I’m very excited to introduce you to author, John McCaffrey. We first met on Facebook and subsequently followed each other on Twitter. He’s been a wonderful supporter of my work, and I consider it good fortune to interview him just after he’s released a HOT new book.
His latest offering, Two Syllable Men (Vine Leaves Press) came out April 26th. It’s already hit several top-selling lists.
Learn more about John and why he classifies his writing as “Disturbed Apple Crisp!”
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So great to have you here, John. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you a full-time writer or do you have a day job?
For the past 15 years, I have served as the Development Director for a nonprofit organization in New York City, performing grant-writing, grant-reporting and other fundraising-related activities. For most of this time, I have also taught creative writing classes in the evenings, at the collegiate level and in various continuing education and community center settings. I find time for my own writing late at night, the occasional lunch hour, and on weekends. What works best for me, time-wise, is to chisel away on writing projects one-at-a-time, a little bit at a time, until one is completed before moving on to the next. A few years ago, for example, during a two-month stretch when my time was limited because of work and personal commitments, I figured the best I could manage was 250 words a day. So that’s what I did, stopping exactly each day on that number, even if I found myself at mid-sentence. It sounds obsessive, but it worked, as I was able to stay creatively engaged while keeping my writing muscle honed. I also completed three stories, all of which were published.
It’s never easy to juggle multiple tasks, but you sound very disciplined. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to be taller – or just tall enough, say 6’ 4” or 6’5”, to be a shooting guard in the NBA. Of course, I would also have to be much younger, a much better shooter, a much better runner, a much better jumper… a much better everything. But I would start with the height.
A basketball fan, I see. 😉 What profession other than your own would you like to try?
I always wanted to start a food cart business called “In the Cup.” My idea is to build a cart shaped like a giant cup, and all the food, from ravioli to omelets to shepherd’s pie, anything, really, that can be jammed or mashed into a cup, would be served in a cup. And if people brought their own cups, I’d give them a discount and just fill them up with whatever I was serving. Of course, this breaks the rules of all culinary common sense, and probably goes against all and any health code violations, but I can dream.
It’s certainly an original idea! Is there one thing you want to do before you die?
Take a reindeer sleigh ride in Finland, on a clear, moon-lit, winter night.
Nice. Do you have a motto you live by?
Never run after a train, bus or any mode of transportation that doesn’t sell ice cream.
Ahh, a man with a sweet tooth ;). What makes you laugh, and I mean, REALLY laugh?
Anything Kramer says or does on ‘Seinfeld.’
George Orwell’s iconic essay, “Why I Write,” argues there are four primary motivations for writing: (1) sheer egotism, (2) aesthetic enthusiasm, (3) historical impulse, and (4) political purpose. I would like to think that numbers 2 and 3 apply most to me. In regard to aesthetics, I have always been transfixed by words, find visual beauty in their placement on a page, and am filled with a desire, or a compulsion, to arrange them in well-ordered, rhythmic, resonating sentences. Historical impulse, Orwell states, is the desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. While I’m not as pointed in my prose as Orwell was (who is?) when it comes to taking aim on societal hypocrisy (Animal Farm), or using fiction to warn of what might happen (1984), I am heavily influenced by the events I experience, and the times I live. For example, my debut novel, The Book of Ash, was directly inspired by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the majority of the stories in my new collection, Two Syllable Men, were written after a painful divorce and a long, healing road back to happiness and new love.
I’m so happy you were able to find creativity during a difficult time. What is the best advice you’ve received as a writer?
Many years ago, I met with an agent friend of mine and asked his advice on how I might best develop my writing “voice.” I told him I had been reading a lot of Orwell and wondered if that was wrong; if it might influence me to mimic Orwell and not develop my own distinct style. I’ll never forget his answer: “If you’re lucky.” It stung at the time, as I saw it only as a put-down of my writing prowess. But as I matured as a writer, and as a person, I realized what a gift my friend had given me, encouraging me, albeit rather bluntly, to let go of a deluded and most unhelpful pretension I had at that time: that to be unique, to be an original, I should never allow myself to emulate, and certainly not imitate, anyone else’s writing. Now, I beg, borrow and steal any inspiration I can get from predecessors as well as contemporaries. And I know I only write as well as I am reading, when I’m immersed in a book of high quality or a story that reaches deep, and I allow all that goodness the author has given to wash into me and, hopefully, use it to help my own work rise.
I agree that reading is so important for writers, and that was GREAT advice from your friend. Who are some of your favorite authors and books?
As you can guess, George Orwell. While his iconic and most well-known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, truly stand the test of time, I prefer his earlier works, such as Burmese Days, about when he worked as a policeman in Asia during the end of England’s colonial rule, and The Road to Wigan Pier, his call-to-glory for the underappreciated coal miners of Northern England. My two other heavyweights are Somerset Maugham, who, I believe, is the most cunningly straightforward story teller ever to debauch a cocktail party or a type-written page, and Graham Greene, who just slays me with his ability to use a character’s flaws to shine light on a larger society ill. That said, my favorite book is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I constantly reread to remind myself to write clean, compact, impactful prose.
How much research do you do for your books?
Once I get an idea for a novel, or a story, I let it sit a bit, writing in my head, thinking about the characters, how it might start and how it might end. Not long after, I type out the first few sentences, even a few paragraphs, as a way to transition the idea into something tangible. Also, because I can’t bear to leave things in a state of flux (thank you OCD), having words on the page is usually enough incentive for me to work diligently on the project until it is finished. I usually don’t do research until I’m far along into a piece. For short stories, usually a quick search on Google fills the bill. But with a novel, I have sometimes tracked down certain books I know have a more nuanced version of the topic I’m scratching. But even so, I never like to know too much about anything, especially when I’m writing a first draft, preferring to let my imagination work out the kinks and stumble over the facts before going back later, in the editing process, to make sure things are on the up and up.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being a writer?
I love the epiphany moments that being a writer brings – when an idea for a new story or book hits, or when I finally unlock a question about a character’s motivation or how to flesh out an ending. I also enjoy “being in my head,” thinking and ruminating on whatever project I am currently working, be it while I’m fishing, doing yoga, eating a piece of pizza, or walking my dog. It’s daydreaming with a focus, and it’s wonderful way to sift through hours and feel creative and connected while being blissfully disconnected, if that makes any sense. On the flip side, my least favorite part of being a writer is when I’m not able to replicate on the page exactly what I was able to conjure up earlier in my mind.
I’m like that too sometimes. All the ideas seem crystal clear in my head until I try to put them into words. What style would you call your writing?
There was a show on in the 1970’s, “Happy Days,” which gave us the “Fonz,” the ultra cool cat with the leather jacket and thumbs up high sign. His counterpart was “Richie Cunningham,” an All-American type played by Ron Howard, the former “Opie” on “The Andy Griffin Show,” and later a dynamic Hollywood director and producer. On one of the final episodes of “Happy Days,” Richie was courted by a Hollywood talent scout for his look, which, the scout said, was like “Disturbed Apple Pie.” This is a long way of saying that I think my writing style is also a bit of a juxtaposition, a mix of wholesomeness and subversion, humor and sadness, melancholic and manic. With a nod to the Fonz and Richie, I would call my writing “Disturbed Apple Crisp.”
Haha, I’ve never heard it described that way! Please tell us about your latest book.
My new book, Two Syllable Men (Vine Leaves Press), is a collection of 12 short stories, including several that are considered to be “flash fiction,” under 1,000 words. The title of each chapter is that story’s main character, and yes, each character is a man with a two-syllable first name – William, Daniel, Graham, Kevin, Byron, Steven, Ronald, Joseph, Herman, Thomas, Harold and Martin.
Buy links available from Vine Leaves Press
Book blurb for Two Syllable Men
In the tradition of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, Two Syllable Men presents the male psyche in all its fragmented glory. From William, who finds his immigrant girlfriend’s English language translation notebook, and in it the words that define their growing relationship, to Steven, who is comforted whenever he spies trees or shrubs peeking out from the roofs of urban buildings, and who can’t walk through the bus station without physically running into people, and Harold, who will only eat an even-number of food items at any meal, and numbs his heartache by buying in bulk at Sam’s Club. These men, and nine more, still have fight left in them. They do not want to be alone, but learn that often the best way to find love and lasting happiness is to look inward, not outward.
John, why do you think people should read the book?
To make me happy. But if that doesn’t motivate readers, and really, it shouldn’t, I think there is some very good advice in the stories for men when it comes to understanding relationships and dealing with loss. I think, and hope, that women readers will empathize with the men in the collection, as the struggles the guys face, love and loss and everything in between, are gender-neutral. And being that there are 12 men in this collection, I have a feeling that women will identify with at least one or two on a personal basis – meaning they might have dated someone similar, or married them…or divorced them. So perhaps the opportunity to relive and better understand a past or current romantic experience, either good, bad or indifferent, is possible.
How long did it take for you to write Two Syllable Men?
I wrote the first story (William) in 2001, and the last one (Martin) in 2015. The rest were created at various points in between. All were published in literary journals, magazines and e-zines. About a year ago, I put together the collection, starting from a pool of 20 or so stories, and whittling down to the current 12 that make up Two Syllable Men.
Watch 2 videos created for Two Syllable Men by Charlie Walsh. They are excellent!
What is the best way for someone to support your book, aside from buying it?
Simply, spread the word – share a link to the book on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, all and any social media outlets. Also, I really like when readers of my work contact me, ask me questions, let me know what they think of the writing, good or bad.
Yes, reader feedback is so important. What is next for you, John?
I’m nearly complete with a new novel, which takes place in the early 1930’s, imagining a plot from various American and European factions to murder (drum roll) George Orwell and silence him before his writing and anti-establishment views gained greater popularity. I’ve also started a sequel to this book, using similar characters, but set ten years later, at the height of World War II.
Sounds like you have a lot on the go, so let’s finish with a fun lightning round!
Aside from people/pets, what is the ONE item you would save if your house was on fire? My yellow duck memory stick containing all my writing – published or not.
Favorite place you’ve traveled to or would like to travel to? Paris, France. Such a beautiful city with a perfect pace for a short, long or permanent stay.
Name a food you can eat everyday. Coming off a recent week-long Baked Ziti frenzy, I would say Pad Thai.
Salty or sweet? I usually go for both – Chocolate Pretzels
Coffee or tea or something else? Ice coffee in the morning, green tea in the afternoon, Oolong at night.
Cat/dog/other pet? Dog. My wife and I adopted “Gonshi” (Congratulations in Mandarin) from a shelter eight years ago on Chinese New Year. Gonshi is a rather fierce mix of Pit Bull, German Shepherd, Chow and Rottweiler, and while he does have a bit of a temper at times, he is sweet as sugar to us and our joy.
Favorite style of music? Alternative, Classic Punk, Indie. Anything between The Pixies and The National.
The best gift you’ve ever received? My wife’s phone number on a bar napkin.
Your most guilty pleasure? NBA TV.
Favorite season? Fall.
Name something you cannot go a day without. Knowing that everyone I love is safe.
Thank you John for sharing with my readers, and congratulations on the release of Two Syllable Men. I can’t wait to read it!
Readers, please find John at all his virtual homes below. Drop by and say “hi!” He’s friendly, I promise!
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Connect to John
John McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, attended Villanova University, and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. He the author of The Book of Ash and Two Syllable Men. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.