about where I stood philosophically in the scheme of the universe. Once I accepted the answer (nowhere in particular), and started to simply tell cool stories, the pen overflowed with words.
Taking criticism to heart, especially when it came from other clearly hyper-competitive authors intent on demolishing the competition.
Taking any advice on punctuation, since most people who give it seem to think that’s all there is to writing. As long as the writing’s clear, none of the rest matters.
Ignoring flattery. With no one to sign your paycheck or give a damn if you scribble another word, the writer’s trade is all about self-motivation. Take the flattery—it’s your best friend, and oh so true anyway. Whoever said you should ignore the compliments of friends and family probably has no friends or family to irritate them with love and support.
Worrying about money and survival. Worrying about book sales before I even finished a novel. Worrying about book sales before I moved on to the next novel. Worrying about book sales, period.
Worrying about destiny. Wondering if I was wasting my time, if my great-grandchildren were going to find a manuscript in an attic and giggle over or—worse yet—feel sorry for their tongue-tied ancestor.
Not going to Spain or Greece when I had the chance, just because both countries were ruled by fascists. Not going to India or Iran when the trip was offered, because I had to get off to college. Not sleeping with the hippie in the commune in Spanish Harlem and not swimming in the nude at Woodstock. Not quitting a job I hated for ten stultifying, brain-addling years. It takes interesting people to tell interesting stories, and you only get interesting when you remain open to the world.
Not reading enough. There’s no satisfying this one—you’ll never read enough, no matter how hard you try.
Where do you get your story ideas?
I don’t generally get story ideas. I have hundreds of story fragments, character impressions, one-liners, and so forth knocking around in my head at any given time. When one of them feels appropriate, I pop it in.
The Messenger started off with the simple line, “I love my wife.” Not another thought except to charm the clothes off my wife who reads everything.
Cat Flight from Birdland started as a description of a vicious fight among the cats in a European garden in the middle of a bitter winter. I had arrived to mow the lawn and found a foot of snow. My wife wasn’t on hand to entertain, and I was bored beyond belief.
Exposure started off as a character portrait of an angry old man with colon cancer (I was waiting for a colonoscopy appointment when it hit me).
The Quotidian started as the description of an incident in the North End of Boston when I actually overheard a small-time mob boss ordering a (non-lethal) hit. Then I had to add dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant and a description of an old girlfriend (I turned her into a lusty, raunchy mob hit-girl that I knew would make her scream with laughter).
In each case, there was a list of things I wanted to write about at the time—sailing and photography around the time of Exposure, my crazy sister when I was thinking through The Expatriate, German business practices and my daughter’s obsession with the Green Bay Packers when Daddy’s Girls came up—but these only made it into the novels because they happened to fit the story lines.
How has your method of writing changed over the years?
I finish everything, no matter how thin the inspiration by the end. Alternatively, I don’t start anything until I know it’s going to finish. If it’s not working, I know within a page or two and ditch it immediately and entirely. No leftover fragments lying around to clutter and distress the author’s mind.
I no longer choke when I’m 40,000 words into a manuscript and running out of steam. I just wait a few days for the kettle to start whistling again.
I’ve never been disciplined—my novels rarely take much more than a month of round-the-clock scribbling to finish, because I have to get them out before I forget what I wanted to say. It makes for a punishing routine, but the resulting stories mostly read fluent and coherent.
Do you have a favorite among titles? And if so, why?
No, but I’ll bite anyway. The Messenger, because it stars the gorgeous, creative, zany, always surprising woman I married twenty years ago. Exposure, because it’s well written and so delicately balanced between the four characters. The Expatriate, because it tells my father’s story. Daddy’s Girls, because I have a permanent crush on all of the characters, but especially the crazy, determined, hard-headed, and beautiful woman who most resembles my mother.
Which of your works has outperformed the others and why?
The Messenger probably. It’s the only one I’ve actively promoted. Plus, it’s a fun, slick yarn about a lazy, lovesick husband and the wife whose principles and integrity never cease to get him into trouble. Nick and Nora Charles without all the martinis. Maybe a little George Burns and Gracie Allen. Women generally love it, if only because the paperback version makes a great weapon to hit their husbands over the head with.
One of today’s great talents (and modest to a fault), James Lockhart Perry is an author to keep an eye on. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. If you’re a writer, study it. If you’re a reader, enjoy it. Either way, just please don’t use it as a weapon.
© Robin Cain 2013, Author of THE SECRET MISS RABBIT KEPT and WHEN DREAMS BLEED