An Interview with J R Lankford

Background

J R Lankford is the author of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful novel The Jesus Thief. This is a meticulously researched, beautifully written thriller with 60+ reviews on Amazon.

A sequel is now available here as a paperback and in Kindle format. 

Ravenshead (RH) interviewed JR Lankford (JRL) and the interview is reproduced here:

lorraine cobcroft
RH Please tell us a bit about your background.
JRL

I was an avid reader in my youth, always lost in words and the world of ideas. As I grew older I woke up to the physical world. I took a degree in electrical engineering, after which I studied international business at the University of Chicago. Such studies seemed the path to true knowledge, at the time. They helped me navigate life and be of use. In the last twelve years of my professional life, I held the U.S. Secretariat of a Technical Committee in the International Electrotechnical Commission, the first woman appointed to such work from any country. During those years I traveled the world, working with delegates from many nations. They were scientists and engineers, like me. Fiction seemed a poor second to helping create physical things or bring important projects to successful conclusion. I still adored beautiful writing, but didn't see how it was truly relevant. I was wrong. 

RH When did you start writing?
JRL

Seven months after quitting my former work, having achieved what I'd been asked to achieve there. By then I knew I wanted to write fiction, but the idea terrified me. I didn't know how to begin, though I could almost feel the words trying to get on paper. After months of avoidance, I set an appointment with myself, just as I had in business. I would become a writer on July 28, 1993 at 6: 30 a.m. No phones, no email, no interruptions. I would sit down and write the first scene of my first novel. And I did.

RH Where do you write? 
JRL

In the home office I'd used for my international work. It's currently undergoing renovation. My husband's building the last big piece, a black cabinet we designed together. He's an engineer, too, but he's also an old-school craftsman who loves woodworking and such. It's shaping up to be the writing room of my dreams -- lattices at the windows instead of curtains, a comfortable reading chair, a wall of books. I can hardly wait. 

RH What makes you write? 
JRL

The love of words, the lure of story. People tell me that even when I was a child I made up stories. To me, nothing sounds more magical than, "Once upon a time?" Even the cliched, "It was a dark and stormy night," sends my imagination spinning. Where and when is this dark night and who's telling us about it? Is she or he drenched, by any chance? Why is she out in the storm? How will he find shelter? Is there a road? What's at the end of it? Irresistible. 

RH What's the easiest thing about writing? What's the hardest? 
JRL

For me, the writing itself is the easiest. I disappear into the fictional world, live and laugh, cry and quake with my characters. Without my husband to remind me to eat and sleep, I'd be in trouble as my books are born. Selling the book is the hardest part. Writers tend not to be business people. It's that right brain left brain thing, I think. 

RH Have other people's comments affected your writing?
JRL

Absolutely. My husband reads my first words, hot off the computer, and often makes great suggestions. I'm also a firm believer in the value of an intelligent, objective non-family critique. 

RH Which writers have influenced you?
JRL

Number one, the French author, Sidonie Colette. I fell in love with her books when I was eleven. They called her The Great Sensualist because of her lush descriptive powers. Next, Flaubert, Balzac, Chinua Achebe, Hemingway, Dickens, Pearl Buck, Richard Wright ... every author I could get my hands on. I read them all and loved them all. Also, my father. He was writing his first novel when he died. He never got to finish it. 

RH How long does it take you to write a typical book? Do you have to revise or rewrite it much?
JRL

My average first draft takes about four months, not including the research -- which, depending on the subject, can take considerably longer. For years I've been accumulating research materials for what I hope will be my magnum opus when I write it. I find that revision is essential because of the great complexity a writer must believably depict -- every detail of a bookful of people who don't exist: their tastes, talents, histories, personalities, interactions, and environments. What they do, step-by-step. Maybe on a first draft a writer focuses on plot, i.e., what happens next. Perhaps there are big holes in characterization or description. Maybe an author initially focuses on the historical background or another key element. Maybe the dialogue was rushed. I find it's just not possible to do a novel justice in one draft. If it's going to shine, revision -- usually multiple ones -- is what creates the brilliance 

RH Was it easy to find a publisher for your first book, The Crowning Circle?
JRL

No. In fact, I never found one. I self-published it instead via Xlibris when it was still free then I promoted it just enough to get reality from some of the avid mystery fans at Amazon. I wanted to know from readers themselves whether I should have quit my day job. It was excruciating, waiting for the first customer reviews, but they completely restored my confidence. Because of them, I'll write until I can't hold a pen or sit at a keyboard. You can still see those reviews at Amazon. They were my first readers and they kept me going. I pulled The Crowning Circle out of mothballs not long ago for an editor at a major publisher who asked to read it. So it may be decently published yet. Perhaps under a different title. 

RH You have worked as an engineer. Do your experiences and skills learned in previous jobs help with fiction writing?
JRL

Yes, because plotting a novel is similar in some respects to designing any system. Everything must connect somehow, though not obviously in a novel at first. Also, my work experiences in the U.S. and around the world -- the people I met, the cultures I encountered -- have enriched my writing.

RH How has your writing developed and changed over the years?
JRL

Well, the very first manuscript I produced after making that appointment with myself in 1993 wasn't stellar, I can tell you that. This is true of most first fiction efforts. Not having studied creative writing, I didn't see the wizard behind the curtain -- the elements of craft behind the art. For painters it's perspective, composition, color and shading. For singers its posture, breath control, phrasing. For novelists it's point of view, scene and sequel, characterization, plot, narrative voice. I knew nothing about them. Luckily, a knowledgeable man read my first effort and kindly mentioned these things -- pointing out that without them my novel was unreadable. A revelation. I headed straight for the bookstore, bought everything I could find on fiction writing then settled in and studied. I didn't come up for air until I had a clear understanding of the tools of my trade. Those books are still on my shelves. 

RH Where do you get your ideas? Do your own experiences appear in any of your stories?
JRL

Not directly, usually. What shows up is what I've seen of life and the world, what I've wondered about, what I've loved about people, or passionately wanted to understand. But my characters aren't me and they don't reflect my life, except tangentially. For me, writing is a lot like reading in that when I sit down to the computer, I like to wonder what's going to happen next. If my characters are just like me, they can't surprise me, and the writing would be much less fun. One exception. Jake in The Crowning Circle, ended up resembling hubby Frank in some respects. I didn't intend it. I wanted to create a character with lots of hands-on type hobbies. To ease the research, I used Frank's. I could just ask him, "What's the name of that guitar? What was the first camera you own?" One day as I was writing a love scene, I suddenly realized that a beautiful woman in my novel was kissing someone who had come to resemble my husband. I actually got jealous. No kidding. I only let her kiss him once in the whole book. I'm thinking about killing her off in the sequel. 

RH You travelled to Northern Italy when researching your novels The Jesus Thief and  The Secret Madonna. Is it important for you to inhabit the characters' landscape before writing about it?
JRL

I always try to do that if it's a real location. Being there can suggest entire scenes to me. I absorb the mood of the place, fall in love with a cobble-stoned square, or the color of a house, or with the hills beside a lake. I imagine what my characters will do and say in these places, how they'll react to these sights, to the food, the people, the language. How do they get across the lake or into town? What restaurants will they frequent? What house would they live in? I shoot video of the locations, come home and watch it as I write. 

RH The Jesus Thief is such an exciting blend of science, morality questions, religion, thriller and romance. Was it hard to combine all these huge topics into one story?
JRL

It was an incredible experience for me because I've spent most of my life pondering such things: science vs religion, good vs bad, love and hate, why life is so complicated, or seems to be. Probably we all do. But  The Jesus Thief allowed me to tackle them in a single framework, assigning key aspects to the characters. Felix is science and its logic. Maggie is faith, pure and unquestioning. Sam is the physical world and all that comes along with it. Mind, spirit, body. Naturally, I hope this is completely invisible to the reader, but such themes inspired me as I wrote. The process of creating this novel itself seemed like a minor miracle. If I needed something, it appeared, however seemingly impossible. Obstacles melted away. For example, in one of my trips to Italy I'd been told by a Jewish couple who'd lived through the Holocaust that a particular town called Domodossola would be ideal for a backstory I had in mind. However, I'm not fluent in Italian and I knew English speakers would be rare in the countryside. My sister and I talked over lunch. What to do? Outside our restaurant was a taxi queue and we got in the first cab. The driver turned out to have been born in Domodossola and he spoke the best English we heard on the whole trip. An amazing coincidence. He happily drove us to the region for a very affordable price, and pointed out everything I asked to see, as well as things I didn't know to ask. Because of the fabulous people I met, places I saw, and wonderful things I imagined as a result, writing The Jesus Thief was one of the great joys of my life. 

RH I understand that The Jesus Thief is under option for a Hollywood film.
JRL

Until recently, Alfre Woodard had an option on the rights and renewed annually, which was such a thrill because I'd always imagined her as my Maggie. I've now had an inquiry via CAA, a major agency, and we're waiting to see what happens. Long waits are the norm, though. It sometimes takes years and years for all the ingredients of a movie to fall in place -- millions of dollars, the right actors, the right director, the right script, the right time. Here's hoping for The Jesus Thief. I see it as a movie in my mind. Three times I've even dreamed who'll make it. We'll see. 

RH How is the screenplay coming along? How does it differ from writing the book?
JRL

I finished the screenplay. In a novel, we're usually inside a character's mind. Yes, there's dialogue and action but it's invariably filtered through a particular character's thoughts. Movies are visual and the whole story must be told in two hours. How to succinctly show, rather than lengthily tell, what the characters are thinking? Making the switch was quite a challenge. 

RH What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
JRL

My husband and I love to travel and occasionally go on a big trip. Last year we spent almost a month in China, touring from Beijing in the north down to Hong Kong. At home we're movie fans. If we could see them all, we would. We try to at least catch the nominees from Cannes, the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Other than that, I love to learn new things, so I'm always reading nonfiction. I also find the so-called reality shows delightful. They're really a boon for curious writers like me, because we can observe real people, even though the circumstances are scripted. Watching and participating as the Internet transforms the world is a pleasure, too. And I guess I'm a doting grandmother. Otherwise I swim daily these days and I've recently taken up yoga breath exercises and meditation. 

RH Finally, do you have any advice for anyone who has just started writing or is thinking of becoming a writer?
JRL

Yes. Don't listen to those people who tell you fiction craft is formulaic. No amount of "how-to" advice can make you a great writer if you have no talent, of course, but if you do have talent, knowledge of fiction craft can give you a career. Know the classic components of scene and sequel. Learn how to characterize. Learn how to open a novel. Understand, as someone once told me, that plot is a verb -- it's something the author does. Learn how to plot. Gain awareness and command of point of view. Once you've mastered these elements, they'll recede into your mind like the alphabet, like addition and subtraction. You'll never have to think about them again, but they'll be at your service the next time a cobble-stoned square takes your breath away and you want to show your readers so they can be there, breathless too. 

RH Thank you for your comments and for taking time out to answer our questions.
JRL

Thank you.