Tuesday, May 30, 2023

TBR: You Don’t Belong Here by Jonathan Harper

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


After his stay in a secluded artist colony, ne’er-do-well Morris Hines has fallen in love – with anonymity and endless drinking; with the sleepy resort town and its bohemian ways. Morris Hines is about to enter hell.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why?


The novel opens with my main character, Morris, in this isolated resort town and randomly stumbling upon a shadow from his past, Henry. And it’s an unsettling reunion – their friendship had ended badly.


Henry quickly became my favorite character to write about. He’s universal – we all have that story of the “bad friend” from our past and we all have wondered what it would be like to run into them again. It’s easy to assume the worst about them and usually there’s a part of us that desperately wants them to get their comeuppance.  


At first, it was easy to label Henry as the “bad friend”. But the more time I spent writing him, the more I saw his humanity. Yes, he was selfish and self-destructive, but he was also self-aware. He had regrets. He wanted to make positive changes to his life, but didn’t know how to shed bad habits and old reputations. In the end, I felt a great deal of empathy for him.  


And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


Yasmin, who is Morris’s fiancĂ© back home. While she plays an important role in the novel, she’s not physically in town with him. I worried she would turn into Hella from “Giovanni’s Room”, sort of existing in the background without getting any real development. I didn’t want that for her. I wanted her to have agency, which is difficult to show when she’s not present for a lot of the action.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


I started with this vague idea of a queer man becoming stranded in middle-America, which led to these big questions of what it means to be stranded in the first place as well as how queer people exist outside of our bubbles. But I didn’t know where to begin. I was a short story writer and this was my first attempt at a novel – I was totally lost, couldn’t figure out how to enter the story much less take this idea and build a full plot around it.

Then, I was at my yearly writer’s colony, wandering around town lost in thought when I suddenly had this wicked idea: what if my main character was at an artist colony and just isn’t ready to go home. It was amazing how quickly the rest of the plot fit into place.


The writing process was slow. I was working on this throughout the Trump administration and a pandemic. It was so hard to focus when it felt like the world was ending. But it also fueled me with a lot of raw emotion that found its way into my writing. Maybe a little angst is good for art.


As for the publishing part, my story collection came out through Lethe Press. And while I did spend a year on the agent hunt, I eventually went back to Lethe and it felt like I was coming home. Steve Berman is amazing. He is supportive and brings a really incredible eye to the books he publishes. I am very lucky to know him.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


The novelist Patricia Park once told me, “A novel is a collection of little moments.” At the time, I didn’t quite get what she meant by that, but it was something I thought a lot about during the editing process. Every scene counts. Every scene, even the most seemingly inconsequential, can be interesting if you use the right details.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


When I wrote the first draft, I had left Chapter 2 blank. This was the chapter reserved for the history of the two main characters, Morris and Henry. I had plenty of notes on their backstory and a decent idea of who they were when they were younger. And this was a first draft, so I figured I didn’t need to have everything figured out right away.


Well, eventually it became to time write Chapter 2 … and Chapter 2 became my archnemesis. It was this blank page that just sat there, mocking me. And I had no idea what to write in it. Do you give a long comprehensive history? Or do you write a single specific moment that is full of meaning? And what on earth should that moment be?


It probably took another six months or so just to get a half-hearted Chapter 2 typed up. And then, once I read it, I realized that it changed the entire dynamic between the two main characters, which meant I had to rewrite the entire novel.


So, yeah. Chapter 2 surprised me.  


What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?


My novel is set in an unnamed Midwestern town, which is inspired by Eureka Springs, AR. I’ve been going there for over a decade for my yearly residency at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow and now, it’s a home away from home. I have long-time friends there, I wrote both my books there, and I have countless wonderful memories. Eureka Springs is and will always be very close to my heart.


But, “You Don’t Belong Here” is not set in Eureka Springs. I need to make that clear.


My novel is about a man who becomes stranded in a seemingly idealistic town only to discover it is not as idealistic as he thought. The town itself is not evil, but there is a darkness to it. I think that darkness can be found in a lot of places. I’ve felt that darkness in certain places. But not Eureka Springs. It feels wrong to associate it with a place that has brought me nothing but joy.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?


Alas, not food. But drink. My novel is set in a resort town, a drinking town, and alcohol is almost its own character. It’s not a novel of rampant alcoholism, but it is booze soaked for a reason.

So, here’s a recipe for a Perfect Manhattan:


2 oz Whistlepig Rye Whiskey

½ oz sweet vermouth

½ oz dry vermouth

2 dashes of ginger bitters

Pour it all in, gently stir, serve in a coup glass with a lemon twist.

Sip while giving a withering glance.




READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR HERE: www.thejonathan-harper.com








DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.