08 April 2012

Jonnie Comet on writing & novels

from a PR flyer, 12 September 2011--

Who, or what, is a Jonnie Comet?

One of my professors once asked me this, seeing it on some piece of text, and even some of my students have been stumped by it, which I suppose was part of the intention. Actually the name was a suggestion by my brother Rino for the name of a new band in 1978 or 1979. I thought it sounded too 1950s and rejected it out of hand.

Sometime after that I altered the spelling to appear androgynous and created an on-stage persona, some cross between Luke Skywalker and Robin Hood, a naïve though effective futuristic do-gooder featured in the songs of the Archer In The Wood and Shoot For The Stars LP projects.  By the end of the 1980s I had gone to work for corporate America and made something of a name for myself in a very specific industry; and so, when it came time to hawk Love Me Do to publishers, I chose to retain my old band’s name as a nom de plume to keep the two career paths from converging.   In each discrete circle, in order to maintain the separation, I do not mention the other name except, if it comes up, as a third-person entity.

When did you first become interested in writing?

As a child I read copiously, early and well-- in kindergarten the teacher used to have me bring in books, sit me on a table and have me read to the class since no-one else could read at kindergarten in those days. I was two or three reading levels ahead by the time I started 7th year. In critical-writing assignments I was an original voice that most teachers didn’t know what to do with. If they were mere pedants they would nitpick my grammar and spelling; if they had any sort of vision as educators they got used to just giving me an A if it had my name on top of it.

The earliest original story I can remember writing was in 5th year when a friend suckered me into doing a standup comedy routine for the class (not for an assignment, but just because) and gave me the job of writing copy for a mock news report (like a 5th-year version of SNL’s ‘Weekend Update’!). By the time I was 15 I was into the habit of writing down really cool dreams I had; one of them actually became the core of Love Me Do.

What did you do before writing novels?

I have written fiction with the aim of developing novels since I was about 15. But throughout my adult life I really have worked as a draughtsman, a liquor salesman, a boatbuilder, a delivery skipper, a private tutor, a warehouseman, a janitor, a carpenter, a skateboard assembler, a surfboard shaper, a purchasing agent, a designer of yacht hardware, a bookshop clerk, a teacher of secondary English, and of course as a working songwriter, producer and musician with a variety of outfits before and after The Jonnie Comet Band in the early 1980s.

What experiences have you had that you believe contribute to your voice as a writer?

At the age of 19 I found myself dispensing advice to younger friends (who were mostly girls, essentially groupies of the band) in Surf City. I cannot say that I had any more knowledge than they did about their personal social-life matters; but they trusted me enough to consult me with them and I did my best to rely on common sense, moral propriety and good will in helping them through them. The experience taught me two things: that I cared about people, especially young and impressionable ones, and that I had some skill as a communicator of concepts and ideals.

This sensitivity for the whole prospect of being a teenager was further nurtured when I began teaching secondary school and discovered I had students who often took me into their confidence with issues they would not mention to their own parents. They trusted in my guidance because they already knew for sure that I was a staunchly moral adult who knew how to listen and truly cared. I have always regarded their faith in me as a sort of sacred trust and a very high honour; and I like to believe I have been of great comfort to them all.

I realised that the reason I wanted to teach school was the same as the reason I wanted to be a rock-and-roll star: because I believed I had a message of honesty, decency and unconditional love to convey to other people. If I did not make much money in this pursuit, I did gain some peace of mind that having followed a course of virtue I may have helped people be happier and healthier along the way.

Aside from my worldly experiences in work and play I think this getting to know myself and what made me tick as a person is the crucial key to the relevance and uniqueness of Jonnie Comet’s voice as a writer.

What do you think is the most important feature of any novel?

All good stories are about characters. The definition of a ‘character’ can be very broad; good books have been written about animals (The Bear), computers (2001), or places (Ringworld). But what we look for is the development of some entity with whom we can feel empathy. Even when stories are inherently plot-driven, such as those Clancy writes, there are still people within them to be affected by, and to affect, the course of the events. When we recognise the humanity within the characters, we put ourselves in their places, feel what they feel, enter their struggles and cheer for their successes. We then realise that it’s been the book that does this to us, that gives us this gift; and that’s a book we consider a success at having entertained, enlightened and enlivened us. It's what I hope people will see in [Deirdre, the Wanderer].

What do you think makes a story worth reading?

Every ‘good’ story has some combination of good characters, good plot, and good style-- including good mechanical use of the language. Details are well-researched and sensibly presented.   There is a balance between narrative and dialogue-- some things are better told through action and some through the characters themselves.  Most of all the story needs a voice.  A first-person narrator should be engaging, inviting and then keeping us in the story. I like to think Deirdre is one of these-- you will read the story because she’s the one telling it. But a third-person ‘voice’ can be just as engaging, a character in itself that keeps our interest.  My favourite ‘voices’ come from 18th-C authors such as Henry Fielding and Ann Radcliffe; but that’s my taste and others will have other preferences.

Ultimately a good ‘story’ needs a good message, some theme to leave us with when it’s come to the end. This is vital, sort of the raison d’etre of the whole book. Absent this, we will wonder what we were supposed to have got out of it; its worth will have seemed purely superficial.

In your opinion what makes a book a work of ‘literature’?

All literature must have at its core this two-part rationale: to educate and to entertain. In no small part the proportion of these two determines the style and genre. For example all good lectures and sermons are literature, because they must do both, perhaps more so to educate than to entertain. Comedy sketches are literature but may be in the reverse proportion. By this definition straight news reporting is not literature; its purpose, though to be interesting, is not to entertain but to inform. Conversely a story with no underlying educative message is only fluff.

The worth of a given book as literature depends on its author’s management of this proportion.  DTW is literature that entertains the reader with a clever story most engagingly told; but beyond that it is a lesson in the necessity of having to face negative circumstances of your own making. The reader is subtly cautioned throughout that an exciting concept such as striking out on your own might finish up being fraught with yet-unforeseen difficulties, which, perhaps due to pride or naïveté, no teenager ever wants to admit could actually exist, let alone befall her personally.

Is it true you live on a boat?

In season my home base is my sailboat. It is not big but it is an extension of both my need for limitless freedom and my need for a cosy cave to curl up in. In the off-season (or when it just gets too cold, rainy, or otherwise awkward) I will crash on friends or family. For some reason they tolerate me. Though by nature I am a ‘free spirit’, I have often found myself tied-down by circumstances and so the writing of Deirdre, the Wanderer has been a catharsis for me, a way of living vicariously through a fictional narrative-- the same impression I hope readers get from the book.

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