James Anderson’s first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, had me from the title. It turns out that wasn’t an accident. James tells me in this interview that he works harder on his titles than many authors might, and he explains why.
Still, titles only go so far, and it took a lot more for me to get absorbed in this unusual read. Not many books grip me the way Anderson’s first novel did. Populated with quirky characters and set in odd places along a lonely desert highway, the book kept me interested in both its mysterious story and the carefully crafted, yet seemingly effortless prose. This book was something special, something different. After talking to James, I see that this was no accident, either.
The second book in the series, Lullaby Road, picks up the story of lonely Ben the truck driver where the first book left off. I read both books in just a few sittings. I’d met James at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, and his first novel was published only two years ago, yet his work reads like the novels of an established American author.
The next step was to find out more about James and his journey from behind the desk in the publishing world to becoming a later-in-life author who crafted two great books (with more hopefully to come). Through our conversation, I learned a few things about the books that helped me understand them even better. And writers, take note. There are some good tips here.
FRD: Your path to publication as a novelist is a little different — you worked in book publishing first. When did you decide to move from publisher to writer, and did your experience as a publisher help you craft a “publishable” novel?
JA: No. And yes—sort of. I stopped being a publisher and editor in 1991, though I completed my first novel when I was only sixteen and five others during the next forty years. In important ways, being an editor and publisher helped me to eventually write a novel in which, after some time had passed, the critical apparatus did not interfere with the creative process. My sense, indeed my conviction, is that if you sit down to write a “publishable” novel you will fail and, worse, you will have failed in your artistic effort to create a work that is uniquely yours. No one, and I mean NO ONE, knows what is “publishable” or what might be successful—whatever that means. The most important thing, and this has always been true, is to do the work. I’ve always loved Michael Chabon’s comment that a writer needs to be in love with the blank page because that is the only thing a writer really has any control over.
Consider this: If your novel has at best an equal chance of failing or succeeding, of being published or not, why not just do the work in a way that only you can do it? That way, even if the book fails in one way or another, you have been faithful to yourself. Imagine how terrible it must be to create something you “think” will be successful, that you compromised your unique voice and instincts, only to have it fail?
Finally, to me “craft” means knowing what and how best to write something as well as it can be written—by you. That’s was the gift of the Solstice M.F.A. program for me—I had instructors and fellow students who were supportive and committed NOT to change what it is I do, but discover and see what it is I do and help me do it better
FRD: Ben, the protagonist of “The Never Open Desert Diner” and “Lullaby Road,” describes himself as an “Indian-Jew, half-breed trucker.” What made you decide on this interesting mix of ethnicities for your central character?
JA: Ben is an orphan. As far as he knows, he was the abandoned infant of a Jewish social worker mother and a Native American father. When he was around five or six he was adopted by an older, childless Mormon couple. Ben is an exile in a land of exiles. He is his own Lost Tribe in a desert of lost tribes. And as an independent truck driver in the high desert of Utah, he serves the eccentrics, oddballs, the “desert rats” that are self-exiled. Ben, in both novels, though particularly in The Never-Open Desert Diner, is the ultimate exile and he lives and works in a region that is isolated and where essential resources are scarce. All of this serves to emphasize a dominant theme—paradox, co-existing opposites. A few examples: A truck driver in love with a former concert cellist; an isolated landscape where human connections are the most important connections there are; an old man who keeps his diner in the desert perfect and ready for business in every way, yet it is always closed; eccentrics who have chosen to live a life of solitude yet whose very existence depends upon a solitary Jewish-Native American orphan.
Dennis Lehane has said that all novels are basically a search for a home. I would add that the important word in that observation is “search.”
FRD: What do you think it is about diners, specifically, that captures the national imagination?
JA: Diners, particularly desert or isolated diners, are archetypal—and uniquely American—and also a common literary and cinematic trope. No, I have not misused that term, simply expanded upon it. Using a desert diner in the title and a setting immediately establishes an image in the mind of a reader—and then adds to it. While it is not uncommon for such diners or cafes to be open, or abandoned, mine is not open, and it asks an implied question: Why is the diner “never open?” This is the essential mystery, the seminal question in the reader that creates the open invitation to the story. It is my belief that the title to a novel is the real first line of the book. A perfectly conceived title conjures an image and asks a question that is illuminated throughout the story until, by the end, the title means more than it did when the reader first read it. I work very hard on my titles, perhaps longer and harder than any other single aspect of the novel
FRD: Is Highway 117, the desert road Ben travels up and down in these novels, a metaphor? If so, for what?
JA: Hm-m-m….for a metaphor to be good and useful it must be grounded in truth. So, yes, it is a highway of isolation, but also of mystery and discovery, and it must be travelled—and Ben Jones is your guide, but also his own guide. Ben’s purpose is to drive 117 and take the reader along.
FRD: You published both of these novels after you’d passed your 50th birthday. Do you have any inspirational words for writers in middle-age who might think they started too late?
JA: Passed? Hell, by the time I completed The Never-Open Desert Diner the age of fifty was barely a reflection in my rearview mirror! Inspirational? I can only offer this: A central tenet of Buddhism is to “start where you are.” Of course, this is paradoxical and humorous because, well, where else would you start? The real question is, what is keeping you from starting? Is it fear? Is it laziness? Or is it the simple realization that you don’t really want to write at all? The questions, the perceived obstacles, are the same no matter what your age. The answer is the same: Just how badly do you want to write? What are you willing to sacrifice? I could not have written The Never-Open Desert Diner when I was twenty, thirty, or even forty. That is the unique gift of the “middle-aged” writer—you bring so much into the kitchen with which to prepare your literary meal—decades of observations, jobs, books read, lessons learned, conversations, and experiences shared. Everything you’ve ever done, success or failure, is available to you. Your cupboards are full. Start cooking—if you really want to. One of my favorite Jewish sayings, expressed in the form of a question (of course) is this: When is the best time to plant a shade tree? Answer: Twenty years ago. Or right now.
FRD: What about the other end of the spectrum? If you had the opportunity to talk to a group of teenagers who spend more time reading Snapchat than books, what would you say to convince them that reading novels has value?
JA: Ha! I am just about to do exactly that! There is strong neurobiological evidence to suggest that reading fiction triggers positive changes in brain chemistry, though I don’t think that will sway them! And, after some preliminary conversations with their teachers, the students do appear to read fiction and poetry—on their own and not just what is assigned. Perhaps the best way to approach this is to simply ask them “why” they read fiction and what they get out of it. My understanding is I will be addressing at least two hundred high school students in three sections over a full school day. It should be fun, which I guess will be part of the discussion about reading and writing—at its core, you should have fun and derive pleasure in the creative process. Reading is a creative process as well because what you get from it depends, at least in part, on what you bring to it.
FRD: Will there be a Book 3 for Ben?
JA: I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But the publishing industry is a tough business and right now Penguin-Random House, my publisher, wants to see how Lullaby Road does. My sense is that I will write at least one more. There is so much that has been set in motion and the prospect of completing at least this story arc is exciting. It remains a question as to whether or not it will find a publisher. Given that, I have never wanted to spend my writing career on a series. There are many other projects I want to complete and the work on those is continuing, including a novel I’ve been working on for years, and a collection of novellas and short stories, and a memoir. So, in the words of the Zen Master, “We’ll see!”