On June 20, while attending Arcadia University’s MFA level Creative Writing Institute, I had the opportunity to hear Justin Kramon read from, and talk about, his book Finny. On writing, he said, “It’s more like being in a mental institution. You spend a lot of time thinking about imaginary people, things they might say, and their goals.” He also shared that, “Fiction at it’s best is truer than real life.” He talked about his philosophies on writing, on the editing process, and on the importance of discipline through a self imposed schedule. He explained that, “Your material is your own fenced in piece of property,” but he challenged us to, “jump the fence,” and “jump out of your little backyard. Write about the property next to yours.” In other words, I think he meant that, as writers, we should not be afraid to write about that which is unfamiliar. As a perfect example, his main character is female and he wrote this novel in first person.
Below is my interview of Justin Kramon.
How long did it take you to write Finny, from first draft to final manuscript?
The whole process took about three years, including editing.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I try to work on new writing in the mornings. Actually, let me back up. I have a bowl of cereal and then I start working on new writing. In the afternoons, I work on revising, outlining, character development, any writing business stuff (submissions, work emails, talking to my agent or editor, any teaching work I need to finish, etc.), and if possible, doing some reading. I find it really helpful to have some kind of schedule, since that’s the main thing you don’t have when you work at home. So when I’m working on a book or story, I try to make writing a part of my routine, like buying groceries or cocaine… I’m totally kidding about the groceries…
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
That’s hard to say. If it’s truly a quirk, then I’m probably not aware of it. Readers could probably answer this question better. My novel is in a very different style from my short stories, so I’m not even sure that people would think they were written by the same author. But some things about simplicity in language, focus on characters and relationships, some oddball humor, exploration of psychology and loss and time passing — those are things that are pretty consistent in most of the work I’ve published so far.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
In writing Finny, I discovered that I could write a different kind of book than I ever expected to write. I didn’t think I’d be writing a big coming-of-age adventure about a head-strong young woman, with all the comedy and romance and plot turns of a nineteenth-century novel. But it was good to see that setting boundaries for myself as a writer didn’t make sense. I expected to write a certain type of book, because of the stories I’d written, but my reading interests took me in a different direction, and I’m glad I followed along and gave this book a try. It would have been easy to say, “That’s just not me,” but I would have lost this book if I’d done that.
What would be your top advice for new writers in their search of an agent?
Well, one thing I’d say would be that it might be helpful not to be too “new.” For fiction, most agents seem to want a completed manuscript from a new client, because that’s what they’ll try to sell. So it doesn’t make sense to get too caught up in the whole agent thing before you finish the book. The best thing is to make the book as good as it can be. And then try to find someone who loves what you’re doing, whom you get along with, and who seems to be very competent at the business side of agenting. (A good website to get acquainted with the business side of agenting is agentquery.com.)
What do you think makes a good story?
I don’t think there’s one rule, but I do believe that novels are a confluence of three main elements: plot, character, and language. I think a good story tends to be strong in all these areas. It makes us care about its people, want to turn the page to see what’s going to happen, and it tells us about the world in language that strikes us as beautiful and leaves lasting impressions. Or maybe it just does an amazing job in one of these areas. But a brilliant novel usually has this other umami element you can’t quite figure out. There’s something behind the language that feels almost timeless, that touches on something so deep it seems personal. That’s the mystery of great writing, which I think keeps it alive and fascinating for so many people.
And lastly, how do you think the publishing industry is changing?
There’s such a long answer to that, and I’m really not at all an expert. An agent or editor would be able to say much more about this. Obviously, it’s getting much tougher for novelists, especially literary novelists. I was really lucky to find a publisher and a set of editors who were excited about what I was doing in Finny. It’s getting extremely rare and difficult to have many worthwhile literary novels published in a way that can reach a wider audience, and that’s a shame, as far as art goes. There’s all kinds of stuff happening with bookstores and ebooks and publishing models and media competition and the economy and on and on. But I should also mention that I visited well over 100 book clubs when I was touring for my novel, and I got a very encouraging message from doing that, which is that there’s a large and enthusiastic audience out there for good books. The question is just how to reach them.
Here’s the link to buy the book on Amazon: