What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever believed? Because James Renner’s “blasphemous, riveting, insane, and glorious” (Andy Howell, astrophysicist) conspiracy thriller The Great Forgetting might just have something to top it. We were quite excited to get the chance to ask James about the books and experiences that have shaped him into the writer he is today.
What book would you consider an ancestor of The Great Forgetting?
The Great Forgetting could not have come about without Fahrenheit 451. In fact, Bradbury’s classic novel figures into the plot of my book as we come to realize this is a world where every copy of Fahrenheit 451 has been locked away. Both novels deal with the notions of collective memory and how television and the nightly news shape our reality in disturbing ways. The “bad guys” in The Great Forgetting (if, in fact, there are any bad guys) are these ape/human hybrids designed by the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele. They’re called the Hounds as a weird homage to the creatures who chase Guy Montag.
As the work on my novel progressed I came to respect Bradbury all the more for his economy of words and his ability to make his writing so porous and deep. The first draft of The Great Forgetting was 950 pages and it aimed to say the same things Bradbury said in Fahrenheit’s sparse 250 pages. As I was editing my book down to a readable—and marketable—size, I was teaching Bradbury in my classes at the University of Akron. It helped to constantly return to his work, to deconstruct it through the eyes of the student readers, to understand how he did it better.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
That’s easy: World of Trouble, the final book in Ben Winters’ wonderful Last Policeman trilogy. The story is about Henry Palace, a young police officer who investigates a number of mysteries in the days leading up to the impact of a giant asteroid, an event that will destroy much of humanity.
Winters’ story allowed me to understand the concept of existentialism in a way all those college classes at Kent State never could. I think of Palace often as I continue to investigate true crimes in my spare time (my fiction is directly inspired by my work as a journalist). It’s always been a compulsion for me—the need to crack an old cold case. But maybe that’s not a bad thing, even if there’s never really any closure.
Yeah, that last scene in World of Trouble—full of such grace. I’m getting all misty-eyed just thinking about it.
Who sees your first drafts?
Whenever I finish a new book, the first drafts immediately go to three people: my wife (a school teacher in Akron); my friend, Brandy Marks (who reads over 100 books a year); and a person I’ve never met before.
My wife is my ideal reader—the person I have in my mind while writing. What can I do to impress her? What can I do to surprise her?
Brandy reads so much she can always tell when something isn’t working right on instinct alone.
But that third reader, that mystery reader, is the most important. I believe a writer needs to put their work out there to a neutral third party, someone with no skin in the game, who can tell you when you suck and why. Usually, this is a friend of a friend or someone from Goodreads willing to look at a rough draft.
I reserve the option to disagree with any of their notes, though, unless they all give me the same note. Then, no matter how much I love that character or plot turn, it must be changed because it obviously doesn’t work.
Once I edit the manuscript using their suggestions, it goes to my agent, Yishai Seidman, who helps me tighten and improve on the story some more. Eventually, one day, it finds its way to my editor and then the real work begins.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
In November, I drove down the west coast of the United States and visited fifty bookstores in five days to promote The Great Forgetting. Along the way I found myself at a quaint used bookstore in Salem, Oregon, behind a marijuana shop. It was called Escape Fiction and I met this guy, Scott Conover, there. Scott grew up inside the bookstore—his playroom was where they keep the romance novels, now.
I was on a tight schedule but I spoke to Scott for about an hour and it was one of the most mind-blowing conversations on publishing I’ve ever had (I promise I had not yet visited the dispensary next door). I learned more from Scott in that hour than I have learned about the business in the last five years. But most importantly, I learned where my novels should be shelved. Both The Man From Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting blend mystery with sci-fi (and maybe a little fantasy). Because of my bi-curious genre problem, some stores will place my books in Sci-fi and some will place them in Mystery and people are hard-pressed to find them quickly. But Scott made a case for the novels to be placed in Thriller. And he’s right. At their core, my books are thrillers.
Can you tell us what you’re reading now?
At the moment, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. I have it in my mind that I will get around to writing an epic fantasy saga in another decade or so and I want to take some time to study the masters. I’d read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and King’s Dark Tower books already, so I figured it was time to get around to The Golden Compass. It’s brilliant but not for the reasons most people get excited about—not the atheist mumbo jumbo. It’s brilliant because of Pullman’s mastery of simple, effective grammar. His writing reminds me a lot of E.B. White, actually. And because of that I think his words hit that sweet spot in our hearts that is nostalgic, that pulls us back toward the first stories we read in grade school.
Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?
There’s this conversation I had with Dan Piepenbring once that comes back to me again and again when I’m editing. At the time, Dan was the assistant to my editor, Sarah Crichton (he’s some big shot at Paris Review now) and we were working on an early draft of The Man from Primrose Lane. I kept fighting them to keep in some weird passage about this crime reporter in Cleveland who obsesses about a cold case murder. It wasn’t coming across as believable. My reasoning for keeping it was, “but this is how it actually happened to me.” Dan countered with “Oh, I see. That’s great and all but just because it happened, your reader will never believe it because you haven’t written it in a way that convinced us.” Until then I think I was always just telling a story. After that I learned to listen to the story, as well.
James Renner is the author of a previous novel, The Man From Primrose Lane, published in 2012. He teaches composition at Kent State University and is a contributor to BoingBoing, Cracked, and Cleveland Scene.
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