Interview with author Joe Gillan


Fran Lewis online Qs&As 28 Feb – 4 Mar, 2011

 

Welcome to my Interview with author Joe Gillan: Please join in the discussion and leave some comments and questions for our Spotlighted author of the week.

 

Brief Bio:

 

 

Joe Gillan lives on Siesta Key, a barrier island in southwest Florida offshore at Sarasota. He is a native of Amsterdam, NY, holds a B.A. degree in English literature from Ithaca (NY) College, and spent most of his business career working for a large corporation in New York City, Brussels, Belgium and Washington, DC. Many years ago, he worked for the Gannett Company at its then-flagship newspaper, the Rochester (NY) Times-Union, first as a sports writer and subsequently as a police and then general assignment reporter. Mr. Gillan is currently serving in Florida, by appointment of the Governor, as a vice-chaiman of the Florida Local Advocacy Council, whose mission is to protect and advocate for a better quality of life for Florida citizens with special needs. Many years ago he served as president of the Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. Joe is the proud father of three grown daughters.

An avid daily jogger, Joe has run some three dozen 26.2- mile marathons over the years, including the New York City (four times), Philadelphia, San Francisco, London and Athens marathons. An Army veteran from the Vietnam era, Just Before the Dawn is his first novel. If you’d like to eMail Joe to ask a question, write a review or have Joe come to your store for a book signing please take a moment to Contact Joe Gillan

 

 

 

Q1– Give our readers a brief summary of Just Before the Dawn

 

 

A1– It’s a novel, a work of fiction, a story about the two lives all of us lead: the temporal and the spiritual, with what one critic called a “powerful ending.”  This “two lives” duality is common to us all.  We tend, more so, to lead the temporal life when we are younger but the focus shifts to the spiritual as we mature and we begin to ponder those great questions that we did not spend much time thinking about when we were younger: What is the meaning of all this?; Is there a God?; How have I managed this hand that was dealt me in this life; and, finally, What comes next — what is infinity and /or eternity?

 

Just Before the Dawn is also a love story, parts of which will make you laugh out loud, other parts of which will tug at your heart strings a little — but, above all, it is a story and a book that will make you think.

 

Rather than me telling you more about the book, I’d like instead to quote from a few of the “formal” reviewers as to what they think about the book.  I find some of these, in addition to the many letters I’ve received from “ordinary,” every day readers, particularly gratifying.

 

“The Mensa Bulletin,” the magazine for the High-IQ Society, said the book is “wonderfully crafted” and summarized its review with this rather definitive statement:  “You’ve GOT TO READ this book.”

 

Robert Lory, author of The Thirteen Bracelets and 35 other novels said this:  “Just Before the Dawn is a very Zen piece of writing … and en enjoyable read.”

 

Stephen Haven, Director of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, Ashland University, said this:

 

“… reminded me of (D. H.) Lawrence, in many ways … There is humor, fun, utter physical joy, light-hearted banter, graphic sexual detail, love … without being overdone … REALLY WELL DONE.”

 

Professor Haven went on:  “There seems to be a touch of Henry Miller in the book and a touch of Saul Bellow.”

 

I love that — being compared to the great Saul Bellow!

 

Here’s a review from my “Facebook” page that I also like very much.  This sums up quite nicely the complexity and diversity and scope contained in the book and the story:

 

“Just Before the Dawn may be the only novel you ever read in which you’ll get equal measures of Creedence Clearwater Revival ( CCR), St. Thomas Aquinas, Roy Orbison, St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Willie Nelson, and John Paul II  ( with nods, also, to Ecclesiastes, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche ). There also is a smattering in the book about major league baseball …. and a touch of understated, tasteful erotica.”

 

Another Facebook “review” had this to say:  “… captivating… the surprise ending is astonishing…”

 

This woman reader went on: “I will most likely read this book again to recapture some of the spirituality and intense research done by the author…”

 

A publisher’s reader, when the book was still in manuscript form, wrote:  “Gillan is able to be intellectual, but never pedantic … in this intricately detailed, intelligently written text.  This is a novel that mulls over many basic questions of basic existence; for this reason, and Gillan’s many citations of other writers, Just Before the Dawn could have wide appeal.”

 

Because (presumably) of the many Thomas Wolfe citations in the book, a member of an academic group, The Thomas Wolfe Society, has placed a copy of Just Before the Dawn in the memorabilia section of the Wolfe Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Wolfe was an undergraduate a century ago.

 

I am as pleased with this, as much as any other post-publication accolade the book has received.

 

I am also gratified that I have received so many letters from so many readers — both men and women — who have liked the book.

 

I will end this response to this first question with one other “formal” review that I especially like.  This reviewer/blogger really “got it.” She (Gabina49) wrote:

 

“Sometimes you read a novel that really touches your heart.”

 

To touch someone else’s heart through the written word is all a writer could ever hope for.

 

Sorry for the long-winded response.  I’ll do my best to answer the next questions more briefly!

 

 

 

Q2 — What made you write the book?

 

A2 — I do believe each and every one of us has a book inside trying to come out.  Just Before the Dawn is mine, though I do hope there’ll also be another one or two, at least.

 

I wrote the book because I wanted to make the point that is expressed in the last paragraph on the book’s last page:   that faith (and love) are “the key to it (life and death) all.”

 

Faith, and love, are indeed “the key to it all.”

 

 

Q3 — How did you create the characters of Rebecca and Thomas?

 

A3 — Each is based on a “real life” person but each also is a composite character, with some part(s) of their being and character and personality taken from many other people.  I do believe that all fictional characters in all fictive literature are composites.

 

It’s also true that Rebecca is based, fundamentally, on a woman I once loved deeply (her real name is not Rebecca/Becky, but Deborah/Debbie.)  But it’s also true that a lot of who Rebecca is in the book borrows from other women who have been a part of my life or whom I have known over the years.

 

 

Q4 — What made you write about Thomas and how is he more of an extension of you?

 

A4 — Referring back to Q&A #1, another reviewer described Just Before the Dawn as a “spiritual Bildungsroman.”  And that in a very real sense is what the book is and what it’s about. Thomas is seeking his answer.  He is on his quest. There is a quote in the book from the late Pope John Paul II which I believe sums this up very nicely — “In the very search for faith, an implicit faith is already present.” John Paul was one of my real-life heroes.

 

I am often asked by readers if the character Thomas in the book is based on me and my life or is, somehow, an extension of me — and I give them the same answer as I did to your Rebecca question #3.  The Thomas character is also a composite. But it is also true that all fiction, whether it is Danielle Steel or William Shakespeare, undeniably has an element of the autobiographical in it.

 

A writer friend of mine told me he usually puts it this way — “Autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time … a mix of memoir and fantasy, both exaggerated.”

 

My friend also added this — “So-called real people are never as complete as wholly-imagined characters.”

 

I like his answer and buy into it totally!

 

In Thomas, in Just Before the Dawn, there also is an element of the rogue and irreverent character “Paddy.”  And so Thomas is indeed a composite.  But at the end of the book, what happens to Thomas has not happened to the character Thomas is based largely on (me).  Readers of this interview will have to get the book to understand this more clearly.  “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

 

Q5 — How did Rebecca and Thomas meet and why did they separate?

 

A5 — Rebecca and Thomas meet through mutual friends and this is covered quite explicitly in chapter 7 of the book.  Their separation, and the reasons for it, were considerably more complicated and make up much of the story in the rest of the book.

 

 

Q6 — How did Rebecca react when she receives the letter from Thomas after so many years? Why did he write her and what did he hope to gain or accomplish?

 

 

A6 — Rebecca is taken aback when she receives the long letter from Thomas, after not having heard from him for 10 years.   She is confused, bewildered but also very intrigued.  At first she keeps the letter from her husband William, though he does find out about it later on.

 

Thomas, in writing to Rebecca, is, in effect, expressing the love he still feels for her. Lingering affection for an old love is not an emotion exclusive to women.  Some (many?) men harbor the same feelings for someone with whom they’ve been intimate.  Part of Thomas wants to resurrect and recreate what he and Rebecca once had together — though he knows, in his heart, that that probably can’t happen.  As Thomas Wolfe wrote, You Can’t Go Home Again.

 

Thomas also has made a major, life-changing decision that he wants to tell Rebecca about and this, putatively, is the reason for his letter.

 

Another way to define Just Before the Dawn, using a series of single-word descriptives, is this:  I am often asked, “Is it a mystery?”    It is a ‘mystery.’  It is about the greatest mystery of them all: life, loss, growth, redemption, dying, death, eternity — and infinity.

 

Q7 — This story is told in Thomas’s voice: You include many letters written by him in this outstanding novel — please share some with our readers and tell them why you included them in your novel?

 

 

A7 — A novel that employs “letters” to make a point or to argue an issue is, as you know,  a ‘genre’ that has been termed “epistolary.”  A University professor, in an email to me about Just Before the Dawn,

wrote —

 

“The epistolary novel is a tough genre, as the narrator is often isolated from physically moving about and interacting with his characters, except through the surface screen of the actual document/letter.  You handle this well by weaving in and out of the letter segments, and by dramatizing actual scenes from the lives of your characters.  I wonder if you know Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead — an epistolary novel … wonderfully full of insight.  The epistolary novel allows for a greater degree of reflection than would be dramatically believable through dialogue or even through interior monologue.  Maybe it gives up a little drama for a lot more depth.  The tone of your novel is a warmer mix of Thomas’s reflections and directly rendered scenes.”

 

I will allow that learned opinion to stand as an answer to your question — as to why I included the letters from Thomas as an integral part of the novel.  It does indeed allow “for a greater degree of reflection” as it, and they– the letters — are woven into the novel and story line.

 

Q8 — What happens to Rebecca that changes the course of her life? What are the many reasons her relationships do not work out?

 

A8 — What happened to Rebecca that changed the course of her life is covered in the novel when we learn that her first husband was unfaithful to her.  This wracks, scars and sears Rebecca — and drives her to substance abuse (alcohol) as an avenue of escape and to forget her pain.  Later in the story we learn that her second husband also becomes unfaithful.  She remembers — “Rebecca remembers” (the refrain we see and read throughout the novel) — that Thomas was not unfaithful to her during their time together.

 

Q9 — What are three major issues that you highlight in this novel and why?

 

A9 — 1) we all do lead two lives, more of the temporal life when we are younger — and a spiritual life, at least in terms of what we allow ourselves to think about, finally — as we grow older; 2) Love is, at the same time, indestructible and ephemeral in this mortal, temporal existence.  As The Prophet in Ecclesiastes says, All is Vanity; 3) The answer and lasting peace and true love for all of us are in the future, when we return Home to our Creator. I revert to the quote I mentioned earlier from John Paul II.  “In the very search for faith an implicit faith is already present.”

 

Overriding all of these issues and questions and the novel is the eternal reality of Love.

 

 

Q10 — Why did Thomas want to find God and become a Monk?  Was it his guilt for not attending church or was he trying to make peace within himself?

 

A10 — Just Before the Dawn is indeed a work of fiction and the character Thomas is indeed based partially on the author.  But, the author did not ever enter a monastery.  I revert to the quote from my writer friend, “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

Q11 — Tell our readers about some of his other relationships.

 

A 11 — Thomas is not the “skirt-chaser” he sometimes seems to be in the novel.  He in fact may be the most straight-and-narrow character in the entire book. He is looking for one true love.

 

 

Q12 — Who is Olivia and how did he meet her?  What made her special?

 

A12 — Again, this is a work of fiction — and Olivia is a fictional character, and a composite character, though she does represent what to Thomas is mortal love.

 

 

Q13 — What made you decide to write the story flashing back between the past and the present?

 

A13 — I did not do that consciously, it just flowed that way. But here I will revert to the professor with the fancy-schmansy title who said he found “a touch of Saul Bellow” in Just Before the Dawn.

 

Another academician, in writing about Bellow, said this — “There is no sustained chronological action in Herzog (by Bellow) that takes place outside Herzog’s brain.”

 

Herzog represents an effort “…to not only infuse fiction with mind but to make mentalness itself crucial to the hero’s dilemma — to think about the problem of thinking…”

 

That is part of the technique in Just Before the Dawn that I kind of stumbled on accidentally. To say or imply that I did so intentionally would not be truthful and would give me much more credit than I deserve.  And, I am just not that smart!

 

Another reader/reviewer said he found that component of the book — flashing back between the past and the present — to have “a haunting rhythm” that very much appealed to him — and compelled him to go back and re-read many parts of it.  Several readers have told me that they have gone back to reread parts of the book.

Other readers have said they find the book “inspirational” and compared it to The Shack.  Others have said it reminded them of McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in its Irish-Catholic humor, despite its mainly serious, thoughtful tone.  Two different readers have said the death and dying scenes and reflections on God and eternity in the book helped them deal with the ongoing pain they felt over the loss of a loved one.

 

Q14 — What about you is Thomas?

 

A14 — I believe this has already been covered — “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

Q15 — What made you decide to become an author? When did you begin writing this book?  How long did it take from start to finish?

 

A15 — As strange as this may sound, I became a writer because I wanted to be a major league baseball player — but did not have the talent. I must be one of the few men in America who is not an avid football fan.  I love the sport of baseball — and there is, as one of the reviews put it, “a smattering of baseball” in Just Before the Dawn.

 

When I realized, very early on, that I was basically talentless in baseball I decided to become a sportswriter.  From there I went on to become a newspaper reporter — first in sports, then as a police reporter and then as a general assignment and investigative reporter.  Years later, I thought I’d like to write a novel — a work of literature, if you will — and that is how Just Before the Dawn got its start. As I said earlier, I believe all of us have at least that one novel in us and when I left the work-a-day world I began mine.

 

The writing of the book was the easy part of the process.  From the day I sat down at my word processor and typed the dedication to the book — “To My Precious Little Petal”  “ I am bound to You Forever” and then the first words in chapter one of the book —

 

“The large manila envelope had arrived in the mail yesterday, two days before Christmas … Rebecca Halsey realized at once who the envelope was from…”

 

Until I typed, in French, the final words on the final page of the book —

 

“Qui s’excuse s’accuse”

 

95,000 words in all, the writing of Just Before the Dawn took a total of eight months.

 

Then the hard part of the overall process began.  I found out in short order that very few, if any, publishers will accept an unsolicited manuscript from a writer who is not represented by an agent.  So I set about finding an agent and connected with an ambitious young guy in the city (Sarasota, FL) where I lived, and still do, and then was guided by him to a young, upstart publishing operation, also local. The firm, which has since become a victim of the economic downturn in this country, offered me a “traditional” publishing contract, along with a modest $500 advance.

 

Next came the editing and production /distribution processes — and now what I continue to be involved in, the promotion process.

 

And so, to reprise:  I became a writer because I did not have the talent to be a major league baseball player. Simple but true.

 

Q16 — Did you ever have trouble writing or need to take time away from writing the novel in order to rethink your plot or characters?

 

A16 — Not really, Fran.  Once I got started the book really just flowed.  I wrote for short bursts of time 30/40 minutes – 1 to 1 ½ hours at a time. Because of my ADHD, I found that I could not sit and concentrate on the writing for periods of time any longer than that.  But I did sit and write for those shorter periods sometimes 6-8 times a day, sometimes very early in the morning and sometimes late at night.

 

I did not really find that I needed to “take time away” to rethink plot or characters. Sometimes I’d think about what I’d just written while I was out on a jog, and come back home to rework certain parts or dialogue.

 

 

Q17 — How do you market your book? What are your favorite venues?

 

A17 — The book has sold reasonably well; not quite “New York Times” best-seller numbers, but OK. Sales at a single, small, independent bookstore here in Sarasota now total 829 (to be precise!) — at just that one store.  Another writer, Robert Waller, told me in a letter that his Bridges of Madison County got its start in the same area, here in Sarasota, at a small, independent bookstore that is now out of business, unfortunately.

 

It’s curious the people I’ve been in touch with, as a result of the book.  Besides Waller, I’ve also corresponded with John Irving, John Barth and — of all people — the iconic Hollywood star Kirk Douglas.

 

I’ve had dozens — make that scores — of book-signings here in Florida and in Washington, DC, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

 

Q18 — How do you market your book? What are your favorite venues?

 

A18 — Fran, I leave no stone unturned.  I try pretty much everything. As I said, I’ve done more book signings than I can count. Some of them I sit there for two hours and sell 3-4 books; at others I sell 50-60. As a former newspaper reporter, I write and send out lots of advance news releases to the areas I visit for signings and I also do a lot of work on Facebook to promote the book.  The news release activity I do myself; I had help getting up and around on Facebook, first from a niece and then from a “social network” expert, both of whom were and are a lot more computer-savvy than I am.   I am The Consummate Computer Dummy!  I also am a modern technology dummy and isolationist. In fact, I may be the last person in the modern world to not have a cell phone.  Neither does Thomas have one in Just Before the Dawn. Thomas remarks on this in the book, when he says, “My life just isn‘t that urgent.”

 

Q19 — What are some mistakes that you have learned from in your writing career?

 

 

A 19 — The biggest mistake, the one I regret the most, as far as Just Before the Dawn is concerned is that I “rushed” things with it a little too much in the beginning — after it had already been written.  After all the time spent finding a competent agent and then a reputable publisher, I kind of rushed through the editing and production process because I was so anxious to see and hold a copy of my book in my hands!  I know there are many weaknesses in the book because of that.  I am particularly regretful that there are so many style/punctuation inconsistencies.  Every time I open a copy of my book, to a random page, and see one of those inconsistencies I am chagrined.

 

 

Q20 — How did you learn your craft and what do you do to continually improve?

 

 

A20 — I learned my craft, basically, during my early newspaper days.  I had an especially sharp and “old-time gruff” city editor.  I remember one time when I wrote a simple story about a local event planned in the future and I used the word “upcoming” in my copy.  The city editor sent me a handwritten note and told me there was no such word/construct — in his world — and the next time he saw it in any of my copy, he wrote,   “I’ll be downcoming and you’ll be outgoing.”

 

I have the greatest respect for the written word and using it precisely and properly — thanks in large part to that old-time city editor.

 

 

A21 — What was the most difficult part: was it marketing the book or writing the story?  Why?

 

A22 — I believe we’ve already covered this.  Without the benefit of a big-time publishing house and its cadre of public relations/marketing experts, marketing for me has been by far the most time-consuming part of this entire effort.  Comparatively speaking, writing the book was easy

 

 

Q23 — What research did you do to prepare for this novel? What other authors did you include and why?

 

A23 — I did not do any specific research, per se, for the novel other than to call and fall back on my life experiences which are represented in the book — again, in fictionalized form.  I do read, regularly, many, many other authors and many of them and their books are mentioned in Just Before the Dawn within the context of the story being told.

 

 

Q24 — Have you ever worked with a critique group or mentor?

 

A24 — No, I have not.  I believe writing — as is the case with my most frequent physical pursuit: running — is largely a solitary activity.  That is not to say that a critique group or mentor may not be a valuable experience for some, but for me it was not something I would gravitate toward or do.  Most people who know me well know me as a loner. And, again, critique group or not, at the end of the day one’s writing is done when one is  alone with one’s own thoughts — in front of a blank sheet of paper, figuratively speaking.

 

 

Q25 — What is your next challenge in writing or in life?

 

A25 — My next writing challenge is my next book and my next personal challenge is my ongoing efforts to be a better man, better father and better person — always!

 

 

Q26 — Tell everyone about your work with disabled adults and children.

 

A26 — I have been involved in this type of work, as a volunteer, most of my adult life.  I also write about this in Just Before the Dawn and refer to this segment of our society as “the special souls among us.”  I truly do believe that we — as “normal” folks — can learn much more from “special needs” folks than they learn from us.  And I also believe that in “giving” of ourselves in some way to them it is we who “receive.”  And that is the way of love, isn‘t it? In giving, we receive.

 

Q27 — Describe your work as the Vice Chairman for the Florida Local Advocacy Council? Tell our readers what their mission is and why you chose to dedicate your work to helping Florida citizens with special needs.

 

A27 — The Florida Advocacy Council was established, by the Florida legislature, to “protect and advocate for a better quality of life for Florida citizens with special needs.”  That is how the law was written. The great majority of men and women involved in the work are volunteers.

 

Unfortunately, the Council and its financing have come under pressure in the current economic downturn affecting Federal and State government agencies across America and positions have been eliminated and programs slashed.  The volunteers are receiving less and less support and assistance from paid State employees and, consequently, those who need the help — the special needs men and women whom the law and program was established for — are suffering.

 

The special needs clients are hurting, and I hurt for them.

 

 

Q28 — How does this work differ from being president of the Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities?

 

 

A28 — I served CACLD, again, as a volunteer, as its president for two terms in the 1980s and ‘90s. This is an outstanding organization headed up by a remarkable and dedicated and gifted woman with a special needs child (now an adult) of her own.

 

CACLD, largely as a privately-funded organization with only minimal public/government funding, was not under the same cost-cutting pressures that exist today for groups like the Florida Advocacy Council.

 

Even so, as president of CACLD, my role at that time was to lead an effort to raise private donations so that the group’s programs and outreach efforts could continue and expand.

 

When I moved to Florida, I became much more involved in volunteering, not as an officer or manager, but in working at an adult training facility on a “hands on “  basis.  Some of this also is written up, again in a fictional context, in Just Before the Dawn.

I find it much more rewarding to do the “hands on” work with the clients than the more “managerial” aspects.  This involves everything from reading to groups, to helping clean up personal mishaps, to taking groups for brief outside walks around the facility campus.

 

 

Q29 — How do you train for marathons and when was the last time you ran one and where?

 

 

A29 — Standard marathon “training” usually involves a 3-4 month period, during which you increase your weekly mileage total, gradually,  from 10-15 early on  to 50-55 as the marathon date approaches, with a “long” run ( 18-22 miles) three  times or so during the last six weeks of training.  I’ve run some three dozen marathons over the years, including New York City, 4 times; San Francisco, Philadelphia, Jersey Shore, Long Island — and overseas, London and Athens.  The last marathon I ran was five years ago, in Myrtle Beach, SC.

 

Q30 — How often do you jog and how many miles do you do each day?

 

 

A30 — I pretty much run every day, from a minimum of 1-2 miles, to 4-6 miles, with an occasional longer run of 10-12 miles.  My weekly mileage ranges from 15 to 35 — although I must say my knees are not what they once were, and I do take a day or two off here and there when they start to bark.  I must also say that I no longer run as fast as I once did.  The older I get the faster I used to be!

 

 

Q31 — Where can we get your novel and what events do you have coming in the near future and where?

 

 

A31 — Just Before the Dawn is available through Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, Borders.com, Books-A-Million.com, Alibris.com — and pretty much all of the major dot-com retail book sellers.

 

 

Q32 — What is your next novel going to be about?  What other writing do you do?

 

A32 — I have my next novel in mind and have begun work on it, but would prefer to not say too much about it at this stage, until it gets further along.  I’ve already changed the “working title” and will tell you what that is, however:  I think it will be entitled For Her Sake and I hope and believe it will be a much more “traditional” novel than Just Before the Dawn.

Q33 — Please add anything else you would like readers to learn about you including your websites and contact information.

 

A33 — My web site is JosephAGillan.com — and there you’ll see scheduled events and more personal information on me, including a photo of me struggling to finish a marathon, in San Francisco, some years back as well as a photo of me at a White House Christmas party with President and Mrs. Clinton when I worked in Washington.

 

More information also is available on my Facebook site, Joe Gillan, and my Facebook “Fan Page,”  —Joseph A. Gillan, Author.  I don’t do a lot of “posting” on Facebook, outside of information on my book but I did do a special year-end post where I announced several year-end 2010 extra financial contributions to —

 

St. Jude’s

Special Olympics

Catholic Relief Services

Assn. for Retarded Citizens (ARC)

Connecticut Assn. for Children with Learning Disabilities (CACLD)

Shriners’ Hospital for Children

And a BIG-TIME favorite — Smile Train.

 

That is consistent with my love for “the special souls” among us.

 

 

Q34 — Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me.

 

A34 — You’re more than welcome, Fran.  You raised some terrific, probing questions that got me thinking about my book in ways I really hadn’t before.  Thank YOU.

 

And continuing good luck with your own writing, kiddo! I look forward one day to doing an online interview with you about one of your books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fran Lewis online Qs&As 28 Feb – 4 Mar, 2011

 

 

Q1– Give our readers a brief summary of Just Before the Dawn

 

 

A1– It’s a novel, a work of fiction, a story about the two lives all of us lead: the temporal and the spiritual, with what one critic called a “powerful ending.”  This “two lives” duality is common to us all.  We tend, more so, to lead the temporal life when we are younger but the focus shifts to the spiritual as we mature and we begin to ponder those great questions that we did not spend much time thinking about when we were younger: What is the meaning of all this?; Is there a God?; How have I managed this hand that was dealt me in this life; and, finally, What comes next — what is infinity and /or eternity?

 

Just Before the Dawn is also a love story, parts of which will make you laugh out loud, other parts of which will tug at your heart strings a little — but, above all, it is a story and a book that will make you think.

 

Rather than me telling you more about the book, I’d like instead to quote from a few of the “formal” reviewers as to what they think about the book.  I find some of these, in addition to the many letters I’ve received from “ordinary,” every day readers, particularly gratifying.

 

“The Mensa Bulletin,” the magazine for the High-IQ Society, said the book is “wonderfully crafted” and summarized its review with this rather definitive statement:  “You’ve GOT TO READ this book.”

 

Robert Lory, author of The Thirteen Bracelets and 35 other novels said this:  “Just Before the Dawn is a very Zen piece of writing … and en enjoyable read.”

 

Stephen Haven, Director of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, Ashland University, said this:

 

“… reminded me of (D. H.) Lawrence, in many ways … There is humor, fun, utter physical joy, light-hearted banter, graphic sexual detail, love … without being overdone … REALLY WELL DONE.”

 

Professor Haven went on:  “There seems to be a touch of Henry Miller in the book and a touch of Saul Bellow.”

 

I love that — being compared to the great Saul Bellow!

 

Here’s a review from my “Facebook” page that I also like very much.  This sums up quite nicely the complexity and diversity and scope contained in the book and the story:

 

“Just Before the Dawn may be the only novel you ever read in which you’ll get equal measures of Creedence Clearwater Revival ( CCR), St. Thomas Aquinas, Roy Orbison, St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Willie Nelson, and John Paul II  ( with nods, also, to Ecclesiastes, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche ). There also is a smattering in the book about major league baseball …. and a touch of understated, tasteful erotica.”

 

Another Facebook “review” had this to say:  “… captivating… the surprise ending is astonishing…”

 

This woman reader went on: “I will most likely read this book again to recapture some of the spirituality and intense research done by the author…”

 

A publisher’s reader, when the book was still in manuscript form, wrote:  “Gillan is able to be intellectual, but never pedantic … in this intricately detailed, intelligently written text.  This is a novel that mulls over many basic questions of basic existence; for this reason, and Gillan’s many citations of other writers, Just Before the Dawn could have wide appeal.”

 

Because (presumably) of the many Thomas Wolfe citations in the book, a member of an academic group, The Thomas Wolfe Society, has placed a copy of Just Before the Dawn in the memorabilia section of the Wolfe Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Wolfe was an undergraduate a century ago.

 

I am as pleased with this, as much as any other post-publication accolade the book has received.

 

I am also gratified that I have received so many letters from so many readers — both men and women — who have liked the book.

 

I will end this response to this first question with one other “formal” review that I especially like.  This reviewer/blogger really “got it.” She (Gabina49) wrote:

 

“Sometimes you read a novel that really touches your heart.”

 

To touch someone else’s heart through the written word is all a writer could ever hope for.

 

Sorry for the long-winded response.  I’ll do my best to answer the next questions more briefly!

 

 

 

Q2 — What made you write the book?

 

A2 — I do believe each and every one of us has a book inside trying to come out.  Just Before the Dawn is mine, though I do hope there’ll also be another one or two, at least.

 

I wrote the book because I wanted to make the point that is expressed in the last paragraph on the book’s last page:   that faith (and love) are “the key to it (life and death) all.”

 

Faith, and love, are indeed “the key to it all.”

 

 

Q3 — How did you create the characters of Rebecca and Thomas?

 

A3 — Each is based on a “real life” person but each also is a composite character, with some part(s) of their being and character and personality taken from many other people.  I do believe that all fictional characters in all fictive literature are composites.

 

It’s also true that Rebecca is based, fundamentally, on a woman I once loved deeply (her real name is not Rebecca/Becky, but Deborah/Debbie.)  But it’s also true that a lot of who Rebecca is in the book borrows from other women who have been a part of my life or whom I have known over the years.

 

 

Q4 — What made you write about Thomas and how is he more of an extension of you?

 

A4 — Referring back to Q&A #1, another reviewer described Just Before the Dawn as a “spiritual Bildungsroman.”  And that in a very real sense is what the book is and what it’s about. Thomas is seeking his answer.  He is on his quest. There is a quote in the book from the late Pope John Paul II which I believe sums this up very nicely — “In the very search for faith, an implicit faith is already present.” John Paul was one of my real-life heroes.

 

I am often asked by readers if the character Thomas in the book is based on me and my life or is, somehow, an extension of me — and I give them the same answer as I did to your Rebecca question #3.  The Thomas character is also a composite. But it is also true that all fiction, whether it is Danielle Steel or William Shakespeare, undeniably has an element of the autobiographical in it.

 

A writer friend of mine told me he usually puts it this way — “Autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time … a mix of memoir and fantasy, both exaggerated.”

 

My friend also added this — “So-called real people are never as complete as wholly-imagined characters.”

 

I like his answer and buy into it totally!

 

In Thomas, in Just Before the Dawn, there also is an element of the rogue and irreverent character “Paddy.”  And so Thomas is indeed a composite.  But at the end of the book, what happens to Thomas has not happened to the character Thomas is based largely on (me).  Readers of this interview will have to get the book to understand this more clearly.  “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

 

Q5 — How did Rebecca and Thomas meet and why did they separate?

 

A5 — Rebecca and Thomas meet through mutual friends and this is covered quite explicitly in chapter 7 of the book.  Their separation, and the reasons for it, were considerably more complicated and make up much of the story in the rest of the book.

 

 

Q6 — How did Rebecca react when she receives the letter from Thomas after so many years? Why did he write her and what did he hope to gain or accomplish?

 

 

A6 — Rebecca is taken aback when she receives the long letter from Thomas, after not having heard from him for 10 years.   She is confused, bewildered but also very intrigued.  At first she keeps the letter from her husband William, though he does find out about it later on.

 

Thomas, in writing to Rebecca, is, in effect, expressing the love he still feels for her. Lingering affection for an old love is not an emotion exclusive to women.  Some (many?) men harbor the same feelings for someone with whom they’ve been intimate.  Part of Thomas wants to resurrect and recreate what he and Rebecca once had together — though he knows, in his heart, that that probably can’t happen.  As Thomas Wolfe wrote, You Can’t Go Home Again.

 

Thomas also has made a major, life-changing decision that he wants to tell Rebecca about and this, putatively, is the reason for his letter.

 

Another way to define Just Before the Dawn, using a series of single-word descriptives, is this:  I am often asked, “Is it a mystery?”    It is a ‘mystery.’  It is about the greatest mystery of them all: life, loss, growth, redemption, dying, death, eternity — and infinity.

 

Q7 — This story is told in Thomas’s voice: You include many letters written by him in this outstanding novel — please share some with our readers and tell them why you included them in your novel?

 

 

A7 — A novel that employs “letters” to make a point or to argue an issue is, as you know,  a ‘genre’ that has been termed “epistolary.”  A University professor, in an email to me about Just Before the Dawn,

wrote —

 

“The epistolary novel is a tough genre, as the narrator is often isolated from physically moving about and interacting with his characters, except through the surface screen of the actual document/letter.  You handle this well by weaving in and out of the letter segments, and by dramatizing actual scenes from the lives of your characters.  I wonder if you know Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead — an epistolary novel … wonderfully full of insight.  The epistolary novel allows for a greater degree of reflection than would be dramatically believable through dialogue or even through interior monologue.  Maybe it gives up a little drama for a lot more depth.  The tone of your novel is a warmer mix of Thomas’s reflections and directly rendered scenes.”

 

I will allow that learned opinion to stand as an answer to your question — as to why I included the letters from Thomas as an integral part of the novel.  It does indeed allow “for a greater degree of reflection” as it, and they– the letters — are woven into the novel and story line.

 

Q8 — What happens to Rebecca that changes the course of her life? What are the many reasons her relationships do not work out?

 

A8 — What happened to Rebecca that changed the course of her life is covered in the novel when we learn that her first husband was unfaithful to her.  This wracks, scars and sears Rebecca — and drives her to substance abuse (alcohol) as an avenue of escape and to forget her pain.  Later in the story we learn that her second husband also becomes unfaithful.  She remembers — “Rebecca remembers” (the refrain we see and read throughout the novel) — that Thomas was not unfaithful to her during their time together.

 

Q9 — What are three major issues that you highlight in this novel and why?

 

A9 — 1) we all do lead two lives, more of the temporal life when we are younger — and a spiritual life, at least in terms of what we allow ourselves to think about, finally — as we grow older; 2) Love is, at the same time, indestructible and ephemeral in this mortal, temporal existence.  As The Prophet in Ecclesiastes says, All is Vanity; 3) The answer and lasting peace and true love for all of us are in the future, when we return Home to our Creator. I revert to the quote I mentioned earlier from John Paul II.  “In the very search for faith an implicit faith is already present.”

 

Overriding all of these issues and questions and the novel is the eternal reality of Love.

 

 

Q10 — Why did Thomas want to find God and become a Monk?  Was it his guilt for not attending church or was he trying to make peace within himself?

 

A10 — Just Before the Dawn is indeed a work of fiction and the character Thomas is indeed based partially on the author.  But, the author did not ever enter a monastery.  I revert to the quote from my writer friend, “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

Q11 — Tell our readers about some of his other relationships.

 

A 11 — Thomas is not the “skirt-chaser” he sometimes seems to be in the novel.  He in fact may be the most straight-and-narrow character in the entire book. He is looking for one true love.

 

 

Q12 — Who is Olivia and how did he meet her?  What made her special?

 

A12 — Again, this is a work of fiction — and Olivia is a fictional character, and a composite character, though she does represent what to Thomas is mortal love.

 

 

Q13 — What made you decide to write the story flashing back between the past and the present?

 

A13 — I did not do that consciously, it just flowed that way. But here I will revert to the professor with the fancy-schmansy title who said he found “a touch of Saul Bellow” in Just Before the Dawn.

 

Another academician, in writing about Bellow, said this — “There is no sustained chronological action in Herzog (by Bellow) that takes place outside Herzog’s brain.”

 

Herzog represents an effort “…to not only infuse fiction with mind but to make mentalness itself crucial to the hero’s dilemma — to think about the problem of thinking…”

 

That is part of the technique in Just Before the Dawn that I kind of stumbled on accidentally. To say or imply that I did so intentionally would not be truthful and would give me much more credit than I deserve.  And, I am just not that smart!

 

Another reader/reviewer said he found that component of the book — flashing back between the past and the present — to have “a haunting rhythm” that very much appealed to him — and compelled him to go back and re-read many parts of it.  Several readers have told me that they have gone back to reread parts of the book.

Other readers have said they find the book “inspirational” and compared it to The Shack.  Others have said it reminded them of McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in its Irish-Catholic humor, despite its mainly serious, thoughtful tone.  Two different readers have said the death and dying scenes and reflections on God and eternity in the book helped them deal with the ongoing pain they felt over the loss of a loved one.

 

Q14 — What about you is Thomas?

 

A14 — I believe this has already been covered — “Autobiographical and not autobiographical — at the same time.”

 

Q15 — What made you decide to become an author? When did you begin writing this book?  How long did it take from start to finish?

 

A15 — As strange as this may sound, I became a writer because I wanted to be a major league baseball player — but did not have the talent. I must be one of the few men in America who is not an avid football fan.  I love the sport of baseball — and there is, as one of the reviews put it, “a smattering of baseball” in Just Before the Dawn.

 

When I realized, very early on, that I was basically talentless in baseball I decided to become a sportswriter.  From there I went on to become a newspaper reporter — first in sports, then as a police reporter and then as a general assignment and investigative reporter.  Years later, I thought I’d like to write a novel — a work of literature, if you will — and that is how Just Before the Dawn got its start. As I said earlier, I believe all of us have at least that one novel in us and when I left the work-a-day world I began mine.

 

The writing of the book was the easy part of the process.  From the day I sat down at my word processor and typed the dedication to the book — “To My Precious Little Petal”  “ I am bound to You Forever” and then the first words in chapter one of the book —

 

“The large manila envelope had arrived in the mail yesterday, two days before Christmas … Rebecca Halsey realized at once who the envelope was from…”

 

Until I typed, in French, the final words on the final page of the book —

 

“Qui s’excuse s’accuse”

 

95,000 words in all, the writing of Just Before the Dawn took a total of eight months.

 

Then the hard part of the overall process began.  I found out in short order that very few, if any, publishers will accept an unsolicited manuscript from a writer who is not represented by an agent.  So I set about finding an agent and connected with an ambitious young guy in the city (Sarasota, FL) where I lived, and still do, and then was guided by him to a young, upstart publishing operation, also local. The firm, which has since become a victim of the economic downturn in this country, offered me a “traditional” publishing contract, along with a modest $500 advance.

 

Next came the editing and production /distribution processes — and now what I continue to be involved in, the promotion process.

 

And so, to reprise:  I became a writer because I did not have the talent to be a major league baseball player. Simple but true.

 

Q16 — Did you ever have trouble writing or need to take time away from writing the novel in order to rethink your plot or characters?

 

A16 — Not really, Fran.  Once I got started the book really just flowed.  I wrote for short bursts of time 30/40 minutes – 1 to 1 ½ hours at a time. Because of my ADHD, I found that I could not sit and concentrate on the writing for periods of time any longer than that.  But I did sit and write for those shorter periods sometimes 6-8 times a day, sometimes very early in the morning and sometimes late at night.

 

I did not really find that I needed to “take time away” to rethink plot or characters. Sometimes I’d think about what I’d just written while I was out on a jog, and come back home to rework certain parts or dialogue.

 

 

Q17 — How do you market your book? What are your favorite venues?

 

A17 — The book has sold reasonably well; not quite “New York Times” best-seller numbers, but OK. Sales at a single, small, independent bookstore here in Sarasota now total 829 (to be precise!) — at just that one store.  Another writer, Robert Waller, told me in a letter that his Bridges of Madison County got its start in the same area, here in Sarasota, at a small, independent bookstore that is now out of business, unfortunately.

 

It’s curious the people I’ve been in touch with, as a result of the book.  Besides Waller, I’ve also corresponded with John Irving, John Barth and — of all people — the iconic Hollywood star Kirk Douglas.

 

I’ve had dozens — make that scores — of book-signings here in Florida and in Washington, DC, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

 

Q18 — How do you market your book? What are your favorite venues?

 

A18 — Fran, I leave no stone unturned.  I try pretty much everything. As I said, I’ve done more book signings than I can count. Some of them I sit there for two hours and sell 3-4 books; at others I sell 50-60. As a former newspaper reporter, I write and send out lots of advance news releases to the areas I visit for signings and I also do a lot of work on Facebook to promote the book.  The news release activity I do myself; I had help getting up and around on Facebook, first from a niece and then from a “social network” expert, both of whom were and are a lot more computer-savvy than I am.   I am The Consummate Computer Dummy!  I also am a modern technology dummy and isolationist. In fact, I may be the last person in the modern world to not have a cell phone.  Neither does Thomas have one in Just Before the Dawn. Thomas remarks on this in the book, when he says, “My life just isn‘t that urgent.”

 

Q19 — What are some mistakes that you have learned from in your writing career?

 

 

A 19 — The biggest mistake, the one I regret the most, as far as Just Before the Dawn is concerned is that I “rushed” things with it a little too much in the beginning — after it had already been written.  After all the time spent finding a competent agent and then a reputable publisher, I kind of rushed through the editing and production process because I was so anxious to see and hold a copy of my book in my hands!  I know there are many weaknesses in the book because of that.  I am particularly regretful that there are so many style/punctuation inconsistencies.  Every time I open a copy of my book, to a random page, and see one of those inconsistencies I am chagrined.

 

 

Q20 — How did you learn your craft and what do you do to continually improve?

 

 

A20 — I learned my craft, basically, during my early newspaper days.  I had an especially sharp and “old-time gruff” city editor.  I remember one time when I wrote a simple story about a local event planned in the future and I used the word “upcoming” in my copy.  The city editor sent me a handwritten note and told me there was no such word/construct — in his world — and the next time he saw it in any of my copy, he wrote,   “I’ll be downcoming and you’ll be outgoing.”

 

I have the greatest respect for the written word and using it precisely and properly — thanks in large part to that old-time city editor.

 

 

A21 — What was the most difficult part: was it marketing the book or writing the story?  Why?

 

A22 — I believe we’ve already covered this.  Without the benefit of a big-time publishing house and its cadre of public relations/marketing experts, marketing for me has been by far the most time-consuming part of this entire effort.  Comparatively speaking, writing the book was easy

 

 

Q23 — What research did you do to prepare for this novel? What other authors did you include and why?

 

A23 — I did not do any specific research, per se, for the novel other than to call and fall back on my life experiences which are represented in the book — again, in fictionalized form.  I do read, regularly, many, many other authors and many of them and their books are mentioned in Just Before the Dawn within the context of the story being told.

 

 

Q24 — Have you ever worked with a critique group or mentor?

 

A24 — No, I have not.  I believe writing — as is the case with my most frequent physical pursuit: running — is largely a solitary activity.  That is not to say that a critique group or mentor may not be a valuable experience for some, but for me it was not something I would gravitate toward or do.  Most people who know me well know me as a loner. And, again, critique group or not, at the end of the day one’s writing is done when one is  alone with one’s own thoughts — in front of a blank sheet of paper, figuratively speaking.

 

 

Q25 — What is your next challenge in writing or in life?

 

A25 — My next writing challenge is my next book and my next personal challenge is my ongoing efforts to be a better man, better father and better person — always!

 

 

Q26 — Tell everyone about your work with disabled adults and children.

 

A26 — I have been involved in this type of work, as a volunteer, most of my adult life.  I also write about this in Just Before the Dawn and refer to this segment of our society as “the special souls among us.”  I truly do believe that we — as “normal” folks — can learn much more from “special needs” folks than they learn from us.  And I also believe that in “giving” of ourselves in some way to them it is we who “receive.”  And that is the way of love, isn‘t it? In giving, we receive.

 

Q27 — Describe your work as the Vice Chairman for the Florida Local Advocacy Council? Tell our readers what their mission is and why you chose to dedicate your work to helping Florida citizens with special needs.

 

A27 — The Florida Advocacy Council was established, by the Florida legislature, to “protect and advocate for a better quality of life for Florida citizens with special needs.”  That is how the law was written. The great majority of men and women involved in the work are volunteers.

 

Unfortunately, the Council and its financing have come under pressure in the current economic downturn affecting Federal and State government agencies across America and positions have been eliminated and programs slashed.  The volunteers are receiving less and less support and assistance from paid State employees and, consequently, those who need the help — the special needs men and women whom the law and program was established for — are suffering.

 

The special needs clients are hurting, and I hurt for them.

 

 

Q28 — How does this work differ from being president of the Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities?

 

 

A28 — I served CACLD, again, as a volunteer, as its president for two terms in the 1980s and ‘90s. This is an outstanding organization headed up by a remarkable and dedicated and gifted woman with a special needs child (now an adult) of her own.

 

CACLD, largely as a privately-funded organization with only minimal public/government funding, was not under the same cost-cutting pressures that exist today for groups like the Florida Advocacy Council.

 

Even so, as president of CACLD, my role at that time was to lead an effort to raise private donations so that the group’s programs and outreach efforts could continue and expand.

 

When I moved to Florida, I became much more involved in volunteering, not as an officer or manager, but in working at an adult training facility on a “hands on “  basis.  Some of this also is written up, again in a fictional context, in Just Before the Dawn.

I find it much more rewarding to do the “hands on” work with the clients than the more “managerial” aspects.  This involves everything from reading to groups, to helping clean up personal mishaps, to taking groups for brief outside walks around the facility campus.

 

 

Q29 — How do you train for marathons and when was the last time you ran one and where?

 

 

A29 — Standard marathon “training” usually involves a 3-4 month period, during which you increase your weekly mileage total, gradually,  from 10-15 early on  to 50-55 as the marathon date approaches, with a “long” run ( 18-22 miles) three  times or so during the last six weeks of training.  I’ve run some three dozen marathons over the years, including New York City, 4 times; San Francisco, Philadelphia, Jersey Shore, Long Island — and overseas, London and Athens.  The last marathon I ran was five years ago, in Myrtle Beach, SC.

 

Q30 — How often do you jog and how many miles do you do each day?

 

 

A30 — I pretty much run every day, from a minimum of 1-2 miles, to 4-6 miles, with an occasional longer run of 10-12 miles.  My weekly mileage ranges from 15 to 35 — although I must say my knees are not what they once were, and I do take a day or two off here and there when they start to bark.  I must also say that I no longer run as fast as I once did.  The older I get the faster I used to be!

 

 

Q31 — Where can we get your novel and what events do you have coming in the near future and where?

 

 

A31 — Just Before the Dawn is available through Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, Borders.com, Books-A-Million.com, Alibris.com — and pretty much all of the major dot-com retail book sellers.

 

 

Q32 — What is your next novel going to be about?  What other writing do you do?

 

A32 — I have my next novel in mind and have begun work on it, but would prefer to not say too much about it at this stage, until it gets further along.  I’ve already changed the “working title” and will tell you what that is, however:  I think it will be entitled For Her Sake and I hope and believe it will be a much more “traditional” novel than Just Before the Dawn.

Q33 — Please add anything else you would like readers to learn about you including your websites and contact information.

 

A33 — My web site is JosephAGillan.com — and there you’ll see scheduled events and more personal information on me, including a photo of me struggling to finish a marathon, in San Francisco, some years back as well as a photo of me at a White House Christmas party with President and Mrs. Clinton when I worked in Washington.

 

More information also is available on my Facebook site, Joe Gillan, and my Facebook “Fan Page,”  —Joseph A. Gillan, Author.  I don’t do a lot of “posting” on Facebook, outside of information on my book but I did do a special year-end post where I announced several year-end 2010 extra financial contributions to —

 

St. Jude’s

Special Olympics

Catholic Relief Services

Assn. for Retarded Citizens (ARC)

Connecticut Assn. for Children with Learning Disabilities (CACLD)

Shriners’ Hospital for Children

And a BIG-TIME favorite — Smile Train.

 

That is consistent with my love for “the special souls” among us.

 

 

Q34 — Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me.

 

A34 — You’re more than welcome, Fran.  You raised some terrific, probing questions that got me thinking about my book in ways I really hadn’t before.  Thank YOU.

 

And continuing good luck with your own writing, kiddo! I look forward one day to doing an online interview with you about one of your books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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