Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Thank you for having me here, Fiona.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
My name is William Jensen. And as of August 5th I am officially thirty-six, and I still have all my fingers and all my toes.
Fiona: Where are you from?
I grew up in California and Arizona, but I now live in Central Texas in the area known as The Hill Country. I live between Austin and San Antonio, so I’m near a lot of metropolitan things while remaining close to the wide open spaces of the Lone Star State.
Fiona: A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
I went to public schools in out west. As soon as I graduated I went to an old and prestigious college on the east coast. Things didn’t work out too well for me there, so I left and started to really try to write. I bummed around for a while, catching some education here and there. I did odd jobs while writing short stories and novels that no one wanted to read, and I collectedmany rejection letters along the way. I think every literary journal in the country rejected me once. I got my first rejection note when I was seventeen, I got my first two acceptances back to back when I was twenty-nine. Persistence paid off.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
I’m proud to announce that in May I published my debut novel, Cities of Men, a coming-of-age story set in the 1980s. The book is about a mother who disappears, and her twelve-year-old son sets out across the American Southwest in search of her. The reviews and feedback have been positive so far, so people are enjoying the book, which makes me super happy.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I think I’ve been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil. I grew up in a house full of books, and my parents were big readers who had both been English majors in college, so I was raised with the idea that writing was a noble pursuit. Even before I could read I thought books were magical. They had a warm and pleasant smell. And I loved opening up my parents’ books and finding old receipts and notes. I tried writing all types of stories as a kid. Then when I was thirteen I discovered Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and that book seared the writing bug in me. To really write something beautiful about the human heart, the human experience.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think I had several “first times” to be honest. When I was in high school, I was writing these short stories—not very good ones—but I wrote a few that were probably decent for a teenager who hadn’t really done or seen anything. I wrote one story about a kid who meets his estranged and criminal father for the first time. That was a breakthrough for me. Then a few years later, when I was living in this dilapidated house in downtown Chicago, I wrote my first story about Arizona, about the stuff I knew and not trying to imitate someone else. That was another time, a regeneration if you will, when I felt like a writer.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I had this image in my head, a type of Treasure Island scene. I saw this boy hiding behind some crates in a church basement, and he was watching his father fight in a bare-knuckle boxing competition. I kept thinking about what was going on, who were these people. The more I thought about all of it, the more things began to take shape.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I had a real hard time finding the right title. I had a few ideas but none felt right. I searched the Bible and Shakespeare for inspiration. Then one day I was rereading Tennyson and came across the line “For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much have I seen and known; cities of men/And manners, climates, councils, governments,/Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;” and I knew I had my title. The themes of Ulysses connect to my book in multiple ways. At least I think so.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I find everything about writing incredibly challenging! It’s all hard! I think of my writing style a bit like the way guys like Ty Cobb or Pete Rose played baseball.… by sheer force of will. For me writing sentences is like hammering spikes. My back and shoulders ache at the end of the day. Having a solid routine helps.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Really none of it. It’s common for people to wonder how much of a novel is autobiographical, but my real life is way too boring to be a book. And I was nowhere near as tough as my narrator when I was twelve. I tried to capture California and Arizona as best I could, but I don’t think of that being autobiographical.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I tend to imagine places long after I’ve been there—for me it has to be natural. I have to know the places already to write about them. Driving out to some place for research won’t work for me, it will come across as fake and insincere. I learned that the hard way.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
A wonderful artist just up the road in Austin. His name is Kevin Tong, and he does a lot of movie posters. When my publishers showed me the initial sketch I jumped out of my seat in excitement. I think it captures everything about the novel perfectly. You can see more of his artwork at
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I’m not sure I would say there’s a message, but I think the characters learn some things about life and themselves that readers will be able to identify with.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
I could go on for hours. I’ve discovered so many new wonderful writers lately, it’s insane. Chris Riley, whom you’ve interviewed, I think his book is superb! A total page turner. Casey Pycior has some amazing short stories. And though she isn’t “new” the (fairly) recently released collected stories of Lucia Berlin (A Manual For Cleaning Women)was the best book of the year in my opinion. All of them write about real people who get into real conflicts. I can’t stand fiction that’s just someone staring out a window. That’s not for me.
My favorite writer changes daily. I still return to Faulkner a lot. I got to study under Tim O’Brien, and his work has had a huge impact on me. All of his sentences arehome-runs. I’m also a big fan of James Jones who wrote From Here To Eternity. His prose is so incredibly raw and honest, I really think he is as close to Tolstoy as an American writer has gotten. I look to him for inspiration not just as a writer but as a man—he proved to me that writing should be an act of self-improvement, that writing well should make you a better person, more patient, sensitive, and sympathetic.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
That would easily be John Mark Sibley-Jones. He’s a fantastic southern writer whose bookBy The Red Glare is about the Civil War and Sherman’s burning of South Carolina. He and I met right when I was about to throw in the towel. My room was covered in rejection slips, he read some of my stuff and gave me real encouragement. If it wasn’t for him…I wouldn’t be here now.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
A career, a passion, a religion, a habit, my everything.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
You know, probably not. It took me years and years to write this sucker, so I think I took it as far as I could.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
Tons! I learned how important it is to juggle when writing a novel. There have to be several flaming swords in the air at all time. After years of focusing on the short story, being obsessed with being concise, I had to switch gears and figure out how to let my world grow, let other elements seep into the narrative. I’ll always be learning.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Well, I think a young Gene Hackman would have made a fine Percy—the father in the novel who struggles with PTSD. Of course he’s too old now (and retired). Probably someone like Tom Hardy or Jeremy Renner would get the role today. It would be a tough character to take on. Maybe Christina Hendricks or Jessica Chastain for Arden, the missing mother.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Read, read, read. You should read more than you write. You should be able to talk about Twain like he lived down the street. Read the classics, see what has endured and why. Read poetry, too. Read William Blake, Alexander Pope,John Donne. Another thing to think about when you’re writing is to never forget the reader. Don’t confuse the reader, don’t bore the reader. Think about what information the reader needs, cut out the rest. Elmore Leonard nailed it when he said he started getting good when he beganleaving out the parts readers skip.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Thank you! You’re beautiful.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
A few months ago I read this great biography of Shirley Jackson called A Rather Haunted Lifeby Ruth Franklin, so now I’m revisiting the short stories of Mrs. Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I think it was one of those Berenstain Bears books. The Spooky Old Tree, if I recall. It was a long time ago. I remember I was in kindergarten, and my friend Kevin had already learned to read, and I was incredibly jealous of him. One day Kevin and I were sitting in the classroom during play-time, both of us had our books in our laps, he was reading while I was struggling and then *snaps fingers* it was like everything came into focus. Just like that. I even yelled out, “I can read!” I was very proud.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
My sense of humor is pretty dark. I’ll leave it at that.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
There are many fictional people I’d like to meet. But not that many historical ones.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
I’m not sure if I do. I’m always so busy these days. I enjoy exercise, bicycling, cooking, playing chess. I used to play a lot of guitar but not as much now. I really like hiking and camping, but it’s hard to get off into the wilderness when you use all your free time to write.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’m a huge movie buff. I have probably close to a 100 films on Blu Ray and DVD. I love the film noirs of the ’40s—anything with Bogart. I can watch Abbott and Costello just about anytime, no matter what mood I’m in. I’m also a huge fan of westerns. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is easily my favorite film, and I watch it at least once a year. Lots of foreign language films, too. Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Kurosawa’s Ikiru—those films are masterpieces comparable to the greatest works of literature. Television is going through a complete golden era right now. I hope it goes on for a while. True Detective, Fargo, The Knick, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men—I think those shows are wonderful. Every episode of Mad Men was like a great short story by John Cheever.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Porterhouse with scallops and mashed potatoes. And all types of breakfast foods—I love eggs. My music taste is all over the place: classical, jazz, Americana, you name it. There’s a Swedish group called First Aid Kit that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I love to play Bach and Vivaldi in the morning, Diana Krall or Miles Davis at night, and Johnny Cash while I’m driving with the windows down.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
If I had to do it all over again but writing wasn’t an option, I’d like to be an actor in a Shakespeare company. That way I could always be around the master’s language.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
“To be alive is to be happy.”
Is that hokey?
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Yes! People can read more about me, about my novel, and find out about upcoming readings and other events at www.williamjensenwrites.com
I often blog there about books and give writing advice. People can also follow me on Twitter @wjwriter, and they can easily find me on Facebook.
Thanks so much for having me as a guest, Fiona. This has been a lot of fun.