I read a lot as a child, but the first time I noticed someone doing something other than just putting words on a page was with JRR Tolkien. His sentence structures and phrases were different. It was the language of heroism. He was using it to, as Shakespeare said in Henry V, "rouse your sleeping sword of war."
Also, occasionally I would be exposed to the speeches of Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr. and I didn't realize it until later in life, but they were using language to cast a magical spell on their audiences.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I had the greatest gift a writer can receive: a miserable childhood. I was a navy brat and moved 13 times before I was 9. My dad was always out at sea and my mom was always in the hospital. I had no friends and so I read a lot. My great grandfather, who had nothing more than a 3rd grade education and had worked his way up to the Vice President of International Sales at Encyclopedia Britannica gave me a set of encyclopedias as a child and so I read most of them. All that being said, I grew up with a subconscious idea that I was born to be a writer. I would write really bad poetry as a kid, but I didn't really have the confidence.
But then some strange things happened. When I was in high school I was taking a walk one evening in January or February. It was nighttime and I was alone. Then I heard someone over my shoulder say, "as you have been created, so you must create." I was utterly surprised and turned around but there was no one there.
I graduated high school and went on to Ripon College in Wisconsin. I majored in English and History, and, in the 1st semester of my senior year, Dr. William Woolley (Doc Woolley) posed me a question on a test. Does Napoleon represent the "Great Man" theory of history or the "Wave" theory. In other words, was history changed completely because of Napoleon's existence or, had not he been born, would history have replaced him with some other actor?
I couldn't answer the question, because I saw both things being true at the same time. This caused me a great deal of problems because we live in a dualistic universe, and it must be one thing or the other. If two opposite things were the same then that means that good and evil were the same thing, night and day were the same thing and so on and so on. This posed a metaphysical quandary that caused everything I once believed in to unravel, so that I had no idea what to believe any more. This was when I started writing The Vagabond King, to try and figure things out. I had no choice.
How long did it take you to write The Vagabond King?
I wrote it over the course of 20 years. It wasn't my main focus every waking moment because I had a family to raise and a job to attend to. I also spent a number of years teaching myself Russian. So I was doing a number of things as well as working on The Vagabond King. I had to write the book in the nooks and crannies of my day. It was many years before I had large periods of time to write.
I never wanted to be a "career writer", someone who writes articles and meets deadlines. I just wanted to write the books I wanted to read. Tolkien took 20 years to write The Lord of the Rings and Joyce took 17 years to write Finnegan’s Wake. I adopted their work ethic as my own. It is frustrating because I would like to have a number of books under my belt by now. But it just takes me a long time to write the books I want to read.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don't know if it is a quirk, but there is a phrase that says write what you know about. I prefer to write about what I can find out about. I use writing as an excuse to research and understand things more deeply. I'm currently hammering out a rough draft of a novel called The House of Smoke and Mirrors. I researched it for about 10 years, and I have thousands of pages of notes. I don't really write a novel. I assemble it from the detritus I have collected. I've got bits of description here, some character notes over there, some interesting images in a box in the closet, etc. I've got all the ingredients (with more coming each day) before I start writing.
Writing, for me, is like building a house all by yourself. You might know carpentry when you start the process but, when you get to putting in the plumbing or the electricity, you have no idea what you're doing and so you must pause and take some time to learn a completely different trade before you continue.
What does your family think of your writing?
Good question. I have a feeling they could not care less. I gave the book to my parents, and they may or may not have read it. I don't know. They never said anything. I have a feeling they read it and simply chose to say nothing rather than something negative. I was raised in a very devout Catholic family and one of the major themes in the book is the questioning of Christianity and the existence of God.
My wife supports me, but I don't really know if she likes my work. I only show her the finished product, so she only gets to read it every few decades.
I don't know if my son has read the book. His passion is building things, not reading.
C'est la vie; Nora Barnacle never read Jim Joyce's stuff either.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Just in the reviews they leave. One of the technical issues I had to resolve over the past few weeks was that the subscription field on my website was not working so perhaps I'll hear more.
I have been very fortunate to receive more positive views than negative reviews. But I deserve them both. I consider writing to be a blood sport. I want to leave everything on the field by the time I'm done with a book. I work very hard on my writing, but nothing is perfect. Everyone has their own tastes and is entitled to their own opinions. Sometimes I will receive a review in which I am praised for making such lifelike characters, only to receive another review saying how one dimensional and lifeless the characters were.
One of my first reviewers used the word masterpiece in his summary of the book. I've had 3 different reviewers call the book a classic. But, at the same time I had an editor tell me I didn't need an editor, I needed a writing coach.
Someone once said of Jack Kerouac that he was a typist, not a writer. C'est la vie. So it goes. I'm just happy that more people like my work than don't.
What do you think makes a good story?
I love passionate and powerful writing. I love Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. I love The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafon as well as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Garcia Marquez.
But I think the thing that really makes a good story is the mythic structure. Joseph Campbell portrayed the 12 steps of the hero's journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
1. Ordinary World, 2. Call To Adventure, 3. Refusal Of The Call, 4. Meeting The Mentor, 5. Crossing The Threshold, 6. Tests, Allies, Enemies, 7. Approach To The Inmost Cave, 8. Ordeal, 9. Reward (Seizing The Sword), 10. The Road Back, 11. Resurrection, 12. Return With The Elixir
This hero's journey is the archetype for every experience in our lives. This archetype plays out hundreds of times a day as well as over the course of our lives. In the book Stealing Fire from the Gods James Bonnet explains how, using the elements of the hero's journey, stories are actually psychological devices to resolve issues in the reader's mind in order to make a more psychologically sound and whole human being.
What does literary success look like to you?
I had never thought much of writing contests and awards simply because, as far as I'm concerned, the only contest I want to win is that of history. I want people to read, and find value in, The Vagabond King long after I'm gone.
That being said, there is always a struggle between art and commerce and I'm starting to realize how important writing contests are because they give potential readers social proof that they won't be wasting their time or money by buying my book. My grandfather was a very well read man and used to speak Latin to me. But at the same time he had a television show on WGN in Chicago (The Jim Conway Show), and he would occasionally do commercials for Old Gold cigarettes. In my adolescent and idealistic naivete I asked him why he did that, and he said because it paid for 4 college educations.
So, while I would like people to read my work after I am gone, I am also working to increase book sales before I do.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I am currently working on what I intend to be the first of a series of 3 books: The House of Smoke and Mirrors, The House of Cards and, finally, The House of Many Mansions. The main character in the series starts out as a 10 year old girl. I chose a girl because, with each passing year, we are moving further and further into the era of women. I think that there is a subconscious struggle in a lot of what is going on in the world today between male and female energies. For example, there is a lot of misogynistic language used by deniers of climate change. Anyway, the difficult part is that, as a man, I am ignorant of things that would be common issues for women. The trick is to open up your ears and be more sensitive and inquisitive.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Philosophically, I don't believe in reading reviews. Because what someone says about someone's writing cannot be truly reflective of it. But, in actuality, I do read them. I worked very hard to communicate a message and I want to see if I was successful. I'm grateful that I've received more positive reviews than negative ones. People have been kind enough to use the words "masterpiece", "classic" and, one of my recent favorites, "wow, wow and wow." It's easy to start thinking a lot more of yourself than you should when you hear this stuff. So I actually appreciate negative reviews. They are valuable. My favorite negative review was entitled "Boring Pontification." I loved it because he hit upon one of the truths of the book. The Vagabond King is essentially a story about a boy contemplating his navel. This is some pretty boring stuff, and it was around this fundamental problem the story evolved.
Magda was originally going to be Mick's granddaughter. But a teenaged love story is almost as boring as a boy contemplating his navel. So I made her Chris's mother's age, which was thematically more correct. I had to develop sexual tension between the two to make the story more interesting. I also added the portrayal of violence in Mick's past to appeal to the viscera of the reader and distract from the more philosophical musings of the book.
What was the hardest scene to write in The Vagabond King?
The entire book. It nearly killed me.
One of my favorite sections though, is the section that contains the paragraph:
"The Blues. Boom. The Blues cut like a back alley knife and, tormented and tortured, with all the unrestrained rage of a field holler, those old bluesmen sang of lives lived in dissatisfaction and despair. Oh, I was there, man. I was there and, with every dip and slur of the slide guitar, they conjured up images of unfaithful lovers, crying in the rain and standing at the crossroads, frozen in time like lovers on a Grecian urn, and forever trying to flag a ride."
I have no idea how long that section took to write, because it evolved over years. But it achieved the sense of musicality I was looking to portray.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I certainly hope I don't sound too full of myself when I say The Vagabond King. It is my favorite because it was the book I had to write to read the book I wanted to read.
I have been told that books are like locomotives. It takes them a while to build up steam and get going. I believe The Alchemist, which is one of the world's bestselling books, was overlooked for decades before it started gaining traction. I feel that just recently people are starting to take notice of The Vagabond King. Once enough people are familiar with The Vagabond King I will change my answer and say The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy by Mark Costello. Those books are written in a lyrical style similar to The Vagabond King and I would highly recommend them....only after The Vagabond King, please.
To purchase The Vagabond King by James Campion Conway, please click on the image below: