Choosing Battles: John Gilstrap

” … I have family and acquaintances who ostentatiously never read my books …”

My latest novel, Dust, is dedicated to my mother. If you follow me on Facebook, you know that she has refused to finish reading the manuscript after having read just 26 pages.  Although she holds the opinion that those pages are beautifully written, and that the story is a page turner, it’s just “too hard” for her to continue.  She can’t seem to digest the truth in it, and the thought-provoking questions it poses about  religion, death, parenting of adult children, prejudice, and love.

She begged me not to publish it, to set it aside, to essentially bury it.  This is a form of censorship.

 The best literature is not only entertaining, it’s also a window into the realities of life, which can make some folks uncomfortable. Although unofficial, I can  now count Dust among the following books, all of which have been victims of censorship:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
As I Lay Dying (Faulkner)
Catch 22 (Heller)
Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
From Here to Eternity (Joyce)
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
Dust (Przekop) ???

Each of these novels caused some level of discomfort simply by incorporating truth, whether it was a word, scenario, or thought-provoking question.  I dream that my writing may some day reach the level of these great literary works. Burying what I believe to be my best effort yet isn’t going to get me there.  I just wish my mother could muster the strength and love to digest it.    

My guest today, New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap says he also has relatives who haven’t read his novels.  Is it just me, or is this downright bizarre?  If one of my relatives wrote a book, especially one that made it to the hallowed New York Times list, I’d be the first to read it. 

Perhaps these folks are simply not into reading.  My mother’s a reader; she loves fiction. In her case, my novel is “painful” because it hits too close to home. In addition, it’s “appalling” because she doesn’t believe it fully supports her religious views.  Interestingly, when I set out the write the novel, I vowed that, once and for all, I was not going to let my mother’s unyielding opinions influence my craft. I was not going to censor myself.  

John, a habitual observer of people, funnels this keen ability into numerous aspects of his life, and straight into his thrilling fiction.  One of the cool aspects of writing fiction is that all those motivations we as writers recognize or imagine come to life. Day to day, we don’t often know if we’re right about why someone said this or that, why they took a certain action, or chose not to.  In fiction, we can mold all those tiny or gigantic motivations into something cohesive.  When we get it right, truth glues it all together.

Great literature can expand who we are, as well as our ability to understand humanity.  As I move forward, my mother seems to be shrinking.  I wish I could somehow pull her along, but I’m feeling defeated. John says there’s no shame in declaring defeat. He suggests that people should choose their battles.

I choose to push forward with my writing; I believe it’s a battle I can win.  As for pleasing my mother, I’m trying to quit.

What’s your writing story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

My path is as twisted and meandering as any career could be. I started out in college wanting to be a journalist, but after a couple of years at a trade journal–that was the best I could do with a History degree–I realized it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I followed an entirely different path–safety engineering and 15 years in the fire and rescue service–that I finally found my way back to writing.

As for establishing myself as a writer, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve done that yet, even after seven published books and an eighth and ninth scheduled for the next two years.

I think that any artist who doesn’t confess to some level of surprise to any commercial success is being disingenuous. This is a very capricious business. Like any other business, though, luck resides at the intersection of talent and hard work.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?

My current focus is in creating my new series character, Jonathan Grave, a freelance hostage rescue specialist. The ah-ha moment, such as it was, came while researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom, which introduced me to the world of covert operators. I met many fine people who do unspeakably heroic things while rarely getting credit outside of their closed community. Dealing with them, and with the operations they perform on foreign soil, I got the idea of creating a character who would show the same dedication to hostage rescue outside of the military environment. I’m thrilled to report that the two Jonathan Grave novels, No Mercy and Hostage Zero, are both doing very well.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is defined by equal parts of both. I can create merely by thinking. We all do that every time we have a dream or play a what-if game in our heads. It’s the expression of those thoughts that allows a writer (or any artist, for that matter) to share the experience with others. My need to write is fueled by my desire to entertain people by introducing them to the vivid figments of my imagination.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t think I believe in writer’s block either. That said, creativity frequently stops flowing for me, albeit temporarily. Usually, it has something to do with losing my way in a story. The only way to get through those rough times, though, is to sit down and muscle my way through.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?

Creativity has posed far more solutions for me than problems. As a habitual observer of people my whole life, I feel that I understand motivations and reactions better than most, and that ability (whether its actual or merely imagined) has always given me confidence in my interactions with people. It’s a skill that served me equally well in the fire service, the corporate world, and in the creative communities that I inhabit in the real world, and the ones that I create in my head.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

To tell the absolute truth, I’ve never used writing as therapy–at least not directly. I don’t keep a journal, and never have. In troubling times, I find writing to be a burden that can pull me away from what seem like more important matters. For me, the act of writing, when it’s going well delivers the rush that I would imagine a concert pianist while practicing alone. It brings a great sense of satisfaction to know that your skills are improving all the time, and as days turn into years, you begin to take solace in the fact that maybe–just maybe–you’re beginning to understand what you’re doing.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

Artistic success easily destabilizes fragile relationships–even more so if the success is both critical and financial. I think that most people on the sidelines of such success believe that artists who “make it”–however you want to define that–do so more because of luck than talent, and there’s a tendency to discount the years of work and perseverance that allowed the luck to occur. I’ve lost track of the people who have told me over the years that they would write a book, too, if only they had the time. As if it’s that easy.

In my own life, I have family and acquaintances who ostentatiously never read my books, or who go out of their way to say something dismissive or cutting in the presence of others. I think it’s a defense mechanism, akin to dismissing a friend’s weight loss, or diminishing a terrific grade point average by making fun of the course load or the school at which it was earned.

As for how to cope, I smile as appropriate and then take them off the guest list for my very cool book launch parties.

Successful writers often focus on the same genre. Have you ever grown tired of working on similar types of projects, and if so, how have you dealt with that?

This is actually a tough question because I write thrillers, and that is hardly a confining genre. That said, at this point in life, the only stories I want to tell are exciting ones. I like imagining people in jeopardy and and pretending that they have to fight their way to safety. Thus, I haven’t had anything negative to deal with there.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

As a professional writer–defined for the purpose of this question as one who has signed a contract to deliver two books in two years–writing goals are met exclusively through discipline, professionalism and perseverance. If I waited for my characters to speak to me, or any of the other BS motivations I hear at conferences, I would never get a single word onto the page. The trick is to write as often as you can, and to never miss a deadline. In my own case, I know that for every book, I will be a much slower writer for the first hundred pages than I will be for the last three hundred. It’s just the way my process works, and I plan accordingly.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I tell writers groups all the time that no one can thrust defeat on another party; that defeat can only be declared by the one who has given up. I don’t believe in failure, and I don’t believe in most forms of victim hood. If I don’t succeed, it’s because I screwed something up, and it’s my job to fix whatever I broke and then try again. There’s no shame in declaring defeat–I stopped attempting home repair projects years ago when I realized that I didn’t want to do the work that would teach me the skills–but we should call it what it really is: quitting. People need to pick their battles accordingly.

That’s a long mantra, I suppose, but it’s important to me because it makes my world make sense. It gives me the confidence and the courage to keep hammering away at a business where success is judged largely by how well you perform this time. That’s how we judge all professionals.

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