By Yvonne Dennis (246)
When crime novelist Jon McGoran (240) started writing his first book, there were three things he was afraid of.
“The first was that I wasn’t going to enjoy it; the second was that I wasn’t going to finish it; and the third was that it was going to be terrible.”
He was one for three.
“I loved it. I did finish it. It was terrible,” said the author of five acclaimed books, two novellas (one of them out today) and the soon-to-be-released novel “Dust Up.” “But one of the things that I tell writing students when I teach classes these days is the important thing is getting that first draft done. It’s amazing how much easier it is to fix things once they’re written. If you’re worried about it being terrible you’re not going to get it finished.”
A Central English teacher’s generous guidance and Mr. McGoran’s belief in himself propelled the Mount Airy native to the busy, contented and much-polished writer he is today. On the eve of the release of “Dust Up” and a launch party at the Philadelphia Central Library on April 19, Mr. McGoran spoke about writing discipline, social passions and the fun of diversification.
Tell us how you got started.
A: I started writing short stories when I was a small child and continued to do so though high school and into college. But I also played music and I started doing that more and more seriously, so I dropped out of school after about a year and a half.
I played music for I guess about 10 years. I was in a band called Spot and a band called DekaDance. We played a lot in the city and we did ok but we never broke out. So eventually I went back to school and got my degree in communications and started doing copywriting. I did an internship in radio but I’d always thought of myself as a writer. I wanted to get back to that so that’s when I started working on my first novel, which I took a couple of years to write. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when writing a novel.
How did D.H. Dublin come about?
A: I had written a couple of novels and I had an agent. We were shopping the second one around and my agent brought it to Penguin. They said we really like it but this is not the type of book we’re looking for. It was a humorous private-eye novel. What they were looking for was a forensic series. So they pitched the idea of the series.
When they said they wanted a forensic series, did that scare you at all?
A: It terrified me. They said they wanted a forensic series. I was fascinated by forensics but I wasn’t a big fan of the TV shows that were out…One of the things that kind of scared me off before was the amount of research that you have to do. So they approached me about it. They said they wanted three 85,000-word manuscripts in 18 months. So, yeah, I was scared. I was very very scared. It was a very intense time. I learned a lot about being more disciplined as a writer. I have always been an outliner. For me at least that kind of preparation is essential. Not everybody feels that way. For me, especially when you’re writing under that kind of constraint you really need to know what you’re doing. You can’t waste any time.”
Was there a possibility that if they didn’t like what you produced they wouldn’t publish it or pay you?
A: Yes. And there’s also if they didn’t like it they could send it back for substantial rewrites, which, under the time constraints, would have been even worse. There were edits. There’s always edits. Being edited can be tough for a beginning writer but I love working with editors. My agent is a phenomenal editor. She’s someone I rely heavily on for her phenomenal insights. But the most important thing that any editor brings to the table is they’re not you. They have the distance from your work. Obviously, there’s a lot more but that in and of itself is valuable right there.”
Mr. McGoran does a good job of anticipating a question about if there were any Central classes or teachers who were of particular help. He tells this story:
A: When the first D.H. Dublin book came out, it was called ‘Body Trace,’ in 2006. I did interviews in support of it and one of the questions that people always ask is were there any teachers who were particularly helpful to you. I said yes. I had this teacher at Central, Irv Rotman, who was a great English teacher, but he also really went out of his way to support me in my writing. It was right after they started the Mentally Gifted program. So a couple of times a week he and I would spend our lunch periods together. I would give him what I had written, he would read it. For the next time we’d go over it and I’d give him whatever else I’d written. He really gave me a lot of time, like really above and beyond. He was one of several people when I was a young person who took my writing seriously and encouraged me.
So, I thought I really need to look him up and tell him I have a book out. And I couldn’t find him. And a year later my next book came out and the same questions came up and again I thought really I need to find Irv and thank him. Again I couldn’t find him and I’m starting to think it’s been a little while, I hope everything’s ok.
Meanwhile before the third book came out I had been living in Jenkintown. I moved to Elkin’s Park… (The Internet was better by then) so I did a much more aggressive search and it turned out he was living about four houses away from me!
So I grabbed my son (Will, now a sophomore at Cheltenham High School) and I grabbed a copy of each of my books and I dragged my son around the corner. We knocked on the door and I was expecting this incredibly old person and he looked exactly the same. We had a great time together. Since then we’ve kept in touch.
Are you just writing now, full time?
A: Writing and editing. I’m doing some media tie-in stuff. I do developmental editing for other writers. I write for a couple of different magazines–Risk & Insurance is the main one. I’m doing some story consulting with a filmmaker and working with a couple of videogame companies as a story consultant.
One of the things that I am trying to do is to have as diverse a stream of work as possible. I had a story come out in an ‘X-Files anthology that came out last month.
The promo for the Free Library launch party for “Dust Up” says “A portion of proceeds from books sold at the event will support sustainable agriculture and education in Haiti.” What’s that about?
The series kind of focuses on biotechnology and food and agriculture and GMOs and that sort of thing. When I first started to work on the third book I knew I wanted to look at the international angle of things. I’ve been thinking about how kind of aggressive the U.S. is, both the government and some of the companies, in pressuring foreign countries to loosen or get rid of their restrictions on our biotech exports and I wanted to explore that a little bit.
When I became more and more certain that the book was going to be set in Haiti I started thinking, I really need to go to Haiti–It’s not like I had the resources.
So right around the same time, my wife’s church, the Unitarian Church of Germantown, announced that it was doing service trips. So my wife comes home from church one day and she says I know we aren’t really in a position to do this but there’s this service trip to Haiti and I really want to go.
I hadn’t really told her at that point that that’s where I was setting the book. .. So then I started learning more about the trip–helping to build eco-villages for a group called the Papaye Peasant Movement, which has been working on land reform, housing, education and sustainable agriculture for forty years. The trip sounded great and it was.
The McGorans spent a week in Haiti in January of 2015. The country was on the verge of a parliamentary collapse.
It was an eye-opening trip. I saw some amazing things being done. While we were in the airport waiting to return, less than a mile away protests turned violent, and our plane was being delayed and delayed and delayed. Tragically they’re still struggling with this.
Among the problems that bedevils Haiti because of its history, because the land had been kind of stolen, plantation-based, then emancipated, there’s not lot a history of clear title. So it’s really difficult to buy land.
There’s a bit of a morass. One of the many things MPP has been able to do is secure large tracks of land, make sure it has clear title and then give people land to live on and then teach them and give them the resources to farm sustainably in ways that aren’t just environmentally sustainable but are economically sustainable.