Blog Tour/Interview: Jonathan M. Cook

Today, BookZone welcomes Jonathan M. Cook who is touring with Virtual Author Book Tours and has graciously consented to be interviewed about his debut novel Youth and Other Fictions.

BOOKZONE: Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for me and the readers of BookZone. I’m very excited about this interview, in fact I begged to be included in this tour because I’ve always been fascinated with teachers and the life of a teacher.  How do they do it day after day? In this climate of technology where tools and apps are used as short cuts and students think as little as possible, what keeps a teacher motivated?

JONATHAN: Teaching is a professional of little victories.  The federal government appears to loathe teachers, the general public assumes we are overpaid and underworked, and many of the students can’t understand what all this fine talk of dead authors has to do with the Real World.  Add to this the students who seem to be merely biding their time, doing well not because they care but because they expect to move on to bigger and better things, such as college, and leave their peers behind them.  Top the pile off with the parents who assume whatever the teachers are doing is wrong—they don’t know why, but because it is done by someone else, it must be wrong.

All that is on one side.  On the other side are the students who get genuinely excited because after nine weeks of not doing well on his/her essays, he/she finally gets a C—that one middle passage was just terrific—or the student who refuses to accept that Lennie’s death could possibly be an act of friendship, no matter what the teacher says; she/he keeps arguing about morality and philosophy and the sanctity of life.

What keeps a teacher going is the knowledge that there will be students who do want to learn, who do see the value in education, and who do see the point in an unconventional approach.  Add to that the knowledge that the federal government does not understand the word “compromise,” the general public does not know what actually happens in a real classroom, and many students have been subjected to bad teaching for so long that their apathy is perfectly understandable.  Top off that pile with the fact that the parents who perpetually disagree with teachers are few and far between—they may be loud, but that’s all.

Teacher motivation ultimately boils down to this:  most students end up being a lot of fun, and the negative aspects of teaching are, for the most part, annoying but little more.

BOOKZONE: WOW! Not only are you motivated, you somehow found time to write a YA novel. Please share with us where you were mentally when the idea hit you?  (As in, are you a journaler and it was a chronological thing, or was it an Aha moment that propelled you into the land of writerdom?)  What proved to be the easiest and also the hardest part? (for e.g. Getting started, plot cohesion, staying focused)

JONATHAN:  I had just started college when the idea first came to me.  I had attempted to write a science fiction novel—don’t we all?—and found myself having tremendous difficulty moving past the first few pages.  The axiom “Write what you know” kept repeating in my head, so I decided to take my high school experience and put it into some kind of coherent shape.  Needless to say, my high school experience was not terribly enjoyable.
Writing the first half of the novel took the next two years.  However, when I finished that first part, I stuck the manuscript in a drawer because I wasn’t too sure where the story went next.  I knew it wasn’t finished, but given how that part ends, a basic continuation seemed unreasonable.

I worked on the extant half for the next several years, revising and editing and cutting and adding.  The problem of what came next, however, remained.

Skip ahead another several years.

I had just been hired as an English teacher in a rural community very similar to the one in which I had grow up.  I was eating dinner at a local restaurant when Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” came on the radio.  For whatever reason, I had been thinking about the irony of becoming a high school teacher given my personal experiences in high school.  One thing led to another, and soon I was writing my second half.

The first half could be seen as the intentional half, and the second half could be seen as the “a-ha!” half.

BOOKZONE: What is the most important thing you learned/experienced during the writing process? (Was there a clear demarcation between teaching the subject of English and using the English language to craft a book?)

JONATHAN:  I really tried to keep my professional life and my personal life as separate as possible.  I was constantly petrified at the thought of my colleagues and my students reading a book in which I describe post-coital bliss and two dogs tearing each other to pieces in explicit detail.  At the same time, however, I wanted to make sure I told the story as accurately and as honestly as possible, which meant refusing to ignore the depth of the characters’ scars.  The main characters are terribly damaged individuals, and telling the story I wanted to tell required my exploring the results of being so damaged.

Most of my readers so far have found the novel compelling rather than repelling, so I take that to mean I made the right decision.

BOOKZONE: That must be pretty reassuring. What has been the reaction of your students?

JONATHAN: They love it.  The initial reaction was “OMG, Mr. Cook wrote a book, cool,” which I expected, but as more and more of them have started reading it, the response I’ve heard over and over again is “This is really good.”  I hear it from the students and from the faculty.  Actually, I’m surprised one of the other teachers hasn’t gotten mad at me because the students are reading the book during class.

I’m not going to speculate on why they all like it so much; that would probably just be a gratuitous display of ego.  When I’ve asked, though, I get everything from “It’s just brutal” to “I’m reading it and it’s all sexy and I’m like, my English teacher wrote this.”  I figure, as long as they’re reading, I’m happy.

BOOKZONE: Has your endeavor inspired any of them (do you think?)

JONATHAN: I really couldn’t say.  I hope so.  There is a very large segment of the student body in any high school that simply tries to get through every day with minimal hassle.  Hopefully, some of those students will come out of their shells a bit and engage in the bigger discussion of literature and creative writing as a way of exploring their maturation.

BOOKZONE: What is the one thing, if we get nothing else, that your main characters want us to understand/get about them?

JONATHAN: Now there’s a dangerous question!  After everything else, I think they’d want us to remember that there is a fundamental disconnect between children and adults, that adults have tremendous difficulty understanding children and vice versa.  Why is there so much drama in high school?  Because a student’s whole world is compressed down to a single building or a neighborhood.  Adults try to keep things in perspective and remember how big the world really is.  Why do children roll their eyes at those pearls of wisdom adults are so fond of dispensing?  Because all too often, the advice, logical as it may be, is impractical when applied to a child’s world.  The world in which children grow up today is marked different from even the world in which I grew up—and I’m only ten years out of high school!

BOOKZONE: Those are great points. So, what’s next for you?

JONATHAN: I have a few projects I’m considering.  One is a kind of love story set against the advent of the Internet.  Another is a modern update to the quest for the Holy Grail.  Right now, I’m just sort of punching away at the keyboard and seeing what compels me.

BOOKZONE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JONATHAN: Vote Cthulhu 2012!  Because the stars are aligned!

And thank you very much for allowing me the chance to discussion my work in a public forum like this.  It’s always rewarding to know that people want to discuss something that took as much time and effort as writing a novel.

LOL. Thanks for stopping by and we look forward to seeing more from you.

There you have it folks! Please take a moment to visit Jonathan’s site to say hello. 

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