On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author Joel Samberg discusses his writing career, what inspires him, and the story of his new book, Almost Like Praying.
Written by JJ Barnes
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am an optimistic cynic. I struggle with the ability to justify the crazy world in which we live, but have no problem at all trying to make the most it while I’m here. One way I do that is by following through on my innate compulsion to write. Whether I’m good at it and should continue may be subjective, but that I want to spend my life doing, and work hard on it, is incontrovertible.
I’m sixty-four and have spent my entire career one way or another writing for a living (public relations, marketing communications, journalism, books). It’s made me neither rich nor famous, but it was a hell of a lot better than compromise.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
For whatever reason, ever since I was a little boy, so much of what I overheard, witnessed, learned in school, or simply wondered about I turned – in my head at first – into books and plays and movies.
When I was 12, I wrote a screenplay called Crooked Dreams (a musical western, no less) and sent it to MGM. Although the studio turned it down, in his note back to me an executive complimented my “imaginative style” and made me feel as if I should never give up my dream to become a writer. (I still have that 50-year-old letter.)
Then, in 9th grade, Miss Fronefield, my English teacher, accused me of plagiarizing a book report because she said it was too well-written for a 14-year-old. She sent a nasty note home to my parents. Here’s the thing: I did not plagiarize that damn report. I just love writing and take it very seriously. That settled it.
Since then, I’ve never given up. Which is an exceedingly long answer to a short question: I first wanted to write a book even before I became a teenager.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I began writing short stories in junior high school and started to work as a stringer for my local town newspaper when I was in high school. There was also that screenplay I mentioned in the previous response.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My book career began with nonfiction. I proposed an idea to a publisher, and while that particular topic was not of interest to the company, the staff enjoyed my style (history with a humorous bent) and gave me a similar assignment of their own.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Although the basic premise had been swimming around in my head for decades, once I actually started to flesh it out — which because of a concurrent career in corporate communications was a part-time endeavor — it took about two-and-a-half years, which included several drafts.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Almost Like Praying?
When I was growing up, one of my best friends had a mother who to me seemed humorless and severe. I always wondered about her. Why was she so damned icy? Why did have a hard-as-nails façade that made kids like me want to run away? She became Dolores in Almost Like Praying, a woman with five interesting kids and plenty of secrets and disappointments.
Also, whenever my family drove through the Bronx from our home on Long Island, I’d look at the dilapidated apartment buildings and wonder how the kids who lived there would fare in my own middle-class neighborhood. One of them became Maria. Almost Like Praying, which to a great extent is about the relationship between Dolores and Maria, came out of these two combined recollections.
I have every reason to believe that those two germs for this novel planted themselves in my brain way back then, when I was a kid.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Almost Like Praying?
One, finding as much time as possible to work on it, and two, reigning in my desire to share more about my characters’ lives than was necessary for purposes of this particular story.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
There are two protagonists—or four, depending on how you look at it. Of the two, one, Dolores, is described above (the mother of a friend). The other, Maria, is a fabrication that sprung from the story I wanted to tell, bolstered by those Bronx drive-throughs that I mentioned earlier.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
I suppose an old real-life friend of mine, whose mother inspired Dolores, may be the antagonist. I lost touch with him after junior high school, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the lingering feelings I had about our relationship contributed to his role as an antagonist.
What is the inciting incident of Almost Like Praying?
When a character named Doug, a New York City police officer, decides he no longer wishes to fill his own current shoes.
What is the main conflict of Almost Like Praying?
Why is Dolores, a mother and grandmother, so hard to warm up to? What is it that stops her from opening up and being nice to all around her?
Did you plot Almost Like Praying in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
As seems to be my consistent approach, a basic premise and decisive denouement were part of the package from day one. The rest of it developed by design, evolution, and serendipity as I worked on it.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Almost Like Praying need?
Four things: One, for the first few drafts I fly by the seat of my pants. In other words, I just write. Two, for the final few drafts, I put on an editor’s hat (in addition to all my other work, I am also a professional editor) and concentrate on syntax, active voice, superfluous words, tense, brevity, and so on. Three, I share the next-to-final draft with several trusted ‘beta’ readers who let me know if they see anything they deem worthy of attention or revision. And four, after I deliver the manuscript, the publisher gets back to me with their own expert editorial recommendations.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Sorry—can’t give just one piece of advice. One, read as much as you can. Two, if you feel compelled to write, write. Three, if it feels neither natural nor enjoyable, consider doing something else. And four, when you’re finished with a particular project, put it away for three to six months, forget about it, then take it out again, reread it, and don’t be afraid to change, change, change, and cut, cut, cut.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’ve completed two fiction books that I will soon begin to shop around. One has an urban newspaper/theater setting (a love story/career story) called Remember Me to Herald Square. The other is a book of short stories collectively called Weinerface, in which things don’t always work out the way one may envision. As of this writing I am halfway through the second draft of a novel called Jackie Jester, about a musical entrepreneur who has a lot to answer to. Finally, I’m hoping soon to propose two nonfiction books, including one called 1964.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
The joy is in the writing. That’s always worth the effort. The validation of that joy is in being able to share my work with as many people as possible. So while I’m relatively proud of my accomplishments — with the characters and stories – the reality is that it takes an awful lot of money, time, effort, and luck to achieve the kind of validation that makes it a cinch to dive head first into the next project. There’s always a bit of frustration in that regard.
Also, there has been a certain devaluing of good writing due to such things as social media, self-publishing, vanity presses and, to some extent, corporate America., and that, too, sometimes makes it difficult to fully enjoy my devotion to, and respect for, the writing life. It’s one of the toughest professions in the world, and I’d rarely recommend it—but there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
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