Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Vagabond King by James Conway - Interview & Excerpt

When his mother dies and he discovers the man he believed was his father is not, sixteen year old Chris is haunted by a mysterious apparition that forces him to question his pampered existence and embark upon a quest to find himself. Hoping she will “make a man of him”, he seeks sanctuary in the home of Magda, a middle aged waitress with a penchant for sex, only to discover she lives with her father, a cigarette smoking, beer swilling immigrant.

Chris hates his shabby new surroundings at the end of the street and the shabby old man at the end of his life who spends his days listening to old blues records and making Chris fetch him fresh cans of beer. But, when the old man tells tales of Communism, torture, escape and the mysterious medallion he wears, Chris learns that, like the old man’s skipping records, history repeats itself and the roles we play have been played many times before. 


How did you start your writing career?

Well first I want to say thank you Laurie. You have really rolled out the red carpet for me and I have been very impressed and am very grateful for all your help in getting the word out about my novel. Thank you.
Shortly before I graduated from Ripon College (which, ironically, is the Alma Mater of Spencer Tracy, Al Jarreau & Harrison Ford) I was married and shortly after I graduated I was a father. During my time there I had developed a burning desire to write something of lasting significance like the works I had been exposed to in college.

So, rather than getting a more conventional job, I got a job driving a forklift at a printing plant from 7pm to 7am. This gave me the opportunity to raise my son while my wife worked during the day. This also gave me the opportunity to teach myself Russian and begin my writing career.

Those were very difficult days and I was only getting an hour or two of sleep a day. I was very confused and very frustrated. I wanted to give up but I knew that if I did I would not be doing what I was meant to do in life.

Tell us about your current release.

The Vagabond King was a long time in the making in part because of the responsibilities of raising a family and earning a living but mostly because, much like my main character Chris, I was very confused about what my life was about. So, the book was a journey of discovery for me as well as Chris. To portray this I developed Chris, a 16 year old, whose mother has just died and who has just discovered that the man he was raised to believe was his father is not. Consequently he is confused about everything in life down to and including his very existence.
Stories about teenage boys contemplating their navels get pretty old pretty quick. So I had to develop Magda the middle aged waitress who reminds him of his mother and who Chris falls in love with. Thinking she will take him in and “make a man of him” he runs away from home. She begrudgingly takes him in and Chris discovers that she lives with her father who is a Hungarian immigrant who is spending his final days limping around the house in his boxer shorts, drinking beer and listening to old Blues records. Chris hates him!

So, the poor kid is stuck between a rock and a hard place. But, over time, as the old man tells him stories of how he was tortured at the hands of the Communists and eventually escaped to America his opinion of the old man changes and The Vagabond King gradually weaves the themes of mythology, astronomy, religion and the histories of Hungary, Africa and ancient Mesopotamia into a metaphysical mystery as Chris learns that, like the old man’s skipping blues records, the universe is full of sorrow and the roles we are playing have been played many times before.

Like any book it is not for every audience. But, it is very gratifying to have had a number of 5 star reviews and one suggesting it will become a classic.

Tell us about your next release.

Unlike The Vagabond King in which I didn’t have any idea where I was going, my work in progress, which I’m calling The Mythological History of Chicago, portrays how words shape our realities and deals with the idea in Quantum Physics that time doesn’t actually exist. There is only the eternal moment of now. I intend to portray characters in three separate eras spanning over three hundred years as existing concurrently in the same time and space. It’s a real mess! At least for now : ) I know where I want to go and what I want to do and I’ll find my way.

Has someone helped or mentored you in your writing career?

I was very fortunate to have attended Ripon College which, at the time, only had 750 students. Consequently the teacher student ratio was very low I think something like seven students to one teacher. It is a tradition of the school for the President to teach a few classes as well. I remember taking Irish Literary Renaissance and Heroism and the Epic with him. It was these classes that sealed my determination to become a writer.

Once a week I would go to his office and he would tutor me in English Literature, not because I was an academic stand out or some budding literary luminary, but because he is an educator’s educator and out of the sheer kindness in his heart. I am forever grateful.

When in the day/night do you write? How long per day?

I find that night time is the best time to be creative. It is at night that I can more easily conjure up various images and turns of phrase. I usually have no idea where I’m going to put them or what I will do with them but I’ve got them just the same.
The day time is better for editing and being more critical. It is then that I figure out where to put all those little buggers that the night time has generated.
Over my career I have had to write in the little pockets of time that my schedule afforded me, a half hour here, an hour or two there. But, there were certain periods where I was able to get whole days at a time. This was ideal but, in reality, I’m writing all the time. I have hundreds of pages of notes for my work in progress. For example I’m always picking up on things people say or character names. Lucius Frink will be a great secondary character and he might spend his life trying to make a dollar out of a dime because the only silver he has to spend is the silver in his beard. Or, one of my characters is an Irish witch named Black Roisin (pronounced Rosheen) whose frail and bony hands are as dry and desiccated as a piece of driftwood.

What is the hardest part of writing your books?

With The Vagabond King it was simply the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing and how to get there. This time around it’s simply time. I don’t have any (yes, I know it doesn’t actually exist : ) Right now I’m in the process of drumming up some sales of The Vagabond King so that I can write full time.

How do you describe your writing style?

I intended The Vagabond King to be very lyrical and melodic, because one of the main themes in the book deals with Blues music. But, also I wanted the voice of the book to by very mysterious and mystical due to the subject matter.
The next book will be portrayed, in part, in the hard boiled noir style of detective stories of the 1940s and 1950s. Very terse and pessimistic.

Writing sample
“This is not the first time that this ever happened,” he said, hunched like a troll in his stained undershirt. The sweet smell of his cigarette smoke uncoiled through the kitchen. “Just the first time it is happening to you.”

History repeats itself, I remember Magda telling me. Again and again and again, the ancients believed, the hourglass of eternity was turned upside down and time was born anew. It was then the god Marduk, embodied in the human form of the king, was ordained to slay the dragon of chaos once more. For, only once chaos was destroyed, could order be reestablished in the universe and time be reborn.

History repeats itself. History repeats, repeats, repeats itself. Each day, while I unloaded trucks and brought skids of product to and from the machines, these thoughts echoed through my mind like the lyrics of The Old Man’s songs and his scratched and skipping records, his scratched and scratched and skipping records spinning round the central pin.

Repetitive and penitential, there was a religious quality in the call and response style of the Blues that I could not ignore when those old bluesmen sang to me. They sang to me throughout my working day until the Blues was a physical force in my life that tried to take possession of my shrunken and shriveled soul.

Can you hear me?
                        Can you hear me callin’?

From the delta, the Mississippi delta, where the Nile of North America became broad and unknowable, creating backwaters, bayous and swamps before emptying her existence into the Gulf of Mexico, they called. From the land of cypress forests and sycamores, a land of empty and dilapidated mansions, collapsing barns and abandoned cars rusting in the rain, they called to me. From the land where whippoorwills lamented the past, locomotives moaned in the distance like the ghosts of the confederacy and dirt roads trailed off into nowhere, just like my life, they called.

Can you hear me?
                        Can you hear me callin’?

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.

Conceived in the bellies of slave ships and carried across the Atlantic to be born and raised in the greed and institutionalized hatred of the New World. The Blues, the Blues was the bastard child of Africa and Europe, the child of disappointment and the great Diaspora. It was in the delta, the Mississippi Delta that the traditions of Africa and Europe began to blend. Underneath the oppressive yoke of the sun those slaves and sharecroppers moaned and chanted with such elemental power that, within a matter of generations, they bent and shaped the English ballads of their oppressors into the musical expression of their souls that were so long suppressed. The legacy of Africa now took root in the New World and blossomed like Magnolia trees across the south.

Can you hear me callin?

In shotgun shacks and general stores throughout the south, shirtless boys in coveralls, the sons of sharecroppers and the grandsons of slaves, learned their licks on old harmonicas and single string guitars. Lazy, no good, useless musicians, they hid from the cotton fields in graveyards and back water bayous well into manhood just to get, I said, just to get some time to play. Then, one day, wanderlust took hold of them and they abandoned wives and meaningless lives behind a mule and plow to travel, like the troubadour poets in the days of old. Moving up and down the riverside, they played in the juke joints of road gangs and lumber camps where plow boys and prostitutes gathered at the crossroads of their working days to get drunk and curse their maker. From town to town, they adapted and augmented the musical ideas of others until they raised a simple down home musical form to the level of soul stirring art. Their lyrics and guitar licks chased each other like stray dogs from the plantations to the prison yards. Through back street brothels and levee camps, in the big cities of St. Louis and Chicago the music left its mark upon the scratched, the scratched, the scratched and spinning grooves of time, and flowed through my psyche like the mighty Mississippi itself.

Can you hear me callin?

But no! This was no major label music that adhered to a Grammy award winning formula. Stripped of any ornamentation and anything pleasant to listen to, there was nothing good about the Blues. The music I listened to was a blend of pop harmonies, good hooks and great guitar riffs that was mixed and remixed until it was good enough to get air play. But there was no catchy melody, no snappy rhythm that made me want to dance and sing along. The Blues. Ha! The Blues was nothing but a collection of guttural mutterings and unmelodious moanings. Songs that did nothing but celebrate sorrow, they left a taste in my mouth as bitter as vinegar and I refused, I refused, I refused to hear the Blues!

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Comment for a chance to win a digital copy of  The Vagabond King.
Please be sure to include your email addy (ex. Laurie at gmail dot com) so I can contact you if you win.  This giveaway ends January 28th 11:59PM Central Time.



Susan Bennett said...

This sounds lively.

I.S. said...

Thanks for the giveaway :D
cigam9 at gmail dot com

bn100 said...

This book sounds very interesting. Thanks for the giveaway.


hhkaufman78 said...

Sounds very good
ncprincess96 at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

thank you for the chance!

Laurie said...

The Winner is bn100. Congrats!