Creating Beauty: An Interview with JM Tohline

KENSINGTON, MD — Old soul.” The term seems apropos for JM Tohline, whose first novel, The Great Lenore, is a tributary throwback to authors of the Jazz Age. Tohline’s debut has been described by Marc Schuster as “a page-turner that introduces the literary world to an author with a clear and profound appreciation for the American literary canon.”

In “a contemporary story filled with the defining elements of literature’s greatest classics” (Paul Joseph), Tohline delivers a sepia-toned homage to his literary forefathers and “positions himself squarely between his literary heroes, an arm draped proudly over the shoulders of each.” (Small Press Reviews)

Welcome to Nantucket Island as envisioned by the narrator. Dip your feet into an undertow of playful prose. Immerse yourself in a breezy summertime escape. World, meet JM Tohline, longshoreman and master of the vessel known as The Great Lenore.

Atticus Books: Hey there, young fella, we hear you wrote a novel and it’s due to greet the world on June 15. How does it feel to be a bona fide author?

JM Tohline: People keep telling me how excited I must be. And I keep wondering what I’m missing. But the truth is, I am not all that excited; being a “bona fide author” feels quite the same as being an aspiring author (for me, at least). And I believe the reason is because I never doubted this day would come. I think many aspiring authors feel this same way – the goals they hold before their eyes are much greater than “simply getting published,” and although they will savor this step in their journey (the step I am taking right now), they know that much more awaits them. Does that sound pretentious? Probably – but I’m only 26 years old. Life has plenty of time to get even with me, so maybe come back 50 years from now and check to see what the score is then.

Atticus Books: In 50 years, let’s hope the royalties from your book sales cover the gap in your Social Security payments. So, tell us, to whom does The Great Lenore owe her inspiration? Does she drink more from the traditional novel fountain or is she one of those more edgy, postmodern novel imbibers?

JM Tohline: I envisioned The Great Lenore as an amalgam of “literature” and “commercial fiction.” Some might classify this aim by putting it in a tidy package labeled “commercial literature.” I classify it as “accessible literature” – which is what I feel all literature should be. After all, what is the use of presenting a beautiful story that is also intended to make the reader ponder…if the story draws no readers to itself at all? In the end, however – as is the case with nearly every story written by nearly every author, by the time I became intimate with the characters and the story of The Great Lenore, it grew into whatever it was meant to grow into – regardless of any ideas or visions I had in mind.

Atticus Books: “We will run with heads held high, arms stretched farther… forever believing that someday—.” What do you say to critics who think you ripped off the stylistic grace and elegant form of F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and put your name on it?

JM Tohline: If one were to rip off a writer, who better than old Fitzy? At the same time, however, I see my approach to The Great Lenore in much the same way I see James Joyce’s approach to Ulysses. Wait – is that off-putting? Let me clarify: I am not comparing The Great Lenore to Ulysses. I am not comparing Lenore to Gatsby. What I am saying is this: Joyce wrote Ulysses with Homer’s The Odyssey as his inspiration, and in this manner, he attempted to explore the same ideas and adhere to the same universal themes that Homer’s masterpiece covered. In much the same way, I used Gatsby as my springboard (attentive readers will notice a similar structure between the two, and a story-frame that has been borrowed and refurbished), but in the end, the two stories are entirely different beasts – each beautiful in their own, separate way. I had a different title in mind early on: Between Death and Put to Rest. And in the end, were I to have chosen this original title, I believe readers would have felt proud indeed had they noticed the parallels between my work and Fitzgerald’s.

As things stand, I believe the creation of Lenore owes as much to the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, and Steinbeck – and modern writers such as McEwan and Tartt – as it owes to old Fitzy himself.

Atticus Books: We noticed there’s a lot of drinking in The Great Lenore. You weren’t soused when you wrote it, were you?

JM Tohline: I cannot speak for myself, but I can tell you that Richard – the narrator of The Great Lenore – kept a drink (and often an open bottle) on his desk while capturing the story of those fateful weeks on Nantucket. I have not checked on him in a while. I hope he is doing better.

Atticus Books: Tell us about your writing process and how you approach your work. Are you a disciplined writer?

JM Tohline: Six days a week, I set barriers around the hours of “midnight to noon.” During this time, I read, write, and squeeze in about five hours of sleep. Sometimes, my writing during this time goes well. At other times, my writing during this time is shabby. No matter. I use this time to write regardless of how I feel, and regardless of how I feel the words are flowing. I think this consistency is important. I believe it was Beethoven (or perhaps it was Mozart; who knows – it was one of those musical geniuses) who said (in a gross paraphrase), ‘If I miss one day of playing, I can tell a difference. If I miss two days, my critics can tell a difference. If I miss three days, my fans can tell a difference.”

Atticus Books: Was The Great Lenore a difficult delivery or was she birthed without having to induce labor? Au naturale or with the aid of midwives and painkillers? As she grew, did she need a face lift, nip and tuck, and several days at the tanning salon, or was she a perfect beauty from the day she arrived and the moment you laid eyes on her?

JM Tohline: Having never birthed a child myself, I would say the birth of Lenore was relatively painless. It was a long birth, however. There was a break somewhere in the middle. She attended two years of beauty school before she was ready to be released to the world. But from an early age, she possessed that ever-elusive “potential.” By the time I went through the editing process with dear, sweet Atticus Books (the best small press in existence – for all who are wondering whether you should submit your manuscript to Atticus), I was commended by both the editor and the publisher for submitting such a “clean” and “polished” piece of literature. This was no accident. The ultimate beauty Lenore achieved was the result of a couple years of tweaks, adjustments, and downright overhauls.

Atticus Books: Many publishers are as callous as Wall Street analysts during their assessment of a manuscript’s worth. They examine an author’s marketing platform and future upside as one would a public company’s stock share and they forecast whether the publishing house will get a high enough return on investment once the proposed book grows legs and becomes a walking, breathing product. Doesn’t that description make you queasy? Are all artists doomed to starve? Do you consider fiction writing art?

JM Tohline: In one of Vonnegut’s books (was it Slaughterhouse-Five? I’ve been reading all fourteen Vonnegut novels in order, and I cannot currently remember) a character from Earth comes to find out from a character from another planet that there are about nine or ten different sexes on Earth. As the character from the other planet (summarily) puts it, it takes all kinds. I feel the same way about literature; for years, I was bothered by commercial fiction. Or by romance novels. Or by chick lit. But I eventually realized: Anything that gets readers reading is a good thing. After all, it takes all kinds. And as has been evidenced by such writers as Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Philipp Meyer, Nicole Krauss, and many others, it is possible to write beautiful literature and to still make money. But the key for those who want to write literature (that is to say, for those who want to truly create art – and lasting art at that) is that it is essential to recognize that mountains of monetary gain cannot be the ultimate goal. Creating beauty must be the goal. Creating art must be the goal. Sometimes, money will follow. Other times, money will not. And either way, it makes no difference. Art is art. Beauty is beauty. Life is life, and fun is fun, but…

Atticus Books: It’s 96 degrees today in D.C. We all need a diversion from the heat. Why should people put The Great Lenore on their summer reading list?

JM Tohline: The early reviews sure are good, aren’t they? Does any more need to be said than that? (What’s that? More does need to be said? Okay…) Honestly, I have spent months on my website letting people know I will never tell them they will love my book. I will never tell them my book is right for them. Too many upstart authors tell people to read their book, or say, “If you like [fill-in-the-blank], you will love my book!” But every reader has different tastes, and I think it is foolish to cast blanket statements over readers. I do, however, believe (nay – know) that The Great Lenore is a beautiful novel. I know that some will not care for it, but I know that many will. It is a story of love. It is a story of dreams. It is a story of everything being right – but everything being oh-so-wrong. A literary agent once told me, early in the submissions process, ‘It doesn’t make sense that all these characters are so broken-up over Lenore’s death. These characters have so much going well for them, it just doesn’t make sense.’ This statement astonished me, as the only thing many of the members of this story have going for them is their wealth. What is more important than wealth? Is the life of a loved one more important than wealth? I believe so, but this literary agent apparently did not. If you agree with this nameless literary agent (if you believe that money cures all ills, and is the only thing in life you need in order to feel satisfied and happy), this book is probably not for you. Otherwise, this book probably is for you. At the least, it is worth a shot. The potential risk: $15. The potential reward: Some tremendous entertainment, a catalyst for thought, and a few hours of escape into a beautifully crafted world.

Atticus Books: You’re clearly confident of your craft. Some might think you’re audaciously young to be a novelist at age 26, but many accomplished writers had their greatest successes at a young age. Do you fear plateauing too early? Is it one and done for you – or do you have more ideas for novels worth pursuing?

JM Tohline: Yes. Do you want more than that? Yes. Yes. Yes. I am fearful of this. I look at plenty of writers whose greatest work was their first (or, at least, was among their first). And fear creeps in. But I love writing. I glory in the act of writing. And…

Hey, the critics be damned. Let’s have fun with writing. Let’s write. And let’s see what happens – plateau or no. ~ J M Tohline, author of The Great Lenore

Atticus Books: Most responsible adults would tell your generation to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground and don’t dare think you could make a career out of scribbling ideas on paper, particularly drafting made-up stories. If you weren’t dedicating to writing, then what would it be? What’s your alter ego doing to make a living?

JM Tohline: I had a professor in college who always tried to convince me to become an accountant. In addition to having a creative mind and a way with words, I have always been comfortable with numbers. But if I were not a writer, I would not be an accountant. I would not be anything. I would be lost, and I would fill the void by hiking across the country with no money and no food (and perhaps, eventually, with no shoes or even clothes). Maybe I would become the hired hermit in Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade. Considering the alternatives, I believe my parents are thrilled I chose writing. Most other adults are probably thrilled also. And to any young people who glory in the act of writing but know it is “impractical,” my advice to you is: Who cares? If you don’t become a writer, who else will we have to tell us the truth? Money is not everything; doing something you love is far more important. And who knows – money just might become a part of ‘doing something you love’ as well. And in the end – if you are doing something you love – it really doesn’t matter.

About the Author
JM Tohline grew up in a small town just north of Boston and lives in a quiet house on the edge of the Great Plains with his cat, The Old Man And The Sea. The Great Lenore is his first novel.

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  1. Pingback: NOT Moby Dick: An Interview with John Minichillo | Atticus Books: Where distinct voices become legend

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