Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Douglas A Bass about writing his book Ebenezer: The True Life Story Of Ebenezer Scrooge. He tells me how he came to find the concept, and shares his advice to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
In my heart, I am a family man and I am a writer. I currently live with my beautiful wife, Sheila, and my three wonderful kids in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. Having them in my life is more good luck than any one person should ever be permitted.
For a career, I had always wanted to do something that touched other people’s lives in a positive, meaningful way. In a perfect world, I knew that I wanted to be an author, but I decided to go the “practical” route and to continue my passion as a hobby. This initially led me to pursue a career in law. I spent 20 years as an attorney, but unfortunately, I truly hated it for approximately 19 of those years. It wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. I was not doing anything meaningful, and my daily environment was so toxic that I was miserable most of the time.
My family deserved a better version of me and I needed to find a way to contribute to the world in the manner I had dreamed of doing when I was young. So, this past year, with a great deal of support from my wife, my family, and my good friends, I returned to graduate school and I am now less than six months from achieving both my certification and my master’s degree in education. I will be an official social studies teacher before the calendar reads 2022, which makes me very proud and very grateful. Aside from my studies, I spent my time this year as a substitute teacher, working with kids at every level from Kindergarten through the 12th grade and never before felt so energized or fulfilled in a workplace setting. I am very excited that my “training wheels” will be removed in the very near future and that I will be privileged to begin my work in classrooms full of students of my own.
I am also excited to continue my writing and I am hopeful that novel #2 will become a reality in the near future.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I honestly cannot remember a time when I DIDN’T want to write a book. This has been a burning desire and dream for my entire life. I learned to read and write at an early age, even before stepping foot into my first Kindergarten class, and as early as I can remember, my pencil was always scratching away, recording the stories I needed to tell.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Like I said, I think I started creative writing at the exact same time I was initially learning how to physically write. My desire to write stories may have even been part of my early motivation pushing me to learn how to read and write. I even still have my very first “book” that I wrote when I was probably about six years old, which is a little 3” x 3” pocket memo marble notebook with an orange cover that contains four (very) short stories. It is actually sitting next to me right now as I answer these questions for you.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
From the first time the idea struck me to the date of publication was a span of about eight years. Between the first day of inspiration to the day I finally set out in earnest to write the book without looking back, I had periodically been checking in with it, jotting down notes here and there as ideas hit me. This story had a hold of me and wouldn’t let me go until I let it free into the world.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Ebenezer?
The short answer is that I, like Ebenezer Scrooge, had an epiphany one fateful Christmas Eve night of my own. For years, I had loved A Christmas Carol (and still do). I had seen many movie versions, I had seen stage adaptions, and I had read the Dickens novella. But, for some reason, as I was watching the 1951 Alastair Sim movie (my personal favorite film version) on TV in 2008, something began to bother me. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. The story felt wrong somehow. And then it occurred to me that the problem was with how Ebenezer Scrooge was being portrayed. The character we were introduced to in the beginning of the story simply would not react and respond to the visions the Spirits showed him in the way Charles Dickens tells us that he did. I became convinced that something was missing or, perhaps, somehow abridged.
And that’s when it struck my imagination: What if Charles Dickens was not attempting to write the actual account of Ebenezer Scrooge’s life? What if he was writing the fictionalized version of a much longer, nuanced, and detailed life story that he modified through poetic license? What if he couldn’t remember all that he had heard so he had to fill in some blanks on his own? Even more simply, what if Charles Dickens consciously chose to boil down this man’s life and the extraordinary experiences he was reputed to have lived through in order to serve his own vision of how he wanted his Christmas tale to be presented?
With that in mind, I set about to write the “true” account of Ebenezer Scrooge’s life; the very source material that Dickens himself would not only have been aware of, but that he actually would have used to write the fictional A Christmas Carol. Any deviations between the two accounts should then be understood to be due to Dickens’ altering the details to produce proper literature, not I who was merely recounting the facts as they really happened.
If I did my job properly, there should come a point – hopefully early on – where the reader is no longer reading a work of fiction, but rather is reading an authentic biography about a man who actually lived.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Ebenezer?
There were two aspects of this book that I found particularly challenging.
The first was that I struggled for a long time to figure out how the narrative would be presented. This story was always going to be telling Ebenezer’s whole life as hinted at by the few glimpses Dickens gives during the journeys with the Spirits. Dickens had the luxury of beginning his story later in Ebenezer’s life so that when Ebenezer went back in time to his youth, it was the first time the reader (or viewer) was there with him and everything seen could be taken at face value.
In my version, by contrast, Ebenezer first had to grow up, in detail, before the reader’s eyes before journeying back to his past. This meant that I had to find a way to revisit what had already been seen in a way that was not repeating what the reader had already read and I had to not only make it separately interesting and emotionally captivating, but I also had to imbue within it new meaning and significance. For a long time, I did not know how to pull that off. Eventually, what felt like the obvious solution presented itself.
The second aspect I found especially challenging was in convincingly showing the reader how Ebenezer gained his wealth and status in the business community. I, Doug Bass, am not a wealthy person. Nor am I anywhere close. Thus, I could not draw upon my own personal experiences to describe the best and most plausible ways to describe Ebenezer’s financial ascent. Despite my research, I actually did not have a solution to this problem with which I was fully comfortable even as I was nearing that point in the book where I would have to start writing the necessary scenes. Like my challenge with the narrative, the solution I had been seeking presented itself just when I needed it and my writing never skipped a beat.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
In truth, Ebenezer himself inspired me as I was creating him throughout his life. At first, I knew very little about him because Dickens offered me only a few brief glimpses when describing his travels to the past. As I wrote, I actually had to “listen” not only to Ebenezer, but to all of my characters, who told me how the events in their lives played out. I found that the more carefully I “listened”, the more I wrote, and the more I knew him, and all of them.
For structure, I decided to use the scenes of Ebenezer’s life that Dickens laid down through the travels with the Spirit of Christmas Past as my signposts to establish Ebenezer’s past life up and through the moment on December 24, 1843 when his old friend Jacob Marley paid him a visit. My strategy was always to figure out how to get Ebenezer from one signpost to the next in the most honest, organic way possible, while filling in all of the real and imagined historical events that affected him and those around him and fleshing out all of the people in his life who would influence him and who he would influence. I wanted to take the reader on a journey alongside Ebenezer where we see what he sees, we experience what he experiences, and if the reader knows more than Ebenezer does at any given time, it’s simply because the good reader is more perceptive at that moment about Ebenezer’s reality than he was.
Which, to me, is real and how life actually is. We do not always see things for what they are, even when all of the evidence is right before our very eyes. Others who care about us are often far more perceptive about our lives and can much more easily see where we are making our mistakes than we can.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Ultimately, what was most important to me when creating this character, and truly all the characters including Ebenezer himself, was to make sure that I followed a basic rule about writing I once heard a long time ago and I think about often: “Every character is the hero of their own story.”
The fact is that every character – real and fictional – sees the events of the world through their own eyes in which they are the hero. Their motivations are no different in their own minds than those driving the “main character” or “good guy/gal” protagonist – they have a set of values and guiding principles, they have goals to achieve, they believe that they are right in what they are doing or at least can justify in their own minds a legitimate and/or important reason why they are doing what they are doing at any given time.
That said, I wanted my antagonist to make sense, to be smart, to be practical, and to always offer a reasonable counterargument to the “good” characters addressing the same issues. I always wanted my antagonist to make arguments that the reader would have to agree make reasonable sense, even if (and especially if) by so doing, the reader is made uncomfortable by having to make that concession knowing he or she is now agreeing in any way with a “bad guy”. Quite frankly, in a best case scenario, it would be wonderful if the reader is not absolutely, 100% convinced that the antagonist even is an antagonist until the appropriate time.
This is for many reasons. As I just stated, my antagonist really did view himself or herself as being the center of the story and correct in all that was said, done, and chosen.
Also, and of paramount importance, if an antagonist is weak or makes poor, unreasonable, irrational, illogical, or unintelligent decisions, it’s the hero who suffers most. As it applies to this book, we all know that Ebenezer Scrooge, for all of his flaws, is very smart. This story takes place when Great Britain was experiencing the Golden Age of its dominance of the world. With this as our setting, Dickens made Ebenezer one of the top businessmen in all of London at exactly the time London was the undisputed business capital of the world. He did not reach those heights by accident. If that is true, how could Ebenezer possibly be undermined or fooled or defeated by a weak or bumbling nemesis? It simply doesn’t make sense and it is insulting to the reader. Such incongruity can jolt a reader right out of the reality of the world a writer has created for them and once gone, they may never return.
Plus, who roots for that guy? Dropping your main character’s IQ by over 50 points to accommodate a poorly written antagonist is one of the quickest ways of killing your reader’s relationship with the one character you absolutely need them to identify with all the way to the end if you are going to keep them emotionally invested in your work. Because once you have lost that emotional connection, you have lost their interest. Game over.
What is the inciting incident of Ebenezer?
This is a very interesting question. As this is a full life story, I would suggest that there are numerous inciting incidents in my book. I think that this is a question that can only be answered by the reader, as each person may connect with a different aspect of Ebenezer’s life, may view different events with a different level of significance to the overall arc of the story, and may value the impact of different obstacles differently.
I know the inciting incident that I would personally choose as the one I find most important, but, I cannot reveal it for two reasons. First, I would not want to influence the reader from coming to their own authentic conclusion in response to this question because how the reader answers this will likely color their own personal experience with the book. Second, I classify my choice as a significant spoiler that, if described here, would unfairly rob readers of the opportunity to fully develop their own authentic emotional relationship with the book and its characters.
I will do this, though. If, after reading the book, any readers wish to contact me at email@example.com to discuss anything – which I welcome with open arms – and they would like to know what I am referring to here, I will be happy to tell each of them individually.
What is the main conflict of Ebenezer?
The main conflict in my book is the internal struggle that Ebenezer goes through throughout his life. Like all of us, he is pushed and pulled by different people he encounters, some with good intentions and some without. He has demons to confront, he has flaws that hold him back, and he has real tragedies to cope with. Life deals him some good hands, and some extremely poor ones. He is at times a victim and at other times a victimizer. He gets lost and he gets found, only to get lost again. Sound familiar?
Like all of us, his perceptions shape his reality and his choices construct his destiny. Ultimately, he must answer the same big questions we all must: Why am I here? Am I doing the right thing? What is the right thing?
Did you plot Ebenezer in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
Both and neither. I had been jotting notes for years here and there when ideas would strike me. Important plot points. Names. Conflicts. Questions. That all ultimately formed a loose outline for the book.
At times, I think about where I was and where I needed to go – my next signpost. I would outline the basic ideas of what I wanted to get to and would approximate where I thought the upcoming chapters would end and a new one begin. Rarely was I right in the execution.
Most times, my mind would give me one chapter a day. Once I got two. I would have a loose idea of where I was going, not unlike how an improvisation scene is constructed. With my framework in mind, I literally let my mind improvise and my fingers either did the typing or sometimes wrote chapters out in longhand with pen and paper. Often, when I got in the zone, it felt like I was the first one to be reading the work and was given the privilege of being the one to scribe it. It was an amazing feeling!
After I exhausted what had to be said, that would be it for anything new until the next day. I would spend the rest of my available time that day editing as I went along. And every night I would go to sleep terrified that when I woke up in the morning, the rest of the story would be gone.
Luckily for me, it never was. With each fresh new day, the details of the next chapter usually made itself available to me. If it didn’t, that would be a day I could project out a bit and rough out the big ideas that needed to happen in the upcoming several chapters.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Ebenezer need?
This was one of the best parts of writing this book. My primary editor was my wife. We got into a routine. I would write during the day when I had the time. After the kids went to bed for the night, she and I would head to our living room where I would read that day’s chapter to her out loud. I did that for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted her to hear the story as I intended it. Second, I wanted to watch her reactions in real-time to what I had written so I could see whether something authentically landed or not, and to see what she connected with that I had not expected or in ways I had not expected. Third, I found reading the chapters out loud to be a valuable exercise that helped me to recognize any typos and errors that had slipped through my earlier efforts to eradicate all of them while working on my own.
It was an amazing bonding experience for us, which sounds funny to say because she was very honest in telling me when she thought something didn’t work or if she straight out didn’t like something I had written. That can be dangerous for a couple. But I was completely receptive to hearing the constructive criticism and she was completely comfortable in offering it. And I would say that 95%+ of the time, she was absolutely right.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write it. If you are truly inspired, I take that to mean that you have something important to say that is clawing to get out. Let it. Don’t worry about whether it is “good enough” because the truth is that appreciation of writing is entirely subjective. There is no such thing as “good” or “bad”; there is only what one person thinks and what another person thinks. Two people can read the same book with one coming away with an entirely new enlightened perspective on life and the other hoping that they will be able to do something more exciting the next day, such as watching the grass grow. It doesn’t even matter if you decide you don’t like it after it has entered the world.
Once it’s here, it’s not really entirely yours anymore anyway. Someone else may think that what you consider to be the worst piece of garbage that you have ever produced is, in fact, the most profound, well written work of art they have ever seen. So, if you are inspired to write, don’t fight it. Just write it.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have many ideas that are in various stages of clarity in my mind at the moment. Based on where my head is at right now, I expect that the next book will be similar to Ebenezer. It will be about finding one’s place in the world and, if executed properly, should offer the reader a satisfying emotional ride and hopefully some inspiration to take with them even after their eyes pass over the last words and the final page is turned.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am absolutely proud of my accomplishment. It was a lifelong dream and I can now and forever say that I completed a task set in motion by my 5-year-old-self. I am so proud and gratified anytime someone tells me that they enjoyed the book, which happens more than I could have ever imagined. I am in awe as I look on Amazon.com and see that it still has a full 5-Star rating. I am so appreciative each time I see that someone has taken time out of their day to post a review.
It was absolutely worth the effort. It was the greatest “work” experience of my life. It brought my wife and I closer together, which was an invaluable unexpected extra benefit. It has brought many new, exciting, and wonderful people into my life and opened the door to new amazing experiences I never would have had without it. And it’s given me the chance to be here, communicating with you today. How incredible!
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