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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, John Yearwood talks about his writing career and the story of his latest release, Jar Of Pennies.

the best creativity magazine in the UK, the best book magazine in the UK, the best arts magazine in the UK, the best entertainment magazine in the UK, the best celebrity magazine in the UK, book marketing UK, book promotion UK, music marketing UK, music promotion UK, film marketing UK, film promotion UK, arts and entertainment magazine, online magazine uk, creativity magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed John Yearwood about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the story of his latest book release, Jar Of Pennies.

John Yearwood on The Table Read Magazine
John Yearwood

Tell me a bit about who you are.

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I have been a high school teacher, a journalist, and a newspaper publisher. I have also been a university professor of journalism, English literature, graphic design, communication, and advertising. I created the first weekly newspaper in Texas to be fully computerized. I won numerous awards from the Texas Press Association for outstanding journalism in a variety of areas, including editorial writing and column writing.

I have been married for 52 years. I am the father of two grown children, and I have two small white dogs. I was raised in an Air Force family and have lived in several foreign countries and seven US states. I retired in 2011 because I felt I had earned enough money over almost six decades to afford to become a writer—something I have wanted to do since I was five years old.

I have always enjoyed outdoor activities like hunting, hiking, and camping. Even today I enjoy physical training and sports, though as I have aged I have given up contact sports like boxing and football, and agility sports like handball and tennis, in favor of disc golf, darts, Pilates, and strength training. I enjoy keeping my marksmanship skills practiced, and I enjoy playing classical music on the piano. I’m not really a piano player, however. I just like to play music because it helps me think.

Like every writer, I read a lot of books, and three newspapers every day. I have thousands of books in my library at home, and multiple unabridged dictionaries. I used to play a game with my students where I’d give them an unabridged dictionary and challenge them to find a word I didn’t know. I usually knew the word, but not always. Regardless, I made them read both the definition and the etymology of whatever word they chose, because words have such interesting stories behind them, and the game taught them about using a dictionary. The word “boat,” for example, has been spoken almost completely unchanged in meaning or sound for over 1200 years. What else are you likely to use in your everyday life that is more than a thousand years old?

When did you first WANT to write a book?

My father was deployed during the Korean War when I was four, and the year I turned five we moved to Germany. That was the period when I started reading on my own, and I still have some of those books. They are more sophisticated than the Dick and Jane books most kids saw, with stories by well-known authors like Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rackham.

After we arrived in Germany, reading gave me a way to build an unbound world in my imagination, something that has rewarded me my whole life. We listened to the radio on Sunday nights— “Dragnet,” “The Jack Benny Show,”—but reading was the only entertaining thing to do. So, I read. And I read a lot. I consumed the Grimm Brothers fairy tales of rather hard-edged German folklore like they were candy. In the original story, for example, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf, not implausibly rescued by a passing woodsman as happens in the Americanized version. I remember stories about the ghost of Charlemagne walking among the vineyards on the shore of the Rhine under a full moon, about the Rhine maidens and their dangerous love, about dwarves and gold.

I started wanting to be an author then. I wanted to capture the sense of wonder and adventure I found in reading and to tell my own stories. I have never stopped wanting to do that.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I wrote thousands of news stories, almost a thousand editorials, and more than 700 newspaper columns during my 15 years as a fulltime journalist. I wrote numerous academic papers while a professor.

My decision to become a novelist had to wait until I retired, however, because of the time and focus I knew it would require. I have the kind of brain euphemistically referred to by medical professionals as “neurodiverse.” Loosely, that means my brain functions something like ADHD. Sometimes the people who know me best will refer to me as “batshit crazy.” To get anything done, I require hyperfocus, which means excluding the rest of the world from my attention while I concentrate.

I started my first long fiction work the day I retired, and I have worked at some aspect of writing every day since. My output cannot keep up with my energy, or with the energy required to sustain long term focus, so in the last eleven years I have finished only five novels. But I took the first step on the day I was able to retire.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

It has been taking me an average of just over two years to finish a book once I start writing. If I had a more normal, logical brain, I could probably increase the pace, but I am who I am. I can focus for about five hours a day, maximum, and spending longer than that is just a waste of time. Not all that time is spent actively composing words, however. Probably two-thirds of my time is spent editing and rewriting. And then there’s a long lag while my editor goes through the draft, and more time spent correcting and emending.

When the composing process is done, there’s additional waiting while the book designer creates the pages and chapter heads and comes up with a cover design. Then, when the print version of the book is finished, several additional weeks are required to record the auditory version. Overall, it adds up to about two years to get a book out, of which about a year is spent with my butt in the chair actively creating and writing. If I let little life events like stage four cancer or a worldwide plague get in the way, it can take longer.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

The latest finished book is Jar of Pennies. I began collecting the stories for this book forty years ago but began writing the book in 2019. Several life events interfered with my writing process and delayed my work, including a pandemic, and I also took some detours to research a completely different kind of work. Even though I was not working specifically on Jar, however, I was working on Jar. That’s one of the enigmas of the creative process: it doesn’t stop percolating in your deep brain just because you are fiddling with something different. Jar of Pennies finally made it through the process in three years, coming out in 2022.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Jar Of Pennies?

Jar of Pennies is my attempt to capture what life was like in the deep pine forests of East Texas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I believe the beginning of the Reagan administration was a watershed in American political and cultural life for various reasons, and I was fascinated by how the rest of America and the world could go on changing on all sides of East Texas without making much if any impact on the people or place. For example, as late as the year 2000, some thousand-square-mile counties had only two traffic lights and two or three blinking yellow caution lights. Yet East Texas has a landmass the size of England. It is over ninety percent forest, with rich sandy loam and plenty of water, but it is also largely underpopulated and only marginally developed. The landscape and its occupants have always struck me as the perfect laboratory in which to study American culture. My real motivation, however, was to tell a good story and I believe I have done that.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Jar Of Pennies?

Hemingway observed that the hardest thing for a writer to do is get his butt in the chair and do the work. If you don’t approach writing like a job, with regular hours and schedules and deadlines, it never gets done. Show up for work. That’s the secret to everything. Show up; do the work.

I mentioned above my ability to hyperfocus, a kind of Zen state in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. I can only maintain that focus for a few hours before I wear out. So my second biggest challenge after getting into my chair was getting into my hyperfocus state and staying there. Thousands of distractions are bound to occur—look! A squirrel! If I tell myself I need another cup of coffee, that’s fatal for the day’s writing. Anything that takes my mind out of the story is like dropping anchor in a shallow sea. Once my focus is gone, it’s gone for the day, and I won’t get it back until I have some sleep.

Keeping my work organized is another big challenge for me. I have more than 250 files for Jar of Pennies, not including all the subchapters, character sketches, and discarded texts maintained in my writing program. I use Scrivener to help me organize all the chapters and research info, and it is a huge help, but still, I create such a volume of work that it is easy to lose stuff I need or want. You won’t believe this, but the hardest thing for me to do is keep up with the final version of the manuscript. Once I export it from Scrivener into Word for my editor and book designer, whatever changes get made are all in a Word file format. That should be easy to keep up with, right? No, not for me. I think I’ve solved this problem, but right now I am still searching for the final version of the manuscript I published as The Gender of Fire in 2016.

The biggest challenge I had specifically with Jar of Pennies was protecting the real people whose stories got included in the novel. I really did not want to violate anyone’s privacy or awaken feelings of anger or grief by telling this mostly true story. I changed everyone’s name, of course, but that’s not always enough. I disguised the timeline, I changed the details, and created an alternative storyline based purely on my imagination, yet the central rib of the story is an actual event I have never been able to process or understand. Even now, forty years later, I lie awake at night and shiver when I recall it. For me, the story is exactly like walking through the woods and getting bit by a rattlesnake out of nowhere.

Jar Of Pennies by John Yearwood on The Table Read Magazine
Jar Of Pennies

The truth of the story I write about has been my biggest challenge.

Lanier Pens

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

I knew as early as 1982 that I wanted to write a novel about the East Texas town where I owned a newspaper. So I decided to set the protagonist as a newspaper reporter in a small town, and to describe how his life serving his community led him into the kinds of insights and opportunities I had when I had that kind of job. The protagonist is not me, however, nor is his newspaper like my newspaper.

BoMac, the protagonist, is a college dropout; I had finished my college education. BoMac is unmarried; I was married with children. BoMac has a cruel and imperious boss; I had no boss. BoMac’s paper has one additional employee; my newspaper at one time had over 40 employees. BoMac’s paper carries advertising that is sometimes betrayed to competing merchants by the local bank; I was extremely careful to protect the ads placed with my paper. Specifically, however, I was inspired by my own experience as a small-town East Texas newspaper reporter for 15 years.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

Jesse Grinder is the antagonist, and he is based on a real-life murderer I happened to meet. We printed our newspaper in a town about thirty miles away and one night the press broke down. At four a.m. I got a phone call from my distribution manager that they were running behind in getting the newspapers addressed and bundled for the post office and asking whether he could hire extra help. I said sure, pulled on my jeans, and headed down to the office to help.

The distribution chief had brought in his eldest son to help and a few other people, but when I got to the office, he took me aside and said, “I know you have a little girl and I just want to warn you, whatever you do, don’t let that little girl get anywhere close to my son.” He added that he hated to have to say that about his own son, but he owed it to me, and I appreciated him for it.

I went on to meet the son and then, because we were busy and he was working steadily, I didn’t pay any more attention to him. About ten years later, he broke into a neighbor’s house to raid her refrigerator, thinking she was gone from home. She returned unexpectedly and he murdered her and her little three-year-old daughter. He put their bodies in her car and drove off about forty miles and dumped the bodies, then drove her car back home and stole a two-pound package of frozen ground meat from her refrigerator and a jar of pennies from her kitchen counter.

Months later, parts of their skeletons were discovered, he was convicted, and the State of Texas executed him in the year 2000. That’s the rib of the story, and who the real-life equivalent of the antagonist is. I try to tell his story.

What is the inciting incident of Jar Of Pennies?

Jar of Pennies opens on the evening Jesse Grinder is sentenced to death. The rest of the novel explores how he came to commit the murders, why he was convicted, what it meant to the community, and how the culture of East Texas deals with random lethality in the world, some of which is caused by humans. Ignorance plays a big part in Grinder’s story, and specifically, his failure to learn how to think critically about his actions. The main incident is his murder of his neighbor and her little girl.

What is the main conflict of Jar Of Pennies?

Public ignorance leads to failure of the educational system, which leads to fear, superstition, racism, and murder. Jesse Grinder was failed by a public education system in Texas built on the assembly line process, as though children can be shoveled in like raw materials on one side and come out doctors and lawyers on the other side. This system is a complete and abject failure, and the result is racism, fear, and murder. Every episode in the book illustrates the ways in which ignorance is constantly overcoming efforts to improve humanity.

Did you plot Jar Of Pennies in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

To myself, I like to characterize my writing as a process of discovery. I come up with an idea and then let my imagination lead me through whatever tortuous paths it must to get me to the end. I have never enjoyed writing to an outline, and in fact don’t have the patience for it. By the time I’ve written an outline, I’ve done all the fun creative stuff and what’s left is the boring “put it down in words” stuff. I’m not sure I would characterize my writing process as flying by the seat of my pants, however. That implies a randomness and lack of direction.

On the contrary, I know in advance the tone of the story, I have visualized many of the major scenes, I have lived with my characters through their events, and I have clear mental images of situations and conflicts. Often at night, I will choose one of my characters to think about as I am falling asleep, focusing my imagination, bringing up an image of the character in my head. I’m not aware of any dreams about these characters, but magically I know more about them and what happens to them when I wake up the next day. I think the unconscious part of my brain reaches out to me in this way through these characters.

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Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Jar Of Pennies need?

Remember I worked in journalism a lifetime ago. Nobody prints anything that hasn’t been proofed by at least two people, because almost no one can catch all the typos and errors. The author is the composer of the symphony, the editor is the orchestra conductor. The author creates; the conductor brings it to life, on key and in time.

Before being published, my wife read the first draft of Jar of Pennies and made several very good suggestions. I also hired an editor, Elizabeth Brown of Chapel Hill, NC, to proofread and make suggestions. I seem to have a few “tics” in my writing style and generally miss picking up on them until it’s too late. Despite knowing that I need to be alert to these common errors, I can easily miss them myself. Getting help proofreading and adjusting to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard reference for the publishing industry, has been a big help to me.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Toss the rejection notices.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I celebrate finishing a novel by immediately beginning the next novel. The day I finished Jar of Pennies, I took one of Jar’s deleted scenes and started a new novel with some of the same characters. I am calling this one The Golden Pine, and it is about an embezzlement from the local bank. Mostly. It’s really about the community, of course. The embezzlement is just my excuse for breathing these imaginary characters into life and putting them down in the local coffee bar. Golden Pine will employ some familiar elements of Southern Gothic, and possibly some noir tonality as well.

Meanwhile, I have also started two other novels. One is a Sci-Fi called The Prince of Mars, and the other is a fantasy futuristic story I’m calling Detritus of the Sun. I’m sitting on a third completed novel, The Lie Detector App, about a contemporary kid who makes an app for the smartphone. That one is finished but I’m holding on to it because I want to make some revisions before publishing. It’s a damn good story I think I can make a little better with editing and rearranging.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the wicked Dolores Umbrage punishes Harry by forcing him to write with a pen that attaches to a vein in his arm. It is extremely painful, and the repetitive work is absolutely boring, but it is the most accurate description of pointless effort I can think of. If you don’t enjoy writing and you can’t take pride in your work, it’s exactly like being punished by Umbrage.

At no point in the composition process of Jar of Pennies did I feel that I was wasting my time or engaging in pointless activity. The stories were compelling, twisted, intriguing, and some terrifying, some hilarious. The stories themselves wanted to be told. That’s hard to explain to logical people, but the result of creativity is making something new. For Michelangelo, it was the process of breaking away all the marble that didn’t belong so the figure buried in the stone could emerge.

For me, it was the process of layering stories together to create a world full of unique characters and unique lives. I don’t mean to compare myself to either Rowling or Michelangelo, but both of those creative geniuses are members of a world in which ideas hidden in the general unconscious of the human race struggle into actual existence. They come to life, they exist separate from their creator like children, and in the dark night you can hear us echo Frankenstein’s cry: “It lives!”

A great example of this phenomenon is the story about Picasso and his famous black-and-white painting Guernica. During the exhibition of the painting in Paris, a Nazi general approached Picasso and nodded at the painting. “Did you make this?” asked the Nazi. “No,” Picasso replied, “you did.” The work of art is not Picasso, but its own living thing.

Being a writer is not for the easily discouraged. Writers may be indomitable in their wills to write, but not indefatigable. Just achieving five hours of focus is hard for me. Still, by the end, I have introduced into the world something that could not have come into existence any other way, and I think it deserves to live.

Yeah, to me it was worth the effort. I hope it is worth the effort for my readers.

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