Wednesday, May 7, 2014

ME AGAIN, by Keith Cronin

I met Keith Cronin at the Backspace Writers Conference in New York last year, and we had a great time talking about librarian stuff (he worked in a library before he became a rock drummer and author). He also wrote a wonderful, touching book called ME AGAIN:

From Goodreads:

Miracles can be damned inconvenient. That's what thirty-four-year-old stroke victim Jonathan Hooper learns when he wakes up after spending six years in a coma. Everyone calls Jonathan's recovery a "miracle," but since nobody had expected him to recover, his sudden awakening becomes an awkward intrusion on the lives of his family and friends. To make matters worse, Jonathan doesn't even recognize these people. The stroke has wiped away most of Jonathan's memory, while the coma has withered his body. In short, Jonathan's not the man he used to be - whoever that was.

The only bright spot for Jonathan is Rebecca Chase, a young woman he meets in the hospital's long-term recovery unit. A stroke has drastically changed her personality, making her a stranger to her husband. Gone is the vivacious trophy wife, replaced by a shy, awkward woman with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing.

They don't fit in. And they'll never be the same. But now they've got to decide what matters most: who they were, or who they can become?

A steadily accelerating story exploring the irony, humor, and opportunity that can accompany personal calamity, Me Again follows the intertwined paths of two people forced to start over in life: one looking for his place in a world that has moved on without him, the other struggling to navigate a relationship with a man who wishes she were someone else.

And, he wrote collection called SHORTS.

From Goodreads:

This collection contains five short stories by author Keith Cronin, exploring a variety of quirky characters and sticky scenarios with the same combination of humor and emotional candor that has made his novel Me Again so popular with readers.

In “I’d Like to Thank the Academy,” a famous actor’s onscreen kiss unleashes a chain of events that change more than one person’s life. Next is “Black Lights and Breast Milk,” in which a young bachelor recounts how the things he anticipates most eagerly never seem to live up to his expectations. “Starving Artist 101” takes a stark look at a lifestyle many tend to romanticize. In “Shave and a Haircut,” an aspiring Hollywood actor's preparations for his latest audition become unexpectedly painful – at a number of levels. Closing up the collection is “The Wheel,” a story showing how even back in stone-age times, you could never make everybody happy.

Here are Keith's answers to some questions:

Your website bio states that you're a professional rock drummer as well as a writer (rock on!). Do you find that music influences your writing (and vise versa)? If so, how?

It's not so much that music influences my writing, but my music career has definitely helped inform my writing career. For one thing, my years in the music business braced me for how unpredictable - and sometimes flat-out bizarre - any arts-related industry can be. I was also already familiar with the kind of discipline it takes to get good at an art form, whether it's music, writing or anything else. Unless you're insanely talented (and I'm not), getting good at any art form takes a lot of hard work, and the humility to acknowledge that you may have weak areas that will need a heightened level of focus to overcome or minimize.

On a related note, music also taught me to play to my strengths, which is something I think a writer needs to do, too. Although I'm classically trained, and have a deep background in jazz, most people know me - and hire me - as a high-energy rock drummer. I've learned to acknowledge that this is what people want from me as a musician, so that's what I deliver, despite the fact that I also have a sensitive side musically. Similarly, I've learned what aspects of my writing seem to connect most consistently with readers. Having read tons of dark, edgy, violent fiction, I initially started writing in that vein. But nothing I wrote in that style ever went over very well with the literary journals and fiction contests I submitted to. Instead, readers tend to connect with my writing when I focus more on humor and emotional revelation. So that's what I try to give them now.

Versatility and hard work are definitely key in all art professions--and it sounds like you've really found your niches in both music and writing. 
I love the premise for ME AGAIN. Where did the idea come from, and what do you want readers to take away when they're finished?

Thanks, Karen. Me Again got its start as a short story idea that fizzled out. I liked the voice and the main predicament, but had no idea where to take it. It sat on my hard drive for a couple of years until I rediscovered it, and started seeing new possibilities for it. I've always been inspired by the heart-tugging scenarios of people's lives being changed by forces beyond their own control, as happens in Stephen King's The Dead Zone and films like Castaway and Regarding Henry. So I had my protagonist Jonathan come out of a six-year coma only to find the world had moved on without him. But I wanted to compound the challenges he faced, by taking away Jonathan's memory of his former life. The other main character, Rebecca, was inspired by a real-life incident. The younger sister of a friend of mine had a stroke while still in her twenties, and came out of it with a very different personality, something made even more tragic by the fact that she was recently married. That heartbreaking scenario haunted me for years, so I decided to explore it in Rebecca's character.

A quick side note: I find that when I describe these plot components to people, they assume that this is a dark, depressing story. But there's actually a lot of humor in the book, particularly through the viewpoint of Jonathan, who uses humor as both a defense and a coping mechanism. So I may have single-handedly created a new genre that might be called "brain damage comedy."

I guess I hope people come away from the book with some new perspectives on how to interact with people whose lives have been radically changed through no fault of their own. In some cases, what those people might need the most from you is acceptance and genuine interest in who they can become, rather than focusing on what has changed or been taken away from them.

I think it's helpful when you can find humor amid tragic situations--ease burdens, if only for a short while. And you're absolutely right--we are not defined by what happens to us. 
You've published a collection of short stories called SHORTS. How does your short story process differ from novel writing, and what do you enjoy most about it?

The main difference in the process is that with short story writing, the process is something I actually have a good chance of finishing. Seriously, I started writing short stories because I repeatedly found myself about 30% of the way into a novel I had no idea how to finish. After several aborted attempts at writing a novel, my consistent failures were starting to shake my confidence, so I decided to try a project of a more manageable length. It turned out to be an excellent move. A good short story - at least in my opinion - has all the same components of a good novel. The shorter length just limits the complexity of the plot and subplots, and makes you really focus on the language at the level of individual sentences and words. But the story still needs a shape to it, and conflict and transformation (unless you're into the rather abstract and plotless mood pieces that are popular in some journals, which I'm not). Short story writing is a huge skill-builder, and something I recommend to any aspiring writer. It also gives you a sense of momentum, proving that you can actually complete a solid piece of writing, which was something I sorely needed to prove to myself.

I also wanted to prove to myself that beyond merely finishing a piece of fiction, I could actually write something publishable. So I submitted my pieces to literary journals, and was thrilled to have most - not all - of them accepted. Earning those publishing credits built my confidence and my momentum, and also proved to agents and editors that I was serious about learning the ropes of the traditional publishing business. This is a step I think many self-publishing writers are doing themselves a disservice by skipping. To clarify, I think self-publishing represents a broad and exciting range of opportunities for writers, but I do think writers should first hone their craft by gaining the kind of hard-won insights that only grinding your way through a rigorous editorial process can provide.

It also sounds like a good opportunity to go more in-depth, rather than trying to accommodate the wideness of a novel.
You're a contributor to Writer Unboxed--I've really enjoyed your posts there. What advice, if any, do you have for writers wanting to join a group blog?

Aw, thanks - I'm glad you enjoy my posts, and I've really been enjoying the opportunity to share my goofy little thoughts and perspectives at Writer Unboxed. I think writers wanting to be part of a group blog have two main opportunities:

1. Creating a blog with other like-minded writers. (Actually, they don’t necessarily have to be like-minded, so much as willing to work together in a coordinated effort.) This can be great, but the blogosphere is relatively saturated with literary blogs. So the question is: what's your unique angle?

2. Joining an established blog. Here you need to be selective and realistic. Don't just look for a blog that's highly regarded; look for a blog where you and your ideas would be a good fit. I love the balance of craft and business topics at Writer Unboxed. It's not all rainbows and unicorns ("Just write the story in your heart, and you're sure to become a bestseller"), but it's not about gossip and sensationalism either ("The paper book is DEAD! Amazon killed conventional publishing AND causes the heartbreak of psoriasis!") So I was honored to be asked to join the WU ranks. I had already been commenting there, and even won a contest to do a guest post, but I was still VERY surprised to get the invitation to join the same blog where The Donald holds court! But I do think one key to getting invited was that my other participation on that blog had already made it clear that I could write.

Warning: soapbox moment alert!

I think one of the biggest opportunities the internet gives us writers is the chance to show the world we can WRITE. I'm a firm believer that good writing is incredibly easy to recognize, because it stands out from all the terrible writing out there. While non-writers may gravitate to AOLspeak and LOLisms, the web - with all its blogs, forums and social media sites - offers us serious writers a limitless number of opportunities to show the world our stuff. Even 140 characters at a time, a good writer can make her presence known very quickly. Take advantage of this, and take the time to write WELL every time you write anything online. It will be noticed, believe me.

That is so true--and something writers should definitely think about. What are some of your current projects?

I've got numerous ideas percolating, but am suffering from some "fear of commitment" issues, and am having a hard time deciding which idea to dedicate my time and energy to. I'm not a fast writer, so I need to feel very committed before putting in the many months it usually takes me to complete a book.

In the meantime, I've been working a lot on craft. I'm a big fan of Donald Maass's teachings, in particular about pushing your writing to higher levels to create bigger, better books. That's something I want to do, so I've been evaluating my own strengths and weaknesses, and devoting a lot of time to studying things like story structure and how to develop high-concept story ideas. Both of these are areas I want to get better at, and want to emphasize in my future work. In addition to attending seminars and reading books on these topics, I've been analyzing many books I admire, trying to get under the hood and see what makes them work. It's been very enlightening, so I hope to leverage what I learn in my own future work.

That's one of the coolest things about writing: it's a cumulative skill. The more you work at it, the better you can get. And every time you pick up a pen or put your hands on a keyboard, you've got yet another opportunity to raise your game. 

Thanks, Keith! It's inspiring to know that we can get better simply by being willing to improve.

To grab copies of ME AGAIN or SHORTS, be sure to click the links below:

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