So I screwed up. Someone originally had today’s spot, but their publisher pushed back the launch of their book and I moved them to a later date. Good so far. Then I neglected to erase their name from today’s date and so didn’t schedule anyone else. And that, fair readers, is an introduction into the almost, but not quite, organized life of Jim Jackson (a.k.a James M. Jackson), author of the Seamus McCree novels and a wonderful nonfiction bridge book for intermediate players of the game. I decided to fill the hole in the schedule myself. Without further ado, here are the questions I selected and my answers.
What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why?
I don’t recall when or what I first heard of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, but it was sufficient to cause me to check it out. On Amazon it had a 4.8 rating with over 18,000 reviews. On Goodreads over 100,000 people had rated it with an average of 4.5. In a world where people can hardly agree that today is Tuesday, I wanted to find out why the book scored those numbers. The novel has it all: a captivating slice of history, compelling relationships, vivid writing.
When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?
This was not a problem for The Nightingale and, given there are always excellent reads available, I don’t know why it is so difficult for me to realize that just because I pick up a book, I do not have to finish it. I have gotten better at putting down a book after forty or fifty pages if I am not enjoying it. But once I make it past that decision point, and despite my economist’s understanding of the fallacy of sunk costs, I usually plow through the to the end and then kick myself for wasting my time. If a book is filled with grammar errors or sloppy writing, I’ll put it down on page two without regret even if everyone says it’s a wonderful story.
What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?
Using me as a noun, as in “Me and George are playing a game.” Not only is it grammatically incorrect, it puts the speaker ahead of George in importance.
What do you do that you suspect causes your copyeditor to pull her/his hair out?
Long, convoluted sentences written without the skill of William Faulkner, yet littered with parenthetical phrases obscuring the landscape of an idea as a Lowcountry river exhausts itself before it reaches its final release in the ocean: so near to its goal, yet delayed by the sinusoidal curves broadly carved through the marshes with their fecund life hidden by the placid surface of the water.
How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?
I start each novel with a premise and a question and let the characters take the story away. In Doubtful Relations, the fourth Seamus McCree novel, I wanted to explore the core values of the McCree family. To set the characters in motion, I asked Seamus’s ex-wife’s husband to disappear. I didn’t know why, but I figured the questions his disappearance would raise would ensnare Seamus, Paddy, and ultimately the entire extended family. In that crucible, the true family relations would reveal themselves. And they did.
What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?
I prefer total quiet. I like to hear my characters talk; I like to picture them in the scenes I word-paint. If I need to block out background noises, I use New Age music or sounds from nature tracks. Give me songs and I sing along. Classical doesn’t work because I start humming the tune.
When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?
I write first drafts by the seat of my pants, following characters as they tell me the story, which means only when I finally type “The End” do I understand what the story is. My second draft removes dead ends I wandered down, eliminates excess characters, and creates scenes to give the plot cohesion. In subsequent rewrites, I typically add description and emotion and cut travelogue and repetition. After the final tightening, I usually end up with a few thousand words more in the manuscript than I had in draft one.
You have an all-expense-paid long weekend to spend with three guests. The Starship Enterprise has agreed to beam you to the place of your choosing, so travel time is not a consideration. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you staying (and why)?
I’d have the Enterprise do some time travel to pick up my three guests (and provide translation services and meal preparation). I’d bring Jesus of Nazareth, Benjamin Franklin, and my great-great-great-grandfather James Caleb Jackson together at my place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in late August, after the mosquitoes have died off and before the first snows. We’d share walks in the woods, and I’d have time for private conversations with each one.
What would Jesus think about Christianity? I’d pick Franklin’s brain about “Original Intent” as the United States was formed, and would be interested on his take on Einstein’s gravitational waves. I’d get to directly hear stories from my ancestor about his life as an early abolitionist circuit speaker, his relationships with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, John Brown, key players in the suffragette movement and later Clara Barton; how he came to invent the first “ready-to-eat” cereal; the life and times at the Jackson Health Resort, and a gazillion other things I’d love to know. I’d spend plenty of time getting out of the way and listening to the conversations among the three.
What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?
“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” ~ Justice Louis D. Brandeis
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