Interview with Jnana Hodson

What are you working on now?
I consider "What's Left" to be my culminating novel. Through its many revisions, nonetheless, I've gained new clarity on my earlier fiction and ways these works can be sharpened, made more coherent for what will follow.
Central to this understanding is my character Cassia. Essentially, she gives me a way to view the earlier works through a reader's eyes. As the advice goes, picture your reader, and for me, that's now Cassia.
Already, I've removed "Hippie Love" from the lineup. It's just not something a daughter would want to know about her father's wild past.
"Hometown News" now has a new opening and a new cover.
"Daffodil Sunrise," "Hippie Drum," and "Subway Hitchhikers" are all getting serious revisions that include new titles and covers. Ditto for "Ashram."
Further ahead, "Promise" will be restored to its initial concept of being part of a larger novel, one that will incorporate "Peel (as in apple)" and "With St. Helens in the Mix."
Looks like I'll be quite busy for a while.
What's the story behind your latest book?
The nagging question – Just what's been happening with the characters at the end of my first published novel? – finally consolidated into a lens for me to reconsider the continuing impact of the Revolution of Peace & Love over the past 50 or so years.
Quite simply, the hippies never really vanished. Contrary to the mass-media stereotype, they dressed pretty much the way most of us do today. And many of their social issues have gone mainstream. Organic carrot, anyone? Peace emblem? Yoga?
Rather than picking up with the young pilgrim who's thrust back to Indiana, where he settles in with five siblings who've inherited a modest restaurant they intend to use as the center of a counterculture circle, I decided to have the new story focus on his daughter.
Normally, she'd have little more than a passing curiosity about his past, but when she's 11, he's swept away in an avalanche halfway around the globe, leaving her emotionally devastated and distrustful of everyone and everything – especially her family. Defiantly, she vows to recover her father any way she can, which leads to a long struggle in which she comes to see her world through his eyes.
It's no longer about history, then, but rather bigger questions. How do our identities shape us? What is family, anyway? Where do we turn for help? How do we choose a career or make a living? What can I do that's uniquely for me? In "What's Left," then, Cassia discovers what's important.
Oh, yes, and there's lot about food, too, as you might expect with a family-owned restaurant.
When did you first start writing?
I credit my sophomore-year high school English teacher who relentlessly but patiently drilled us in grammar and diagramming. She opened my eyes to the inner workings of language and its beauties. She was also the one who encouraged me to try my hand at a journalism course the next year.
Over that summer I taught myself to type on a large, old-fashioned Underwood and then went playfully about other possibilities -- all lower-case, for instance, or wild misspellings, some of them leading to very bad puns or just out-and-out fun.
It wasn't long before correspondence, too, became a great writing teacher, as I see now.
That was so long ago! Before that, I was pretty much a science and history guy who also had a knack for art – not that any of that side ever went away, either.
Who are your favorite authors?
Let's keep the focus on my own lifetime. As novelists, I'm quite fond of Nicholson Baker, Russell Banks, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Jonathan Lethem, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anne Tyler, and Mario Vargas Llosa, for starters. For short stories, there's Andre Dubus, who lived just over the state line.
Poets I return to frequently are Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ted Berrigan, John Berryman, Diane Wakoski, and Robert Bly.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I'm active in Quaker circles and also sing bass in the Boston-based Revels Singers. In fact, I'm passionate about classical music and opera.
At home, rediscovering the art of cooking and trying to keep up with some of the household upkeep, including repairs, get my attention. Or at least reminders from my wife.
Swimming, hiking, and occasional cross-country skiing are my favorite forms of exercise, along with New England contras and traditional Greek dances.
(And yes, I do need to get back into a hatha yoga routine.)
Oh, and I'll confess to a fondness for martinis – gin, never vodka.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Restlessness? Maybe it's just a factor of getting older, but I just can't sleep in anymore.
Or maybe it's a craving for the day's first large mug of coffee, brewed thick and laced with milk and sugar.
These days I start the day with a half-hour of Spanish lessons, and then check in on blog post comments or overnight emails. It's a lively circle.
Once I'm engrossed in a project, there's no letting go till it's finished. I'm compulsive that way, especially when characters and plots start arguing in my slumber.
Beyond that, there's a pile of possibilities I hope to accomplish each day, not all of it of a literary nature. We have an old house and a big garden, don't forget. And we live near the ocean and mountains even though we're just over an hour away from Boston. And both my wife and I keep to-do lists, not that we ever get caught up.
What is your writing process?
I typically work from flashes I've noted on bits of paper: words and phrases that may have come to me in meditation or while driving or sleeping or in overheard conversations. Add to that my longstanding journals, clippings, correspondence across the years, I rarely encounter the writer's block facing a blank page. Put a greeting card in front of me to sign, though – and I usually blink. Go figure.
My four decades as a daily newspaper editor meant I rarely had sustained periods for personal writing – once a week, holidays, and vacations were the best I could manage. I want to see where the writing and thinking want to go, rather than confining them to preconceived notions. In short, much of what I've done has been on the fly, always with a sense of a deadline clock ticking, even in my personal endeavors.
Curiously, it's also involved extensive revision and refocusing of earlier drafts, even while trying to preserve a sense of jazz improvisation or a tagger's graffiti. In the visual arts, mine would be called a "painterly" approach, adding and removing layers of paint. In a more scientific comparison, it could be seen as compression and distillation. Collage and montage have long been a central technique, along with a dialectic where a thesis is countered by an antithesis to produce a synthesis, sometimes all in a single sentence. I've been called a Mixmaster for good reason.
Since retiring from paid labor, my routine has changed slightly. I try to get in two hours of writing each morning, but welcome blocks of long days when working on big work, as happened with "What's Left."
Describe your desk
I like to keep the top clear, uncluttered. It's a lesson learned the hard way as a young copyeditor who lost a headline assignment in the debris on our shared horseshoe shaped rim. We got close to deadline and things got pretty tense. But a sense of order and control is a major characteristic for me anyway.
The image of the desk points to a bigger curiosity for writers – their workspace. Mine is in the north end of our attic, with sloping ceilings and a window overlooking our barn. My keyboarding is done on a laptop in one corner of the studio, which also has a coffee table arrangement for reading and sorting, and a small worktable over cabinets jutting into the room.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
My first 20 years were spent in a medium-sized city in Ohio. My father was an accountant for General Motors and my grandfather was, by his own definition, Dayton's Leading Republican Plumber. Some of the family still had a farm where we visited, so I have memories of climbing around in the rafters over the hogs. I was also part of a Scout troop that backpacked and did primitive camping, even in the dead of winter. The natural history museum had some wonderful, inexpensive summer courses that gave me a foundation in science, and later the art museum opened me to visual traditions. I think, too, of the influence of the record librarian downtown, with her sister a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra, and her gentle guidance as I discovered the classics. The place, we should note, is nothing like that now.
Even so, a Midwestern emphasis on openness, efficiency, and practicality is deeply embedded in my psyche.
What do you read for pleasure?
The list is quite varied. I'm a promiscuous reader with contemporary poetry and indie novels plus historic Quaker writers and the Bible (a much different set of stories for me these days) near the top of the pile. By the way, can maps be counted as reading?
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I was reading classics by second grade, and "Robinson Crusoe," "Swiss Family Robinson," "Tom Sawyer," and "Huckleberry Finn" all moved me deeply. But memories of the very first story are lost somewhere in a foggy mist. By the way, I found "Finn" to be a much easier read then than I did as a high school junior, when the dialect threw me for a loop.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Could never limit it this way.
And cliche as it might sound, the Bible would lead the list. But not for the usual reasons. I love the rawness of much of its development as well as the contradictions. I read it with an ear for metaphor and experience, rather than a legalistic or moralizing mindset. And then we can get to an overlay of differing translations. It's never finished or complete, which adds to the stimulation. By the way, the book never made sense until I was well into my adult years – thanks to some incredible people who've crossed my path.
For that matter, how about the "Whole Earth Catalog"? You don't exactly read it, but just browsing is always stimulating – and a time trip for me.
I am looking forward to a period sometime in the next decade of revisiting a bookcase of old treasures, likely beginning with Samuel Johnson and Herman Melville. Please stay tuned.
The question also hints at a Desert Island list of 10, of course, and once when I was constructing one of those in my mind, I realized that not all of my choices would have been "favorites" but rather craggy pieces that I could keep returning to for fresh discoveries.
Besides, my favorites list varies depending on my own writing projects at the moment. Poetry moves other poetry to the top. Quaker projects, other Quakers. Fiction, other fiction.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
No. Not even the first newspaper story. But for a little rubber-type press I got as a kid, I remember writing and setting the headline: ROCK SALT KILLS ANTS.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
We could start with the writers who influenced me the most in my formative years -- Vonnegut, Hesse, Ishmael Reed, Brautigan, Kesey, Kerouac, and the like – and the fact they would have no place in today's commercial publishing world were they to apply now. The small, cottage-industry model of publishing houses that nurtured new talent is long gone. Think of New Directions and Black Sparrow in their prime. Instead, the mergers of commercial publishers of fiction have essentially eliminated opportunity for any but the blockbuster strategists.
What I kept finding as I approached literary agents, for one, was their befuddlement at what was happening to the field, even as they told me my book was one that deserved publication. The doors kept shutting tighter.
In my own literary writing, a central influence has been the concept of Edge City voiced in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," in my case having the goal of taking language and structure to the borders of their capabilities and known world. Nothing safe here, no easy genres. This hardly fits the expectations of a bestseller mentality. Originality does not imitate, no matter how much it might respect the earlier masters.
Still, I had the stories I've drafted and revised. I've lived through some remarkable experiences and in our-of-the-way places, and what's resulted needs to be told.
At this point, indie is the only route for me to go and still be true to myself.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
Without Mark Coker, I'd still be a very frustrated artist lamenting my stacks of rejected manuscripts crammed into dusty filing cabinets. (My, anyone remember that item of furniture?) When I first heard about Smashwords at a local writers' schmooze, I was leery – for one thing, I'd had one ebook appear from an ill-fated pioneer and, for another, I'd been hearing about other electronic publishers who charged royally for the opportunity.
Coker's vision – and generosity – won me over.
In some ways, what he's created reminds me of the lovely, quirky library in Richard Brautigan's "The Abortion," where authors of all stripes could bring their precious manuscripts for safekeeping. The diversity his emporium presents is astonishing, available anywhere in the world rather than a few bookstores in large cities or academic centers. That in itself is incredible. In addition, these ebooks are inexpensive, in contrast to the skyrocketing costs of print publication. For a reader, there's little risk in purchasing a story by an unfamiliar author, and for a writer like me, being free of a debt equal to that of a new car is liberating.
Coker recognizes ebook publication as being much more flexible than print on paper, and has much more patience for slow starters than a bookstore would. For instance, his suggestion of updating a work had me recently tweak the opening of my "Hometown News" novel, add the subtitle, "A Report from Trump Country," and change the cover to a more compelling house fire than the more tranquil dreamy design from before. It was all pretty easy to accomplish.
My other works will be undergoing similar changes in the months ahead.
I'd say nobody in today's publishing world more crucially continues the small-press literary tradition than Coker. Three cheers!
How do you approach cover design?
From a design perspective, most of the print book covers – and for that matter, magazines – I see are simply too cluttered. Yes, I know all of the type crammed onto the front is intended to sway impulse buyers, but once you're home, you're still stuck with all the, well, noise.
I desire something calmer, quieter, more lasting – quite simply, pleasing design.
My preference is for a clean appearance driven by a strong graphic element. Yes, sometimes this can be nothing more than good typography itself, especially for authors whose name alone will spur sales. Other times, an artist's striking illustration and hand lettering leave me envious – perhaps, in time, I'll see it as an affordable option for my own releases. Contrarian that I am by nature, I lean toward selecting a single photograph, no doubt a reflection of my years of designing newspaper pages and cropping shots for maximum impact. Don't forget, after all, a photographer is a central character in my fiction to date.
Remember, too, that an ebook cover must function differently than a paper book jacket would. It's displayed in thumbnail size, where minute detail and subtle touches are lost. There's no back cover, either, although descriptions will appear elsewhere on the computer screen – a more effective alternative, I'd say.
Looking for the right cover for "What's Left" led to some intense discussions and reconsideration on my part. Did we want to portray or at least suggest a scene from early in the novel? Does the appearance of a human face heighten the appeal or limit it? Is a poster-like presentation simply wrong for a book cover? After a round of potential covers posted on my blog, it was back to the drawing board.
What emerged was a desire to essentially ask a question with the cover. With "What's Left," for example, there's the gut reaction of cracking an eggshell followed by the uncertainty of where the yolk's falling. Where will it land and what will it become?
You'll have to open the book to find out.
With "Hometown News," there's now the urgency of discovering just what's burning and what happens to the people involved. It's the matter of news, in the end.
My original round of releases at Smashwords featured tranquil images of beautiful women, inspired by Richard Brautigan's distinctive, memorable volumes from the '60s and early '70s. But there's no urgency or even curiosity there. As these works are revised and reissued, look for an entirely different approach to their presentation.
And if that doesn't work? We'll try something new.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
For me, writing is a path of discovery -- one that sometimes leads into a zone that's akin to prayer.
Sometimes this occur when the characters take over and beginning speaking on their own, as Cassia and her bff cousin Sandra and their ancestors did in "What's Left." At those flashes, all I can do is attempt to record their conversation as fast as I can.
Sometimes it's when a line of inquiry makes leaps or makes something clear, especially if it's been in front of me all along. So that's how these all fit! That's where they're going!
Sometimes it happens when I revisit a manuscript and encounter an ah-ha experience anew. Here's a bit of my life that hasn't been lost after all.
Of course, there's also the part of sharing it with others, those moments when someone says they feel I've been speaking for them. That, especially, I treasure.
What do your fans mean to you?
I love the idea attributed to legendary retailer Stanley Marcus that he made his fortune "selling one suit at a time." So it is with readers or even individuals at a poetry reading. You connect with them one at a time.
This is all very intimate and personal, but it cannot survive in a vacuum. We humans are social animals, ill equipped for survival otherwise.
Apart from keeping a journal and similar internal communication, I can't imagine writing apart from an anticipation of sharing with others. Whether it's a letter or a memo for just one person or a novel you hope will be read by millions, their response completes the labor. Without them, the effort is stillborn. So it's like sitting down to a fine dinner. Come, please, join me – join us. Let's feast. Before it gets cold. And please, don't leave empty-handed.
Oh, but my novel "What's Left," is also largely about food. Funny thing!
What are some repeated themes in your novels?
The challenges of being young adults in America, definitely, especially those of trying to find meaningful ways to earn a living and find lasting relationships. This leads to considerations of community, too – just where do we find it today? I see specific place itself as having a strong influence or even evolving into a character of its own, especially when my stories occur in backwater locations. After spending so much of my life in a newsroom, I find myself drawing on that subculture, too – journalists are a lot like clergy, only fewer in number. And restaurants appear in more of my works than I'd suspected. Let's not overlook spirituality, either, as an essential element.
What about the photographer?
Yes, I'm talking about Cassia's father in "What's Left" and his backstory. I've worked with some of the finest newspaper photojournalists over the years and, had it not been for the expense years ago, might have pursued that rather than wordsmithing. In many ways, I am a visually oriented person, admittedly, so this also allows an expression of that awareness.
Like Cassia, I've done a great deal of genealogical research based on an examination of snapshots. So be it.
A photographer also embodies the idea of being a witness, an observer to unfolding events. In the days when it required arcane skills, as it did in the period covered by my novels, it would allow the shooter to be active in the events and yet detached, present and still a historian. As I drafted the novels, those aspects never consciously crossed into my thinking. Amazing.
And now, thanks to digital advances, everybody shoots, even with their cell phones. Everything, even selfies. To me, it still feels like cheating.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a Fire. So it's Kindle.
Published 2018-01-10.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Subway Visions
Series: Freakin' Free Spirits, Book 4. Pre-release—available May 1, 2019. Price: $2.95 USD. Words: 37,870. Language: English. Categories: Fiction » Urban, Fiction » Visionary & metaphysical
These underground urban adventures explore the mega-metropolis of Gotham upside-down. When a hick from the sticks like Kenzie is guided by two of his Buddha buddies and a tagger named T-Rex, the subway tunnels and elevated rails become a stage for celebrating the freaks and visionaries and dreamers who give a great city its kinetic vitality. Here's to trips that outweigh the usual destinations.
Pit-a-Pat High Jinks
Series: Freakin' Free Spirits, Book 3. Pre-release—available January 15, 2019. Price: $4.95 USD. Words: 103,220. Language: English. Categories: Fiction » Coming of age, Fiction » Alternative history
Heading for the hills after college, a brokenhearted Kenzie takes up with awesome freaks, sexual misadventures, Tibetan Buddhists, secluded nude swimmers, and general badassery through peak experience after peak experience, as well as a cluster of dark pits in between. Cosmic corn-on-the-cob, anyone? (Be advised of its graphic adult content reflecting the Revolution of Peace & Love.)
Daffodil Uprising
Series: Freakin' Free Spirits, Book 2. Pre-release—available September 15, 2018. Price: $4.95 USD. Words: 135,660. Language: English. Categories: Fiction » Coming of age, Fiction » Alternative history
As his daughter discovers, Kenzie and his buddies didn't set out to become hippies, but in the face of the old-boy establishment and its war in 'Nam, their hippedelic transformation was a natural outcome. Even for a geek like him, even in Indiana. Nothing remained the same in the aftermath, for sure.
What's Left
Series: Freakin' Free Spirits. Price: $4.95 $2.48 USD. (50% off!) Words: 118,950. Language: English. Published: January 2, 2018. Categories: Fiction » Coming of age, Fiction » Literature » Literary
Recovering from a deep emotional loss can feel like forever. In "What's Left," everyone loses something – especially an 11-year-old daughter when her father vanishes in an avalanche.
Hometown News
Price: $3.95 $1.98 USD. (50% off!) Words: 78,460. Language: English. Published: September 2, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Humor & comedy » Black comedy, Fiction » Historical » USA
They had hoped to transform their town and its newspaper, but a band of young, idealistic reporters, photographers, and editors at one family-owned daily newspaper recognizes that their small industrial city – like the rest of the American heartland – is at the mercy of forces far beyond its border. Consider this a report from Trump country.
Blue Rock
Price: Free! Words: 8,090. Language: English. Published: May 12, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Poetry » Contemporary Poetry, Fiction » Romance » Contemporary
After appearing widely as selections in literary magazines around the world, the 80 love poems in this series now stand for the first time complete. Just listen and sway to their blues and rock. Perhaps even admire their diamond. It's passion, after all, and sometimes betrayal. Frequently, they play out in two voices in different keys that ignite in the rocky night or distill in the blue morning.