I was trained as an historian—was a professor of American history at the University of Kentucky for many years—so early on I was into the storytelling business. Most of my earlier books, in fact, are works of history: I’ve published books with major commercial presses (Henry Holt/MacMillan and St. Martin’s Press) on the founding of Virginia (THE SHIPWRECK THAT SAVED JAMESTOWN); The Trail of Tears (AN AMERICAN BETRAYAL: CHEROKEE PATRIOTS AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS); and a family saga (OUR FAMILY DREAMS).
I was inspired to write MR. WONDERFUL out of autobiographical motivations. I began the work as a memoir but soon found that I wanted (and the book needed) to have the freedom of fiction, so I quickly moved beyond my own story (yes, I am a college professor, like the protagonist, Brian Fenton; and yes, I have a son—but not ‘wayward and loopy’, like Danny in the story; and, yes, my father recently passed, a small town Texas doctor just as in the novel) to create something larger, deeper, and more meaningful that takes readers well beyond the confines of my particular experience. But watching my father go through dementia as he came near the end did serve as the initial spark to write something in honor of him.
I guess I hope that readers come away feeling that they’ve met some real, relatable, flawed, but fascinating characters who struggle with issues—success, manhood, relationships, death, loss, and legacy—that we all must confront.
I love first-person narration in novels, especially with the story set in the ‘eternal present tense’ and so this story—narrated (not always reliably) by the father and son, Brian and Danny Fenton—offered the opportunity to show how much point of view matters in understanding how life and our emotional reactions to it unfold and acquire meaning.
I would love to sit down with at least three characters and ask the following questions: 1) Danny, the wayward son: ‘what gives you meaning and purpose when you get up every day? Are you thinking of some goal, some future accomplishment or just living moment to moment? 2) Claire Fenton: how in the world do you maintain such commitment, devotion, and positive feelings in the face of so much negativity, decline, and loss? 3) Robert (‘Doc’) Fenton: how could you be both John Wayne and a feeling person who reached out to others? Why and how did you hide this secret, inner self?
Facebook and Twitter have probably helped me reach out the most to prospective readers—in part, because I built up a pretty significant following through my previous work as a filmmaker.
Aspiring writers need to read as much in the world of writing they intend to work in—novels for fiction writers; history and non-fiction for those wanting to tell ‘true’ stories. And then you have to write. Write some every day, just to feel yourself giving expression to images, thoughts, emotions. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect or ‘publishable’ (it won’t be) at first. As the great playwright, Tennessee Williams said (but it applies to all kinds of writing): “You don’t write plays; you REWRITE them.”
Next up for me are a couple of film projects I’m trying to get off the ground—BLOOD BORN, a thriller about a down-on-his-luck 20 something young man whose world is turned upside down when he discovers that his blood can cure cancer; and I’ll be turning MR. WONDERFUL into a screenplay and hopefully an actual movie someday soon. Book project: I think I’ll do a sequel to MR. WONDERFUL, focusing on the antics and wild story of Danny and Dawn, the next generation, so to speak.