Debut author Jesse Karp wrote what would become his first novel, Those That Wake, more than eight years ago — so it’s no wonder that his advice for writers on the road to publication is “don’t give up!” We caught up with the New York City-based school librarian to talk technology, writing while parenting two girls, and, of course, perseverance!
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
I grew up in New York City and work there still as a school librarian. This is a fine example of my urge towards storytelling, which I can’t remember ever not having. The moment I could listen to and understand stories, I wanted to tell them, too. I’ve been writing for real since I was in college, for all anybody cared to notice. I had piled up ten manuscripts before someone showed interest in Those That Wake. As it is my first published work, I’ve not launched myself into writing fulltime just yet. There are lots of ways to express yourself in stories and writing is a great one, but reading to kids is pretty fantastic, too.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Those That Wake? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Those That Wake is about two teenagers who stumble onto a hidden machinery that secretly runs our world and must pay the price for this knowledge.
The concept grew out of three things for me: 1) My love of cinematic paranoia/conspiracy thrillers, movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Parallax View, Marathon Man and All the President’s Men, which suggest that the world does not actually work the way it appears to. 2) Reading a book called Dark Nature: a Natural History of Evil by Lyall Watson, which introduced me to a fascinating theory about how ideas are transmitted. 3) Looking around me and seeing how we are giving more and more of our attention and resources to electronic media and communication technology, which sometimes works to our advantage and sometimes really, really does not. 4) Underlying all of this was the fact that I was writing Those That Wake as my first daughter was about to be born. I was trying to distill a single, powerful message that I would like to pass along to her and I came to one which I think is of great value these days: don’t give up.
Why did you decide to set your book in New York City versus other American cities?
Having lived in New York City all my life, I know it well and it’s close to my heart, two elements that are crucial to creating a sense of realism in setting, I think. New York is also an ideal representation of the modern urban world and so served as a good microcosm of how, it seems to me, much of society is developing technologically and socially.
You incorporate an interesting message about technology in Those That Wake. What inspired this?
Just looking around, really. Once upon a time, we envisioned the future as an exploration of the vast reaches of space, moving outwards to meet our potential. We have, in fact, gone exactly the opposite way: into the digital innerspace of the internet and focusing back inwards on ourselves through social networking and communication technology.
Those That Wake appears to have a very extreme stance on technological progress, which is not altogether analogous to my own. Writing suspense, conflict and speculation is, of course, partially dependent on exaggerating things. I absolutely see the extraordinary advantages we’re getting out of our technological evolution, but I think these technologies are changing us psychologically, socially and culturally in ways we’re not even aware of. Imagine hurrying down the street without looking in front of you. Could be dangerous, right? It’s the same thing with rushing headlong down the pathway that technology has opened for us. That’s the message about technology I hope Those That Wake manages to convey: look where you’re going.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
As a father of two girls, a husband and a guy with a day job, I’m sorry to say that a typical writing “day” for me begins after my family has gone to bed. I can get anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour done per night, which works pretty well if I’m disciplined about it and supplement it with lots of focused writing on days when I’m not working.
Where I write is pretty much always at home, though occasionally I’ll head out to a public library if I need to assure myself of quiet and have absolutely no distractions.
When I travel for work (to conferences and conventions), I can get a LOT of writing done.
Inspiration, I suppose, comes from everything I see, hear or do, though the truth is I barely think about that anymore. My head is so filled with ideas now that I’ve had the validation of getting a book published, the trick is in slowing the inspiration down so that I can write enough to catch up with it. I’ve also found that, once I get going on a story, the characters and situations begin demanding their own paths and resolutions, and it becomes easier to lay that out before them.
What has your path to publication been like?
I wrote Those That Wake just before the birth of my first daughter nearly eight years ago. Like my other manuscripts, it collected dust and rejection letters for a good long time before, in trying to get a short story published, I was asked whether I had a manuscript with a similar tone. That was how Those That Wake found an agent.
Two things have been a great surprise to me. First, how much can change about a story while the nature of the characters, the basic structure and the essential themes remain intact. This is a tribute to a truly talented editor (who, in this case, was my agent – he and I went through extensive revisions before it ever saw an actual editor’s desk).
The second thing that surprised me was just how powerful certain forces in the book market are. Barnes and Noble, for example, has an extraordinary amount of influence on everything from the cover that’s chosen for a book to the way the book is actually sold. Much of a shopper’s experience is very carefully guided within the stores by the by where and how certain books are displayed. There’s a great deal more going on behind the marketing and selling of a book than most of us ever know.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
The best writing advice I ever got is, possibly, the best plain old advice I ever got: “Don’t complain. Work harder.”
I would add to that the very simple to say but very hard to do “don’t give up.” Seriously, it took me twenty years to get a book published. It CAN happen. Do. Not. Give. Up.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
The House of Stairs by William Sleator was hugely influential in my reading life and in how I viewed the world. I didn’t even realize how much my view of things and my early ideas about Those That Wake owed to Sleator’s book until I reread it just recently. It’s a riveting and relevant piece of work.
I just finished Among Wolves by Scott O’Connor, about a boy who starts to believe that his family has been replaced by impostors; a fast, clever and chilling read. I’m about to go back to some of Thomas Ligotti’s short stories, which capture a disturbing tone and a sense of the deeply (and darkly) weird unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I have a non-fiction book coming out in October called Graphic Novels in Your School Library, which is about using graphic novels in an educational context (I teach a graduate class on the history and analysis of comics and graphic novels when I’m not working with little kids or writing).
I’m also finishing up the first draft of the sequel to Those That Wake.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
The only community of writers I’ve ever really belonged to were the one or two writing classes I took in college. I do find constructive criticism very helpful (necessary, even), if sometimes difficult to hear. If ego can be kept out of the exchanges, I find the idea of writing communities absolutely agreeable, though as I said, this is sheerly in the abstract as I have no real experience with them.
Photos courtesy Houghton Mifflin and Jesse Karp