Today, Jim Chambers is interviewing Rodney Jones, author of The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains, scheduled to be released October 2nd.
Jim: Rodney, can you please tell us a bit about yourself? What’s your life all about when you’re not writing?
Rodney: I like to get outside and walk. I’ll drive out to the country, two miles from home, and walk along the corn and soybeans of rural Ohio. My mind dumps all the thoughts that I’d put on hold while writing. If I’m alone I’ll sometimes talk to myself—exercise my vocal cords. Sometimes this turns into a conversation—a dialogue. Perhaps once a week I get out my bicycle and ride up the Cardinal Greenway. I’ll ride thirty to forty miles, occasionally fifty. Often, these rides are shared with my daughter, Jody. We’ll talk for the first twenty miles, then grow tired and quiet for the remaining trip back. Lately, I’ve been getting the itch to spend time alone in the woods. There’s a certain hilltop in the Charles Deam Wilderness Area overlooking Lake Monroe, which I especially like to backpack to. What a beautiful area that is. I feel truly isolated out there.
I have a vegetable garden too, all organic, lots of tomatoes, which usually end up as marinara. Now and then I pitch baseballs to my grandson, Jory, or dance with my granddaughter, Emele. We do this thing we call ‘song for the day’ where I’ll play old records, which I have a nice collection of, and we’ll work out little dance routines. She loves it. So do I. I probably spend an hour a day on the phone with my girlfriend who lives four hundred miles away. We haven’t seen each other in twelve years, but I think, now that I have a few extra dollars for gas, I’ll go visit her. That should be a hoot. From time to time I do a little work. I earn money doing small carpentry jobs or stonework. I enjoy the work, but it tends to get in the way of my writing, so I avoid it as much as possible. I’m smiling, thinking of that line from the movie Office Space: “It’s not that I’m lazy; it’s just that I don’t care.”
And one more thing: I paint—oils—abstract. I was an artist long before I became a writer.
Jim: Who or what influenced your decision to become a writer?
Rodney: I used to get these occasional moods for sci-fi, though I’ve only read a handful of books in that genre. The last time was in ninety-nine. I had just come off a binge of James Michener novels. A book had recently come out, a sequel to the last sci-fi novel I’d read. I was excited about this book because I enjoyed its prequel so much. I’m not going to give the author’s name, because I was hugely disappointed with his follow-up. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I could probably write something better than this.’ Blissful, arrogant ignorance. Prior to that I’d not written anything other than a poorly spelled grocery list. I’m grateful I didn’t know any better because I wouldn’t have likely made it to where I am now. The first draft of my first novel was so laughingly bad—it took me three years to complete, too. Fortunately, I had no one pointing out to me how poor it was; I might have given up, had I realized that. Convinced I could write, I went on to write The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains. It turned out pretty good. So, what would you call this? Reverse inspiration?
Jim: In your own reading, do you prefer printed books or ebooks? Do you have an ebook reader?
Rodney: I prefer printed books, turning paper pages. I like the smell. I don’t own an ebook reader. I’ve seen them, though. I think they’re nice, very practical and convenient. They need to improve on the smell, however.
Jim: In your own reading, what is your favorite genre?
Rodney: I read mainstream fiction and literary fiction, for the most part. I have a fondness for time travel stories, too. Growing up, I enjoyed The Twilight Zone TV series. I remember thinking that if I ever wrote stories, they’d be similar to Rod Serling’s. I like quirky, bizarre stories, dark comedies, but they have to have a strong element of realism to hold my interest. They have to have believable characters.
Jim: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
Rodney: Authors I’ve read, and then went back to read more from: T.C. Boyle, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip José Farmer, Jack Finney, Frank Herbert, James Michener, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Stewart, Anne Tyler, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Updike, and Cormac McCarthy.
I started reading late in life. I was twenty-three when I read my first novel (not counting Green Eggs and Ham). It’s true. I cheated on all those book reports through school—faked my way through. My first cover-to-cover read was The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. I was hooked from then on.
Strong influences? I’d say, Anne Tyler for character development, T.C. Boyle for structure, Rod Serling for tone and premise, and then perhaps Palahniuk for humor, and McCarthy for guts and courage. I think I could list a hundred different books that had a degree of influence—every book I’ve enjoyed reading contributed something.
Jim: Is time travel a special interest of yours?
Rodney: I love the idea of time travel, though I wouldn’t go so far as say it’s a ‘special’ interest because I have so many interests. As much as I enjoyed writing The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains, I can’t see myself writing another time travel story. I have too many other ideas that I’m excited about.
Jim: How long did it take you to write the book?
Rodney: If I remember correctly, it took me about four months to research, one year to get down the first draft, then a couple of years revising, editing, and polishing. It sounds like a lot of time for one little YA book, but I’ve gotten better at it since.
Jim: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
Rodney: The ending. I struggled with the ending. I think endings are the most important part of a story. I had recently seen the movie Wristcutters: A Love Story, and was clear I wanted my ending to have a similar feel to it.
Jim: In the story, John Bartley unknowingly steps through a portal and is instantly transported 134 years ahead in time. If you knew of such a portal, and you could control it, when and where would you most want to emerge?
Rodney: This one is easy! 1962, The Cavern Club, in Liverpool, England. To hang out with The Beatles—before they were famous, before anyone in the US had even heard of them… perhaps lend them a few ideas. Ha!
Jim: In the book, John Bartley loved the book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which for him was written just a few years before the story takes place. Did that book hold any special significance to you?
Rodney: A confession: I’ve never read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I saw the film when I was a kid. For my book, I brushed up on the topic at Wikipedia. So romantic, no? It’s a good fit, though, I think.
Jim: Much of the story takes place in Vermont during the late 19th century. Were you already familiar with life in that era, or did you have to research it?
Rodney: Yes. I spent several months researching before starting on the story. I spent a lot of time at the Mark Skinner Library in Manchester, Vermont. They have a great staff there, and lovely views from the windows. I also spoke to several local historians. I was most interested in getting the dialect right, so I studied letters that were written during the Civil War. Just about everyone of that period who could read and write wrote poetry. A lot of clues were found in the poetry, though people typically wrote in a formal style. Of course I didn’t want my characters speaking the way they would have written. Fortunately I came upon a collection of correspondences between two brothers that had been written to one another during the Civil War. These two fellows wrote in a more natural voice. Sadly, I had to drop a number of my favorite colloquialisms because few people would have known what they meant, but I held onto enough to give it an authentic flavor, I think.
I found a wonderful map of Vermont, made in 1865, which showed every road, town, village, mountain, river—it even included farms and businesses, as well as the names of the farmers, the business proprietors, and their titles. This was where I got a lot of my names from. I lived in Vermont for seven years, near Greendale Road. The description I give of the ruins of Greendale is accurate. I used to hike up there a lot, and found fragments of dishes, and evidence of a mill among the old dilapidated stone foundations. There’s still a mystery as to what actually happened to the village. I could not find an answer. The account I give of Abby Hemenway, the Vermont historian, is also accurate. The only recorded history of Greendale that I’m aware of was destroyed in a fire before it could be published.
Jim: Did you consider any other endings to the story?
Rodney: No. I spent several days searching for an ending. Then it just came all at once.
Jim: If The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing John and Tess? (Actors/actresses don’t have to be contemporary.)
Rodney: Patrick Fugit would play John, and Shannyn Sossamon would play Tess. I can think of a number of other pleasing combinations, but I’ll stick with my first impressions because these two were my inspiration for the ending.
Jim: Do you have another novel in mind? How about a sequel to The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains?
Rodney: I have no plans for a sequel, but am working on a new story, a quirky sci-fi that doesn’t read like a sci-fi. And I have three other novels completed, none of which are YA, though all, I believe, are as engaging as The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains.
Jim: Do you have anything else that you want to say to people who read your book?
Rodney: Yes. Be happy.