John Van Roekel is the author of the historical fiction books Lorenzo’s Assassin, Prisoner Moon and Braver Deeds, as well as The World War II Letters of Paul Van Roekel, a nonfiction collection of letters originally written by his father. He has recently been named a “Writer to Watch” by the San Diego Friends of the Central Library, and is slated to give a talk at the Central Library on February 18th.
I recently had a chance to ask John about his writing and influences. Here’s what he had to say.
Who are your top 5 authors or influences, and why?
I read widely but not with much sophistication. I mean I have read plenty of big name authors like Tolstoy, Hemingway, King, Camus, Dickens, etc. For the past few years, I’ve avoided popular writers like Patterson and Grisham. They just don’t interest me.
Here are some of my favorites authors in no particular order:
- C. S. Forester (not E. M. Forster, although I like him too). He wrote the Horatio Hornblower series which is one of the great works of historical fiction.
- Ian McEwan, especially Atonement.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, for all the obvious reasons.
- Herman Wouk, especially for The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War.
- John Irving for A Widow for One Year and A Prayer for Owen Meany.
What fuels your writing?
I’m a big believer in taking your motivation where you find it. This means I have some fairly shallow reasons for writing. I enjoy being able to tell people I’m a writer, and that I have three novels to my credit. I enjoy the company of other writers, such as when you and I were at the Author Showcase with 10 other authors last Friday.
And of course, there are the usual author answers: the satisfaction of the work, the joy of storytelling, blah, blah, blah.
I must say that I’m not one of those authors (usually beginners) who raves about how much they just love to write. Ninety percent of the time it’s plain hard work for me.
What inspired you to write your latest book?
After my wife Pam and I visited Italy in 2006, I developed a rabid interest in Rome, both ancient and Renaissance. One day I was listening to an audio lecture about the Italian Renaissance, and the speaker mentioned the “Pazzi Conspiracy” when Pope Sixtus IV ordered the assassination of Lorenzo de’ Medici. After a year of plotting, the professional soldier who was supposed murder Lorenzo in the great Duomo cathedral in Florence decided he could not do it “in front of God.” When I heard that, I thought, “Now there’s a story.” Lorenzo’s Assassin is the result.
Do you have a favorite quote about the writing process?
Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird, we need to let go and write a “shitty first draft.
How (if at all) does your geographic location influence your writing?
I like to write at “Room to Write,” a time provided by San Diego Writers, Ink for writers to get together and write quietly. But that’s just a preference. I also write at home on my couch, at the library and in Starbucks (such a cliché).
As a writer of historical fiction, how do you like to balance the mix of history and fiction in your books?
I have said for years — and I think it’s original with me — the best historical fiction is 10% history and 90% fiction. By this I mean that what matters in historical fiction is what matters in all good fiction: characters, style, plot, themes.
I see the history part like a trellis in a garden. I weave the fiction like vines around the fixed trellis.
What’s your writing routine like? Are you a plotter or a “pantser”?
I’m a combination. I do like to work out the basics of the story, but maybe just a one page summary. I like to know where I’m going, but not in any great detail. As I write the first (“shitty”) draft, I start filling in the details of what is coming up.
I often take time off between the “shitty” first and second draft so I can come back to the work with fresh eyes. At least 60% of the real work takes place in the subsequent drafts. Beginners don’t like to hear that.
How much time do you usually spend researching a novel before you begin writing?
Years. Literally. I not only read, but I like to travel to the locations. For Braver Deeds, I visited the Wounded Knee site in South Dakota and the Spanish American War battle sites in Cuba. For Prisoner Moon, I didn’t have to travel because it takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I lived for many years. And for Lorenzo’s Assassin, which takes place in Rome, Florence and Pisa, a return trip to Italy was absolutely necessary.
Do you have any talismans, charms, superstitions or music that inspires or helps you to write, and what’s the story behind them?
Nope. I’m a pretty rational guy. And I do not listen to music while working because the music would take up 10% of my brain. I need every bit of brainpower I have to write.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
In a prior life, I was a software engineer for 40 years. I loved it. A couple years ago, I took a break from writing and developed an iPhone/iPad game which I marketed. I just wanted to keep my hand in. It’s called Walkers 3D and it’s free on the Apple App Store.
What are some of your hobbies or sports of choice when getting out from behind the desk?
I hike five miles a day. Every damn day. I even did this while I was working. It provides time for introspection and has the obvious health benefits. And sometimes I get two or three great ideas while hiking and create reminders with Siri so I don’t lose them.
As an indie author, do you have any advice specifically for fellow self-publishers?
I have finally come to believe that being “self-published” is preferable to traditional publishing in many ways. I know this sounds like sour grapes, and that’s probably partially true. But I like having total control over my books. With the exception of the cover design, where I use professionals, I do all the production aspects myself. And when I’m done, my books are exactly the way I want them.
What are you currently working on, and why does it kick ass?
I have two active projects. I’m still tinkering with a screenplay adaptation of my second novel, Prisoner Moon. It recently won the best feature film script competition at the Paris International Film Festival, as well as some other minor awards.
In addition, a few months ago I started my fourth novel. It’s (gasp!) contemporary, not historical. It doesn’t kick ass yet, because it’s definitely in the shitty first draft stage.
Be sure to join John Van Roekel for a lively talk at the Central Library on February 18th at 1 PM in the Mary Hollis Clark Room. The Central Library is located at 330 Park Blvd. in San Diego. For more information about John and his books, be sure to check out his website at johnvanroekel.com. John’s books are available at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats at amazon.com/author/