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Interview with Writer John Fox

What have you been doing recently in your career?

johnfox2007John:Well, there’s my literary blog BookFox. On BookFox I’ve been doing interviews and reviewing new fiction and short story collections. The blog was just described in winsome terms in “The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs.” I was also interviewed by the LA Times for an article about the relationship between traditional media and blogs. Other than that, I’ve been busy launching a new literary journal sponsored by USC, a multi-genre journal publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays and interviews, for which my Managing Editor’s responsibilities are legion. My most recent publication is a short story in the Connecticut Review, and of course I’m writing more stories.

What type of short stories do you write?

John:I don’t write fantasy or magical realism or romance or westerns, or anything with a handy and easily recognizable handle. I write something in the ballpark of literary realism, and reserve the right to throw in the absurd or hyperbolic. Right now many of my stories are set internationally, because in the last decade I’ve traveled to just under 40 countries. Also, bathrooms and owls keep cropping up as motifs. I’m not going to try to explain why.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

John:Well, I wrote a story in fifth grade. It was quite sophisticated. Bad guys had stolen a laser and were going to blow up earth, so my buddy and I borrowed a propeller bi-plane and flew to space to defeat them. Earth was saved, you’ll be glad to know. That was pretty much the height of my literary achievements. Everything afterwards has been downhill. Oh, and also there was this thing called college. I had a wonderfully gruff, acerbic Iowa-alumnus professor who instilled in me the desire to become a writer. It must have been a good instillation, because it never left.

How has AEM helped you become a better artist as you integrate your faith and your art?

John:My wife and I went over to Joel and Mich’s house one day to drop off some pictures. We weren’t planning on going inside, just leaving the pictures on the doorstep. But Mich and Joel caught us. And invited us in. And we ended up staying for hours. Talking about art, about career, about networking, about faith, about the juxtaposition of all of those. Somewhere in the conversation, I started to explain my approach to fiction and faith, and Mich mentioned that my approach had evolved from a year ago. She was right, but I hadn’t even realized the shift. That example – the single moment where a member of your artistic community reminds you of your process, and how it has progressed –demonstrates why AEM exists. It’s a community for me, a community that gives me feedback on my process of being a writer who believes. It’s a sounding board. It’s forced me to articulate my artistic visions and motivations and values and to travel alongside others who are doing the same.

Have you had any struggles with the integration of your faith and your art?

John:I tried to avoid writing religious stories for a very long time. Not just religious stories, but anything even smelling of religion – religious symbols, characters, themes. I didn’t want to be that type of writer. I despised trite morals, clichéd narratives, sanitized characters – essentially, the genre which is known as Christian fiction, a genre largely defined by the CBD [Christian Book Distributors]. Only in the last couple of years have I realized that my attempt to circumvent religious topics is impossible. It’s impossible because we create from the deepest part of our being, and so much of my history and existence is intertwined with religion. So my journey of integration has been resigning myself to the fact that I have to write at least partially about religious things, and my struggle has been figuring out to do it in an original way.

Do you have boundaries in your writing that you won’t cross for ethical reasons?

John:I have one advantage that many people in the film industry – especially actors – don’t have. I hold final say on the meaning of my story. Since I have complete control, my content is only limited by my skill. Do I have enough skill to write from a Christian worldview about pedophilia? If I can make the content communicate my message, then I’ll do it. But to say that you won’t portray things in art, such as the offensive trinity (sex, violence, language) is to start to cut oneself off from reality. Also, there are times when the fade out or the judiciously angled camera, designed to imply the sensuality or violence rather than overexpose it, is an artistic move, but sometimes it’s just cowardly. It’s just necessary to differentiate between when those elements are necessary and when they’re gratuitous.

What writers have influenced you?

John:Who (among those I’ve read) hasn’t influenced me? Or what counts as influence and how could I possibly hope to measure it? But perhaps I’m splitting hairs. Okay, so I suppose I could list some Christian authors: Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, Marilynne Robinson. But more importantly in terms of style and structure, there are a number of international authors that I admire greatly: Haruki Murakami, Jorges Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco. But why stop at writers? I don’t live in an artistic vacuum, I inhale a cross-section of mediums. A filmmaker that has drastically changed the way I look at story is Krzysztof Kieslowski – his ten short films called “The Decalogue” and his trilogy “Three Colors” (Blue/White/Red). Also, my wife, who is a photographer, has been dragging me to modern art exhibits all over the world, and abstract paintings inspire me. It makes me believe that if they can do that on a canvas, I can do anything on the page.

Has marriage changed your writing?

John: Not my writing, per se. I was writing about married characters and relationships with children and perspectives of the elderly before I experienced any of that personally. But it is enormously helpful to have an artistic spouse who understands the artistic drive and who treasures beauty. She is quite encouraging. She buys me stamps and helps me address my envelopes. She supports my career decisions. She talks trash about every editor who sends me rejection slips. So marriage hasn’t changed my writing as much as it has sustained it. But sustaining is the number one mission of the writer.

When you die, what would you want people to say about your body of work, about you as a Christian, about you as a husband and father?

John: For an exercise in a memoir class, my classmates and I had to write tombstone epitaphs for each other (I know, morbid, right?). I got several memorable ones: “Here lies a mapmaker.” “I was a writer.” “Gone to literary heaven.” Those aren’t bad. But I’ll break the questions down. Body of work? I’ll leave that to the critics. It’s just a writer’s job to write. Christian? Something much more complex and thoughtful than can be communicated in this brief space. I’ve always thought bumper stickers were de facto false simply because of their brevity, and I wouldn’t want to reduce my Christianity to a sound bite. Husband and father? I just want to make sure that my career doesn’t overshadow my devotion to my family. I often think: I can do nothing higher than love my wife well and raise my kids well. And my parents gave me an excellent example of what it looks like to sacrifice yourself wholly for your family.

What advice or thoughts would you give to a young writer?

John: Read some publications religiously: I read Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, First Things, Poets and Writers and audio interviews from Mars Hill Audio. Don’t read literary journals steadily, just dabble. Read each journal once, so you get a feel for what they publish. Read literary blogs: I’ve learned volumes about the publishing industry and literary scene. Only read big newspapers: LA Times, NY Times, and the book section of The Guardian. Don’t read bad books – it’s okay to quit midway. Submit constantly, and fill up a shelf with rejection notices. Send out a short story to ten places simultaneously; once rejected, revise and send out to ten more. If you still don’t get a bite, give up on that story and write two better ones. Go to author readings. Develop a database of email contacts to promote your work. Show your work to other writers. Listen to 20% of their criticism. Show your work to professionals. Listen to 30% of their criticism. Never listen to people who tell you that you should give up, unless you think they’re right. If you think they’re right for long enough, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But they’re never right.

Has marriage changed your writing?

John: Not my writing, per se. I was writing about married characters and relationships with children and perspectives of the elderly before I experienced any of that personally. But it is enormously helpful to have an artistic spouse who understands the artistic drive and who treasures beauty. She is quite encouraging. She buys me stamps and helps me address my envelopes. She supports my career decisions. She talks trash about every editor who sends me rejection slips. So marriage hasn’t changed my writing as much as it has sustained it. But sustaining is the number one mission of the writer.

When you die, what would you want people to say about your body of work, about you as a Christian, about you as a husband and father?

John: For an exercise in a memoir class, my classmates and I had to write tombstone epitaphs for each other (I know, morbid, right?). I got several memorable ones: “Here lies a mapmaker.” “I was a writer.” “Gone to literary heaven.” Those aren’t bad. But I’ll break the questions down. Body of work? I’ll leave that to the critics. It’s just a writer’s job to write. Christian? Something much more complex and thoughtful than can be communicated in this brief space. I’ve always thought bumper stickers were de facto false simply because of their brevity, and I wouldn’t want to reduce my Christianity to a sound bite. Husband and father? I just want to make sure that my career doesn’t overshadow my devotion to my family. I often think: I can do nothing higher than love my wife well and raise my kids well. And my parents gave me an excellent example of what it looks like to sacrifice yourself wholly for your family.

What advice or thoughts would you give to a young writer?

John: Read some publications religiously: I read Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, First Things, Poets and Writers and audio interviews from Mars Hill Audio. Don’t read literary journals steadily, just dabble. Read each journal once, so you get a feel for what they publish. Read literary blogs: I’ve learned volumes about the publishing industry and literary scene. Only read big newspapers: LA Times, NY Times, and the book section of The Guardian. Don’t read bad books – it’s okay to quit midway. Submit constantly, and fill up a shelf with rejection notices. Send out a short story to ten places simultaneously; once rejected, revise and send out to ten more. If you still don’t get a bite, give up on that story and write two better ones. Go to author readings. Develop a database of email contacts to promote your work. Show your work to other writers. Listen to 20% of their criticism. Show your work to professionals. Listen to 30% of their criticism. Never listen to people who tell you that you should give up, unless you think they’re right. If you think they’re right for long enough, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But they’re never right.

To contact John: BookFox or E-mail him at: johnmattfox@hotmail.com

 

Article by Michelle Pelsue