Writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”
Today’s young adult novels provide readers with a flourish of paranormal characters, dystopian societies, and lots of new romance. What if readers had an opportunity to travel back to a time where there was no social media, obsessions with cell phones or flipping through the electronic pages of a book?
In J. Lee Graham’s young adult novel, The Promise of Living, you won’t run into any vampires, werewolves or wizards, but you will find a young man who perceives danger before it happens, and the impact it has on his life as a small town boy caught up in a world of dark mystery, self-discovery and the sensitive steps into first romance territory.
Interviewer: Christy Campbell
Tell us about The Promise of Living, one of four novels you’ve published.
The Promise of Living is a young adult coming of age novel set in the small, bucolic town of Wilson’s Ferry, New Hampshire in 1975. Ryan Colton is sixteen, and he and his best friend Dave work on a farm. It begins in late June, their final week of their junior year at school. While milking the cows one late afternoon, Ryan has a vision, a premonition, if you will, of a townsperson hanging herself. Throughout the summer and into their senior year, he continues to have visions that reveal the dark secrets of the people in his hometown. In one of them, he sees a young girl being murdered, but he can’t see her face or stop its occurrence. At the same time, he struggles with an inner, hidden, more prevailing growing pain about his feelings for Dave.
You chose to set the book in the 1970’s. How do you think a young adult reader from 2013 might relate to that?
I set the novel in the 1970’s to remove the easy distraction of electronic devices. For me, it’s harder to establish conflict when everyone in the novel has access to the Internet or a phone. Besides, a coming out/coming of age story is universal. Ryan’s feelings for Dave happen regardless of the times, and I wanted Ryan not to have, again, easy access to LGBT information; blogs, role models, etc. I wanted to emphasize his struggle, not from a moral or religious perspective, but from a personal, self-esteem perspective. Again, removing the superfluous details and distractions of smart phones and social media highlights Ryan’s journey. Ironically, even with today’s extreme use of electronics, there are still many young people discovering themselves, where the coming out process is just as powerful and transformational as Ryan’s.
The theme of authenticity is strong in The Promise of Living. How does that resonate with you?
Authenticity is a strong theme in many of my novels and plays: the power that comes from recognizing the ‘clothing’ of honesty and self-worth that one chooses to wear. That’s a major experience for young adults, straight, gay, transgender, etc. Being honest about who you are and allowing that code of integrity to guide you throughout your life. It’s funny, but a lot of adults who’ve read the book, also comment on that theme. It is an aspect that resonates throughout all our lives.
Is this book in any way autobiographical? If so, fill us in.
I think there is an element of autobiography in every novel we read. How about that for a dodge? I think there is a percentage of autobiography that creeps into all our work even if one were writing science fiction. Ryan, I have to say, is definitely not me, I wish he were! Small town characters and small town mores are pretty common, and I did live in Boston for a while, but fiction is fiction.
In The Promise of Living, you juxtapose the beauty of the city of Boston with the ugliness of the small rural town of Wilson’s Ferry. Most writers do the opposite. Why?
I know, we see that so often! The small town sanctified beyond belief juxtaposed with the brutal dirt and corruption of a large city. Many writers draw from the idea of the ‘journey’ where the hero leaves the small farm, home, family, etc. and ventures out into the world, usually symbolized by a metropolis or at the very least, a war near a metropolis. For me, I wanted to create a Wilson’s Ferry that was filled with dirty secrets and shame. I wanted to symbolize that with the run down appearance of the town, the Commons, the dilapidated homes near the polluted river, etc. (And truth be told, there are, sadly, many small towns that are very economically depressed and it shows.) I wanted Ryan’s perception of Boston to be one of promise and hope and I highlighted the beauty there: its sense of community, the cobblestone streets, the old but beautiful Colonial and Victorian homes, etc. Have you been to Boston? It’s a jewel of a city.
Ryan, the main character, goes on a journey of self-discovery. Do you think that type of journey is common with people his age?
The theme of ‘going on a journey’ is a powerful theme since before the Greek and Roman Myths. Joseph Campbell calls it ‘the hero’s journey’, where one starts out with one view, goes down into the darkness, confronts his shadow self and comes out a renewed person. It’s a reflection and a process that happens over and over in our lives. So, with Ryan, it’s a discovery of his gifts: his gift for visual perspicacity and acumen, his discovery of his own sexuality, his own authenticity in being who he is and not morphing or hiding it, are all elements of self-discovery and yes, that journey is common with people his age. It’s like the Vision Quests of the Native American culture. One leaves the tribe, faces his greatest fears, becomes stronger and realizes his own unique gifts which he then brings back to share with the tribe. That’s the important aspect. The sharing of one’s gifts with the tribe.
What authors have greatly influenced you as a writer?
Wow, so many. I love the universal wonder and beauty of Thornton Wilder; the cliff-hangers of James Fenimore Cooper; the power of language in Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Toni Morrison, the creative visual genius of Willa Cather; the way Dickens can tug at your heart strings; the pathos of Forster, Maugham, Baldwin, Capote, and even Cheever. I respect them all, and there are many, many others. I feel like I stand on the shoulders of giants.
Your other novels involve a thirteen year old and a much different premise. What was it like switching from that type of genre to the young adult one?
Yes, my other novels are a time travel adventure series for Middle Grade. It wasn’t too hard to move ‘up’ in a chronological sense. The dialogue between Ryan and Dave allowed more maturity in their perspectives on life and I could use the cadence of their speech to reflect their intimate friendship.
When I ‘switched back’ after The Promise of Living to write my third time travel novel, there was a major shift that I could feel, a jarring like when one slams on the brakes of a car. I had to constantly revise my writing remembering to reflect a more adventurous tone and a different flavor with these characters’ dialogue. I actually re-read book number one and two to bring my brain back to that world that I had created. In book number three, the characters are now fourteen years old and I had to really be mindful of how their discourse would reflect their age. Plus, the readership of a middle grade novel is much different than the readership of a young adult novel and I had to remember that as I wrote as well.
Have you always want to be a writer?
I have. Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” and while I did do that in many other parts of my life, sadly, I didn’t do that with writing. I remember being shot down emotionally by my family when I casually announced at 13 that I wanted to be a writer, and I realize now how debilitating even that slight encounter has been.
What’s next on your plate?
Well, as I’ve mentioned, I write middle grade time travel novels, currently a trilogy. In the Nick of Time, The Time of his Life, and just out this October, All the Time in the World. They are all available on Amazon.
I’m toying with a murder mystery series extracted from my work as a professional astrologer. Not autobiographical at all, just an extract, a seed where the mystery is created and solved with a slight astrological framework. It’s fun to think about, and create. It’ll be written for adults, so, we’ll see.
And of course, we must know. Who’s that on the cover?
That is my cousin! Actually, he did work on a farm.
Where can readers find out more about your work?
The Promise of Living is available at Amazon.com
Readers can follow my blog at www.jleegraham.blogspot.com