Last month, I reviewed Justin Kramon’s new thriller The Preservationist. This time, I interview the author. When I first met Justin Kramon in 2010, he spoke to the Annapolis Chapter of Maryland Writers Association about his well-received first novel Finny. His vivid characters and confident writing style were impressive for an author still in his twenties. I interviewed him then for MWA’s Pen in Hand. He continues to be a thoughtful and engaging interviewee.
SL: Tell me about your characters. In both Finny and The Preservationist they are very quirky and well-developed. Do they start from people you meet or observe?
JK: Writing is really hard. There are so many pieces. What I do… the characters are not really based on people. I observe the traits and contradictions in people, but not in a literal way. I extract from reality, but I don’t use the people right out of my life. I start by writing in long-hand about characters. I make something like a scrapbook for each character I develop. It ends up full of stuff that won’t be published. I know what’s in their closet. I know what they do at three on a Friday. All the material in the scrapbooks forms the basis. I think about how various characters would interact with each other in a given situation and the story starts from there.
SL: The thriller is such a different genre from your first novel. Had you started on it before Finny, or while Finny was being developed?
JK: No, I was putting together a different kind of book. I’d been used to writing literary short stories. Then I was touring to promote Finny. It’s wonderful, but you get pulled away from writing and from reading. Reading is crucial for me, but I was having trouble enjoying books. I looked for something totally different. I read Misery by Stephen King. I hadn’t read his books since middle school, and I had that old sensation of the fun of reading.
SL: What about Misery scared you?
JK: It was more exciting than scary. What I like is when you can let go and get swept up in a book and whatever you’re doing, you can’t wait to get home and get back into that book and that world. After Misery, I started reading and enjoying mysteries and thrillers. I read literary crime novels, not too procedural. My favorites were ones that stressed characters and the criminal mind. I read The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Collector, many others.
SL: It’s currently the fashion to write from one character’s point of view. I liked the way you used all the voices, the point of view of all the characters.
JK: I loved the idea of treating all the characters evenly no matter what. That’s what made the book fun to write. I spent a lot of time making it smooth for the reader. I don’t name each chapter for a different character, but I put in transitions so the reader knows that now we’re going to be in another head. There are a lot of small moves, immersing the reader in one character’s world and then another.
SL: Your main characters Julia, Marcus, and Sam are flawed, each of them bearing some guilt about a death in their past. They’re all caught up in their own stories. Tell me about being inside Sam’s head. He often seemed unaware of what he’d just done. Sam’s mother, the only murder explicitly described in the novel, was the pivotal moment of the story when the reader finally sees exactly what he’s capable of and how unaware he is of his own role. It’s not very long in terms of pages, but it feels long as we and Sam see her life leaving her, almost dripping out of her.
JK: I’m glad you mentioned it. That was very difficult. It was horrifying and sad for him to watch her die, and it’s all his fault. He tells stuff to himself as if it’s not strange, and he tries to stay bright and young and fresh.
SL: Did you do research to develop his character?
JK: I didn’t do formal research. I read a lot of books, mostly fiction, about violence, and some that set up the psychology of the criminal. I did do research to learn how often the trash is removed from the dump, things like that. I learned that too much of a certain medication could be fatal. Mostly, I deeply imagine the sense and texture of a person’s life. I read for emotional truth and I write the same way. I look for what is essential in the way people see and react to the world.
SL: You’re a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tell me about that experience. Was it supportive? Did it give you networking and publishing opportunities?
JK: The impressive thing is that everyone there is doing this thing, writing is their life job. Before that, writing seemed like a strange hobby. But it doesn’t seem that many people read the kind of writing they teach. The critiques were harsh. That took some getting used to. I almost couldn’t write at times.
It was a mixed experience regarding networking. Writing is a hard racket to break into. The early pressure to publish isn’t helpful to the writing. But there’s a certain sense of reality about writing as a profession. The thing was, that made the courses difficult. After you get through, you’re free to write what you want. No one cares what you do. In the best case, it gives you a little resilience.
SL: The Preservationist is just out, and you’ve gotten good reviews. You have a very full schedule of readings and signings. How’s all that going?
JK: I like that part of it, though it takes away from the writing for a while. I’ve been very well received by people who love mystery and thriller, even though I’m the new kid on the block. I also go to book clubs and I love doing that. I spoke to 130 book clubs about Finny. I don’t charge and it’s one of my favorite ways to sell a book. There are different people, different thoughts. They’ve read the book and they’re there to talk about it. I don’t have to read the same words and say the same things. It’s fresh every time.
SL: Will you write another thriller?
JK: My sense is that sometimes it can be commercially challenging for a writer to change genres in a second book, since the first book might set up expectations from the people who read it. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to do something completely different from my first book, and it’s nice that now people don’t have an expectation of what my next book will be. The new book has some suspense elements in it, but it’s much stranger and just different from anything I’ve written. It’s too early for me to commit to anything more than that.
SL: Something for us to look forward to.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Justin Kramon has published stories in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, Boulevard, Fence, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, and others. He’s received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers’ Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He’s taught undergraduate and graduate fiction writing courses at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Haverford College, the University of Iowa, Arcadia University, and elsewhere. Find The Preservationist at Amazon.com.