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"I love stories that tie faith into life’s tough questions."

Interview: John Herrick, Author of ‘Between These Walls’

jherrick05_cJohn Herrick graduated from the University of Missouri—Columbia. He began his career in information technology, where he acquired analytical and project management skills that helped shape his novel-writing process. He seized writing opportunities over the years, which included writing radio commercial copy and ghostwriting for two nationally syndicated radio preachers.

The Akron Beacon Journal hailed Herrick’s 2010 novel From the Dead as “a solid debut novel.” More than 100,000 downloads of Herrick’s nonfiction book, 8 Reasons Your Life Matters, introduced him to new readers worldwide and launched the e-book version to #1 on Amazon’s Motivational Self-Help and Christian Inspiration bestseller lists.

A self-described “broken Christian,” Herrick battled depression since childhood. In that context, however, he developed intuition for themes of spiritual journey and the human heart.

Readers can visit John Herrick’s website at www.johnherrick.net, or read his blog at johnherricknet.blogspot.com.

Greetings, John! Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Between These Walls. When did you start writing and what got you into human-heart fiction?

I fell in love with writing at eight years old. After finishing a school assignment, I glanced at a classmate and noticed she was at work on a short story. It looked interesting, so I tried my hand at it and never stopped. By age 10, I wanted to spend the rest of my life putting words on paper. I wanted to become a novelist when I grew up — then spent the next 20 years struggling! From late childhood through my 20s, I taught myself different types of writing, but my goal of becoming a novelist fell by the wayside. Novels proved gargantuan and I lacked the self-discipline to stick with a project more than a few weeks.

During that time, I discovered songwriting. What an ideal outlet! I’ve always loved music. And because songs are short, I could see them through to completion. I spent about 15 years honing that craft as a hobby. I scoured song lyrics nonstop, poring through CD booklets, examining structure, imagery, voice, similes and metaphors. I studied the elements of a hit song — and then compared hit songs to identify trends among that elite group. I pinpointed the writers I considered masters of the craft and studied everything I could find under their names. This was the early 1990s, and songwriter Diane Warren dominated the Top 10 charts. Everyone has heard Diane’s songs, whether they realize it or not. So I scrutinized her lyrics and melodies to identify the qualities and nuances of a solid commercial song. Meanwhile, after paying close attention to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” I studied the work of Bernie Taupin, Elton’s lyricist, to learn how to use lyrics not only to express emotion, but to construct a picture as concrete as an artist’s canvas. HerrickBTWNobody can paint a mental watercolor like Bernie Taupin. Though I never pursued songwriting as a career, it taught me how to choose my words with precision, how to tell a story in a concise manner — and most importantly, how to dive into the ocean of a character’s emotions.

When people read my novels, the qualities they seem to enjoy most are the emotional depth and the sense that you’re right there with the characters. You can trace it all back to those years I spent writing songs, those three-minute vignettes of love, anger, heartache, fear. I love telling stories of the human heart because the heart is so rich. It harbors our deepest secrets, our emotions, and our personal history.

Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?

I’ve received encouragement from so many family members, friends, writers and other individuals who have believed in me as a writer. But the mentor who most helped shape my writing process wasn’t a writer. Neither he nor I realized he would impact my novels. His name was Rollin.

Rollin was my department director when I worked in information technology (IT). At that point, I hadn’t attempted writing novels as an adult. During those IT years, I experienced a dry spell as a writer. But in IT, I advanced from programming to process analysis to project management. Not only was Rollin the best manager for whom I’ve ever worked, but after years of practice, he was an excellent project manager. And he gave me my first shot at it. I had no past experience, but I had watched Rollin. I’d observed how he interacted with people to get a job done; the documents he produced; how he planned long-term projects, identifying milestones, time estimates, and deliverables. Anytime I had a question, I went to Rollin, who had answers and reaffirmed that I had solid communication and management instincts. In fact, I kept one of his email replies tacked to my cubicle wall.

One day, after decades of considering a novel an outlandish goal, a thought occurred to me: If I planned my novel-writing process like an IT project and applied the skills I’d learned to that creative project, could I see it through to completion? And sure enough, it proved the key component. I’ll spend the rest of my life thankful to Rollin for mentoring me in my IT work — and, unbeknownst to him, my book work. 

What was your inspiration for Between These Walls?

One night, I turned on the television news and saw a story about a high school student who had endured a onslaught of bullying because he was gay. It had pushed him so far, he was on the verge of suicide. He was desperate, tired, filled with pain. The news story highlighted a video he had posted online. In that video, the only way he could communicate his pain was through words he had written in black marker on sheets of paper. Here sat a kid who looked like an average high school freshman, wiping tears from his eyes, making a cry for help, for somebody to care.

My heart broke for him. I’ve never met him and I don’t know if he’s alive. But I’ll never forget the sight of that kid. I said to myself, “Nobody that age should know what it’s like to feel that kind of pain.” My heartbreak led to anger. And that was the night I knew I needed to pursue Between These Walls.

I love stories that tie faith into life’s tough questions. In Between These Walls, the main character is a Christian who harbors a secret attraction to other men. Although my main character, Hunter Carlisle, is 26 years old, much of his journey has its roots in the pain and fear he endured during high school and college, so the novel weaves those memories into his current predicament. As a result, I believe Between These Walls will find an audience with readers young, old, and everywhere in between. 

Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to write. Can you relate to this?

Definitely! My biggest fear as a writer is that I’ll sit down to write and nothing will come forth. I’ve faced that fear with every novel I’ve written, and it’s proven irrational. That fear never comes to fruition. Granted, in terms of output quantity, some days are more productive than others. But the key is simple: Show up, and if you’re afraid, just do it afraid. I’ve discovered that if I put my fingers to the keyboard, something will come forth. It might not be my best work, but once you get something on paper, you have something tangible to work with. You can always improve it up later. 

Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?

My biggest obstacle to long-term commitments was a lack of self-discipline. My years working in information technology forced me to form new habits. That said, I know my vulnerabilities, so I force myself into a schedule and discipline. Because writing is my second career, I need to work around my desk job. In the past, I wrote in the evenings. Nowadays, I start writing between 5:30 and 6 a.m., watching the sun rise as I work, and continue until my desk job begins. Sometimes I’ll tie up tasks in the evening. Before I take a vacation, I require myself to set the specific date when my book work will resume. That sounds strict, but its root is my fear of quitting. As a child, whenever I quit an attempt at writing a novel, my excuse was, “I’m not quitting; I’m just putting it on the shelf for later.” The problem with shelves is you can always add another one. 

How do you define success?

Life is all about the lives we impact, and in my view, a book is no different. As a creative individual, I have a constant flow of ideas raging through me. I keep a folder filled with more book ideas than I could complete in a lifetime. Each concept would leave readers satisfied with hours of entertainment. But we only live this life once. We choose how to invest our time. So I try to select concepts that will make a difference in someone’s life. Consider this: When you write a book, you have the privilege of speaking to, potentially, thousands of individuals at once. I don’t want to take it for granted or make a half-baked effort. If I complete a novel to the best of my ability, knowing in my heart I did the best I could, I consider that success. But if a reader says the book encouraged him or gave her a new perspective on life, I consider that a greater success. It’s a rare, precious treasure. 

What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Never give up! That’s my advice to anyone who harbors a dream within his/her heart. It sounds simplistic, but I couple it with a caveat: Decide in advance that quitting is not an option for you. That way, when discouragement or rejection crosses your path, you’ve already laid the foundation to endure it. When I decided to write my first novel, I envisioned a multiple-choice test, the kind we all took in high school. The choices were my options for the future as they relate to my books. I envisioned the fourth choice, which was “Quit”, and pictured myself not just ignoring that choice, but taking out my eraser and erasing the printed choice from the page. Ridiculous? Maybe, but you do whatever it takes to push through. 

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.” 

I’ve long believed anyone can sit down and write a novel if they show up each day. But I don’t believe that novel will be effective unless the concept burns inside you. Though I love the writing process and want to participate, my greatest motivator is my need to participate — that sense inside your gut that says, “I must do this.” My best concepts arrive when I don’t expect them. A character, hurt or frustrated, emerges in my heart and grabs hold of me. He won’t let go until I tell his story. If I try to ignore him or relegate him to the back burner, he nags at me until I devote myself to his story. I believe it indicates someone needs the character’s story. Perhaps an individual’s life depends on it. 

Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

Thanks for letting me stop by! I love to interact with readers. I encourage you to stop by my website at www.johnherrick.net or my blog at johnherricknet.blogspot.com.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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