- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. I'm also working on two novels and a short story collection. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
T.J. Forrester: Interview
T.J., let me begin by telling you how very much I admire your first novel, “Miracles Inc.”". Fast-paced, witty, unflinching, narrated by a unique and unforgettable character, this novel succeeds on so many levels. Congratulations!
A. Thanks so much, Katrina.
Q. How long have you been writing? How long did you work on this novel?
A. I've been writing since 2000.
In 2002, I began work on the novel, but I wasn't capable and frustration got the best of me. I put away the manuscript. When I started getting a handle on the craft, something that happened in 2005, I focused on the story for about a year and still didn't make headway.
Along about that time, I began work on Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail, and this is the collection that garnered so much attention when I queried agents. I signed with Leigh Feldman, who is now with Writers House, and she wanted a novel partial to sub with the collection. So, I sent her the first eighty pages of Miracles, Inc. She said the story was cliched. I rewrote another eighty pages, which I didn't send because I didn't like them very much. A few days later I started again, and this time the novel came together from sentence one. (I'll take a shot at explaining why in the answer to the next question.)
From then on, facing a Simon & Schuster deadline, I worked twelve hours a day. It was exhausting, and I had to squeeze in time for exercise and eating right or I couldn't stay alert enough to make progress. If I add up the failed attempts and the tangents that led to nowhere, I wrote somewhere around 300,000 words to come up with the 70,000 that made the final cut.
Q. What came first for “Miracles Inc.,” character or situation?
A. During the writing of this novel, I tried for years to bring the main character to life. I started close to the action, I started far from the action, I gave him different characteristics, and put him in different situations. The chapters turned out bland, bland, and blander. Finally, I woke up one morning understanding that the story begins after the bad thing happens. I put Vernon Oliver on death row, and his voice revealed itself from sentence one. When I heard that voice, that's when I knew I had a character who could carry the novel.
To answer your question, the character and situation were so entwined from the get-go it's impossible to separate the two.
Q. That fact that you take the reader into little known worlds makes this book even more special and fun to read. How were you able to lend such verisimilitude to televangelism and to death row? What was the extent and process of your research?
A. I went to a few faith healing meetings when I was younger, so I have some knowledge of the Pentecostal religion, but I mostly used my imagination to pull off that part of the book.
To research death row, I spent many hours in the library. Still, I wasn't comfortable in trying to precisely portray prison life, so I put my main character in a fictional institution south of the real death row in Florida. This setting, I felt, gave me more freedom to fictionalize his incarceration.
However, research is only the start of lending veracity to fiction. The other part of the equation is writing with significant detail. A word to younger writers: fiction readers rely on their imaginations and if you add too much detail you take away the fun. Too, if you don't put in enough detail the fictive dream never kicks off. The trick is finding the right detail and the right amount of detail. Sometimes it takes revising a scene many times to get it right.
Q. The pacing is break-neck and yet slows down at the right moments. Did you cut anything out to achieve this pacing or did it "fall” out this way?
A. I don't remember making a conscious decision to slow things down or to speed things up. I blame a lot of my writing on intuition. (There is still so much that is mysterious about the process.)
Q. You handle the large and small scale seemingly with ease, widening the lens and narrowing again when necessary. Is this something you were conscious of?
A. That part of my writing comes naturally.
Q. You nailed the voice. You nailed the character. For all the trouble Vernon gets into, his desire appears to be simple: to live comfortably with the woman he loves. This simplicity makes him incredibly likable despite his failings. How did he first show himself to you?
A. I didn't know Vernon had a lover until I began the second chapter, so when he first appeared he was unlikeable. Developing his relationship with Rickie softened him up and added a complexity he wouldn't have otherwise had. I suspect Vernon resonates because we all have desires and what greater desire than one lover for another?
Q. Which do you prefer to write, short stories or novels?
A. I like both genres, see the act of creating a short story as rewriting until I form a narrative that fills a bubble. Hard, but not scary. Writing a novel is a set of train tracks heading across the mountain and is much more intimidating because I never know if I'm angling toward a cliff or a bridge. If pinned down, I like writing novels better than writing short stories. There's something about long term immersion that's attractive to obsessive personalities.
Q. And lastly, what does the L in Vernon's name stand for?
Thank you, T.J., for answering these questions and thank you for writing such a dynamic book!
T. J. Forrester comes from a family of four and has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. He prefers to sleep on the ground and is no longer scared of bears. His stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Emerson Review, Harpur Palate, The Literary Review, The MacGuffin, The Mississippi Review, Potomac Review, and Storyglossia.
He wrote Miracles, Inc. while living in Virginia. The attic room was small, chilly in the winter, but his landlord was very kind and fed him when he was without food. His second work, a novel-in-stories titled Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster in the spring of 2012.
He blogs at his personal website. tjforrester.com