I met Jake Soister this past May after having known him for about four years. Once upon that time we worked for the same company – albeit in different offices -- but we communicated frequently via email (and then later Facebook) about work, love and life. Both of us felt unfulfilled in our jobs and were trying to plan our respective escapes. He eventually left and I was fortunately laid off.
Soister incorporates some of that work, love and life experience, as well as some fantastical elements, into his wonderfully-written debut novel, “The Life He Knew”. I knew it was in gestation when we worked together and in the thereafter, but was pleased to find out around the time we met that he finally published it.
Given the new fiction focus of the former Enterprise website, now called “Story by Terrence Moss”, I’m pleased to re-launch (as it were) with this Jake Soister Q&A about “The Life He Knew”.
If you're already sold on the book, it's available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. If not, enjoy the Q&A...there's another pitch for the book at the end.
1) What was the genesis of The Life He Knew?
The Life He Knew was born out of a very frustrating period in my life. I was barely twenty-five when I started writing it and it was a very therapeutic response to a lot of feelings of inadequacy I was experiencing. I remember thinking – almost constantly – that there had to be more to life than the monotony of what I was experiencing every day and that’s when I began reminiscing about my summers on Candle Wood Lake and the ‘forest elves’ my Aunt and Uncle always claimed were responsible for all the gifts they were so amazingly generous in giving us. It – the whole idea - was like their version of Santa Claus and it lent a very magical element to my childhood.
As I grew up and moved into the “real world”, I felt like that same magic just sort of evaporated and not just in me, but in everyone around me. Expectations seemed lower. Eyes didn’t seem as bright. All of that exuberance and spontaneity and possibility I’d experienced as a kid – all that wonder – it was like it didn’t exist anymore. Now, people wanted to tell you what you couldn’t do instead of lifting you up to dream about what you could. It was depressing – and depressingly all-too-prevalent.
Right around the time that I was struggling with all this, ‘monsters’ invaded and then took over popular culture. Everywhere I looked there was anew vampire romance or some sort of werewolf love triangle. But these weren’t traditional monsters or even creepy ones. These were glorified superheroes and suddenly everyone (or almost everyone) was fantasizing about either dating one or being one. It was a phenomena that sincerely creeped me out and made me think: are we becoming that detached from who we are that we’d rather be something else entirely? I started thinking about putting my own spin on ‘monster lore’ and that’s when the idea of having them envy us (instead of the other way around) occurred to me. Call me crazy but I wanted to humanize these creatures, strip them off all their newly endowed over-the-top super powers and make them more pitiable then enviable. In other words: have them be ready to give ANYTHING to be like us. Everything else kind of took off from there.
2) You've described the book as "The Catcher in the Rye Meets Stephen King". How so?
Holden Caulfield [from Catcher in the Rye] was disappointed with his first taste of the “real world” and so was I. Meanwhile, Stephen King is one of my literary heroes. He is personally responsible for scaring the living daylights out of me and completely traumatizing me as a kid. Still, like the Universal Monster movies I watched growing up, there was always something almost fairy-tale like about his stories. It in particular really made an impression on me (and has had me avoiding sewer drains ever since).
With The Life He Knew, I wanted to combine influences – the increasingly relevant Holden Caulfield now that I was down and out at work – and the semi-spooky, once-a-upon-a-time magic I’d adored so much as a kid. I thought that if my main character, Zach, could rediscover not only himself but the POSSIBILITIES that had always seemed so endless when he was younger than maybe I could create something unique. At the end of the day, I want my book to resonate with people the way Catcher and It did with me. I want them to empathize with the characters and maybe rethink some things in their own lives. Things are more interesting when you allow yourself to wonder instead of assuming you have all the answers.
3) What do you consider to be your writing style?
Painstakingly slow, pseudo-obsessive compulsive. Haha I’ve agonized over sentences before but, really, it all boils down to flow. I like to run a lot of ideas by people. I’m constantly calling people up and asking them what they think of this concept or that. It’s a very social process for me in the fact that it allows me to share things while I brainstorm. Sometimes, someone I least expect will say something about an idea I’ve been circling and – BAM – it’s cast in a whole new and (occasionally) better light. I love that. It gets me very excited when a conversation fills you with that kind of charge.
4) What was your process in writing this novel?
Initially, it was a lot of note-taking and jotting stuff down on random pieces of paper. I also ran up one hell of a phone bill running every little idea I had by my Dad – which was particularly special for me because I love him dearly and cherished every conversation we had. From there, I sat down and just wrote. Some days, I’d struggle for hours just to write a single paragraph. On others, I’d crank out an entire chapter with little to no problem. In either case, writing always took me to a place at once outside and inside myself. It was a very personal experience for me and almost meditative in a way.
5) How much did Jake Soister and his life inform Zachary Blaire and his life? In what ways?
Both Zach and [his cousin] Ben ARE me. They represent different aspects of my personality. On one hand, Zach represents a lot of my frustration with where I am professionally right now. There’s a tremendous yearning there, an almost insatiable appetite for something more. Zach is also sensitive and a bit naïve when it comes to certain things. Like me, he’s been disappointed by people and it’s hard for him to keep looking for the best in not only his fellow man but in life itself. By the end of the book, though, I’d like to think that changes. By then, I think he’s feeling more empowered and much more ready to swing for the fences.
Conversely, Ben represents a lot of the loneliness I’ve felt most of my life. He – like me – very much just wants to be accepted for who he is but he’s very afraid that people will reject him once they get to know him. He wants to belong and be loved and seen for the person he is but who he is isn’t exactly normal or even all that safe. I think writing Ben was almost therapeutic for me in a way because it allowed me to pour all of my heartache and anger and unrequited emotions into a fictional body and once that stuff was out I could appreciate it more. That may sound strange but, in both instances, with both characters, I was able to see myself from outside myself and that sort of view allowed me to identify things about who I was and what I was feeling that I may not have ever been able to if I hadn’t written this book.
6) What, as a newly-published writer, do you want to contribute to literature?
At the end of the day, I hope I can just get people to feel something. For themselves. For each other. I think we’re very detached these days and I’d like – more than anything else – to do something that causes my readers to react. Whether that reaction is a smile, a laugh, or a good cry I may never know but I hope what I’ve put down on paper resonates and gets people talking to one another. Maybe they’ll reminisce about things they haven’t thought of in years. Maybe they’ll choose that moment to share something they never thought they’d talk about. Regardless, that’s what I hope for -- feeling, connection, and conversation.
7) In our early discussions, you mentioned that the book is written from the perspective of a mid-to-late twenty something "staring down the barrel of 30". What does that mean for you and what does that mean for Zach?
I think there is a lot of pressure these days to “be something.” It doesn’t seem like it’s about the journey anymore or the process. If anything, it’s all about the destination. People want immediate gratification and 30 is like this giant societal bench mark where you’re expected to be at a certain point in your life. A lot of people I know have given up on dreams and aspirations they were cultivating when they were younger simply because their pursuit was no longer “practical.” It was sad to watch and even sadder to listen to them attempt to rationalize their decisions years later. Zach is struggling with this when we first meet him. In fact, he’s already sort of sold out and ditched his dream for a 9-5. He’s not happy. He’s not fulfilled but he tells himself over and over he’s doing “what’s right.” Last time I worked behind a desk almost everyone in my office had a reason as to why they were still there or still doing what they were doing. It was clear the majority of them weren’t happy with their lives and Zach is a literary embodiment of that. He’s a character built on excuses (many of which I told myself leading up to the writing of this book) and he’s struggling to find the courage to stop languishing.
8) A lot goes on in The Life He Knew -- with several story threads stemming from Zachary himself. Were there any threads that you abandoned and/or cut short while you were writing?
Not really. If anything, there were threads that I added to as a result of feedback I’d gotten from readers. It’s amazing what a fresh set of eyes will do for an existing project.
9) Were there any threads that went in a direction you didn't expect them to go?
Definitely. As the book progressed, I felt like I really began to get to know my characters. I started out with almost 120 pages of notes but the more I wrote, the less I relied on them. As I said to a friend once, “I can’t wait to see what my characters say to me.” It’s true. They began to develop voices of their own and, when that happened, they outgrew the notes I’d written and became much more than the characters I’d originally envisioned.
10) What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Stopping. It’s still a struggle for me not to want to go back and tweak this or polish that. But, any ideas I’ve had since will lead to future installments, so, I’m pretty excited about that.
11) What has been the most exciting and/or rewarding part of writing this book?
Hearing or seeing what my readers’ reactions are. I love how different people’s opinions are or how certain parts – parts that I may not have necessarily thought were my favorites – have really resonated with them. It’s always amazed me how 100 people can read the same book or see the same movie and experience 100 different things. It’s been an absolute joy to see people respond to my characters.
12) There's an allegorical aspect to a few of the characters that I picked up on toward the end. What, if anything, was your intent behind that?
Oh, there was definitely an underlying message there! Throughout the book, a lot of the characters are convinced that other characters have it a lot better than they do. They jump to conclusions about one another and their assumptions are almost never accurate. I think that’s very indicative of who we are as a people and it was something I wanted to convey in my book. We don’t seem to take the time to get to know one another (maybe we never have) and I think that leads to feelings of resentment, bigotry, and segregation. When you put someone on a pedestal or demonize them or place them in any conceivable variation in between you’re not doing that person (or yourself) any justice. You de-humanize the person in the process and something vital is lost. The characters you’re referring to have all been hurt and disappointed… just like us. They’ve all had their shares of ups and downs but it’s the reactions of the people around them (and their reactions to each other) that I want people to pay attention to. Eddie [one of Zach's friends], in particular, begins to practically worship Ben in a very idealized, very unhealthy way that is entirely unfair to both of them. When everything is said and done, I want people to see a pattern in my writing – one in which characters begin to see their own struggles reflected in people they’d entirely written off or assumed too much about and, in doing so, realized that we’re all subject to the same things.
13) I know this one just came out and you're still getting the word out about it, but have you considered your next book? If so, what might it be about?
I’m actually considering three different companion pieces that will expand on the groundwork I put down in The Life He Knew. The first two will follow several existing characters while the third will introduce someone entirely new. The third installment is especially exciting for me because it deals with some themes that are very relevant in my life right now. It also exists outside the places and people I’ve already written about so I’m psyched to create a sort of “shared universe” that will all (hopefully) come together nicely in the end.
14) You're based in New York. I'm based in Los Angeles. How am I supposed to get my copy of The Life He Knew autographed?
Toss it in the mail and I’ll be more than happy to sign it. I’ll even cover the cost of sending it back.
I won’t actually let him do that.
"The Life He Knew" is available on Amazon and lulu.com in both paperback and kindle formats. Do yourself a solid and purchase a copy as part of your late summer, early fall, late fall, winter and 2015 reading. You won’t be disappointed. Soister spins one helluva yarn and turns one helluva a phrase.