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Interview: John Ames, Author of Adventures in Nowhere

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John Ames was raised in Tampa under difficult circumstances and felt greatly relieved when he went away to college, entering the University of Florida to train as an actor. A season of summer stock convinced him that a lot of theater people are crazy, so he changed his major to English, eventually graduating with a master’s degree. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Ames built a rustic house and lived, for several years, on the edge of a spiritual community located near Gainesville, Florida. His search for enlightenment ended when he decided that he was too far from a movie theater. John Ames moved back to civilization and taught English and film for 30 years at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Along the way, he produced and acted in numerous short films and videos, including the cable TV series the “Tub Interviews,” wherein all the interviewees were required to be in a bathtub. Mr. Ames appeared as a standup comedian in several venues. He also designed a line of Florida-themed lamps which were sold in galleries in Gainesville and St. Augustine, Florida. For ten years John Ames reviewed movies for PBS radio station WUFT. He also coauthored Second Serve: The Renée Richards Story (Stein and Day, 1983) and its sequel No Way Renée: The Second Half of My Notorious Life (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and Speaking of Florida (University Presses of Florida, 1993). 

Readers can visit John Ames at his website to learn more about him and his work.

Please tell us a bit about your book and what you hope readers take away from reading it.

Adventures in Nowhere is the story of ten-year-old Danny Ryan, a crafty youngster with lots of problems. He has an unstable father, a sick sister, another sister who is an emotional powder keg, and a mother distracted by overwork. Worse yet, they are crammed together in a tiny three-room house. Danny thinks he is the only completely sane member of his family, and he tries his best to keep things at home balanced, but it’s a big job for a small boy. Danny thinks he might be cracking under the strain when he starts seeing a mysteriously changing house across the Hillsborough River. Thanks to the help of some quirky characters in his neighborhood, Danny manages to rise above his problems and see that life offers beauty even in the most trying of circumstances.

I hope that readers will like Danny, and enjoy his wry and thoughtful approach to life. I hope they will be happy for him when he stops thinking he must do everything himself and finds the courage to trust in the good intentions of others. If we can’t do that, we are really in a pickle.

Who are your favorite characters in the story?

I love my protagonist, Danny. One reader called him the most thoughtful little boy in history. He’s not a genius, but he examines the world with the tools he has, which I find very endearing. His friend Alfred is an original. He is the opposite of Danny, no filter whatsoever. If it occurs to him to ask, “What would you do if a big old black cigar appeared in your mouth?” he asks with no reservation. I have to mention a supporting character, Al Gallagher, the proprietor of Al’s Swap Shop, a junk store that is much more than it seems. I love the fact that Al talks to kids as if they have some sense. He’s never condescending.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?

Danny and his friend Alfred have encountered a beautiful young woman on one of the trails they use to get to the river. This is an astounding turn of events. The girl is self-possessed and expresses herself in an exotic way. The boys are dumbstruck. After speaking to them for a few minutes, she rises and invites them to pass.

“Please, you must not let me keep you from your business,” she said quietly.

As they passed, she put her hand for a moment on Danny’s shoulder, making the hair on his neck prickle. When they reached the next bend in the trail, Danny and Alfred looked back, and she was still standing there, like a bouquet of fresh flowers on the surface of the moon. Then she was out of sight.”

“Like a bouquet of fresh flowers on surface of the moon.” I’m very thankful that came into my head.

If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?

Well, the three children pose a problem. The shelf life of child actors is short. I think we’d have to do a talent search for kids just the right age. If we could go back in time, I would pick Elijah Wood, best known for Lord of the Rings. He starred in a movie called Radio Flyer in 1991. That film has elements that are similar to those in Adventures in Nowhere, and Wood did a good job of reacting to them. Alfred Bagley could be played by Seth Green. As a kid he had the ears for it and was a good actor, playing Woody Allen as a child in Radio Days. Abigail Arnold might be played by Tatum O’Neal. She showed that she could handle a cheeky part in Paper Moon. I think Al Gallagher, the proprietor of Al’s Swap Shop might be well played by Ed Harris. He has a good plain-but-charismatic quality.

What are your favorite aspects of writing?

I enjoy doing what writing does that cannot be done by movies, TV, or stage, which is move the reader into a character’s mind and efficiently provide background, as in the following passage.

“At his mother’s unexpected touch, Alfred leaped up, shouted “Oh my God!” and immediately covered his mouth. Nothing could be seen of his face except his terror–filled eyes. Danny recognized the earth-shaking overtones of this event. The word “God” had come out of Alfred’s mouth in an ungodly context. The Bagleys were very strict about language. Once, when Danny had called Alfred a “lucky dog,” Mrs. Bagley had said that he should call him a “lucky duck” instead. Danny never got the distinction, but he knew that in the Bagley world, what Alfred had just said was verging on blasphemy.”

A movie could do well with the physical action in the scene, but it could not interpret the action from Danny’s perspective or supply the quick example of how prudish the Bagley’s are about language.

Your least favorite aspects of writing?

The writing itself is enjoyable to me. I don’t agonize over it or suffer from writer’s block. I start feeling the agony during the editing process. I don’t mind having my mechanics corrected, but I feel an intense sense of failure when my wording or my clarity is questioned.

Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

Emma, Moby Dick, Roughing it, The Secret Sharer, Life with Father, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Painted Bird, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

What are you reading right now?

Recently, I was given the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography, produced in 2010 by the University of California Press. It is a large hardback book of 679 pages of rather fine type. I love Twain, but I have been staring at the book for weeks, trying to get up the courage to start it. Your question has shamed me into actually beginning what I know will be a rewarding read.

If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors – dead or alive – who would they be and what would you serve them?

Jane Austin, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, J.D. Salinger, Erma Bombeck
I would serve pizza. I would like to see Jane Austin eat pizza.

What is a book that you wish you could say that you had written and why?

The Yearling because it is beautiful, affecting, and ennobles the place where I live.

What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?

Fred Astaire said words to this effect: I cut my dance routines until I can’t cut any more and then I cut another minute.

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