Wednesday, November 7, 2012

John Harrigan - Jeeptown Sock Hop - Author Interview

Author Interview

1. How did you come up with the title?
I settled on the title Jeeptown Sock Hop for a couple of reasons. Sock hop, because the sock hop in the story is central to the plot, and Jeeptown, because I needed a fictional name for a gritty industrial location. What better fictional name than the one tied to that iconic and highly recognizable vehicle from World War II?

There was also an unanticipated benefit to the title. When you google Jeeptown, my book usually comes up as the first entry, unlike googling my name where you have to work your way through several other John Harrigans before you find me. Thank goodness I wasn't named John Doe.

2. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Not really. My only goal is to leave the reader with an unvarnished portrait of growing up in mid-twentieth century America. This includes several contradictory images: the heartwarming tenderness between Charlie and Clarice versus the stark racism that keeps them apart; Charlie's fighting back against his sex abuser versus the shame and guilt that torment him after the abuse; his family's warm fuzzy feelings about the rituals of their church versus the church's inability to give them emotional support during their moment of crisis; his dad's steady paycheck versus the harshness of his dad's workplace; Charlie's optimistic can-do attitude that brings success to the band but at the same time sows the seeds for the eventual disaster that heaps so much pain on Clarice.

3. How much of the book is realistic?
The story is very faithful to its historical setting during the Korean War. But it's not a history of those times so much as a portrayal of people going through those times.

You can see this distinction in one of the most important incidents in the book, the strike at the Spark Plug Factory, where Charlie's dad works. His family is bitterly split by charges that the strike is endangering soldiers in the Korean War (including Charlie's older brother) by depriving them of spark plugs for their jeeps and other vehicles. Even though this particular strike is a fictionalized event, everything that takes place happened in reality to somebody, someplace, somewhere, sometime. They just didn't all happen in same place at the same time. By pulling them together in a fictional town rather than a real town, Jeeptown shows how a major event of the time drives people to the edge, and it does so in a way portrays peoples' lives much more realistically than could be done in a documentary history. This is why we need fiction as well as history.

4. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?
I did make one change. Between the book's first appearance on Kindle and its publication a few months later as a paperback, we learned a lot from the Jerry Sandusky scandal about the ways in which sexual predators charm the parents so that they can get to their children. I inserted into the new edition some scenes showing how Charlie's mother was charmed by the predator and how that put Charlie at greater risk. This added the tenseness of waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you hear one shoe drop on the floor above you, you'll tense up waiting for the next one to fall. The predator has already abused Charlie once, and when he reappears to charm Charlie's mother, the tension escalates as the stage is set for him to come back and assault Charlie again. Other than this, I don't plan any more changes. The story has to live or die as it stands.

Of course, when the story gets picked up by Hollywood, who knows what they will do to it?

5. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Emotionally, the hardest thing was being brutally honest about the sex abuse. You can't read that scene without realizing that the author went through it himself. I wasn't totally sure I wanted to lay that out for my children and grandchildren to see.

Technically, the hardest thing was creating Clarice, the black heroine. After experimenting with several approaches, I finally settled on having the story narrated in the first person by Charlie. This way you never see directly into Clarice's mind. You always see her through the eyes of Charlie as he constantly tries to figure out what she's intending, what's she's feeling, and what it will take to get on her good side.

6. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Writing a novel is such a painstaking, time consuming task that the experience has given me a great deal of respect for other writers of all stripes.

7. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
In some respects, it was always there. For this book, it just flowed from my experiences. We've all got this pain that has to get out. And we all get it out in different ways. Some people paint. Some play music. Others turn to crime. I write. It's like sports columnist Red Smith once quipped when asked if writing was hard. "It's easy," he said. "You just open a vein and bleed."

8. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I'm most attracted to stories that feature a character doing something heroic. So I still like Hemingway's Farewell to Arms that is just as relevant to life in the Afghan-Iraq wars today as it was to WWI a century ago. I was greatly influenced by the heroic and anti-heroic characters in works like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. And from my time in Brazil, I came to admire the work of Brazil's great novelist, Jorge Amado, especially his epic Gabriela: Clove and Cinnamon.

9. Tell us your latest news.
I'm polishing off a novel about a family's reaction to a Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to their son in the Iraq-Afghanistan wars. I will submit it to Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award contest next winter.

10. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I hope you enjoy the story of Jeeptown. If you do, write and let me know what you thought worked and what didn't work in it.

About the Book

Jeeptown Sock Hop is the story of four teens seeking to bridge the racial and class gaps that splinter their gritty 1950s industrial town. It is narrated by altar boy Charlie, who lives in a sea of chaos marked by an alcoholic father, a brother at war in Korea, a town fractured by a violent strike at his father's workplace, and a trusted adult who sexually abuses him. In this sea of chaos, his one island of tenderness is a black gospel singer, Clarice, with whom he develops a deep attachment. After they are spotted sharing a kiss, Charlie gets punched out by one of her other admirers and she gets a beating from her father. To create a reason for being together, they start a dance band and organize a Sock Hop that will bring the town together. Can they pull it off?

Prices/Formats: $15.95 paperback, $9.95 ebook
Pages: 301
Genre: Young Adult / Historical Fiction
Publisher: CreateSpace
Release Date: March 2012
Buy Link: CreateSpace

About the Author

John grew up in a gritty industrial city much like Jeeptown. He migrated to Chicago where he attended college on the GI Bill. He then found work as a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U. S. Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he became fluent in Portuguese and fell in love with the culture. After this assignment, he entered graduate school at Georgetown University where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science. For many years afterward, he taught political science in St. Paul, MN, then turned his attention to writing fiction. The Jeeptown Sock Hop is John's second novel. His first, The Patron Saint of Desperate Situations, was a mystery build around the plane crash that killed progressive U.S. senator Paul Wellstone.

Links to connect with John:
Web site

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  1. The Sock Hop really brought back memories of life in the 50s, without the saccharine that often spoils modern stories about that era.

    There's young love, the Korean War, a factory strike, bullying, Rock and Roll, shame, kids delivering newspaper, young love, integration, school, dysfunctional family, guilt, fat tire bikes, sex abuse, revenge, and young love.

  2. Stuart, glad you enjoyed John's book. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  3. I enjoyed John's book, primarily because of its authenticity. You can tell from the first page it's written with experience from the heart. Good stuff! Liked the interview too.

  4. Phil, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.