Today it is my pleasure to welcome John Herrick, author of From the Dead to Colloquium! Not only has John graciously allowed me to interview him, he is also providing an autographed copy of the book to be awarded to a lucky reader who will be selected at random (entry details below).
Click here to read my review of From the Dead.
Meet John Herrick
John Herrick grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and dates his love of writing fiction back to when he was just eight years old. By age eleven, he knew he wanted to enjoy a career as a novelist, explaining that the “constant flow of new characters and plots opened up a giant new world, but dialogue hooked me more than anything else. Somehow, when you stumble across something you could do the rest of your life and be content, you know it deep inside—you realize it’s what God designed you to do.” Herrick also loved music, though, so he spent fifteen years developing his songwriting and lent several songs to benefit recordings by nonprofit entities.
Herrick studied at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio for one year, but graduated cum laude with a B.A. in mass communication from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Thereafter, he spent the next ten or so years in software development and support for the media and fund-development arenas. He also enjoyed ghostwriting and voice-over work for print, radio and the Internet. Eventually, Herrick was tapped to manage donor marketing and analytics for a national nonprofit media syndicate, but declined an offer of directorship, “to preserve his evenings for his true passion as a writer.”
He had been developing a concept for a novel for three years, writing an hour or two each evening after work. The result was his first novel, The Landing, a semifinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.
From The Dead is Herrick’s first published novel. About his protagonist, he says, “I related to Jesse, the main character, the most. He carries a dream inside but finds himself caught between its conception and its manifestation. . . . For years as an adult, before I completed my first novel, I struggled with a sense of purpose but couldn’t find a way to make it a concrete reality. . . . When you’re a creative person who feels stuck, you feel like a part of you dies on the inside. I crafted Jesse to reflect that type of struggle.” Having made his dream of being a published novelist “a concrete reality,” John is currently working on his next book.
About From the Dead
Things are not working out the way Jesse Barlow planned. He grew up “the son of a preacher man” — that Dusty Springfield recording was the author’s inspiration for the story — in a small Ohio town, but has been toiling in Los Angeles for eleven years since graduating from high school and coming west to pursue an acting career. After some modest early success, his career is now as dead as Jesse is feeling inside. Meanwhile, Jada, his live-in girlfriend, is on a different professional trajectory. She is flourishing as a film director’s assistant and they are living increasingly separate, isolated lives. Jesse knows that he is not in love with Jada and they do not have a future as a couple.
Jesse is depressed and growing increasingly desperate to land a stint in front of the cameras, as opposed to his job at a photography store. And in Jesse’s case, the cliche is true: Desperate times lead to desperate measures that leave him so sickened and repulsed by his own behavior that he attempts suicide. Luckily, Jada finds him in time, he is rushed to the hospital, and after recovering, he decides to return home to Ohio.
Staying with his sister, Eden, he is reunited with the father, Chuck, from whom he has been estranged for many years. He takes a job performing maintenance and janitorial projects for his father’s congregation.
A reunion with his high school sweetheart, Caitlyn, brings shocking news. Right before Jesse left for Los Angeles, Caitlyn became pregnant and they agreed that she would undergo an abortion. Jesse left Ohio believing that Caitlyn followed through with the procedure. But he learns that not only could she not abort their child, Caitlyn has been raising their son, Drew, on her own. She never told Jesse the truth, correctly believing that if he left for Los Angeles knowing that she was pregnant and expecting her to have an abortion, he would not be happy to learn that she decided not to terminate her pregnancy. Caitlyn did not want to stand in the way of Jesse’s dream of becoming an actor.
Caitlyn permits Jesse to forge a relationship with the boy, but only if he promises not to reveal that he is, in fact, the father that Drew longs for. After all, Jesse abandoned Caitlyn and Drew eleven years earlier, and she does not know how long this latest phase of Jesse’s life will last. She cannot risk having him break Drew’s heart by leaving town again.
For quite some time, Jesse has been ignoring physical symptoms and medical advice suggesting that he may be suffering from a serious health condition. When Jesse learns that Drew is also ill, he sees an opportunity to save his son — and in the process, redeem himself. Will it work?
Why did you decide to make Jesse the son of a pastor? What intrigued you about that being his life circumstance?
Driving home from work one evening, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” came on the radio. I never cared much for the song, but for the first time I paid attention to the lyrics about a straight-laced preacher’s son who falls in love with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Questions rose up inside me: “What if it were the opposite situation? What if the preacher’s son had hit rock bottom?” Details started to pour forth, and by the time I got home, I spent 30 minutes trying to get them on paper. The story grew from there, usually with scene ideas coming to me in the car. Obviously, the story and song ended up with nothing in common, though!
I came away from the book not entirely sure what the problem had been between Jesse and his father during Jesse’s youth. It was a bit murky to me. Was that deliberate? If so, why? Did you want the reader to feel Jesse’s confusion and ambivalence, as Jesse does?
Jesse grew up in his father’s shadow. As a preacher, his dad was a local public figure on whom church members placed high expectations. As a result, Jesse grew up under public scrutiny—and the public often placed their pastoral standards on Jesse himself. Rather than being known as Jesse Barlow, people knew Jesse as the preacher’s son, with his identity tied to his father rather than of his own choosing. By the time he turned 18, Jesse found himself on a quest to figure out who he is, without the clamoring voices. This is why he feels at home as an actor: on a subconscious level, he tries on different masks in search of the one that will fit him best. What he really needs is to return to the basics and listen to his heart.
Jesse is so desperate to succeed in Hollywood that he goes to really drastic measures that violate his sense of self-worth and integrity. Without revealing too much — because it really is a plot point that readers must read and experience themselves — why did you decide to have Jesse make that decision? Did you feel that plot point was necessary to propel the story along the way you wanted, i.e., to the suicide attempt and his return home?
“As long as you have breath in your body, a second chance is available.”~ John Herrick
The suicide attempt is a critical turning point for Jesse and separates his life into two phases. When I plotted out the novel, I pondered the severity of a suicide attempt and how deeply wounded a person must feel to reach that point in life. For such an event to occur fairly early in the novel, the preceding events would need to happen fast and cut Jesse to his core. So I chose events that would affect his self-worth and integrity because those reside in his heart—where he’s most vulnerable. Deep down, Jesse isn’t on a quest to become an actor—he’s desperate to figure out who he is inside.
Jesse ignores a lot of warnings about his health, ostensibly because he lacks health insurance. Was that a political point or merely a plot point to keep the story moving in the direction you needed him to move?
I’m so glad you asked, because I can now officially explain what happened! No, I had no political intentions behind it. Lack of health insurance goes along with the struggle of becoming an actor, so it’s a natural concern for Jesse. It played out in an interesting way: When I first outlined From The Dead in early 2008, health care wasn’t on the Congressional radar. Within weeks of completing the final revision (August 2009), the health-care debate had grown to a boiling point. By the time the books were on the press in March 2010, the health-care legislation had become law. So it’s a coincidence.
Jesse goes to extreme measures (to put it mildly) for the sake of his son. How did you get the idea for the manner in which Jesse goes about saving his son? How much research did you do before deciding that was the way you wanted the plot to unfold?
Actually, the Jesse-son scene in the final chapter was the second scene to pop up within me once I decided to write From The Dead. I could envision the scene in my mind, and it brought tears to my eyes each time. As a writer, you’ll have a couple of scenes where something rises up in you and says, “This scene is special. Capture it.” Knowing I needed to include that scene, I backtracked and tried to find a plot path that would take me to that climactic scene.
Upon determining the best medical category to work with, I researched illnesses within that category and found most were similar except for a minor X or Y factor. So I patterned the novel’s illnesses after existing ones, and changed that X or Y factor to ensure it would be realistic. I’d had minor surgery several months earlier and had taken detailed notes on my experience in case they would come into play — which they did!
Are you working on a second book? What can you tell my readers about your current work and when they might expect to read more from you?
I’m in the early process of planning the next novel. I try to let the concept marinate inside, and key scenes start to arise. I wind up with a stack of fluffy napkin notes! After that marinating phase, my next step is to fill in the gaps and create an outline, followed by any research.
I have this weird quirk where I don’t tell anyone what a novel is about until the first draft is written — mainly because it isn’t done until it’s done. It’s leftover paranoia from an inability to finish long-term projects as a kid! But I plan for another human-heart story with a similar tone, delving into relationships and inner conflicts. If all goes well, I should finish the final manuscript next year.
The holiday season is here. Its meaning for you, if any? How will you be celebrating?
My family’s Christmas Eve tradition is to eat Chinese food before church! When we lived in Ohio, we had no family in town, which interrupted our traditions. We looked for a place to eat without a reservation and our favorite Chinese dive was the only place available. It became our new tradition. Christmas will be at our house this year, a small family event. It’s the one week of the year I get to see one of my brothers and his wife, so we all tend to hole up. Oh yeah, and The Andy Williams Christmas Album is a must!
Its meaning for me: Several years ago, a Christmas card really drilled into my heart the connection between Christ’s birth and death — the inside of the card had a handprint with a nail scar on the palm. It revolutionized how my heart approaches Christmas. He was born to die; it was the number-one reason He came. I’m awestruck by it.
As you look back on 2010, what were the high and low points of the year for you? What are you looking forward to in 2011?
Without a doubt, the high point was From The Dead hitting the shelves! I’ve waited 25 years for that publication dream to come true. Also, one of my brothers got married in September, and my other brother and I were co-best men. In 2011, I look forward to working on the next book and the thrill of setting my fingertips to the keyboard.
Ten years after the book’s conclusion, where do you see Jesse? You left his relationship with his son’s mother up in the air. Personally, I wanted some answers . . . is there a sequel in the works that will answer all of my questions about their relationship, the most important being whether they get together?
One of the thrills in writing a novel is the opportunity to interact with the reader. Interpretation fascinates me, the way two people can read the same words and draw different meanings from them. So I do pepper some unanswered questions into my novels on purpose, to give the readers an opportunity to make the novel their own. I invite readers to send comments to me via my website. I love to hear what readers read into the story!
Regarding the relationship you mentioned: By the end of the novel, Jesse has grown as a person, but his growth has come step by step, day by day. Neither he nor his son’s mother knows what’s next for their relationship, but they’ve decided to try their best. So I wanted to leave the reader with the same unanswered questions the characters would have.
Thank you for allowing me to stop by for an interview!
Thank you, John!
Enter to Win an Autographed Copy of From the Dead
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The book can only be shipped to a United States or Canadian address (no P.O. box).
Wednesday, January 5, 2011, at 11:59 p.m. (Pacific time).
The winner will be selected at random (using random.org).