Jim Mather has published hundreds of articles in various periodicals, has been a successful columnist for several years and has now published his first in a trilogy of novels.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
When I took my first creative writing class at Stanford (I transferred in as a Junior and already had a few writing classes under my belt), I found that most of the students there were technically very skilled. What most of their stories lacked was content. They didn’t have sufficient life experiences or insights to make their characters feel alive, or their plots to be either believable or relevant. When asked the main quality a writer must possess, legendary author Wallace Stegner (founder of the writing program at Stanford) said, “A writer must be a jack of all knowledges.” My parents didn’t have much in the way of education or worldly goods, but instilled in me a hunger for knowledge. I sought to become as well-educated as I could; not to acquire degrees but to acquire knowledge. Along the way I ended up with B.A. and M.A. degrees from Stanford and eventually reached PhD candidacy there. But what probably rounded me out most was some element within my nature that caused me to never pass up an opportunity to take part in any interesting experience (that was reasonably safe, of course). When coupled with a lifelong fascination with people and those things that make each of us tick, make each unique, I’ve gained some degree of perspective on life that has enabled my stories to at least ring true.
If you could describe the storyline of your latest novel to someone in just a few sentences how would you entice someone to want to read it?
Young Jonathan Lusk’s life was perfect. Big Boston house. Swimming pool. Summers on the Cape. His father a Nobel Prize winning Harvard professor; his mother the beautiful only child of Boston socialites. When his parents get caught in the middle of the growing rift between Arab and Jewish faculty over the creation of the State of Israel, Jonathan’s life is turned upside down. He soon finds himself in Japan, living with his grandfather, the former American Ambassador and a judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals. American opulence and comfort is abruptly replaced by subtle Japanese elegance and traditional austerity. The boy is thrust into a life among strangers and forced to navigate his way through a new country, foreign customs, unfamiliar language, and ultimately political intrigue that will threaten his life. This suspenseful story, one of personal survival, is a testament to a young boy’s perseverance and to human courage and loyalty that are sometimes found in unexpected places.
When and why did you begin writing?
Throughout high school, English was always my worst subject. Although I loved to read, I never gave a thought to one day becoming a writer. While in the Army, I had a friend who was a writer and I came to admire his ability to fashion an interesting story – oddly, it was a write-up describing a yellow #2 pencil that really impressed me. I enrolled at San Jose City College after my discharge and focused heavily on improving my English skills. In lieu of a midterm paper for a class on ancient Greek playwrights, I wrote a modern version of Antigone. I nervously waited to get the paper back and see what the teacher, Anne Heffley, thought of it. A week passed, then a month. I began thinking it had gotten lost or was so bad she didn’t know what to say. When I finally got it back, Anne had written “A++ I circulated your short play among departmental staff and everyone thought it WONDERFUL! Please keep writing!” Taking the time and caring enough about her students to say what she did, Ms. Heffley literally changed my life.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Oh, it’s pure torture, but one I’m driven (addicted?) to do. Perhaps it creating a character and giving him or her life, then watching with fascination to where he or she leads me is often as surprising to me as my readers.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
It’s cost to your family.
What inspires you to write?
Probably the thought that a character exists in my head who seeks life and desires to have his story told.
When working on a new novel, what is the first thing you do?
All of my stories begin in the same way – from the proverbial “What if…?” What if a person with certain qualities finds himself in a certain challenging situation? Many writers take their what-ifs and write a detailed outline of a story, which they follow like a roadmap. I’ve never been able to do that. It feels like it puts my character inside a straitjacket. I start with my character and a situation, then I simply begin writing, introducing obstacles to keep the stress level on him ever spiralling upwards. His solution to one situation leads him to an even more difficult one until he must face one that can’t possibly be overcome, forcing him to dig deep inside himself to survive it. Once created, my characters will tell me where they can and cannot go. If, for whatever reason, I need to take the story in a direction a character refuses to follow, I have to go back and change his qualities or introduce some step that alters him in a way that allows him to make the choice the plot needs made.
Which Writers do you admire and can you name a favourite book?
One of my all-time favorite books is Shogun by James Clavell. I’ve read it many times. I was not only fascinated by the storyline but by the way in which Clavell teaches his readers a fair amount of Japanese language and culture as he does the same with his main character, John Blackthorne, who must navigate and survive in a foreign, long-isolated nation. It greatly influenced my writing of The Arrow Catcher. I’m flattered that some have compared The Arrow Catcher to Shogun, with a younger main character and set at a later, but equally unstable time for gaijin (non-Japanese).
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
One, write every day. Second, someone once said “Don’t get it right, get it written!” Get the first draft of your story down on paper or laptop as quickly as you can. Then, begin work to make it good. “Nothing good is ever written, only rewritten.” Too many writers today publish their works long before they’re ready. Martin Cruz Smith, author of the award-winning novel, Gorky Park, told me he rewrote his first page over 800 times! I have no idea how many times I went through The Arrow Catcher, polishing, adding missing sections, removing others, moving things around, improving it with each pass. Then, my editor did a complete line-edit, pointing out grammatical and spelling errors, plot holes, sections in need of further polishing. Only when she felt it was ready for publication did I move forward with it.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m rewriting the sequel to The Arrow Catcher and sketching in a sequel to the sequel. So the story of Jonathan Lusk will eventually become at least a trilogy. The Arrow Catcher is currently being read by several major film studios and production companies, who are all looking for a “franchise,” as they call them – multi-episode stories like The Hunger Games, etc. I’m also polishing an unrelated novel, entitled The Vicious Lamb of God, which, as a film script, had advanced to the semi-finals in the Nicholls Screenwriting Fellowship, considered the most prestigious of such competitions.
Philosopher Karl Popper referred to books as “objective knowledge,” versus subjective knowledge that is passed on via word of mouth. The latter dies along with the last teller. The former, objective knowledge, is stored in hardcopy so it will become available to future generations. When you publish a book, you have potentially extended people’s awareness that you existed into the future. The better your story, the longer your name will be remembered.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Jim for participating in our Author of the Week Series.
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