10.15.2011

Interview: Jeffrey David Payne

Hey everyone! A while back I posted a review of Far From the War, along with a bunch of links and a giveaway. I also said there would be more to come that had to do with that book, and here it is! An interview with the author, Jeffrey David Payne.
Q: So I loved Far From the War. What about you? Did you love writing it? Do you like how it turned out?
A: First off, thank you for the kind words about the book and the good review.  I'm so glad you liked it.  On the whole I'm happy with how the book turned out, although I've certainly noticed things I might change or refine if I had more time.  Time is the one thing that seems to be in shortest supply for me these days.  As for writing, I did really enjoy writing this book, although I wouldn't call it fun exactly.  It's hard to say you're having fun when you're working with such dark subject matter.  Finishing the first draft was a big thrill because this is the first book I've written that I felt a deep emotional connection with. Getting Esther home safe after all she went through was a big relief. 

Q: What sort of things did you draw your inspiration from?

A: I don't really have a process for coming up with ideas.  They just sort of pop into my head which I think is true for most writers.  I do think I'm drawn to dark themes and contradictions in our political and social order.  For example, I'm planning a book after the Far From The War trilogy about corruption in the Child Protective Services system and abuse in foster care.  Not all my ideas are so dark, but I don't really want to spend a lot of time and energy on something silly.  Maybe down the road I'll write something goofy under a pseudonym if I need a break from the dark stuff. I also look for opportunities to tell stories from a perspective we rarely see.  Just about all fiction frames itself around good guys and bad guys, which is an oversimplification.  Real life isn't quite that simple and I guess I look for opportunities to explore important themes from a fresh point of view -- that's how I sort through the ideas for keepers, I guess.
Q: How does it feel to know that you have a published book, and that people actually read it?

A: It's very exciting.  I really didn't expect all the positive reviews it's been getting.  My expectations were much lower.  You have no idea how people will react to your work until you put it out there.  I had a lot of people in my life saying 'it's good, don't worry', but until complete strangers start reading and talking about it, you just don't know.  I just hope the positive trend continues with the next books in the series.
Q: You went to school in Leavenworth KS, right? I actually live there right now. Did anything in Leavenworth make its way into your writing?

A: I did.  I studied theatre at St. Mary College in Leavenworth.  I don't know if Leavenworth had a direct influence on Far From the War, per se.  The influence was more subtle, I think.  I do feel like the head of the theatre department, a guy named Van Ibsen, was a great mentor for me.  I'm not sure if this was intentional on his part or not, but I think he was a good role model for someone in the arts because he didn't create a hyper competitive environment, didn't have the vain difficult personality you so often find in the arts.  And he fostered a certain respect for others, the idea that people deserve a baseline level of respect regardless of their achievements, talent or lack thereof.  I was a bit of a wild child back then and the lesson took a while to sink in, but when I went on and worked in the professional world, dealt with people in the TV and movie business in Los Angeles, for example, I saw such a contrast between Van and how other people in the arts treat human beings.  I think I had to see the other side of the business to appreciate the environment at St. Mary.  In some way, I think Esther's ambition and how her exposure to the harsh political environment in DC changes her outlook mirrors this experience.  Whatever your ambitions in this world might be, no amount of money or career goal is worth trading your humanity or empathy.

Another aspect of living in a military town like Leavenworth is that you see both sides of military life.  There's the hero facade, but the reality underneath is much more complicated.  Soldiers don't always behave with honor and discipline, they don't always protect the weak or bring credit to their profession.  If you live in Leavenworth, you've seen this.  The military is a mixed bag of personalities, just like real life.  There are great people and no-so-great people.  In the book you see that there's no clear sense of good and bad.  The soldiers aren't stereotypes.  There are people on both sides who help Esther and protect her.  People on both sides who commit atrocities.  I also had some odd experiences in Leavenworth that defied my notions of what military life is like.  I once worked on the local crew loading in a Russian Ballet production at Bell Hall, at the Army War College.  One doesn't often think of soldiers and officers crowding into a theatre to take in the ballet, but there they were.
Q: There are definitely a lot of aspiring writers in the world. If you could only say one word of advise to them, what would it be?

A: If I'm limited to one word, that word would be 'persistence'.

If I were allowed to elaborate, I'd say that it's a scary time in publishing, but in many ways a great time to be an aspiring writer.  The big publishers have lost their lock on distribution.  The Kindle pried it open, and now the whole industry is in upheaval in the same way that mp3's upended the music industry.  The role agents play as gatekeepers is becoming less important as the traditional publisher business model evolves into something new.  What this means for aspiring writers is that old model of waiting patiently for someone in New York to recognize your talent and tap you on the head is over.  Traditional publishers are looking more to independent or self published writers who've proven their ability to build a following (and do a lot of the publisher's work for them).  Examples would be Eragon, The Shack and Amanda Hocking's deal with MacMillan.
So if you want to write, just start writing.  You don't need some teacher or expert's permission to start.  Start now.  You may not like what you write at first, but keep at it.  Like anything in life, it takes practice.  You don't have to publish everything you write. (I haven't.)  But when the time comes when you do feel you're ready for a publisher, I wouldn't even bother with traditional publishing.  Just put your work out there and stand behind it.  Keep writing and keep putting it out. The readers will find you if you're persistent and patient.

Q: Do you have a favorite book? Something that instantly comes to mind when you hear the word "book"?
A: Well, my favorite book is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because I think it's had a bigger impact on me than any other book I've read.  Part of the reason for that is I read it when I was 16 and I'd never read a book like that before.  As for the word "book", I tend to think of books as something important, something you turn to when you want to be stimulated as opposed to just entertained  I think books should have something to say and be treated with respect, by writers and readers.  Television and film consume less of your time; we can hold them to a lower standard.  It's okay to veg out in front of the TV for a few hours and escape, but with books I think readers should expect a little more than just entertainment.

Q: So I read in another interview that you had a bit of a hard time getting information for Far From the War. What did you do to get around that?

A:The page program was a difficult area to research and so was Orcas Island.  The House Page Program doesn't talk to the media to protect the kids, which is perfectly understandable.  Fortunately, kids these days tweet, blog or record just about everything they do.  The Internet was full of information from former pages, including quite a bit of video shot inside the page areas of the Capitol: the page school, the page residence hall.  I was able to piece together a lot of information from these little fragments.  I'm still not sure I completely captured the experience, but as a former debater I know something about the unusual personalities of kids interested in politics and by grafting this memory onto my research, I tried to give a sense of how the page program's culture differs from the typical teenager's experiences.  Esther is not a typical teenager.

Orcas Island is an island of reclusive eccentrics for the most part and it's not surprising that they weren't especially communicative.  I'm a private, eccentric person myself and my own desire to live in such an extreme form of seclusion is why I picked Orcas Island as a setting in the first place.  I probably would have blown me off, too, in their positions.  Most of the Orcas Islanders were polite, just non-responsive. The only exception to this was when I reached out to a writers group on the island for help vetting how Orcas Island is depicted in the finished novel.  The response from the group's leader was very odd, almost hostile.  She seemed spooked or startled in a way, reacted very defensively.  As frustrating as this was, it was also very revealing.  I think I learned as much about the island's culture from how they handled these communications than if they'd actually responded to them. 
Q: What is the biggest thing you want readers to get out of Far From the War?


A: I think there are two things I'd like readers to get out of the book, and in some ways they're contradictory.  First, a lot of people in the fringes of both political parties have started talking about violence as a means to resolve political disputes.  My point is that regardless of the cause, political violence or civil war would be catastrophic.  Most people just want to be left alone to live their lives.  A civil war would end many lives and ruin many more.  The way to avoid civil war is not simply to let the powerful and government do whatever they want, because if we do this eventually the government and big business will become so powerful and corrupt that we end up fixing the problem with violence anyway.  The solution is for sane, normal, honest people to get active in politics and wrest control away from the fanatics.  This requires an acknowledgement that neither the democrats or the republicans are "right".  They're loose coalitions organized around radicalism and radicalism is the problem.

The other theme is about family and how to balance family with one's personal ambitions.  This is especially important in a crisis, because family is all you have when things fall apart.  I think the saddest thing in the world is when there's abuse in families, because family is the only place we should be able to turn when things get bad.  There's nothing sadder than having the kind of family that can't be counted on in a crisis.  I think this is why I've been drawn to the CPS and foster care system for one of my later books.

Q: Do you have a playlist for Far From the War?


A: Sounds like you've been doing your research.  Yes, I use music as a way to get into the groove of what I'm writing about and I create a playlist for each project.  For Far From the War, here's the playlist I used...
Girl In The War - Josh Ritter
Bells For Her - Tori Amos
Dazzle - Siouxsie and the Banshees
Time to Pretend - MGMT
Lucretia My Reflection - Sisters of Mercy
The Fallen - Franz Ferdinand
Masters of War - Bob Dylan
The Funeral - Band Of Horses
Lorelei - Cocteau Twins
Heartbeats - Jose Gonzalez
Resistance - Muse
Teardrop - Massive Attack
The Joke Isn't Funny Anymore - The Smiths
Homeward - The Sundays
Apres Moi - Regina Spektor
Yes, Anastasia - Tori Amos
Running to a Stand Still - U2
Universal Soldier - Donovan

The first song to make it on this list was probably Bells for Her by Tori Amos.  There's a lyric where she says "can't stop what's coming, can't stop what is on it's way".  That really moved me for some reason and set the bleak tone for the novel, the sense of dark inevitability that I tried to bring to it.  I'd listen to that song on the treadmill and the novel really started coming together.
I also have a general purpose playlist with some classical stuff that I find helpful.  It's a long list, but some of the my favorite ones include Journey to the Line from the The Thin Red Line soundtrack, Nussun Dorma from Turandot and Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.  Those three songs are the best cure for writers block I know of.

Q: Can you tell us anything about your next book?

A: Far From the War is the first book in a trilogy and each book in the trilogy is told from a different character's perspective.  The Mail Still Runs is the next book in the series and it's told from the perspective of Esther's sister Charlotte.  It shows how the family adapts to life on the island during the war and what happens to the family after Esther returns.  The third book in the series is called The Flag We Sleep Under and will be told from Matthew's perspective.  We'll get to see what the war is like from a soldier's perspective and see what happens when he tries to find Esther, as he promised her he would.  The overall theme for the trilogy is about home and the individual books' themes are about getting back home, protecting home, and finding a new home respectively.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Well I hope everyone learned something new from that. I sure did. :) If you're interested in learning more about Far From the War and Jeffrey David Payne, here are some links to check out:


I hope you enjoyed that! Thanks for reading!


2 comments:

  1. I just posted my review of Far From the War. I really enjoyed it, as well as reading this interview! I didn't know that the other two books were from alternate points of view, which makes me even more excited. Great questions, Amanda!
    -Jenna @ Fans of Fiction

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  2. Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you liked it too!

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