Interview with John Christensen

Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I've read so many stories that had an impact on me, but the one that comes to mind was "All the King's Men." I read it when I was a young journalist, and I was amazed at Robert Penn Warren's style. And probably wanted to grow up and be just like him.

Years later, I went back to read it again and couldn't. I didn't understand it at the time, but it was a measure of how much I had grown as a writer. And it wasn't until I began writing books myself that I understood what a profound process of self-discovery writing can be.
How do you approach cover design?
In the case of "Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies" I knew I wanted something kinetic -- a swing, obviously -- and the color green kept coming to mind, for obvious reasons.

The early efforts of the illustrator weren't bad, but a friend suggested adding a high-resolution image of a golf ball behind the swinging Mike Austin. That and the wide green stripe made it work.
What have you been reading, and why?
I've read Patrick O'Brian's remarkable sea series that begins with "Master and Commander" five times, and it's not because I can't remember what happens. It's the writing, which is brilliant, funny, touching, vivid, stirring and, in the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, the apotheosis of brotherly love. I don't wonder that O'Brian was a prickly character; he created a world that I think he found far more noble and interesting, and resented not being able to live there himself. I hope some day he will be recognized for turning what to outsiders might seem mere genre writing into great literature.

And recently I re-read "Huckleberry Finn," which I hadn't read since I was a teenager. I wasn't wise enough to understand how powerful Huck's transformation was when I was a kid. This time I was, and I understand why it's a classic.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
A real book, whether paper or hardback. I had a Kindle and didn't care for it. Tried a Kindle Paperwhite, and it works great in bright sunlight, but for some reason going to the home page and seeing the book covers in black and white was disappointing.

So I sent it back and got a Kindle Fire HD. It's a beautiful device, and the reading experience was just what I was looking for. But there aren't enough books I'm interested in to warrant the expense, so it's going back to Amazon tomorrow.

Luckily, there's a library branch 150 yards up the street, and the books are free.
Describe your desk
My desk has a printer/fax, a desk pad, a lamp and an in/out basket. But I don't use it much. I write on a laptop, and I go where the mood and the weather suit me. I have a sun room on the front of the house with two glass doors. In the warm weather, I open them in the morning and sit in the doorway in a rocking chair drinking coffee, doing my morning readings, journaling -- longhand or on the computer -- and then writing.

In cold weather, I'm in the living room or my office, depending on my mood.

I also frequent two or three Starbucks locations, which gives me the opportunity to see and engage with human beings, but I can also be pretty productive there, especially if I'm revising. First drafts are best done at home.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I'm originally from Michigan, but we left there when I was 11 and moved to Rhode Island and, in my junior year of high school, to Connecticut outside New York City. When we were in Rhode Island, I was at a friend's house, and he had his mother's Smith-Corona in his room. It was on a rolling stand, and I pulled it over in front of me and pretended to type, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world.

I had no idea then what that meant, but I voluntarily went to summer school to learn typing. I didn't finish the class because our family went on vacation, but when I was in college I got a job at the city newspaper because I knew the keyboard. I worked 35 hours a week my last two years of college, and that led to a career in journalism. I did about everything you can do at a newspaper, but writing feature stories and long pieces that were the story behind the story were the most satisfying.

Books were the next step in the progression.
When did you first start writing?
Samuel Johnson said something like "Only a fool writes, but for money," and I'll plead guilty to that. I wish I'd been one of those kids who was writing short stories at 5, but I wasn't.

But when I started working at the city newspaper while in college, I proved to be pretty good at telling other people's stories. In fact, I often felt like an impostor in the news business, because hard news didn't interest me. I once wrote a sports story about a basketball game, and never mentioned the score.

I loved talking to people, finding out what made them special and writing about it. I found that readers didn't much care about abstract ideas, they were interested in people, and so was I.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I was taking up golf when I learned that a 64-year-old golfer named Mike Austin had hit a world record shot with an unusual swing. The author of a book about Austin sent me a copy of it along with a DVD about Austin. My initial interest was to learn that swing, which was effortless and beautiful.

But Austin was a fascinating character who sang opera and was a fringe actor in Hollywood. He also claimed to be a war hero with three advanced degrees, and a lot of other things as well, and I wondered why nobody had heard of him.

I discovered that many of the stories he'd told were not true, and what began as a book to enter Mike Austin into the pantheon of golfing greats became instead a character study and, ultimately, a morality tale. Instead of making him famous, I wrote about how he sabotaged himself and undermined his legitimate achievements, which, in it's own way, is an even better story.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Writing books is, for me, an act of self-recovery. For some very fundamental reasons, I didn't believe I could write a book, and it wasn't until I was laid off from my job at cnn.com and wiped out by the recession that I had to find a new way of making a living.

Luckily, I was given a chance to write a book for the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation in D.C., and they let me tell their story by telling stories. I really enjoyed it, and proved to myself that I could write a book.

In writing "Perfect Swing, Perfect Lies," I proved to myself that I could write a book that wasn't commissioned by someone else. Publishing it independently was yet another challenge along the way. I'd been led in almost mystical ways in the writing of the book, and I felt I was being led to publish it independently as well.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
There are a couple of things that really give me pleasure. One is simply placing words one after another without really knowing what's coming next. I have an idea, and I try to express it, but I'm not sure until I actually write what will appear on the page. And sometimes it doesn't come until I'm re-writing it. In re-reading "Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies" recently, I read a passage and thought, "Man, that's pretty good!" and I wondered where it came from.

The other gift is in discovering things about myself. It may be a positive quality I didn't know I have, or it may be that I share a character defect with someone I'm writing about, and didn't realize it. But usually there is that "aha!" moment, and it can be humbling.

But humility is a good thing.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Two cats who demand to be fed.

Seriously, I've been through so many changes in the past ten or twelve years that my life has been transformed. The odd thing is that I don't know what's coming next, and I'm learning to be comfortable with not knowing. Things have turned out far better than I could ever have imagined, so I'm gonna roll with it.
Published 2013-12-16.
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