Interview: Life, MS and Writing.

This interview first appeared on ‘The News in Books‘.

NATHAN GROSS – LIFE, MS, AND WRITING

What was his inspiration for this book?  Are the characters based on real people, or are they completely fictional?  When was he diagnosed with MS?  Why does he believe that he has beaten this incurable disease?  What advice does he offer for writers?

What was your inspiration for this book?
Grief. Modern grief that is. I was saturated by grief in my daily life, where it was a large part of my job to listen to the little annoyances and nuances in peoples lives for no other reason than to be someone they could spout their problems to. Even if I responded to them or gave suggestions, they didn’t listen, or the effort in trying to explain a solution to them became so excessive that I stopped doing it and became a Taker—I felt like I was the sponge to the mess that was their problems, sopping up everything until they were emptied of their grief and I was full from it.

What was your job?
I was in the taxi industry. Most of this grief I took came from taxi drivers who worked for us. I never blamed them. Taxi driving can be a tough job. Taxi drivers do their own fair share of grief taking. Think about cleaning up a drunk’s vomit in the car on a Saturday night, or someone’s blood after a stabbing and being used as an ambulance, or being robbed at knife-point. Tough job.

In The Freeing of Jonathon Mark many chapters are about Jonathon’s—the protagonist’s—patients. Are they all inspired by taxi drivers?
Most of our taxi drivers were new immigrants to Australia. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers and other trained professionals in their country of origin, who didn’t have the right qualifications to work in their field in Australia. Taxi driving was one of the best ways to support their family quickly. None of them actually feature as the basis for a patient in The Freeing of Jonathon Mark. These ‘sessions’ in my job were only the inspiration to start the book.

So, were the patients in The Freeing of Jonathon Mark real people or fictional characters?
Some of them were based on people I saw or encountered. Some were fictional.

Can you say which ones were real and which ones were fictional?
Well…Jacques J was based on a real butcher. Albert F—fictional. Fatima M was based on a single moment I saw in a café. Dana K…well…she was a bit of both…

One of the characters develops MS.  Do you have MS?  Or do you know someone who does?
I was diagnosed with MS in 2005. I’ve had three episodes that affected me relatively badly, that is, stopped my ability to maintain my daily activities. That included having optic neuritis in the same eye twice. I’ve recovered most of the functions that were affected. But I don’t believe I ‘have’ MS.

Could you elaborate on that?
Well, I think everyone’s MS is different, and I can only speak for my MS, but I believe that I am cured of MS.

That’s interesting: isn’t MS considered an incurable disease?
Yes, it is considered that way by neurologists and the ‘western way’ of considering medical ailments, but I’ve really never believed all the normal theories about MS that I’ve been told.

What do you believe?
I believe that I had a condition brought on by my way of life. Receiving the diagnosis of MS, for me that was the instigation, the motivation to change a lot of things in my life that were, if you like, contradicting me. I stopped most, if not all these things, I made hefty changes. I also added acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I avoid stress. It works for me. I believe I have alleviated the condition that western medicine calls MS. I feel that if I continue to be true to these ideas, which means being true to who I am, then, I can avoid revisiting this type of condition. But as I said, everyone’s MS is different. I can only speak for my MS in this regard. A lot more of my ideas on MS are shared in The Freeing of Jonathon Mark.

There is one point in the book where this character is diagnosed with MS and his neurologist announces the diagnosis with a joke. Is this from personal experience?
Yes, my neurologist announced my MS diagnosis with a joke.

What did you think of that approach?
I wasn’t impressed. But I’d already figured out what he was going to say so it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t shocked. I used it as another inspiration to write The Freeing of Jonathon Mark. And it confirmed a view I still hold about neurologists.

What’s that?
That neurologists don’t have a sense of humor.

How long did it take you to complete this book?
The writing of the book took me two or three years. It wasn’t a full time occupation as I was also the stay-at-home parent for our two young children during this time. Actually getting the book to this stage where it is published was another four years of rejection, proofreading, soul-searching, cover designs, printing, ebooking and a fast-track learn-as-you-go approach to the self-publishing world. But now that the book is published, I feel really good about it and the decisions I’ve made getting it to this stage. My goal with my writing is to share my ideas, to have people reading about what I think, and that is happening now.

Which character was your favorite?  Was there a character you just didn’t like?
I think my favorite character is Rodney B. I love how he’s always got an excuse for his dabbling in the substance that everyone thinks is his reason for his grief, his reason for going to see Jonathon. If there’s one character I didn’t like, it was probably Albert F. Quite frankly, he’s a selfish prick. I guess Ailsa H annoyed the shit out of me too. Her annoying habit is based on a real person I encountered. Damn it, so annoying…

How did you choose the names for your characters?
The idea of not giving patients surnames but just giving the first letter of their surname, came to me one time near the start of writing the book. I don’t really remember why but I thought it was a good idea. There needed to be some anonymity in a professional sense, from a Taker company point of view in the book. I felt this was achieved by this method, and also added intrigue to the book. Most of the names just kind of came to me. I go a lot on gut feeling, and if the name felt right, I went with it.

How completely did you develop your characters before actually writing your book?
I always start out writing the book ‘fresh’. The most perfect feeling for me as a writer is putting an idea to paper for the first time and seeing where it takes me. That’s when everything seems to flow and anything seems possible—everything seems possible! In all the books I’ve started I seem to hit about 10 000 words before I feel the need to stop, re-read, and take account of where the plot is going. It was at this point in The Freeing of Jonathon Mark that I stopped the initial burst of writing in order to develop the main characters, including writing their back stories, before re-editing what I had written and continuing on with the book.

Was there a point where your characters took control of the story?
Yes, that definitely happened a couple of times. There was one character in particular, Ivana F, who kind of drew me along. I wasn’t sure how she was going to react with Jonathon. She actually led me towards her interaction with him as the story went on.

Which scene was your favorite?  Which scene was the most difficult for you to write?
‘Silent Square’ is a personal favorite for me. I think I wrote that at a moment of personal angst and I think I vetted a lot of feeling into that chapter. ‘Giving Freebies’ is another. It was one of the chapters I wrote in that initial ‘gut-feeling only’ burst at the start of writing the book. I felt, and still feel that is was well written and enjoyed editing and re-editing it every time I did it. A lot of the patients I also enjoyed writing as each of them, to write, were like a short story. A glimpse into another world if you like, which gave respite in the writing of the main part of the novel.

There were a couple of chapters towards the end that were difficult to write. I knew what should happen. I knew the end of the chapter, but it was the process in getting to that point that was difficult to write. Sometimes, in other chapters, it would be the start that posed the problem. Once I had overcome that first line or two, sometimes a paragraph or two, then the rest would just flow.

How long did it take you to decide on a title for your book?  Were there many other possible titles you had picked out?
The title for this book presented itself before I’d written a word. It was a perfect fit for the idea that I needed to express. It took some thought, some messing around inside my own head, but when it came to me I knew that it fit perfectly. I didn’t need to consider any other titles.

How much research, if any, did you have to do for this book?
I did research certain topics on MS for the book. I knew a lot from my own personal experiences but there were certain aspects I hadn’t experienced or wasn’t sure about, and I did read a lot about the theories and certain possible paths MS could take.

Do you plan the entire book before writing it?  Or do you just sit down and write?
Sitting down to write when an idea comes is the reason I write. Everything in my life seems perfect and balanced when I can just sit down and write and the pen flows across the paper. I love that. In some ways, I live for those moments. The written out planning of the book comes after that initial burst. One day I’d like to write a whole book from that initial burst right till the end! I’m probably a little bit in la-la-land to think that could happen. But you never know!

Do you have a set time to write each day?  Or do you wait to be inspired?
I’m not very organized with my writing times. I need to be inspired. I also procrastinate a lot. I’ll do anything I can, not to write sometimes. It’s strange, I know how good a creative writing burst feels for me, but I’ll do anything to avoid setting out on one. Maybe I’m afraid? That I won’t be able to write? That the idea I have won’t come out as creatively as I’m expecting? Or maybe I’m lazy in that I don’t want to hit that point where the initial burst is finished and I actually have to ‘work’ to get the plot of the story and the book sorted out. Maybe I’m kind of complicated as a writer in that way?

Do you ever become bored with what you are writing?  If you do, how do you get past that point?
I do. If not bored, then at least fed-up or blocked. I like to break up a big project by tackling smaller projects simultaneously, which promise a quicker satisfaction of completion. I often attack short stories, writing comps, songs for musical artists and scenarios for films and music videos as an outlet from the sometimes lonely and monotonous task of writing a novel. I then find I come back to the novel refreshed and happy to be back into it.

What is your favorite genre in which to write?
I haven’t yet set out to write a particular genre of book. I’ve always written what is inside of me that I feel the need to express. I didn’t know what genre The Freeing of Jonathon Mark was going to be, nor what it really was at first when I had written the book. I do feel now though that ‘thriller’, ‘psychological thriller’ or ‘paranoid fiction’ as I’ve heard it described by other people who have read the book are quite accurate descriptions of it’s genre.

What kind of books do you like to read?
Books that are different. Books that jump out with different, or original ideas and hit me like a slap to the face. I want to be jolted by something brilliant, something I wouldn’t have thought of, or if I had, that pulls that idea in an original direction. I like just about anything by Chuck Palahniuk. Max Barry and Haruki Murakami are two other authors whom I respect and have read a lot of. I’d probably add Michael Chabon to that list too. Nick Cave’s book The Death of Bunny Monroe I couldn’t put down for how it was written, how it pulled me in from the first page and wouldn’t let me go. It was the same for Gregory David Roberts with his book Shantaram—I was on holiday in India for the three weeks I spent reading that!

Do you have a job outside of being an author?
I’ve been the at-home-parent for our young children throughout the time I’ve been writing seriously, about eight years now. That has been an extremely challenging and rewarding job. It’s something I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to do. For me, it is surely the most important job I’ve had in my life.

I also write and direct films and videos, including music, viral and corporate vids, and short films. Seeing my ideas and stories turned into pictures-in-motion is extremely rewarding. It is probably the medium the most accessible for an audience—it demands the least amount of time investment by them to experience my writing. I want to do more in this domain as my kids become more independent.

Most of all I do want to be more prolific as a writer, and better myself as a writer. That’s my main goal.

If you could spend one hour with just one person, dead or alive, whom would you choose?  Why?
I had the opportunity to spend a couple of minutes with Nick Cave backstage after having seen him and ‘The Bad Seeds’ perform in Rome last year. We shared only a few words but he was a really laid back and normal guy. I love his writing in his songs, and in his two novels. I’d like to share a little more time with him to perhaps see where his inspiration comes from, hear from him his thoughts on music, writing, ‘the ways of the world’, and perhaps exchange ideas. If that happens or not, that’s okay. Meeting him already was enough. Plus, I was able to present him personally with a copy of The Freeing of Jonathon Mark! I mean, I’d read his book The Death of Bunny Monroe—I thought it was only fair he had the opportunity to read my book!

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to be published?
Trust your gut feeling. Go in the direction you feel is right for you. Maybe that means deciding between ‘traditional publishing vs self-publishing’, or maybe something more particular. Whatever. I don’t listen to my gut feeling as much as I should but when I do I’m always happy with the outcome.

Where can your fans find you on the Internet?
Connecting with people who have read something I’ve written and has affected them in some way, good or bad is (besides writing for my own well-being), the main reason I write. That is the reward I’m looking for. I look forward to responding to questions about my ideas or writing. I welcome it! People can interact with me through twitter @zamsteepa. They can facebook me. They can contact me through thefreeingofjonathonmark.com. I try and post anything worthwhile I’ve done or have going on at zamsteepa.com. If you have something to say about something I’ve written, I look forward to responding as best I can.

Nathan Gross, thank you for such an awesome interview!  My review of his book can be found at The Freeing of Jonathon Mark – a Review.  A link to purchase this book from Amazon is below.

The Freeing of Jonathon Mark

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