An Interview With
I am Christopher Bonn Jonnes, author of the new suspense novel, Wake Up Dead. Jonnes is pronounced "Jones." In fact, it used to be spelled that way until my grandfather changed it in the 1920s. Bonn is my mother's maiden name. I'm forty-two years old and live in Minnesota with a lovely wife and three children, ages ten to twenty-four. I'm the Chief Operating Officer, part owner, and twenty-seven-year employee of American Polywater Corp., an industrial chemical manufacturer. I enjoy motorcycles, guitar, softball, volleyball, running, horses, reading, and writing.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Besides WAKE UP DEAD, what else have you written?
I've always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book when I was eight. It was entitled, "Chris Jonnes - The First Six Years." I commissioned my little sister (the "artist" of the family) to illustrate it. I was crushed by the failure to publish that, and didn't try writing again until about ten years ago. Then I completed a novel that taught me three things. 1) I liked to write. 2) I had the perseverance required to tie sixty thousand words together on paper. 3) I was really bad at it.
That book will never see the light of day, but it was the catalyst to an intense program of self-improvement on writing skills, the result of which is Wake Up Dead. I also do a tremendous amount of business writing, including several newsletters. These have developed an almost cult-like following, due mostly to my non-traditional style. I have trouble staying serious for more than two sentences and that results in interoffice memos written in the style of Dr. Seuss, and other bizarre things meant to entertain the reader and boost comprehension and retention. My opinion is that a lot of business writing is completely wasted because it is dry and boring. People either read it without getting its message because it hasn't captured their attention, or they skip it all together. Writing memos that people look forward to reading is a rare art. I'm proud of my accomplishments in that regard, and applied the writing skills developed there to my fiction.
I read that WAKE UP DEAD came to you while experimenting with lucid dreaming. Share what inspired the novel and how you used lucid dreaming as part of your writing process.
I read a science magazine article once on methods of inducing lucid dreaming. A lucid dream is one in which you become aware that you're dreaming without waking up. This allows you to direct the dream, and greatly enhances later recall. I was skeptical but tried anyway. After several weeks of exercising the techniques, I had a vivid lucid dream. Very cool. This sounds kind of new-age, but is quite real. Within weeks I had two more dreams, the last of which was the story in WAKE UP DEAD. It amazed me so much that I jumped out of bed and jotted down a few pages of notes, which became the basis for the later book. I have no idea what inspired this particular dream, but I am absolutely blown away by the mind's ability to spontaneously create a full and unique story with the complexity of WAKE UP DEAD. I regret that I've not had another lucid dream since.
How did you research WAKE UP DEAD?
Fortunately, most of the science in the book revolves around the subject of dreaming. This is a topic that is easily researched on the Internet. There are also countless books written on the subject. I started reading everything I could on the matter, and kept a journal in which I jotted terminology and relevant facts. One of the challenges was sprinkling just the right amount of "science" throughout the book, enough to convince that the author had done his homework, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader and bog down the fast-moving tale.
You have a fascinating cast of characters. Share what inspired each of the three.
They are what I dreamed. Sometimes I feel like I cheated. I didn't have to make up the story or characters. I just had to write the story my brain invented. My guidelines in fleshing them out were to avoid basing them on anyone I knew (just to stay out of trouble), and to keep the descriptions sparse. I believe that allowing the reader to create a visual image of the character in their mind with just a few simple cues from the narrator is much more powerful than long, dull, descriptive passages. I felt I knew the characters well before I started writing. That allows you to engage them in dialogue and action that is consistently in character.
How difficult was it to get WAKE UP DEAD accepted by a publisher? What advice do you have for other authors seeking publishers?
When WAKE UP DEAD was done and squeaky tight, I got a Writers Market (agent and publisher listing) and went agent hunting. I made a list of the thirty most appropriate targets and started submitting one at a time. A year and a half and twenty-nine form rejection letters later, I landed a two-year contract with agent number thirty. After the agent managed to get form rejections from only six publishers in two years, I declined his request to renew the agreement. About to surrender, I submitted the manuscript to a national fiction contest and won publication! Someone finally read it. It took four years to write it, and three more to sell it.
As for advice, I think it's wrong to write without publication as a long-term goal, but worse to write for publication as the primary goal. You must love to write. Writers must realize that seeking publication is fraught with rejection, frustration, endless waiting, long odds, and miniscule financial rewards. They must be willing to endure late nights at the computer, sacrificed weekends, and nay-saying relatives. If, in the face of all that, you still find yourself writing, then you are a writer and publication is simply a crowning jewel atop personal achievement. Of course, when you receive the kind of phone call I did today, every second of seemingly wasted effort spent writing or chasing publication is instantly worth it. The Director of Productions for Paramount Pictures called me at home to discuss a possible movie deal for WAKE UP DEAD! Dreams do come true. Why not yours?
What is the greatest challenge you have faced as an author? How did you overcome it?
I was very naive when I got published. I thought they would send me a check and I would go back upstairs and write Book Two. The obligations as an author to promote the book and make public appearances came as a surprise to me. The extra time and effort involved was one thing, but facing the public was the real challenge. I'm a sit-in-the-back-of-the-room kind of guy, which doesn't sell books. I've had to work hard to overcome my shy side and project myself as a confident and engaging "celebrity." Whenever the going gets tough, I just think of my young daughter mustering the courage to deliver a speech in her fifth grade class. If she can do it, so can I.
What is your greatest writing related pet peeve? What would you do about it if you could?
I wish the industry, meaning publishers, bookstores, reviewers, media, etc., would focus less attention on the top bestsellers and more on all worthy books. I think the public would be shocked by the statistics on the distribution of book revenues. It's something like the top 1,000 books earn more than the other 3,000,000 in print combined. It has to do with name recognition and promotion. Stephen King could put out 200 pages of drivel and sell a million copies. It can be frustrating as a breaking-in author constantly bombarded with "Harry Potter this" and "Monica Lewinsky that" when stores and publishers will do next to nothing to support you until you miraculously become someone. It's a chicken/egg dilemma. What would I do about it? I'd put my book in the top 1,000 and stop whining.
What are you working on now?
I'm well into my second novel, which I'm very excited about. Although it's unrelated to WAKE UP DEAD, it will be similar in that it's in the suspense category and involves an enticing mix of light sci-fi and a component of the paranormal. It should be of interest to all who enjoy WAKE UP DEAD. Although it's not under contract yet, I do have a very strong verbal expression of interest from a publisher. I am confident it will see print someday.
What are you reading now? Who are your favorite authors and how do you see them influencing your work?
I'm reading about ten books right now. I have one in every room in the house. My tastes are eclectic. I like Scott Turow, Ken Follett, Isaac Asimov, Charles Dickens, Allan Eckert, Dean Koontz, Tolkien, Herman Hesse, Hemingway, and on and on. I think my fondness of good books in all genres helped me write WAKE UP DEAD as a genre-bender, which I like. I find the whole concept of formula fiction, in which the structure and even much of the plot is pre-determined, to be restrictive. What's the point of writing--or reading--a story if the outcome is already known? I believe some of history's greatest writers, Hemingway for example, are ones who broke the mold. After all, the sub-genres as we know them today didn't exist until someone wrote something so compelling that others began to emulate it. Tom Clancy is a more recent example. I don't pretend to be a writer of future classics, but I don't concentrate on writing to fit a pattern or genre; I write the best damn story I can and let the publisher worry about pigeon-holing it in the marketplace. I've had various readers tell me they thought WAKE UP DEAD was a mystery, a romance, a sci-fi, a horror, and a suspense novel. I just say yes to them all.
What else would you like to share that we've not yet touched upon?
I don't know why this occurs to me now, but someone "in the know" once gave me the nebulous advice to "discover your writing voice and let it do its thing." Ten years and a published book later, I think I'm finally figuring out what that means. I have a slightly irreverent and twisted sense of humor. It got me sent to the principal's office more than once. Now I do it for a living in my writing. Rather than trying to suppress it, I let it do its thing. I like adult themes without profanity or gratuitous sex and violence. I like tight sentences and getting to the point. I'm not poetic, so I don't try to be. I like stories. I like a writer who gets on with it. I try to keep all this in mind as I write: to write within myself, and just write the story the way I'd like to read it. Sounds easy, doesn't it?