Good morning from the Starving family homestead in Georgia! Despite my relative vacation, the Starving Author kitchens never entirely close. Today, we bring in J. D. McCall, the chef behind today’s literary treat, South of Rising Sun, to find out what makes him and his writing tick. Enjoy!
Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee . . . uh, wait, that was Davy Crockett. Ok, then; Daniel Boone was a man . . . no . . . no, that was JD’s great, great, great uncle. How about this: Born and raised in Kansas, John (JD) McCall’s first ever ambition was to be a stand-up comedian, a goal strongly discouraged by the many teachers who were forced to put up with his antics in class. He did manage to finally shelve that aspiration and earned a B. A. in biology and a Master’s degree in Industrial Hygiene late in life. He resides in the city of his birth, Ottawa, Kansas, with his wife and three children, along with three Labrador-mix dogs who do everything caninely possible to see that he has no spare time to write.
Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen? Any non-work interests?
Since I’m not an A-lister in the literary world (and likely never will be), I support myself by working as an industrial hygienist for a good sized university. Besides doing things with my family and our dogs, I like rock collecting, movies and music. Recently I formed formed a duo with a guitarist friend of mine and will be going into the studio in March to record four songs we wrote. Never too late to try new things. Oddly enough, though, I’m not much of a book reader. Whoops! Guess I shouldn’t have admitted that.
What is your latest dish to be served up? Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you think we should take a bite out of?
My newest novel is South of Rising Sun, which originally came out at the end of 2014 under the Western Trailblazer imprint, but since WB ceased operations, Sundown Press will be making it available under their label, soon. Borrowed Guns was my first offering, and South of Rising Sun is actually its prequel, based on an incident mentioned in it. If you like the characters in SoRS, you might enjoy Borrowed Guns, which is actually two shorter stories that are complete in themselves but connected.
What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?
My first inspiration came from watching a special on anthropology at age eighteen, which prompted me to begin a novel about the Neanderthals of Shanidar Valley in Iraq. As writing didn’t come easily to me, I struggled mightily with the process for several years, and mid-way through it, I met the woman who would later become my wife, got side-tracked and never went back to it. About that time, Jean Auel came out with her book, Clan of the Cave Bear, which used the same setting and Neanderthal tribe as my abandoned novel, though the plot was different. In retrospect, it is probably a good thing this early attempt has stayed buried. My next attempt at a novel didn’t come until decades later when I was inspired by an “old time” photo from a modern day, novelty photo studio.
Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble? Why?
I like to cook up Westerns. I like writing westerns because it was such a unique period in U. S. history, and one that has no real parallel in any other country. Though the setting is simpler than in present day genres, you can still delve into the human conflict and interactions which is really what makes a story interesting. And it’s got horses! I wouldn’t be averse to trying another genre, though.
Style! Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one! What do you think sets yours apart and why?
Not being a voracious reader on my own, I’m not sure I can answer that question satisfactorily. Although I have read within my genre in years past, when I started writing during the last few years, I deliberately avoided reading anything in my genre for fear of inadvertently copying someone else’s style. What I try to do is create a good blend of character development and storyline, and that can shift one direction or another, depending on whether the novel is plot driven or character driven. I place emphasis on giving my prose a sense of rhythm and cadence to make it easy for the reader to breeze through it. Throw in my own somewhat quirky take on things and some humor when it won’t disrupt the mood inappropriately, and you basically have my “style.”
Even the best of us find inspiration is the dishes of others. Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?
One of my inspirations has been a man named Andrew Garcia, a mountain man in the late 1870s who chronicled a year of his life among the Native Americans in his autobiography, Tough Trip Through Paradise. Amazing and colorful prose with marvelous insights into his own head when he was twenty-three and just beginning his life in the mountains. In non-literary world, my inspiration was the life of a dear friend who passed a few years ago. The main character of both my novels is based upon him.
Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself! Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?
I’m partial to the omnipotent point of view but mostly filtered through the lens of one or two main characters. Since both of my books have been centered around a mystery of sorts, that point of view makes it easier to not expose the secrets of the mystery, while allowing the reader to figure things out on their own.
Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up? Are you a Hemmingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?
Depends on what’s being described. Endless descriptions of scenery and weather are boring, akin to trying to describe an abstract painting (Tolkien comes to mind). Other, simpler things are self-limiting if an author is smart enough to quit while he’s ahead. I’d say I like just enough to get the point across, while being vivid enough make an impression. I don’t mind a colorful adjective once in a while, but showing off to the point of distracting the reader doesn’t do an author any favors. And you can create a colorful phrase with simpler words if you work at it.
Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?
I think the basic good vs. evil conflict is the easiest to construct any number of scenarios out of.
What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization? Why?
I try to maintain somewhat of a balanced blend, but as I mentioned, it can be seasoned toward salty or sweet, depending on whether the book is character driven or plot driven. You have to have a mix of both unless you are an extremely skilled writer. All plot with no compelling characters usually makes for a story in which the reader cares little about the outcome. All character without much plot often leaves the reader what the point is. A really good writer can sometimes overcome those limitations, but most of us aren’t that skilled.
We all know that the first taste means the most! What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?
I am a big fan of the original Star Trek series, and their formula was to start either with the dilemma or problem, or else a foreshadowing of a future problem within the first five minutes. I like to give my audience that same thing.
The most important of questions: Cake or pie?
Cake, definitely. And I’m partial to angel food with chocolate icing.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be? Find a good editor to help you put a tasty dressing on your word salad.