Write It Sideways

Interview with “The Great Lenore” Author, JM Tohline

Today’s interview comes from JM Tohline, an author I discovered on Twitter. Welcome, JM! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.

*Update 9/10: JM has signed a book deal with Atticus Books. We can’t wait to read The Great Lenore when it comes out soon!

Can you tell us a bit about your novel, The Great Lenore?

The Great Lenore is the story of Lenore Montana – a beautiful young lady whose plane from London to Boston crashed into the Atlantic, killing every person on board.

Upon hearing the news of her death, Lenore’s husband and his family escaped to Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts where they could mourn and piece their lives back together. A couple days later, Lenore sneaked onto Nantucket Island also – very much alive.

She had left her flight just before it took off, and now she was dead on paper. And the world was open before her.

Before beginning her new life, however, Lenore wanted to attend her funeral. She needed to see how her two-timing husband reacted to having lost her. She needed to see how the family reacted. She needed to see how the world…

What is your writing background?

I have an expansive imagination, and I have always loved stories. I think that “the writer” has been inside me all my life – I have notebooks from my childhood filled with stories and “novels” – but it wasn’t until I was 15 (nearly 10 years ago) that I decided that I wanted to “be a writer.” Ever since then, writing has been my obsession.

You recently parted ways with your literary agent, and are now looking for another. What was the agent hunt like?

Oh, geesh! You know, I forgot how wild this “find an agent” process can be. It’s weird to be going through this again, but it’s all just steps. It’s all part of the learning process.

My first agent and I ended up together through unusual circumstances. I had sent my manuscript to a few agents early last year, and…before most of them had a chance to read, I recalled the manuscript and removed it from consideration. There were several things in the manuscript that needed fixing, but at the time I was unable to figure out exactly what they were.

Several months later, I received an email from an agent who had misplaced my query. She asked if the project was still available, and I filled her in on the situation.

After some tugging, she finally convinced me to go back to the manuscript and see what I could find. I had been away from the manuscript for several months, and this really helped – I managed to uncover and fix the problems I had previously been bothered by, and she loved what she read, and we decided to work together.

By the way, Dear Reader, if you’re a writer in search of an agent, I have two tips for you:

  1. Avoid gimmicks and cuteness in your query letter. Be direct, and write well – this will place you above most of the other queries they see.
  2. When you sign on with an agent, listen to their critiques of your manuscript. It’s easy to read their emails or their blogs or whatever and say, “What! – they can’t tell me how to write. They couldn’t be a writer even if they wanted to!” And most agents will admit this themselves. But their job is not to write well – their job is to understand what you need to do to make your manuscript shine like it’s supposed to shine.

My former agent suggested several changes (most small, some large), and almost all of them made a huge difference in the manuscript as a whole. If they give you advice or suggestions, work with these – you don’t have to use them, but at least give them a try.

What books–fiction or non-fiction–have had the greatest impact on your writing?

Generally, I like to read as many different books and as many different authors as possible. One of my favorite things to do is to open my “Books Notebook” and write down a new book I have finished.

Because of this, I rarely read a book more than once. After all, if I read a book more than once, I am not checking new books off my list. Right?

Right. But here are some exceptions: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath; Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye; Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower; McEwan’s Atonement; Martel’s Life Of Pi.

These are books that…well, to put it plainly, these are books that I did not want to finish – I didn’t want them to end. And after they ended, I wanted to read them again.

In books like this, the characters come alive. They feel like real-life people, rather than like creations of an imaginative mind.

When I sit down to write, that is always my goal – write something that I would want to read; write something that I would read and hope would never end.

When you look back at your first serious writing attempts, how do you feel?

When I was in high-school, I went through a time when I wrote a lot of “darker” stories. These stories usually opened with the weather. Usually a storm. Usually with people in the woods, in the storm.

It’s funny to go back and read things like this. But what I love is, you see how far you’ve come. It’s like watching a child grow up. If you live with the child, you don’t really notice the progress. But when Auntie Out-Of-State comes to visit, she’s shocked by how much the kid grew since the last time she saw them. When you write every day, you’re always growing. And it’s awesome to go back and read old stuff and see how far you’ve come.

Do you have a specific writing routine you stick to?

I do my first draft writing in a Moleskine notebook with a Waterman fountain pen. It helps me to slow down and really get inside the skin of the story.

I understand you’re working on another novel called Blue the Person. Are you finding it easier, or more difficult, to write this novel than your first?

The Great Lenore was actually my fourth completed manuscript – the other three are in the proverbial “back of the drawer,” labeled as learning experiences.

When I finished the first draft of The Great Lenore, I knew I had something special. I knew it needed a lot of work, but I knew I had something special. That was the first time I had felt this way about a manuscript.

Because of that, I feel like I’ve been putting pressure on myself with Blue The Person (which is the story about a man who conquered life). At times, I forget how raw the first draft of The Great Lenore was, and I want to edit the stuffing out of this new project as I go along instead of simply flying while I write and getting the words and the story out and waiting until later to worry about perfecting any of the problems.

What I am learning, though, is that the only thing you can really do is: Keep writing, keep writing. Every day. And as I thumb back through the pages, I begin to see how beautiful the story really is, and how well it’s all coming together.

What writing or publishing advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write a lot and read a lot. Be passionate about literature. And don’t give up. As far as I know, that’s really all there is to it.

And always remember, tastes vary. You’ll hear this a lot: “…this is a subjective business.” But…really. This is the most subjective business in the world. I posted an entry on my website about that recently – and we all have to keep this in mind as we press toward our goals.

In the meantime, keep writing.

Keep writing.

Learn more about JM and download an excerpt of The Great Lenore at his blog, or follow him on Twitter.