Interview with John Stryder

What's the story behind your first novel, The New Lease? How did you decide to write it?
It was the result of a mid-life crisis, actually. Because of my wife’s job, I was living in Ankara, Turkey, where I had no job prospects at all. (If you don’t speak Turkish, there are precious few opportunities there, except perhaps for teaching English.) I was stuck at home and terribly depressed, almost suicidal at times, especially since I had had to leave a well-paid job and a pretty pleasant lifestyle in order to move to Turkey. So I said to myself, it’s time to finally write that book, the one that’s been in your head for twenty years. Now or never, no excuses.

So I sat down and wrote it, forcing myself to write at least two pages a day, even if they were rubbish that I’d later delete. I had all these episodes in my mind, like scenes from a movie. They were extremely detailed and vivid, and they’d haunted me for years. I started writing some of them down just to get them out of my head, as a kind of exorcism. They all seemed unrelated, but soon I realized that they all belonged to the same narrative—albeit a very unusual one. After that it was just a matter of filling in the gaps between them.
The New Lease doesn’t really fit neatly into any genre category. It’s not very thrilling for a thriller, it’s not lyrical enough for a literary work, it’s not weird enough for a paranormal story. How would you define it?
I don’t know what the heck to call it most of the time. When people ask me about it I say that it’s a cross between psychological thriller and conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t really describe it very well. There’s a paranormal element, and the racy tantric bit, and the political element, something that one of my first readers (my mom) called “fanta-politics”. Being unable to label it properly is a huge problem when it comes to marketing, let me tell you. But I hope that’s also its charm—it really is a very unusual story, unlike anything you’ve read before. Really.
Did you use any popular, successful thrillers to model your book upon?
Like I said, The New Lease is very much a work sui generis, for better or for worse. There isn’t much to compare it to. I don’t know how or why it came to me in this fashion, because I don’t really read thrillers or conspiracy stuff myself. If you want an interesting parallel, try The Constant Gardener, by John Le Carre. The plot is completely different than mine, of course, but what the two books have in common is that they are not there to provide fast-paced action or unbelievable twists at every page. In Gardener, you know almost immediately who killed Tessa and why; the story is not especially suspenseful. It’s really about Justin’s journey to discover who his wife was, and why he didn’t know her all that well. The New Lease is the same—it’s not about identifying a culprit or about characters running all over the place while dodging bullets. It’s more of a slow burner that forces you to think about some difficult, ugly issues.

If you want a more recent parallel, think of Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Halfway through the book it’s obvious who the murderer is, and all the characters’ motivations are quite banal. But it’s an intriguing book nonetheless, especially as a study of characters (mostly messed-up women).
Some of your readers have complained, in their reviews, that The New Lease is just an excuse for you to air your political views. Is there any truth to that? Is the book autobiographical?
Look, it’s my first novel, right? So of course there’s a lot of me in it. Many first novels contain a lot of personal stuff, and plot elements drawn from personal experience. There are episodes in there that I have really lived (not the tantric sex, unfortunately), and there is something of me in all the male characters, especially Inspector Martinelli. But the views on humanity espoused by the main antagonist, Jonas... They’re quite extreme, and deliberately confrontational. They are his, not mine.

I admit, however, that I share his concern for where humanity is heading. And, like him, I think that the only way to save ourselves is to think about our condition in radically different terms, and face up to the fact that something drastic and unpopular will be required in the not-so-distant future. But that’s where the similarity ends. I’m actually a very sensible and open-minded person...
What will you write next? Another psychological thriller / conspiracy drama?
I get bored easily, both as a reader and as a writer. So I certainly don’t want to write more of the same. I won’t be writing more thrillers, and I don’t care to serialize content into trilogies and tetralogies and sequels and prequels. I like to explore genres, so if I write something else, it’ll be sci-fi, or picture books for kids, or historical fiction. Maybe erotica!
Do you have a well-defined writing process that you could share with us, especially with authors who are just starting out?
I’m not telling you. Not because it’s a secret that I want to keep to myself. Not at all. I just don’t think it’s a useful question. Creative writing is a very personal and idiosyncratic process. Whatever it is that a writer does to invent and connect ideas and plots and characters and transfer them to text, it’s bound to be singular and difficult to explain. And just because it works for him doesn’t mean it’s a consistent method that can be replicated by somebody else. In non-fiction writing, perhaps, you can get tips from successful authors, like what libraries are looking for or which software program to use to organize all your research. But not for fiction. Creative writing is a lonely journey and everyone has to figure out a path of their own. There are no tricks or shortcuts or templates.
Who is your favorite author?
I don’t have one. I have favorite books, but not favorite authors. I think most great authors have only one or two great books in them, three at the very most. After that they should quit because they end up disappointing their readers, or repeating the same imagery and tropes. So I rarely read more than two titles by the same person. One of the few writers whose work I read in its entirety was Frank McCourt. Not only was his writing both outrageously funny and tragic at the same time, but I also think of him as a role model because he found his voice as a writer only quite late in life.
OK then, no favorite author, just favorite books. What are your five favorite books, and why?
Again, this is a strange question. Favorite books of all time, you mean? But people change as they get older, and their tastes change too. When I was a teen I loved all the Jules Verne books, as well as the fantasy series of JRR Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson. When I was a college student I read a lot of modern German classics like Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, but who has the patience to read that stuff anymore?! In my late twenties I had a magical realism phase, Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie especially, but they’re a bit passé now. How about this, I’ll tell you my five favorites from the last twenty years or so.
Death in the Andes
Angela’s Ashes
Memoirs of a Geisha
Life of Pi
Orphan Master’s Son
Do you see a pattern? Yup, they’re all very unusual plots. They are wonderfully original because they open a window onto strange and unimaginable worlds, whether it’s North Korea or life alone at sea or chasing chupacabras in the Andes.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Well, uhm, my dog. He needs to go for his walk in the morning, so by 8 am he’s scratching at my mattress. There’s no choice but to get up and take him out. I don’t know if it’s inspirational, but it gets me out of bed.
Clearly, John Stryder is just a pseudonym. Can you tell us why you chose it?
My real name is quite a mouthful and hard to pronounce for Americans, so I chose something short and easy to remember. “Stryder” is a homage to Strider (aka Aragorn) from Lord of the Rings. Not because he’s such a cool, swashbuckling swordsman who kills orcs for a living. I always liked him as Strider because he’s someone who is trying to avoid, or postpone, his destiny. As a Ranger he’s doing a good thing by protecting travelers in the northern lands. But it isn’t really what he ought to be doing. He’s procrastinating on being king of Gondor because he’s wary of it, or because he’s deluded that there will be plenty of time for that later. He’s someone who’s doing his best to avoid his true calling. That’s how I feel most of the time.
Published 2016-02-24.
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