Why he writes: a Q&A with novelist J. Adams Oaks

Don’t call me kiddo. I REALLY hate it. People been calling me that way too long. Fever and Ma and Uncle Spade all call me kiddo, and it makes me crazy. See how I ain’t smiling? People who know me, know that means trouble.

J. Adams Oaks is the author of the new young adult novel WHY I FIGHT

So begins the new novel by J. Adams Oaks, Why I Fight, which is already earning glowing adjectives (poignant, breathtaking, unforgettable – Booklist). It’s the story of a 12 year old bare knuckle boxer from a dysfunctional family, and from the pugilistic prose you might think Jeff is the type of writer to step in the ring with Papa Hemingway. But in truth, he’s more of a Faulkner guy, with a little Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marques thrown in.

I attended Columbia College Chicago ten years ago, where I had the great pleasure of watching the inception of the story that became Why I Write. The Fiction Writing Department at CCC doesn’t tell writers how to write, instead, they cultivate voice and foster the conveyance of rich imagery in prose. And did they ever cultivate the hell out of Jeff. His first book, more than ten years from inkjet to hardcover, is amazing.

This is part 1 of a two-part Q&A.

So what have you been up to for the past ten years?

Wow! So much. I’ve finally found a good balance of writing, teaching, and bartending to pay the bills. The novel, WHY I FIGHT, in its first form was my thesis for Columbia College Chicago. I tried working a 9-to-5 job and write, but that didn’t work, so I actually moved to Denver, CO into the house of my friends, Claire Fallon and Steve Kalinosky, who let me live with them for free as long as I was writing every day. I cranked out that first draft, then started bartending while I looked for a literary agent. That took me four long years during which I rewrote the manuscript and told everyone I met that I’d written a book and was trying to publish. I actually got referred to my agent through a regular at my bar!

What’s the worst job you had during that time?

I have to say for me personally the worst job I’ve had was the 9-to-5 cubicle farm job, commuting into The Loop into one of those beige buildings into an office with no windows at a grey desk. I never was a morning person, so  I pretty much spent my day yawning and waiting to get home to sleep. It’s hard to find your creativity doing that, you know?

Why I Fight

I’ve always had an aversion to the old dead white guys of the traditional cannon, because they were the ones I was being told I had to pay attention to and connected to the least. All through undergrad and grad school, I searched out the people that didn’t live like me, that didn’t write like me and who’s voices sounded nothing like mine so that I could really see how they found their own sound. I studied Spanish lit and Latin American writer, like Lorca and Borges and Garcia Marques. Later on in grad school, as I started to find my main character, Wyatt Reaves’, voice, I really started to pay attention to Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz and Herbert Selby for their powerful individual expression of singular voices. I also love reading in the morning before I start, reading to be inspired, to feel that feeling of “I want to try to do that!” so I’ll read Toni Morrison or William Faulkner or poetry or even a friend’s work until I just have to turn to my own writing.

Do you feel any different now that you can wander into a bookstore and find your work on the same shelves as writer’s you’ve admired your whole life?

Funny you should ask, because that’s what I’ve been telling everyone: “I just want to be able to walk into the local bookstore and see my novel there, then I’ll feel satisfied, feel relieved.” I’ll also say that I’m glad that Joyce Carol Oates wrote a Young Adult book, so mine can sit next to hers.

Like a lot of writers, you spent time studying your craft in an MFA program. What was the most important aspect of that experience?

Boy, I’ll tell you that for anyone looking for an MFA program, I really recommend checking them out to find one that works for you, because everyone has different needs. I was so impressed by Columbia College’s Fiction Department, which emphasized oral storytelling translating to the page and really find one’s voice as well as reducing the amount of pointless criticism and competition that can occur in other programs. The only competing I felt with my colleagues at Columbia was, “Man, I want to write something as good as that. Now how did she DO that?!?!?”

What have you learned in the years since graduating? How have you changed as a writer?

Oh, jeez. That is a hard one. I’ve learned so much by being active in a vibrant literary community like that in Chicago. I’ve been active in an astounding theater company called Serendipity that produces “2nd Story” which is a highbred a reading and a performance. You can check it out at www.storiesandwine.com. I’ve gotten to learn how to really stand in front of an audience and give my voice. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with one of the best editors, Richard Jackson, a truly talented man who understood how to guide me as a writer toward the strongest writing. He knew I needed to do all the work, when it came to page, letting me learn along the way through 4 FULL rewrites of the book! And the list goes on of what I’ve learned, because I feel like as artists we have to be constantly learning or we get stagnant.

How long did it take you to get to the heart of “Why I Fight?”  How long have you known this story was a novel?

You know, I think “the heart of WHY I FIGHT” was what told me it would have be a novel. At the time I wrote the very first scene, which I assumed was a short story, I felt like there was something much larger there, and if I listened carefully it would tell me what else it had to offer. I feel like Richard Jackson taught me to really listen to what the work demands and not force it into something it’s not. So to answer your question, I think that WHY I FIGHT was always a novel, whether I knew it or not….

You’ve been working on this project for a long time.  During that whole time were you ever tempted to abandon that project and focus on something else, or abandon writing altogether?

I never thought about abandoning writing. I’ve always known I’d do that whether it was seen by others or not, but there was a drive there to share my work with more people than just family and friends. I did work on this book a long time. I finished the first draft in 2000, and the reality is that it sat in a drawer for 4 years while I did the business of writing, that’s the other side of it people don’t really talk about enough. Art requires some serious drudgery as well as creation. I do think though that a writer should have more than one project going so that they don’t get sucked into the whole of that one work. I always seem to have 5 or 6 documents on my computer’s desk-top and I pop into whichever is taking my attention that day. The worst thing is to work on something that you can give no passion.

What gave you hope or confidence along the way?

It’s really the who that gave me hope. Everyone I work with on writing wants everyone else to succeed, so we are all pulling for each other. Not to mention, Mom and Dad. But I also have to say, writing is my career and a career just takes putting aside the insecurity and getting down to business, you know?

Where do you turn, outside literature and writing, for inspiration?

Everywhere! It’s the world. I carry a little journal with me all the time so I can write down a conversation I over hear on the bus or a description of a bit of graffitti I see or a name or an adjective that tastes good in my mouth. I’m writing all the time. That’s a blessing and a curse.

If you were to take a road trip to clear your head, what type of vehicle are you in, what’s playing on the stereo, and where is the road?

I don’t own a car, since I live in the city and take the train, so ANY car would be great! I’d love a sun roof and a really big stack of CDs including some great jazz, bossa nova and some surprises. That road would be heading toward water because I really really REALLY could use a little time at the beach. Sigh. But I’d have to take my journal with me, even if I was on vacation. I don’t want to miss anything.

What’s next?

I am working  on #2. It’s tricky to find time when I need to work on getting the first one out there, but I’m so glad to have something else to work on. It takes place partly in Spain, soooooo…. I’m thinking research trip is in my future, right? Wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted.

Read more about Jeff at his site, buy his incredible book and look for Part 2 of the Q&A soon.

– DB

Book Description

Wyatt Reaves takes the seat next to you, bloodied and soaking wet, and he is a big-fisted beast. Tell him to stretch out like an X across asphalt and you’ve got a parking space. But Wyatt’s been taking it lying down for too long, and he is NOT happy.

Since he turned twelve and a half, he’s been living with his uncle, a traveling salesman of mysterious agenda and questionable intent. Soon, Uncle Spade sees the potential in “kiddo” to earn cash. And that’s enough to keep the boy around for nearly six years.

But what life does Wyatt deserve? Alcohol? Drugs? Bare-fisted fights? Tattoos? No friends? No role models? Living in a car?

If you’re brave enough to stay and listen, you’ll hear an astounding story. It’s not a pretty road Wyatt has traveled, but growing up rarely is.

Praise for WHY I FIGHT

“A breathtaking debut with an unforgettable protagonist…His painful and poignant story is a wonderful combination of the unlettered and the eloquent.” –Booklist (starred review)

“For male reluctant readers.” –Kirkus Reviews

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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