Thursday, February 12, 2009

John Jeter and The Plunder Room

John Jeter’s first novel, The Plunder Room, takes readers into the deep South, where they encounter Randol Duncan, a music critic who has just inherited a key to his grandfather’s room full of military treasures.

Unfortunately, Duncan is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair and the valuables are locked in a room at the top of a set of stairs. As Duncan figures out a way how to gain entry in the room, he also unravels long-buried family secrets. The journey forces Duncan to examine questions of honor and valor and his family’s role in a proud Southern military tradition.

I met John Jeter in 1986, when we were both students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. What I noticed first was his sense of humor. It seemed like he couldn’t say a sentence that wasn’t laced with a joke and a smile. That levity and humor permeated his writing as well. Jeter went on to a long career as a journalist, but switched careers in mid-life. He is now the proprietor of The Handlebar, a nightclub in Greenville, S.C.. It’s an appropriate name since Jeter sports his own curly handlebar mustache.

Jeter wrote fiction for 20 years, but The Plunder Room is his first published book. Amazingly, he sold and published it without an agent -- something that is rare in today's cutthroat publishing world. Jeter explained to me how he accomplished his feat and the story behind the book:

How did you get the idea for The Plunder Room?

THE PLUNDER ROOM came to me in a flash, as, I think, we as a country were all thinking about the war in Iraq and the spiraling descent of the country and where we were heading. Like Frances, I got to thinking about my forebears, especially my grandfather, a true war hero and Southern gentlemen in the most courageous sense of the word. I began to wonder how we got from the virtues and valor of his generation to the pierced kids with their serious sense of entitlement who come to my concert venue, The Handlebar; how we could go from a “noble” war, World War II, to Vietnam and Iraq; how we could get from thinkers and doers like Roosevelt to George W. Bush. Then I got pissed off, which -- read Sidney Cox’s “Indirections, for those who want to write” -- is a great inspiration for storytelling. The story really exploded in my head in an instant when the protagonist’s name blasted in.

How long did it take to write?

Three months.

Why did you put your protagonist in a wheelchair? What kind of advantages and disadvantages does it give him?

If he weren’t in a wheelchair, the novel would’ve been two pages long, Randol would’ve raced up the stairs, and that would’ve been that. But, seriously, as the story and character developed, it turned out that his paraplegia also proved a valuable metaphor for his impotence, his inability to stand up to anyone or for anything, his numbness - plus all the emotional and physical pain he - and all of us - carry that made him that much more human … a burden he has to wheel around with him in addition to fulfilling his.

You have been a journalist and novelist. Did one career help the other? Did it hurt it? What journalistic skills did you bring to your fiction writing?

In moving from journalism to fiction, I got too hung up on facts and details, not knowing what to leave in what to leave out. In my first novel (of seven), at one point, I believed it crucial to know what the weather was in Saigon on a specific Wednesday on a particular day of a precise date. This was pre-Internet, so it took a long time to find out. Then I realized -- in fiction, that detail was unimportant. I could’ve either made it up or worked around it.

Journalism also prevented me from being “honest” with invented characters and vice versa. In journalism, every word you write down that somebody says must be 100% what they said, accurate. In fiction, you get to make that up, BUT, it must be TRUE to what the character would say. Breaking through that wall of KNOWING what an invented person “would say,” I found, is incredibly difficult when you’ve been trained to pay so much attention to what is REAL. Likewise, if you write about, say, a house - as I did in the novel - and you move furniture around or add a chimney in or on a house that actually existed - it feels really weird. You simply can’t do that in journalism. Facts and details are crucial to journalism, but need to be stitched into fiction in just such a way that journalism can actually hinder. Still, journalism taught me to write FAST. Writing a story on deadline is a blast, I love to get it done. Then, as they say in film, “fix it in post.”

When did you first grow your handlebar mustache? Does your wife like it? Have you ever shaved it off?

I grew my mustache when I was recuperating in a San Antonio hospital with my brother after he gave me his kidney in 1984; we had a post-operative facial-hair-growing contest. Mine grew into a handlebar. In 1994, we opened The Handlebar in honor of that. Now I’m stuck with a well-known-brand logo on my face. I’m not sure if my wife likes it, but she met me this way, and, well, it’s corporate, we’re business partners, we love being married, she edited my novel and made it great - and she’s incredible. My brother’s awesome, too.

You sold THE PLUNDER ROOM without an agent. How did you do that?

I've written seven, four of them incalculably bad and two that I'm fond of. Anyway, I had pitched one of my earlier novels over the transom at Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press. One of the editors there, Ruth Cavin, liked it, but not enough to publish it. So when I wrote another one, I sent it to her and she bought it.

So what was it about THE PLUNDER ROOM she liked?

It's a story that's about four generations of a Southern family - but I think Ruth realized it's not a Southern story, per se, it's a Southern-based allegory about the degeneration of the American character through those same four generations.

Starting from ... ?

The Greatest Generation through Generations Jones and X. I had attended my 20th reunion at Columbia University Journalism School, and had lunch with a classmate who dates his family back to 13th-century China. We started talking about the Chinese proverb that tells about the generation that plants the orchard, the next that enjoys the fruit and the shade, the next that cuts down the trees and so forth. As with all fiction, some redemption has to be in there, and I think THE PLUNDER ROOM's timing happens to be right because we're at the age where THIS generation, politically and socially, can redeem us from the generation that plundered the American orchard.

Isn't getting a book published without an agent sort of like winning the lottery?

Yes and no. I've been working toward publication since I was 6 years old. I have been writing since I was eating Cap'n Crunch, but wrote my first novel - the first of the hilariously bad ones - 20 years ago. Through all those years, after thousands of rejections, a nervous breakdown and no choice but to keep beating my head against the wall, I became an overnight success. That is, if you define success as a published author.

So, what's next?

Sales. Writing's easier.

In what sense?

Bear with me through some long-windedness here: I own a concert venue called The Handlebar in Greenville, SC, and we get 3,000 to 4,000 queries each year from artists, bands and agencies to fill 300 to 400 slots each year, including headlining and opening slots. I book all the talent.

We've had Joan Baez and John Mayer, John Hiatt, Tower of Power, Shinedown, David Sanborn, Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck, David Lindley -- 2,500 shows in 15 years. And my responsibility as Talent Buyer is to procure world-class talent who will help us sell as many tickets as possible so that my venue makes money. As "publisher" here, I have to say no to thousands of artists and bands, almost all of whom are incredibly talented -- but don't have to "marquee value" to put bodies in the building. Likewise, the publishing industry receives -- last I heard -- 3 million manuscripts a year for 50,000 books it prints each year, on an incredibly tight margin. And in a lot of ways, the industry's very much a cottage industry like mine. That is to say, they have to sell books like I have to sell tickets (and beer). So I now have to switch off my Artist bulb and switch on my Promoter light, full blast, and start promoting my novel.


Beats me, but I'm doing the very best I can. What's interesting is that because publishing houses, even the big ones, are a lot like The Handlebar, they do what we do. If we have a huge act -- say, John Hiatt or Joan Baez, those tickets are going to sell easily and sell quickly. Likewise, Barack Obama or Janet Evanovich have little trouble selling a bunch of books. The bulk of the house's marketing resources are going to go to the big guns, which, sure, it's ironic, will sell books without much effort. We at The Handlebar do the same thing, when it's the "developmental acts" that need the most promotional help. So, as a developmental act, as a writer, I know that I have to work my ass off to promote my book. I'm doing radio, TV, print, everything I can. I'm not all that good at the Web because I'm not a teenager, but I do love Facebook; the whole book-blog thing is mind-numbing to me in its sheer vastness.

What's next?

I still have those two other books I like and believe in and would like to see published. I should get back to writing, too, but a couple of issues stand in the way: the day job, which is sort of a night job, though it's mostly days, because I have to figure out how to sell tickets for the night club; and since I've been wearing my promoter hat these past two years -- both as music promoter and novel promoter, my Artistic Muse has decided to take a very long vacation without telling me when she plans on coming back.

Why don't you write nonfiction then, about The Handlebar or your kidney transplant nearly 25 years ago?

Because I don't have an agent, and I'm a little to close to both of those subjects -- even the transplant (my brother donated his kidney and it's not like I can take it out and get all clinical with it). Besides, I think it's better to leave nonfiction to the pros like Frances and try to lure my Muse back . . . somehow.

Do you believe that book sales and readers are vanishing?

No. On the contrary. I think economic doom and gloom, lack of money for travel, reeling in funds for expensive meals, etc., means folks will look for other forms of entertainment. TV and movies haven't historically been all that great and people are getting and want to get a lot smarter. Hence, books and other forms of reading -- even on the Internet. There's also this odd statistic I read, though probably outdated, from a couple of years ago, also from the Web: 85% of Americans said they hadn't read a book in the last year, but 85% of Americans either were writing a book or wanted to write one. After Harry Potter and the Twilight series and so many other amazing releases, I daresay more Americans have actually picked up a book in the last year or so. And if they're writing 'em, they should be reading 'em (though you'd be surprised).

Anything you want to add?

Yes. Buy books; they even make great household decor. Buy 'em by the bushel at LOCAL bookstores. And not just because it's about money, but because it's about culture and being smart and re-growing the American orchard. There was a most amazing post on Vermont Public Radio: about bookstores and community. Thing is, if artists are community and bookstores are community and consumers are community, aren't we all in the same ... community? Where does that put the Internet? Sure, it can help create community, but it doesn't serve coffee or help with face-to-face or the visceral experience of live readings and so forth. Our new president called for Community. That should go for the arts, too.

1 comment:

Annie Mill said...

Write in 3 months? He is great.