Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Justin Kramon Author Interview

Book Nerd Interview

Justin Kramon is the author of the novels Finny (Random House, 2010) and The Preservationist (Pegasus, 2013). A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers' Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He lives in Philadelphia.

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Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?

My interest in writing developed slowly, like a tall tree, or maybe a rash, depending on which day you ask me. I was actually very interested in music when I was in high school, but at some point I realized I wasn't going to be good enough to be a professional, or possibly I didn't care quite as much as I needed to. But through music I at least got the sense that art could be a vessel for those hidden feelings everyone has about the world, feelings that might be difficult to express in everyday life. Then I found that writing came more naturally to me, and I liked the feeling of doing it, so I kept on with it.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?

That's a great question, and a big one, and I'm not sure I can give a complete answer. As a fiction writer, your job is basically to tell lies for a living. But at the same time, I have the sense that most people who read fiction feel like some of the truest things they've read are in novels or poems or stories. So it seems to me like stories are a way to organize our feelings about the world, to tell lies in just the right way so that they seem true and show us something about the world that we can't tap into in our normal lives.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?

My favorite book changes with each novel or story I'm working on. A lot of times what gets me started on writing a story or a novel is falling in love with a book or story by another author, then trying to use things I've learned from that story to present my own material. The book that got me started on The Preservationist was Stephen King's novel Misery, which I loved because of the elaborate and odd portrayal of Annie Wilkes, the suspenseful story, and also the way King was able to find a way to offer some big ideas and feelings about writing within a gripping, page-turning plot.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?

One fairly well known writer once told me that when you're visiting a girlfriend, it's always best to back your car into her driveway, since you never know how quickly you'll have to leave. I'm married, so fortunately I haven't had the chance to try out this advice, but I'm passing it on here, in case anyone else might find it of use.

In your book; The Preservationist, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it?

The Preservationist is a psychological thriller about a young woman named Julia Stilwell, who's trying to get back into her life after some difficult stuff happened to her. She's a talented musician. She meets an older man, Sam Blount, who likes Julia a lot, and they start dating. Sam is a sensitive, kind guy, but he also has some quirks. A young man, Marcus Broley, becomes very jealous of Sam's relationship with Julia, and Julia begins to feel threatened by Marcus, at the same time as she's starting to wonder about Sam. Then the threat of violence escalates, and Julia is in danger and not sure whom to trust.

For those who are unfamiliar with Sam, how would you introduce him?

When we meet Sam, he's approaching his fortieth birthday, "a great beast of a birthday," as he sees it. He's terrified of aging, and he uses all sorts of creams and lotions and primping routines to try to preserve his youthful look. He's worked in kitchens and cafes all over the country, likes the travel and the adventure of starting out in a new place, and he's preserved mementos from all these places he's been and people he's met. But he's lonely. Having a relationship with Julia, who's in college, helps him to feel young and hopeful. Only, Sam isn't entirely truthful with Julia. He like to tell stories about himself, because that keeps the world exciting for him, and it keeps him from having to share too much of himself.

What part of Marcus did you enjoy writing the most?

Marcus is a musician, and that was fun to talk about. But in general, psychology has always been one of the most interesting things to me, so I liked getting into the dark parts of Marcus's past, those shadowy areas he's hidden from the world.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?

This isn't exactly a book, but maybe Sam from my novel could talk to Merrick from David Lynch's great movie The Elephant Man. Sam might have some thoughts on creams Merrick could use to tighten things up.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Julia?

I came to understand how humor was a coping mechanism for her, but also a defense. She's very sharp and quick, but that wittiness also protects her from having to share too much of herself.

When asked, what’s the one question you always answer with a lie?

Do you know how to get to Main Street?

What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?

I'm not sure about developing a unique voice. It's very rare, and my guess is that the people who have it aren't doing it consciously. In my experience, reading is the biggest aid to writing. For me, to write without reading would be like describing a country I've never been to. I could get the basics of the language and the geography, but I'd have no idea what the streets smelled like, or how a friend might greet me on a Sunday afternoon. I guess the other thing I've found helpful is to be honest with myself about how a book I'm reading is affecting me, to be clear about what I like and don't like, what moves me, what bothers me, so that I can bring as much of that understanding as possible to my writing. But it's always imperfect.

What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?

In college, I spent summers working at a homeless shelter in Boston. I had to work the overnight shift two or three nights a week, so I was constantly in a kind of daze, because my sleep schedule was weird. I met some very nice people in the shelter, but I do remember one man who tried to kick me in the neck, then hugged me and said I was like a son to him. Very confusing. I was just starting to write stories then, so as you can probably imagine, my first short story had to do with a college kid meeting a homeless man.

Tell me about your first kiss

It hasn't happened yet, but my wife keeps telling me it'll be any day now.

When was the last time you cried?

I cried a little when I was answering the last question.

Where can readers stalk you?

My website is www.justinkramon.com. I'm on facebook at facebook.com/justin.kramon.writer. In both places, you can see photos that prove how pale I am.

To Sam Blount, meeting Julia is the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Working at the local college and unsuccessful in his previous relationships, he'd been feeling troubled about his approaching fortieth birthday, "a great beast of a birthday," as he sees it, but being with Julia makes him feel young and hopeful. Julia Stilwell, a freshman trying to come to terms with a recent tragedy that has stripped her of her greatest talent, is flattered by Sam's attention. But their relationship is tested by a shy young man with a secret, Marcus Broley, who is also infatuated with Julia.

Told in alternating points of view, The Preservationist is the riveting tale of Julia and Sam's relationship, which begins to unravel as the threat of violence approaches and Julia becomes less and less sure whom she can trust.

Chapter One
Of all the places Julia Stilwell thought she might be on a September afternoon, less than a year after the accident, this was the last she would have imagined. College. A freshman headed out on a first date. It was too normal. She felt like she’d snuck into the wrong movie, like any minute a guy in a little hat would come running up the aisle, shine a flashlight in her eyes, and ask to see her ticket.

But here she was, ten minutes to two, fixing her hair, getting her shoes on, smiling at her reflection so she could paint blush on her cheeks, going back and forth in her mind about whether to bring a backpack or a purse. It was all the usual stuff girls do before dates, but to Julia it felt like a test, a set of pictures she had to line up in the right order. Wrong answer sends you back to go. It was a blessing her roommate Leanette was in class and not around to witness the chaos of these final preparations. Leanette had dates every weekend and went to all the parties, and Julia was sure this fussing would have seemed amateur to her, like a kid playing with an adult’s makeup kit.

In the end, she decided on a messenger bag. She slung it over her shoulder, flipped the lights off, and left the room.

Outside, it was gorgeous. Cloudless and warm, the air felt like a shirt just out of the dryer. Julia lived in an off-campus dorm, and though the building was musty, with cinder block walls and a dull gray carpet that gave off a smell like boiled milk, there was a pretty courtyard out here, a cement bench, a trellis wrapped with vines and bright flowers. She took a long breath, enjoying the weather and her anticipation, perched for a moment on the fragile edge of happiness.

Julia was headed to campus, and she decided to take the path through the woods. She could have gone through town, but didn’t know whom she’d run into, and whether they’d ask what she was up to. The date with Marcus didn’t have to be a secret, but for some reason she wanted to keep it to herself, like a note in her pocket.
Before the accident, it would have been different. Julia would have had to tell Danny and Shana about how Marcus had asked her out, making little jokes to play it down. They wouldn’t have let her get away with the secrecy. In high school, when she wasn’t practicing the trumpet, Julia had spent most of her free time with these friends. She knew everything about them, from what they’d gotten on their last history tests to what their boyfriends had whispered in their ears the first times they’d had sex.

Julia had always been a bit of an oddball, with her quirky sense of humor, the flat way she delivered jokes that caught people off guard and sometimes made them smile, sometimes give her confused looks. She was never a star in the classroom, and didn’t go in for all the primping and social striving most of the girls did. She didn’t need it; her music and her plans for the future had been enough. They’d given her distance, kept her insulated from the storms of teenage social life. When her friends were worked up over a boy or a conflict with parents, Julia was always the first to jump in with a silly line to relieve the tension. She wore thrift store T-shirts and frayed corduroys and didn’t try to be the prettiest or the smartest or the most popular, just didn’t care that much about it.
But all of that was gone, that old life. She didn’t talk to any of those people anymore. She’d gotten rid of her cell phone, tossed it into a lake, actually. Burial at sea.

Marcus had suggested they meet at two-thirty, since the snack bar would be less crowded then, between lunch and dinner. As usual, Julia was early. She couldn’t help it. She’d always been the type to arrive ten minutes before a meeting, and none of the tricks she pulled to delay herself ever seemed to work. If she were ever sentenced to execution, she’d probably arrive ten minutes early for that, just to get a good seat.

She tried to slow down, scraping her shoe soles on the dirt and rocks in the woods.

As a way to distract herself, she started thinking about how the date had come about. “You have this way about you,” Marcus had said that night in the library, when they were working on the counterpoint project. “It’s like you live in your own self-contained world. I’ve been wanting to know what’s going on in there since the first time I saw you.” After he said it, he smiled in a teasing way, and she wasn’t sure if he was being genuine. She almost made a quick joke back, her habit. Nothing going on in here. My world’s in a budget crisis. But then she noticed he was blushing, all the way from his ears down to the base of his neck. There was something reassuring about his discomfort. Seeing it, she’d felt a protective tenderness for him, the way you might watching a child pedal a bike up a steep hill.

“You want to get lunch on Thursday in the snack bar?” he’d said after that, so casually anyone listening would have thought he’d just tossed out the offer, not even caring what her answer would be. But he’d given a specific day. He’d mentioned the snack bar, as if an off-campus date would have been too much to ask.

“I’d love to,” Julia had said. “But are you going to be there?”

And Marcus had smiled.

When she got near the top of the hill, where the woods let out, Julia heard a train clacking away from the station at the base of campus. She checked her watch: ten minutes early. Of course. She walked onto the train platform, into the warm bright sunshine.

That was when it happened, suddenly, in the midst of all that sparkling weather. It was as if someone had pulled the plug on the day, and all the excitement just drained out, like water from a tub.

She knew what it was, this feeling. She’d told El Doctor about it, these aftershocks, as she thought of them, reminders of events she couldn’t change, events she would have preferred to snip out of the cloth of her memory. She closed her eyes, and there it was again, her brother’s face, pale with shock at what he was witnessing, his lips opening and closing, making no sound, until finally he’d asked, “Is that mine?”
But she couldn’t do this now, couldn’t let herself get dragged under. If you want to move forward, you have to stop looking back. Positive thinking, positive results. She stood straight, pushed her shoulders back, breathed, fixed the strap of the messenger bag like a seatbelt across her chest, and continued across the tracks, up the tree-lined path to campus.

Inside the snack bar, Julia couldn’t spot Marcus. She looked around at all the tables and booths. Most were empty. At one table, two women in suits were smiling over something one of them had said, then they got up to leave, carrying stacks of paper. Inside a booth, three muscular-looking boys sat talking over empty plates and balled napkins.

They made Julia nervous, these people. The way they moved and talked and smiled seemed foreign, like they were all doing a dance she’d never learned. The thought surfaced again that maybe she wasn’t fit to be here, at a college, so soon, no matter what El Doctor said.

But it’s best not to overthink things. That’s how you get yourself into trouble. When you stop and think about how vulnerable you are, or how strange the world is, it’s easy to end up feeling confused and lonely.

In the corner, next to the doors where people walked in to order their sandwiches, a man in a red shirt and white apron was standing beside a trashcan. Julia recognized him as the guy who usually made her sandwiches. She remembered thinking more than once that he was cute. He had shaggy brown hair, and could have passed for a student if he were a couple years younger. He always smiled when he saw Julia, and offered her an extra handful of chips or a second spear of pickle with her order. She didn’t know if he did that for other girls, but it was such a simple and plainly sweet gesture that it charmed her. A pickle for your thoughts, my dear.

When she looked at him, though, smiling, ready to wave, he looked down, like he was embarrassed. She wasn’t sure if maybe he didn't recognize her, or was surprised at meeting her without the lunch counter between them, or if he was just socially awkward, but whatever it was, she felt disappointed. She wanted to give him a signal that it was okay to be friendly, wave to her when she came in. I won’t bite.

She didn’t have a chance to do anything, though, because just as she was considering it, Marcus walked in.

You can purchase Preservationist at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you Justin for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Preservationist by Justin Kramon.
a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Nice interview, and thanks for sharing an excerpt and trailer from the book. Will definitely have to add this to my TBR stack!