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Q&A with John Henry Fleming

John Henry Fleming, author of the Carve story, “Coward” (which we did a Story Spotlight on earlier this month), currently has a serialized novel, THE BOOK I WILL WRITE, running on the Atticus Books blog. In stark contrast to the haunting “Coward,” TBIWW is a funny epistolary novel (centered around a character also named John Henry Fleming) that satirizes aspirant novelists stuck in perpetual synopsizing or outlining. John (the real one, not his TBIWW alter ego) was generous enough to answer some questions we had about his project.

Carve: Tell us a little about how you came to start writing THE BOOK I WILL WRITE.

John Henry Fleming: TBIWW began in a moment of procrastination, which is how a lot of my projects start. I was supposed to be working on something else, got stuck or bored, and decided I’d start a blog at johnhenryfleming.com. Since I’m pretty much incapable of writing nonfiction, the blog quickly turned into a piece of fiction.  My one gesture toward nonfiction was to give the main character my name. The John Henry Fleming of THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is not me, exactly; he’s a distortion of my younger self as an ambitious and clueless would-be writer.  From a distance of a couple of decades, I almost admire his cluelessness. Too bad he can’t bring himself to write. But of course there are times when I can still identify with that, too. 

The original idea was for a simple email exchange between aspiring writer and publisher—something that almost never happens in today’s publishing business because there are simply too many aspiring writers and not enough time for most publishers to respond. The John Henry Fleming of THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is blissfully unaware of the state of the industry. He lives in an ideal world where the love of literature prevails over market and time constraints. He acts with complete confidence that a busy editor at a major New York publishing house will take the time to correspond with him, to help him shape his ideas and nurture him as a promising young writer. The fact that the editor responds at all suggests that she agrees such a world is worth having—even if all the players are only pretending it exists, and even if it’s only temporary. His correspondence is based on a beautiful fiction.

The more I wrote of TBIWW, the more characters I introduced, all with some stake in the idea that good fiction matters. The story world expanded. The minor characters took on lives of their own. The possibilities opened up. That’s when the blog began to seem more like a novel. 

C: How did the idea of serializing the novel via Atticus come about? 

JHF: After I submitted a pair of stories to Atticus Review (“Song for the Deaf” and “Revolutions”), I came across Atticus Books publisher Dan Cafaro’s note that he was open to proposals for columns and blog entries, so I sent him the somewhat crazy proposal to publish TBIWW as a serial novel. I admire the attitude and mission of Atticus Books and Atticus Review, as well as the first-rate work they publish, so I was very happy Dan agreed to the project.

C: How has it been like to offer the novel piecemeal? And how has the interactive element of the process (that is, welcoming readers’ feedback that may influence the outcome of the story) affected the writing of the novel itself?

JHF: I’ve really enjoyed writing—and now publishing—the novel in small bits. It frees me up to leap from character to character and episode to episode, and each short piece gives me a sense of completion. It’s a puzzle I’m making up as I go. I suppose I should be frightened that I have no idea what’s going to happen five installments down the road, let alone where it will end. I’m doing a slow-mo improv. But that’s where the reader commentary might come in handy. So far the comments are sporadic, but as the plot develops, I think there’ll be more opportunities to engage with it.

C: For those who are in the perpetual brainstorming phase like your namesake in the novel, what are some ways you get yourself to do actual novel writing (aside, that is, from writing a novel about starting to write a novel)?

JHF: Really, the only way to make yourself write is to plant your butt in front of the monitor, shut off the distractions, and type. I reserve time to do this almost every day. Some days I’m better at shutting off the distractions (email, facebook, phone, etc.) than others. Some days I do more thinking than writing. But if I’m there every morning, the novel is churning in my brain the rest of the day. Work is being done. My other advice: When you get stuck or bored, start a new project. Think of it as a side project, something to entertain yourself when your “real” writing isn’t working. Sometimes the side project turns out to be the real thing. It happens to me a lot.  Most of my short stories get written that way. So did my bestiary, Fearsome Creatures of Florida. And now TBIWW, too.

C: What forthcoming works from you might we be able to look forward to soon?

JHF: I’ve just finished a short story collection called Songs for the Deaf that I’m shopping around, and I’m at work on a YA novel called Alex Kraft and the Otherworld, about a boy who stumbles into an alternate reality controlled by a rogue “Dreamlord” with evil intent. It’s just like the boy’s own world, only better. The school bully is nice, for one. The bushes are neatly trimmed. When that book’s done, I’d like to get back to a novel I started a few years ago that features Elvis Presley, a Weeki Wachee mermaid, and the mysteries of the Florida springs.

Be sure to check out and follow John Henry Fleming’s THE BOOK I WILL WRITE.