John Ford Clayton, author of Manipulated lives in Harriman, Tennessee with his wife Kara, and canine companions Lucy, Ginger and Clyde. He has two grown sons, Ben and Eli, and a daughter-in-law, Christina. He earned a BS in Finance from Murray State University and an MBA from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He is active in his East Tennessee community having served on the local boards of the Boys and Girls Club and a federal credit union, on church leadership and creative teams, and on a parks and recreation advisory committee. When he’s not writing he works as a project management consultant supporting Federal project teams. John is a huge fan of Disney parks and University of Kentucky basketball. You can visit his website here
Welcome to Blogcritics and congratulations on the release of your latest book, Manipulated. When did you start writing and what got you into political thrillers?
For close to 20 years I worked on creative teams in churches helping to write full-length dramas as well as 5-minute sketches. That process led to a nagging question that just wouldn’t go away; “I wonder if I could write a novel?” After doubts and procrastination, I finally decided to give it a go.
That led to the next important question, what would be the subject matter of this novel? For me, that question had to be aligned with something about which I felt great passion. That something is our country, the United States of America.
Unfortunately, I see America in difficult times as our political culture has become so toxic that it is tearing us apart. A major source of that toxicity is degree of manipulation we all face daily, regardless of our political leanings. To highlight the phenomenon, I decided to write this work of fiction, Manipulated.
What is your book about?
Manipulated is a political thriller set during the 2016 presidential election season from January 2015 through January 2017. During these two years, a fictional account of the election is chronicled. The first half of the book provides a back story illustrating an American political system soiled by political parties, a misguided media, and lots and lots of money, all orchestrated by a clandestine organization known as Mouse Trap.
The second half of the book provides a glimpse at what the 2016 election might have looked like had a different candidate been introduced into the campaign. A candidate not bound to either political party, deep-pocket investors, or Washington insiders. A candidate who had absolutely no interest in the job but is drafted by those that know him best to fix a broken system. A candidate who personifies integrity, character, and humility, whose core values are guided by his faith.
What was your inspiration for it?
If I could distill my writing inspiration into one word, it would be frustration. I’m very frustrated by the direction of the country. I’m very frustrated by how ill-informed or misinformed most Americans are. One specific anecdote that illustrates this phenomenon involves a friend I’ll call Sally.
I know Sally well enough to know the core values she holds. Sally was trying to decide how she should cast her vote in a recent election and one candidate was very clearly aligned with Sally’s values. However, a co-worker convinced Sally to vote for a different candidate based on fear and invalid information. As much as I tried I couldn’t convince Sally to consider that she’d possibly been led astray. That she’d possibly been manipulated.
My experience with many colleagues like Sally led me to write the story of Manipulated. Although it is a work of fiction, it is grounded in events that will hopefully sound familiar to the reader. My desire is not to convince – or manipulate – the reader, but to hopefully open their eyes to more critically consume information.
What type of challenges did you face while writing this book?
Having never written a novel, one of the greatest challenges was getting started. On several occasions I’d set aside the day I was finally going to start my novel. Many of those days came and went without progress. Finally, one day in January 2015, everything clicked, and I’d written the first two chapters before I pulled away from the screen.
Another challenge came around chapter 7. I’d been making good progress and was happy with the way the story was unfolding. Then, I received the unexpected news that my mother had passed. Funeral, estate matters, and other issues took the next two months until I was finally able to re-enter the story.
Around chapter 15 was yet another unexpected plot twist. During a routine physical something wasn’t right. A few tests later I heard the word no one wants to hear – cancer. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. The diagnosis would involve major surgery, a six-week recovery, and then six months of chemo.
Although this was not the news I wanted to hear, I thought that at least the down time would allow me to finish the book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had underestimated the amount of focus and energy that is required to write. The one thing chemo affects most is focus and energy.
Although I tried to write, I had no success. This resulted in approximately nine months of lost writing time. By the way, I’m doing great. As of his writing I’m 2 ½ years out of chemo with no sign of cancer.
Did your book require a lot of research?
There was research as Manipulated travels to over half dozen states and over a dozen cities, some of which I had never visited. It also involves matters related to the U. S. Constitution. Although the book is set in modern-day America, it travels back to World War II to show the origins of a particular storyline. My research approach was on-demand, meaning, rather than researching before I started the book, I researched as I was writing as the storyline warranted detail.
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
I tend to go through a cycle. Step one is a wrestling match with my muse. I sometimes win and can push through to progress. This often involves reading the previous few chapters I’d written to get back into the flow of the story. If step one doesn’t work, step two is often a walk down to the water.
We are blessed to live on a beautiful lake in Tennessee with a boat house adjoining our property. I find that a properly cast fishing line can sometimes conjure the muse to come out of his shell. I’m a sports junky, so step three usually involves watching a football or basketball game. If I’m in step three I’m pretty much conceding my muse is done for the day.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?
I’ve never heard it described as vague anxiety, but that’s an apt description. I can definitely relate. If I’m in a good place and the story has been flowing for the past few days, I usually don’t have this experience, but if I’m stuck or at a transition period and need to start a new storyline, this anxiety can appear.
It is almost as if I’m afraid I’m going to goof up the story and I’m reticent to jump in. This anxiety occasionally – OK, more than occasionally – manifests itself in e-distractions. Rather than writing, I catch up on e-mail, check out the latest scores, see what’s going on at my favorite news sites. Before I know it, it’s bedtime and I’ve lost a night of writing. The struggle is real.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I have a day job, so my writing comes in the evenings and weekends. I tend to both write and break in bursts. I may have a 3-week period where I write most evenings and weekends but over the next 2 weeks write nothing. On a good writing night, I’m home from work by 6, walk the dogs (we have three!), tackle some other chores and am writing by 7:30. I try to wrap up by 10:00 to wind down for bed. On a good evening I will write 1500-2000 words, depending on that evening’s creative flow.
I think this discipline challenge is grounded in the requirement that writers use both hemispheres of their brain. The left brain is necessary to produce an organized storyline that stays focused on evolving the plot. Left brain is also responsible for finding the discipline to write. The right brain is the source of colourful characters, interesting scenes, and intriguing dialog. It is the influence that says, “let’s go out and fish.” Both are necessary for a writer but there is inherent tension as well.
What was your publishing process like?
I self-published Manipulated using the services of CreateSpace and Amazon. Before opting for self-publishing, I pursued traditional publishing through two rounds of queries. As most writers have experienced, agents receive too many queries to respond to aspiring writers. Rejection letters have been replaced by “if you haven’t heard from us in 8 weeks, assume we’re not interested.”
I was not interested in a third (or fourth, fifth, sixth…) round of queries. I wanted Manipulated in the hands of readers. I met with a few small press and indie publishers, but I could not achieve a comfort level with those that I considered. I wanted more control of both the process and the schedule. Self-publishing was the best fit for my situation.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
Celebrate? That’s a great question that I’ve never really considered. I don’t think I really did anything that could be considered a ‘celebration’. I felt like I was always pushing to the next thing. When I finished the book, I had to get it edited. After editing, I worked to get it published. After opting for self-publishing, I have been working on promotion. Promotion overlapped with the beginning of book 2. I’m writing a trilogy. Maybe I’ll stop and celebrated in 2020 after book 3 has been published!
How do you define success?
This is an easy question, it is all about the reader. Statistics show the average reader reads the average novel in around 30 hours. Manipulated is a little longer than average, so it wouldn’t unusual for a reader to invest 40 hours reading my book.
That’s a significant investment and I believe I owe it to the reader to have a fun, memorable, satisfying experience. I want them to be thankful they took the time to read it. I understand the practical need for sales, critical acclaim, and author branding, but for me, those pale in comparison to a happy reader.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I love the blank sheet of paper, or more appropriately for our time, the blank screen. I love that is represents endless possibilities. To meld together a cast of colorful characters, interesting settings, and myriad storylines is a challenge I embrace. When it comes together with the reader moved, inspired, or challenged is the ultimate payoff.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
Understand the process for all publishing avenues you are considering. If there are areas where you are uncomfortable, seek some tailored professional help. There are literary professionals in all steps of the publishing cycle that have been where you are wanting to go. Seek their advice. The relatively small investment will be worth it. Lastly, in the immortal words of the late, great, basketball coach, Jim Valvano, don’t give up, don’t ever give up.
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Thoughts?
Mr. Orwell and I have differing perspectives. While writing is much more difficult than I anticipated, I wouldn’t characterize my experience as a horrible, exhausting struggle. My experience is more like a budding romance where she (the story) consumes my every thought.
I could be in a business meeting, in church service, or at a ball game, but what is utmost in my mind is how I’m going to get my protagonist, Elijah Mustang through the sticky situation in which I left him. As I’m lying in bed trying to sleep, my antagonist, Victor Youngblood is on my thoughts, working to find a way to make his diabolical plan a reality. Even when I’m down at my dock fishing, my conflicted young character, Jeremy Prince is trying to decide what path he will choose. Like Mr. Orwell, my story definitely drives me, but more in a provocative manner.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m in the middle of writing my second book, Rise of The Mustangs. In is the sequel to Manipulated and second in a trilogy. Rise of The Mustangs is planned to be on the market in the spring of 2019. The third book, Declaration of Independence, is slated for a 2020 release.
Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
If you’ve recently turned on the news or read the newspaper, it’s likely you walked away depressed and discouraged. The U. S., and much of the world, seems to be struggling through a period of bitter division. In the U. S. much of this discord is centered around politics. Your either on the Left or the Right and whichever you declare, you must hate the other. If you believe your TV, all of life’s events must be viewed through the lens of politics.
But, is your life really this way? Do you and your neighbor incessantly argue about the upcoming election? Are you and the person in the office next to you unable to carry on a professional conversation due to political differences? My anecdotal sample says that’s not the case. That most ordinary citizens go about their daily lives largely unaffected by the political persuasions of the person next to them. Then why does it seem so different when you turn on the news?
Manipulated attempts to answer this question. While a work of fiction, it is grounded in the premise that you are being manipulated. I hope you’ll consider reading Manipulated.