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Thought I'd share some of the more interesting interview questions I've been asked.


  1. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I’m from Massachusetts, so I’ve made the pilgrimage to Concord to visit the homes of Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne. I stood at Hawthorne’s stand-up desk—it folded up against the wall—and marveled that the bookshelves were easily removed in order to throw them out the nearby window in case of a housefire. The books were that valuable.

  1. What is the first book that made you cry?

Probably Black Beauty. I cannot bear cruelty to animals. It made writing “The Kill Floor” difficult, as it centers on the brutal slaughterhouse industry and the abusive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations connected to them.

  1. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both. The process is so focused that it demands full concentration in a ‘zone’ requiring a dozen decisions per second, and when it goes well, it’s a rush. If I hit a block or write myself into a corner, it’s deflating. In either case, I run out of gas after two, three hours.

  4. What are common traps for aspiring writers?

The most common is feeling that one can write only when ‘inspired.’ Writing takes more perspiration than inspiration. You must put your seat in the seat on a regular basis. It needn’t be every day, but you must remember, in Woody Allen’s words, “80 percent of life is showing up.”

Perfectionism is another trap. It prevents writers from getting the whole story on paper, where it can later be shaped. You cannot keep going over and over the same word, sentence or scene.

  5. Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

A healthy ego helps writers and the work. By that, I mean the writer must summon enough self-confidence to believe the work is do-able and worth doing. A proper humility allows the writer to focus on the work and not himself. It’s all about the work.

  6. What is your writing Kryptonite?

Procrastination. It’s like exercise, really. I don’t like to do it, but I feel much better about myself afterwards—and I’ve improved myself. If I skip exercise for a few days, it’s harder to resume. Same with writing.

  7. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Only for books that don’t engage me. I’ve gotten better at shutting a book and saying, ‘this isn’t worth reading on.’ On some occasions, I stop and realize, “I’m not getting this.” So I slow down and make an extra effort.

  8. Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

An author’s name is a ‘brand,’ and so if I decide to write something decidedly different from what readers expect when they see my name on it, I’d consider it. If a publisher insisted on it for marketing purposes, I probably wouldn’t object. But I won’t ever send out material under a pseudonym as a way to get under an agent’s radar. That’s deceptive and unethical.

  9. Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

You must be yourself and use your own voice. On the other hand, certain commercial genres have built-in expectations and the writer must deliver or the seasoned reader will be disappointed. Take Hallmark Christmas movies, for example. They have predictable formulas on purpose, and viewers actually want them so, to be emotionally satisfied—much like going to a particular restaurant over and over for the same experience. The crime genre, however, is diversified enough to allow a writer to break from some conventions while keeping to others, such as “fair play” with clues in a puzzle-style mystery.

  10. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Anyone who has gone through adolescence has felt emotions strongly.


(John's full blog can be found here.)


Here's a question I'm bound to be asked. May as well put it here.

What motivated you to write THE KILL FLOOR?

This will reveal how mystery writers think. On my rural Illinois commute to the college where I taught, I passed many farms and hog operations. In certain seasons, you could smell the liquified pig manure being sprayed onto the fields. One operation had a large manure lagoon visible from the road and I wondered what an interesting place to hide a body. Who would look there? Who would smell it as it decomposed? Like, no one. Then one begins to ponder, who would do such a thing and why? And who might the victim be? And you see, as soon as you begin to ponder victim, villain, and sleuth, you have a story. I thought Detective Gordon, who appears in my previous three mysteries as a minor character, ought to have a story of his own.

The research led me to learn about CAFOs, the huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations around the country. There are about 25,000 of them around the U.S. with over a billion animals raised in horrid conditions to feed Americans’ obsession with meat. The news reported some high-profile CAFO manure lagoon spills in North Carolina after hurricanes with disastrous environmental consequences. Such a spill might reveal a body and...well, the story can now begin.

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