Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Please welcome Stephen Dau, author of The Book of Jonas, which launches today through Blue Rider Press, one of Penguin’s newest imprints.
I first learned about The Book of Jonas through Twitter, in one of those retweets of a retweet that somehow finds its way to your stream, and you’re so glad it did. It’s about a fifteen-year-old boy whose family is killed during a U.S. military operation in an unknown country, the soldier who saves his life and then disappears, and how their stories unravel a painful past once the boy moves to the U.S. and meets the soldier’s mother.
# of agents you queried before signing: 40+
# of books written before this one: 0
# of revisions you went through: Countless
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
Probably how important relationships are in the process. I think I used to believe that if the writing was good, it would naturally rise to the surface, that it would, almost inevitably, be published and find an audience. In retrospect, I think that may have been a little naïve. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, that work doesn’t get picked up off the slush pile and get published and widely read. But there is just so much really good writing out there, and my sense is that agents, editors and publishers are sometimes looking for road signs, so they often turn to people whose tastes they trust.
If you think about it, this just makes sense. We all do it with book recommendations all the time. I heard a writer say recently that he had come to the conclusion that he was never going to be able to read all the books he wanted to during his lifetime, so he was looking to friends for suggestions about what he should prioritize out of the sea of writing. And that’s a sea consisting of published, generally acknowledged works. Literary agents receive on average something like a thousand manuscripts a month. It’s only natural that they would turn to people they trust to help them wade through that vast amount of material.
The country that your main character, Jonas, is from goes unnamed; how did you reach this decision, and did it present any challenges? Did you ever have to balance the need for specificity with the vagueness of the unnamed?
I thought about that question a lot. I had at least two reasons for leaving his country vague, one of them practical and the other aesthetic. On the practical side, although I’ve traveled around a little bit, I didn’t feel that I knew any one place well enough to stick a flag in the ground and call it Jonas’s country. As soon as you do that, you’re rendering yourself subject to the reality of that place, and to the knowledge of its residents and visitors, who have spent more time there, and know it better than you do. The other primary reason is that leaving Jonas’s home country vague lends the story a certain universality. By happening nowhere specific, it could have happened anywhere.
To balance that out, I felt I needed a place that was very concrete and real. I spent the first twenty four years of my life around Pittsburgh, so I felt that was a place I could characterize pretty well. But the decision to set it there wasn’t even a conscious one. I was just writing about this place where Jonas comes to, and one day I sort of realized it was Pittsburgh. After that it became much easier to write about it, though.
You worked in post-war reconstruction in the Balkans and international philanthropy in DC. At what point did you decide you wanted to pursue writing, and what sparked your interest in it?
I have wanted to write since I was a kid. I have a memory of sitting on my parents’ sofa writing what I thought of as a book on stapled sheets of notebook paper. I credit my parents with sparking the interest. There were always books around our house, and my brother, sister and I were taken to libraries and bookstores and read to a lot.
I studied English in college, but when I graduated, writing didn’t really seem like a viable career. I think a big part of it was fear of rejection, which is something that every writer I know of has had to go through. So I decided I would go off and try to save the world. Which, it turns out, is even more difficult than it sounds. Or at least I was not particularly good at it.
At a certain point I realized that I was getting older, and if I was going to make a go of this writing thing, which by then had been on the backburner for the better part of a decade, I was going to have to buckle down and do it. It’s cheesy and cliché, but I figured that when I look back when I’m a hundred years old, I would much rather have tried to do it and failed than to have not tried to do it at all.
One of the things that drew me to The Book of Jonas is the question of memory and trauma, and what happens when they intertwine. As a reader and a writer I have a bit of an obsession with exploring memory from different angles. Do you have similar obsessions that you find pop up in your writing, or the books you most enjoy?
I absolutely do. I am fascinated by the way past experience can condition our current emotions or responses. I think some of the biggest work any of us has to do is overcoming our histories, or our past conditioning, to be able to live presently now, unencumbered by it. To overcome our memories, in other words. But part of doing that involves acknowledging and dealing with past experiences which have gone unexamined. My interest in stories involving memory comes from that. I also read a lot of history, which I think of as an accounting of collective memory.
Why do you feel memory played an important role in this story? Is that something you set out to explore from the beginning, or is it something that you discovered as you wrote (and if so, at what point)?
One of my all time favorite short stories is called The Deep, by a Canadian writer named Mary Swan, which is about twin sisters who volunteer to be nurses during World War I, and what that experience does to them. She does amazing things with the lens of memory. The whole story is told through the memories of multiple characters. I’m sure that story influenced how I wrote Jonas. For a story teller, memory is like a little sprinkling of gold dust. It allows you to explore not just what was, but what could have been, or what is remembered differently by different characters, which is telling of them, or what wasn’t remembered at all, which is often as telling as what was remembered. Memory is like a thin veil that both allows you to see something and also obscures it. It’s tantalizing. It’s expansive and restrictive at the same time. Storytelling gold.
But for all that, I wasn’t aware that The Book of Jonas was in part about memory, as a subject, until late in the game. It always was, but wasn’t really aware that I was exploring it as an issue. I thought I was just using it as a device to tell the story. And I was, but I was also unconsciously looking at it as a subject in and of itself, at what happens to memories when we try to remember them, and what they do to us in the process.
Not only is The Book of Jonas your debut novel, but it’s also your publisher’s in a way, since this is the first novel they’re publishing. How would you describe the experience of working with them on such a big first?
I was so amazingly fortunate to wind up at Blue Rider Press. I cannot say enough about them. It’s true that it’s a new imprint at Penguin, and that I guess you could call this their debut novel, but actually it’s a team of all stars who have been in publishing for some time. My editor, Sarah Hochman, is amazing, and I have felt incredibly supported and guided by her throughout this entire process. At least two other writers much more experienced than I am have told me that they think she’s the best in the business. (Of course I agree.) And my publicist, Brian Ulicky, is truly an artist.
One of the things I like most is that they’ve got guts. They published Michael Hastings’s book The Operators, about the war in Afghanistan, when other publishers thought it was too controversial. I think it’s going to be seen as one of this generation’s most important pieces of journalism. I’m a debut novelist and they’re sending me on a nationwide book tour, which is practically unheard of these days. That’s literally putting your money where your mouth is. Their approach is paying off, at least among the books they’ve published so far, which have had pretty amazing rates of success. Who knows if that will continue with Jonas, but at least if it doesn’t I’ll know that it wasn’t because they didn’t do everything they could possibly do. That’s a wonderful feeling to have.
Thank you so much for being a part of Fresh Ink, Stephen, and congratulations on your debut!
More about The Book of Jonas:
Jonas is fifteen when his family is killed during an errant U.S. military operation in an unnamed country. With the help of an international relief organization, he is sent to America, where he struggles to assimilate—foster family, school, a first love. Eventually, he tells a court-mandated counselor about a U.S. soldier, Christopher Henderson, responsible for saving his life on the tragic night in question. Christopher’s mother, Rose, has dedicated her life to finding out what really happened to her son, who disappeared after the raid in which Jonas’ village was destroyed. When Jonas meets Rose, a shocking and painful secret gradually surfaces from the past, and builds to a shattering conclusion that haunts long after the final page.