(As our two novels both are coming out at about the same time, fellow Writing Lad Lennox Randon and I interviewed each other about our projects. Joined by Rob Cline, the three Writing Lads will read from our latest work Sept. 3 at Next Page Books in the New Bo neighborhood in Cedar Rapids, at 7pm.
Kirkwood Community College
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DENNIS: Let’s start by getting the elephant in the room out of the way. Your stomach cancer has returned. How are you feeling?
RANDON: First of all, thanks to you and Rob Cline for visiting me in the hospital after my last surgery. Sadly, that nasty scar puts an end to my childhood dream of being a Speedo model, so I hope this writing thing works out. Fingers crossed.
Joking aside, the second-line chemotherapy for treatment of GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumors), Sutent, is harsher than the first-line chemo. My oncologist has been tweaking the dosage to find the sweet spot where the tumors remain suppressed but my quality of life is reasonable. I’ve lost a substantial amount of weight and my stamina is greatly diminished, among other problems, but that’s all due to the chemo as opposed to the cancer itself.
Since I didn’t even expect to be alive in 2015, I won’t complain too much.
RANDON: How would you describe your latest novel, Prisoner?
DENNIS: Prisoner takes place about a year after the events of Traveler. True to the promise he made to himself at the end of the first book, Trav Becker has settled into a normal life, or as normal as a policeman’s life can be. But he’s left all the parallel reality-jumping behind. Everything is fine, until dead and dying Trav Beckers start showing up everywhere Trav turns.
Pursued by an FBI profiler who believes (with some justification) that Trav is hiding something, the detective races to save two kidnapped girls while also trying to sort out why he keeps turning up dead. Desperate to preserve his home timeline, Trav is thrust into a hidden war that threatens to destroy the very fabric of reality itself.
DENNIS: Memoirs is a very different book than Friends Dogs Bullets Lovers. Where did the idea come from?
RANDON: In 1991 or 1992, I was courting my wife, trying to convince that her I had a modicum of class. We went to a museum called The Menil Collection in Houston and saw an art exhibit of Jacob Lawrence paintings from 1939 and 1940 that focused on the lives of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Each painting had a caption below it. One caption mentioned that after suffering a head injury as a slave, Tubman, for the rest of her life, had a condition that caused her to fall asleep with no warning.
I was blown away that, despite her medical condition, she risked her life repeatedly to free slaves. Tubman’s story and courage inspired me to begin writing Memoirs of a Dead White Chick. A large portion of the story concept came to me almost instantly. As I did more and more research, though, I began to wonder whether the Civil War was the best way or the only way to end slavery, and that question informed much of the rest of the story.
RANDON: Prisoner is the second book in your Traveler trilogy. Compare the experience of writing this book to the first. Was it easier, equally as difficult, or harder?
DENNIS: In music, they say a band has ten years to make their first album and ten months to make their second. If you think about it, you can pretty much count on the fingers of one hand the number of follow-ups that even match, let alone exceed, debuts. So you definitely feel like you’re under some pressure to prove the first book wasn’t a fluke. On top of that, Traveler was intended to be a one-shot. I wanted to leave it a little open-ended, but didn’t intend for it to become a series. Then, toward the end of writing Traveler, I had this idea for a scene where a bleeding and dying version of Trav shows up on “our” Trav’s doorstep. After that, I had to write a sequel. Only problem was, I then had to figure out the rest of the story!
RANDON: What did writing your first book teach you that applied to the second one?
DENNIS: Like you, I’ve never taken any classes or had formal training in writing novels. At its most basic, I learned how to structure a novel. It’s pretty easy to think of the idea of a story, and maybe even to write a scene or two, but understanding the ebb and flow of a narrative, where to leave the little clues your protagonist (and reader) need, while playing fair, takes a lot more skill and patience than you might think.
DENNIS: And I’ll ask you the same question to wrap up. What did writing your first book teach you that applied to the second one?
RANDON: The biggest thing I learned was that I can actually write a book. Doubt was my biggest enemy for years.
Secondly, I learned that the book doesn’t have to be written perfectly in the first draft nor does it have to be written in perfect chronological order. By that, I mean, if I had an idea for the ending, I could write it early on and then write toward that ending. If I got stuck in the middle, I could skip over that part and fill it in later.
Lastly, I learned how much I enjoyed meeting readers when we spoke at bookstores, book clubs, Rotary Clubs, and Optimist Clubs. Their enthusiasm and support gave me the confidence to keep writing, and their questions helped me better understand my own process and the process of our writing group.