The first book listed on Oprah magazine’s “26 Favorite Book of the Summer” list is Jon Clinch’s Kings of the Earth. When you consider that the magazine is likely inundated with books from publishers hoping to get their authors on a coveted Oprah list, being on the list at all is a feat; being the first book mentioned is a dream.
Jon’s debut, the highly-regarded Finn, is his re-imagining of Huck Finn’s evil father based on Mark Twain’s work. The New York Times review said Jon’s “command of character, setting and construction is masterly.” With that praise, you know Kings of the Earth will be a magical journey through the lives of brothers who may or may not have killed one of their own. The novel is based on a true story.
Prior to becoming a critically-acclaimed writer, Jon was a Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and owned his own ad agency, which his wife ran with him. Today Jon and his wife, Wendy Clinch, are both writers. (Wendy was featured on Mom Culture a few months ago – read it here.) You’ll see that he mentions that Wendy gets to read and critique his writing first because she’s “tough as nails. We couldn’t have made it in advertising otherwise.” Gotta love a guy who defers to his smart wife!
Kings of the Earth is out Tuesday (July 6.) This book, called a “masterful and compassionate novel,” deserves a place in your summer reading stack.
another author q&a you don’t want to miss: laura munson
Right out of college you became a high school teacher and within 3 years you were named Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. What made you so beloved and, presumably, effective as a teacher?
Beloved may be an overstatement. The same week I heard about the award, my superintendent began doing all he could to get me fired for being too demanding of my students. Long story. But altogether it suggested—high recognition, low intrigue—that this was not a long-term career path for me. I taught one more year, and that was that.
After you won this high teaching honor, you transitioned to advertising. What prompted this transition?
My wife, Wendy, was working in advertising already. So I had a pretty good sense of what the business was about. After eight or ten years at different agencies and companies, we ended up working together in our own little shop. I wouldn’t have traded that for the world.
Both Finn and Kings of the Earth involve a murder. As a reader, are you often drawn to murder and intrigue stories? What/who do you read, in general?
I’m not drawn so much to the intrigue of it as to the seriousness. Death has weight. It brings things into focus.
I love a great many writers, each of whom has influenced me in one way or another. Kings of the Earth uses a large chorale of first-person narrators, building on the pattern Faulkner established in As I Lay Dying. The narrative voice in Finn comes from Melville, Faulkner, the King James Bible, and the great Gospel hymns of Fanny Crosby and Albert Tindley. You’ll hear echoes of early Cormac McCarthy—another acolyte of those same sources—in it as well. But that’s just the start. I love and have no doubt internalized certain ideas from novelists like Mark Helprin, Paul Theroux, and Larry Brown, too, along with songwriters as different as John Hartford and Tom Waits. (One of Hartford’s banjo pieces serves as background music at www.ReadFinn.com, by the way, and Tom Waits provided the epigraph for Kings of the Earth. I’m honored by both of those connections.)
While writing Finn, were you ever worried about the public or critical reaction because its root is such an iconic piece of American literature?
At the outset, a famous novelist warned me that if I insisted on writing Finn I ought to be constantly on my guard. “Mr. Clemens,” he said, “will be looking over your shoulder.” He didn’t know the half of it. And frankly, neither did I. Only when I showed early bits of the manuscript to other writers did I begin to understand. There was plenty of encouragement, of course, and lots of praise, but beneath it all was an undercurrent of “How dare you?”
Still, it seemed to me that the kind of controversy the idea was stirring up even in my own circle was a good thing. For starters, it signaled that I was in the middle of doing something that all writers aspire to doing: Connecting with something in readers’ hearts.
The main thing, though, was always to treat Twain’s work with respect. I guess I managed it, since the world of Twain scholars and enthusiasts has largely embraced Finn as an honorable contribution to their ongoing discussion.
Kings of the Earth is inspired by a true story — is truth, in fact, stranger than fiction? Do you often turn to real-life events as the basis for material?
The fact is, I’m more interested in people and circumstances than I am in linear events. So I found the basic setup of the Ward brothers’ story—a family of old men working a dairy farm, one dies in his sleep, the others become variously suspect in what might or might not be a murder—irresistible. Imagining an alternate story and history for these people, who lived out their lives on the margin of the town where I grew up, gave me a chance to return home metaphorically and spend time with familiar people and places.
Do you think it’s important to be disciplined and write daily, or can a successful writer write in spurts when they’re feeling creative and take a break when they’re not?
I think Wendy said something about applying your butt to the chair, and she’s absolutely right.
Discipline is the main thing. To aspiring writers, I’d suggest that if you can’t write for a long stretch every day, set aside a little teeny stretch. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour if you can swing it. Make the time. Commit to the time. Because writing is the kind of work—like going to the gym or riding a bike or raising children—that only pays off if you’re consistent about it over the long term.
As a writing teacher, you’ve read many students’ work. What is a fundamental of writing that you think many less experienced writers lack that is an important skill to develop?
A sense of what’s important—the distinction that Bob Seger called “what to leave in, what to leave out.” A proper sense of what’s important shows itself on the page in at least two ways. First, it sharpens the focus of the story and puts the emphasis where it belongs for maximum impact. Second, it provides an intensity of construction and pacing that keeps the reader engaged. (Pacing can’t be overstated in this high-speed, short-attention world of ours.)
What do you suggest aspiring writers do to get noticed?
Beyond putting words on the page, I’d say that networking and research are crucial. Learn everything you can about the marketplace for your work. Learn everything you can about the agents who represent projects like yours. (And yes, you’ll have to have an agent, period. It’s the only real way into serious New York publishing, unless you’re a celebrity, in which case you already have an agent anyhow.) Join a writing group, in your town or online. Get your stuff read by somebody other than your mom—that is, by somebody who doesn’t already love you and who will be more likely to give you useful feedback. (Me, I’m the exception to that last one. Wendy has always been my first reader, and she’s tough as nails. We couldn’t have made it in advertising otherwise.)
You and your wife worked together in your own ad agency, and now you are both published authors. What’s your secret to successfully working together?
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Which is also spelled L-O-V-E.
I read that your daughter is a science teacher, so she partially followed your path. Is she also a writer?
Emily is one of the funniest writers I know, and she comes by it honestly. (Although she has a Master’s in Oceanography, in undergraduate school she earned a triple major in English, Environmental Science, and Geology. Plus a concentration in Maritime Studies. It all came together on Jeopardy a while ago, where she buzzed in with “Who is Herman Melville?”)
In addition to teaching science, right now she’s going through the original 1911 Boy Scout Handbook to earn herself an old-time Eagle Scout award. She’s chronicling her misadventures in a very funny blog.
My favorite snack is: Are you kidding? I’m a dad. I’ll eat anything.
Don’t ask me to: Spend much time away from my family.
I would put into a time capsule my: Lost youth.
My favorite place is: Home.
When I have a creative block I: Keep my head down and power through.
My favorite mantra is: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. (Plato)