Monday, February 15, 2021

James B. Hendricks Interview - The Demon of the Well


Photo Content from James B. Hendricks

James B. Hendricks was born in 1956, in Austin, Texas. And apart from a seven year (1987-1994) sojourn in Washington, D.C., he has called Austin his home. Since childhood, he has been an avid reader, discovering in books his love of language and storytelling. His critically well received first book, "The Demon of the Well", was published in paperback in 2019. The true story of the decades-long process by which this story was created is itself an epic tale.

    
  


Where were you born and where do you call home?
I was born in Austin, Texas. Which is where I live, and have lived for all but seven years of my life. During a regional banking crisis here in the Lone Star State, I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. From 1987 to 1994 I found employment in and around the Washington area, but moved back to Austin when the economy had improved here.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
It has been gratifying to receive so many favorable reviews for “The Demon of the Well”. Along with a four out of 4 star professional review by Online Book Club, my book has garnered several volunteer reader reviews from OBC with a perfect four star rating, plus a review with Kirkus Reviews that inspired their editors to publish it in Kirkus Reviews magazine on February 2nd, 2020. But perhaps its highest honor was the *starred* review it received from BlueInk Reviews that was published by the American Library Association in Booklist Magazine on April 15th. Here is a quote from that review: “….a storytelling tour de force: effortlessly fluid, razor focused, and thematically powerful, with a timeless quality.” BlueInk Reviews

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
In 1986, I was eating breakfast with my mom at Threadgill’s restaurant (where Janis Joplin got her start). I folded an origami lily from a mint wrapper and left it for our waitress with her cash tip. We would be returning for another breakfast soon, and I wondered what explanation I should give if she asked about the lily. I had been reading about Muztagh Ata, a great mountain that rises 24,634 feet in the Eastern Pamirs of central Asia. Local legend has it that there is a beautiful ‘Garden of the Gods’ on its summit. Perhaps I could jokingly claim that I plucked it from their garden. Such a garden needs a good name. I decided that I would call it “The Garden of the Four Winds”. This inspired me to write a novel by this name which, in 1991, morphed into a rather different tale - “The Demon of the Well”.

Tell us your latest news.
Since publication, I have been actively promoting my book. And so far, reactions from the reading public have been encouraging. “The Demon of the Well” has been honored as Online Book Club’s Book of the Day three times now, receiving numerous and enthusiastic responses from its members. Comments often revealed initial skepticism, followed by acceptance and enjoyment. And the market surveys that OBC conducted along with these events seem to suggest that my book may have broader appeal in the book-buying marketplace, beyond the genres of fantasy and poetry.

Can you tell us when you started THE DEMON OF THE WELL, how that came about?
It all began back in 1979, when the People’s Republic of China opened up its westernmost province – Xinjiang – to the outside world. This vast, arid region holds the great Tarim Basin – cradled by the high Kun Lun Mountains to the south and the snow-capped Celestial Mountains off to the north. Within this basin lies a forbidding sea of sand dunes called the Taklamakan Desert, with the ancient trade routes of the Old Silk Road skirting around it. As soon as the Chinese government opened this region, the National Geographic Society sent in a team of scientists and journalists and photographers to see what they could see. They came back with tales of ancient oasis towns still thriving along the Old Silk Road, and of the ruins of other cities engulfed by a haunted desert. A summary of this expedition appeared in the pages of the March, 1980 edition of the National Geographic Magazine. On this issue’s cover, an aged, Uyghur man is peering into the camera. His wise, kind, wistful – almost sorrowful expression made quite an impression on me.

In the Spring of 1986, I began writing a story inspired by the photo of this old man – set in the Tarim region, but taking place many centuries ago. So for the next five years, I visited various libraries trying to learn what I could about the history and geography and the cultural traditions of that part of the world. At the same time, I labored to write a prose version of the story. And this writing project was not going very well.

In July of ‘91, I took a different way. In response to a friend’s off-hand suggestion, I decided to write this story in verse. And that is when something very strange happened. Some entity – unseen and unheard – took over the writing process. Let’s just call her the Muse. With the Muse in charge, the story came tumbling out of my head in a fountain of rhyming verses that were random fragments of a new narrative. Though she freely appropriated my research material, the story the Muse came up with was very different from the one that I had been trying to write. Only the two central characters, their quest for rain, and the desert landscape remained from my previous efforts. Over a week’s time, the verses would arrive suddenly and unexpectedly. And wherever I happened to be, I would scribble down the lines as soon as I got a chance. When this fountain of verses finally subsided, I had a hodge-podge of paper scraps and bags, and even little chunks of wood from my carpentry job, all covered with lines of verse. Thrilled and mystified, I dealt this odd pile of completely uncollated writing out on my bed and began matching verse to verse in the narrative, like some kind of jigsaw puzzle. At that point I began to find the choppy places, indicating missing verses. Whenever I found one of these, the needed verse would come to me and I’d write the lines down. Then I would put the completed verse in the narrative like a missing puzzle piece. This continued swiftly until the core of the story had come together.

At the time, I thought the story was complete. Unbeknownst to me then, this process of finding the missing verses would go on, and on, and on. It took at least eighteen years for all the stray verses to arrive, taking their places in the story like singers late to a choir. And as the years of creation passed, the lines of the story automatically committed themselves to my memory as I wrote them down. To this day, I know those hundreds of verses by heart. Years ago the final verse fluttered into place in head and heart and down on paper. And at last I am truly ready to present to you this exotic and powerful creature that paces in my head.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
This is a slender volume of fantasy that may be read in less than an hour, yet the tale is an epic in terms of the time and the distance and themes that it covers. The form it takes is so old, it is new again. You have to go back to the 19th century to find many popular stories written in this way. Since that time, telling stories in rhyming verse has fallen out of fashion, and is now widely thought to be nothing more than a literary toy. I suggest that it need not be thus. Over the years, as I presided over this odd, self-assembling mosaic of verses, I marveled at the way each new verse automatically committed itself to my memory. To this day, all 304 verses of my epic take up prime real estate in my head. It just happened that way, with very little effort on my part. I find that committing prose to memory is much more difficult.

The power of rhythmic, rhyming stanzas to hold themselves in our memories is no doubt why the ancient sagas were presented in this way. Long before written language was developed to capture these old tales, epics like the “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were passed down from one generation to the next on the strength of their rhymes. These and other ancient legends are musings of the zeitgeist of those times in the distant past. I believe that these old tales have currency for us today, but our connection with those distant authors has become a tenuous one, imperiled by our modern civilization’s crumbling sense of itself, and its place in the order of things.

My story seems to be some sort of allegory. For nearly two decades, I have pondered its meanings, and explored its curious terrain. Improbably, a book of science that I read a couple of years ago has given me insights into my own book of fantasy. In “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”, neurologist Iain McGilchrist explains how the left and the right hemispheres of the brain work together to make sense of the world. And how, over the centuries, the more analytical left hemisphere has usurped control by the right hemisphere which, with its greater capacity for comprehending the ‘big picture’ with sufficient depth and nuance, ought to be the one in charge. In effect, the emissary has usurped control from his master, with unfortunate consequences. Author McGilchrist tried to make his comprehensive tome on neurology accessible to the lay reader, but I confess I have not read all of its 462 pages. I find it tough going. However, he has also written a clear summary of his theories in a brief ebook called “The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy?”

Apparently, “The Demon of the Well” is also exploring the problems of humankind in its own roundabout way. Like some Zen koan, it has no definitive revelations for us. It simply beholds “…. our human troubles like the waves upon the sea….” and presents us with its musings.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
Once my Muse took over the writing of this story, everything about the process surprised me. The ease with which the dialogue flowed from my pen was uncanny. It was especially easy to write for the demon. With his utterly confident personality, he almost seemed to be dictating his lines to me.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love for my trader character to meet Gandalf, from “The Lord of the Rings”. No doubt this immortal wizard would have some wise advice for my protagonist.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
My own self-doubts. These doubts increased nearly every time I mentioned my writing project to anyone. With notable exceptions, the response would be negative in some way, so I learned to keep quiet about it. But once the Muse was in charge, none of this mattered. With her as my senior creative partner, the successful conclusion of this effort seemed inevitable.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Go traveling in some region that appeals to you. In my case, it was Europe. It doesn’t need to be a long trip. Of course there is no age limit, provided that you have the needed stamina for rambling about. And anyone may stay at the Youth Hostels. But if you go wandering in your youth, before you have the commitments of a job, higher education, or marriage etc., you are more likely to have the freedom to really enjoy yourself. And you will learn much about our world that you wouldn’t learn any other way.

Best date you've ever had?
I have been asked to recall the best date I’ve ever had. To oblige this request, we must travel back in time nearly half a century. Back to the time of the hippies. In my youth, I attended a sort of hippie commune ‘free school’, nestled into the post oak forests east of Austin, Texas. Like many alternative schools of its era, it was run on democratic principals, inspired by Alexander Neill’s Summerhill School, in Suffolk, England. One year, we decided to attend a ‘Free School Conference’ up Arkansas, where we would meet in Devil’s Den State Park to talk with teachers and students from other such schools around the country about peace and love and education. That sort of thing. So my teachers and fellow students and I climbed into our old, flower-painted school bus and made our way there.

On my first day at the conference, I met a very pretty girl about my age, from St. Paul, Minnesota. Together, we walked hand in hand through the woodlands and meadows of the park. Even then, it was my habit to try to let my companion guide the pace and direction of our conversation. In this girl’s company, we fell into an easy, comfortable silence, simply taking in the beauty of the natural world around us. By evening, we were walking arm in arm. We spent the night together, bunked down in that flower-painted school bus. Quietly, so as not to disturb the others sleeping aboard, we explored love. Her youthful knowledge of the ways of love served for both of us, and served us well. The next morning, we were both too shy to exchange addresses. We joined some group outing on the second day - our shy smiles the only acknowledgement of our secret encounter.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
To the morning after that night with the beautiful girl in Devil’s Den State Park, to ask her for her name and address.

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
Honestly, I can’t think of a specific incident like that. But I am supportive of the oppressed, down-trodden and powerless members of our world community. Like racially profiled (and murdered) blacks, Dreamers looking for a path to U.S. citizenship, and poor, single mothers with hungry children. These and others have my full, political support. (In a way, this kind of what my story is about.)

First Heartbreak?
When I was fourteen or so, I fell in love with a teacher at the aforementioned school that I attended. She was perhaps 20 years my senior, and married. Obviously a hopeless crush. I was too shy to say anything about it, but she must have sensed that something was amiss. Finally, she came to me in a dream. We were walking together down a trail through a meadow in the woods surrounding the school. In the dream, she told me that we could walk together for a short distance, but then we must take separate paths. And of course, this was prophetic. Many years after I left the school, I heard that she had died of cancer.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
My six week ramble through Europe at the age of sixteen is easily my most memorable travel experience. And the highlight of that adventure has to be my visit to Grindelwald, in Switzerland. Hitch-hiking, I got a ride to Interlaken, between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun. Looking south beyond a secondary range of the Bernese Alps, I saw the glaciated spires of the Eiger and the Jungfrau rising up before me. A final ride brought me over that lower range, to the idyllic valley that holds the town of Grindelwald beneath those mighty peaks. Tiny threads of white across the valley resolved into roaring waterfalls as we drew closer. In the town, I found accommodations at a four story chalet on the north side of the valley that was serving as a youth hostel. It was a carpenter’s masterpiece. In the morning, I discovered a path near my hostel leading up the mountain rising behind it. While dozens of mountaineers have perished trying to climb the Eiger - south across the valley - anyone in reasonable shape may climb Mt Reeti, which tops out above timberline at 9,045 feet. Hiking up through fragrant fir forests on a beautifully constructed trail, I was astonished to hear the calling of cuckoo birds. Up until then, I had not realized that there were real birds that made that call! Huffing and puffing up the trail, I marveled at the stamina of its builders who had spanned ravines with sturdy stone bridges. Above timberline, I found myself climbing through meadows spangled with tiny alpine flowers. With Alpine ibex gamboling in these meadows, I reached the top - reveling in the view. It was one of those drink-it-in moments. It was simply the most beautiful vista I have ever beheld. I shall return there someday.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
I am not sure that I understand the question. As you may have noticed, the last two love stories I’ve shared with you took place long ago, when I was young. I still have hope for finding true love, but meanwhile, I *am* enjoying my interactions with the women in my life. When I started contra dancing a couple of decades ago, I discovered a new kind of relationship. That of the ‘dancing pal’. Someday, when this pandemic is over, I will return to my dancing pals and resume our little 15 minute relationships as my partner and I navigate up and down the line of couples.

I have a great many female friends on Facebook, but my relations there are very definitely cerebral in nature. Several years ago, when my great-niece was five years old, I visited her and her folks just after Easter had passed. At that time, she firmly believed in the Easter Bunny. With great ceremony, she presented me with a gift. She gave me a brightly colored egg filled with chocolate - one of many that the Easter Bunny had left for her in the garden - with solemn instructions to “Share it with ALL your girlfriends.” Wondering where in the *world* I had acquired such a reputation with this child, I related this little story to my Facebook friends, and ended with these words: “I suppose that technically, I should have divided the Easter Bunny’s candy 273 different ways. But instead, I ate the candy on everyone’s behalf. Peace be with you.” My story and gesture was widely appreciated.


Many centuries ago, an oasis town on the Old Silk Road finds itself in the grip of a terrible drought. The children of the town notice that their friend, an old retired trader at the caravanserai is growing increasingly distressed. At last he confides that he suspects he may be responsible for the drought, and tells of events that occurred long before they were born. In a time of civil war, this trader undertakes a perilous trading mission. On the way, he encounters two army deserters and overhears them talking about a treasure of great mystic powers that they are trying to recover. This is a chalice through which one can see all time and all the world. Hoping to gain this treasure for himself, he offers his services as guide to a desolate region in the desert where the soldiers have presumably cached it. An epic tale told in rhyming verse.
You can purchase The Demon of the Well at the following Retailers:
        

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you JAMES B. HENDRICKS for making this giveaway possible.
2 Winners will receive a Copy of The Demon of the Well by James B. Hendricks.

*JBN is not responsible for Lost or Damaged Books in your Nerdy Mail Box*
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2 comments:

  1. Some aspects of my childhood are quite appealing. But if I had to choose between reliving something and exploring new adventures, I would choose new.

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